Monthly Archives: September 2007

St. Therese on Biblical Languages

A friend directed me to this quote. I’m not sure if there are different versions of it, but I’ll keep looking. This one is from Thomas Taylor’s translation of Story of a Soul from Project Gutenberg

“In Heaven only shall we be in possession of the clear truth. On
earth, even in matters of Holy Scripture, our vision is dim. It
distresses me to see the differences in its translations, and had
I been a Priest I would have learned Hebrew, so as to read the
Word of God as He deigned to utter it in human speech.”

-St. Therese of Lisieux

Papal Encouragement to Study Biblical Languages

As I study Greek and Hebrew, Pope Pius XII provides a nice kick in the right direction to stimulate some serious study. Check out what he says in Divino afflante Spiritu, sec.15. (I added the bold.)

“On the contrary in this our time, not only the Greek language, which since the humanistic renaissance has been, as it were, restored to new life, is familiar to almost all students of antiquity and letters, but the knowledge of Hebrew also and of their oriental languages has spread far and wide among literary men. Moreover there are now such abundant aids to the study of these languages that the biblical scholar, who by neglecting them would deprive himself of access to the original texts, could in no wise escape the stigma of levity and sloth. For it is the duty of the exegete to lay hold, so to speak, with the greatest care and reverence of the very least expressions which, under the inspiration of the Divine Spirit, have flowed from the pen of the sacred writer, so as to arrive at a deeper and fuller knowledge of his meaning.”

-Pope Pius XII

Jamnia Revisited

After my post on the so-called “Council of Jamnia,” I’ve been turning the canon question over and over in my head. Today I read a great article that questions the historical rationale of the Protestant OT canon. It is “The Protestant Old Testament Canon: Should it Be Re-examined?” by A.C. Sundberg, Catholic Biblical Quarterly 28(1966): 194-203. Sundberg gives a decently detailed history of the formation and defense of the Protestant OT canon from Luther to Metzger. He argues that the early Church inherited from pre-70 Judaism a very defined Pentateuch/Torah and a very defined canon of Prophets, but a very ill-defined collection of “Writings” which basically included wisdom literature, apocrypha and pseudepigrapha (199). Thus the formation of the Palestinian canon of the Hebrew Bible which arose after the destruction of the Temple was a Jewish process that occured after the Christian and Jewish communities had gone their separate ways. So the formation of the Christian OT canon was actually a distinct process, and a long-fought one considering it wasn’t finished until the Council of Trent.

Sundberg references the “Jamnia doctrine of inspiration” which “limited inspiration from the time of Moses to the time of Ezra-Nehemiah” (202). As we’ve discovered, trying to associate anything concrete with what happened at Jamnia is like trying to grab a wet fish. But Sundberg points out that the “Jamnia doctrine” is first found in Josephus, Against Apion 1,8. And he says it “appears to be reflected in 4 Esdras” (202).

So, for some Catholic Bible Student action, here’s the relevant section from Josephus:

  • For we have not an innumerable multitude of books among us, disagreeing from and contradicting one another, [as the Greeks have,] but only twenty-two books, (8) which contain the records of all the past times; which are justly believed to be divine; and of them five belong to Moses, which contain his laws and the traditions of the origin of mankind till his death. This interval of time was little short of three thousand years; but as to the time from the death of Moses till the reign of Artaxerxes king of Persia, who reigned after Xerxes, the prophets, who were after Moses, wrote down what was done in their times in thirteen books. The remaining four books contain hymns to God, and precepts for the conduct of human life. It is true, our history hath been written since Artaxerxes very particularly, but hath not been esteemed of the like authority with the former by our forefathers, because there hath not been an exact succession of prophets since that time; and how firmly we have given credit to these books of our own nation is evident by what we do; for during so many ages as have already passed, no one has been so bold as either to add any thing to them, to take any thing from them, or to make any change in them; but it is become natural to all Jews immediately, and from their very birth, to esteem these books to contain Divine doctrines, and to persist in them, and, if occasion be willingly to die for them. (Against Apion 1,8 from Project Gutenberg)

A few things are important for this discussion. 1.) The earliest Christians did not inherit a well-defined canon, 2.) The Palestinian Canon of the Hebrew Bible arose after 70 AD through an unknown process.

One thing I find very helpful in understanding this whole issue is that a couple terms we have become comfortable with are no longer appropriate. We often speak of the “Hebrew Bible” and the “Greek Septuagint.” But the Septuagint was never codeified during the early years of Christianity. It gets its name from the 72 scholars at Alexandria who translated the Pentateuch (yep, ONLY the first five books) from Hebrew into Greek according to the Letter of Aristeas under the reign of Philadephus, 285-247 BC. The rest of the books were translated, well, we’re not really sure when or by whom, but the translator of Sirach clues us in that many of the OT books had been translated into Greek by the time he published his translation around 117 BC (On the date see Di Lella/Skehan, Anchor Bible vol. 39, 8). And most scholars think that a few chunks were original Greek compositions like the prayers of Mordecai and Esther and the whole Book of Wisdom. So it may be better to speak of “septuagints” or something because there was no defined Greek Old Testament in the 1st Century AD. And the collections of ancient Greek Bibles often included different varieties of books. Some don’t include all the deuterocanonicals and some include other things like 4 Esdras and the like.

