“What page, what passage of the inspired books of the Old and New Testaments is not the truest of guides for human life?” -St. Benedict, Rule, chap. 73.
It probably helps if you read it four hours a day like St. Benedict and his monks!
Often the Deuterocanonical books of the Old Testament receive short shrift because they are not part of the canon accepted by many Christians. However, I don’t think any book gets less press than the Wisdom of Solomon. Readings from it appear eight times in the Sunday lectionary, but I’ll bet you can’t find a commentary on it online or at your local library. Here’s the short list of available book-length resources in English. Add more in the comments…if you can find any!
There’s a wider-ranging bibliography put together by Daniel Harrington here. But yes, that’s it! Just a handful of short commentaries, and nothing very recent.
Colossians 3:11 gives us one of Paul’s lists of formerly-significant people boundaries to indicate that now in Christ, we are all one and these boundaries no longer matter. The text reads:
Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all. (Col 3:11 ESV)
ὅπου οὐκ ἔνι Ἕλλην καὶ Ἰουδαῖος, περιτομὴ καὶ ἀκροβυστία, βάρβαρος, Σκύθης, δοῦλος, ἐλεύθερος, ἀλλὰ [τὰ] πάντα καὶ ἐν πᾶσιν Χριστός.
Unfortunately, the very last part of the verse always sounds weird. I mean, “Christ is all”–what does that mean? The translations do not deviate much from this line. I’m sure that lots of translators have toiled over this verse, so I don’t mean to scoff at their hard work or claim any sort of omniscience. I merely want to make a suggestion. The copula, the verb of being, is absent in the Greek and therefore always inserted in the translations. Latin can follow the Greek without an “is”: “…sed omnia et in omnibus Christus.” If all I had was that snippet and no context, I’d be very tempted to translate either the Latin or Greek as “…but all and in all, Christ” or “…but all and Christ in all.” So, why not translate the verse that way?
To me it seems that list of divisions Paul rattles off between Greek and Jew, slave and free and so one simply terminates at panta, all. Let’s try another sentence with the same structure to see if this could work: “Here there is no longer short and tall, big and small, serious and silly, but everybody and in everybody is ice cream.” Doesn’t it seem that the final term in my list, everybody, could function as the terminus of the list rather than as a predicate nominative of “ice cream”? “Everybody is ice cream” sounds strange.
To me it seems that the drive to translate our phrase as “Christ is all and in all” comes from the context and the idea of putting on Christ and especially “Christ who is your life” in verse 4. But it really seems like an unnecessary stretch. Why does the adversative, alla, but, have to create a new independent clause, couldn’t it just be Paul’s way of punctuating the turning point in the comparison?: Before, we had all kinds of divisions that divided us, but now we are one. Lastly again, it comes back to trying to make sense of the “Christ is all” statement. What does that even mean? Paul is certainly not pantheist or something, so what could such a statement convey, that every Christian is in some mysterious way, Christ?? I’d prefer that Paul is simply saying in Christ, the divisions fall away and only “all/everybody” is left and in everybody dwells Christ. That seems to fit the grammatical demands and Paul’s theology. Inserting an “is” to me seems an overly creative translation twist.
(Of course, perhaps I’m overlooking something important, so please comment if you can explain why “Christ is all” is the best translation here.)
Matthew 5:28 records Jesus’ famous saying about the sinfulness of lust. Often it sounds like you can seriously sin by accident. Usually, the translation sounds something like this:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you, everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Matt 5:27-28 NAB)
However, a closer inspection of the Greek and the various translations reveals a difficulty. The Greek does not say “look at a woman with lust.” Rather, it says “…look at a woman in order to lust [after her]” or “…look at a woman for the purpose of lust.” In Greek grammar, this is what we call a purpose clause, indicated by the short words, pros to, plus an infinitive in the Greek. A good example is in Ephesians 6:11 – “Put on the full armor of God in order that you may be able to stand against the scheming of the devil” (my trans.).
Recent grammarians have, however, relied on a hypothetical Aramaic background to this Greek saying. Rather than translating the phrase as a purpose clause, they have looked to a possible Aramaic construction, where the pros to represents an Aramaic lamed, a letter that functions as a particle indicating one of any number of things: a genitive relationship, direct object, indirect object, ethical dative, purpose, direction (See Alger Johns, A Short Grammar of Biblical Aramaic, p. 11). Fr. Maximilian Zerwick explains the supposed Aramaic background of pros to in his Biblical Greek:
“Indeed the sense need not even be consecutive; in the passage in question [Matt 5:28] one would expect the sense ‘with concupiscence’ simply, and this may in fact be the sense intended, if the προσ το [pros to] can be understood as a servile rendering of a Semitic (Hebrew or Aramaic) le + infinitive which, though of it means ‘to(wards)…’ and so has final or consecutive sense, may also be used without any such connotation and simply with the sense ‘…-ing.’ (p. 135, sec. 391)
Notably, Fr. Zerwick relies a lot on what “one would expect.” The difference between the two translation options might seem inconsequential, but I think there’s an significant theological principle at stake.
What’s important here from a moral theology perspective is intention. When this passage is translated based on a hypothetical Aramaic reconstruction, rather than on the actual Greek text, it sounds as if one can seriously sin by accident. The typical translation weakens the intentionality of the act being indicated by the Greek grammar, making lust sound like an almost unintentional part of “looking” since “with lust” (or in RSV “lustfully”) merely functions as an adverb modifying the verb “to look.” But if it is translated as a purpose clause, which follows the Greek grammar most closely, then the teaching indicates that a moral intention must be involved—a decision to look for the purpose of lust or in order to lust.
And, if you really want to consider the Aramaic background, the le particle also works to indicate purpose, as I listed out above. So you can have your Aramaic cake and eat it too. The ESV translation, in my opinion, strikes the balance right, with this translation:
But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. (Mat 5:28 ESV)
You can’t sin by accident. Lust involves an intentional choice to commit evil, to violate God’s commandments.
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?
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.
During 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.
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.”
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!
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.
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.”
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.
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:
One of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s most often quoted lines is this:
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.