I was recently interviewed by T.L. Putnam on his podcast entitled “Outside the Walls.” It always makes me think of the great basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls in Rome. I have been on his show before, but this time we’re talking about my new commentary on the Wisdom of Solomon in the CCSS series. Check it out:
Hooray! My commentary on the Wisdom of Solomon in the Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture is now released as of today, February 13, 2024.
Description of the Book
The Wisdom of Solomon is the first volume published in the Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture, Old Testament series. The commentary offers a robust introduction to the historical and theological background of the often-overlooked Wisdom of Solomon, the RSV-2CE translation of the biblical text, cross references, Catechism and Lectionary references, and a detailed interpretation of each passage in the 19-chapter book. It also includes helpful sidebars on biblical background and important references in the living tradition of the Church. This commentary guides the Catholic reader in a thorough and careful study of the Wisdom of Solomon.
I hope you all pick up a copy, read it, enjoy it and learn something from it!
Where to Find the Book
- Baker: https://bakeracademic.com/p/Wisdom-of-Solomon-Mark-Giszczak/542807
- Amazon: https://a.co/d/5ufZiPn
- Soon, Verbum software: https://verbum.com/product/252803/wisdom-of-solomon
I’ve been doing some interviews on my new books. Take a listen:
The Catholic Theology Show with Michael Dauphinais
Little did I know some 20+ years ago that I would get interviewed by one of my professors! I took classes with Dr. Dauphinais in Ypsilanti, Michigan back at Ave Maria College (before the Florida campus was even purchased). I think he was 29 years old when he arrived as a professor fresh out of doctoral studies at Duke and I arrived as a freshman. I’m happy to find out that we’re still both on the same page–studying theology together. Very cool. We talk about the commentary and the Wisdom of Solomon in general, a terribly under-studied book of the Bible.
Drew Mariani Show
On Tuesday 2/6, I appeared on the Drew Mariani Show. He wanted to ask about recent archaeological finds that relate to the Bible and Christian settlement in the Holy Land. In particular, we talked about the recently found fifth century inscription mentioning “Christ, born of Mary” near Megiddo. It was a fun segment with a lot of topics and some speculation about what happened to the Ark of the Covenant. I hope you enjoy listing!
One of the weirdest things that I learned in college is that during the time of St. Cyril of Alexandria, there was a bellybutton statue in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. I saw a circle on a diagram of the church that was labeled “omphalos.” That is the Greek word for bellybutton. I asked my professor what it was about and, if I recall correctly, he explained that it meant that Christians regarded the Church of the Holy Sepulchre as the center of the world. I’ve added a similar diagram here of the modern church and you can see a tiny “19” at the middle. Yes, to this day, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem has a bellybutton statue at the very center! I’ve also posted a picture of it so you can see what it looks like.
So where did this idea come from? Were there other bellybutton statues in the ancient world? It turns out, there were quite a few.
The Omphalos of Delphi
The most famous bellybutton statue was at Delphi where the famous Greek Oracle of Delphi would receive visitors and offer her cryptic prophecies. Some archaeologists think she was inhaling intoxicant vapors from the geothermal features at the site, which helped her achieve an altered state of consciousness for the purpose of prophesying. Some even believe that she breathed these fumes through the omphalos statue itself. Very strange! You can actually still pay a visit to Delphi and find the belly button statue from antiquity in their museum.
Outdoors at Delphi, you will also find another bellybutton statue that looks more plain—like a cone of plain rock with no decoration.
