I found this amazing clip today. It offers an inside-the-room, fly-on-the-wall view of a debate among the translators of the ESV. In this video, they debate how to render Hebrew and Greek words indicating “slave” or “servant.” In particular, it shows them voting to approve the change from “slave” to “bondservant” in certain NT passages. The video features Translation Oversight Committee members Paul House, Wayne Grudem, Gordon Wenham, Peter Williams and Jack Collins. It gives a sense of the serious nature of the translation debates and the types of evidence members would marshal to support their arguments:
In the promulgation of the new ESV-Catholic Edition, I’ve heard a lot of Internet chatter about various Bible versions in English. Many English-speakers have their favorite translation and will defend it to the hilt. I’d prefer everyone simply learn Greek and Hebrew, but since that’s not likely to happen anytime soon, we’re stuck with vernacular translations. Translation, by its nature is an imperfect science.
Read the Bible
Ok, wait–before going any further, I’ll just say that I’d much prefer that everyone simply read the Bible a lot in whatever translation they find useful! So if you like the RSVCE, the RSV2CE, the NABRE, the ESVCE, the Douay-Rheims, the JB, the NJB, the RNJB or whatever, keep on reading the Word of God and don’t give up. This book will transform your life. Translation concerns are secondary to the actual practice of reading the Bible.
Back in Time
It is too easy to over-simplify the history of the Bible in English with quick notes like, King James 1611 and Douay-Rheims 1610, but such notes are misleading. Bible translations are big, years-long processes involving lots of people and places. Over time, whether we like it or not, the editions actually printed vary and change whether on purpose or deliberately. The Douay-Rheims Bible, lauded by some as the best Catholic translation, started with a New Testament in 1582, and then an Old Testament in 1610, but it was later substantially revised by Bishop Richard Challoner in the 1700’s. It was translated from the Latin Vulgate of St. Jerome in the Clementine edition. Unexpectedly, Bishop Challoner was often revising the text of the Bible in order to conform to the King James Version familiar to all English-speakers. An American bishop, Francis P. Kenrick, launched his own revision of the Douay-Rheims in the 1850’s and its New Testament was published in 1862 shortly before his death. The American bishops debated making this version the new standard, but eventually the idea was abandoned. (See Gerald P. Fogarty, S.J., American Catholic Biblical Scholarship [San Francisco: Harper & Row 1989] 14-34).
The Origin of the Catholic Biblical Association
The need for a new Catholic Bible translation for the American Church was never abandoned. Indeed, it resurfaced in the 1930’s. Bishop Edwin Vincent O’Hara of Great Falls, MT organized an editorial board for a revision of the Challoner-Rheims edition, which invited all Catholic Scripture scholars to a meeting in New York for October 3, 1936 (Fogarty, 201). The meeting helped launch the Catholic Biblical Association, which produced a revision of the New Testament, published in 1941, the “Confraternity edition” (Fogarty, 206). Eventually, in light of Divino Afflante Spiritu and Dei Verbum, as I will explain below, the project of revising the Challoner-Rheims edition was abandoned and a completely new translation from the original languages was begun.
But what about the Vulgate?
The Vulgate, the Latin translation of St. Jerome, was preserved and printed in many editions. It really became its own textual stream in the tradition of biblical manuscripts, but was somewhat codified by the Sixto-Clementine Edition of 1592. It’s important to note that this edition replaced the 1590 Vulgata Sixtina hastily prepared by Pope Sixtus V, who was apparently still making changes after it went to press with his approval in the bull Aeternus Ille. This edition was forcefully recalled by Pope Clement VIII early in his papacy and replaced by the new Sixto-Clementine edition. If you seek out a Vulgate today, I’d recommend checking out the critical edition from the United Bible Societies. The official Sixto-Clementine Vulgate has been replaced by the Nova Vulgata (1979), which “is the point of reference as regards the delineation of the canonical text” (Liturgiam authenticam, sec. 37).
Translating to English from the Vulgate?
Most English-speaking Catholic authorities in the nineteenth century took it for granted that Catholic Bible translations into the vernacular be made from the Latin Vulgate. They were ignoring, perhaps, Bishop Challoner’s revisions of the Douay, which brought it more in line with the King James (translated from Greek and Hebrew). Even in 1859, a Catholic reviewer named Orestes Brownson would argue that “There is nothing in the decree of the Council of Trent, that requires our English translations to be made from the Vulgate…and a translation made directly from the original tongues into English will always be fresher, and represent the sense with its delicate shades, far better than a translation made from them through the Latin” (Brownson’s Quarterly Review; Fogarty, 22-23). While Brownson might have been prescient, he was ahead of his time.
