Ancient Texts 6 – Old Testament

Posted: January 5th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Ancient Texts 6 – Old Testament

I’m going to end this series by looking specifically at the Old and New Testaments of the Christian Holy Scriptures. They are very different collections so I’m going to approach each in a separate post. The obvious place to begin is with what is often called the Old Testament. Now the Old Testament as a whole is an enormously complex topic and I obviously can’t even cover its development comprehensively in a single post. Instead, I’m just going to cover some of the things I find interesting and perhaps some of the things which seem to often be popularly misunderstood today.

First, the books of the Old Testament represent the accumulation of many centuries of oral tradition. There’s no indication and no reason to believe that any of it was produced in written form concurrent with the events described or near the start of that particular part of the oral tradition. The Torah was pretty clearly the first part of tradition transcribed in a written form. That does not appear to have happened at once, but by the time of the Kings of Israel, it does appear to be in a more or less settled state. Certainly it changed the least in the post-exilic period.

The Torah actually appears in places to incorporate somewhat different oral traditions. That’s why there are two creation narratives and why Leviticus and Deuteronomy don’t necessarily line up perfectly. But as I’ve explored earlier in this series, such things simply didn’t create any tensions or problems in the ancient cultures in question. When we turn those facts into problems, we are anachronistically superimposing a modern, literate mindset on the ancient cultures. Personally, I try to avoid creating problems that didn’t and couldn’t have existed in the ancient world.

Ancient Israel was not text-centered. That’s another fact that seems to often be missed by people today. That’s not to say that texts (once they existed) were unimportant. At one point, for example, the scroll of Deuteronomy was recovered and its public reading marked a turning point for the people. But Israel was fundamentally Temple-centered. That’s a huge difference. You can see that emphasis shifting among some quadrants of Israel as we get closer to the first century CE, but it did not become universal until the shift to Rabbinic Judaism after the final destruction of the Temple and the failure of the last Messianic movement. The shift from Temple to Torah (or Tanakh) really belongs in the second century CE. Again, that’s not to say that the texts (and certainly the tradition behind them) were ever unimportant. It’s just that if you try to interpret and understand ancient Israel primarily or exclusively in, through, and around the text, you will miss the larger picture.

Moreover, as was pretty common across the ancient world, Israel was not particularly concerned about establishing a canon or keeping texts static. I think it’s Jeremiah, for instance, of which they’ve found four pretty different versions preserved in the Dead Sea Scrolls. We also see other development in the texts. The Septuagint (LXX) was created from Hebrew texts because Hebrew was no longer spoken. It provided a Greek translation of the Torah initially and later other books as well. By the time of Christ, many writings were commonly associated with the LXX. However, the LXX was always something of a commentary on the Hebrew and so it changed as the Hebrew text changed and evolved. The book of Daniel provides a good example of that sort of evolution. The current Hebrew and Greek versions of Daniel track pretty closely. The Greek version still includes Bel and the Dragon and the song of the youths, but otherwise pretty much follows the Hebrew. But we’ve found an older Greek version of Daniel that is quite a bit different. It apparently tracked an older Hebrew form of the book that would have otherwise been lost to us.

The LXX is also significant for Christians. Although it was created for Jews before the time of Christ, Greek was the lingua franca of the Empire. That’s why all of the New Testament is in Greek. And since the Church very quickly went out to the nations, that is to what the Jews called the Gentiles, the Church used the LXX. We can see that in the NT text. In almost every place where there is a difference between the Greek and the Hebrew text of the OT quoted in the NT, even if it’s just a minor count of some sort, the NT quotation tracks the LXX. And that simply makes sense. If you’re going to preach to people who speak Greek (even if it’s not their native tongue) you’re going to use the Greek text. If even the Jews didn’t speak Hebrew anymore, the nations certainly couldn’t be expected to understand it.

Now some will go so far as to say that Protestants have the wrong Old Testament. But I find that statement still too centered on the text itself. You have to ask the wrong Old Testament for what? Now, it is true that the LXX text (or a translation of it such as the Latin Vulgate, the text in Russian, or any of the other translations as the Church spread to the nations) is the text read in Church and used in liturgy from the beginning of the Church until the Protestant Reformation. So in that particular instance, I think Protestants do have to provide an explanation for why they have changed the OT that Christians have always used in Church worship.

But the truth is that Christians have always been aware of the Hebrew texts and have used them for other purposes. Sometimes they opposed changes to the Hebrew text as the Masoretic Jewish canon was developed beginning in the second century CE. But across all centuries, some Christians have learned Hebrew and compared the texts. There’s relatively little variation, for instance, in the Torah itself. Moreover, Christians have always been aware that many of the books in the LXX are a translation from Hebrew (some of the later ones were originally written in Greek) and at places the Hebrew text makes more sense than the Greek text. Now the Greek text is still read in Church, but points often are drawn in recorded homilies and other Christian writings from both the Greek and the Hebrew forms of the text. Once again, variation in the text just wasn’t a problem in the ancient world for Christians.

