Tuesday, July 29, 2008

A Modern Messiah

I came across an excellent column today (thanks, Scott) that perfectly illustrates how messianic motifs can be appropriated for a charismatic leader. I don't usually post on current events as I'm generally not really paying attention, spending my days lost in contemplation of ancient texts. This, however, is a perfect blend of religion and politics delivered in my favorite humor genre -- satire. It's definitely worth your time to read "He ventured forth to bring light to the world" by Gerard Baker.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Musings on Messianic Motifs

My last post on Gabriel's vision rightly prompted a question about what all the fuss was about anyway. Is it threatening to Christianity like many of the media headlines seem to think? I don't think so. If it turns out that Knohl is correct in his reading (an unlikely event in my opinion), then it does nothing except add one more item to the list of the many ways that early Christianity built on its foundation in ancient Judaism.

I don't think it has the "Christianity is a rip-off" effect when we admit that Christianity is rooted in Jewish traditions. The New Testament account combines a number of different, distinct, separate, Old Testament (Hebrew Bible) motifs and applies them to the ministry of Jesus of Nazareth. Many of these are not overtly messianic but are often read as messianic by Christian interpreters viewing the text through the lens of the New Testament. The motifs of the Suffering Servant from Isa 53, the expected prophet like Moses of Deut 18, the priest like Melchizedek of Ps 110, and the Davidic messiah converged in NT interpretations of Jesus.

The issue of messianic expectation in the Hebrew Bible is complicated. The Hebrew word "messiah" is not consistently used in passages often considered to be messianic. One passage appears to speak of a dying messiah, Dan 9:26. However, the interpretation of the larger passage is difficult and I have a hard time leaping from 1 verse to stating that a dying messiah was expected in Second Temple Judaism. I'm still working through the evidence and the secondary literature on this subject, however.

Before the New Testament, I would argue that they are separate categories, not necessarily all linked to the Davidic messiah idea. In the Rule of the Congregation from Qumran, we have both a priestly and a kingly messiah. I think scholars aren't careful enough in keeping these categories separate. For example, the suffering servant motif is likely employed by Teacher of Righteousness in the Dead Sea Scrolls and applied to himself. I don't think this necessarily means he was attempting to tap into the current of messianic expectation connected to the Davidic or priestly messiahs. Therefore, works like Knohl's The Messiah Before Jesus: The Suffering Servant of the Dead Sea Scrolls are starting off on the wrong foot if they don't show that the expectation of a messiah and the separate motif of the Suffering Servant should be connected.

If a dying, rising, suffering messiah was expected, why does the NT present Jesus's death as a completely unexpected event that "freaked out" the disciples? The reason is that the NT interpretation is an innovation that combines numerous disparate motifs into an interpretive framework that fits the ministry of one and only one person as the messiah, Jesus of Nazareth.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Echoes of Mark 5 in Acts 9

I was reading Acts 9, the story where Peter raises Dorcas from the dead, and it reminded me of the story where Jesus resurrects Jairus's daughter in Mark 5. I wondered if Luke was intentionally trying to invoke a parallel or if it was coincidental. The circumstances are somewhat similar but what caught my attention was that Mark uses an Aramaic phrase.

Mark 5:41 Taking her by the hand he said to her, "Talitha cumi," which means, "Little girl, I say to you, arise."

The word for "little girl" talitha sounds very close to the Aramaic word for "gazelle" tabitha which was Dorcas's real name (dorcas being a Greek word for a kind of deer).

Acts 9:40 But Peter put them all outside, and knelt down and prayed; and turning to the body he said, "Tabitha, arise." And she opened her eyes, and when she saw Peter she sat up.

Unfortunately, the Greek verb for "arise" in the Acts verse is not the same verb as used at the end of Mark 5:41 when Mark translates the Aramaic phrase. However, I wonder if Luke had used an Aramaic phrase there in Acts 9 if he would have used the same word as in Mark 5. This logically raises another question - would Peter have been speaking to Dorcas in Greek or Aramaic? I think Aramaic is likely and the words were simply rendered into Greek for the report in Luke.

Or the similarity between the two passages might be coincidental. Or Mark may have intentionally used the Aramaic phrase to invoke a parallel with the Acts story. Whichever direction the echo may go, I think it's an interesting connection.

Honorable Mention

This blog has caught the attention of none other than Dr Jim West, quite possibly a bona fide godfather of biblioblogging with 5 posts already today before lunchtime. He has been gracious enough to link here and put me on the list at http://www.biblioblogs.com/. I only hope I can post quality content frequently enough to stay there. Of course, with the frequency of his posting, my honorable mention will only be on his front page for a few more hours. For those unfamiliar with Jim West's blog, he regularly posts insightful observations about everything from biblical studies to church history to popular crazy people in the contemporary church. I especially enjoyed a few recent posts about a conspiracy-theory laden Exodus documentary, here and here.

