There are quite a few ancient Near Eastern texts that shed light on our understanding of the Bible, especially the Old Testament. The documents come from Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Ugarit and other places. Their similarity in language, culture and historical context is immensely helpful in understanding the Old Testament more clearly. There have been two major publications of these texts in English translation to which scholars refer. The first collection, Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, was edited by James Pritchard and published first in 1950, with a revised edition in 1955. For many years, the “ANET” was a standard reference for Old Testament scholars. However, in the 1990’s the ANET was replaced by a three volume work called The Context of Scripture, edited by William Hallo. This “COS” is now the standard scholarly presentation of ancient Near Eastern texts in translation. However, as you could imagine, the ANET and COS are not identical. They offer mostly the same texts, but COS omits some texts included in ANET and ANET omits many texts included in COS. And what if you find a reference to ANET, but need to locate it in COS? Lots of confusion could result from all of this! Fortunately, a certain Kevin P. Edgecomb, has provided a very helpful cross index of ANET and COS with notations as to which texts are included and excluded from the two publications. If you ever find yourself comparing texts from these two translations, his cross index will be indispensible to you.
Anathema shows up five times as a noun in the New Testament (Rom 9:3; 1 Cor 12:3, 16:22; Gal 1:8, 9) and oddly, one time as a verb (Acts 23:14). It is a strange, foreign-sounding word that has an oddly long life. For example, if you read the canons of the Council of Trent, each stated idea condemned by the Council is followed by “…anathema sit” or “let him be anathema [if he holds this view]. See the section on justification, for example. There’s even a joke about a Catholic monsignor who named his dog “Anathema,” so that he could yell at the dog, “Anathema sit!”
Often, the New Testament examples of “anathema” are translated as “accursed.” So, for example, in Gal 1:9 Paul teaches, “If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one your received, let him be accursed” (ESV). The word there really is “anathema.”
The word does show up in the Septuagint 26 times (Lev 27:28 twice; Num 21:3; Deut 7:26 twice, 13:16, 13:18, 20:17; Josh 6:17, 6:18 thrice, 7:1 twice, 7:11, 7:12 twice, 7:13 twice, 22:20; Judg 1:17; 1 Chr 2:7; Judith 16:19; 2 Macc 2:13, 9:16; Zech 14:11). In these Old Testament references, “anathema” often refers to something “devoted” to the Lord (Lev 27:28; Josh 6:17), but it can refer to things that are cursed (Deut 7:26). Oddly, the word is used as a proper noun for a place name in Hebrew, “Hormah,” but in Greek, “Anathema” (Num 21:3; Judg 1:17). However, this is more a translation than a transliteration. The word “Hormah” is derived from the Hebrew verb hrm which means to devote something.
Ok, so what does anathema mean? Well, it comes from the Greek verb, anatithemi, which means to “lay upon” and therefore “refer, attribute, ascribe, entrust, commit, set up, set forth, declare.” The idea is that you might put an offering of some kind before a person or god, laying it upon an altar or perhaps at the feet of another.This verb actually shows up in Acts 25:14 and Gal 2:2, where a person “lays” a matter before another; in one case Festus lays Paul’s case before Felix, in the other, Paul lays his views before the apostles. So “anathema” means a “thing laid before” or a “thing devoted.” It translates the Hebrew word herem in the Old Testament, which as we saw above could refer to something devoted to God or something devoted “to destruction,” an abominable thing. So in light of the Septuagint, the New Testament uses of anathema follow in the second track, using “anathema” to mean “accursed” or “abominable.” The Liddell-Scott-Jones Lexicon does not offer a lot of help. Moulton-Miligan’s Vocabulary of the Greek New Testament (p. 33) expound on the Megara inscription mentioned by LSJ, which actually reads “anethema”, and they explain the spelling difference but translate the word as “curse!” The Thesaurus Linguae Graecae shows 1753 results for “anathema”, but most are post-New Testament. It seems to be a word that came into its own in the Septuagint and then used in the NT with it’s “septuagintal” sense of “accursed.”
Catholic News Agency interviewed me yesterday regarding the newly discovered Coptic Papyrus in which Jesus is quoted as having said “my wife.” You can read the interview article here: http://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/wife-of-jesus-fragment-no-threat-to-christianity/
When the Iranians announced that a worm had got into their computers last week, I was a little surprised. I mean, most computers have hard plastic cases and are not usually placed in muddy puddles. But then I realized, “Oh, they meant a virus, a trojan a computer worm, not just any old worm.” With that cleared up, the NY Times released a related story yesterday which prompted some Catholic Bible Student interest. (In case you have not read about what happened–basically, a big ugly computer worm called “Stuxnet” infested the computers at Iran’s nuclear facilities.) Apparently, one of the files in the worm is entitled “Myrtus.” The NY Times intelligently relates how this title may be an allusion to the Book of Esther. This allusion may indicate that the Stuxnet worm is connected to the Israelis, specifically their cyberwarfare unit in their intelligence service. Unfortunately, the Times article does not get into explaining the exact connection between the word “Myrtus” and Esther until late in the article, except for saying it is connected to the myrtle plant. So what is the connection?