Of course, there wasn’t a single version of the LXX any more than there was a single version of the Hebrew text in the first century. Again, that wasn’t seen as a problem in the ancient world. People used whichever version they had and with which they were familiar. That means some of the versions of the LXX used today by different traditions that were separated geographically and culturally aren’t exactly the same. The Latin Church (long before the schism) didn’t have as many books translated in the Vulgate as the Churches we now call “Eastern Orthodox” had in their OT. And in some places like Ethiopia and Egypt (again well before any schism) their versions of the LXX had more books included. Again, variations like that were not important in the ancient world. Although Marcion, who rejected the whole Old Testament, was soundly refuted by all, I don’t recall any council trying to nail down a precise OT canon. It just wasn’t an issue.

As a rule, if something didn’t bother ancient Christians over the course of centuries, I’m hard-pressed to find a reason it should bother me.

One interesting fact about the Protestant OT is that although it uses the books of the Masoretic canon, it mostly uses the LXX names for the books. For instance, the first book is “Genesis” rather than “In the Beginning.” That’s always struck me as curious. I’m not entirely sure why, but it was probably to maintain some connection and familiarity with the Holy Scriptures as Christians had learned them.

If you compare the LXX, a Catholic Bible, or a Protestant OT with the Jewish canon, you will see that Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles are each one book in the Jewish canon, but are two books each in any Christian Bible. (Samuel and Kings are 1 Kingdoms, 2 Kingdoms, 3 Kingdoms, and 4 Kingdoms in the LXX and 1, 2, 3, & 4 Kings in a Catholic Bible rather that 1 & 2 Samuel and 1 & 2 Kings the way there titled in a Protestant Bible.) The reason for that difference are rather prosaic. In earlier posts, I mentioned that a scroll could only hold so much. I also mentioned that ancient Hebrew didn’t use vowels. Ancient Greek did include vowels. Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles were too long to put on a single scroll when they were translated from Hebrew to Greek. So they were each split into two scrolls. The Hebrew versions of each did fit on a single scroll so they weren’t divided.

At least, that what I’ve read. But it does make sense when you think about it.


Praying with the Church 4 – Praying with Jesus: Sacred Prayers

Posted: July 21st, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Praying with the Church | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on Praying with the Church 4 – Praying with Jesus: Sacred Prayers

These are reflections on Scot McKnight‘s book, Praying with the Church, that I wrote and shared with a small circles of friends in 2006. I’ve decided to publish them here only lightly edited. Since they are four years old, they don’t necessarily reflect exactly what I would say today, but they do accurately capture my reaction at the time.

This chapter opens with the questions Scot assumes most will ask (and that he also asked) about stepping out of our own Portiuncola two or three times a day to pray with the Church in the basilica. “What will we be saying? Did Jesus teach anything about that? Won’t it get repetitive to say things over and over?” His answers are the ones found throughout the history of the Church. “We’ll be using the prayers of the Bible, of Jesus, and the Church. Yes, it will be repetitive but in a good way. Praying with the Church might lead to vain repetitions, but it is meant to lead us away from them.”

In order to understand the guidance Scripture offers, Scot guides us first through the Jewish form of prayer in use at the time of Jesus. We’ve already seen that Jews prayed at fixed hours — “morning, afternoon, and evening. This was the sacred rhythm of the temple and of Israel at prayer together. But what did they say?”

The Jews prayed (usually by singing) the Psalms. They are a collection of 150 (or 151) prayers. These were at the root of their prayers. “Everything Israel and Jesus learned about prayer can be found in the Psalms.” They also recited other set prayers and creeds. The Shema, of course, was recited by any observant Jew at a minimum on rising and on retiring. However, they also did everything Moses wrote for them to do (Deuteronomy 6). Memorize them – ‘Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart.’ Teach them — ‘Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise.’ Make it physical — ‘Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead.’ Publish them — ‘Write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.’ The Shema was so interwoven into the “ancient faith of Israel that it would have been impossible for followers of Jesus not to adopt (and adapt) the custom of turning to God at sundown and sunup.”

In addition, the Jews of that time probably recited the Ten Commandments along with the Shema. We have a document from about a century before Jesus that appears to link the recitation of the two and it also makes sense in the context of the Jesus’ interaction with the rich young ruler.

And finally, we also know of a prayer that was called by three names, “the Amidah (standing prayer), the Shemoneh Esreh (Eighteen Benedictions), or the Ha-Tefillah (The Prayer). They had other prayers and certainly also prayed spontaneously, but their sacred rhythms of prayer were formed and shaped by the Shema, the Amidah, and perhaps the Ten Commandments. These “expressed the central dimensions of Israel’s faith and concerns with clarity and aesthetic simplicity.”

