Sunday, December 21, 2008

Behold, a Virgin shall be with Child . . .

...and so Matthew 1:23 invokes Isaiah 7:14 as foretelling the Virgin Birth - Jesus as the Son of God conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Isa. 7:14 (ESV)
Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign.
Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his
name Immanuel.
The interesting thing - if you read Hebrew - is that Isa. 7:14 does not use the common word specifically denoting a "virgin." Some say that this ambiguity shows that Isaiah didn't really have a miracle in mind. He wasn't thinking that a real virgin would conceive because he used a word that simply means "young woman." In fact, there was quite a fuss back when the RSV came out and translated Isa. 7:14 with "young woman" instead of "virgin." The translation itself was undermining the Virgin Birth!!! Or so the argument went. One of the revisions the ESV made to the RSV text was to translate with "virgin" again.

The problem is that the words for "young woman" and "virgin" in Hebrew and Greek overlap quite a bit in their semantic fields. The Hebrew word for "young woman" in Isa. 7:14 is 'almah. The more typical word that appears to mean "virgin" more specifically is betulah. The Septuagint (LXX) translated Isa. 7:14 using the word parthenos "virgin" - the more usual equivalent for betulah. So, the connotation of virginity in Isa. 7:14 entered the text more explicitly with the LXX, which was used in turn for the quotation in Matt. 1:23.

In an attempt to understand the semantic fields of 'almah and betulah more fully, I examined every occurrence of each in the Hebrew Bible and noted its rendering in the LXX. The first occurs only 7 times; the second occurs 50 times.

The LXX renders 'almah in two different ways - 4x with neanis "young woman", 1x with neotes "youth", and 2x with parthenos "virgin." On the other hand, betulah is rendered by parthenos 43 out of 50 times. Of the remaining seven, several are left out in translation and some use yet another word such as korasion "girl."

The usage of these two Hebrew words doesn't provide enough information to draw a line between them and say betulah implies virginity and 'almah is ambiguous. Both words are used to refer to unmarried young women who are either betrothed or eligible to be betrothed. The fact that they are eligible for marriage implies they are assumed to be virgins. We can't say betulah inherently implies virginity because the Hebrew writers felt compelled to make that explicit at times, following betulah with a phrase clarifying "who has not known a man" (see Gen. 24:16 and Judges 21:12 for examples).

The ESV, which seems to want 'almah to be "virgin" consistently in its translation, often uses "young woman" or "maiden" to render betulah. This usage highlights a similar overlapping semantic range in English. If you look up "maiden" and "virgin" in an English dictionary, you find that the primary meaning of "virgin" is a "person who has never had sexual intercourse", but the secondary meaning is "an unmarried girl or woman." Likewise, the word "maiden" refers to a "girl or unmarried woman" in its primary meaning, but "virgin" is a secondary meaning.

The problem is that most of the uses of 'almah and betulah don't provide enough context to determine whether a distinction was intended between "young woman" and sexual "virgin." My sense is that 'almah implies virginity because of the positive overtones of eligibility for marriage versus the shame and censure (for a woman) of extramarital sex. I finally found a pair of references indicating that 'almah and betulah are more or less synonymous. We think betulah is more specifically "virgin" simply because it occurs more frequently than 'almah.

Genesis 24 tells the story of how Abraham's servant found a wife for Isaac - Rebekah. Immediately after the servant had prayed that God would show him the right woman, he sees Rebekah coming out for water.
Gen 24:16 (ESV)
The young woman (na'arah) was very attractive in appearance, a maiden (betulah) whom no man had known. She went down to the spring and filled her jar and came up.
After the servant meets Rebekah and gets invited into her home, he retells the story of their meeting to her father and brother.
Gen 24:43 (ESV)
Behold, I am standing by the spring of water. Let the virgin ('almah) who comes out to draw water, to whom I shall say, "Please give me a little water from your jar to drink"
I think it's telling that this story presents the same event twice and uses both betulah and 'almah to refer to Rebekah. Both terms referred to an unmarried virgin woman.

