Category Archives: Biblical Studies

On anachronistic puffery

Some new reading is surprisingly supportive of the points I made the other day in my post titled A Core of Belief.

The following excerpts on the subject of modern perceptions of ancient Greek divinatory practices come from Michael A. Flower’s The Seer in Ancient Greece (UC Press, 2008) [Buy one now: they’re having an awsome sale!]:

I well remember an incident in a seminar that made a great impression on me at the time. A student of mind from India, who happened to be a practicing Hindu, said that he found nothing peculiar about accepting at face value the Delphic prophecies recounted by Herodotus; for it was simply the case that a god, whom the Greeks happened to call Apollo, was speaking through the priestess. The other students jeered terribly, and my attempts to defend the intellectual legitimacy of his point of vew had little effect. What this incident impressed upon me was not the authenticity of Delphic prophecy, but rather the difficulty that many of us have in taking different systems of belief seriously on their own terms.

I think that in a book of this sort it is not out of place to reveal something of my own biases right at the beginning. The reader will not find any declaration as to the validity of divination. That is not to say that I believe in the power of the Pythia to predict the future or in the ability of seers to determine the divine will by examining the entrails of sacrificial animals. But it is to say that I am convinced that the vast majority of Greeks really believed in such things. THey took their own religion seriously, and as a system of knowledge and belief it worked very well for them. It is methodologically inappropriate when modern scholars project their own views about religion on the Greeks and sometimes even claim that the seers as a group were conscious charlatans who duped the superstitious masses. Such assertions fly in the face of work on divination by anthropologists, work that reveals a good deal about the mentality of diviner and client as well as about the social usefulness of divination. From the Preface, p. xiii-xiv.

[I]t is common to be told that the priests at Delphi, who knew the questions in advance, put into verse the inarticulate ramblings of the Pythia; that generals cynically (or at least consciously) manipulated the omens to suit their strategic needs or to boost the morale of their troops; and that seers told their employers precisely what they thought they wanted to hear. Since divination is a marginal practice in industrialized Western societies, such questions and answers are formed from the viewpoint that divination must have been an encumbrance to the Greeks, something that rational individuals either had to maneuver around or else had to manipulate for their own interests. Above all, to modern sensibilities, a random and irrational system of divination must not be seen as determining what the elite of the Greek world thought and did. In fact, it has been argued that the elite manipulated divination for their own ends, whether to exploit or to assist the uneducated masses. It is easy enough to validate this prejudice by appealing to the more “rational” segment in Greek society; for instance, by quoting isolated expressions of skepticism, such as the famous line attributed to Euripides that “the best seer is the one who guesses well.”

Our own biases can be hard to overcome. As the anthropologist Philip Peek has observed, “the European tradition tends to characterize the diviner as a charismatic charlatan coercing others through clever manipulation of esoteric knowledge granted inappropriate worth by a credulous and anxiety-ridden people.” In reference to divination in sub-Saharan Africa he concludes: “Instead, we have found diviners to be men and women of exceptional wisdom and high personal character.” I am convinced that if we could go back in time and conduct the sort of fieldwork that a contemporary anthropologist is able to engage in, we undoubtedly would find that Peek’s observation would hold true for the Greek seer as well. Pages 4-5

The book is fascinating. I recommend it to all. It’s the first book-length treatment of the subject.

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Messiahs come and gone

(These are some notes out of my journal, inspired by some recent reading and pondering.)

In view of the approach I’m taking in seeing a strong/high expectation of the Son of David specifically as Messiah, with some very elevated characteristics, notably supernatural ones as the Son of God, there is a necessity to look at or address the different core approaches in Christianity and Judaism.

