Wednesday, July 23, 2014

From the Womb of the Dawn

Part two of a series that started here.

So what's this Psalm 110 all about? Darned if I know, but here goes nothing.
לְדָוִ֗ד מִ֫זְמ֥וֹר
A mizmor of David
So there are a few niggling things that we need to get through first. The first phrase of the chapter, as with many psalms, does not belong to the psalm proper. It tells to whom the song belongs. Does this mean it names the author? Not necessarily, though at times it does seem to do just that. At other times, it could be the name of the collection to which the psalm belongs. Furthermore, the Hebrew phrasing would allow meanings of "for David" as a form of dedication.

Most modern critical interpreters as well as several of the medieval Jewish commentators (Notably Rabbi David Kimchi [רד"ק] and Ibn Ezra) believe the poets of the court wrote this about the Davidic king. On the other hand the Rabbis, the church fathers, and the conservative Christian scholars today believe that the psalm was written by David about someone else.

Of course, in the case of this particular psalm, Jesus himself endorses the idea that it was spoken by David personally. Nonetheless some of the concepts therein are very old, strange, nearly pagan ideas that predate the Davidic kingship. We'll return to this as we examine the content more closely.

Mizmor, by the way, is apparently a musical form of the ancient Israelite court, a type of song, though unfortunately we don't know much more about it at this historical distance. This is a bit of an unusual title. The work looks a lot more like a prophecy than a song, Though it was, no doubt, eventually set to music.
נְאֻ֤ם יְהוָ֨ה לַֽאדֹנִ֗י
The oracle of Yhwh to my lord:
The phrase נאם ה', "the oracle of Yhwh" is used only here in the psalms, though it is found constantly in the prophetic books and is used elsewhere with reference to prophecy. It isn't difficult to envision a prophet standing before his king proclaiming this message on behalf of the deity.

Here commentators divide into three camps. Modern critical scholars, following Kimchi and Ibn Ezra, suggest "my lord" is the Davidic king. The Rabbis (according to Rashi) believed David was referring Abraham as "my lord." Jesus and the Christian tradition believe, obviously, that David is referring to the Messiah as "my lord." Apparently, this seemed plausible to many of the members of Jesus' audience, since, when he said it, nobody asked any questions about it (they didn't dare!).

All of these interpretations have something to be said for them, as we will see. I'll refer to "my lord" as "the king" realizing that this title is applicable both to David and the Messiah.
לַֽאדֹנִ֗י שֵׁ֥ב לִֽימִינִ֑י עַד־אָשִׁ֥ית אֹ֝יְבֶ֗יךָ הֲדֹ֣ם לְרַגְלֶֽיךָ
"Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a stool for your feet."
To us today (or at least to me), this sounds like an invitation take a load off and put your feet up while Yhwh cleans up the racket. Nothing could be farther from the intention of the prophet. The right hand is a place of action. In many ancient Near Eastern cultures, like medieval European cultures, the king was regarded as the agent of the deity on earth. The king was considered to be privy to the divine council, and often took titles like "Councilor of Asshur," for example. (and hey, remind me never to tell you about my Akkadian teacher's interpretation of "Wonderful, Councilor, Mighty God...")

Suffice it to say, when the king is invited to sit at the right hand of Yhwh, it means he is the primary executor carrying out God's judgment on his enemies. This "footstool" stuff is an image of the king's feet on the necks of his defeated foes, a metaphor for ultimate submission and vulnerability. I still imagine the Messiah sitting in a Lazy Boy next to God's throne with his feet on the ottoman when I read this, but there is actually nothing restful going on here, as we will see in the very next verse.
מַטֵּֽה־עֻזְּךָ֗ יִשְׁלַ֣ח יְ֭הוָה מִצִּיּ֑וֹן רְ֝דֵ֗ה בְּקֶ֣רֶב אֹיְבֶֽיךָ׃
Yhwh will send the rod of your power from Zion -- Rule among your enemies!
The NET effectively translates the first bit as "The Lord extends your dominion from Zion." This is what it means to sit at the right hand of the Yhwh. I feel a sermon coming on about extending the Kingdom of God from Zion to the ends of the Earth, but I guess I'll save it. Suffice it to say that these first two verses provide a lot of useful context for interpreting a whole lot of passages in the New Testament, not least Ephesians 1:20-24... just crazy stuff...
עַמְּךָ֣ נְדָבֹת֮ בְּי֪וֹם חֵ֫ילֶ֥ךָ בְּֽהַדְרֵי־קֹ֭דֶשׁ מֵרֶ֣חֶם מִשְׁחָ֑ר לְ֝ךָ֗ טַ֣ל יַלְדֻתֶֽיךָ׃
Your people will be freewill offerings on the day of your strength in the adornments of holiness from the womb of the dawn. You shall have the dew of your youth.
So now we have problems. Luckily, this is also where it starts to really get interesting. You will note that the English translation makes little sense. The Hebrew makes exactly as much sense. Most English translations here simply note, meaning of the Hebrew uncertain and a few are so bold as to add, "and is likely corrupt." Where to even start with this one?