I should also mention that Biblia Hebraica was noticed this week as well by Jay Crisostomo at mu-pa'd-da. And finally, thanks to all who have added the blog to their blogrolls.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Gabriel's Vision Deja Vu

The discussion of the Vision of Gabriel tablet continues. Israel Knohl has now made his English translation available and draws attention to another article he's published in Hebrew on the subject. Details and links are available at Paleojudaica.

The media craze over the tablet sounded very familiar as I began reading John J. Collins's The Scepter and the Star this week.

On p. VI, he describes a similar situation from the early '90s:

"A headline in the English newspaper, the Independent, on September 1, 1992, p. 5, announced that a 'Scroll fragment challenges basic tenet of Christianity.' The reference was to the 'Son of God' text, which turns out to be rather less momentous than the headline would lead one to expect. The more sensational claims about these fragments, such as the discovery of a dying messiah in a pre-Christian Jewish text, or the claim that the 'Son of God' text undermines Christianity, turned out to be short-lived."

It's true. History repeats itself. On the other hand, the frenzy reignited my interest in the study of messianism in the Second Temple Period. I plan to read Collins and then Fitzmyer, The One Who Is to Come. Trying to sift through the important works on the subject has been challenging because so much has been written about what type of messiah the Jews were expecting before the first century CE. Much of it is written by New Testament specialists and their work is easy to miss because it tends to look theological or Christological instead of historical. It also raises an interesting question for me. Who's better suited to write about pre-Christian varieties of Judaism and messianism in Jewish literature before the first century CE -- New Testament specialists or Hebrew Bible specialists (who also tend to have expertise in Second Temple Judaism)? I have my own opinion on the subject, but anyone else want to share their thoughts?

Kindle Follow-up - A Logos and Amazon Team-up

I thought of a solution to my lament over the lack of biblical studies resources available for Kindle. It's so obvious that I don't know why I didn't think of it before. Logos and Bibleworks have a large number of relevant books available in digital format. Kindle is a device for reading digital books. If Logos and Bibleworks teamed up with Amazon to make their digital library formats readable on Kindle, we'd instantly have a large number of useful reference books and relevant biblical studies books available for Kindle. That doesn't solve the problem of how expensive the Logos modules tend to be but it might be worth it to have reference grammars like Jouon-Muraoka or the whole text of BHS available on this device, saving me the trouble of either firing up my laptop or carrying numerous books around.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Amazon Kindle

Yes, I said on Friday that I prefer real books to e-books and having a digital library on Logos, but for some reason, Amazon's Kindle device has caught my interest.

It would be more interesting to me if more of the books from my biblical studies top "To-Read" list were available in Kindle format. So far, I've only found David Carr's Writing on the Tablet of the Heart. There are others, but many are from that gray area of religion writing in between serious scholarly work and popular conspiracy theories. If I read Bart Ehrman, for example, I could get 5 of his books for Kindle. Unfortunately, my reading list is full of non-Kindled books like van der Mieroop's History of the Ancient Near East and John Collins's The Apocalyptic Imagination.

So, I'll save my money first. After all, the Kindle costs $360 and I'm sure they'll come out with a second-generation model before too long. Maybe by then more of the books I have to read will be available. This doesn't change my mind about Logos digital libraries, however. I could carry the Kindle everywhere. Logos would be stuck on my computer.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Logos Offering JNWS

A reader brought to my attention that Logos is offering an electronic edition of the Journal of Northwest Semitic Languages at a pre-order discount. For those of you amassing a huge digital library with Logos software, pre-ordering will bring the electronic version of the journal one step closer to reality. I personally prefer to use Bibleworks for original languages work. Logos is more expensive and I've found it less user-friendly. Of course, Bibleworks can't compete with the sheer number of books now available from Logos, but I prefer to have a real book in my hand over a digital library or e-book anyway. The pre-order price is only $129 for 26 issues. Or you can just go down to the library and read JNWS for free.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Studying Hebrew Bible at Wisconsin

Studying Hebrew at the University of Wisconsin - Madison is not for everyone.  Here are my thoughts on what we do best, what we dabble in, and what we don't do at all.

What We Do Best

1.  Hebrew, Hebrew, and more Hebrew.  You'll know the ins and outs of the language better than you ever thought possible or even necessary.  This is our biggest strength -- rigorous attention to the fundamentals of language.  By the end of PhD coursework, you'll be able to read Hebrew, Aramaic, Syriac, Ugaritic, Phoenician, Moabite, Ammonite, and Philistine Canaanite.  (Granted very little is written in the last 3 but it makes for a more impressive list.)