I think it’s fairly clear that prior to the advent of our Lord there was a high expectation of the Messiah Son of David, especially elevated by the fall of the Hasmonean dynasty and the rise of Rome and their client-king Herod. (Perhaps the fall of the Hasmonean priestly kingship was seen as the equivalent to the end of direct Theocracy in the time of Samuel, with a Son of David to appear soon just as David followed Saul, a cypher for Herod.) And while this entailed a political kingship in the coming kind, it also entailed the supernatural healings, etc. The advent of Jesus was only partly satisfactory to those who expected the political/supernaturally-gifted Son of David, Son of God. The political aspect was completely unsatisfied, though the supernatural was satisfied. His own teachings, however, and statements about Himself, pointed away from the expected character and nature of the Son of David/Son of God. Rather than Son of God through descent from Adam as His firstborn son in creation/humanity, He was directly God the Son. This was a surprise to His disciples, and He lost many, who were expecting something and someone else.

In that regard, we have to see the choice of various “messiahs” by the Judeans and others in the first and early second centuries, most notably Bar Kokhba. It is likely that various of the leaders of Jewish factions in the First Revolt were also presenting themselves as messiahs, though this characterization is lacking explicitly in Josephus, who prefers Vespasian (!) as his messiah. [I think it likely that Josephus is the false prophet, and Berenike the whore of Babylon in the Apocalypse.] In any case, after Bar Kokhba and the banning of Jews from Jerusalem, major changes occurred in what must be called Rabbinic Judaism, the majority sect. It was undoubtedly at this point that an emphasis on the coming Messiah Son of David was stripped out of the tradition in order to prevent any further such disasters as the Bar Kokhba War and its consequences, after which the Messiah becomes such a pale character in Rabbinic traditions. Whatever earlier readings and interpretations and aggadot relating to this vividly expected Son of David therefore fell out of the tradition at this point. Concomitantly, a picture was lost of pre-Christian Messianic expectation, which would have largely overlapped with the readings incorporated in the NT (at the very least–I expect these were, in extent, similar to the body worked up in Patristic tradition, or at the very least built upon the same principles).

It is likeewise at this point, post Bar Kokhba, that the emphasis irrevocably moves from the Messiah Son of David as the Lawgiver and the source of judgments and so on to the conception of Oral Torah–a body that stands independently of every individual, but which is preserved and transmitted by the Rabbis, predicated now as originating at Sinai in an oral tradition rather than as the ad hoc rulings of the King who was righteous because of his having internalized the Law. This is another alteration. As Jesus in the Gospels is shown as one who is above the Law, this is reflective of the pre-Bar Kokhba royal understanding of the Messiah Son of David. This conception was not to survive in Rabbinic Judaism, and so is now considered something quite outrée, if not blasphemous. On the other hand, Christianity has maintained this older tradition of the Royal Law propounded by the King Messiah, Son of David, Son of God.

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The Law and the King

The King of Israel was intended to be the personification of the Law of God, and this was exemplified by King David, and is expected of the ultimate Son of David. This tradition finds expression in Jesus Christ, in the New Testament, and up to the present day in Patristic writings and hymnography.

Notice in Deuteronomy 17 several important points:
1.) The king that Israel establishes over themselves is to be an Israelite, not a foreigner.
2.) The king is to be someone whom God has chosen (this indicates prophetic involvement).
3.) The king is to avoid some very specific actions (all of which were failures of Solomon).
4.) Very interestingly the king is to do the following (17.18-20 RSV):

[H]e shall write for himself in a book a copy of this law, from that which is in the charge of the Levitical priests; and it shall be with him, and he shall read in it all the days of his life, that he may learn to fear the LORD his God, by keeping all the words of this law and these statutes, and doing them; that his heart may not be lifted up above his brethren, and that he may not turn aside from the commandment, either to the right hand or to the left; so that he may continue long in his kingdom, he and his children, in Israel.

Thus the king of Israel was to have internalized the Law, and to have been a living exemplar of it. As he would be the ultimate legal authority in Israel, his own person would be seen as, in a way, the Law itself. He effectively was “the law” as the ultimate legal authority, but the goal described here is greater: the personification of the Law of God itself. This seems to have been the Prophetic ideal for all of the kings of Israel and Judah, and which most failed, of course.

