Four Hundred Texts on Love (Third Century) 43

Posted: May 29th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Third Century) 43

90.  If you harbor rancor against anybody, pray for him and you will prevent the passion from being aroused; for by means of prayer you will separate your resentment from the thought of the wrong he has done you. When you have become loving and compassionate towards him, you will wipe the passion completely from your soul. If somebody regards you with rancor, be pleasant to him, be humble and agreeable in his company, and you will deliver him from his passion.

This prescription for dealing with rancor in yourself or directed at you echoes the New Testament, of course, but the reality remains that as often as we hear, we still don’t do it. It’s hard to pray for those who have wronged us. And it’s hard to be pleasant, humble, and agreeable when resentment is directed at us. And yet that is the way of life. When we act as we are inclined, we destroy ourselves. And in the process, we often harm many around us.


Why Do We Pray? 4 – To Create Community?

Posted: March 9th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Prayer | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Why Do We Pray? 4 – To Create Community?

If we are not primarily seeking to change God or change ourselves when we engage in Christian prayer, perhaps we pray to establish common ground amongst ourselves and form a community? This facet is probably less visible or recognized in low church evangelical settings of individual “spontaneous” prayer, but traditionally Christians have recited prayers and creeds together in worship. Moreover, individual prayer has also revolved around set prayers at particular intervals during the day.

Praying as the church does, in fact, serve to bind us together. Set prayers help create and maintain a common ground of practice and expressed belief. That’s pretty evident and is hardly unique to Christianity. It flowed into Christian practice directly from Judaism. In Daniel and elsewhere in the OT, we see the practice of a set rhythm of prayer. We know that first century Jews prayed the Psalms together at set intervals and had other prayers they prayed. When Jesus’ followers asked him for a prayer, he gave them one to recite together. We see the Church and apostles in Acts continuing the rhythm of set prayers.

And we see the same practice in other religions. Muslims engage in communal prayer five times daily. Buddhist and Hindu worshipers will gather and chant together in prayer. The act helps shape your identity as a member of particular community of worship. And it can identify you to others. We share these prayers and practices. That recognition creates an almost instant connection or bond.

I don’t deny that the practice of communal prayer, corporately and individually, can help create community. It’s an effect of our Christian practice of prayer, but I hesitate to call this effect the purpose. Again, if that were true, there would be little to distinguish Christian prayer from that of some of the other religions. Moreover, there are many ways to mark a group as a community of shared belief and practice. If this were the purpose of prayer, then it’s just one such practice among many, and of no lesser or greater importance.

But that’s not the sense I get from the New Testament or the writings of the Church. Prayer is seen as vital and of the utmost importance. Why? That’s the question I think we must answer.


Mary 7 – Matthew 1:25

Posted: January 18th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Mary | Tags: , , , , | Comments Off on Mary 7 – Matthew 1:25

The other common modern scriptural objection to the doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary is found in Matthew 1:24-25.

Then Joseph, being aroused from sleep, did as the angel of the Lord commanded him and took to him his wife, and did not know her till she had brought forth her firstborn Son. And he called His name JESUS.

This is actually a pretty weak objection. With ’till’ or ‘until’, sometimes the condition leading up to the event changes after the event and sometimes it doesn’t. That’s easy to illustrate with just a couple of examples, but there many examples of both usages in the New Testament.

And when it was day, some of the Jews banded together and bound themselves under an oath, saying that they would neither eat nor drink till they had killed Paul. (Acts 23:12)

The above is an illustration of a usage where the condition (not eating or drinking) is expected to change after the event (killing Paul). That’s pretty obvious from the context.

For He must reign till He has put all enemies under His feet. (1 Cor. 15:25)

I think most Christians would agree that Christ will continue to reign after all enemies are under his feet, but that’s incidental to the point being made. In this case the condition (Christ reigning) continues after the event (putting all enemies under his feet).

The whole point being made in Matthew is that Mary conceived as a virgin and gave birth to a son who was conceived by the Spirit and then immediately moves to his name, which is an important one, Jesus. Matthew is saying nothing about what happened between Mary and Joseph after the birth of Christ. All that can really be said from the context is that there is not information to conclude whether or not the condition (Joseph not knowing Mary) changed after the event (the birth of Jesus). There’s certainly nothing in the text that refutes the long-standing and ancient tradition of the Church.