2.  Text & Versions.  We use our language skills to read and interpret ancient texts from the Hebrew Bible to the Dead Sea Scrolls to rabbinic midrash to Syriac homilies and much more.  We also spend a lot of time in the ancient versions of the Bible -- using the Septuagint, Peshitta, and Targums for text criticism.

3.  Northwest Semitics.  I mentioned above the other NW Semitic languages we learn.  This part makes the program about more than just Hebrew Bible and Hebrew language.  Through studying NW Semitics, we get access to the wider world of the Ancient Near East.  We read texts from Ugarit to Elephantine that help us understand the world of the Bible.

4.  Ancient Judaism.  Much of what we study provides a window into Judaism as it developed in the Second Temple period going into the Rabbinic period.  It's a fascinating time period to study as new genres of Jewish literature were developing such as apocalyptic.

What We Dabble In

1.  Biblical Archaeology.  This used to be a bigger part of the program and may be again someday.  For now, we're mainly armchair archaeologists.  We understand the basic principles of archaeology, but to be honest, we don't care what you dug up unless it has writing on it.

2.  Ideological Criticism.  No, not criticizing ideologies.  I'm thinking of methods of biblical criticism that intentionally take a specific perspective on the text like feminist criticism or libertarian criticism or canonical criticism or deconstructionism.  We learn about these methods, who uses them, and why, but we don't apply them ourselves.  We're more traditional that way.  Most of us prefer the methods outlined in Part One of To Each Its Own Meaning - historical-critical method, source criticism, form criticism, tradition history, and redaction criticism.  That doesn't mean we might not pick up ideas and perspectives from the "newer" criticisms.  Some of us like rhetorical criticism and intertextuality, for example.

3.  Ancient Near Eastern History.  We have to read pretty extensively in the subject for our exams, but our coursework only includes ANE history if it's relevant for the setting of a specific biblical book like First Isaiah and the Assyrian Empire or Ezekiel and Babylon.

What We Don't Do At All

1.  Akkadian or Arabic.  Yes, it's the Department of Hebrew & Semitic Studies, but it's really just Northwest Semitic Studies.  Plus we learn so many languages already, who has time for more?

2.  Theology.  We do exegesis on the biblical text but we're never doing theology.  We're interested in the history of interpretation of the text and in the beliefs that the writers or redactors may have had, but we're never trying to fit our exegesis into a theological system of any kind -- Jewish or Christian.  This is an issue for faith-based scholars because their exegesis might be limited by what conclusions fit their theology.  I think it's valuable to try to be objective, not preference any particular interpretation, and see how beliefs can subtly influence interpretations.

3.  Compete.  We've heard of other programs where competition is fierce and every student's first goal is to get rid of the closest classmate.  At Wisconsin, we realize that grad school here is tough enough without the fear that your friends are going to undermine your progress at the next available opportunity.  We prefer to encourage each other, study together when appropriate, and share information when relevant.  We think it creates a healthy environment for learning.

4.  Funding.  It's not that we don't have funding.  It's just that we don't have full funding for all like a lot of the larger programs do.  There are teaching and project assistantships available but there are often more students than positions.  For your first year, the chance of funding is virtually nil unless you're lucky enough to get a University fellowship.  This is important for tuition purposes.  If you're a non-resident of Wisconsin, tuition is around $21,000 per year.  A resident pays around $8500.  If Wisconsin is the place for you, think about moving here before you apply or at least talk to the Graduate Program Director about it or visit us first.

There you have it.  This is pretty much everything I would say to a prospective student visiting our department.  Now I can save myself the energy and just direct them to my blog.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

"Vision of Gabriel" Discussion Continues

Finally, the voice of reason found in an editorial by Hillel Halkin in the New York Sun. He sums up the issues and insightfully concludes that all the hoopla over this inscription shaking the foundations of Christianity is unfounded since no one was disputing that early Christianity built on traditions from Judaism anyway.

To track the discussion and the various media versions of the story, the Paleojudaica blog has a list of links and headlines. I especially found the comments here to be helpful also.

Of course, the possibility that the tablet is a forgery is being raised, too. I guess I don't understand the forger's mind if it is a forgery -- wouldn't you want your most controversial statements to be clear?