Leaving aside how messed up this verse is when looking at the Hebrew alone and how many interpretations and explanations have been given over the years, I'm going to skip to the good stuff. If you know how I roll, you may realize that I can only be headed one place: The Septuagint! Woo!
But first, someone tell me what this says:
If you are anything like every Hebrew speaker I've ever asked, you will immediately say "yalad'tikha." Almost the same thing as the translators of the Septuagint (the Jewish, pre-Christian translation of the Old Testament into Greek) said when they saw this word in the Hebrew text (yelid'tikha; same root, different stem, but functionally similar meaning). In modern Hebrew, in the absence of vowels, there is nothing else you could say. In Biblical Hebrew, you'd be batting nine out of ten with this reading. But no, the Mazorites have read something else here; "yaldutekha," which technically isn't even a word (but could, maybe, theoretically in a parallel universe, appear with such a vocalization since it has a pausal accent).

What's the difference? Well, the first one means "I have given birth to you." The second one means "Your youth" (in the abstract sense, not a synonym for "young people"). This becomes kind of important when adjacent verses are quoted by someone who claims to be the son of God. I mean, sure, we already have God saying he begat the king in Psalm 2:7, but that isn't the Psalm that's quoted over and over in the New Testament.

Anyway, with this word in place, what does the Septuagint have to say here?
Greek Text
μετα σου η αρχη εν ημερα της δυναμεως σου εν ταις λαμπροτησιν των αγιων εκ γαστρος προ εωσφορου εξεγεννησα σε

Nobility is with you in the day of your power. In the brightness of the holy ones, from the womb of the dawn, I have begotten you.
Just to show that this is not wildly off base, here's what the same thing (more or less) might look like in Hebrew:
Reconstructed Hebrew Text
עִמְךָ נְדִבַת בְּיוֹם חֵילֶךָ בְּֽהַדְרֵי־קֹדֶשׁ מֵרֶחֶם מִשְׁחָר יְלִדְתִיךָ׃

Dignity is with you in the day of your power in the adornments of holiness; from the womb of the dawn, I have begotten you.
If any other geeks out there want me to show my work for this reconstruction, I'd be more than happy to do so in the comments. Trying to keep it short for the muggles, but I realize this requires some justification. Let's just say my guiding principle here was to get to a meaning similar to what stands in the Septuagint with as little possible change to the extant Hebrew consonantal texts and ask in the comments if you want to know more. The important thing is, this is only two words shorter than the Hebrew text. Everything else is untouched.

Now, am I saying that this is the original text or pronunciation of the Hebrew? No! It could be, but it also could not be. There are plenty of arguments for either side. Heck, there are arguments for other readings altogether (can I get some love for the Vulgate and a minority of MT manuscripts up in the Holy Hills?). What we can say with one hundred percent certainty is that a lot of Jews were reading this verse this way in Jesus' time, and this is the passage Jesus' quotes twice with regard to his own identity which is picked up elsewhere all over the New Testament. Not to put too fine a point on it, it's the difference between simply saying that the Messiah is David's lord, and saying he is the Son of God.

Of course, having a deity proclaim that he has begotten an ancient Levantine king from the womb of the dawn is pretty much par for the course. In fact, as we'll see in the next post there are plenty of things this king might have in common with his contemporaries. Mechizedek comes to bat for our king, coming soon.

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P.S. Sorry this post took so long. I did a ton of research to prepare for it and then realized there was no way I could incorporate all of it into a blog post.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Whose Son is the Messiah?

So, I've decided to start this thing off with a series of posts about passages in the Old Testament that are quoted a lot in the New Testament. This will be one of those.

