Category Archives: Biblical Studies

The Limits of Freedom: A Short Post for International Septuagint Day 2020

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Scholars agree that some books are literal translations and others are paraphrases, much like the Living Bible. Given that Greek manuscripts are the earliest witnesses to the Hebrew Old Testament, a more literal manuscript can be helpful for textual criticism. The non-literal translations, however, may shed light on the theology, philosophy, or religious practices of the Jewish faith in the late Second Temple period.

Ryan Reeves, “What is the Septuagint?.”

The above-quoted statement is common in popular literature on the Septuagint (LXX). The idea is usually undergirded by a presupposition regarding the texts that the LXX translators had to work with, in many cases assuming something like the Masoretic Text (MT) as the exemplar. Take note of Reeves’ comment on the helpfulness of “a more literal manuscript” for textual criticism while the alleged “non-literal translations” shed light on things other than the text.

But what if these non-literal translations weren’t as non-literal as one might initially suspect? Could they then be helpful for textual criticism? In other words, rather than assuming that a supposedly non-literal rendering is an example of the translator assuming a certain freedom in their translation, why not ask if there might be another text serving as the foundation for their translation?

After referencing Rudolf Kittel’s comment that the “LXX is not a real translation but a theological commentary,” Natalio Fernández Marcos assures us that:

Once we get into the actual text, as a general rule the translation of the Pentateuch is faithful to the Hebrew text, more than was thought at the beginning of the century. And in the light of recent discov­eries at Qumran, the great divergences in the historical books between the LXX and the Hebrew have to be interpreted more as a witness of the pluralism of the Hebrew text before its consonantal fixation at the synod of Yamnia, c. 100 CE, than as the result of the exeget­ical preferences of the translators.

Natalio Fernández Marcos, The Septuagint in Context: Introduction to the Greek Versions of the Bible (Leiden: Brill, 2000), 23.

Laying aside the reference to the mythical council of Jamnia, this is an important point to note. We cannot presuppose that the LXX translators had something like the MT before them, nor can we assume that they were all working with the same text. We have to allow for divergent Vorlagen and then assess how strict or free they were in their translations.

James Barr has an instructive essay called “The Typology of Literalism in Ancient Biblical Translations” in which he expounds on what I’d call the limits of freedom. Around the same time that Marcos’ volume appeared in its original Spanish edition, Barr said:

Thus, in general, where new evidence has become available it has on the whole increased our conviction that, at least in many books, the LXX worked fairly literally and elements in their rendering stand for something that was actually there, rather than being free invention or fancy.

James Barr, “The Typology of Literalism in Ancient Biblical Translations,” (MSU XV, Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1979), 286.

Barr follows these comments with a quick reference to Ben Sira, which contains a number of “Hebrew variants semantically grossly diverse from one another” (286). So where one thinks that the LXX translator is offering a free rendering of one variant, it is quite possible, even likely, that they are offering a literal rendering of another. But what of a case where there is no known textual variant? Barr uses Sir 5.1 as an example. The Hebrew reads:

אל תשען על חילך ואל תאמר יש לאל ידי

The LXX translates this to say:

Μὴ ἔπεχε ἐπὶ τοῖς χρήμασίν σου
καὶ μὴ εἴπῃς Αὐτάρκη μοί ἐστιν.

Barr says that this appears to be an “excellent free rendering” before asking whether or not it was possible that the final word in the Hebrew text was read as יד rather than ידי (see also W. Bacher, “The Hebrew Text of Ben Sira,” JQR 12/2 [1900], 283) in which case the LXX translator would have been translating quite literally. It is also noteworthy that the Syriac translation of Ben Sira understood the Hebrew in the same way (see W. Th. Van Peursen, Language and Interpretation in the Syriac Text of Ben Sira: A Comparative Linguistic and Literary Study [SSVBTCC 16; Leiden: Brill, 2007], 29, 42), which could indicate that the Syriac version is dependent on the LXX, or that the translators of the LXX and Syriac version had the same or a similar Hebrew text that has been lost, or finally “polygenesis,” that is, each translator read the Hebrew text in the same way independently of one another as Van Peursen suggests.