Monday, July 7, 2008

Another Hebrew Inscription

The study of ancient Hebrew had been getting a bit boring and predictable lately, so it's great that we now have another controversial Hebrew inscription to study. The NY Times has a story about a 3 foot tall stone tablet with 87 lines of Hebrew written in ink in two columns. It's being called "The Vision of Gabriel." Study of the tablet so far supports dating it to the late first century BCE. The tablet was published in BAR at the beginning of the year by Ada Yardeni who had previously published it with Binyamin Elitzur in Cathedra in 2007 in Hebrew.

The controversy stems largely from Israel Knohl's interpretation of the text. Knohl believes it describes a messiah-figure who dies and is resurrected three days later. Does anyone else think it's awfully convenient that his reconstructed reading supports his earlier controversial theory about the suffering servant image and messianism? Can we even trust Knohl to be truly objective with the evidence? I am constantly amazed at how very detailed, complicated theories can be built on very little evidence. For example, I have no doubt that the inscription involves messianic and angelic characters. The idea of resurrection, however, comes from the reconstruction of one word that must be spelled unusually to make that word fit the space. I'm skeptical. However, I'm hoping that the photograph in BAR is readable or that a high quality photo is made available soon so that the rest of us can get a closer look at this inscription.

I don't see an issue with admitting that the NT draws on numerous ideas current in first century Judaism about the Davidic messiah, the suffering servant, and the redemption of Israel. I don't believe that all the pieces were pulled together and applied to a single figure before Jesus. Even if Knohl's reading is correct, it doesn't seem to undermine Christian teachings just to admit that they built on traditions, motifs, and images already found in Judaism.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Text Criticism and Luke 4:18

I left the text critical issue of Luke 4:18 just hanging there unresolved in my last post. Basically, there are three possible variants for Isaiah 61:1 based on the witnesses of the MT, LXX, and NT. Each possible variant is individually supported by two witnesses. The phrase about the blind is found in the Greek witnesses, not in Hebrew. The phrase about the brokenhearted is found in Hebrew and in the LXX but is not in the NT. The ending phrase about freeing the oppressed is found in the Hebrew and the NT, not the LXX. I should point out that if you're using the KJV, everything is there. The Byzantine text type for the NT has restored the missing phrase about the brokenhearted. I've broken down the verse into phrases to more easily discuss what's there in each witness.

A. The Spirit of the LORD is upon me

B. because the LORD/he has anointed me

C. to bring good news to the poor

D. he has sent me

E. to bind up / heal the brokenhearted (missing from earliest NT mss, found in Byzantine-type)

F. to proclaim freedom to the captives

G. and recovery of sight to the blind (missing from MT)

H. and liberty to the prisoners/oppressed. (missing from LXX)

As noted above there are three text-critical issues here:

1. Line G: "Recovery of sight to the blind" could reflect a Hebrew variant derived from Isa 42:7. There is a thematic connection between 42:7 and 61:1 including some shared vocabulary.

2. The Greek versions are almost identical except for the oldest NT mss missing line E. Therefore, the NT isn't reflecting a completely different Greek translation.

3. LXX is missing line H which is found in NT.

I lined up the four versions in the original Greek and Hebrew and compared them closely. Here are my conclusions on how to best explain the variants.

1. Line G in the Greek versions probably comes from a real Hebrew variant inserted because of the influence of the similar subject matter of Isa. 42:7.
2. Line H likely reflects an early Greek marginal gloss correcting toward MT.
3. The LXX is the primary source of the NT quote.
4. The absence of line E from the oldest NT mss must reflect some type of scribal error. There is no reason to think it was deliberately omitted because it would have fit the context fine.
5. The uniformity of the various Greek versions suggests that the NT is not a homiletical quote or paraphrase.
6. The Byzantine text type restores line E which is expected following the general pattern of later mss to harmonize variants and "fix" the text.

So in this case, the later mss of the NT probably reflect the original text for line E but the Hebrew preserves the original when it comes to line G which was likely an insertion.

Reading the Book of Acts Intertextually

I’ve been on vacation, so to speak, for the last six weeks or so, recovering from my last full semester of graduate coursework. I hope to post on a weekly basis now, probably on Sundays or Mondays.

For this post, I’ve been thinking about intertextuality and interpretation again. While I’m skeptical about using intertextuality to determine how ancient readers were interpreting and connecting their texts, I find it satisfying as a reader to make connections between various texts, even if I can’t prove that the ancient writer intended those connections or that the ancient reader would have made the same connections. Intertextuality is really about the reader making those connections, not about the scholar identifying allusions that may (or may not) have been intended by the ancient writer targeting another ancient reader.