There are some passages in the Bible we never talk about. Okay, that actually goes for most of the Bible, but some of them seem to be really, like, important. Jesus didn't say a whole ton about his own identity, at least in the synoptic gospels (read: first three gospels). Mostly, when people actually know who/what he is, he tells them to stuff it. In fact, I'm not sure Jesus ever gives a completely strait answer about who he really is. Sure, he gives a lot of nods and winks, but nothing too solid in the synoptics (whereas in John, he has quite a lot to say on the subject). The whole messianic thing is kind of a secret up until just before they kill him -- not a coincidence, of course.

So, one of the places where Jesus addresses the question "Who is the Messiah?" is Mark 12:35-37 (and parallels, Matt. 22:41-45, Luke 20:41-44). At this point, his close disciples (and the readers) already know that Jesus has privately affirmed that he is the Messiah, though the other listeners, while they have their suspicions don't know for certain yet.

So Jesus is like:
How say the scribes that Christ is the Son of David? For David himself said by the Holy Ghost,
The Lord [Yhwh] said to my Lord, Sit thou on my right hand, till I make thine enemies thy footstool. (Ps. 110:1)
David therefore himself calleth him Lord; and whence is he then his son?
So how about that? Some scholars think this means Jesus didn't think the Messiah would be descended from David. Not sure that would really make any sense, since it's pretty hard to read the Old Testament any other way. Still, Jesus is definitely undermining the importance of the messianic linage with this statement. Jesus has something much bigger in mind than simply being the heir of David, and we're going to try and figure out what that was. His quotation of Psalm 110 is the key here.

Interesting thing, Psalm 110 wasn't quoted much in Jewish writings much before or after Jesus, with the one exception being the very Jewish New Testament we've inherited. This is one of the most-quoted OT passages in the whole NT. A partial listing would include Matthew 26:64, Acts 2:34-35, I Corinthians 15:25, Ephesians 1:20,22 Colossians 3:1, Hebrews 1:3,13 2:8 5:17 7:17,21 8:1 10:12,13 12:2, 1 Peter 3:22. You'd think it was important or something. Weird we never hear any sermons on it [insert rant about sermons here]. (disclaimer: not picking on my pastor here. I've never heard a sermon about it anywhere in 29 years of church attendance across three continents).

Next post, we dive into Psalm 110.

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Edit: Next post is up!

Monday, June 16, 2014

The Sound of Silence

Dear followers and other readers:

I've been away from the blog for quite some time. This is no good. I'm working on finding some ways to make this blog and some of my other works profitable ventures. In light of this goal, there is going to be a lot more content coming very soon. I would be very, very open to comments and questions about what people would like to hear about on the blog. As you may or may not know, my speciality is in Biblical Hebrew, though I've studies Old Testament a bit, as well as the "Historical Jesus"

But I'm game to write about anything Bible related. Recently, I've been doing a Bible study on the Gospel of Luke, and probably have a fair amount to share about anything in the Bible related to gardens, feilds, forests, and the like.

Please leave a comment with any suggestions!

Friday, November 5, 2010

This thing I wrote for another site
Ok, so when I was studying in Belgium, this guy named Stephen did year abroad at my school we went to a really, really crazy party together with the Icelandic prime minister. Craziest night of my life. So Stephen went his way, I went mine a bit later. The Icelandic prime minister went home and shorty thereafter the Icelandic economy fell apart. I don't know, but I like to think that I contributed in my own little way.

Anyway, I came to Jerusalem to study the Hebrew Bible, and he went . . . ok, I have no idea what he's up to, really, but I do know that one thing is that he and his buddies have put together this 'Interfaith' website; something dedicated to finding common ground between various faiths and world-views or something like that. I'm not really sure. I'm not actually sure if I'm totally as excited as they are with what they are trying to do on a philosophical level, but I don't see the harm in it either. The site is, so you can decide for yourself what you think about what they are doing... though for goodness sake, don't go follow my link and then go and criticize. Stephen is my friend, whatever other kind heretic he may be 8^)

Anyway, Stephen asked me to write something for the site, so I sorta remixed some of the thoughts I voiced here in the last post, took the whole think from a different angle; that is, as a response to postmodernist, rather than a response to fundamentalism, or more accurately, theological totalitarianism.

I think it comes across in the article that I'm quite sympathetic to problems postmodern literary criticism discusses with regard to meaning... maybe more than I should be. Anyway, the whole thing was fun to write. It's a lot more arty-farty than the kind of thing I write on here, generally speaking, so the style is more playful. I think it's pretty good, if I do say so myself, though there are some typos, and I can't edit my article, so they are preserved for posterity. Shoot.

Go comment on it over there!

