Sunday, December 24, 2017

In the beginning God created the heavens and the underworld

I've thought quite a bit about Hebrew cosmology. Not as much as some, but probably more than the average Jane or Joe. But Scott Noegel just published an essay in Hebrew Studies that seemingly states the obvious ("God of Heaven and Sheol," HS 58 (2017):119-44), but hadn't even crossed my mind until Noegel made the case.

It's well known that the Hebrew word ארץ (eretz) has several meanings, including the entire habitable earth, a tract of land, and the underworld, among others. In Hebrew cosmology, the heavens are the height of the cosmos, and the underworld represents its lowest extremity. This concept is evident in a number of poetic passages in the Hebrew Bible, including, for example, Ps 139:8

If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. (NRSV)

Most interpreters agree that the theological assertion in Gen 1:1 is that God created everything, not just heaven and earth. This idea of an expression representing a totality is called a merism, a rather common feature in the Bible and in ancient Near Eastern texts. 

Noegel suggests that the merism in Gen. 1:1 makes more sense if we understand eretz as the underworld, rather than the entire habitable earth. In other words, God created the heavens and the underworld, from the height of the cosmos to its depth.

He admits he doesn't expect to see any changes in Bible translations anytime soon. But, as more evidence from the ANE comes to light we need to be prepared to adjust traditional readings accordingly, as we have already done with many, many way.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Genesis 1-11 (Review)

Earlier this summer John Hobbins generously offered to send me a copy of his book (co-authored with Samuel L. Bray), Genesis 1-11: A New Old Translation for Readers, Scholars, and Translators (Glossahouse, 2017). I am under no obligation to offer a review of the book, but I am more than happy to do so.

Bray and Hobbins have divided the book into three sections: Before the Translation, The Translation, and After the Translation. While this is a helpful organizational structure, the bulk of the book's content is comprised of (1) Translation (pp. 19-38); (2) Notes "to the persistent reader" (41-64); and (3) Translation "notes" (65-200). The book contains many helpful resources, including "Dramatis Personae," glossary, abbreviations, works cited, and five indices: subjects, ancient sources, translations, authors, and stories & genealogies.

1. Translation
Bray and Hobbins affirm a strict commitment to the Masoretic Text (MT) as preserved in Codex Leningradensis (Codex L). This is not to say that they ignore ancient sources or blindly ignore textual challenges within the MT. However, they it is also true that they don't immediately appeal to other textual witnesses whenever a difficulty arises. Their modus operandi is to make as much sense of the MT as possible, but utilize the versions where necessary for clarity.

Adhering to Codex L also means that Genesis 1-11 does not actually end at 11:32. Following the section breaks of Codex L, Bray and Hobbins conclude their translation at 12:9.

The translation itself takes great pains to be faithful to the original text, not just in meaning, but also according to Hebrew literary techniques (puns, assonance, alliteration) and diachrony. Genesis 1-11 is replete with etymological word-plays, particularly with names. The authors helped readers make the link by use of italics. 
"Now the man knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain, saying, 'I have gained a man through the Lord'." (Gen. 4:1). 
Diachrony, the use of archaic spellings in Hebrew, is cleverly demonstrated by archaic spellings in English, such as "Aethiopia," "beastes" and "brynge."

Often, Bray and Hobbins "default" to traditional translations, but not without considering the alternatives, which are discussed under "Notes." However, even when traditional translations are favored, the authors often add their own twist on well-established verses by providing an alternative vocabulary word or change in word order.
"In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was void and desolate, and darkness was over the face of the waters... (Gen 1:1-2).

At other times, they completely break from any tradition, giving the text an awkward freshness.
"And the ark rested in the seventh month, on the seventeenth day of the month, upon the mountains of Urartu" (Gen. 8:4). 

2. To the Persistent Reader
Following the translation, the authors give some insights into some of the methodological decisions they made. Some readers may have wished for these notes to precede the translation, but I understand the authors' rationale for its placement as many of their explanations only make sense after the fact. 

3. Notes
This section serves two functions. First, it affords the authors the opportunity to explain their interpretive decisions. Second, it allows them to pull insights (etymological, linguistic, intertextual, and other) from the text that might otherwise be missed.

Most commentaries due well to engage with the ancient textual sources, and as I said above, Bray and Hobbins do not neglect these sources. But none that I have encountered engage the vast array of modern translations as Bray and Hobbins do, from Robert Altar to the Zurich Bible, as well as every conceivable English translation. This survey of modern translations is extremely helpful in tracing some of the translational traditions we are now stuck with. See for example, their discussion on Gen. 4:6-7:
For Hebrew robetz traditional renderings include "lieth" (KJV), coucheth (RV), and "is couching" (RSV). In the middle of the twentieth century, English translations moved en masse from "couching" to an orthographically similar but unrelated word "crouching." (p. 130).

