Yearly Archives: 2017

Seasoned with Salt

I like to season my salads with salt, but the Bible has different ideas. I came across an odd connection here that I thought I’d share with you. St. Paul says:saltysalt

Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer every one. (Col 4:6 RSV)

It is kind of a weird idea. I mean, how do you put salt on your speech? And if you could, what would that even mean? I know Jesus tells us “you are the salt of the earth” (Matt 5:13). He seems to mean that believers, disciples, make the world tasty to God. That is, the followers of Jesus enhance the world, make it better, spread the tastiness of the gospel and shed light through their preaching. Even then, he warns that salt can lose its flavor and be good for nothing (Mark 9:50||Luke 14:34). In both cases, Jesus and Paul, salt indicates the relation of the believer with the world–enhancing one’s conversation with the world or enhancing the world as a whole.

Yet the connection I found was more textual. Only one other place in the Bible does the phrase “seasoned with salt” appear. Here:

and make an incense blended as by the perfumer, seasoned with salt, pure and holy; (Exo 30:35 RSV)

It’s part of one of the few recipes in the Bible. This recipe is for the incense which will be used in the tabernacle and temple sanctuary. If Paul is alluding back to this Exodus recipe, what could he mean? Is he highlighting the sacred nature of Christian speech, that conversation with unbelievers takes on an almost prayerful/worshipful aspect, so much so as being similar to the holy incense offered in the temple?

frankincenseSome offerings are also seasoned with salt (Lev 2:13) and the Lord even makes a “covenant of salt” (Num 18:19), but I think the main thrust in Paul here links up nicely with Exodus 30:35. Strangely, the Hebrew alone preserves the idea that Paul references. The Hebrew has memulach, which is a pual participle meaning “seasoned with salt.” This is rendered in LXX as memigmenon, which simply means “mixed.” Paul’s phrasing in Colossians 4:6 is halati ertumenos, which clearly relies on the Hebrew, not the Greek. The participle here is from artuo, which means “to make salty” and halati means “with salt.” So we could translate Paul’s phrase as “to make salty with salt.” (One could easily think up some late nineties references here.)

I think the point of Paul’s encouragement is relatively simple: that our spoken words be kind and Christlike, “in grace” and not in malice. The connection with incense highlights the holiness, purity and God-directedness of our speech, but the connection with Jesus’ salt sayings, like “have salt in yourselves” (Luke 14:34), emphasizes the good effects our salty words can have in the world around us.


What is the Catholic/Ecumenical “Message”?

I just received a copy of the new Catholic/Ecumenical Messsage Bible from the publisher. It came out in 2013, so I have no idea why they’re promoting it right now. This book includes Protestant seminary-professor-turned-pastor Eugene Peterson’s very loose translation of the Protestant canon and a new translation of the deuterocanon by the Catholic William Griffin.message

The Message and Canon Law

I have to say the first thing that struck me was the blurbs on the back include two Catholic priests and an Episcopalian bishop. Notably absent was the endorsement of a Catholic bishop. That’s probably because under Canon Law Catholic Bibles are supposed to be approved by the national bishops’ conference. In the case of the U.S., that means the USCCB. The relevant canons are as follows:

Can. 825 §1. Books of the sacred scriptures cannot be published unless the Apostolic See or the conference of bishops has approved them. For the publication of their translations into the vernacular, it is also required that they be approved by the same authority and provided with necessary and sufficient annotations.
 2. With the permission of the conference of bishops, Catholic members of the Christian faithful in collaboration with separated brothers and sisters can prepare and publish translations of the sacred scriptures provided with appropriate annotations.

These laws mean that a private Catholic individual is not supposed to publish his own translation of the Bible without appropriate ecclesiastical permission, even if that person is working on a Bible-publishing project in conjunction with Protestants.

When I asked the publisher of this Catholic/Ecumenical Message about this, I was told that they didn’t feel the need to request permission from the USCCB because the Message is a a “paraphrasal translation” only meant to supplement more formal translations. But in fact, Eugene Peterson is no slouch in biblical languages. He used to teach Greek and Hebrew and so the Message is not really a paraphrase at all, but a very, very loose (like spaghetti-noodle-knot-loose) translation of the original languages.

