Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Best of the Blogroll 2019

As is the New Year's custom for this blog, I'd like to ring out the old year by celebrating the bloggers on the blogroll by highlighting a worthy post that may deserve a second read:
Thank you to all of you for blogging!

Sunday, December 29, 2019

Interacting with other bloggers: Mythology and Genesis

In keeping with my current intentions to interact with other bloggers more often, I'd like to continue a conversation started by Joe "Metacrock" over at his personal blog on the topic of mythology in the Bible.

We live in a world in which many people who are new to the Bible simply cannot get past the first page. Someone who picks up their first Bible and reads about a seven-day creation is likely to put down the book and not look back. Against this background, Joe aka Metacrock writes about the mythological view of the earlier parts of the Bible. I believe he does a good job of introducing the view and showing how the problem is generally understood by people who share his view. However, it would not successfully persuade people who did not already share the view. (This is not a criticism; I don't believe his linked post is meant to persuade that audience.)

I'm writing this post to see if it's possible to move the conversation forward. With that in mind, I've pulled a few quotes from Meta's post and organized them under different headings according to the way they're likely to be heard by people who do not share his view. The table below shows contrasting quotes from Meta's piece, emphasis added (and column headers added).

Why "myth" doesn't mean what you thinkWhy "myth" means exactly what you think
This is a difficult concept for most Christians to grasp, because most of us are taught that "myth" means a lie, that it's a dirty word, an insult, and that it is really debunking the Bible or rejecting it as God's word.The point of the myth is the point the story is making--not the literal historical events of the story. So the point of mythologizing creation is not to transmit historical events but to make a point.
"Myth" does not mean lie; it does not mean something that is necessarily untrue. It is a literary genrea way of telling a story. The mythological elements are more common in the early books of the Bible. The material becomes more historical as we go along.

In the left column, there are some quotes in which Meta explains the problem as he sees it: to sum up, why "myth" doesn't mean what most people might think. In my experience, Meta's identification of the problem is mainstream for those who share his view: when it comes to Genesis' "page one" problem, any issue with the "myth" resolution is charged to faulty education about what "myth" means, which in turn causes many misinformed people to have difficulty in grasping the concept. We'll come back to that after a moment; we need a few more pieces on the table before that will be productive.

In the right column, there are some quotes in which Meta rolls out the solution from his point-of-view: as he explains why "myth" doesn't mean untrue, he consistently contrasts myth with "historical" as its rhetorical opposite. So the left column develops the theme "myth doesn't mean untrue", while the right column develops the theme "myth means non-historical". The word "myth" is not used simply to designate a literary genre or a way of telling a story, but to reclassify it as something that is designed "not to transmit historical events".

The most significant problem is unacknowledged: the other side of the discussion (argument, flame-war, call it what you will) sees "historical truth" as the category of truth that is in question. In that context, "non-historical" and "false" are functionally equivalent. So long as that point is left unaddressed, the discussion can go nowhere. As long as we stay there we're at an impasse, and what brought us to that point is likely to be seen as double-talk. Those in the historical-Genesis camp see whole "myth" line of argument as something of a bait-and-switch, where "truth" means something different at the end than it did at the start. In that context, calling it a difference in genre can come across as obfuscating the key point, and claiming that anyone who disagrees must not understand literary genres generally comes across as insulting and changing the subject, as well as a power play. At which point the flame war generally spirals, and the impasse remains. In the meantime, those underlying issues go unaddressed.

There is another unacknowledged problem that I mentioned before, and will return to now: in the "myth" resolution, the "myth" camp generally insists that the uneducated masses don't understand their point. The problem seems to me much the opposite: the other side of the debate understands exactly what the "myth" camp is saying, has said so repeatedly, and is tired of being insulted for it. The "myth" camp seems to think that the "historical" camp is holding out because they don't understand what's being said about "myth". In my experience they're holding out because they do understand. The "myth" resolution means ceding the historical reality of the parts in question. This is only half the perceived problem; the "myth" resolution also means the "myth" camp openly welcomes elements or narratives that they do not believe to be anchored in objective reality; it comes across as willingly adopting an element of make-believe into the faith of those who embrace "myth".