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Ordo Scientiae: Bible and Theology

I love the Bible. I love everything about it. I enjoy it as literature; I value it as a historical source; I read it devotionally; I take it personally; I believe it is God's word to humankind and chief source of authority in the Church today. I also study the Bible academically, trying to use inductive reasoning to find out as much as I can about the Bible. Like anyone, I am a flawed interpretor. I come to the text with theological and philosophical presuppositions. Furthermore, I am personally involved and bound to whatever meaning I find in the text. However, this weakness is also a becomes a strength, after a fashion. Because I am so personally bound to the text, I think it is important to actually know what it means. Hence: hard work.

I realize that academic study of the Bible is not the be-all end-all in the Christian faith, and there are many things that we discuss in great depth in the discipline to which the devout Christian may, at the end of the day, legitimately respond, "who cares?" I probably see fewer of these cases than some, but they exist. For example, I'm quite linguistically geared. I can, in a passage when the meaning is obvious, obsess for quite a while about why a word is spelled a particular way and not another. I have my reasons that I think these things are important, but they really don't make a difference for any practical point of theology or practice in the Church directly.* Reasons though I may have, it would taste a lie to say I didn't love obscure little points I have the privilege to work out (or at least work on).

However, since the reformation, there has been a place in the church for serious academic study of the Bible. This actually was born out of the Jewish approaches to the Old Testament that were started in the Middle ages, during the Arab enlightenment, and moved westward. The middle eastern Jewish and Muslim scholars started using rational, historical, and linguistically based approaches to the Qurʾan and the Hebrew Bible (for the record, Muslims do not use these kinds of methods any more, though Berkley might change some of that soon, God willing). These were not actually innovations of the Arab world, but rather they were methods used by the Greek scholars at the library of Alexandria for interpreting ancient text which had been more or less lost, and were revived by the Arabs (including Jewish Arabs).

Jews have always said that these kinds of readings, historical readings, are not normative for Judaism, but have rather used them as a basis for inter-faith dialog and polemic, since the historical meaning of the text is theoretically something that can be discovered through investigation. It was used heavily in arguments against Christians and Kara'ites during the middle ages. Though it has never been the basis for Halaka (norms of Jewish behavior, which are far more important than theology in Judaism), it has been used a fair amount in defense of it.

At some point Christians decided this was a pretty clever idea, and some Christians went so far as to suggest that he historical meaning of scripture was the one true meaning. That's a major part of what caused the reformation. I'm not sure whether it's the 'one true meaning,' but really, it's the only way to have a discussion about scripture that places everyone on equal footing. It gives at least a semi-stable way to evaluate meaning. In this manner, it provides a way forward for a discussions between Catholics and Protestants, Jews and Christians, and even to some extent believers and atheists/agnostics.

Of course, atheists and agnostics don't consider themselves bound by the meaning of scripture, but I've had discussions that warm a lot of them up to the Bible quite simply by discussing its content through the lens of reason, admitting the areas where the Bible leaves questions that reason cannot answer, and also showing how the study of the Bible is not just a bunch of nonsense people saying what they want to say about it, but there is are actually some people who are willing to deal with hard data in a way that gives their interpretations a kind of universal accountability.  There is no data that can prove that Jesus is the Son of God and is coming to judge the living and the dead. That is a revelation from the Spirit, and cannot be otherwise.  However, it does give people a glimpse of a form of faith that is able to work with reason and isn't totally arbitrary. It makes sense that, if the Bible is true, we should be able to investigate it. (Obviously all of this is coming from a 'realist' perspective on knowledge. If Nietzsche and Derrida are right, and they could be, then reason doesn't make a difference, but that isn't really a very practical approach, so we keep doing what we can. Even Derrida keeps doing what he can.)

That brings us to the interplay between the Bible and Theology. From my protestant perspective, the Bible is the ultimate source of theology, or at least the ultimate standard. I believe Catholics and Orthodox would also agree with this, though they see tradition as the reliable stream of interpretation. I like tradition a lot, but I see it as more of a servant to biblical interpretation, rather than the master of it. Catholics do things a little differently, as far as I know. I'm a protestant, so all I can explain is why I do what I do. If a Catholic would like to chime in about their approach to scripture, I'd be happy to hear it.

Now, if the Bible is the final standard by which theology is measured, what does theology have to say about the way we read the Bible?