Canon law does not grant a dispensation, exception or legal loophole in the approval process to “informal” or “paraphrasal” translations of the Bible. Beyond that, since 1984, canon law has insisted that Catholic Bibles have “necessary and sufficient annotations.” That doesn’t mean that every Bible has to be a 3,000 page study Bible, but that Bibles do need to include some notes on the difficulties and obscurities in the text, particularly at places where people could easily get confused. The New American Bible, the Jerusalem Bible and even the RSV-CE provide these types of annotations.

Now, I’m no canon lawyer, but I must admit I do have misgivings about the publication of this “Catholic/Ecumenical Message” Bible without the approval of the bishops’ conference and with no imprimatur (The imprimatur indicates ecclesiastical approval for other religious books and is different from a bishops’ conference’s approval of a Bible translation).


The Message and Original Languages

            While Eugene Peterson translated from the original languages, the Catholic scholar who translated the deuterocanon, William Griffin, chose a different tack. I’ll give it to you in his own words:

            For my primary text, I could have used the Hebrew or, where necessary, the Greek manuscripts; but I didn’t. As I’ve already indicated, they seem to me to be the exclusive possession of the biblical scholars. Instead, I chose the Latin Vulgate—not the one put together by Jerome in the fourth century, but the revised and expanded edition called Nova Vulgata (New Vulgate) published in 1998.

Pope John Paul II wrote a brief preface to that translation in which he declared and proclaimed that the Nova Vulgata may be used as the authentic text when translating into English, especially in the Sacred Liturgy. And so that’s what I used.

Um, well, this is an interesting perspective, but I cannot agree with it. While Latin is the liturgical language of the Western Chruch, none of the Bible was written in Latin, so it’s a bit tendentious to suggest that it’s the best source for our vernacular translations.

Griffin refers to this little line in John Paul II’s Scripturarum Thesaurus (Apr 25, 1979):

This New Vulgate edition will also be of such a nature that vernacular translations, which are destined for liturgical and pastoral use, may be referred to it.

This line does not make the Nova Vulgata the base text for new Bible translations. It certainly does not override earlier magisterial statements about the importance of going back to the original languages. In fact, the Vatican has repeatedly encouraged the study of original languages and has often mandated that all vernacular translations of Scripture start with the Greek and Hebrew.

Pope Pius XII in Divino Afflante Spiritu (Sep 30, 1943) insisted on the primacy of the original languages:

 …therefore ought we to explain the original text which, having been written by the inspired author himself, has more authority and greater weight than any even the very best translation, whether ancient or modern…

Pius XII is gentle in his mode of expression, but he’s basically saying that the original Greek and Hebrew texts of Scripture trump the Latin Vulgate (an “ancient translation”). His encyclical set off a tidal wave of new translations from the original languages.

Dei Verbum from Vatican II takes a similar line:

 …the Church by her authority and with maternal concern sees to it that suitable and correct translations are made into different languages, especially from the original texts of the sacred books…

A pope and a Council both point to biblical translation from the original languages. Most Catholic Bibles now published all draw from Greek and Hebrew directly.

Late in the pontificate of John Paul II, a further instruction on translation for liturgical purposes was given. This document, Liturgiam authenticam (Mar 28, 2001), mandates:

Furthermore, it is not permissible that the translations be produced from other translations already made into other languages; rather, the new translations must be made directly from the original texts, namely the Latin, as regards the texts of ecclesiastical composition, or the Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek, as the case may be, as regards the texts of Sacred Scripture.Furthermore, in the preparation of these translations for liturgical use, theNova Vulgata Editio, promulgated by the Apostolic See, is normally to be consulted as an auxiliary tool, in a manner described elsewhere in this Instruction, in order to maintain the tradition of interpretation that is proper to the Latin Liturgy.

In case there was any lack of clarity on this point, the Congregation for Divine Worship (Nov 5, 2001) issued a letter where they further clarified the mandate

Given the nature of certain statements that have entered the public domain through articles, internet postings and the like, the scope for misunderstanding of the Instruction on the basis of a superficial reading has unfortunately increased. Indeed, some even seem to have reached the erroneous conclusion that the Instruction insists on a translation of the Bible from the Latin Nova Vulgata rather than from the original biblical languages. Such an interpretation is contrary to the Instruction’s explicit wording in n. 24, according to which all texts for use in the Liturgy “must be made directly from the original texts, namely the Latin, as regards the texts of ecclesiastical composition, or the Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek, as the case may be, as regards the texts of Sacred Scripture”. The Instruction in fact provides a clearer statement on the use of the original biblical texts as the basis for liturgical translation than the norms previously published in the Instruction Inter Oecumenici, n. 40a, published on 26 September 1964 (Acta Apostolicae Sedis 56 [1964] 885).