This concept manifests itself in narrative in the Book of Judges, particularly in 17.6, 18.1, 19.1, introducing three particularly awful events dealing with a breakdown of law and order in Israel, and in the final verse of the entire book, which may be seen as a commentary on, at the very least, this latter section of Judges, if not on the entire Book of Judges itself:

In those days there was no king in Israel; every man did what was right in his own eyes.

While 18.1 and 19.1 do not include the phrase “every man did what was right in his own eyes,” it is clearly implied. Here we see the king held up as an embodiment of order, again, as embodying the Law of God for the people. A righteous king would have prevented these occurrences. An unrighteous king is not in view here, but rather a king, living and administering God’s Law, who prevents such sinful and horrible events as those of chapters 17 through 22 from occurring.

Coming to the establishment of the kingship over Israel, there is the selection through the Prophet Samuel of Saul (who is a failure, doing nothing that he is instructed to do by the Lord through the Prophet Samuel). God, however, withdraws His favor from Saul, and trsansfers the kingship over Israel to David, “a man after His own heart” (1 Sam 13.14), establishing his throne forever, with the explicit statement that He will never take it away from David as He has from Saul (2 Sam 7) despite punishment. Throughout the latter part of the First Book of Samuel and the Second Book of Samuel, David repeatedly acts in accordance with God’s Law when others do not, including Saul, Nabal, and Absalom most obviously. Despite his sins, his standing with God remains good due to his repentance, so that David remains the ideal king of Israel, against whom others are judged. He fulfilled the role of the expected king of Israel to embody the Law itself for the nation. And this Law is embodied not simply through obedience of the various injunctions found in the Pentateuch, but is in fact shown in David to be an attitude and behavior that is repentant and focused on a right relationship with God so that even the unwritten intent of the Law is constantly (if not permanently) in view in David’s life and actions, so that he comes to be known as a man after God’s own heart.

It is precisely this exemplary embodiment of the Law in David that then becomes, through the ages, transferred to the expected ultimate Son of David, the Anointed, the Messiah. He will be everything his father David was and more. See especially Isaiah 7 and 42, and Jeremiah 31, in the latter of which the embodiment of the Law is extended to all the people of Israel. This is an extremely important development in the understanding of the Law, one which bears unexpected fruit.

This full development of the Law as resting particularly in the King, and this most particularly exemplified first in David and then in the expected, ideal, ultimate Son of David, comes to expression in the New Testament as well. Much is made of the dichotomy of Law versus freedom in the writings of Paul, for instance, without careful attention to the extreme respect and hedging about of utter rejection of the Law. The language Paul and the other Apostolic writers of the New Testament use instead is based in one of the following: 1.) Jesus, the Anointed, the Sond of David, fulfills the Law, bringing to it everything it was lacking, bringing it to completion, connoting a superiority of Jesus to the Law; 2.) The Law of Jesus incorporates and supersedes the old Law, again connoting a superior authority embodied in Jesus, who can prescribe a new context for the old Law; 3.) related to the second point, but with more emphasis: Jesus is the Lawgiver, the same one anciently and currently, Who gave Israel the Law at Sinai and gives a new Law now to Christians. In all of these, Christ is set above the Law as described in the Books of Moses, but He is a living Law: He is an embodiment of the Law. As the Son of David par excellence, the ancient tradition of the Law’s embodiment in the King has come to rest in Jesus Christ.

As has been traditionally understood, Pentecost was the day on which the Law was given at Mount Sinai. In the Church, Pentecost is known for the descent of the Holy Spirit onto the earliest Christians, as described in the Book of Acts. In the hymnography of the Eastern Church, this dual import of the day is not lost: the latter is seen as superior to the former meaning, just as the above-mentioned Jeremiah 31 describes that this is precisely the way that the Law is written upon the hearts of Israel: through the Holy Spirit of God. This is one example taken from Matins of Pentecost Sunday, from the Canon, Ode Eight (Holy Transfiguration Monastery translation):

The bush that was unconsumed by fire on Sinai spake unto the tardiloquent and inarticulate Moses, and made God known unto him; and zeal for God showed forth the three Children who chanted hymns to be unconsumed by fire. O all ye His works, praise ye the Lord and supremely exalt Him unto all the ages.