In Isa. 7:14, the LXX is simply drawing out a logical connotation of the meaning of 'almah. From the perspective of Matthew, that explicit detail was precisely the right interpretation.

Update: Ben Witherington also posted on the Virgin Birth on Dec. 12 and addressed some of the same issues of terminology that I've raised. I skimmed his post back then but hadn't looked at it again before finishing my post. If you're interested in more on this issue, go there.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

"Proof" of Noah's Flood Discovered ... Again

Great news, everyone! We've finally found proof of the Biblical flood story . . . again. But I think this is a new theory to explain the flood story, so that's exciting . . . sort of . . . if it wasn't so farfetched and wrong . . . and driven by a bit of dilettantism.
The Jerusalem Post Online Edition
Around Israel
Dec 10, 2008 0:27 - Updated Dec 10, 2008 6:53

Did Noah's Flood start in the Carmel?

A deluge that swept the Land of Israel more than 7,000 years ago,submerging six Neolithic villages opposite the Carmel Mountains, is the origin of the biblical flood of Noah, a British marine archeologist said Tuesday.

The new theory about the source of the great flood detailed in the Book of Genesis comes amid continuing controversy among scholars over whether the inundation of the Black Sea more than seven millennia ago was the biblical flood.

In the theory posited by British marine archeologist Dr. Sean Kingsley and published in the Bulletin of the Anglo-Israeli Archaeological Society, the drowning of the Carmel Mountains villages - which include houses, temples, graves, water wells, workshops and stone tools - is
by far "the most compelling" archeological evidence exposed to date for Noah's flood.

"What's more convincing scientifically, a flood in the Black Sea, so far away from Israel and the fantasy of a supposed ark marooned on the slopes of Mount Ararat, or six submerged Neolithic villages smack-bang in the middle of the Bible Land?" Kingsley said in a telephone interview with The Jerusalem Post.

He added that the site, which has been excavated by Israeli archeologist Dr. Ehud Galili over the last quarter-century, offers a "pretty convincing cocktail of coincidences," including submerged
layers of villages in a critical location, and one that was known for its nautical revolution.

But Galili rejected Kingsley's theory, saying Tuesday that it could not be true.

"Based on our archeological finds, the village was not abandoned due to a catastrophic event, but due to the slow rise of sea levels which occurred all over the world," he said. "The pace of the increase in the sea level was very slow, so that it would not be significant enough for people to remember it in the course of their lifetime."


Kingsley, a self-declared atheist, said he had begun studying the origins of Noah's flood five years ago as a result of his interest into "how mythologies came into existence," as well as a desire to connect the biblical story with global warming.
Hmm...I tend to be suspicious of people who study the Bible because of a desire to connect it with current controversial issues.

Add this one to the growing list of potential candidates for the biblical flood. A local flood in Israel around Carmel doesn't explain most of the details of the biblical flood story OR the parallels with other flood stories in ANE literature anyway. This is just standard pop biblical archaeology: get people's attention by making a connection to the Bible. The connection will be called into question immediately after the lead-in, but they achieved their goal - getting us to read it.

Read the rest of the article here if you're interested.

Via Jack Sasson.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

SBL: Rainey's "Levantine Literary Reservoir"

Back at SBL on 11/22, I was sitting in the Ugaritic Studies & Northwest Semitic Epigraphy Section from 9:00-11:30 am. The third presenter was Anson Rainey, and his presentation seemed to be a continuation or elaboration of his recent BAR article on Israelite origins. (To keep my Guild membership intact, I must confess that I only read BAR to find things to debunk and argue with.) I covered that article back in October and raised several issues that Rainey addressed in the SBL talk such as the Canaanite shift and the relationship among the NW Semitic dialects in the area.

In his SBL presentation, Rainey immediately reiterated his position that Hebrew was not a Canaanite dialect. It is most closely related to Moabite and Aramaic. Only Phoenician is Canaanite. This seems to be just playing with terminology and forcing a split among what were otherwise closely related people groups in terms of language and material culture. Remember that Rainey himself had brought up in BAR the evidence for continuity of pottery styles from the Canaanite coast to the central hill country to the Transjordan. In this presentation, he appealed to work by D.N. Freedman who had concluded that Israelite Hebrew was a Canaanite dialect, but Judean Hebrew was not. Rainey claimed that the isoglosses connecting Israelite Hebrew and Phoenician were also found in Moabite and Old Aramaic.