I typically see a certain red herring about this point in the conversation, so I'd like to mention it now. It's mistaken to assume that the "historical" camp consists entirely of the fundamentalist-literalist, ever-popular straw-man and scape-goat. The "historical" camp, like the "myth" camp, has people at different points along a spectrum, and includes people who believe some accounts may be historical in general outline, even with reservations about the accuracy on specific points. (For a case-in-point, see my previous post on the historicity of Abraham, re-posted here in 2006 and originally posted at Cadre Comments back in 2005.) Some people seem puzzled why there are those who follow Biblical archeology as if it's relevant; yet to many people it is relevant. I expect that most peoples' beliefs about history are informed by historical findings. So there are those who are interested in the question of whether Abraham's tomb actually contains the remains of a historical Abraham, or how goes the line of inquiry into whether the exodus was historical. The "myth" argument by definition has no loose ends and can never be proved or disproved, but that comes at a high price tag for whether there are human connections in the real world. I find myself wondering (speaking to Joe in particular here) whether Koester or others would make an argument that Abraham or the exodus were history-making, and what is the state of thinking on whether something non-historical can be history-making.

So within that spectrum of people who are interested in the history of it all, the "historical" camp sees a vast difference between believing a historical account in its general outline (allowing reservations on various details), and another thing to openly promote believing in a myth. The "historical" camp may see it more like this: to embrace believing in mythological material puts the whole premise of Christianity on questionable ground. It also risks Christianity's applicability to the non-mythical world. It's generally not the case that the "historical" camp doesn't understand what "myth" means or is somehow unaware of Genesis' "page one" problem; it's more of an awareness that the "myth" resolution is in some ways unsatisfying and problematic in its own right.

I believe it's important for Christians to keep moving the conversation forward rather than being stuck at an impasse. While for my own part I don't generally spend much time worrying about Genesis' "page one" problem, there are those who are deeply bothered by it. For my own part, I'm generally more bothered by the way we attack each other over it. But I'm hopeful for a quality conversation with Metacrock, and also would invite responses and thoughts from anyone who is mindful of the body of Christ.

Sunday, December 22, 2019

Spiritual Friendship

I've been making an effort lately to participate more in the on-line Christian blogger community as community. So The Pocket Scroll's current piece on Spiritual Friendship drew my attention. (That's part 3 in a series; see also part 1 here and part 2 here.)

Friendship is closely related to fellowship, and a topic that is deserving of our attention.

Friendship is from the beginning a cease-fire zone for life's battles, a peaceful place where a meaningful connection can grow. In some ways, friendship is a mutual non-judgment pact: a friend does not seek to find fault in their friends, and is slow to believe the worst of them. A friend does not expect to control the other (e.g. how the other one eats or dresses or talks), and does not seek to change the other person into their own image. There is generally a spark of warmth as each person recognizes the value of the other.

Friends generally share an interest of some kind which can provide the content of their shared talk and actions. For a spiritual friendship, I would not see that as limited to the narrow sense of spirituality such as sharing an interest in theology or Biblical studies. I see spiritual friendships as covering any human ground in a spiritual way; it could revolve around gardening or woodworking, art or music which touch on beauty, which in turn communicate holiness.

As a case in point consider the Inklings, an author's club that included both C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, which was a treasured spiritual friendship. The profoundness of that spiritual friendship -- two men, cultivating a deep and meaningful spiritual bond -- sent a wave of beauty and friendship throughout the world through the writings that they each produced. It is not clear to me whether either of those men could have become what they were alone, without their shared friendship. Together, they strengthened each other, deepened each others' thoughts, warmed each others' souls.

In many fields, the world's greats do not emerge alone. In chess, what would Bobby Fischer have been without his arch-rival Boris Spassky, spurring him on to greater heights? In tennis, is it likely that the Williams sisters would emerge without each other, or was their bond a genuine contributing cause of their excellence? No matter what our gift in life, we will not reach our own heights or fulfill our own purpose alone.

Sunday, December 15, 2019

"Unless the Father Draws Them" --

I've recently begun reading Theology Pathfinder, and what I've seen so far indicates an insightful and edifying writer. I wanted to add a comment on the recent(ish) post on election, "No One Can Come to Jesus Unless the Father Draws Them: Two Views on election in John 6". While I'd recommend reading the original post, I'll sum up for those who don't have the time right now: the two views presented are Calvinism's irresistible grace, or limiting the scope to Jesus' immediate contemporaries: drawing then-faithful Jews to the Messiah. As with any summary, that has of necessity lost all the supporting detail so again I'd recommend at least browsing the original.

I wanted to follow up by describing another view, beginning with a quote that Mr DeMars mentions in support of the second view:
It is written in the Prophets: "And they will all be taught by God." Everyone who has listened to and learned from the Father comes to me. (John 6:45)
As he notes, this is Jesus' own continuation of the comment that no one can come to him unless the Father draws them, explaining what he means by that. Jesus informs us about the scope of who is drawn: all are taught by God. This is promise is not limited to Jews who were contemporaries of Jesus in the first century. It is a promise for all in the Messianic age. It is one of the crowning blessings of the Messianic age, and (original setting, Isaiah 54) is about a restored relationship with God that is cause for rejoicing, and will bring people together in peace.