The Bellybutton of Rome
Ancient Rome had something similar, called the umbilicus Urbis Romae, the belly button of the City of Rome. It was a statue or monument of a belly button that officially marked the center of the city. It was the point from which all distances were measured. Today it looks a little like a beat up pile of bricks with a doorway:
The Center of the World
The point of all of these belly button statues is that they mark a spot regarded as the “center of the world.” We find this idea in the Bible at the Book of Ezekiel, where the prophet is told,
“Thus says the Lord GOD: This is Jerusalem; I have set her in the center of the nations, with countries round about her.” (Ezek 5:5 RSV2CE)
In fact, many religious traditions identify a certain place as the center to which everything relates. Consider these examples outlined by Zimmerli, Cross and Baltzer:
The wealth of material gathered by Wensinck and Roscher (see also Holma) makes it additionally clear that not only the assertion of living in the center of the world, but also the specific reference to the “navel” (ὄμφαλος) is attested in a wide surrounding area. In Greece, alongside the dominating claim of Delphi, there stands the conception (apparent only in monuments rather than in literature) of the Eleusinian mystery cults that Athens, the μητρόπολις τῶν καρπῶν, was the place of the ὄμφαλος. In the wider Greek world the same claim is made by Paphos, Branchidai, Delos, Epidauros. In post-biblical tradition it gained significance through its connection with the Adam legend in its relationship to Golgotha, Zion and Moriah and perhaps also with Hebron. Islam, for its part, has transferred the tradition to Mecca. (Walther Zimmerli, Frank Moore Cross, and Klaus Baltzer, Ezekiel: A Commentary on the Book of the Prophet Ezekiel, Hermeneia [Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1983], 311.)
So many places have claimed to be the “omphalos,” the belly button or navel of the world. And some of these places mark their claim with a statue of a belly button. The ones we have noticed here include:
- The Church of the Holy Sepulchre
- The Roman Forum
Normally I’m focused on the intricacies of Bible translation, but sometimes closely related translation problems crop up. One that I stumbled across made me smile. It has to do with how a now-disfavored term is translated in the premier document of the Second Vatican Council, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church Lumen Gentium, paragraph #2.
Just so we are all on the same page, the Latin of the crucial sentence reads:
Credentes autem in Christum convocare statuit in sancta Ecclesia, quae iam ab origine mundi praefigurata, in historia populi Israel ac foedere antiquo mirabiliter praeparata(1), in novissimis temporibus constituta, effuso Spiritu est manifestata, et in fine saeculorum gloriose consummabitur.
The translation of the relevant section presented in the English Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd ed, sec. 759. reads:
…already present in figure at the beginning of the world, this Church was prepared in marvellous fashion in the history of the people of Israel and the old Alliance.
Some sites contain what must be the text of the first edition of the English Catechism and strangely read:
Analyzing the Latin Terms
The typical Latin phrase for “Old Testament” is Vetus Testamentum, whereas the typical Latin term for “Old Covenant” is Foedus Vetus (see Catechism 121). So it is true that the composers of Lumen Gentium–ok, likely not the Council Fathers themselves here, but the Latinist periti that were helping them at the Council–served up a non-standard phrase in foedere antiquo. “Foedus, foederis” is a noun which could mean “treaty, alliance, league, compact, etc.” Fair enough, it is the typical term for covenant. But why antiquo? Perhaps it is meant to have a more nostalgic ring than mere “vetus.” Antiquo could mean “of old, antique, of the ancients, of olden times.”
A Better Translation
It does seem to me that Vatican translators have caught this one and thought the “old Advance” does not mean much to English readers. However, I did find one instance of St. John Paul II talking about the “Old Alliance” from a 1986 General Audience. In the present English text of Lumen Gentium on the Vatican website, we get a better rendering:
Already from the beginning of the world the foreshadowing of the Church took place. It was prepared in a remarkable way throughout the history of the people of Israel and by means of the Old Covenant.
That sounds better to my ears! But it is true that “Old Covenant” and “Old Testament” too have become disfavored as seemingly supportive of supercessionist frameworks. However, to my mind they are simply conventional terms by this point without much charge to them at all.
If we wanted to really parse the difference between foedus vetus and foedere antiquo, then perhaps we could try “the covenant of old” as a kind of nostalgic translation of a Latin phrase that an unknown peritus typed on his Olivetti portable typewriter late at night in his hotel room between sessions of the Council. I was only able to find the phrase in Lumen Gentium and in Livy. Perhaps I’m missing a nuance, but that’s what the comment section is for.