I especially enjoy reading the New Testament because new connections with the Hebrew Bible almost always occur to me. Some of these connections legitimately belong in the background of the New Testament. Directly or indirectly, they make up the conceptual worldview of a Jew from the first century CE. Some of them would certainly have informed the thinking of the early Christians. I can only suggest a connection, however. I can’t really prove that the NT writer was thinking of the connection or that an early NT reader would have made the connection. Intentional textual dependence and deliberate use seem to me to be impossible to prove without direct quotation or citation when we are dealing with a culture as religiously literate and text-focused as ancient Judaism or early Christianity.

I was recently reading in the Book of Acts where a new connection presented itself. There’s no specific textual marker connecting the passages, but there is a thematic connection. Acts 11 depicts the Apostle Peter commanded to spread the Christian message of salvation to the Gentiles (non-Jews). He reports back to the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem in vv. 15-18.

Acts 11:15-18 (ESV)

As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell on them just as on us at the beginning. 16 And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he said, 'John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.' 17 If then God gave the same gift to them as he gave to us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could stand in God's way?" 18 When they heard these things they fell silent. And they glorified God, saying, "Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life."

The Jewish Christians listen to Peter and acknowledge that God wants the Gentiles to believe and be saved as well as the Jews. When I read this, I wondered why they seemed surprised that God was widening the scope of salvation. It reminded me of Isaiah 42 where the Servant figure will “bring forth justice to the nations” (v. 1) and is given as a “covenant for the people, a light for the nations” (v. 6). In fact, several other places in Isaiah depict this concern for the nations, sometimes with the image of the nations worshiping Israel’s God (i.e., Isa. 2, 9, and 11). With the word for “nations,” we do have a minor verbal connection between the passages. The Hebrew goyim is translated in the Septuagint with a form of ethnos which is the same Greek word used for “Gentiles” in Acts. 11:18. It’s not the kind of marker that jumps off the page as a true allusion, though, because it is such a common word and the correspondence between the Greek and Hebrew for this word is typical.

It seemed to me that the early Christians should have been familiar with the imagery of Isa. 42:1-7 because the imagery seems to be clearly in the background of Isa. 61:1, especially when we look at the Septuagint Greek of Isa. 61:1 and the quoted text from Luke 4:18. In Luke, Jesus quotes Isaiah 61:1 and applies it to himself.

Luke 4:17-21 (ESV)

17 And the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written, 18 "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, 19 to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." 20 And he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21 And he began to say to them, "Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing."

Isaiah 42:6-7 (ESV)

6 "I am the Lord; I have called you in righteousness; I will take you by the hand and keep you; I will give you as a covenant for the people, a light for the nations, 7 to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.

Isaiah 61:1 (ESV)

The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound;

Isaiah 61:1 (translated from the Septuagint)

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me; he has sent me to preach good news to the poor, to heal the broken in heart, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind;

It should be apparent that Isa. 42 & 61 are dealing with similar subject matter. We also have the same textual difficulties that I’ve mentioned before when looking at Hebrew Bible quotes in the New Testament. The quoted version doesn’t exactly match the Septuagint or the Masoretic Text. The Septuagint and the New Testament both contain a phrase about the blind, missing from the MT but possibly a variant arising from the influence of Isa. 42:7. The Septuagint and the MT both have a phrase about the broken-hearted, missing from the NT quote. Finally, Luke’s quote ends with the freeing of prisoners, following the MT but with a phrase not in the Septuagint version.

It might appear that I’m going off track but remember where we’ve been. Acts 11:18 reminded me of Isaiah 42:1-7 which reminded me of Isaiah 61:1 which reminded me of Luke 4:18 that quotes it. So pondering the potential religious thought behind Acts 11:18 has led me to a number of inter-related passages. The Jewish Christians in Acts should have been familiar with Isaiah 42 because the Servant imagery is central to their interpretation of Jesus’ role and ministry. As proof that it should have been familiar, I offer Isaiah 61:1 which is explicitly quoted in the NT where Jesus explicitly takes on the anointed Servant role described by Isaiah. A closer look at the quote in Luke 4:18 has led me to a completely separate issue of textual criticism. The text critical issue is irrelevant for the question of intertextuality. For me it seems clear that the Servant imagery is appropriated by the NT in numerous places and that Acts 11 should be read with a consideration of the influence of passages like Isa. 42:1-7.

I can’t prove that any of this would have occurred to an ancient reader or that the writer of Acts was aware of these inter-connections, but it is satisfying as a reader to make those connections and point them out because it enriches the reading experience and allows for teaching opportunities to enrich the experience of others as they read the biblical text. Even if the first century audience didn’t make these exact connections, it seems likely that they made connections of this sort frequently. Therefore, learning to read intertextually helps you read the Bible a little more like the early Jewish Christians did.