What is “character” in Romans 5:4?

In Romans 5, St. Paul strings together several virtues wherein each leads to the next. Here’s the passage:

More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame…(Romans 5:3-5a)

This is one of those passages that could simply sound like a nice saying, rather than having theological meat on the bones. I was especially interested in what Paul means by “character.” What is that? 031303-N-3228G-001.jpg

The Greek word for character is dokime (δοκιμη). This word is related to a bunch of words all having to do with approval: dokimazo (to prove or scrutinize), dokeo (to think, suppose), dokimos (accepted). The word has to do with outside approval. Paul is not talking about self-esteem, but moral approval by others–I think we are safe to say, especially the moral approval of God.

Notably Paul uses the word several other times: 2 Cor 2:9, 8:3, 9:13; Phil 2:22. He places an emphasis on this idea of testing or proving one’s character. For him, the true test of character is suffering. If a person can endure “affliction” or persecution or suffering for the sake of the Gospel and maintain their faithfulness to the truth, then they are “approved.” Interestingly, Liddell-Scott-Jones does not cite examples of this word prior to St. Paul. Perhaps it was a favorite of his.

This whole concept reminds me of spy movies where a spy is captured and tortured for information. The heroic ones stick it out and keep their mouth shut, while the cowards cough up secrets before the pain is too much for them to bear.

To me, this is why experience is so valuable. A person with great experience of life who has kept the faith stands as an example of proven character. Not all Christians will suffer at the hands of persecutors, but perseverance in the face of any suffering, whether through physical illness, moral trials or even emotional pain, can be an occasion for spiritual growth and growth in dokime.

 

 
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From Sea to (Shining) Sea

BlackBallDuring this Fourth of July Week, I thought a little reflection on an Old Testament conundrum that connects with some American patriotic poetics would be appropriate, so here goes: A mysterious phrase crops up three times in the Old Testament that has proved to be, well, a bit unsolvable. The phrase is “from sea to sea” and shows up in these passages. (I should note however, that the early Canadians tried to co-opt this phrase themselves in their coat of arms, which includes the Latin a mari usque ad mare. :-)  )

May he have dominion from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth! (Ps 72:8 ESV)

They shall wander from sea to sea, and from north to east; they shall run to and fro, to seek the word of the LORD, but they shall not find it. (Amos 8:12 ESV)

I will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall speak peace to the nations; his rule shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth. (Zech 9:10 ESV)

The trouble with this little phrase is that it seems to denote a geographical reality, but scholars have pounded their heads against the wall to figure out exactly what geographical reality we’re talking about.

Exegetical Nitpicking

It wouldn’t be right to pass over the passages and on to the dictionaries to solve the problem, so first we have to engage in a little nitpicky investigation. Notice that in the Psalm 72 and Zech 9 passages, the phrase is appended by another stock phrase “from the River to the ends of the earth.” In each of those two cases we’re talking about a messianic king reigning from Jerusalem and establishing dominion. One would expect such passages to recall the ideal borders of the Holy Land (Deut 1:5; Josh 1:3-4) and say something like “He’ll have dominion from Dan to Beersheba!” But instead, we get these other features. The only easy one to identify is “the River”, which is the Euphrates–I don’t think any scholar dissents from this view. The “ends of the earth” which could just mean “everywhere really far away” has sometimes been identified with the Atlantic exit from the Mediterranean, Gibraltar. In the Amos passage, we have something different. We’re not talking about ideal reigns or borders, but starving people roaming for food and “from sea to sea” is a convenient way of saying “helter skelter” or “higgledy-piggledy.”

The Options

Ok, so what are the options for explaining “from sea to sea”?

1. The most common sense option, from my view, is to consider one of the seas to be the Mediterranean and one to be the Indian Ocean or one of its offshoots (Persian Gulf, Red Sea). We don’t have a complete understanding of how the ancient thought about their geography, but those two HUGE bodies of water seem to be the logical choices for me.