Yesterday, I came across a helpful calculation of the sum of money that Tobit sent his son, Tobias, to retrieve from his relative: ten talents of silver. How much is ten talents actually worth?
Robert J. Littman’s commentary offers this helpful note:
“The only way to calculate the value of ten talents is to compare it to wages and buying power. At this period the wages for an individual were approximately one drachma per day. Ten talents would contain 60,000 drachmas, in comparative American wages of 2006, $6,000,000. In terms of silver value, a talent weighs approximately 20 to 40 kgs., and 26 kgs. in ancient Greece. At the 2006 price of silver at $11.50 per ounce, the value of one talent, weighing 26 kg, would be $10,547, and the value of 10 talents would be $105,468. In any case, this is an enormous sum of money.” (Source: Robert J. Littman, Tobit: Commentary, ed. Stanley E. Porter, Richard S. Hess, and John Jarick, Septuagint Commentary Series (Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2008), 57.)
Ok, so to re-work the calculation for today, a talent of silver works out to about 75 pounds (at least most of the reference books use this number–and it is within Pittman’s parameters at 34 kgs).
- Calculation #1: By Weight
Today’s spot-price on silver: $22.69/oz
One talent = 1200 ounces = $27,228 (in 2022 dollars)
Tobit’s stash of ten talents = $272,280
- Calculation #2: By Wage
Daily wage in ancient Greek world: One drachma
Daily wage in 2022 America (I’m using a median hourly wage of $29.55 from data tables provided by the State of Washington multiplied by an 8 hour day): $236.40
One talent = 6,000 drachma = 6,000×236.40 = $1,418,400
Tobit’s stash of ten talents = $14,184,000
Here’s a chart showing the dramatic difference in the two calculations:
While I am not going to calculate out every possible instance here, take a look at this chart I’ve prepared of other biblical instances of talents of silver, calculated two different way:
|1 Kings 10:10
|1 Kings 10:14
|1 Kings 16:24
|2 Kings 5:5
|2 Kings 5:23
|2 Kings 15:19
|2 Kings 18:14
|2 Kings 23:33
It is important to remember that some of the talents in the Bible are actually in gold, not silver. I don’t have a good way of translating gold talents to a daily wage, but we can easily measure them by weight using today’s spot price on gold of $1802.90. Take a look at these examples:
|1 Kings 9:14
|1 Kings 10:10
|1 Kings 10:14
|2 Kings 18:14
|2 Kings 23:33
So, we have two different precious metals and two different ways of calculating the value of a talent. Even though we can perform these kinds of conversion, it’s worth saying that economic value in the ancient world isn’t exactly translatable to economic value today. The way that we can reduce the value of land, food, personal property, diamonds and oil to American dollars is not really the way things worked in Ecbatana in Tobit’s time. These calculations are fun, but not necessarily accurate. That is, they are as accurate as we can get, but we have to account for the giant gulf of centuries of time, economic and cultural change. For me, the importance of this observation–that there are two different ways to calculate the value of a talent–puts many of these biblical passages into perspective. There’s a big difference between $272,000 and $14 million (in the case of Tobit’s stash). Considering both sides of the calculation might help us reach a more nuanced view of many of these passages.
My new article, “The Quest of the King in the Wisdom of Solomon,” was just published in the Journal for the Study of the Pseudepigrapha, Volume 31, issue 1. I presented an early version of this paper at the 2020 SBL Annual Meeting.