The point of piling up all these quotations is to say that the Catholic approach to Bible translation is to go back to Greek and Hebrew and then translate directly into the vernacular. The Nova Vulgata is helpful for indicating which books are to be included and which verses (where there are textual problems), it serves as the norm for traditional liturgical formulation, but it does not serve as the basis for new translations and it has not been commended to us as such by the magisterium. In fact, quite the opposite! Catholics should be reading Bibles translated from Greek and Hebrew.


The Message and Translation Philosophy

I readily admit that there are different legitimate translation philosophies and goals. They are usually put on a spectrum between the woodenly literal (like the NASB) and dynamic equivalence (Jerusalem). Usually in a separate category are the paraphrases like the Living Bible, which is truly a paraphrase of an English translation (the ASV). The Message tries to walk the line between paraphrase and dynamic equivalence. The point is to deliver to modern readers an intelligible, readable Bible that makes more sense than the supposedly clunky language of a typical Bible translation. Even Eugene Peterson did not want The Message to replace other translations or even to be read aloud in church services. He intended it as a study tool.

Just to give you a sense for how The Message upends traditional Catholic phrasing of biblical passages for a rather underwhelming “something else.” Take a look at the angel Gabriel’s greeting to theVirgin Mary:

The Message
RSV (for comparison) – Luke 1:28
Good morning!
You’re beautiful with God’s beauty,
Beautiful inside and out!
God be with you.
full of grace,
the Lord is with you!


Need I say more?

The Catholic/Ecumenical Message does not carry ecclesiastical approval, translates the deuterocanonical books from a Latin translation and embraces a dubious translation philosophy. I’d spend your next Amazon gift card on something else.

Oh, and if you do need a very simplistic translation for a young person or someone who has trouble with English, take a look at the Good News Translation (also known as Today’s English Version) or the Contemporary English Version, both from the American Bible Society and both with ecclesiastical approval from the USCCB.


My New Article in JSOT – Song of Songs and Canonicity

JSOT-CoThe Journal for the Study of the Old Testament just published my latest academic article on the canonicity of the Song of Songs. Full citation is:

Mark Giszczak, “The Canonical Status of Song of Songs in m. Yadayim 3.5,” JSOT 41 (2016): 205-220.

Right now, you can read the full text of it on their website here: 

PDF here: Giszczak_CanonicitySongOfSongs_JSOT


The Ethics of Decoding the Brain

Unless you’ve been binging on Netflix the last ten years, you’ll have happened to notice that the neuropsychologists among us have been making a lot of progress. The main progress has come from scientists utilizing relatively new fMRI technology to glimpse a person’s brain activity while they are in the midst of a task. These brain-peepers can then take the data and say things like: “When a person looks at a picture of a cute puppy, this part of their brain lights up. But when a person looks at a picture of a grizzly bear, this other part of their brain lights up.”

Science is Fun (or is it?)

human-brain-1443446941h0AAt the first, all of this new information that’s pouring forth in study after study and book after book seems totally harmless, interesting and even fun. I mean, who wouldn’t want to know what makes their prefrontal cortex “light up”? And, even from an ethical standpoint, as long as the scientists are just looking, no harm is done. But it will not be long before they go from passive bystanders, merely peering into the brain, to in fact being able to manipulate the brain for their own purposes. To me, the prospect of decoding the brain, much like scientists have  decoded DNA, has serious repurcussions from an ethical standpoint. Now, I realize that what I’m talking about might sound like science fiction right now, but in a few years, with a few scientific leaps forward, we will arrive at a brave new world not of brain scanning, but of brain programming. If the neuropsychologists decode the brain sufficiently, then they will be able to hack it–and who could resist the temptation? Here are my chief ethical worries about what lies ahead:

#1 – Tinkering With the Will

So far, the brain scientists have not been able to discover the keys to the human will. If you poke a person’s brain or jolt it with current–even if it forces the subject’s hand in the air or prompts him or her to spew curse words–the person will still be able to say, “Hey, you did that to me!” But what if the scientists decode the brain so much that they can access the will and reprogram it? Of course, such a trend would start as a noble effort–to reprogram the brain of an addict to quit smoking, reprogram the brain of a morbidly obese patient to stop eating so much.

tinkerBut what if, after this technique has been perfected, a new patient arrives in Dr. Brain’s office and says, “Doc, I’ve got a hard life. Things haven’t worked out so well for me. I have a terrible job that I hate, but I know I need to stick with it for the sake of my family. Can you help me?” At this point, it would be very tempting for Dr. Brain to tinker with the patient’s will so that the patient wants to stick with the job that he actually hates. Perhaps the doctor can even cause him to like it.