2. One could say: Mediterranean sea to Gulf of Aqaba

3. Or: Mediterranean sea to Dead Sea.

4. BUT, the problem is those seas are actual things. “The ends of the earth” may not be. You can’t go on vacation there. Othmar Keel offers an interesting perspective in his important book Symbolism of the Bible here:

Keel uses an artifact called The Babylonian Map of the Woooooooorld (cue big voice radio guy) to show how the ancients understood their geographic position. In a GPS-free world, things can get confusing! There’s a disk of land, surrounded by a circle of water–all land being like a big island. While there’s some truth to this–continents are really just enormous islands–it makes our “sea to sea” thing a bit different. The idea here might be more to say “everywhere in the whole wide world!” which would comport with the “ends of the earth” idea our phrase is combined with in Ps 72 and Zech 9. Another scholar has examined this point and defended this view further: Magne Saebø,  “Vom Grossreich zum Weltreich: Erwägnungen zu Pss 72:8, 89:26; Zech 9:10b,” Vetus Testamentum 28(1978): 83-91. Saebø digs deeper and tries to explain how an ancient formula for describing a territory using east-west, north-south terms (like we might say “coast to coast and border to border”) has now expanded to account for the entire world in a way that doesn’t exactly make sense.

To me, the last option, while not easy to arrive at is probably the best one. Perhaps more archaeological digs and research will give us more examples or clues to explain the “from sea to sea” phrase more closely. When we hear of the messianic king reigning from sea to sea, we should be thinking something like “everywhere!!” 

That’s your Independence Day edition of the Catholic Bible Student. Enjoy it from sea to sea!

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St. Augustine and the Memory Palace

I have talked about memory and memorization before, but not about the Memory Palace. What brought it to mind was this passage from Book X of St. Augustine’s Confessions:Illuminated_Manuscripts_(Middleton)_figure00

And I come to the fields and spacious palaces of my memory, where are the treasures of innumerable images, brought into it from things of all sorts perceived by the senses.

While St. Augustine is waxing eloquent about the beauty and power of memory, he drops this line which contains a relatively inconspicuous idea that is incredibly profound: the Memory Palace.

Several writers have explored the concept of the Memory Palace, how and why to build one, but let me simply just get at what it is: A Memory Palace is an imaginary building you can make in order to store information. Think of it as a mental hard drive from the Middle Ages. Hard drives have sectors where information is stored in chunks, all the way down to bits and bytes. Similarly, human beings can only store information by breaking it down into pieces and filing it away in our minds.

Unfortunately, most of us were never taught how to memorize, we were just given a pile of information and told to memorize it. Memorizing without any technique is what we call “rote” memorization, where a person simply repeats and repeats the information until it sticks. Because rote memorization is so difficult and seemingly fruitless—most of us lose whatever we had memorized in a couple days—a lot of schools have simply given up on memorization altogether. But this is a mistake.

The ancients and medievals had to memorize loads of information because few knew how to read and write proficiently and of those who did, writing utensils and parchment were expensive and hard to come by (kind of like how a pack of sticky notes will cost you ten bucks now, only worse!). So, these people had to compensate with the only computer on hand: the brain. But they weren’t lazy about it. They didn’t just throw their heads at information and hope that the two would stick together. No. They developed battle-hardened techniques over a long period of time. The essential technique is the Memory Palace.

It starts with associating an idea with a physical object like a door, or a chair. One then can “walk” through say, your own house or apartment and stow pieces of information “in” different objects. There are two themes to the technique. One is the word-object association, the other is proceeding through the palace in a certain order.

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For example, imagine you had been asked to give a speech on the classification of living creatures. If your house has five rooms, you could put each the five kingdoms in a separate room (Bacteria, Protozoa, Plants, Fungi, Animals) and then each piece of furniture in the room could represent the phyla within that kingdom. As you proceed through this Memory Palace, you could recall each of the phyla of all five kingdoms as you give your speech. In fact, the Memory Palace was the origin of speakers saying “in the first place…” and “in the second place…” The “places” they refer to are the rooms within their memory palace.