And once again, it’s not as though some modern Protestants suddenly discovered a new text in Scripture that the ancient Church knew nothing about. They were certainly familiar with Matthew and were more closely connected than us to the language, culture, and customs that formed the context for the text. Why would we assume we understand the text better than they did? That attitude puzzles me.


Mary 6 – Brothers

Posted: January 16th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Mary | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Mary 6 – Brothers

In the comments to Elizabeth Esther’s post, there were primarily two objections from Scripture raised against the doctrine of Mary’s perpetual virginity. The more common one asks about his brothers — two of whom are also considered to have written books of the New Testament. If Mary didn’t have any more children, how is it that Jesus had brothers? I think the fact that it’s such a common and sincere question illustrates how completely disconnected so many modern Christians have become from the historical tradition of the Church. It was my impression that most of the people who asked about Jesus’ brothers in the comments on EE’s post weren’t consciously disagreeing with the tradition of the Church; rather, they knew nothing about it.

The oldest, and I believe most likely, tradition is that Joseph was an older man, a widower, and a father. Thus the siblings of Jesus were Joseph’s children from his prior marriage. That feels right to me on multiple levels. First, we are told that Joseph had earned the name or reputation of tsadiq or righteous. In the context of an externalized honor-shame culture, that public name is even more significant. While I suppose it’s possible a young man could be numbered among the tsadiqim, it feels more like the sort of recognition an older, more established man would have earned — especially in a culture that already tended to respect age over youth.

Also, the snippets of encounters in the Gospels (Mark 3:31-32 and Matthew 12:46-47) have always felt to me more like older brothers trying to straighten out a younger sibling who isn’t doing what they expected him to do. But perhaps that’s just the eldest sibling (and eldest first cousin, for that matter) in me.

And finally, we know that Joseph died sometime after teaching Jesus a trade, but before the Theophany at our Lord’s baptism. While people can and could die at any age from many causes, this fact fits with the idea that he was an older man when he was betrothed to Mary.

A different tradition arose in the West, casting Joseph as a younger man closer to Mary in age. In that tradition, the brothers of Jesus are actually his cousins raised in close proximity to him and possibly even in the same household. (The nuclear family as we understand it is quite different from ancient households and families.) That’s certainly possible. It’s true that ancient Aramaic used the same word for all close male relations of a similar age or generation. And the Greek word used also does not necessarily describe a sibling relationship, though it can. From everything I’ve been able to discover, this tradition arises later and exclusively in the West. Jerusalem and the regions in the Gospels are all in the East and this tradition never took root there. For both those reasons, it seems less likely to me.

Finally there is John 19:25-27 to consider.

Now there stood by the cross of Jesus His mother, and His mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus therefore saw His mother, and the disciple whom He loved standing by, He said to His mother, “Woman, behold your son!” Then He said to the disciple, “Behold your mother!” And from that hour that disciple took her to his own home.

I’ve only been a member of a Southern Baptist Church as a Christian, so I’m familiar with the modern, Protestant understanding of the above passage. Basically it goes that as the eldest son, Jesus was responsible for his widowed mother and since his brothers did not believe he was the Messiah and had rejected him (an assertion, I’ll note, for which there really isn’t any evidence), he chose to have John care for Mary. I suppose that makes sense to our modern sensibilities, but it’s completely anachronistic. First, all the sons of a widow were responsible for her care. And it was an automatic obligation on the eldest surviving son. It wasn’t something that had to be passed along.

Now, think back to my post on the way honor-shame culture works. In that culture, if others believe that I have done something wrong, even if I don’t believe I’ve done anything wrong, I am still shamed and dishonored. So under the above interpretation of John’s gospel account, what’s really happening is that Jesus, John, and Mary are all colluding to publicly shame her other sons. I just don’t believe that’s the case. It doesn’t fit the character of any of them as captured in the gospels. It’s certainly difficult to imagine James, after being so dishonored by Jesus himself, becoming the first leading Bishop of the Jerusalem Church and such an influential early Christian figure.