He was trying to strengthen his case for the origin of Hebrew in Transjordan. In my response to his BAR article, I pointed out that the affinities between Hebrew and Moabite are likely the result of Hebrew influence on Moabite, not evidence of common origin in Transjordan. Rainey, however, used this occasion to assert that the Israelites came from pastoralists migrating westward, not disgruntled Canaanites moving eastward from the coast. My main concern with his theory is the fact that it was constructed precisely to provide this sort of counterpoint to the indigenous Canaanite "peasant revolt" version of Israel's origins.

The purpose of the SBL talk was to develop an explanation for how the Hebrew Bible came to have such strong links with Canaanite literature if in fact, they were not Canaanites.

He began by distinguishing Ugaritic from Canaanite. Ugaritic is not Canaanite, but they share a parallel culture. There is no chance that later writers had Ugaritic tablets in front of them, so there must be another explanation for the parallels between Ugaritic texts and Hebrew poetry, especially Isaiah and Psalms. Rainey's answer is that these traditions were inherited from the "Levantine literary repetoire." (He used repetoire and reservoir interchangeably in this phrase.) This body of literature must have existed by 14th century BCE in Canaan.

So, the story goes - the pastoralists migrated in the 12th century BCE into the hill country of central Canaan. There are parallels of pottery and culture between Transjordan and the rest of Canaan and Phoenicia during the Iron Age. (At this point, I was wondering what specific evidence we have, material or linguistic, for making fine distinctions between people groups and language groups during the Iron Age.) Then, they adopted the Phoenician alphabet and started writing.

At this point in the discussion, Rainey addresses the problem of the Canaanite shift. He discusses examples from 15th century BCE Amarna letters and the 13th century Papyrus Anastasi to move the date of the Canaanite shift much later. The only positive evidence he offers comes from the 10th and the 7th centuries. One problem with his attempt to re-date the Canaanite shift is that most of his evidence comes from transcriptions of West Semitic names into Akkadian or Egyptian. How reliable are place names for dating sound change? Proper names tend to be insulated from sound change and preserve an older pronunciation longer. I believe Rainey's Canaanite shift theory was related in some way to the accented syllable, but he kind of lost me there as I was contemplating whether or not names were good evidence.

He appeals to the story of Elijah at Carmel from 1 Kings 18 to show that Elijah could be alluding to things that were generally known about Baal (known because of the common literary heritage of the area). The story is used to show the approximate timing when the Levantine literary corpus could have influenced Israelite literature. Rainey believes the 8th century texts of the Hebrew Bible have the closest parallels with Ugaritic literature. Therefore, this is likely the most fruitful period of Phoenician literary influence. His examples included Isa 22:15, Isa 27:1, Psa 74, and Isa 51. There are parallels even though they didn't know about Ugarit because of the shared literary tradition in the Levant. Hebrew writers are borrowing from the Cisjordanian literary reservoir at a time when diplomatic cooperation with the coastal Canaanites is high and one could only expect the stories to be shared among people working closely together. In this way, Rainey has explained the parallels between the Hebrew Bible and Canaanite literature without requiring the Israelites to have originally been Canaanites. The borrowing was based on areal influence, not genetic relationship.

I actually have no problem with the theory that there was a body of shared literary tradition known among the literati of Syria-Palestine. I'm not sure how it bolsters the case of Transjordanian Israelite origins, but during the questions following the presentation, it became clear that what Rainey really would like to prove is that the ultimate origins of Israel are with some proto-Aramean group in the Middle Euphrates region of Mesopotamia, not Transjordan at all.

I do have a problem with Rainey's subtle attempts to re-draw the map of the dialect geography of Syria-Palestine and to re-date the Canaanite shift. I'm pretty sure there's evidence of the Canaanite shift before the 10th century that he must have forgotten to mention.