Historians largely agree that Hellenistic kingship was founded, not primarily on heredity, but on military achievement (MacDonald, 2015). The right to rule was thus militarily meritocratic, but philosophically unsteady, so kings felt the need to propagandize by commissioning writings peri basileias. Diogenes Laertius gives evidence that this type of kingship literature was widely produced in this era, though only fragments of these texts survive. The tracts attributed to Ecphantus, Diotogenes, and Sthenidas, along with the Letter of Aristeas, reveal that Hellenistic kingship was supported by a mythos that viewed obtaining kingship as a kind of moral achievement. The king’s virtues are emphasized as godlike and worthy of imitation by his subjects, as he embodies the law in his person. The Wisdom of Solomon reworks this kingship tradition by “democratizing” kingship (Newman, 2004) to all to call his readers to imitate Solomon’s choice of wisdom over folly. Solomon’s search for and embrace of wisdom (7:7; 8:2) takes the place of militaristic emphases and establishes a universalizable pattern for the moral quest of the individual. Wisdom domesticates a Hellenistic pattern of seeking wisdom and thus achieving kingly rule, which eventually allows one to be a benefactor of others. Wisdom is beneficent (7:23) and, rather than becoming a god, the wise Solomon benefits others with his wise and just rule (Wis 8:10–15; 9:12). Even the wise Israelites become benefactors to others (19:14). Thus, the quest of the king for wisdom follows a familiar outline of the journey of a king from obscurity, to conquest, to rule, to beneficence.
If you are interested in reading the whole thing, here is the permanent link to it: https://doi.org/10.1177/09518207211032890
The Book of Leviticus has always puzzled Bible readers. We come looking for inspiration, prayer and hope amid the challenges of life in the Valley of Tears, but instead we find rules about sacrifices, priestly garb, foods to avoid, skin diseases and other topics that seem like mere relics from the ancient past. Yet Leviticus is not just about rules and ritual purity. It is about the holiness of God. It shows us how holy He is and how he calls each one of us to be holy. In fact, to me, Leviticus is the Old Testament version of “the universal call to holiness” famously proclaimed by the Second Vatican Council. In fact, that’s exactly it: “You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy” (Lev 19:2 ESV). God is holy, that is, “set apart” from us. He’s different, other, separate from our sinfulness and selfishness. He wants us to leave behind the petty desires of the world and become truly holy like Him.
If you want to learn more about Leviticus, check out my new Lighthouse Talk on mp3 and CD from the Augustine Institute: “Leviticus Explained”. I hope you enjoy it!
Today, the Augustine Institute released my new short course on Wisdom Literature. In it, I teach 30 minute video sessions on Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Sirach and Wisdom of Solomon. This non-credit video course is available as a standalone for $59 and also as part of the monthly short course subscription of $23/month.
The course is available here: https://courses.augustineinstitute.org/courses/wisdom-literature
The short course program from the Augustine Institute is an easy way to encounter new ideas very quickly. The courses vary in length, but tend to consist of six or more 30-minute video lectures, accompanied by quizzes, links and other material. Right now, we have about twenty courses available and we add a new one every month.
It’s worth mentioning that I also teach the first course in the Short Course curriculum, “The Story of the Old Testament.” You can find that one here: https://courses.augustineinstitute.org/courses/old-testament
I hope you have a chance to check out these courses and the others. I hope that you’ll enjoy them! If you have suggestions for future short courses I should teach, put them in the comments on this post.
This is my third and last installment of Summer Scripture lectures I was originally slated to deliver at the Institute for Pastoral Leadership at University of St. Mary of the Lake in Mundelein, IL. They have been holding a Summer Scripture Conference for decades and I’m sad that we weren’t able to come together this summer because of the pandemic. But thanks to IPL and my home institution, the Augustine Institute, for teaming up to support this short series.
This lecture dives into the Book of Psalms to show how the canonical shape of this premiere collection of sacred song from ancient Israel has a messianic orientation. David, to whom the bulk of the Psalter is attributed, forms the heart and soul of the collection and the five-book structure comes to us in a highly “Davidic” mode. To pray the psalms is to pray like David. Since Jesus presents himself as the “New David,” then to pray the psalms is to pray like Christ. I hope you enjoy this presentation!
Thanks, again, to the IPL and to the Augustine Institute for making this series possible!