I have found it to be a very helpful memorization technique, especially when paired with the link system and other memorization aids (e.g., making exaggerated and silly word-pictures). As our generation copes with information overload (deluge, tidal wave), we have to find ways to remember the information that is important to us, the information we need to use, connect and synthesize, not the trivia we can look up. If we want to avoid becoming Google Glass fixated cell phone addicts who can’t hold a coherent conversation because we’re so distracted with looking things up online, we might need to recover the Memory Palace that St. Augustine stood in awe of and thanked God for saying, “Great is the power of memory; very wonderful is it, O my God.”

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Hark, Hearken, Harking

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Every once in a while my inner grammar bully comes out. Today, I keep harking back to “hark.” It is one of those dangerous archaic words. That is, it sounds so great, but means well, nobody knows. It shows up in a Christmas carol: “Hark! The herald angels sing…” But it might as well be up there “mean estate” and “fum, fum, fum” as far as our actually knowing what on earth it means. You could throw in “behold,” “thine,” and “God rest ye” for good measure. Of course, “hark” and “harking back” often gets confused with “hearken.” So…I decided I had to clear the air. Here we go:

 

1. Hark is usually a verb that means to “listen attentively,” as in “Listen up!” Here you would simply use the word as it shows up in the carol, solo, with no object: Hark! It’s a command. Now, “hark” the verb can also be used with an object, but this is weird (aka archaic), as in, “Hark the bell.” Yes, in this case, “hark” is an annoyingly transitive verb. The OED gives a poetic sentence from Tennyson: “Hating to hark The humming of the drowsy pulpit-drone.” “Hark” can also be used with “to,” which sounds extra strange to our ears: “Hark to the train whistle!” I don’t recommend using “hark” ever, but if you really have to, don’t use the transitive form.

2. “Hark back” is probably the only way to use this word that people will really understand, so it’s worth exploring how to do it correctly. “Hark back” actually comes from hunting for rabbits or birds with the use of a hunting hound. The dog might lose the scent and need to retrace his steps to find it again. This would be “harking back.” So, when you or I “hark back,” we are acting like hunting dogs, retracing our mental steps until we pick up the scent again so we can go forward after the quarry.

3. Now, there is another word, “hearken.” This word is derived from the same Old English word as “hark”: heorcnian. Basically what we have here is a usage problem. American English prefers “harken” but English English prefers “hearken.” (Kind of like center and centre, theater and theatre.) The word “hearken” is again usually an imperative and intransitive verb, simply, “Hearken.” But it can be used transitively, if oddly, as “hearken my words.” While you can “hearken” and be doing the same thing as someone who “harkens,” you cannot “heark back,” but only “hark back.”

Most stylists look down on the use of archaic words, but if you must use “hark” or “hearken,” then please use them the right way. I guess I could say, “Hark to my advice” or “Hearken my grammatical wisdom” so you don’t come “harking back” to find the right way to employ “hark” in your writing.

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New Podcast: Over the Counter

 

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You might wonder what I’ve been up to. Well, my friend Andrew and I started a little podcast we’re calling “Over the Counter.” I see Andrew almost daily–he’s a world-class barista brewing up some wonderful stuff in our coffee shop. But he also happens to be something of a philosopher and conversationalist. We were having such great conversations over the counter in the shop that people would start to listen in…and even suggest we record what we were talking about. So, we took the hint!

We’ve started putting out a weekly podcast episode that is about 30 minutes and our goal is not so much to talk about one specific subject area, but to bring our perspectives to bear on many different arenas of life, culture, philosophy, and so on. We especially love to explore the friction between modern technology and what it means to be human in the truest sense. So far we’ve talked about things like uniforms, free stuff, and discerning God’s will. I don’t know if you’ll like it, but take a listen and tell us what you think.

Here’s a link to the Over the Counter Podcast web page. And I’ll also post an embedded player right here:

Over the Counter Podcast Player

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Were You Made for Greatness or for God?

One of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s most often quoted lines is this:

 “The world offers you comfort, but you were not made for comfort, you were made for greatness.” (Sources: 1 2 3)

It’s a good line, but did he ever really say it? Well, I’ve been doing some digging to try and track down this line (Others have tried too). To me, it looks like he never actually said it. However, he said a couple things that were close. In a visit with German pilgrims in the first month of his pontificate, back in April, 2005, Benedict said:

“Christ did not promise an easy life. Those who desire comforts have dialed the wrong number. Rather, he shows us the way to great things, the good, towards an authentic human life.” Source

The original German reads,

“Wer Bequemlichkeit will, der ist bei ihm allerdings an der falschen Adresse. Aber er zeigt uns den Weg zum Großen, zum Guten, zum richtigen Menschenleben.”

