Thursday, July 28, 2011

Late blogging

I'll (hopefully) be blogging a little later this evening; we had an unscheduled vet visit with a kitty who was under the weather (and is now fine, aside from giving us heartbreaking looks that clearly say, "Traitor!" and "I don't care if the vet said to wait till later to feed me: it's dinner time now!)

But I didn't want my tardy schedule to impact your chance to read my friend Leroy Huizenga's amazing piece over at First Things, if you haven't already seen it today:

At Wheaton College I taught “Biblical Interpretation and Hermeneutics” to exceptionally bright, motivated and faithful students. I approached the course from the perspective of the history of interpretation, for, with Peter of Blois, I was convinced that we stand like dwarfs on the shoulders of giants, that premodern interpreters had much to say to us moderns who struggle to approach the Bible as Scripture instead of a random collection of textual artifacts. Desiring to rescue the works of the ancients from time’s oblivion and man’s neglect, each semester we sojourned through twenty-five hundred years of interpretation.

In the class we wrestled with premodern interpreters whose approach was supposedly different from our own. The radical ways New Testament writers appropriate Old Testament material proved especially challenging; the nervous joke was that Paul, or Matthew, or even Jesus himself would fail our class. For instance, St. Matthew quotes Hosea 11:1 (“Out of Egypt I have called my son”) right after the Holy Family’s escape from Israel to Egypt to portray a reverse exodus inverting Egypt, now the promised land of refuge, and Israel, now the house of bondage.

St. Luke tells of two disciples encountering the Risen Christ on Emmaus Road to show that the Old Testament is rightly read through the lens of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, who “interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (24:27). Further, St. Luke then illustrates that the Risen Christ is known precisely in the Eucharist, a datum thus deemed necessary for sound interpretation: “When he was at table with them, he took the bread and blessed and broke it and gave it to them. And their eyes were opened, and they recognized him. And he vanished from their sight.” The Christ who is the key to the Scriptures is ever present in the bread and wine.

The textbook example of hermeneutical jujitsu, however, is Paul’s brazen tour de force in Galatians 4:21-31, in which he states that the Hagar and Sarah are allegories (allegoroumena), the former pointing to the slavery of the Judaizers of the earthly Jerusalem and the latter pointing to the freedom of the heavenly Jerusalem. Perhaps that might fly in homiletics, but not in serious exegesis. If one were to hand out grades, it would be F’s all around.

Read the whole thing here!

Later!

14 comments:

Siarlys Jenkins said...

So, Matthew, Paul and Luke were all reading meanings they found convenient or suggestive into material they had no basis or background to understand?

I think that's in part true, and I don't think this fumbling with Jewish texts by Greeks and a perhaps somewhat Hellenized Jew detracts from the significance of Jesus Christ. But I'd be surprised if a man Erin cited at such length meant to say that.

Leroy said...

Hey Red. Thanks for the link.

Siarlys, a couple things:

(1) My broader but subtle point, I think, in the piece was that it's a bit awkward for serious, conservative Christians to criticize patristic and medieval interpreters for doing exactly what the New Testament writers are doing.

(2) In general, all the NT writers were Jews, not "Greeks" (if you mean Gentiles) who knew Greek, reading the OT in Greek. Matthew probably knew also Aramaic and classical Hebrew. I'd hesitate to consider what they do "fumbling". Rather, it's literarily and theologically brilliant; the NT writers just use different rules than what moderns assume. Basically, the NT writers read the OT through the lens of Jesus Christ, and they then see further significance in the OT.

Siarlys Jenkins said...

Hi Leroy,

Sounds like it would be a lot of fun to spend an afternoon over some cold drinks and light snacks discussing these things. My niece has Wheaton on her college list, so it may happen someday.

Without saying that I know for sure, or that you don't know what you are talking about, I have read studies which conclude that the author of the Gospel According to Matthew was a Greek convert, ministering to a mixed Hebrew and Greek ecclesia, contemporary with Rabbi Jonathan ben-Zakkai's efforts to consolidate and preserve rabbinical Judaism. This was a matter of some tension, since those in the synagogue explicitly rejected the claim that Jesus was the Messiah.