No, the most reasonable interpretation of the text is that Jesus was Mary’s only son so he gave her into the care of John to ensure she didn’t suffer the fate of widows with no sons. (The ancient world was pretty harsh and there was no social safety net. Widows with no sons often did not survive long.) That’s not to say that his community of followers and extended family wouldn’t have cared for Mary anyway, but by doing this Jesus faithfully discharged even this last obligation. Remember, in Christian understanding, Jesus is the one, true faithful man and the fulfillment of faithful Israel.

Of course, John is known as the theological gospel and everything in it has multiple layers of meaning. This text is no different. However,  those layers of theology are grounded in an actual event. At least, most Christians agree it’s an actual event.


Mary 4 – Ever Virgin

Posted: January 11th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Personal | Tags: , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

The next point, the perpetual virginity of Mary, tends to be controversial among my fellow modern Protestants. I will note that the modern objection is not inherently Protestant in nature. Indeed all the initial reformers, Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli, held firmly to the doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary. As late as the 18th century, John Wesley affirmed the doctrine. No, the objections to this particular doctrine seem more related to our modern sexualized culture than anything historical. There seems to be a sense that living without sex makes you less than a ‘complete’ person. I understand that modern perspective probably better than I do the ancient one. After all, I am also a product of our culture. Nevertheless, I try to avoid imposing my cultural lens onto ancient texts and traditions in an anachronistic manner. It’s clear from the NT texts that living a celibate life was hardly unknown in an ancient Jewish context. John the Baptist lived such a life. Paul also did. (And it appears that he had started down that path in his zeal even before his dramatic conversion.) Notably, Jesus lived a celibate, unmarried life. So there’s nothing inherently odd or out of place in ascribing such devotion to Mary in her context.

Moreover, in the context of their honor-shame culture, it’s a perfectly reasonable response by both Mary and Joseph. We know from the texts and from the tradition of the Church of which those texts are one part that they were both faithful to God. They both sacrificed their own personal honor in order to uphold God’s honor and be obedient to him. And God produced a child with Mary. In both their minds, that would have certainly marked Mary as belonging to God. For Mary to then have sex with Joseph would have been perceived as adulterous and dishonoring God. Joseph would have seen himself as a protector and provider chosen by God for Mary and for God’s son. It’s not that I think they consciously thought through everything and decided to live together celibately. Rather, I find it hard to imagine them, within their context and with their cultural shaping, responding any other way. It’s strange to us, but it fits perfectly in their context.

And as I mentioned, it’s also the universal tradition of the Church until very recently. That’s not to say that you can’t find individuals here and there in the past who thought otherwise. But that means virtually nothing. You can find individuals over the course of history, including priests, bishops, and even patriarchs, who believe almost anything. You don’t find answers by looking at the beliefs of one (or several scattered) individuals, especially when their beliefs left no lasting impression on the Church. No, you look at what’s believed everywhere and in all places. And up until the last few hundred years, this is as much the universal perspective of the Church as almost anything we believe. I’m skeptical that we somehow know better now.

I know there are a handful of Scriptures modern Protestants like to trot out in their objections. I plan to deal with those in a later post. However, I will point out that I tend to find the attitude of Protestants toward Scripture somewhat strange. They tend to point to verses in these discussions as if they had just discovered those verses and the centuries of Christians who preceded them had never read or heard them. And there’s something a little crazy about that attitude. After all, it’s the ancient Church that preserved and eventually canonized what we call the New Testament. They read it, preached on it, and incorporated it the liturgy for century upon century. There’s no verse we can point to that would have been unknown to them. No, Protestants aren’t pointing out anything new in the verses they use in this or other discussions. Rather they are asserting they understand those verses better than the ancient Church did. They are asserting their interpretation over and against that of Christians who preceded them.

Maybe it’s because I practiced Hinduism, studied Lao Tzu, read the life of Prince Siddhartha, and have studied other ancient authors, but I’m a little more humble in my approach. I don’t automatically assume I’ll understand a text better than those who came before me. I don’t believe I’m smarter than those who lived in the ancient past (which does seem to be a modern conceit). I tend to give some deference to those who practiced this faith and lived this life long before my time.