The main difference here is that Benedict is saying that he’s saying that Jesus is showing the way to great things, away from the false temptations of comfort. Here the focus is on Him, not on us.

This next quote, from the same speech is the closest thing:

 “The ways of the Lord are not easy, but we were not created for an easy life, but for great things, for goodness.”

Original German: “Bequem sind die Wege des Herrn nicht, aber wir sind ja auch nicht für die Bequemlichkeit, sondern für das Große, für das Gute geschaffen.

The first key word in the German is “Bequemlichkeit,” which can be translated as “convenience, comfort, ease.” The second key word is “Große,” which is hard to translate. It is a substantival adjective in the neuter singular, so we could translate we were made “for the great, for the good.” The Vatican translators opted for “great things.” Since translation is always an art including interpretation, we could even render it “you were made to do great things.” It seems to me that the “famous quote” is really an alternate translation/expansion/interpretation of this last example.

But wait! Maybe Benedict said something somewhere else that sounds like his famous quote, non-quote. In fact, he did. In his Encylical, Spe Salvi, he says, “Man was created for greatness—for God himself; he was created to be filled by God. But his heart is too small for the greatness to which it is destined. It must be stretched” (sec. 33). Here the official Latin reads, “magnam realitatem,” which could more literally be rendered “a great reality.”

What’s the point of all this translational nit-picking?

The point is that when we read, especially when we read something authoritative, it is very easy for us to import our pre-conceived notions into what we’re reading. Benedict’s point is simple enough—that a life of ease and convenience, a selfish life of me-pleasing, is not what God has for us. Instead, God offers something so much better—something great, in fact. But he is not saying that we were all made to be rich, famous, powerful and “great” in a worldly sense–as would be suggested from a typical use of “greatness.” In fact, notice that in each of the quotes, Benedict is pointing not to human attributes (like “being great”), but to the destiny to which God invites us, the magnam realitatem, He Himself. The great thing we’re made for is God.

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Dumping and the Internet

Dumping is a big problem—and not just Joe Schmo junking an old water heater in the ditch by the side of the road. Dumping is a practice that some international firms engage in to destroy competition. Say, you have a widget company in Peru that makes the SuperWidget3000, which retails for $400. Then a big Korean company comes in to Peru with a product that does basically the same thing as the SuperWidget3000, but they sell it for $20. They import gazillions of their clone product, undercut you on price by 95% and, of course, drive you out of business. Then after your company is dead and gone, the Korean company can jack the price up to $600, making more money per item than you ever did, but you’re not around anymore to cause any headaches for them. It’s an effective, but ruthless, practice. Now there are many laws and international agreements to prevent dumping.

The same kind of phenomenon can happen when big-hearted, rich countries decide to send “free” food to a third-world country to alleviate hunger. The main problem with this practice is that it destroys the agrarian economy in the country it is seeking to aid. Most third world places look more like the United States did 100 years ago, where the vast majority of people make their living farming. If you swoop in with free food, you might temporarily alleviate some folks, but you ruin their economic interaction with one another. After their farms and ranches fail, being undercut by Big Free Food from Mr. Nice Guy, what will happen? Food prices can skyrocket and no one has a good working farm to supply the need, or the people can become dependent on Big Free. It’s the same as a big company “dumping” their cheap product to drive somebody out of business, albeit without the malicious intent.

So what about the Internet?

To me, the Internet has become a “dumping” ground for the good hearted. It must stem from the same impulse that leads to dumping free food in a poor country. What exactly do I mean? Well, the most obvious examples are in the public domain arena, where kind-hearted people have uploaded billions of pages of public domain information for all our eyeballs to consume—Google Books, Archive.org, Hathi Trust Digital Library. There are also free, public domain, audiobooks at Librivox.org and free art in the Wikimedia Commons. There is free music and free video at YouTube. The Internet is full of free everything. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy and use this content just as much (if not more) as the next guy.