The point here is that it’s not always necessarily the case that the translator is offering a paraphrase of the source text even if there is no known variant to explain the difference. In this example, the translation itself could be thought to serve as a variant reading of sorts, which gives the reader pause to think about how this reading could have arisen. In this case it’s not difficult to imagine our translator missing the final י in the line. It is, after all, the smallest letter in the Hebrew alphabet.

So in closing, I want to say two things: First, the LXX translators should be given more credit than they sometimes are for the translations they provide. They’re not like those who produced the Targumim nor are they the Eugene Petersons of their day. There was a limit to the freedom they could exhibit. Second, Barr’s essay is brilliant and says much more than I’ve hinted at in this short post. It should be required reading for anyone working with the LXX.

Happy International Septuagint Day!

B”H

What is Context?

The other day I had a friendly disagreement with another believer over the interpretation of Romans 8:26 in which Paul said,

“Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words” (ESV).

Actually, our conversation began with reference to the gifts of the Spirit, particularly that of healing and then moved to speaking in tongues. I’ll spare you the details because neither is the point of this post. Romans 8:26 came into the discussion and my friend assured me that this couldn’t possibly have anything to do with us praying since it clearly says that the “Spirit himself” prays.

He claimed that this excludes us from being the ones who pray because it is an activity of the Spirit. I wanted to provide some context for why I disagree with this interpretation. I noted how in Galatians Paul speaks of the Spirit of God’s Son crying, “Abba! Father!” My friend said that he’d need to see this and that he didn’t think that’s what it said. Fair enough. Nobody has exhaustive knowledge of the entire Bible. So we looked at Galatians 4:4-7 and he was satisfied that it said what I claimed.

I then noted that when discussing the same thing (i.e., adoption) in Romans Paul has the believer, who has received the Spirit of adoption, crying, “Abba! Father!” We both agree that Paul is consistent and that he doesn’t contradict himself so my point was that the Spirit cries “Abba! Father” through the believer who has received adoption. Likewise, my contention is that the “groanings to deep for words” (or “inarticulate groanings”) is the Spirit praying through the believer.

He told me that it’s not what the text says and that I’m reading into it. He told me that the number one rule of hermeneutics was to deal with a text in its context and that when we have to leave the context then that means we can’t deal with it on its own. But that’s the point I want to discuss in this post. All of this was setup for me to say that context is much more than what my friend would have us think.

You see, he wanted to look at this singular verse. I wanted to look at this verse within the argument of the chapter and book but also within the context of Paul’s overall theology. I noted that Galatians was one of Paul’s earliest letters; Romans was one of his latest. I wasn’t leaving Romans to run to Galatians. I was reading Paul’s later theology in light of his earlier theology. My understanding of Galatians informs my understanding of Romans.

Context is more than the verse before and the verse after the particular verse we’re reading. Context is knowing the situation of the author and his audience. It’s following the flow of the argument being put forth before us. It’s having an overarching understanding of the author’s theology. As I said, my understanding of  Galatians informs my reading of Romans, no differently than my understanding of Deuteronomy informs my reading of 1 Corinthians 8:1–10:22 or my understanding of Leviticus informs my reading of Hebrews.

But the immediate context of Paul’s very argument in this section of his letter does, I believe, point to the Spirit groaning in our groans but I’ll write about that another time.

B”H

In Appreciation of Larry Hurtado

I was saddened to hear the news of Larry Hurtado’s leukemia reactivating after having been in remission for 9 months. I pray his strength in the Lord as he explores whatever options for care that he has, but I wanted to take a moment to note my appreciation for him and his work.

It’s no secret that I’m a lover of books and that I have a decent sized personal library. But there was a time when my library consisted of a single KJV Bible, an NIV Bible, and a Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance. This was what I had for the first 3.5–4 years of my salvation. And then in 2006 I purchased Brenton’s Septuagint, a New Oxford Annotated Apocrypha, Robert Letham’s The Holy Trinity: In Scripture, History, Theology, and Worship, and Simon Gathercole’s The Preexistent Son.

Letham and Gathercole were both springboards into various streams of scholarship in trinitarian theology and early Christology. I had been studying these doctrines in Scripture, researching them on the internet, and debating them with detractors in chatrooms but I hadn’t really been exposed to academic books on these subjects. And then on July 21, 2006 I printed out an article from a website called For an Answer by L. W. Hurtado. This article was entitled “What Do We Mean by ‘First-Century Jewish Monotheism’?.”