When the vivifying, violent wind of the All-Holy Spirit came from on high, resounding unto the fishermen in the form of fiery tongues, they spake eloquently concerning the mighty deeds of God. O all ye works, praise ye the Lord and supremely exalt Him unto all the ages.

Ye that ascend not that untouchable mountain, nor fear the awesome fire, let us stand on Mount Sion, in the city of the living God, and now form one choir with the Spirit-bearing disciples. O all ye works, praise ye the Lord, and supremely exalt Him unto all the ages.

This is the ancient Christian perspective that the latter Pentecost fulfills, completes and enhances and supersedes the earlier, in that the people now have the Law written in their hearts through the direct action of God though the Holy Spirit. This is one reason that the ancient Holy Sion church on Mount Sion (the western hill of Jerusalem) was such a major attraction. The “upper room” in which this occurred, the new Christian Sinai, was incorporated into the church complex, and was thronged with pilgrims.

This is another piece of the puzzle. There was a body of traditions associated in popular and perhaps scholarly imagination with the coming Son of David prior to the advent of Jesus Christ. Various of these appear in the Gospel accounts, typically indicating that the people believed one thing, while Jesus, the Son of David, had another thing in mind. In some cases, however, there was overlap, but even then the fulfillment in Jesus is seen to have taken the traditional conception in an unexpected direction. These various traditions, as I describe here, were rooted in the Old Testament texts, and are found described in later writings more clearly. By the time Jesus appears, as described in the New Testament, there was a very well-developed body of traditional expectations for what the Son of David would be: healer, king, conqueror, etc. But it is perhaps in the aspects of His mission that did not align with the ancient expectations that the most extraordinary revelations are seen to occur, His role as Lawgiver being perhaps the most significant. This too, appears to have been expected. And though the evidence is somewhat diffuse, somewhat tenuous in the Old Testament writings, it is still there. After all, who describes in detail those things which are taken for granted? A king is always the law wherever he is. In this case, it is a very particular King embodying a very particular Law: the Son of David embodying the Law of God.

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A Core of Belief

We’re constantly reminded by the modern academic establishment of the qualities required in its writings. A witch’s brew of transgressiveness, cynicism, and originality are claimed to be essential, but this seldom pans out: in every field there is an established orthodoxy, the strayer from which will be ostracised. Whether this be literature, economics, or physics, transgressing the transgressives will not be tolerated in this age of tolerance! This is no less the case in the nebulous group of quasi-disciplines which gather under the banner of “Biblical Studies”. The archest of humor and self-promotion is found in the synonymous umbrella term “higher criticism”: the application of overly lively imagination to objective data, the collection and description of the latter having been termed “lower criticism,” although its evidentiary value is objectively higher. Nineteenth century bored, drunk, liberal, syphilitic, Protestant German theological professors and their lickspittles are to credit for the terminology and much of the methodology of “higher criticism”, which combines a distinct hatred of all things Israelite with a self-proclaimed “objective” or “scientific” criticism of the Old Testament. It is a paradise of atheistic unbelief: where the methodologies are, however, not evolved by chance, but guided and nourished by the never-gently wafting strains of an antisemitism of Wagnerian grandeur and stridence, now generally brushed under the carpet for its inconvenience.

This establishment fails entirely, however, when it turns its bloodshot and bespectaled eyes to the past in an attempt to project their own mentalities and concerns, particularly their own cynicism, onto the ancients. A key failure in this regard is the unspoken general assumption that every ancient writer was as much of an unbelieving mediocre hack as so many of the modern writers (in print and online) are: cynically opportunistic to move the unsuspecting reader to support his own ideas, which really don’t reflect reality at all, but are his creation, usually in the cause of some ideology or movement or other. But every human being did not come of age in the 1960s, and such ideas of rank propagandism are ill reflective of the deeply rooted belief systems that are apparent in ancient writings, which depths of belief are backed by modern anthropological examination in numerous cultures, industrial and not, past and present. Likewise (Glory to God!), nearly all of the ancient writers are a great deal more talented and intelligent than the vast majority of those commenting upon them these days. The intellgent reader is likely to be more angered by wasting money and time on the latest all-praised volume than to gain anything of permanent use from it, such as one finds in the beautiful, skillful, and moving writings of the ancients, aesthetic and intellectual adepts such as they were.