But the term “Hebrew Bible” is also problematic from a canonical perspective. Often people identify the Protestant OT Canon and the Palestinian canon with those books which have been preserved in Hebrew. But recent finds of Hebrew sections, most significantly, of Tobit and Sirach, change the value of the term “Hebrew Bible.” Tobit and Sirach aren’t included in the “Hebrew Bible” even though we have much of them in Hebrew. Ok, that’s an overstatment. We have about 2/3 of Sirach in Hebrew and 1 fragment of Tobit in Hebrew and 4 in Aramaic.

Tobit and the Canon

Tobit is weird book. If you have ever read it, you know exactly what I’m talking about. But there’s something even weirder about Tobit. That is, its manuscript history is bizarre to say the least.

Jerome translated it from Aramaic. Well, okay, Jerome didn’t know Aramaic, so he had someone who did read it aloud to him and verbally translate into Hebrew. Right, the reader guy only knew Aramaic and Hebrew. Then Jerome would translate the spoken Hebrew into Latin. And since Jerome wasn’t Tobit’s biggest fan, he only spent one night on it! (You can find all that in his introduction to Tobit.)

So Jerome’s Vulgate and the Greek editions in the Codices Vaticanus and Alexandrinus are the same length. But in 1844, yep that LATE, we found Sinaiticus which had a Greek version of Tobit that was 1700 words longer than all other Greek editions we had. Then in the 1950’s and 60’s when scholars sorted through the Dead Sea Scrolls they found five fragments of Tobit, four in Aramaic and one in Hebrew (4Q196-4Q200). And guess what, the DSS fragments overlap with Sinaiticus’ unique verses! So contemporary translations use the longer version of Tobit and consult with DSS fragments.

That means that verses of God’s Word were lost for hundreds and hundreds of years and only recently rediscovered. Wow! The Canon actually got bigger.

Difficult Questions on the Old Testament

I want to ask you a favor. Please send me difficult questions about the Old Testament, those questions that everyone thinks about but are afraid to ask. I want to compile a list of maybe 10 questions that we can seek to answer together. The Top Ten list will be the questions that are most pastorally relevant. You can post them in a comment below or email me at mark -at-

So what kind of questions am I looking for?

Here are some examples:

  • Why did God command the Israelites to kill children in the conquest of Canaan–is that right and how do we explain it? (Deut 2:24; 20:16-18; Josh 6:21)
  • Are we really supposed to “hate with a perfect hatred”? (Ps 139:21-22)

I want to find good answers for hard questions, answers that can be easily summed up and delivered to people who ask the hard questions to their pastors and teachers. It is very easy to gloss over difficult problems like these when what people need to satisfy their intellectual honesty is a good, well-thought-out answer. Let’s work through these together!

Oh and in terms of pastoral relevance, check out this article by Dr. Peter Williamson on the topic called Biblical Scholarship with a Pastoral Purpose.

The Battle of Faith

I found this great quote today. It’s a summary of St. John Chrysostom’s thoughts on 1 Tim 6:11-16 in the Ancient Christian Commentary, NT vol.IX, p.216. Here it is:

“The life of the believer is directed toward future rewards, not present pleasures. For such a person rejects the love of money, stands fast in the profession of faith, refuses to be intimidated by earthly powers and places all hope in God who is incomprehensible in his majesty.”

Perhaps this is why…

I found a poignant example of Paul alluding to Divine Providence in Philemon 15. There’s no chapter numbers because the book is so short. Paul is talking about why Onesimus (the slave) was away from Philemon (the owner) for so long. Onenismus had escaped, but that’s not our concern here. The point is that Paul says, “Perhaps this is why he was away from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a brother.” (Phil 15-16) Why do I think this is a big deal? Paul is making a really transparent allusion to the fact that he thinks God himself caused Onesimus to be away from Philemon. God was involved in the situation. The circumstances have a meaning and a purpose behind and beneath them. God was at work to change Philemon’s life for the better.

I think it’s really easy to see tons of circumstances and situations and never connect them to the fact that God is actually working in this world. (Aslan is on the move!) He’s changing things and people. He’s converting people and blessing people, healing and teaching people. God himself is bringing the world to himself through his Son Jesus. Yet much of the time, we cannot see God’s hand at work until after the fact. We look back on an event or a circumstance and realize that he was working and changing things and people without us even noticing in the process. Our God does not sit up in the cosmos and ignore what goes on down here. He is present and ready in every situation to bring grace and help and blessing where there is none.