I gleaned a lot from this article while having no idea who its author was. And then in my reading of Letham and Gathercole I saw the name Larry Hurtado referenced several times throughout their books. I looked at their bibliographies and then took to Amazon. I purchased Larry W. Hurtado’s Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity and gave it a careful and slow reading. This book would change the way I thought about, argued in favor of, and defended early Christology.

I proceeded to spend years getting my hands on all of the Hurtado resources that I could find. I have a folder on several hard drives (in the even that any one of them crashes) filled with articles that he has written and most of the books that he has authored (save a few of his more recent volumes) and have read them all with great profit.

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On three separate occasions I have emailed Professor Hurtado and three times he graciously responded. The first time was a question concerning a claim about Matthew 28:19 not being original. At the time he was preparing for a 3 week lecture trip to Australia and Singapore and passed my question along to Paul Foster who replied promptly. The second time was a note of appreciation, which I will reproduce along with his response below. The final time was to run a few of my disagreements with James McGrath’s The Only True God by him and see if they held weight (he thought that they did). But I’ve said all this to say that even being as big a name in the field as he was, he always took the time to offer a response to a nobody like me.

And while I don’t find Hurtado’s arguments as substantial now as I once did I still have the greatest appreciation for his work and the paths it led me down. My library grew by leaps and bounds from reading his footnotes and bibliographies. My thinking about the importance of actual real life worship practices wouldn’t be what it is without him. I’d take a lot more issue with his work these days than I did in those days but I’d still argue that it’s necessary reading and has to be dealt with by anyone talking about early Christology and Christian origins.

I will be praying for him and his family as he deals with his health issues and I invite you to join me in doing so.

– – –

Below is my email in appreciation of Prof. Hurtado and his response. I’ll note that he responded to me on July 4, which is my birthday.

July 3, 2009, 1:59 PM

Hi Prof. Hurtado,

My name is Nick Norelli and I’ve emailed you a couple of times in the past to ask questions and you’ve always graciously responded; for that I am thankful.  I was writing now, not to ask any questions, but rather to express my appreciation for your work.

Having come to Christ in mid-2002 in a small Pentecostal church in New Jersey I wasn’t immediately exposed to works of scholarship.  I was of the ilk who thought that the best that Christianity had to offer could be found on the Trinity Broadcastng Network with the likes of Benny Hinn and T. D. Jakes.  It wasn’t until I really got interested in learning more about the doctrine of the Trinity that I was exposed to what I’d consider ‘real’ scholarship.  I noticed your works One God, One Lord and Lord Jesus Christ cited in the footnotes and bibliographies to the books I had been reading so I dutifully got a copy of LJC.  It was life changing in terms of the way I argued for a divine Christology and understood the New Testament.  It’s also the book that got me interested in Biblical studies as much as I was interested in theology.  And I also credit LJC with giving me an appreciation for historical inquiry into Christian origins.

Since then I’ve tried to get my hands on everything that you’ve written (articles and books) and I can’t tell you how encouraged I’ve been by your work.  I consider you the top scholar in the field, and I do so after having read the work of many of your peers.  I just wanted to write this note to let you know how appreciative I am for all that you’ve done for me without even knowing it.  May God continue to bless you and your work.

All the best,

Nick Norelli
https://rdtwot.wordpress.com

– – –

July 4, 2009, 7:41 AM

Dear Mr. Norelli,

I’m very grateful for your taking the effort to send me your  encouraging words.  It is very heartening for a scholar to be read at all, and for me especially so by readers beyond one’s circle of fellow academics.  It is even more encouraging that my works communicate clearly and effectively to you and others.

So, thank you again for your encouragement.  It is really appreciated.

Best wishes,
Larry Hurtado

The Myth of Objectivity

Eric Vanden Eykel posted a Tweet thread on a recent blog post by Tavis Bohlinger on the Logos Academic Blog. The post in question was Joel B. Green’s answer to the question: “What makes a good biblical scholar?” Joel has clarified in the comments to that post that he was addressing a similar but different question, namely: “What makes a good scholar of the Bible understood as the church’s Scripture?”