Later, in 1934, the Dutch bishops asked Rome about whether a translation from the original languages of Scripture, not the Vulgate, could be read in liturgy and the response from the Pontifical Biblical Commission (AAS 26, 1934, p. 315-warning! giant PDF!) was negative. Fogarty insists that this is “the first time” that the Vatican weighed in on the side of vernacular translations of the Vulgate over against translations from the original languages (p. 200). Whether he is right not, I’m not sure, but it would become a moot point in under ten years.
Pius XII and Original Languages — 1943-44
In 1943, Pope Pius XII would publish the encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu, (drafted by Augustine–later Cardinal–Bea) where he would encourage translations directly from the original languages with the following sentences:
22. Wherefore this authority of the Vulgate in matters of doctrine by no means prevents – nay rather today it almost demands – either the corroboration and confirmation of this same doctrine by the original texts or the having recourse on any and every occasion to the aid of these same texts, by which the correct meaning of the Sacred Letters is everywhere daily made more clear and evident. Nor is it forbidden by the decree of the Council of Trent to make translations into the vulgar tongue, even directly from the original texts themselves, for the use and benefit of the faithful and for the better understanding of the divine word, as We know to have been already done in a laudable manner in many countries with the approval of the Ecclesiastical authority.
Just before this encyclical was released, the Pontifical Biblical Commission issued a clarification of its 1934 response cited above. This clarification (AAS 35, 1943, pp. 270-71–warning! giant PDF!) explicitly granted permission for biblical translations from the original languages. Taking its cue from this clarification from the Biblical Commission and from the new encyclical, the Catholic Biblical Association decided at its meeting in August 1944 at Notre Dame to abandon the project of revising the Challoner-Rheims edition and instead launched a new project to translate the whole Old Testament from the original Hebrew and Greek. This project would eventually become the New American Bible.
The CBA was additionally encouraged and congratulated on pursuing this project by the apostolic delegate, Archbishop Cicognani (his letter was published in Catholic Biblical Quarterly 6 [October, 1944] 389-90: https://www.jstor.org/stable/43723781). The Archbishop lauds the CBA for its efforts, acknowledging that the association is “translating the Old Testament from the original languages into English” and that “This news is a source of great pleasure, since the deep learning which forms the background of their work, and their well-known devotion to the Holy See are already in themselves auguries of success in the monumental work to which they have so resolutely set themselves.” Later in the letter, he nods in the direction of Rome, showing his interpretation of Divino: “Conformably to the recommendations of His Holiness, the members of the Catholic Biblical Association are laudably engaged in translating the Old Testament from the original languages for the use of the laity.” Here we see that the Roman trend in the direction of the original languages is affirmed and made more explicit by the Archbishop.
This direction was affirmed, albeit softly, by the Sacred Congregation of Rites in its document, Inter Oecumenici (Sept 26, 1964), 40.a:
The basis of the translations is the Latin liturgical text. The version of the biblical passages should conform to the same Latin liturgical text. This does not, however, take away the right to revise that version, should it seem advisable, on the basis of the original text or of some clearer version.
This slim legal language emphasizes the importance of the Vulgate, but defers to the original languages for revision.
“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” (Dei Verbum, sec. 22)
This statement by the Council affirms that the hierarchy was moving away from Vulgate-only translations toward focus on the original languages.
Liturgiam authenticam 2001
Pope St. John Paul II’s document, Liturgiam authenticam, will actually cite the 1964 law in extending the legal requirement to mandate that all biblical translations be made from the original languages, not from other translations.
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.
One might think that this instruction contradicts the very idea of JPII launching the Nova Vulgata in 1979, but the document anticipates such concerns, saying, “Furthermore, in the preparation of these translations for liturgical use, the Nova 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.” So the Nova Vulgata is normative for 1.) finding the canonical verses in the original language and for 2.) understanding the proper tradition of interpretation for the Latin Liturgy. However, it does not serve as the basis for the translations, but only as “an auxiliary tool.” Though it is true that Pope Francis issued a Motu proprio in 2017 which limits the application of Liturgiam authenticam, it seems to have little effect on the topic here.