In short, Genesis 1-11 is a great resource for students, teachers, and translators of the so-called Primeval History. Hebraists will likely take exception with decisions here or there. In fact, I had a few disagreements myself (e.g. I would have translated yom echad as "one day," rather than "a first day;" but I was very happy that days 2-5 were translated as "a second day," etc; I prefer "sea creatures" for tanninim, instead of "whales"). As a whole, however, the book is a pleasure to read, demands that the reader pay close attention to the text, and offers many a useful (at times profound) insight into the biblical text.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Adam and the Genome (Review)

The question of human origins and its implications for biblical interpretation has caused much consternation for well over a century. Charles Darwin did not invent the idea of evolution by natural selection. Just read his introduction to On the Origin of Species and you'll see that his ideas were not particularly novel. What Darwin did, though, was provide an elegant and detailed explanation for the process. Some within the church immediately balked at Darwin's theory. Others were so compelled by his work that they had to reconsider their own interpretations of Genesis 1-2 in light of it. 

The theory of evolution is not going anywhere. In fact, rather than becoming less stable as a hypothesis, it is now firmly entrenched in the scientific community as "theory," which in the sciences is about as close to a knowable reality there is without it being "law." Jamie Tanner, professor of biology at Marlboro College explains scientific theory this way:

Most people use the word 'theory' to mean an idea or hunch that someone has, but in science, the word 'theory' refers to the way we interpret facts...For example, we have ample evidence of traits in populations becoming more or less common over time (evolution), so evolution is a fact but the overarching theories about evolution, the way that we think all of the facts go together might change as new observations of evolution are made.

Rather than casting doubt on evolutionary theory, new fossil discoveries and most importantly, the mapping of the human genome, only make the theory more compelling.

In Adam and the Genome: Reading Scripture after Genetic Science, Dennis Venema and Scot McKnight have done the church and the scientific community a great service. Venema is professor of biology at Trinity Western University and wrote the first four chapters looking at the biological, fossil, and genetic evidence that overwhelmingly supports human descent by evolution. McKnight, professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary, tackles the theological implications in the final four chapters.

For Venema, human descent through evolution is without dispute. He patiently walks the reader through the world of biology and genetics (with some paleontology thrown in for good measure) and demonstrates how and why biologists make the claims they make. He shows how evolution not only explains certain biological phenomena, but predicts certain outcomes. Venema also takes issue with the Intelligent Design movement, arguing that ID simply ignores too many data. Venema concludes with this:

[A]s I reflected on what Scripture says about creation, I came to view ID as counter to its witness. In Romans 1 Paul declares that observing creation bespeaks a creator...Creation reveals the Creator, and we are without excuse. Learning more about how that  creation works only deepens our wonder. To paraphrase Bonhoeffer, Paul calls us to see God in what we know, not in what we don't know--and as science reveals ever more about creation, we know more and more about how God chose to bring his creation into being (pp. 90-91).

McKnight's chief goal is remove the shackles of culture and tradition from the biblical text so that we might read the Bible on its own terms. After taking the readers on a journey through the world of the Ancient Near East, McKnight shows how the literary Adam (and Eve; he's always careful to remind us that Eve is generally forgotten to later interpreters of Genesis) is treated in the Jewish interpretive tradition. This tradition can be summarized as follows:

Adam is the paradigm or prototype or archetype of the choice between the path of obedience and that of disobedience, the path of Torah observance and that of breaking the commandments, the path of Wisdom and Mind and Logos and the path of sensory perceptions and pleasure and bodily desires. The Adam of the Jewish tradition is depicted very much as the moral Adam...In some of these interpretive traditions Adam comes off more positively than in others, but in each of them Adam is not just the first human being (the literary-genealogical Adam) but also the first sinner, whose sin had an impact on those who followed him (p. 169)

McKnight concludes with an assessment of the "historical" Adam in chapter eight. Through careful analysis of Romans 5:12-21 and 1 Corinthians 15:21-22, 45-49, McKnight concludes that the Adam of Paul is not a "historical" Adam, at least not in the sense that Paul would have thought that Adam (and Eve) have a biological relationship to all humanity by shared DNA. 

Perhaps most important in McKnight's discussion, however, is challenging the Augustinian view (via Jerome's mistranslation of Rom. 5:12) that we are all sinners because Adam sinned. Rather, McKnight argues, we are all sinners because we all sin: "each human being stands condemned before God as a sinner because each human being sins as did Adam (and Eve)" (p. 187).