But much of this skill of the ancients lies precisely in their immersion in cultures driven by religious belief. They lived in a numinous world, one in which the powers of Deity permeated everthing, whether as monolator, monotheist, or polytheist. The intermediary forces, emissaries of the Divine realm, were everywhere. The idea of a cynical, atheistic opportunist in such an age is an anachronism, yet it is the assumed (and required!) preconception for the “findings” of “higher criticism”. In the case of Israel and its writings, nothing could be further from the truth.

As I alluded to in my last post (in The Center of the Old Testament), and as I’ve touched on briefly before (in posts titled A Prophetic Perspective and Disobedience and Exile), the Old Testament is an archive of writings from the guild of the Israelite prophets and their supporters. These were the true believers of ancient Israel, ecstatic prophets and those who supported them materially and through prayers. These prophets would ecstatically prophesy, usually in song to the accompaniment of various instruments, and these oracles were remembered, recorded, and collected. They likewise constructed a history of the world and their nation and the dynasty that they had been told was specially favored by God, running from Genesis through the Pentateuch, then through Joshua, Judges, Ruth, and the books of Samuel and Kings, with the latter extended at various periods after an initial ending likely early in the reign of Solomon. Other books come from the hands of descendants of those supporters who shared the exclusive prophetic faith of the prophets. Eventually, through rule of law, the prophetic faith was established as the sole faith of the Israelites, but this took much longer than it should have, and was not consistently the case, sadly, until long after the exile. Pre-exilic Israel was not a paradise of faith, where happy throngs crowded the beautiful Temple Solomon built in Jerusalem, bringing free-will offerings to the only true God, Creator of the heavens and the earth. More often than not, the Temple was used as the center for something very similar to the other national cults in the Levant, a chief god worshipped with consort and friends or children, lacking the purity of the prophetic faith and not adhering to the oracular prescriptions for purity of cultus.

However, within the prophetic phenomenon, there is a key: in the similarity of oracular pronouncements one to another over centuries, the consistency of concerns, the same voice is consistently heard in the prophecies. The prophetic experience was ecstatic, one involving the faculties of the seer, but in a complicated manner, as is the case in ecstatic utterance to this day. The seer is not gone, but is an instrument whose strings are plucked by an invisible plectrum, whether Divine or otherwise. There is the potential for the inspiring spirit to be either truthful or untruthful, yet Divinely-sent to either lead aright or to lead astray. So we learn from Israel’s own prophetic archives. What we do not hear of is false prophesying simply made up by the prophet, whether of oral or literary nature. The prophets methods were legitimate and real: these false prophets were also ecstatics, but the spirit speaking through them lied. We do not at all read of cynical literary pseudo-prophesying, though this certainly did come to exist in time, and is found in much later pseudepigrapha literarily tied to either Israelite Prophets or Christian Apostles. Yet not in that time, the time of the initial creation of the Hebrew Scriptures. Even so, we’re not entirely certain that some of these pseudepigraphic works do not originate in later prophetic circles, or what the methodology of their production actually was. Though they are certainly literary works, there was no dearth of ascetically-induced ecstatic prophecy, even amongst the early Rabbinic movement, as seen in Merkabah and Hekhalot mysticism. Early Christian ascetism is likewise replete with such accounts, from those to the present day. But what is lacking in those writings which are considered orthodox is any kind of cynical motivation to further a particular goal. Such cynicism doesn’t appear in other illustrative literature of the time. There’s no reason other than the projection of modern scholarly cynicism anachronistically into the past to expect that it was there. Today’s unbelief and opportunism cannot be a guide to the lives, practices, and writings of the ancients. There is a core of devotional belief in those writings in comparison to which modern Enlightenment-based exegetical and hermeneutical writings are pale, withered, gasping things.