Was Mary perpetually virgin? That’s the teaching of the Church and as I researched and tried to understand her culture, I also found it a reasonable contextual conclusion. I’m familiar with the modern arguments to the contrary and I’m unconvinced by them. Does it matter? Well, I tend to believe it’s better to have an accurate rather than an inaccurate view of reality. Beyond that I can’t really say. I will note that it seems to have had a measurable impact on the honor given to Mary. Among those Protestants who do not believe Mary remained a virgin, she’s almost become an after-thought or a biblical footnote. And that attitude is certainly contrary to Scripture. So if the resulting practice is any indication of the significance of belief, then I find that telling.


Thirsting for God 18 – The Saints

Posted: January 26th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Thirsting for God | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Thirsting for God 18 – The Saints

This series is reflecting on Matthew Gallatin’s book, Thirsting for God in a Land of Shallow Wells.

Resurrection and the renewal of all things lie at the very center of the Christian faith. Christ has defeated death through his death and Resurrection and it is no longer the nature of man to die. The New Testament resounds with the proclamation of salvation through union with Christ and with the promise that those who are in Christ will never die. We will never see death. We will never taste death.

For that reason, it’s been the tradition of the Church, already established by the time the New Testament was written, to say that Christians have fallen asleep or reposed in the Lord. Paul writes that to sleep in the body is to be with Christ, which is far better. We aren’t told much about the period between the time our still mortal bodies repose and the general Resurrection of the Dead, but it is clear that we continue to live in Christ.

With that said, the attitude of many modern Protestant Christians toward those who have reposed in Christ is almost an outright refutation and denial of the core of Christian faith. Some relegate those who have reposed in the body to a sort of soul sleep which bears a closer resemblance to the ancient experience of death or to the fairy tale of Sleeping Beauty than anything recognizably Christian. Others agree that those who sleep in the body are conscious and with Christ, but then proceed to place them at a far remove from us — as if Christ were someplace distant rather than with us always, even unto the end of the age. No, if those who have reposed are with Christ and if Christ is with us, then truly a great cloud of witnesses surrounds us as we are told in Hebrews. Heaven is not distant. Though presently veiled, it is as close as our next breath, overlapping and interlocking with our sensible reality.

If that is not true, then as far as I can tell, there is no reason to be Christian.

So ultimately, the difference between an Orthodox Christian and a Protestant, with regard to the saints or in any other matter, is essentially this: In all things, we Orthodox Christians see the world through Jesus’ eyes, and not our own. He sees our departed brethren as alive and joined with us in worship of Him. Thus, we must see them that way, and act toward them accordingly.

Those who have fallen asleep in the Lord can and do pray for us as much or more as those who have not. And we are certainly able to pray for all those who have reposed — even though we may not know their disposition toward God — because it is no longer in the nature of mankind to die. And it makes even more sense to honor or venerate those who were martyred for Christ or lived holy lives than it does to honor the great Christians who are still among us in the body.

Perhaps this distortion of Christian faith and practice within Protestantism is one of the reasons so many modern Christians are vulnerable to alternative ideas about reality such as reincarnation or the various practices of spiritism. I don’t know. But it would not surprise me if there were indeed a connection.


Ancient Texts 7 – New Testament

Posted: January 7th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Unlike the Old Testament, the New Testament did not develop over a long period of time nor were the books in it primarily concerned with capturing oral tradition in writing. That’s why there isn’t a Christian version of Leviticus or Deuteronomy outlining in detail the forms of Christian worship. Those were left primarily as an oral tradition and though that tradition was, to one extent or another, captured in writing in the early centuries, those writings weren’t considered Scripture. The books of the New Testament were written by specific people over the relatively short span of a few decades and consist essentially of the surviving written teaching or tradition of the apostolic witness to Jesus of Nazareth.

The preeminent books have always been the Gospels throughout most of Christian history. They are accorded a special honor in liturgical worship and reading. They have often been bound together in one volume, separate from the other books. They are kissed. They are held high. They are processed. And Christians stand when the Gospels are read. At least, that describes most Christians over most of Christian history. Today that might or might not be the case. It’s a very mixed bag. I will note that Matthew, Mark, and Luke were primarily viewed as the announcement of the good news of conquering king who has saved his people to those who were not necessarily yet Christians, though of course Christians read them as well. In the early days of the Church, John was considered to be more reserved for Christians.

