Monthly Archives: August 2012

Stone Figurines Found at Tel Motza

Archaeologists working for the Israeli Antiquities Authority have found two figurines at Tel Motza (about 6 km/4 mi from Jerusalem’s Old City) that date back to around 7500-7000 BCE (during the Pre-Pottery Neolithic B). One figurine has a ram’s head with well-proportioned horns, and the other figurine has bovine antlers.

This means that the region around Jerusalem was inhabited by a semi-agrarian society some 6000 years before the Davidic era. Pretty cool! Maybe they’ll find something even older and give Jericho a run for its money.



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Isaiah 40:7-8 in the Ancient Versions

I’m trying to work out the/an original text for Isaiah 40:7-8, which is proving to be quite a puzzle. Here are the ancient versions in roughly chronological order (in English, for those who can’t read the various languages).

The Versions

1QIsa [The Great Isaiah Scroll]
ca. 150-100 BCE

Grass withers, a flower fades,
(Because the breath of YHWH blows on it.
Truly the people are grass.
Grass withers, a flower fades,)
But the word of our God stands forever.

Notes: The text in parentheses is written in a second hand in the margins of the scroll. It was either a haplography that was corrected by a second scribe, or the second scribe added it to make 1QIsa match the text of a different exemplar. At any rate, the uncorrected text matches LXX, while the corrected text matches MT, Vulgate, Peshitta, and Targ. Isa.

Septuagint (LXX)
ca. 140 BCE

The grass dries up and the flower falls,
But the word of our God remains forever.

Notes: The text of the LXX matches that of the uncorrected 1QIsa, except for “the flower falls” versus 1QIsa’s “a flower fades.” It is worth noting that LXX and 1QIsa are more or less contemporaneous, though they come from quite different places.

Targum Isaiah (Targ. Isa.)
2nd cent. BCE-1st cent. CE

The grass withers, its flower fades, because the wind from before YHWH has blown upon it. Therefore, the wicked among the people are counted as grass. The wicked dies, his thoughts perish, but the word of our God abides forever.

Notes: Targ. Isa., being an Aramaic explanation of a Hebrew poem, is necessarily in prose, and I have reflected that here. (Translation is modernized from Stenning’s.) And, though the translator has taken some liberties, it’s clear enough that the Hebrew text behind Targ. Isa. corresponds with MT, Vulgate, Peshitta, and corrected 1QIsa.

1st-2nd cent. CE

The grass withers, the flower fades,
Because the breath of the LORD blows upon it;
Surely this people is like the grass.
The grass withers, the flower fades;
but the word of our God shall stand for ever.

Notes: Translation is Lamsa’s. The text matches that of the corrected 1QIsa, Targ. Isa., Vulgate, and MT.

390-405 CE

Hay dries up and a flower falls,
Because the breath of God blows on it.
Truly the people are hay.
Hay dries up and a flower falls,
But the word of our God stands forever.

Notes: Hay, of course, is dried-up grass, so the variant reading isn’t all that important. Vulgate has “flower falls,” like the LXX, over against 1QIsa, Peshitta, and MT.

Masoretic Text (MT)
Fixed 10th cent. CE

Grass withers, a flower fades,
Because the breath of YHWH blows on it.
Truly the people are grass.
Grass withers, a flower fades,
But the word of our God stands forever.

Notes: The text of MT matches that of the corrected 1QIsa, Targ. Isa., Peshitta, and Vulgate.


I find it interesting that the two oldest texts in the tradition — LXX and uncorrected 1QIsa — both contain the short reading. Moreover, the two are from different provenances: 1QIsa from Palestine and LXX from Alexandria. In my opinion, the age and geographic separation of the two texts argues against simple haplography, instead presenting evidence of a consistent textual tradition. I’ll call this tradition the “shorter tradition”

However, the tradition in corrected 1QIsa, Targ. Isa, Peshitta, Vulgate, and MT dates to roughly the same time as LXX and uncorrected 1QIsa. I’ll call this tradition the “longer tradition.”

Dating of manuscripts will not help us decide which of the traditions is original, since they are both reflected on the same manuscript (1QIsa). The style of the two traditions argues in favor of the longer, as it is the more difficult reading (a brief survey of the commentaries is more than enough to bear this notion out). However, the length of the two traditions argues in favor of the shorter, because shorter readings are to be preferred over longer ones.

In the end, I prefer the shorter tradition because of its geographical diversity. The longer tradition is confined to Palestine, while the shorter tradition was in both Palestine and Alexandria at the same time. In addition, though the phrase “Truly the people are grass” could be read as a refrain or as part of a call-and-response, its main purpose is to make explicit the metaphor of humans as grass; in other words, it looks very much like an explanatory gloss, which should therefore be rejected.

Thus, I find that the shorter tradition of Isaiah 40:7-8 is more original.

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Wine and Social Justice

I was reading Proverbs 31:2-9 just now, and the structure of the poem struck me. Here’s the text from the NRSV, adjusted slightly for poetic formatting.

The words of King Lemuel. An oracle that his mother taught him:

No, my son! No, son of my womb!
No, son of my vows!
Do not give your strength to women,
your ways to those who destroy kings.
It is not for kings, O Lemuel,
it is not for kings to drink wine,
or for rulers to desire strong drink;
or else they will drink and forget what has been decreed,
and will pervert the rights of all the afflicted.

Give strong drink to one who is perishing,
and wine to those in bitter distress;
let them drink and forget their poverty,
and remember their misery no more.
Speak out for those who cannot speak,
for the rights of all the destitute.
Speak out, judge righteously,
defend the rights of the poor and needy.