Remember the core of belief in the ancients, and your own. Let them guide you in your readings. And try better in that regard to understand how the ancients, even more vividly faithful in their own times, less distracted by worldly concerns, studies, professions and so on, would have constructed such writings while living in the fear of God. This is a necessary adjunct to the approach of any faithful person to his or her Scriptures. And may God bless us all with greater understanding for this simple ascesis.

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The Center of the Old Testament

A few days ago, Phil Sumpter wrote two related posts (“Picking Up Posting Again” and “Louth drew on Childs“), the former ending with links to two earlier posts of his working out some thoughts on Christological interpretation of the Old Testament (“Is Christological Interpretation OK?” and ” Jesus in the Old Testament?“). I recommend all these posts as thoughtful notes on the subject which I’m also now going to address. The comments in the last-mentioned post are especially interesting, and are directly relevant to what follows here.

Dispensing with introductory banter, I’ll get right to it: the center of the Old Testament is the Anointed, the Son of David. Everything revolves around him: from his appearance to his absence, thoughout the books of Israel collected into our Old Testaments, the sun around which everything revolves is the Son of David.

Notice in Genesis and through the Pentateuch how there is the creation of a race, and a continual process of God selecting one single family out of all the families of the world from which would come His chosen king. It is the line of the firstborn of all humanity, and therefore the rightful ruler over all humanity. God creates Adam, his firstborn son, the Son of God, then comes Abel replaced with Seth, then Seth’s line down to Abraham, then Isaac, then Jacob/Israel, then the disqualification of Reuben, Simeon, and Levi in favor of Judah, then Perez, and his line to Boaz, then to the son of Jesse, David. Throughout, these tales are all related by prophets, from the prophetic viewpoint solely, one that follows the preferences of the God for whom they speak. These prophets know of the Divine promise to David, that he would never lack an heir: there would always be a Son of David to rule.

This promise of a Son of David is especially prominent in the book of Isaiah, where the imagery related to the Son of David, the ruling scion of the House of David in Jerusalem, reveals an intriguing and rather surprisingly high status for the Son of David as the firstborn Son of God, with comcomitant authority, and amazing imagery. All of the prophets describe failures and successes of the Sons of David, and they describe the usurpation of rulership by those unqualified, whether Israelite or foreign. Yet there is always the unspoken hope of another Son of David, the hope of the unfading and eternal Divine promise of an Anointed One to always be. Removal of an actual kingship from Judah at the time of the Babylonian exile didn’t stem the hopes, but rather crystallized them. The hoped-for Son of David, the Son of God as described in Isaiah and the Psalms, would come, and the kingship would one day be established, and the Son of David would rule over all the earth. These are exactly the expectations voiced by the apostles and other disciples of the New Testament.

But God had a surprise! The promises were understood in a particular way, but were to be fulfilled in another. Prophecies of the sufferings of the righteous (which happened more often than not in Israelite history, perpetrated by any number of ill-qualified rulers) were often ignored in thoughts concerning the Son of David, though they play such a central role in the great prophecies of Isaiah, for instance, and throughout the Psalms. As Paul said, “Every Scripture is God-breathed”―He inserted his own words here and there as desired, to point to something amazing He Himself was about to accomplish: His incarnation as the Son of David, and the fulfillment of all the hopes, expectations, prophecies, and every last jot and tittle of the Scriptures. This Son of David was the Son of God in a very real and much more immediate way than the Son of David had ever been before, as all history was established to accomplish exactly this.

The presence or absence of the Son of David, the Son of God, is spread throughout the Old Testament writings, and thus it is not only acceptable, but necessary to recognize this. To deny it is to deny the motivation for the writing of those Scriptures themselves, and the entire prophetic tradition of Israel.