I have never read anything about Luke which did not assume, infer, or state that he was a Greek doctor and a convert. People have written all over the map about Sh'aul / Paul. Many Jewish scholars maintain that the Gospel According to John was written by one Ioannes, not by Jesus's favorite disciple, which would explain why it opens so differently from the other gospels, and with such an obvious grounding in Greek philosophy.

When it comes to "interpreting" the OT, it is not too impressive to state, AFTER an event has occured, "see, that is what this older text was telling us." One Talmudic scholar observed that if the meaning of a prophecy is not plain to those who first receive it, then it is no prophecy at all.

Matthew is particularly bad about saying that an event occured "so that the prophecy might be fulfilled," rather than 'as the prophecy had foretold.' It is a common poetic device, found in many ancient Celtic tales, among other places.

Then there is the matter of translation. I once asked a rabbi how Jeptha could have sacrificed his daughter as a holocaust so many centuries after Abraham was told NOT to sacrifice Isaac. He was genuinely shocked that Christians had been teaching such abominable nonsense, and explained in great detail that ha-Giladi's daughter was ELEVATED to the service of God, and her father mourned that his only daughter would never marry or have children. If it had been a lamb that first ran out of his door, yes, the lamb would have been offered on the altar. Since I asked, he looked at the Septuagint, and found that someone had substituted a Greek word meaning a burnt offering, for the Hebrew word Eloha.

I'm sure you've heard before that the Hebrew word used in an oft-quoted passage of Isaiah, alma, gives the meaning "a young woman of child-bearing age shall conceive and give birth," not "a virgin" (bethula). I've read work by modern Christians so passionately determined that the English they learned in Sunday School couldn't be wrong that they worked out a contrived assertion that alma really does mean virgin and bethula doesn't.

Frankly, when it comes to Hebrew, I trust the Talmudic scholars as the experts on original meaning and cultural context. But I'm not writing to see if we can resolve this once and for all. I'm not looking for an intellectual arm-wrestling contest to see if one of us can conquer the other. I'm just saying, to try to pin these things down seems to me rather unreliable at best, and perhaps irrelevant.

Two commandments, upon which hang all the law and the prophets, are rather a tall order in themselves to try to live up to. Add in "he has shown you oh man what is good" seems quite comprehensive. I have a sense there is considerably more significance to Jesus than the rabbis credit. That is why I am a Christian, not a convert to Judaism or Islam. But, I couldn't "prove" that, in any objective or scientific sense. Applying different rules to sacred text and coming up with new interpretations hardly seems to offer anything resembling proof either.

Hector_St_Clare said...

Siarlys Jenkins,

We've been over many of these topics before on Alexandria. (And it's worth pointing out I disagree with Erin, and with the Editorial staff at First Things, on many issues.)

Re: I have read studies which conclude that the author of the Gospel According to Matthew was a Greek convert, ministering to a mixed Hebrew and Greek ecclesia, contemporary with Rabbi Jonathan ben-Zakkai's efforts to consolidate and preserve rabbinical Judaism.

I believe that the Gospel was written prior to 70 AD (as John Robinson held) and was written by either the Apostle Matthew or a close associate/secretary of his, just as the tradition holds. What evidence do you have to dispute this?

Re: One Talmudic scholar observed that if the meaning of a prophecy is not plain to those who first receive it, then it is no prophecy at all.

This is, of course, the opposite of the truth. Genuine prophecies are usually vague and indistinct to the people who receive it, and their full meaning only becomes clear in retrospect. The reason God and His angels do it that way
is very simple: if we received a detailed prophecy and knew exactly what it referred to, and the exact nature of the predictions, then it would be possible for us to use our free will to evade the prophecy. In contrast, the genuine prophecies in the Bible are usually clear enough that in retrospect we know exactly what they refer to (and that they could only have been made in the power of the Spirit) while also vague enough so as to safeguard human free will.