Most of the other books are called letters and they were written by the Apostles mostly to deal with specific issues in Churches they could not visit at the time of the writing. The key exceptions are Romans, Hebrews, and the Apocalypse. Paul wrote Romans to try to address some issues and lay the groundwork before his first visit. It appears that he planned to use Rome as a base for a missionary journey through Spain and was concerned about divisions between Jewish and Gentile believers in the city after the Jews had been allowed to return. Hebrews is a detailed theological treatise interpreting much of the Old Testament as types in light of Christ. The Apocalypse is, well, the Apocalypse. It’s in a category by itself and for that reason was one of the relatively few books in dispute as the canon was developed in the late fourth century CE.

The books called letters are mostly not letters in the ancient sense. They may or may not have the normal beginning and end that a letter had, but the body is little like ancient letters. Ancient letters tended to be brief and factual. (Remember these were oral cultures, not literate ones.) The “letters” of the New Testament are, in fact, mostly homilies and other forms of rhetorical speech that the person sending would have delivered in person had they been able to be present. The one carrying the “letter” had to know how to deliver the rhetoric as the apostle intended.

Of course, very little, if anything, in the New Testament was considered “scripture” when it was written. It was highly respected, of course, as capturing a part of the apostolic witness and tradition. Paul writes to the Thessalonians to hold fast to the traditions they received from him in word (orally in person) or by epistle. And the fact that they survived some intermittent but pretty severe periods of persecution shows the care with which they were copied and preserved. The awareness of those writings as scripture mostly developed over the course of the second century and early third century.

The first known list of the New Testament canon as we have it today was Athanasius’ list in the early fourth century, but that list was not accepted formally by the Church as the canon until late in the fourth century. I’ve noticed a lot of people seem to have some confusion about the canonization process today. It was a lengthy process. The canon didn’t just magically appear by the end of the first century, but it was also not a major source of debate. Other than some scattered heretics, the four gospels as we have them were always the gospels accepted by the Church. The so-called gnostic gospels that garner attention today were not suppressed (though they were rejected) and were never seriously considered for inclusion in the canon. Books that were seriously debated were books that did actually incorporate the true tradition of the church and which were highly respected. They were books like the Shepherd of Hermas, and what came to be called the ProtoEvangelion of James. Ultimately those books were not included in the canon because they were not believed to have been of apostolic origin. Although not Scripture, they were still valuable and recommended for reading — unlike the “gnostic gospels.”

All Christians do accept the same New Testament canon even if (like Luther) they don’t like parts of it. But that canon cannot be separated from the Church that decided it was indeed Scripture. And it seems to me that a lot of people today try to separate the two. Historically and rationally, that just doesn’t work — or at least I don’t see any way to make it work. I’ve read and listened to quite a few people on the topic, both academic and popular, who try to separate the NT canon from the Church that produced it. And their arguments seem to me to always end up chasing their own tail.


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.


Ancient Texts 4 – Textual Variation

Posted: December 31st, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on Ancient Texts 4 – Textual Variation

There is a great deal of attention and concern given today to textual variation in the Holy Scriptures. There are even books written by people who have lost Christian faith because they held to anachronistic and ultimately unsustainable views about the Bible. So I wanted to devote a post to the manner in which ancient texts were transmitted and preserved, placing the development of what we call the Bible in its proper context.

First, it’s important to recognize that unlike some sacred texts (the Qur’an is one good example) our Holy Scriptures were not written by one person at one point in time. The development of what we call the Bible today is a complex topic, but it certainly has many authors and developed over a long period of time. All of it captures a significant part of a larger oral tradition. Basically, the text of the Holy Scriptures functions as an integral piece of that oral tradition. Some parts, especially from what we call the Old Testament, developed over time — sometimes centuries. The New Testament, by contrast, was largely written by specific individuals and did not particularly develop over time. However, it all fits within a larger tradition and loses its meaning if removed from that tradition.

Next, as we’ve discussed before, these texts were all written and copied by hand. We have a difficult time grasping the difficulty of that task. It was extremely labor-intensive. And the materials were fragile and degraded over time, especially if handled and read frequently. Nor was there any sense in the ancient world that absolute verbatim accuracy in the copy was required. It’s not just a case of scribal error — though that certainly occurred. For instance, it’s possible that John did not originally include the story of the adulterous woman in John 8. It’s possible that a scribe a century later or so, living within a community immersed in the Johannine oral tradition decided that story also needed to be preserved. If so, by accepting the revised Gospel, the Church accepted that story as well. It’s not somehow of lesser importance or reliability. In fact, we would owe a debt to that scribe for preserving that piece of the tradition for us in the text.