Scot has an amusing way to think about it for someone concerned about ‘vain repititions.’ (That’s never been any particular issue for me, so maybe it’s not as funny to someone with whom that is a significant worry.) Repitition can be a mindless routine, but it can also be a rhythm for daily renewal. If you don’t think that’s the case, consider explaining to your spouse that you’ve been saying “I love you” far too often and you’ll have to stop or it might become a vain repitition. I’m sure that will go over well.

However, Scot sees this concern as actually possibly masking a deeper one, a hesitation to use prayers written by others. His section exploring that is a good one, so I’ll just quote from it in closing.

Our tendency is to go to the Bible for something new, to read it in the expectation of a fresh discovery of something we did not know or had not heard or had completely forgotten. As a professor who teaches the Bible, I know the experience.

But the discovery of something new is not the sole, or even the main, purpose for reading the Bible. The longer you look at the idea that we read the Bible to find new meanings, the sillier it becomes. We read and return to the Bible not (just) to find something new but to hear something old, not to discover something fresh but to be reminded of something ancient.

What we find in the sacred rhythm and sacred prayer tradition of Israel is the wise recitation of those passages in the Bible most central to spirituality, passages we need to be reminded of daily because of their importance for how we are to conduct ourselves before God and with others. The reason psalms are repeated in the sacred rhythm of prayer is that they continue to teach us how to pray; the reason the Shema is repeated so often is that it summons us to the central orientation of our heart: to love God with every molecule we can muster.

Jesus was spiritually nurtured by pious parents in a world where the sacred rhythm of prayer shaped spiritual formation. Jesus didn’t adopt that rhythm without reflection or alteration. One might say that Jesus actually re-shaped the sacred rhythmical prayer practices of his world so that they would reflect his own kingdom mission.


On the Incarnation of the Word 50 – Greeks and Resurrection

Posted: November 13th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Incarnation of the Word | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on On the Incarnation of the Word 50 – Greeks and Resurrection

In this section, Athanasius continues to refute pagan perspectives. His comment against the sophists is probably difficult to understand without some understanding of their development in ancient and classical Greece. This history is interesting if you want to look it up, but by Athanasius’ time sophists were regarded as teachers of rhetoric rather than actual wisdom. As such, when Athanasius compares the common language with which the Word taught and communicated to us and which his followers largely used to the sophists, he is comparing it to their eloquence and rhetorical ability. And he says the Logos overshadows them all. It’s an interesting way to formulate the idea and I didn’t want anyone to miss it.

However, I want to focus on this excerpt.

Or who else has given men such assurance of immortality, as has the Cross of Christ, and the Resurrection of His Body? For although the Greeks have told all manner of false tales, yet they were not able to feign a Resurrection of their idols,—for it never crossed their mind, whether it be at all possible for the body again to exist after death. And here one would most especially accept their testimony, inasmuch as by this opinion they have exposed the weakness of their own idolatry, while leaving the possibility open to Christ, so that hence also He might be made known among all as Son of God.

This emphasizes a point the N.T. Wright makes in his big book, The Resurrection of the Son of God, which a lot of modern people overlook. And it’s this one. Everyone in the ancient world knew what resurrection meant. It meant new bodies after death, a new embodied life of the same person. But other than some of the Jews, no group actually believed that resurrection was possible. The tale of Orpheus is as close as you come in the pagan Greek mythos and the point of the narrative is that resurrection can’t happen.  This was actually one of the problems in the Corinthian Church that Paul was trying to address. They had accepted that Jesus, as the Son of God, had somehow been resurrected, but they didn’t believe that as a result we would be resurrected. A lot of people use Paul’s words today to emphasize the importance of the bodily resurrection of our Lord, and that’s not a bad usage. But Paul was actually taking their acceptance of that truth as a given and from it arguing that we would all one day be resurrected.

Without the Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, there is no Christianity and there is no point to our faith. But if he did not defeat death for all humanity in his death, if we also do not rise, then again there is no point in being Christian.


On the Incarnation of the Word 41 – The Logos Refutes the Pagan Greeks

Posted: October 14th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Incarnation of the Word | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on On the Incarnation of the Word 41 – The Logos Refutes the Pagan Greeks

In this section, Athanasius turns from refuting the arguments against the Incarnation by the Jews to those offered by the pagan Greeks. He is specifically attacking the schools of Plato, whether influenced by Philo or not. Platonism had issues with embodied spirituality. Within that perspective, the material was something to be escaped. Plato envisioned the spiritual, disembodied Happy Philosophers. Obviously, the Incarnation is a problem within that perspective. I find Athanasius’ approach intriguing.