Isaiah 53, for example, is an almost photographic, journalistic, eyewitness description of the Passion of Christ, made 600 years before the fact. Yet no one knew what it was referring to until sometime shortly after the actual events took place.

Re: I'm sure you've heard before that the Hebrew word used in an oft-quoted passage of Isaiah, alma, gives the meaning "a young woman of child-bearing age shall conceive and give birth," not "a virgin" (bethula).

What the Hebrew says is irrelevant, because the Septuagint says, clearly "Parthenos" ( = Virgin). The Septuagint, not the Hebrew version, was the Old Testament used by the Jews of Christ's day, and it's the version that was considered authoritative by the early church.

Re: Many Jewish scholars maintain that the Gospel According to John was written by one Ioannes, not by Jesus's favorite disciple, which would explain why it opens so differently from the other gospels, and with such an obvious grounding in Greek philosophy.

Yeah, I've heard your argument before. I don't buy it. The Gospel of John is full of indications it was completed before the fall of Jeruselem (and probably begun well before that), and it says explicitly it was written by the Beloved Disciple. If you believe the author was lying about being an eyewitness, then why do you give the rest of the gospel any credence at all?

Leroy said...

Siarlys,

I just lost 30 minutes of typing thanks to blogger (not the first time). Maybe they're in Red's email somewhere. Thanks for your comments. Basically, I'd say Wheaton is an incredible place for a young person. Great students, great peers who will challenge and encourage and support someone in all her being, body, mind and spirit.

Red Cardigan said...

Sorry, Leroy--I checked, and it's not there, or in the "spam" folder, or--well, anywhere. Blogger moves in strange ways...

Siarlys Jenkins said...

Blogger does that to me all the time... in fact, what I typed above I had to fully reconstruct. I should learn to copy what's in the box before I submit the comment, because I KNOW Blogger does this. Not always, but often.

Hector, if you are really interested, check out a pamphlet called "What are they saying about Matthew?" by Donald Senior. I don't have any detailed knowledge or opinion about Senior, but he does cite many contemporary analyses, and provide detail about why and how various scholars came to the conclusions they did. You won't buy it, because you have faith that its not so, and that is my whole point.

Prophecies should, at the least, be self-evident when the event occurs. You know how vague the writers of horoscopes are, so almost anything that actually happened could plausibly be a manifestation of the horoscope. If I said in 1940, a great city will be burnt in an hour off the coast of China, and the armies will cease fighting, that's pretty close to what happened at Hiroshima. But if I said there will be flames and death and a mighty nation will surrender to its enemies, well, most modern wars end something like that. It would have been true if Hitler and Japan divided the world between them.

C.S. Lewis wrote that the details for a historically accurate biography of Jesus have been deliberately withheld from men. He may well be right. That isn't the POINT of Jesus. While we are all agreeing that everything true isn't empirically verifiable, devout schools of scholarship are going about trying to empirically verify from SCRIPTURE! That makes no sense.

Your assertion about the Septuagint blows your entire position, as far as authority goes. Accepting the Septuagint as authoritative was a gross ERROR! It wasn't the original language in which Yishayahu (aka Isaiah to us gentiles) spoke what God entrusted to him. He spoke in Hebrew. (Aramaic became dominant after the Exile). The Septuagint was a HUMAN TRANSLATION, which introduced a new possibility for error. That's TWO steps, at least, removed from the direct divine revelation. The word parthenos never came out of Yishayahu's mouth.

But you won't buy it, because you have faith that its not so, you have faith that the conclusions derived from the Septuagint are true, therefore, the translation is, for you, more authoritative than the original revelation. And that's why trying to ferret out divine truth from the empirical details, rather than from the broad contours, is a peculiar human past-time, rather than a devotion to God.

Leroy said...

Well, the NT writers take the LXX as an authoritative text; I think the idea that they have to quote it because everyone speaks Greek but that the Hebrew is the real text to which they wish they could refer is more the fruit of subconscious Protestant prejudice (to say nothing of the Germanic interest in the Quest for Origins) than anything else (though certainly you see hints of the originalist impulse in folks like St. Jerome). More simply, Paul isn't alluding to the Hebrew when he's quoting the LXX.