My concern isn’t with the post itself but rather with one of the comments that followed the post. Someone named Matt West said the following in response:

What makes a good Biblical scholar is someone who studiess [sic] the writings in terms of their origin, history, and intent; someone who strives to comprehend the material and its impact on history, literature, and philosophy. What you describe in your essay is what makes a good Christian scholar. There is a huge difference between these two. The first is objective and scientific, the second is subjective and done with prejudice.

I wish I had the time to adequately unpack everything that’s wrong with this comment but I’m writing this on the fly before I head off to work. I will say two things. First, objectivity is a myth. What do I mean? I mean that there is no such thing as a “brute fact,” that is, an uninterpreted fact that has no reference to some other fact. Any-and- every-thing has to be interpreted and every interpretation will be contingent upon the facts that one has already acquired or the beliefs that one already holds.

An atheist who interprets the Bible does so through the lens of their disbelief. A Christian who interprets the Bible does so through their lens of belief. There’s a lot more to be said about this (especially in terms of autonomous reasoning versus thinking God’s thoughts after him) but I’ll have to say those things at a different time. The point is that Bultmann was right when he said there is no presuppositionless exegesis. This idea that one can just read the text and understand it without coming to the text with both hidden and apparent presuppositions is preposterous.

Second, Mr. West seems to say, or at the very least imply, that a Christian is not capable of this so-called scientific and objective scholarship. Christians, you see, approach the text subjectively and with prejudice. One could reason that as long as you’re not a Christian then you’re good to go and can understand the text for what it’s really saying. I mean, Christians don’t study “the writings in terms of their origin, history, and intent” and they certainly don’t “[strive] to comprehend the material and its impact on history, literature, and philosophy.” Why would they?

I’d love to take a moment to note how absolutely arbitrary this list is anyway, but I really do have to get to work. I’d argue that Christian scholarship is even more concerned with getting to the truth of the biblical text because they’re the ones who think this stuff actually matters! The believing scholar genuinely cares (or should) about what the original author intended to communicate to his audience and is constantly asking what impact this has on the community of believers today. Asking that question forces the believing scholar to look at the impact of the text throughout history.

Okay, I really gotta go. More anon…

B”H

Just Ordered (and, Just Picked Up)

Indulge me a quick(ish) preface to this announcement of recent purchases. Today marks exactly one year since I stood before a room full of witnesses and made vows to my wife. I mention this firstly because it’s one of the more monumental moments in my life and secondly because it brings to mind something that we were told during out premarital counseling. The pastor who married us shared a story about how him and his wife have made it 40 years without impulse buying. They agreed that anything they wanted but hadn’t already planned for would be written down on a list in the kitchen and if they still wanted it after a day or two then they’d get it. He said that in all those years they never got anything off the list.

I’m not nearly as disciplined, but I have tried to implement that advice when and where possible. I share this anecdote because more than a week ago my buddy Michael Burgos started talking about getting a premium Bible. That sparked my interest and I began perusing evangelicalbible.com’s offerings. I found a couple that I liked but I determined that I wouldn’t get anything because I didn’t really need another Bible and I had no good reason to grab another at this moment in time. Well, after a week I still wanted one and I kept reading reviews, watching videos, and looking at pictures before finally deciding to pull the trigger.

I went with the Ocean Blue goatskin Crossway ESV Heirloom Legacy Bible. Now I’ve had an ESV Legacy before and I hated it. I ended up giving the thing away. It appears that this is an update and the major things that irked me are no more. I also went with this version because I had my heart set on blue (it really is quite striking!) and I’ve come to know and love single column texts over the years. As of late I read my Bible almost exclusively in my many Reader’s editions from Crossway. And though I haven’t handwritten anything in a Bible in quite a long time, this particular Bible has plenty of room in the margins and footer for note taking. I think I will pick the practice back up once I get it.