But…I worry. I worry that writers, editors, artists, voice actors, and other people involved in producing this kind of content are losing their jobs left and right. Publishers and bookstores are closing, consolidating, and filing for bankruptcy (Harcourt, Cengage, Borders, etc.). Amazon is underpricing the ebook and book market. People who used to be able to make a living producing books, music, and other media for us to enjoy are finding themselves undercut by Big Free. Right now is the good part of the cycle, where the Consumer gets to enjoy cheap and free with no consequences. But what happens when Google decides that after 10 years of losing money, YouTube is no longer worth it and they just shut it down, erasing millions upon millions of videos? What happens, when the Internet Archive folds for financial reasons, but your local library has jettisoned all of its old, public domain books, in favor of new computer consoles where anybody can access that information for free? What about when Google decides to charge a monthly fee for access to Google Books?

I like a dynamic market. I like change. But I am concerned that the Internet has become a dumping ground, in the bad sense. The world of Big Free might not be free after all. Centralization of information means that information can be controlled, manipulated, or even deleted, permanently. The decentralized care of information, in thousands of libraries, homes, schools, bookstores, seems a better path to me, one not so easily destroyed by the decision of an executive or the economic pressures of the day. Perhaps there is a way to decentralize the Internet and its world of Free. Maybe that’s how all of our out-of-work writers and editors could find their way. It’s a thought.

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Did the Wave Offering Make the Sign of the Cross?

Wave offerings are prescribed in the Old Testament several times–mainly in Leviticus and Numbers. Normally, the OT sacrificial system leads people to tears of boredom, but something caught my eye in reading about this in Allen P. Ross’s book, Holiness to the Lord. He describes the wave offering ritual thusly:

The wave offering (tenupa) was placed in the offerer’s hands, and then the priest placed his hands beneath those of the offerer, moving them upward and downward, forward and backward, thereby symbolizing the consecration of the gift of God in the sight of all. (p. 192)

Sounds interesting, but what is even more amazing is what he suggests in a footnote:

[R.K.] Harrison ([Leviticus: Introduction and Commentary, IVP 1980] 83) observes the description and interpretation of this ritual and notes that the motion was in the shape of a cross. If this is right, then it is a symbolic foreshadowing of the sacrifice of Christ.

Interestingly, there is no description of the ritual in the biblical text and some commentators, like Jacob Milgrom, have rejected the wave offering as a “fiction.” Harrison’s description is rooted in later Jewish rabbinic sources. So this may remain a mystery, but if the description of the ritual is accurate, it reminds me of a Catholic priest making the sign of the cross over the gifts on the altar before the sacrifice of the Mass is made. Perhaps this act is foreshadowed by the ancient Israelite wave offering.

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Open Access Biblical Studies Courses

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Image by Elliot Lepers

A couple years ago, Sebastian Thrun, a robotics professor at Stanford started the first MOOC (massively open online course). Since that time, open access education has spread broad and wide, with major universities publishing whole courses to the internet for free. While there are pros and cons to any move like this, I think on the whole that open access education is a great thing for the public. It gives people access to great teachers and great learning for free. It might be bad for the guild of teachers and professors who could find themselves out of a job, as the more famous folks soak up the students for free online. We’ll see what happens.

In this setting, I have found a few open access biblical studies courses worth looking at. Hopefully, over time, many more of these courses will be out there. But for now, there are a few interesting ones:

This is not to say that I agree with everything in these courses, but I think they show how powerful MOOC technology can be. I also don’t know what the viewership or subscriber numbers are. These offer good examples of where education for Bible students may be headed.

I am very curious as to how all this will develop, as I’ve written before, but I’m not the only one. Bernard Bull posted an interesting piece on this same topic recently. To me, the “narrowness” of any perspective, whether religious or secular, will be deeply challenged by the new MOOC era. In any class now, a student can Google everything the teacher says, check facts on Wikipedia and now even watch other professors teach the same material. The personal relationship of trust with a teacher that we are accustomed to is going to change in unexpected ways. I still believe teachers will be essential, but I think their role will change from being a source of content, to being a source of guidance.

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