Again, you might say that that’s not so bad. Maybe it will all be for the good. But what if this technology can be deployed by the government–any government–to make willing soldiers out of a revolutionary population or to bureaucratically pacify people. (“Oh, I see you got a 500 on the SAT. We’ll fix your brain so that your aspirations don’t climb too high. You’ll be happy being a janitor and never want anything more.”) They could neurologically “fix” people to want the careers that nobody wants.

#2 – Tinkering with the Memory

Elephant_walking_ArMNext, if they decode the brain, the scientists could tinker with our memories. It would start with noble therapies like lessening the impact of painful memories for PTSD patients or those with a traumatic childhood. Yet if they become truly capable of erasing memories from our brains, look out! A person could go to an unscrupulous brain doctor and ask that their memory be wiped of unpleasant memories like their last dating relationship or their bad debts or their failures as a child. Again, while such a technology could be used for the good, it could also lead down a dark path. What if oppressive governments could wipe revolutionary memories from citizens or use memory-wiping as a punishment for crimes?

#3 – Downloading the Brain

DNA_orbit_animated_smallIt is possible, even now, to get your entire genome sequenced. The computers produce a giant file, a BAM file, for each genome sequenced. This huge 65GB file can be used to analyze a person’s DNA for defects and inherited traits. But what if, in the near future, all of the data in a person’s brain can be downloaded to a similar file? For research and diagnostic purposes this could be a God-send. In fact, even for psychologists and therapists, such a treasure trove of data could be immensely helpful. Who wouldn’t want access to a downloaded copy of all of their memories ever–complete with pictures and movies?

Yet, even if it were possible, just imagine all of the non-research oriented abuses that could creep in. Prospective employers could demand a copy of your “BRAIN” file before you get hired. A college you applied to could ask for your BRAIN file to check that you have the right knowledge. Heck, even the NSA would probably store a copy of your BRAIN file on their giant servers in Utah. The brain files of geniuses like Stephen Hawking would be studied and prisoners’ brain files might be taken by the government in order to solve more crimes, but just imagine what might lurk in the brain files of certain politicians and how hungry the media would be to get at them!

#4 – Uploading to the Brain

upload-1118928_640In this fictive future we are imagining a world in which scientists have successfully decoded the brain, found a way to download its data into a computer file. But surely, if they are able to accomplish all of this, then they will make a way to upload to the brain. Just imagine a micro-USB port behind your left ear. Again, on the one hand, this sounds rather nice. If you wanted to learn Japanese or read Moby Dick, all you’d have to do is plug in for a second or two and–presto!–you’ve got it in your mind.

Such a technology would be revolutionary for education. You could get a whole college education in just a few gigabytes of data and upload it to your brain. In fact, if you feel indecisive about your major, you could major in everything and have it all uploaded! But imagine being operated on by a surgeon who went to “USB Med School” and only had knowledge uploaded to his brain, but had never actually performed a surgery before. Yikes! Or worse, what about a young man contemplating the priesthood? Instead of taking a few years to carefully discern and to undergo seminary training, he could just have all the knowledge uploaded to his brain and get ordained right away.

brainusbRather than simply wiping away bad memories, you could upload good ones. If you had a bad childhood, that could be swapped out for a good one in your memory. If you didn’t get to take a vacation, you could upload one to your brain. The possibilities are endless!

Worrying About Today and Tomorrow

The scientists have not gotten this far yet. Right now, they are limited to peering into the brain and trying to influence it with drug therapies, electricity and even surgery. Right now, they cannot download or upload. They can’t erase memories or create fictitious ones. And they certainly cannot tinker with the human will. Yet if the decoding of the human genome is an object lesson in the power of science when faced with a complex problem, the brain could follow suit. It could be that a few decades from now instead of going to get your genome sequenced at 23andMe, you might be getting your brain analyzed and downloaded instead. I just hope that the scientists are thinking carefully about these things as they proceed and don’t allow their curiosity to lead us down a dark alley.