Over the centuries, this connection has not been lost in the Church, where Patristic Christological interpretation of the Old Testament was the only valid form of interpretation. This in itself is a legitimation of such interpretation that stands above all critique by lesser authorities, however erudite they may find themselves. Church hymnography, especially the particularly rich imagery of Byzantine hymnody, shows the refinement of this form of Christological interpretation of Scripture through the centuries. In this, it merely extends and continues the form of interpretation utilized by the apostles themselves in the New Testament writings. But we should not consider this Christological interpretation to be so severe a break with the original intent and focus of the Old Testament writings themselves, in light of the above. The focus was always God’s promise being worked out in the world through the Son of David, His firstborn son, the firstborn of all humanity and its rightful ruler. This is the very origin of the texts. A rejection of any interpretation that recognizes that centrality of the Son of David and the extension and extraordinary resolution of those promises in the person of Jesus Christ is simply not Christian.

But even aside from this religious value and application, the centrality of the Son of David within the Old Testament needs greater recognition. Current (generally Protestantized) scholarly squeamishness regarding Christological interpretation has blinded the exegetical field to this very obvious centrality. It doesn’t help that the atomizing tendencies of so-called higher criticism, the supposed pinnacle of Biblical studies, distort the texts, which are deprived of their own witness, their own voice, in the form in which they sit before us on the very page. Theoretical and worthless fore-drafts are proposed, with preposterous social dimensions invented, a ridiculous practice that is never presumed for any other ancient writing of any other culture. It’s a peculiar honor!

In short, regarding Christological interpretation of the Old Testament, I say: Bring it on! The more, the better. This is only the proper exegesis that can be expected of these writings because of their origins.

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A great new blog

Some readers will have noticed the book that I still have in my “Currently Reading” spot to the right here: Anders Gerdmar’s Roots of Theological Anti-semitism (Brill, 2009), which I’ve posted some notes on already.

Well, just tonight I happily received a message from Anders Gerdmar himself, informing me (and thereby you, dear reader) of his new blog: Anders Gerdmar―Exegetical Notes and Blog. Some of his work in progress relates to the Jews in the Gospel According to John, of which depiction he says, and which I think any informed reader will agree with, “the picture is far more complex than is currently assumed.” He’s also working on another book with the working title The ‘Jew’ as the Perpetual Other, of which he says:

Christian exegesis has more often than not constructed the ‘Jew’ as the perpetual other. In a forthcoming book with this working title, I begin in New Testament texts, looking for how they describe the relationship to Jews and Judaism. Secondly, I follow the history of exegesis in relation to the Jews, talking about a ‘hermeneutics of exclusion’. Finally I discuss the linkage between exegetical theology and genocide, but not only that. I try to outline a ‘hermeneutics of association’, starting in Romans 9–11.

Very interesting!

Anyhow, if you were interested in my posts here related to the subject of his book or his book itself, I’m sure you’ll enjoy his blog, as well.

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Bibles and Authorities

Recently on a particular academic mailing list, someone entirely in earnest put forth the question, “Which is the Christian Old Testament—the Septuagint or the Masoretic Text?” This person rightly recognized the use of various versions by the Apostles and our Lord in the New Testament, a point to which we will return. However, his rather simple question brings to mind a flood of further questions and answers. Thus a relatively simple question involves much more than a simple answer of one word.