So, apparently, Lemuel was a pretty dissolute king when he was young, until his mother called him to the path of wisdom and justice. Lemuel’s mother doesn’t take too kindly to her son wasting his kingship on wine and women; it seems that young Lemuel cared more about having fun than caring for the poor and downtrodden.

So what does Lemuel’s mother tell him to do?

First, she tells him not to take so many wives/concubines/consorts/lovers/what have you. These women, she says, will destroy him. Second, she tells him to lay off the sauce. Being a playboy will corrupt him.

And then comes the interesting part. She takes the image of wine and turns it on its head. Instead of hoarding wine for himself and living a lavish and sumptuous life, he should give that wine to those who live in poverty and despair. The image of wine and carousing becomes a metaphor for social justice. And finally, so as to make sure that her metaphor isn’t lost on young Lemuel, she makes her point explicit: lighten the burdens on the poor and needy, and make sure they are treated justly.

The overall point is that Lemuel, as ruler of his country, should forego the creature comforts his position affords him, instead working to make sure that the poor and destitute get those same comforts.

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“The range of plausible readings of the Bible, when placed in a theological frame, is extremely wide.”

And in this light, it is no longer so clear that the Bible does foster an indifference or hostility toward politics. Anarchists and pacifists may still find good sources for their anti-political radicalism in the Bible, but that is not the only reading to which the book now lends itself. The readings of the prophets that helped underwrite liberationist theology, for instance — in the Jewish philosopher Hermann Cohen, as well as the later Christian groups who described themselves that way — may look far-fetched from a historical perspective, but are not so from a theological one. Social conservatives can legitimately quote the Bible as well. The range of plausible readings of the Bible, when placed in a theological frame, is extremely wide. They can certainly not be limited to the thought that those who see themselves as living “in God’s shadow” should regard politics as futile or meaningless.

Sam Fleischacker, review of Michael Walzer, In God’s Shadow: Politics in the Hebrew Bible, Yale University Press, 2012.

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An Apology

From of old faith has not been every man’s affair. At all times but few have discerned religion itself, while millions, in various ways, have been satisfied to juggle with its trappings. Now especially the life of cultivated people is far from anything that might have even a resemblance to religion. Just as little, I know, do you worship the Deity in sacred retirement, as you visit the forsaken temples. In your ornamented dwellings, the only sacred things to be met with are the sage maxims of our wise men, and the splendid compositions of our poets. Suavity and sociability, art and science have so fully taken possession of your minds, that no room remains for the eternal and holy Being that lies beyond the world. . . .

You must transport yourselves into the interior of a pious soul and seek to understand its inspiration. In the very act, you must understand the production of light and heat in a soul surrendered to the Universe. Otherwise you learn nothing of religion, and it goes with you as with one who should too late bring fuel to the fire which the steel has struck from the flint, who finds only a cold, insignificant speck of coarse metal with which he can kindle nothing any more.

[Friedrich Schleiermacher, On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1958), 1, 18.]

I have an apology to make. Over the past several months, for various reasons, I have allowed myself to become, to borrow Schleiermacher’s words, one of religion’s “cultured despisers.” More specifically, I’ve let myself lapse into anger against evangelicalism, allowing my own crisis of faith to color my vision of too many genuine believers. For that, I am deeply sorry.

I am no longer an evangelical; however, I am still a Christian — and that means that, though I no longer camp under evangelicalism’s broad tent, evangelicals are still my brothers and sisters in Christ. I’ve forgotten the mutual love and humility I so recently called for, and have allowed myself to speak arrogantly against my fellow Christians. For this, as well, I am deeply sorry.

From now on, I will be limiting myself mostly to academic posts on this blog for the foreseeable future — a public forum isn’t the place to hash out personal struggles, especially when those struggles cause you to act angrily toward those who don’t deserve it. If I ever should find reason to write about evangelicals in any sort of way, I will work to make sure my tone is even and fair, the same way I would when talking about Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, or any other Christians to whose denomination I don’t belong.

Again, to anyone I have belittled, I am deeply sorry. I will try my hardest not to enter that territory again, and I hope you can forgive me.

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A Definition of Progressive Christianity

James McGrath posted an image from the other day that gives a definition of what it means to be a Progressive Christian.

Now, it’s not everyone’s definition of “progressive Christianity,” as the comments on Dr. McGrath’s post show. But, I think it’s a good starting place. Progressive Christianity is about following Jesus’ ethical teachings and trying to live justly and generously with everyone else.

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“The chronic mystic actually despises mystery.”

The chronic mystic actually despises mystery. He wants inner slogans to deal with his frights, fears and everyday narcissism. He refuses to acknowledge that the origins of the universe and the purposes of the universe are genuine mysteries. They are not only unknown, they are unknowable. They aren’t mysteries to be solved, as one solves a crossword puzzle, the mysterious theft of one’s ring, or the question of whether water exists in other galaxies. They are unsolvable mysteries; and this he can’t tolerate.

Occult, spiritual, religious and other mystical worldviews that claim to honor mystery actually fear and despise mystery, whereas a naturalistic worldview honors mystery. It lets mystery be mysterious, not transparent, simple, or obvious. It never says, “It’s all a great mystery but really it isn’t. Here’s the answer in a DVD.” It never anthropomorphizes the universe and says, “The universe wants this” or “The universe demands that.” When it calls a mystery unsolvable, it means it.

“Dignity, Mystery, and Natural Psychology: Is human dignity possible in an indifferent universe?” | Rethinking Psychology

Does a non-naturalistic religion or worldview really despise mystery? Or does it just treat mystery in a different way from what this author would prefer?

Very interesting to think about.

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