The complex task of Bible translation cannot be distilled down to any one principle. Indeed, any good translator should have respect for all of the available textual traditions, whether Hebrew, Greek, Latin, Syriac, or otherwise, and have a good sense for the strengths and weaknesses of each tradition. In previous eras, access to good instruction in the original languages was scare, but now much more common. Also, good manuscripts and critical editions were harder to come by, but now they can be readily had in libraries and on the Internet. Much of the text-critical work being done in older editions of the Vulgate has been transferred to the guild of text critical scholars of the Greek New Testament (one thinks immediately of the committee put together by Kurt Aland). The relative values of the Masoretic text and the Septuagint have not yet been fully ironed out and I imagine biblical scholars will be arguing about which should have priority until the sun sets on history. Yet from the above historical overview, we can see very clearly that the Catholic Church has been moving away from a Vulgate-only translation philosophy and toward a legal requirement that all biblical translations be made directly from the original languages. But again, whatever translation you are using: Read the Bible!
You might have heard of the Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture, which finally has produced a complete set of New Testament commentaries. It clocks in at seventeen volumes–all written with a focus on detailed exegesis and an eye to theology and pastoral ministry. The volumes of this series, edited by Scripture scholars Dr. Mary Healy and Dr. Peter Williamson with associate editor Kevin Perotta, have been helpful to me and my students as they have been coming out these past 10-12 years. The first volume was Dr. Healy’s commentary on The Gospel of Mark (2008). The last one to be published was Nathan Eubank’s volume on First and Second Thessalonians (2019).
The full set of seventeen volumes is now available for a steep 50% discount at the publisher’s website: https://bakerbookhouse.com/products/catholic-commentary-on-sacred-scripture-new-testament-set-9781540962225 This complete New Testament commentary, which is both scholarly and accessible, is being offered for $194.98 rather than it’s list price of $389.95. So if you’ve been looking to make an addition to your library that will help you read the New Testament with depth, now is the time to stock up. These books will serve as a helpful reference and reliable introduction to these texts for years to come.
Here’s a video the publisher put out to explain and promote the series:
Here is the full list of volumes and authors of the New Testament series:
- The Gospel of Matthew by Curtis Mitch and Edward Sri
- The Gospel of Mark by Mary Healy
- The Gospel of Luke by Pablo T. Gadenz
- The Gospel of John by Francis Martin and William M. Wright IV
- Acts of the Apostles by William J. Kurz, S.J.
- Romans by Scott W. Hahn
- First Corinthians by George T. Montague, SM
- Second Corinthians by Thomas D. Stegman, S.J.
- Galatians by Cardinal Albert Vanhoye and Peter S. Williamson
- Ephesians by Peter S. Williamson
- Philippians, Colossians, Philemon by Dennis Hamm, S.J.
- First and Second Thessalonians by Nathan Eubank
- First and Second Timothy, Titus by George T. Montague, SM
- Hebrews by Mary Healy
- James, First, Second and Third John by Kelly Anderson and Daniel Keating
- First and Second Peter, Jude by Daniel Keating
- Revelation by Peter S. Williamson
This sale launches on January 14th, but the set can be preordered today. My understanding is that this sale will only last for a limited time. Here is the link again if you want to check it out: https://bakerbookhouse.com/products/catholic-commentary-on-sacred-scripture-new-testament-set-9781540962225
A little video I did introducing the English Standard Version (ESV), Catholic Edition Bible:
Last year, I wrote a post about the new English Standard Version Catholic Edition Bible (ESV-CE) published in India. This year, I have the great pleasure of announcing that this new translation is now available for purchase in the United States, thanks to the Augustine Institute! Yes, it is finally here.
You can buy the ESV-CE Bible here: https://catholic.store/the-augustine-bible/
The Protestant Backstory
The ESV translation first came out in 2001 from Crossway publishers as a Protestant Bible for the Protestant market. The translation was partially born from a late-1990’s controversy over the inclusive language edition of the New International Version Bible–the NIVI. Many Bible readers were unhappy with the translation choices of the NRSV and NIVI. A new translation was needed. Instead of revising one of those translations, Crossway chose to go back to the RSV and then work from there.
What about the RSV?