In summary, Adam and the Genome provides a great entry into the theological implications of genetic science. As a non-scientists, I was able to follow most of what Venema had to say about genetics, and McKnight's chapters were equally accessible for the lay theologian. 

Monday, June 19, 2017

The Old Testament is Dying

While a student at Asbury Theological Seminary in the late 1990s, I had the privilege of working as Brent Strawn's research assistant. At the time, he was ABD at Princeton Theological Seminary, so I was tracking down every conceivable lion reference in primary and secondary sources. What I know about research I owe in large measure to those two semesters under Strawn's tutelage.

In the nearly 2 decades since, Strawn has written on a wide array of biblical and theological topics, has gained tenure and earned full professorship at Candler School of Theology at Emory University, and is a frequent guest on CNN as an expert on religious topics.

As a professor (associate level) of Old Testament, myself, I was eager to read Strawn's latest book, The Old Testament is Dying: A Diagnosis and Recommended Treatment. Using the analogy of language adaptation and language death, Strawn demonstrates that the Old Testament is in danger of becoming a dead language. In fact, earlier this week, Christianity Today published a story that seemingly confirms Strawn's thesis: even Christian theologians vastly ignore the content of the Old Testament!

Strawn tackles the topic in three parts. Borrowing from his patient healthcare analogy, Part One is composed of the battery of tests run on the patient called the Old Testament. These tests include inclusion of the OT in sermons, hymns, and the Revised Common Lectionary. According to Strawn, the results have come back positive, meaning the patient appears to be terminally ill. In Part Two, Dr. Strawn confirms the lab results with the patient's symptoms, manifest most prominently in New Atheism, Neo-Marcionism, and what he calls "Happyiologists" (purveyors of the prosperity gospel). In Part Three, the good doctor offers a course of treatment that, if properly administered, could save the dying patient. In short, although the OT is in critical condition, the patient can make a full recovery.

No doubt, The Old Testament is Dying will (or, should) receive plenty of publicity, so I won't attempt to offer a full, detailed review here. Instead, let me briefly say why it's well worth your time.

First, Strawn lays out a clear-cut case for loss of the OT language in (particularly) Western Christianity. His analogy with pidgin languages and creoles is impressively effective at driving this point home. Too often people think they speak OT, but they only know some vocabulary, but not its syntax; or their vocabulary and syntax is syncretized with the vocabulary and syntax of another religious language. For the OT to remain a living and distinct language, it needs to retain its syntax and most of its vocabulary.

Second, living languages are not stagnant languages. They adapt to new environs and adopt loan-words from contact langauges. English from the 16th century is not the same as English from the 21st century, but they are both English. By demonstrating through multiple examples how the OT was appropriated variously in different circumstances in later biblical texts, Strawn demonstrates that the language of the OT is a living, malleable language, but it is still OT language.

Finally, Strawn's treatments in Part Two ("Signs of Morbidity") are worth the price of the book alone. Here he deals with three of the most important theological issues facing OT studies today (and Christian theology, for that matter). Although there have been other, longer attempts at addressing New Atheism, modern iterations of the heresy of Marcion, and the heresy of the Prosperity Gospel, these three chapters (chs. 4, 5, 6) are thorough, precise, and nuanced, yet succinct enough so as not to become burdensome.

In my final evaluation of the book, Strawn has done an exemplary job of demonstrating not just the need for OT literacy, but how to (re-)instill OT language skills on the tongues of our youth. The arguments are straightforward and not overly complicated, and Strawn's style is, on the whole, engaging and interesting. At times the vocabulary might be challenging for undergraduates. As such, instructors at undergraduate institutions interested in using the book for an OT survey course will need to take that into consideration as they contemplate its adoption as a course textbook. It should pose no problems for seminary students.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Latest Links on Kyleinschriften

The repository of resources here on Kyleinschriften continues to grow. Here's a sampling of some of the latest:

"The center for Ancient Middle Eastern Landscapes (CAMEL) is dedicated to facilitating the work and the interests of individuals in this critical area of the world by providing access to and examining an expanding archive of contemporary and historical spatial data pertaining to both the ancient and modern Middle East."

Cuneiform Bibliography
Operated by the University of Tubingen (so, yes, it's in German), this site contains thousands of works dedicated to cuneiform studies. The bibliography is organized by year (present to 1939), and alphabetized within each year.

Resources on Science and Christian Faith
"We have prepared mini-courses on a variety of faith and science topics using resources from our journal, Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith (formally Journal of the American Scientific Affiliation) and from presentations from our annual meetings. Click on one of the categories below to find readings, audio recordings, and videos that have been selected from our collection to introduce you to a particular topic. We encourage you to proceed through the collection in the order presented and write answers to the study questions in a personal journal. These study questions can also be used in a conversation with another person or in a discussion in a small group. Use the search form to find faith/science topics and authors that may interest you."