The NY Times tells us this:
Then there is the allusion to myrtus — which may be telling, or may be a red herring.
Several of the teams of computer security researchers who have been dissecting the software found a text string that suggests that the attackers named their project Myrtus. The guava fruit is part of the Myrtus family, and one of the code modules is identified as Guava.
It was Mr. Langner who first noted that Myrtus is an allusion to the Hebrew word for Esther. The Book of Esther tells the story of a Persian plot against the Jews, who attacked their enemies pre-emptively.
“If you readyou can make a guess,” said Mr. Langner, in a telephone interview from Germany on Wednesday.
Carol Newsom, an Old Testament scholar at, confirmed the linguistic connection between the plant family and the Old Testament figure, noting that Queen Esther’s original name in Hebrew was Hadassah, which is similar to the Hebrew word for myrtle. Perhaps, she said, “someone was making a learned cross-linguistic wordplay.”
Ok, so that’s all fine, but let’s get into the details about this so-called allusion.
The word at issue is actually a Latin word. In the Latin Vulgate, the word only shows up in Isaiah 55:13 (“pro saliunca ascendet abies et pro urtica crescet myrtus et erit Dominus nominatus in signum aeternum quod non auferetur”). The word in Hebrew here is “hadas”. In Latin, it is less common than the adjectival form, myrteus. Here’s the dictionary entry from Lewis and Short’s Latin Dictionary, provided by Perseus Digital Library:
A Latin Dictionary. Founded on Andrews’ edition of Freund’s Latin dictionary. revised, enlarged, and in great part rewritten by. Charlton T. Lewis, Ph.D. and. Charles Short, LL.D. Oxford. Clarendon Press. 1879.
So that’s the word which shows up in the Stuxnet computer worm files. We have three more questions to answer. What does myrtle look like? How is the Latin word myrtus related to Esther? Why would an allusion to Esther indicate any kind of Israeli involvement?
2. The Latin word myrtus translates into Hebrew as “hadas”, which I stated above. This exact Hebrew form shows up only in Isaiah 55:13 and Nehemiah 8:15. Other forms of the same word occur in Isaiah 41:19 and Zechariah 1:8, 10 and 11. In every case, the word is translated as myrtle. But…where this gets interesting is that the name of Esther in Hebrew is “Hadassah”. The word only appears once in the Bible in Esther 2:7. The Bible is talking about Mordecai who “was bringing up Hadassah, that is Esther.” Hadassah is her Hebrew name and “Esther” is her name in Persian. The Hebrew name, Hadassah, comes from the same root as the word for myrtle (hadas). So…by a long, circuitous, multi-langugage path, the word myrtus which is “hadas” in Hebrew, the basis for “Hadassah,” the Hebrew name for Esther, connects us to the biblical story of Esther.
3. Ok, great. We have traced the linguistic connections, but why Esther? Well, in Esther, the Jews beat the Persians. Esther and Mordecai are living in the capital of the Persian empire and are under attack by a certain high Persian official. Through a series of twisty-turny events, Esther and Mordecai avoid the persecutions of the official and win peace and prosperity for the Jews in the Persian empire. It is a story of the underdog overcoming a powerful foe. In addition, the Persian empire was the ancient version of Iran. Susa, the capital, was in modern-day Iran. Iranians speak the Persian language. And modern-day Iranians think of themselves as the heirs of the great Persian empire of ancient times.
So, the connection is rather apt, if a little obscure. Just as Esther subverted the power of the Persian empire in ancient times, so the Stuxnet worm is subverting the neo-Persian-Iranian empire in modern times.
Once every three years, on the second Sunday of Lent in Year C of the lectionary cycle, the story of Abraham’s covenant with the Lord is retold from Genesis 15. In the context of this important biblical story, we find one of the most hilarious translation problems in the New American Bible. God speaks to Abraham and the patriarch prepares a covenant ceremony by slicing animals in two and separating the pieces. Verse 17 tells us that “When the sun had set and it was dark, there appeared a smoking brazier and a flaming torch, which passed between those pieces” (NAB).
While most lectors are highly educated and pronounce words correctly, many of them stumble on the word, “brazier.” The definition of a “brazier” from Wiktionary: “An upright standing or hanging metal bowl used for holding burning coal for a source of light or heat.” The word in question should be pronounced with a “zh” sound in the middle and the accent on the first syllable. Unfortunately, many lectors are unfamiliar with the word and have pronounced it without the “zh” sound and with the accent on the second syllable, so it sounds like another word, perhaps more familiar: brassiere, which is pronounced with a regular “z” sound and the accent on the second syllable rather than the first. But I’ll let you look up the definition for that word on your own.
The point is that using a relatively rare word, which may be easily mis-pronounced as word that is inappropriate for liturgy, is not a good translation idea for liturgical texts. The NAB revisers should follow the more mundane translations of other versions: “fire pot” (NRSV, ESV) or “furnace” (JPS, KJV). I suppose though, the word makes for a good chuckle in the pew every now and again–at least once every three years. So, if you happen to be a lector on the Second Sunday of Lent, beware.