Consider Augustine, who in his debates with Jerome insisted not on the criterion of originality but usage -- the Scriptures the Church used -- the LXX -- were the Scriptures of the Church, and that, insisted Augustine, was the text on which Jerome should have based his Latin translation. Or consider the Greek churches, for whom the LXX has been Bible from (almost) the beginning (depending on what you do with church history in the mid-first century).

All that is to say, the originalist position is not obviously the Christian position. The majority of Christians rejected that in favor of a traditionalist position, until the Reformation (but again, the Reformation position does have its antecedents).

Donald Senior is a solid scholar, but I think he and many of his generation were too taken with a sort of liberal Protestant foundationalism and historicism that neglects the literary and theological beauty of the Gospels in seeking to go behind them. FWIW.

Indeed, the LXX was the Bible for the vast majority of Jews (perhaps for 80% or more of them, living in the Diaspora) and Christians in the ancient world.

As far as "almah" goes, most almot should be virgins in any event, and Matthew quotes the Septuagint in this instance, so he's interested in understanding the young woman as a "parthenos", like Mary. Further, that the LXX translator rendered almah with parthenos says something about the sexual status of an almah...

I don't think early Christians would claim that prophecies should be self-evident; the idea seems to be that one can't make final sense of the OT until one has the key, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the one to whom (as a matter of confession and conviction) the OT Scriptures point. But it's a theological claim, not necessarily an obvious empirically verifiable reality. Thus, no Christian should ever accost a Jew for being obtuse for failing to recognize Jesus as the Messiah.

Enough for now. Good night!

Hector said...

Siarlys,

Leroy has more technical expertise on this than me (my field is plant biology, and theology is strictly a hobby for me). So he can field the technical issues. I'd just say that the Septuagint was accepted as authoritative by Jesus and the Apostles, that there was a widespread tradition at the time that the translation of the OT into Greek had itself been inspired and miraculous, and that not all of the Old Testament even EXISTS in Hebrew. (Portions of Daniel are in Aramaic, and portions of Esther, Daniel, and the entire Deuterocanonica exist only in Greek).

Re: If I said in 1940, a great city will be burnt in an hour off the coast of China, and the armies will cease fighting, that's pretty close to what happened at Hiroshima.

That's exactly the degree of detail present in most of the biblical prophecies. Consider Jesus' prophecy that Jerusalem would be destroyed within a single generation ( = 40 years to the day, just as it exactly happened), or St. John's prophecy that Rome would be destroyed by ten vassal barbarian tribes, or Daniel's prophecy that Christ would be born during the reign of the fourth empire to rule over Judaea, or Isaiah's prophecy that Christ would stay silent during his trial and would die as a sacrifice for the people, or any number of others. All of these prophecies, incidentally, were made before the fact.

Siarlys Jenkins said...

What both Leroy and Hector seem to miss is that Scripture is sacred, divine, authoritative, ONLY if it comes from God. Whatever various groups of humans may have thought about the authority of the Septuagint, it was not the original revelation from God.

The debate between Augustine and Jerome is on the same all-too-human level as debates within any well-grounded Communist Party as to which writings of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Mao, and their various expounders a given party chooses to accept as authoritative. Yes, Augustine can tell Jerome he has strayed from the documents The Church has chosen to array itself in.

But this begs the question if we are talking about divine authority or intention. Yishayahu first related the revelation entrusted to him in Hebrew, and it was first written down in Hebrew. Later translations are later translations. What God gave to Yishayahu was "alma," not "parthenos." A young wife in a consummated marriage, so long as she is pre-menopause, qualifies as an "alma."

You are all falling back on HUMAN authority, not on revelation from God.

Hector said...

Re: What God gave to Yishayahu was "alma," not "parthenos." A young wife in a consummated marriage, so long as she is pre-menopause, qualifies as an "alma."