But if they confess that there is a Word of God, and He ruler of the universe, and that in Him the Father has produced the creation, and that by His Providence the whole receives light and life and being, and that He reigns over all, so that from the works of His providence He is known, and through Him the Father,—consider, I pray you, whether they be not unwittingly raising the jest against themselves. The philosophers of the Greeks say that the universe is a great body; and rightly so. For we see it and its parts as objects of our senses. If, then, the Word of God is in the Universe, which is a body, and has united Himself with the whole and with all its parts, what is there surprising or absurd if we say that He has united Himself with man also. For if it were absurd for Him to have been in a body at all, it would be absurd for Him to be united with the whole either, and to be giving light and movement to all things by His providence. For the whole also is a body. But if it beseems Him to unite Himself with the universe, and to be made known in the whole, it must beseem Him also to appear in a human body, and that by Him it should be illumined and work. For mankind is part of the whole as well as the rest. And if it be unseemly for a part to have been adopted as His instrument to teach men of His Godhead, it must be most absurd that He should be made known even by the whole universe.

In other words, if the Logos is united with and sustains the whole universe, it can hardly be called unreasonable for the Logos to be united to a specific human body.

I’ll also note that this is a good example of Athanasius finding something true within their beliefs that he could build upon. At their best, Christians have always done exactly that, rather than dismissing all that a people believe or have experienced of reality. There are few places we go where people have not received at least glimpses and shadows of the truth. If we do not believe that, we do not believe that God is who we proclaim him to be. And we do not believe that the cosmos changed when Jesus came out of that tomb.

Or so it seems to me.


On the Incarnation of the Word 40 – No More Kings, Prophets, or Visions

Posted: October 13th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Incarnation of the Word | Tags: , , , , , | Comments Off on On the Incarnation of the Word 40 – No More Kings, Prophets, or Visions

In today’s section of Athanasius’ treatise, he continues to make his point that the time has passed for the Messiah. There cannot yet be a future one. I recommend meditating on the entire section (as I always do), but wanted to highlight this statement.

If then there is now among the Jews king or prophet or vision, they do well to deny the Christ that is come.

But there isn’t. And there hasn’t been. And it does not appear that there will be.

If I weren’t posting on Athanasius’ treatise, I would say little about Judaism beyond noting how many attributes Christian worship shared with Jewish synagogue worship, how clearly Christianity extends and is built upon Judaism. As I was growing up I remember Jewish families who were friends of our family. My cousin married into a Jewish family. And I did not join Christianity unaware of our collective poor history of treatment of the Jews, especially in the West and in Russia. I think that in the ways we have wronged them, we have lost the right to say much of anything at all. Until we can prove by our actions over the course of generations that we, as Christians, love them and perhaps earn some small measure of forgiveness, we have no real room to speak at all. There are no excuses for the things we have done in the past. None.

But Athanasius lived at a different time under different circumstances. And he certainly speaks. And, since this lies pretty much at the core of Christianity, I do agree with him. If I did not, I would not be Christian. But read his words. I find I have nothing to add.


On the Incarnation of the Word 39 – There Cannot Be Another

Posted: October 12th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Incarnation of the Word | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on On the Incarnation of the Word 39 – There Cannot Be Another

I had to read this section of On The Incarnation several times before I really grasped his point. Basically he is refuting the Jews who say the Messiah or the Christ or the Anointed is yet to come. There are two key sentences.

But on this one point, above all, they shall be all the more refuted, not at our hands, but at those of the most wise Daniel, who marks both the actual date, and the divine sojourn of the Saviour, saying: “Seventy weeks are cut short upon thy people, and upon the holy city, for a full end to be made of sin, and for sins to be sealed up, and to blot out iniquities, and to make atonement for iniquities, and to bring everlasting righteousness, and to seal vision and prophet, and to anoint a Holy of Holies; and thou shalt know and understand from the going forth of the word to restore and to build Jerusalem unto Christ the Prince”.

In other words, Daniel predicts the time and that time was the time of Christ. Moreover, there are other particulars.

Perhaps with regard to the other (prophecies) they may be able even to find excuses and to put off what is written to a future time. But what can they say to this, or can they face it at all? Where not only is the Christ referred to, but He that is to be anointed is declared to be not man simply, but Holy of Holies; and Jerusalem is to stand till His coming, and thenceforth, prophet and vision cease in Israel.

Jerusalem was to stand until the coming of the Anointed. But Jerusalem fell and was destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD. So that can no longer happen.

I’m struck most, though, by Athanasius’ point that Jesus was not anointed as a man only, but also declared the Holy of Holies, that is the place where God dwelt among his people. Of course, that’s what Christians have always proclaimed, but I never thought of it in precisely those terms before.