However, variations in the text were simply not seen as a problem by anyone in the ancient world. We have homilies preserved by, for example, St. John Chrysostom where he encounters variations in a text. He simply notes that he has also seen it rendered this other way. Sometimes he’ll draw a spiritual point from both variant readings. But it doesn’t bother him when it happens. Now, there is a great deal of fidelity in the Christian manuscripts of the New Testament. Obviously care was lavished on their preservation. But they are a synergy between man and God both in their production and in their preservation. Like the Incarnation itself, the Holy Scriptures and the Church that provides the context for them are as fully human as they are divine — with all which that implies.

I’ll close with one more observation on textual variation. If you read the notes in a modern Bible, you’ll see comments that say things like “the oldest manuscripts do not include this.” Sometimes implied in that is the idea that the older a manuscript is the more accurate it is. But the truth is that we simply don’t know. As I’ve mentioned, the more a text was handled, the more it deteriorated. So it’s equally reasonable to assume that an old, variant manuscript survived because it was recognized as a poor copy and thus wasn’t used. We just don’t know. The only real guide we have lies in the reading or readings that the Church has accepted as valid or useful for edification.

If you ask the wrong questions, you’re unlikely to find the right answers. And a lot of the modern discussion on textual variation in parts of Christianity seems to flow from the wrong questions.


Ancient Texts 3 – Scribes

Posted: December 29th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , | Comments Off on Ancient Texts 3 – Scribes

There are a lot of modern misconceptions about the nature of the content of ancient texts. For instance, I’ve seen depictions of St. Paul or a Gospel writer hunched over a table writing by candlelight. That’s almost certainly not how the texts were developed. In fact, Luke/Acts are probably the only two New Testament texts that may have been directly penned by their author.

St. Luke was highly educated in philosophy, medicine, and the arts. In addition to working as a practicing physician, it appears that he also may have worked as a scribe. He may even have served as St. Paul’s scribe for some of his letters. (I’m using scribe in its more common ancient context and not in its specific first century Jewish connotation, which is rather different.) So it’s virtually certain that he directly penned his Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles.

While it’s very likely that Paul, the other epistle writers, and the writers of the Gospels other than Luke spoke Greek, the lingua franca of the Empire, with varying degrees of proficiency (and as a Roman citizen, Paul at least almost certainly spoke some Latin), their native language was Aramaic. While Paul and possibly some of the others had training in rhetoric, it’s unlikely they had training in the more specific craft of capturing that rhetoric in written form. We know that Paul used a scribe for his letters because he mentions that fact in some of them. It’s safe to assume the other authors did as well.

It’s important to understand that an ancient scribe was not like a more modern secretary taking dictation or shorthand — trying to capture what is said word for word. Rather, the job of a scribe was to find the best way to convey the thought and intent of the speaker in written form. In the case of the epistles and three of the Gospels, the scribe was likely also translating from the author’s native Aramaic to Greek. Even when not translating, the scribe was often responsible for choosing the best written words to communicate the desired thought. The act of composing a text was more of a synergy between the author and the scribe than a mechanical reproduction. (Apart from the fact that I don’t believe we have sufficient text to determine authorship from textual analysis alone for any of the New Testament texts, I also think it’s a futile quest for this reason. The same author working with a different scribe would produce a text with a somewhat different “voice.”)

The author and the scribe would work together to produce a text and then the text would be sent with someone who had been trained to properly deliver it to its recipients. Nobody who carried a letter or other text of any complexity in the ancient world was a mere delivery agent. They weren’t the ancient version of UPS or FedEx. Rather, they were the ones entrusted with the task of correctly presenting it orally. So it’s important to recognize, for instance, the true role of the deacon Phoebe carrying the letter to the Romans. She is the one who would have stood before the Christians in Rome and orally traditioned Paul’s teaching to them. It was a very important and even crucial role.

When discussing the texts of the Holy Scriptures, I find many people tend to make pretty anachronistic assumptions about the way they were composed. Hopefully this clarifies some of that confusion.