In addition to this premium Bible, my wife and I spent our first anniversary together out and about doing all manner of things. Our first stop was a Barnes & Noble for some Starbucks and book browsing. I ended up grabbing a copy of H. A. Guerber’s Classical Mythology for $7.98. I saw it the last time I was there and wanted to grab a copy but never did. I also opted to order a bunch of books from CBD’s Spring Sale before we went to see Death Wish, which was great, by the way! Here’s what I got from them:

The Structure of Sacred Doctrine in Calvin’s Theology

Translating the New Testament: Text, Translation, Theology

Rowan’s Rule: The Biography of the Archbishop of Canterbury

Evangelizing Catholics: A Mission Manual for the New Evangelization*

The Age of the Spirit: How the Ghost of an Ancient Controversy Is Shaping the Church

What Did the Ancient Israelites Eat? Diet in Biblical Times

ESV Gospel of John, Reader’s Edition

Friends of Calvin

The Fourth Cup: Unlocking the Secrets of the Last Supper and the Cross*

Abraham Kuyper: A Pictorial Biography

An Outline of New Testament Spirituality

Romans: Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scriptures*

Treasures Old and New: Essays in the Theology of the Pentateuch

The Lamb’s Supper: The Mass As Heaven On Earth*

At the Heart of the Gospel: Suffering in the Earliest Christian Message

Consuming the Word: The New Testament and the Eucharist in the Early Church*

Qumran and Jerusalem: Studies in the Dead Sea Scrolls and the History of Judaism

The Gospel and The Mind: Recovering and Shaping the Intellectual Life

The Challenges of Cultural Discipleship: Essays in the Line of Abraham Kuyper

God Speaks: What He Says, What He Means

I got too many to link them all. Most of them ranged in price from $0.99 to $2.99. The notable exceptions are the volumes by Scott Hahn*, but I’m trying to get my hands on everything he’s ever written so I’m willing to pay the price for those. I’d love to say that this should hold me over for a while, and while it probably should, it definitely won’t. Until next time…

B”H

Diligence and Vices: Andreas Köstenberger on Plagiarism

In light of the recent discovery of Andreas Köstnberger’s plagiarism of D. A. Carson’s Pillar commentary on John in his own BECNT volume I thought I’d check what he had to say on the issue in a book of his that I recently picked up called Excellence: The Character of God and the Pursuit of Scholarly Virtue. In a section entitled “Diligence and Vices” Köstenberger says:

The lack of diligence leads to such vices as plagiarism and laziness. Plagiarism generally becomes a temptation when a student of scholar fails to put in the diligent work necessary and suddenly finds that the deadline is fast approaching. Once there is no time left to do original research, plagiarism can seem like the necessary quick fix, but there is hardly a more deadly ethical violation of the ethos of academic work. If you plagiarize, you are engaging in a form of theft, stealing the intellectual property of others.

What is more, once a scholar’s reputation has been marred by plagiarism, it is virtually impossible to regain credibility. Even if those whom you harmed by plagiarism forgive you and you avoid losing your job and you avoid being expelled from an academic program or institution, you can never turn back the clock, and your reputation will likely suffer permanent damage. What is more, you bring dishonor to the God whom you serve and with whom you have chosen to publicly identify. Of all students, it is those engaged in biblical and theological studies who should hold to impeccable standards when it comes to respecting and referencing the work of others.

Like other forms of sin, plagiarism may seem appealing when tempted, but it is never worth it. Why would anyone working on a theological degree plagiarize? As mentioned, as a form of intellectual theft, plagiarism is completely at odds with the study of God and his ways. Ultimately, plagiarism is a selfish act that says, “I want a degree, or recognition, without putting in the work, and I don’t care if I hurt or deceive others in the process, as long as I get what I want.” This hardly is good character, and even if repented of, still casts doubt on the character of a person who committed this kind of act, especially if repeatedly and egregiously.

Andreas J. Köstenberger, Excellence: The Character of God and the Pursuit of Scholarly Virtue (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2011), 98-99.

This reads like both prophecy and memoir. I wonder if it ate at him while he penned these paragraphs knowing that he had stolen from one of his mentors. I wonder how readily he’ll accept the reproach brought on his name and character by his intellectual theft. Also, I’d note how easy it was to attribute this material to its author. It’s not a difficult thing to do and there is absolutely no harm in quoting others. Just give them the credit for the things they’ve said.

B”H

Home Library/Office Tour

I wanted to do this for a while. I had some time today. One day I’ll get a good camera and give this thing some real production value.

B”H