The Revised Standard Vervsion (the Standard Version is the King James) originally came out in 1950’s and was revised in the 1970’s and then replaced by the NRSV. Many Catholic have used the RSV Bible in two versions–the original RSV-Catholic Edition and the so-called RSV-2CE from Ignatius Press, which was developed in partnership with the Congregation for Divine Worship under the guidelines of Liturgiam authenticam. The RSV-2CE is the translation in the Catholic Bible Study App offered by a partnership of Ignatius and the Augustine Institute.
What is different about the ESV?
The ESV is then a revision of the RSV. The ESV has modified about 60,000 words from the RSV. So it is a “daughter translation,” if you will, not a completely new from-scratch translation, but this makes the ESV feel like an old friend and a new teacher at the same time. It sounds strangely familiar and yet new. It offloads the archaic terms like the “thees, thous and wherefores.” It relies on better analyses of the manuscript tradition. The King James was based on the old Textus receptus of Erasmus, while the ESV is based on the newest critical editions available. It actually restores some King James readings that are more accurate than the RSV: “For example, Isaiah 7:14 was changed back to say, ‘Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son.’ Psalm 2:12 once again says, ‘Kiss the Son,’ and Psalm 45:6 is once again a Messianic prediction that says, ‘Your throne, O God, is forever and ever'” (Source: Wayne Grudem, “The Advantages of the English Standard Version (ESV) Translation” p. 3).
How did a Protestant Translation become Catholic?
The Bishops Conference of India needed a new English translation for the Lectionary and other liturgical purposes. Crossway worked out a deal with them, where a team of Catholic theologians and Scripture scholars headed up by Fr. Lucien Legrand, O.P. (now 93 years old!), would review the ESV translation carefully and make some emendations. The Catholic team did indeed review–and change–the text of the ESV in preparation for publication. The biggest change was the Book of Tobit, which had to be retranslated from scratch. The translation was reviewed in accord with the norms of Liturgiam authenticam, then it was approved and granted the Impimatur by the whole Conference of Catholic Bishops of India and published in early 2018. It is available in India from the Asian Trading Corporation.
Speaking of Tobit, what about the deuterocanon?
The original 2001 ESV did not include the deuterocanonical books (the ones in Catholic, but not Protestant Bibles), but in 2010, ESV did a joint publication with Oxford University Press which did include the deuterocanon. This edition, entitled “The English Standard Version Bible with Apocrypha,” was only published once as far as I can tell, but it served as the basis for the ESV Catholic Edition rendering of the deuterocanonical books, except Tobit, as I mentioned above.
The Augustine Institute, where I teach as a professor of Sacred Scripture, though originally only a graduate school, has become something of a media and publication apostolate with our Formed.org video platform and our merger with Lighthouse Catholic Media. We struck up a conversation with Crossway about the ESV Catholic Edition a couple years ago. It became clear that Crossway, as a Protestant publisher, did not feel well-suited to serve the Catholic market and wanted a Catholic partner to promote the new translation. Earlier this year (2019), we reached an agreement and hurried to put out our first-ever Bible publication before the end of the year. (Well, our second if you count the “Bible in a Year” RSV-2CE to which I contributed.) We’ve dubbed it the “Augustine Bible” in honor of our patron.
A New Beginning
The first ESV Catholic Edition Bible available in the United States is now ready for order. It arrived in the Augustine Institute warehouse just a few days ago. This edition is really only the firstfruits of a huge new opportunity for Catholic Bible readers. Hopefully, the Augustine Institute will be releasing many different editions of this great translation over the coming years. I have enjoyed using the ESV for study and teaching for years and I hope that you enjoy the new ESV Catholic Edition as much as I have. So go ahead and order one and see what you think.
Here’s the link again: https://catholic.store/the-augustine-bible/
We have all heard that “man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD.” (Deut 8:3 ESV) But this principle is developed further by several texts in Scripture and by quite a few important biblical commentators. For example, we find Ezekiel eating a scroll of God’s words (Ezek 3:3) and again, we find John eating a scroll in Revelation 10:10. Also, the prophet Amos famously says, “Behold, the days are coming,” declares the Lord GOD, “when I will send a famine on the land– not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the LORD.” (Amo 8:11 ESV) If we can have a famine of God’s word, then in some way, God’s word is food for us. It is a source of spiritual sustenance. But this idea grows even further.
“Who is able to understand, Lord, all the richness of even one of your words? There is more that eludes us than what we can understand. We are like the thirsty drinking from a fountain. Your word has as many aspects as the perspectives of those who study it. The Lord has coloured his word with diverse beauties, so that those who study it can contemplate what stirs them. He has hidden in his word all treasures, so that each of us may find a richness in what he or she contemplates” (Commentary on the Diatessaron, 1, 18).