Septuagint Online
"NETS is a new translation of the Greek Jewish Scriptures, entitled A New English Translation of the Septuagint and the Other Greek Translations Traditionally Included Under that Title (and abbreviated as NETS). This project is being carried out under the ægis of The International Organization for Septuagint and Cognate Studies (IOSCS). The translators are specialists in Septuagint studies. Their translations follow rigorous procedures established by the editors. Oxford University Press publishes the translation. An accompanying commentary series is also planned."

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Naked Bible

Mike Heiser recently sent me an email introducing to his podcast webpage, The Naked Bible. Mike is a scholar in the fields of biblical studies and the ancient Near East. He is the Scholar-in-Residence at Logos Bible Software. Mike earned the M.A. and Ph.D. in Hebrew Bible and Semitic Languages at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2004. He has also earned an M.A. in Ancient History from the University of Pennsylvania (major fields: Ancient Israel and Egyptology).

There's some really useful stuff on this site, especially for the lay person looking for a deeper understanding of the Bible in its original context, or the Bible teacher who may not have the training or tools to get at that information.

I've added "Naked Bible" to the list of resources in the left column.

Here's a sample video:

Friday, August 5, 2016

Book Review: What Christians Ought to Believe (by Michael Bird)

I grew up in a semi-credal Protestant church. We sang the doxology after the offering, received a benediction to close the service, and followed a fairly strict order of worship. But we did not recite the creeds. Thankfully, I had Rich Mullins to get me through wedding masses or visits to the churches of my Presbyterian and Methodist friends. Although my home church was by no means "low church," the Apostles' Creed was not part of our liturgy (nor was the word "liturgy" part of my vocabulary). Since my days in seminary, though, I've not only come to appreciate the creeds of the Church, but see their necessity.

As my teenagers inch closer to jumping out of the nest, it has become more and more apparent that I have done a woeful job in articulating the doctrines of the Church to them. We have had conversations, and I try to make it a point of speaking theologically to them when opportunities arise, but they have had no systematic training in Church doctrine (which is why I am now also now a strong proponent of some form of catechesis). So, when I saw Michael Bird's new book, What Christians ought to Believe: An Introduction to Christian Doctrine Through the Apostles' Creed, I immediately ordered it from Amazon, and quickly read through it. I thought, "This could be just what I need to fill the gap in my kids' theological education!" And I was right.

But, I really underestimated the value of Bird's book. Maybe it's because he's an Australian, or maybe it's because he's a New Testament scholar rather than a theologian. Regardless, What Christians ought to Believe does an outstanding job of using the Apostles' Creed to explain the Christian faith from a biblical and historically theological perspective. Bird naturally discusses the Creator, the Virgin Birth, the suffering of Christ under Pontius Pilate, and the life everlasting. After all, these are mentioned quite explicitly in the Apostles' Creed. But, he also takes the opportunity afforded by the Creed to discuss the Trinity, the life and ministry of Jesus, and atonement, among other critical doctrines of the faith.

What I love most about this book is that Bird makes a strong effort to be ecumenical in his approach. He does not take pot-shots at various denominations; rather he lauds each of them for their contributions to the catholicity of the Church.

Diversity, even theological diversity, can mean riches for the body of Christ since we are forced to expand our horizons beyond our own faith and practices. Other traditions can help us overcome the blind spots in our own tradition. Catholics remind us of the ancient roots of the church. Baptists remind us that Christians are Bible people and the church is for believers. Methodists remind us about the importance of piety and personal holiness. Presbyterians remind us about God's sovereignty and God's covenant promises. Pentecostals remind us that God's Spirit is still with us and not on sabbatical. Anglicans remind us to hold together the catholicity of our ancient faith with the protest of our Protestantism. Lutherans remind us to remain true to justification by faith. Even among these diverse fellowships, the fact that they can all recite the Apostles' Creed is proof that there is still one church professing a common faith in one God, through one Lord, in the power of one Spirit. (p. 198)

So, how did I underestimate the value of this book? It's not just for my teenagers who are lacking formal theological education. It's for pastors, needing a refresher on why they do what they do. It's for church small groups and Sunday School classes. It's for church membership and baptism classes. It's for Christian high school students AND teachers. It's for Christian college faculty and staff who know the four spiritual laws, but not the three persons of the Trinity. Finally, What Christians ought to Believe, is the perfect book for College freshmen and sophomores majoring in business, music, education, psychology, or underwater basket-weaving who are forced to take an Intro to Theology course. The book is easy to read (and often fun!), and guides them through the doctrines they need to learn, love, and live.