Firstly, this is not a question that can be answered as it is phrased. Why is that? It is because different Christians have different Biblical canons and hold different versions of the Old Testament (and, mutatis mutandis, the New Testament). Thus there is no single “the Christian Old Testament.” A more proper question would be “Which is the Old Testament of the [insert descriptor] Christian?” where the descriptor is “Roman Catholic”, or “Greek Orthodox”, or “Lutheran”, and so on. A more informed question will point in a meaningful way to the issues involved, and the correct answer for the particular situation in view. For a Roman Catholic, the official Old Testament (established by canon law) is the Clementine Latin Vulgate. Although translations from the Hebrew Masoretic Text have been made (as in The Jerusalem Bible and The New American Bible), these were to take into account the differences in the Vulgate, preferring them to readings in the Hebrew where different. For the Greek Orthodox, the Septuagint is the Old Testament (mostly the Old Greek editions of books, though in some cases with other versions having replaced the Old Greek, e.g., the Theodotionic Daniel). But the form of liturgical readings preserved in the Prophetologion, trumps the preferred continuous text (based on that of Codex Alexandrinus). That is, where the liturgical texts differ (in Old or New Testament readings), they are preferred, and editions of the continuous text Septuagint are altered to reflect the litugical versions. All the Orthodox (Eastern and Oriental) hold to the liturgical texts as canonical. For the Syrian Orthodox, their own continuous-text Old Testament is the Peshitta, with additions from later versions, and these are adjusted to the liturgical texts where necessary. And so on. There is, however, the interesting case in the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox communions that the versions held as primarily authoritative for each national church (Coptic, Greek, Syrian, Georgian, etc) are not held to be exclusively authoritative. That is, the other versions used in the communion are recognized as valid, inspired, and true.

And yet we are also faced with the anomaly of the Protestant preference for the Hebrew Masoretic Text as the basis for their Old Testament. Although the Lutheran and Anglican canons include various books of the Apocrypha within their own canons (originally deriving from the Vulgate versions, most of which in turn derive from the Septuagint), the books existent in the Hebrew Masoretic Text are considered of primary authority. The Septuagint, Vulgate, Peshitta and other versions are considered additional witnesses to an earlier version of the Hebrew text that is since lost or corrupted, and they are (in)consistently mined for their variant readings to address that situation.

The development of the discussion led into the territory of which one of these versions is “true” for the Christian. At this date, the answer can only be “all and none.” There are two reasons for this. Firstly, all of the versions of the Old Testament are recognized by some ecclesiastical authority as true and inspired and canonical for their respective flocks, and yet all recognize that errors have crept into the texts so that none is exactly perfect, and thus not exclusively true. Secondly, due to the variety of errors in transmission and the variety of textual traditions in question, it is certainly the case that no version (not even the Masoretic, as careful as they were) preserves a text entirely uncorrupted, much less a single manuscript. Yet in aggregate, some find it to be the case that where one tradition is in error, another may be correct, and perhaps all of these issues can be worked out, so that all the versions may be considered, in toto, to represent the original accurately. So in that sense, it is only by seeing all versions as exemplars of an original text, some more distant from it than others, that “all” may be considered true. This understanding lies at the heart of textual criticism Bible, whether of a version of the Old Testament (Hebrew Masoretic Text, Septuagint, Peshitta, etc) or the New Testament.

Even so, a question such as “Which of these versions is true for a Christian?” is not the kind of question that can be answered on an academic mailing list, nor should it be asked of one. This is precisely because of the multi-confessional situation described above. In addition, however, the Academy has no standing to answer that question. That is, it is outside the competence of the Academy to decide in such matters. The answer to that particular question lies in the realm of ecclesiastical authority and religious tradition. There can be no academic answer to it. The Church and the Academy are separate worlds, with distinct boundaries. And while each may learn from the other, they are neither one beholden to one another’s conclusions.

We return now to a very interesting fact: the use of various versions of the Old Testament in quotation by the Apostles and our Lord in the New Testament. Setting aside a detailed description of the quotations and issues involved (though referring the reader to the excellent Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, edited by Beale and Carson), I will posit that the answer to all the questions asked above is thereby given. That is, the Christian is to consider all the various available versions inspired and authoritative, just as the Apostles and our Lord did, quoting from one or another at a given time. Lo and behold, that is the situation amongst the Orthodox churches exclusively of Christian communions. While others maintain exclusive focus on one or another text as inspired, the Orthodox recognize the validity of several inspired translations of a now partly lost inspired Hebrew original, recognizing that the Masoretic Text itself is, as it surely is, itself a later descendant of those lost originals.

So, while an individual should turn to his own liturgical tradition for an answer in these matters, it is possible to find a reflection of the practices of the Apostles and our Lord Himself in the practices of the Orthodox Church today. I recommend that approach highly, just as I recommend Orthodox Christianity, where my own heart dwells, to all.

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