So, I suppose that St. Ephrem here focuses on thirst rather than hunger, but still, it’s the same idea. But wait, there’s more!
St. Thomas Aquinas, in his commentary on the Lord’s Prayer, is talking about the “daily bread” we pray for and explains it like this:
“One may also see in this bread another twofold meaning, viz., Sacramental Bread and the Bread of the Word of God” (Source: Expositio in orationem dominicam)
Pope Benedict XVI, in his apostolic letter, Verbum Domini, points to the hunger and thirst we have for God’s word, relying on Amos:
May the Lord himself, as in the time of the prophet Amos, raise up in our midst a new hunger and thirst for the word of God (cf. Am 8:11). It is our responsibility to pass on what, by God’s grace, we ourselves have received. (sec. 91)
St. Maximus of Turin, in contemplating Jesus’ quotation of Deut 8:3 in Matthew says:
“So, whoever feeds on the word of Christ does not require earthly food, nor can one who feeds on the bread of the Savior desire the food of the world. The Lord has his own bread; indeed, the bread is the Savior himself.” (ACCS, NT Ia, p. 60)
St. Ambrose, in commenting on the manna in the wilderness tells us
“This is the heavenly food…And this is the Word of God which God has set in orderly array. By it the souls of the prudent are fed and delighted; it is clear and sweet, shining with the splendor of truth, and softening with the sweetness of virtue the souls of those who hear it.” (Ambrose of Milan, Saint Ambrose: Letters, ed. Roy Joseph Deferrari, trans. Mary Melchior Beyenka, vol. 26, The Fathers of the Church [Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 1954], 117.)
St. Gregory the Great offers to parse the distinction between Scripture as food and Scripture as drink:
When the apostles see their souls starved of the food of truth, they nourish them with the banquet of God’s word. And so it is well said: to eat and drink with them, for Sacred Scripture is sometimes solid food for us, and sometimes drink. It is food in the more obscure passages, since it is broken into pieces when it is explained and swallowed after being chewed. It is drink in the more straightforward parts since it is absorbed just as it is found. (Robert Louis Wilken, Angela Russell Christman, and Michael J. Hollerich, eds., Isaiah, The Church’s Bible [Grand Rapids, MI; Eerdmans, 2007], 444.)
Got that? The Scripture food when it is obscure and you have to chew it up before swallowing, but it is drink in the easy, straightforward passages that you only have drink down easily.
St. Jerome himself insists:
“The flesh of the Lord is true food and his blood true drink; this is the true good that is reserved for us in this present life, to nourish ourselves with his flesh and drink his blood, not only in the Eucharist but also in reading sacred Scripture. Indeed, true food and true drink is the word of God which we derive from the Scriptures” (Commentarius in Ecclesiasten, III: PL 23, 1092A quoted in Verbum Domini, n. 191).
We see in all these comments a shared idea, a common thread: that Scripture is a form of spiritual sustenance akin to the Eucharist. When we read Scripture, we eat Scripture. Of course, we’re not talking about ripping the pages out of your Bible and cooking them up into a stew, but a spiritual eating in which your “soul is satisfied as with fat and rich food” (see Ps 63:5). We have a need–a hunger or a thirst–for God, for spiritual life, for communion. Scripture is given to us in order to satisfy that hunger. So, um, eat up! And Happy Feast of St. Jerome!
I was reading Proverbs last term and came across a line that struck me as important for non-Proverbs reasons, namely 1:23 “If you turn at my reproof, behold, I will pour out my spirit to you; I will make my words known to you” (ESV). Clearly, the author is talking about conveying his thoughts. He will “pour out his spirit,” that is, he will open his mouth and words will tumble out. In perfect Hebrew synonymic parallelism, the second line repeats the idea in the first line. Thus, “I will pour out my spirit”= “I will make my words known.” This does not mean that he thinks of his spirit as wordy, as composed of words, but rather that the pouring-out process he mentions in the first line is precisely the process of talking, of letting words drop from his lips.