Sigh. We have at least three independent, first-century textual sources that the mother of JC WAS, in fact, a "Parthenos". So shouldn't this settle the matter? If Isaiah had merely been saying 'a young woman will bear a child', then what would possibly have been 'prophetic', or even unusual, about that? It would be like saying 'the sun will rise tomorrow'.

Re: Whatever various groups of humans may have thought about the authority of the Septuagint, it was not the original revelation from God.

First century Jews believed that the translation of the Septuagint had, itself, been miraculous and guided by God, therefore the Septuagint was a sort of revelation of its own.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Letter_of_Aristeas

And for the record, the Septuagint is older than any Hebrew version of the OT around today, which (at least to my mind) makes the Septuagint a more reliable text.

Siarlys Jenkins said...

Let's assume that the mother of JC was parthenos. I generally accept that on the ground "don't mess with the stories." It doesn't matter a whole lot to me if she wasn't. I wouldn't suddenly stop being a Christian.

That doesn't mean that Yishayahu said "bethula." I'm not arguing with you over the virgin birth, I'm asking questions about the literary style of reinterpreting past writing as a harbinger of subsequent events. Mary was a virgin, BUT, that doesn't mean that Yishayahu said anything about it.

I think I already mentioned that Yishayahu was assuring King Achaz that his youngest wife was pregnant, and would bear a son, obviously before anyone including the lady herself had noticed. That's been the Jewish understanding from the time it was first enunciated and written down. The fact that Matthew didn't know that is another sign of his unfamiliarity with Jewish life and culture.

As to the Septaguint, don't even try to quote Wikipedia on the subject. Are you saying that God supernaturally edits Wikipedia to conform to His Holy Word??? I don't take the word of Talmudic scholars for the meaning and significance of the Gospels, for obvious reasons, but I do take them as the experts on the original Hebrew. They are quite certain they have received text older than the Septuagint, which makes sense, because the revelation was given in Hebrew, and the Septuagint was a translation that came later.

You're doing the same thing Matthew did. You have certain conclusions you passionately and devoutly believe, as premise, and you work your way backward insisting that all which came before must conform to what you a priori believe.

Mary was a virgin. Granted. But Yishayahu didn't say so.

Leroy said...

"What both Leroy and Hector seem to miss is that Scripture is sacred, divine, authoritative, ONLY if it comes from God. Whatever various groups of humans may have thought about the authority of the Septuagint, it was not the original revelation from God."

Again, these are claims that aren't simply axiomatic for Christians or Jews or both; indeed, most Christians and Jews throughout history would find them truncated at best.

Finally, I find this problematic: "It doesn't matter a whole lot to me if she wasn't [a virgin]. I wouldn't suddenly stop being a Christian."

To surrender that would be to surrender most of Christian faith, given the nexus between the Virgin Birth and the Incarnation.

Siarlys Jenkins said...

I'm afraid, Leroy, that your second paragraph is too obtuse for me to unravel. Let me try to answer it simply by saying, if two human beings argue over which of two or more writings are of divine authorship, then what we have is two human opinions about what God has commanded. Likewise, if two human beings argue over which translation properly conveys divine intent. That is why religious canons are no longer enforced by the coercive powers of the state in many nations, including our own.

C.S. Lewis, who would admittedly be horrified by much of what I assert, wrote in the introduction to The Screwtape Letters that the existence of devils, i.e. fallen angels, is one of his opinions. If it were somehow proved false, his Christian faith would not be shaken.

I don't believe ANY human being really understands the Incarnation. I accept that in order to communicate effectively with humanity, in order to bridge the unbridgeable gap between God and man ("you cannot see my face and live," "my ways are not your ways," "all fall short of the glory of God," the deity, or some temporarily separated part of the deity, took on human flesh. There is no particular reason this had to occur in the womb of a virgin, but that is part of the story. Biblical stories are told for a reason, and not to be lightly trifled with. Since I know nothing about how a virgin might give birth, I don't trifle with it. But God clearly could have given his only begotten son without the aid of a virgin, had God chosen to do so. Remember, Jesus's descent from King David was in Joseph's line, not Mary's. Matthew fudges this by saying Jesus "as was then supposed" the son of Joseph.