My answer, perhaps somewhat controversially, is 'very little indeed.' I do not say 'nothing,' because we do need a few theological presuppositions to begin reading and interpreting (a metaphysical discussion, and I'm not qualified to lead it). However, if in the course of interpreting scripture, we find something that challenges those theological presuppositions, I think we've got to yield to scripture. Otherwise, we run the risk of getting into a feedback loop where we perpetually hear our own voice in scripture, rather than the voice of God. This goes for any presuppositions, but theological are those that make themselves most felt in the circles where I run. Essentially, if we begin to feel comfortable with the Bible, I doubt we are reading it correctly anymore.

Theology does have an important place in the church (though I think it sometimes overstated), and I'm all in favor of a pragmatic theology to get the job done (the job of the Church, that is), but I think that's really something we ought to check at the door when we come to scripture, if it is really to be authoritative.

Now, having limited the role theology is allowed to play in interpretation, it would be perfectly valid to ask why human forms of reason should have any greater place in interpretation. I agree (in part) with a lot of the recent critiques that reason is simply a human construct, and does not necessarily have any point of reference in reality. So why should we trust it? To that, I give a theological answer (and this is why I say that theology does have a very small part in interpretation): God has made the attempt to speak to humans in human language. If that is the case, there must be some expectation that humans will try to figure out what he's talking about the best they are able, and, in fact, that they must have adequate faculties to do so, even if they are sometimes imperfectly employed.

This presupposition, I think all will agree, is borne out page after page in scripture. If scripture is to be the basis for faith (which I'm not about to try and argue), this, at least, we can count on. The existence of God's verbal communication, in a way, validates the whole enterprise of reason; perhaps not with regard to nature, but at least with regard to the humanities (and maybe nature as well, but we'll have to wait and see about that).

In this way, the very existence of the Bible is an invitation to human reason. Naturally, this does not rule out the joint participation of the Holy Spirit in interpretation. It also does not mean that reason stands above the text. Rather, the reason is simply the proper tool by which to investigate it. The text itself may challenge our presuppositions about reason, and it certainly defines its limits in various places, but it permits its use, along with the Spirit, as the starting place for our inquiry.

That's why I do what I do.
*They may, however, shed light on the development in the Biblical languages, eventually lead us to understand certain linguistic phenomena better, which may in turn bring us to a new understanding of a difficult or theologically weighty passage. I'm not going to lie, most of what I do at school has no immediate relevance to anyone... but it's a part of the process.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

What's going on here?!

This isn't exactly Biblical studies in this post (nor will it be in the next one). So far, this blog has attempted to stay well within accepted conservative theological perspectives on the Bible because I know that's the perspective from which most of my readers are coming, and there's no need to rock the boat about that if you don't have to. Anyway, I'm relatively conservative when it comes to the New Testament anyway, which is what I've written about, for the most part. Some of the posts on the LXX encroached on shady theological territory, what with the messy textual history of certain books in the OT and all that.

In Old Testament studies, I'm less conservative (relatively, though I try to apply the same methodology to each), and I want to write about them. I've been hesitant because I really am a theological conservative at heart, and I don't want to alienate that group. That's my group. This is part of the reason the posts have pretty much dried up for half a year, though schedule and other factors have also played a role. However, I'm not going to hide anymore just because I have some quasi-liberal ideas about the Old Testament; that is, particularly about the authorship of the Pentateuch and various other issues that will come into play in the next series of posts. I've had enough of that nonsense. If some readers are alienated by that, so be it. "Here I stand, I can do no other."

However, I want to bring the open minded conservatives with me as far as I am able, so I'm going to go slowly and explain why I do what I do, and that starts with a philosophical/theological underpinning for what I'm doing. In these disciplines, I am an amateur, so the more experienced reader will have to bear with me (and by all means correct me) were I err. This is more of a prologue, so more in the next post.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Since we've been talking about the LXX...

Daniel O. McClellan has written a great post on his blog dealing with some of the issues involved in its translation and transmission. Here's a quote:
In Septuagint studies a common caution against appealing to wildly speculative translator exegesis to account for divergences between MT and LXX is the recognition that the translators were working with a text they recognized as authoritative and unique, and so would have been reluctant to deviate much from the Vorlage. This been confirmed to some degree in a few LXX books where research (particularly of the Finnish school) confirms a high degree of fidelity to the Vorlage combined with dynamic equivalency. In these books, many seeming divergences actually fall within the semantic scope of the Hebrew, if they’re not mistakes or derived from a distinctVorlage.[1] I think caution is in order, though, and I’ll explain why.
Check it out! Reverencing the Text of the Bible

The link was incorrect. fix'd.