Pouring Spirit in Joel
Now, you might ask, “what’s the big deal?” The Bible is full of metaphors, similes, comparisons and so on, but this particular one actually opens up new dimensions for several very important passages. Indeed, the most important passage here is Joel 2:28-29, which I will quote in full:
And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. Even on the male and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit. (Joel 2:28-29 ESV)
This passage notably uses the concept of “pouring out spirit” twice. In between, the meaning of the “pouring” is that people will prophesy, dream and have visions. While only one of these three ideas, prophecy, is explicitly about words, all three of them are about divine revelation. The dreams and visions here are not just nice hallucinations, but revelations from God. Visions and dreams in the Bible are received by seers or prophets who then explain, interpret and hand on the meaning of what they see to other people with words. Joel is predicting a time when the prophetic gifting will be universally available and every member of God’s people will be part of the process of revelation.
Talking at Pentecost
The Book of Acts views the fulfillment of this prediction as the event of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit empowers the apostles to prophesy and speak in tongues. Peter quotes Joel 2:28-29 to explain what is happening (Acts 2:17-18). However, what I had always missed and what I imagine a lot of other people missed, is that to “pour out my spirit” is to talk. Sometimes people think of the Holy Spirit as a liquid since he can be “poured out” like oil or water, but this is not a correct interpretation of the Bible’s use of the phrase. (Though in other ways, the Holy Spirit is linked with oil and water, e.g. anointing, living water, etc.) When God “pours out his spirit,” he speaks, or at least, he speaks through an intermediary like a prophet.
Other Spirit-Pouring Concepts
Elsewhere, the concept of God “pouring spirit” appears in the context of rain (Isa 44:3), sleep (Isa 29:10), renewed relationship with God (Isa 32:15; Ezek 39:29), and mourning (Zech 12:10). In all the contexts, the pouring of God’s spirit is viewed as a positive thing, a good development. Paul gives expression to the same idea, though he takes it out of the realm of words to some extent, when he says that “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit” (Rom 5:5). However, I can’t easily fit Paul’s explanation of pouring out the Holy Spirit in Titus 3:5. Comment if you can!
Hannah, Psalms and Prophets “Pouring” Words
But, to get back to the wordy idea, that “pouring out my spirit” is talking, we can see Hannah “pouring out my soul before the Lord” as she prays (1 Sam 1:15; cf. Ps 42:4, 62:8). Even in Peter’s speech on Pentecost, he claims that the Holy Spirit can be seen and heard as it is poured out (Acts 2:33), meaning that the bystanders can hear the words of the prophecies being spoken. There are many OT mentions of pouring out an emotion like anger (Job 40:11; Ps 69:24, 79:5; Ezek 7:8; Sir 36:7). In addition, the Psalmist will pour out both complaint (142:2) and praise (119:171; 145:7). The point is that when the OT conceives of “pouring” it is usually talking about talking, so when we see God “pouring out his Spirit,” he is likely talking or giving someone else a gift of talking on his behalf.
So, next time you are thinking about the Holy Spirit as a liquid, remember that “pouring” can mean talking, and God empowers his people by speaking through them not just dousing them.
I hate flies. Living in a dry climate is helpful, but late in summer the flies start to multiply and collect. They often haunt the windows, banging their disgusting bodies against the glass repeatedly, trying to escape to the outdoors. Flies are carrion creatures, feeding on dead things, excrement and other unmentionable rotting items. They have a role in the ecosystem, I suppose, but not one that I want to personally witness.
Fortunately, most flies don’t bite, but some do. I remember going to Lake Michigan as a child and my brother and I fending off the “horse flies” that attacked any part of me not submerged in the water. Fly bites, while not as itchy as mosquito bites, actually hurt more. I don’t know what the flies were doing, but their blood-sucking plungers must have been higher caliber than the mosquitoes’ delicate straws.
In reading Aesop’s Fables to my children in combination with teaching the Book of Sirach, I came across a theme that I had never noticed before: flies are blood-drinkers! I wondered if this little insight could link up a few disparate concepts in the biblical world, namely, carrion flies, the prohibition on blood-drinking in the OT law, the portrayal of enemies as bloodthirsty and most fun of all the identity of Baal-zebub, “lord of the flies.” Well, let’s try it on for size.
Blood-Drinking Flies in Aesop
First, Aesop! “The Fox and the Hedgehog” mentions a “swarm of blood-sucking flies,” who are “full of blood” and who plan to “drink up all the blood I have left.” Also, “The Bald Man and the Fly” introduces a controversy between a bald man and a fly who bit his bald head. The bald man derides the fly as one who “live[s] by sucking human blood.” The flea who stars in “The Flea and the Ox” brags about how he lives on human bodies and “drink[s] my fill of their blood.” In “The Bald Man and the Gardener,” the gardener insults the bald man and wishes that flies might “bite you and drink your blood and poop on your head.” I hope that’s enough examples to convince you that flies as blood-drinkers is a common trope in Aesop. I wouldn’t be surprised, if we looked longer and deeper at Greco-Roman literature if we could find many more examples of blood-drinking flies.
Blood-Drinking in the Bible (and related literature)
But now, the Bible! Leviticus 17:10 threatens that anyone who “eats blood” will be cut off from the people of God. King David, whose extreme thirst was provided for by a few of his bravest soldiers at the risk of their lives, refuses to drink the water they give to him since it would be tantamount to blood-drinking. Instead, he poured out the water as a libation and said, “Shall I drink the blood of the men who went at the risk of their lives?” (2 Sam 23:17 ESV). This event is memorialized again in the non-biblical 4 Maccabees 3:15, where David “considered it an altogether fearful danger to his soul to dirnk what was regarded as equivalent to blood” (RSV). Also see Josephus, Ant. 7:314. Sirach 12:16 portrays an enemy whose “thirst for blood” is “insatiable.” The nonbiblical 4 Esdras 15:58, describing the sorry plight of sufferers, who “drink their own blood in thirst for water.” Zech 9:15 in the LXX as least in certain manuscripts refers to soldiers who will “drink their blood like wine.” Ezekiel envisions the carrion birds drinking the blood of the dead after the grand battle against Gog and Magog (Ezek 39:17-19). And of course, the Lord turns normal water into blood to make it undrinkable a few times (Exod 7:21; Ps 78:44; Rev 16:6). The nonbiblical Book of Enoch also refers to giants eating people and “drink[ing] the blood” (7:5).
“Men of Bloods”
The Bible also uses a phrase, ish-damim, which literally means “man of bloods.” Usually it is translated as something like “bloodthirsty men.” We see the exact phrase in 2 Sam 16:8 and Ps 5:7. A similar phrase, anashe-damim, “men of bloods,” shows up in Ps 26:9, 55:23, 59:2, and Prov 29:10. The point is that nasty, violent men seek out the blood of other people. You know, kinda like flies! Flies are bloodthirsty and so are violent men.
What about Flies?
Flies show up in the Bible as a divine curse (ha!) sent against the Egyptians in Exodus 8:20-32. They come as a “swarm,” but the text says nothing about blood. The Hebrew word for “fly,” zebub, is only used twice in the Hebrew Bible (Eccl 10:1 and Isa 7:18). However, the term “Baal-Zebub” does show up in 2 Kings 1:2, 3, 6, and 16. This god of Ekron plays a minor role in the narrative of Elijah’s relationship with Ahaziah, but the term underlies the “Beelzebul” who shows up in Jesus’ disputes with the Pharisees as the name of a demon or an alternate term for Satan. “Baal-zebub” means “lord of the flies,” or as the TDOT puts it “lord of filth,” perhaps beacause the offerings which the god consumes are regarded as ritually polluted and therefore disgusting. The term could show up in the fragmentary Qumran text 4Q560. Creepily, the female demon Lilith, Adam’s first wife in Jewish mythology, “could enter the rooms of pregnant women as a fly.” So flies, since they are blood-drinkers, consumers of ritually impure sacrificial offerings, are associated with the demonic.
So now that we’ve taken a look at the biblical texts, Aesop’s fables and a few nonbiblical texts, what kind of portrait can we draw? I think we can offer up a few tentative conclusions:
- Flies were regarded as suspicious, demonic and violent because their habit of drinking human blood.
- Drinking blood was forbidden in biblical law not only because of its associations with magical practices of uniting oneself with an animal’s spirit (the typical explanation), but because it mirrored the carrion activity of flies.
- Violence is regarded as “fly-like” behavior. Violent men, like flies, are “bloodthirsty.”
- Demons, since they also seek to violently destroy human beings, are also “fly-like” in their desire for human blood.
I have to admit I didn’t think that Aesop’s fables would lead me down such a dark and scary path! It does seem like Dracula is staring back at us from what I’ve concluded here. The blood-drinking of vampires then appears “fly-like” and therefore also demonic. The connection between violence, flies, and demons on the basis of blood-drinking now makes more sense to me, but I do think it will give me pause when reading seemingly innocent old tales to my children. Hopefully, we can keep those pesky “horse flies” away!
 Penney, Douglas L, and Michael O Wise. “By the Power of Beelzebub: An Aramaic Incantation Formula from Qumran (4Q560).” Journal of Biblical Literature 113 (1994): 627–50, here 634.
One of the biggest differences between Catholicism as it is actually practiced and the parallel spiritual traditions of Jews and Protestants is the almost total absence of study as a spiritual exercise.
The Jewish Tradition of Torah Study
For Jews from ancient times to now, the way to express devotion to God was to study the Torah. All other intellectual labor is forbidden on Sabbath, but Torah study is upheld as a worthy goal, a shining ideal especially on Sabbath. This study, however, is not carried out in isolation, but in vigorous conversation and even argument with fellow Jews. The place to grow closer to God is not just at synagogue prayers, but in the Beit Midrash, the House of Study—a room full of books: Torah, Talmud and other Jewish sources.
What happens during Torah study is not an idle, passive, quiet reading, but a lively interpersonal exchange of opinions, a comparison of interpretations, an open-ended dialogue in which participants take positions and defend them, pose questions and pursue their answers. Even the rabbinic sources themselves unfold in a dialogic pattern, where they offer up a multitude of contrasting opinions about the interpretation of various biblical passages. This study, this argumentation, this exchange of opinions is one of the highest spiritual exercises of the Jewish faith, upheld as the ideal to be sought.
The Protestant Practice of Bible Study
In Protestantism, we find a similar focus on the Word. While it is true that the Protestant world is dynamically fracturing before our eyes, one of the basic concepts of Protestant piety is a serious attention to the Bible. The way one gets closer to God is not merely through silent prayer or singing worship songs or hymns, but through detailed and intellectual engagement with the Sacred Page. For Protestant practice writ large (with obviously unending diversity in how it is actually done), one studies the Bible in order to spiritually grow. You bring your Bible to Church with you. The sermon is exegetical in focus, a deep Bible study by an expert interpreter (your pastor), and hopefully long enough to feel like a satisfying lesson (maybe an hour). If you want to go to the next level of commitment, the choice is clear: join a Bible study. There, while yes you might share about your life and hear about others, the ostensible goal is a deep and intellectual engagement with Scripture in the context of a community. If you attend a well-run Protestant Bible study, you won’t find a sleepy, tired reading, but an active conversation, a communal wrestling with the meaning of the text. While the Talmud will not be consulted, participants might be looking at Study Bible footnotes, commentaries and other works to help them understand as they read, converse and engage with both the text and one another.
Catholic Apathy Toward Bible Study
Catholics, however, suffer from a certain intellectual apathy about such things. Our tradition (again, as it is typically practiced) prizes doctrinal conformity, silent prayer and receptivity. These are hugely important values in our spiritual practice, yes. They lead to receiving Scripture, Tradition and the Church itself as gifts from God, but these tendencies can lead us into a false passivity. While some Catholic Bible studies have followed the Protestant model and become engaging intellectual communities, the general trend in Catholic practice is less intellectually vigorous. That is, a diversity of views, a robust exchange of opinions over the meaning of the sacred text is not regarded as a spiritual exercise, but as an educational one. Bible study groups and other types of small groups might be accepted, but they are viewed as community events, educational opportunities, while the “real prayer” happens at Mass, in adoration or at the retreat house. Homilies tend to be very short and typically shy away from serious exegesis of Scripture—a serious departure from the example of the Church Fathers.
This situation that has developed in the Catholic realm has produced a prejudice against an intellectual engagement with the faith. I view it as a latent anti-intellectualism we American Catholics inherited from an early twentieth century social location of poorly-educated Catholic immigrant communities that prized conformity and eschewed intellectual distinctions in order to maintain their minority identity over-against the prevailing Protestant world. But in an era where more and more people are attaining high degrees of education, it is hard to maintain a merely sentimental engagement with Catholicism. The deep things of faith, which only are considered in the context of study, questioning, argument and dialogue, are often left on the table, or the bookshelf. Few parishes have theological libraries for parishoners. Few homilists offer serious and lengthy exegesis. Few Catholics own a Study Bible.
What I am proposing is that we learn a few things from our Jewish and Protestant friends, that we pick up our Bibles and read them, that we view study as a spiritual exercise, that we talk with one another, share opinions and swap ideas—that we truly become “Catholic Bible Students.”