Jesus also explains to us how God chooses to draw us: God draws us by teaching us. It is unfortunate that the modern experience of school -- of being taught -- is so often boring and (too often) irrelevant. But still some of us may relate to the experience of a teacher who understood us, recognized us, valued us, made sure we didn't fall behind. We may remember a teacher who valued the lessons, loved knowledge and wisdom, and whose enthusiasm passed along the value of what was loved. It is a joyful thing to be taught by God, something that adds depth to our days, wisdom to our lives. There are passages of Scripture where we can see delight in God's wisdom, or in our daily lives we can see how sticking tight to God's teachings is a shield against so many harms. God's wisdom crowns people with integrity and righteousness. In that vein, I read that everyone who has listened to and learned from the Father comes to him.

Sunday, December 08, 2019

The November 2019 Biblical Studies Carnival is up at Theology Pathfinder. I'd like to highlight the entries that I found the most helpful for my own purposes.

Most edifying: 

November 2019 saw the release of the new book God's Relational Presence: The Cohesive Center of Biblical Theology (Duvall and Hays). I haven't read it yet; however if the title of the work is also its central thesis, then this work has the potential to direct our attention back to the one thing needful.

Last month also saw the release of Theology as a Way of Life (Neder), which puts theology back in touch with its roots: "Know the Lord", as knowledge becomes love.

Other matters of interest: 

Roger Olson posts a thought-piece, "Can God Change the Past?" It seems to me that, if He wanted to, He'd have done it already. Roger Olson's thoughts run more toward the implications of his premise for the question of open theism.

Justin Taylor at The Gospel Coalition reviews the new book from InterVarsity Press, Myths and Mistakes in New Testament Textual Criticism.

Enjoy the Carnival!

Sunday, December 01, 2019

Advent: Season of Hope

Few things in life are as dark as losing hope. Without hope, our actions seem pointless and our motivation fades. Trying harder can cover for awhile, but it's not the same as hope. Trying to be optimistic can help for a time, but trying to look on the bright side is not the same as hope. Hope is the anticipation of something that will bring relief or meaning or light, will bring some kind of blessing or benefit.

We try to keep hope in front of our eyes. Many people keep photos of loved ones as placeholders until they see them again. Some people keep countdown clocks showing the number of days til a big event. Here in advent, we look forward to Christmas. We each have our own ways. We may keep an eye on the calendar, or select a thoughtful gift for a loved one, or decorate a tree, or plan a celebration, or hang Christmas lighting. The beauty and anticipation of Christmas are just as legitimate as keeping a photo of a loved one. When we are motivated by hope, the actions make hope an active part of our lives.

Christmas reminds us of life, new birth, new beginnings. When Christ was born, we could see the beginning of the new creation before our eyes. God who makes all things new has included us in his plans for blessing. When he creates a new heaven and a new earth, he will not neglect to renew our hearts as well. When light comes to the world, it comes for us into our own minds as well. Peace and joy may seem like isolated points of brightness struggling against the dark for now, but it will not be that way forever. Christ is born as the king, and the songs that the angels sang are just the beginning. Those angels are waiting to sing those songs again, not only to a handful of shepherds but to all of us at the fulfillment of days. Joy will become the norm. Peace will become the standard.

It is the renewal of all things when his kingdom comes. In Christ, we have reason to hope.

Sunday, November 24, 2019

Kingdom of Forgiveness

Jesus prayed: "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they're doing." He prayed this at the beginning of his execution, which was a long, drawn-out ordeal.

We Christians often reflect on Jesus' death and its role in our forgiveness. We may recall what he said to one of the criminals dying beside him: "Today you will be with me in paradise." In sermons, we are encouraged to think of ourselves as the criminal on the cross, or as the betrayer like Judas Iscariot, or like Barabbas as the one whose guilt he bore while we went free.

Today, instead of focusing on ourselves as the criminal who was caught, or the one who got away,  maybe we can also see ourselves as the objects of Jesus' prayer for mercy: "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they're doing." Maybe we can see other people alongside us -- who need forgiveness as much as we do -- and see them too as the objects of Jesus' prayer: "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they're doing."

Today, we can rest in Jesus' prayer: his prayer is for our forgiveness.

(Based on the lectionary reading for today, Christ the King Sunday.)

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Holiday Charity Drives -- The Good, the Bad, and the Common Ground

'Tis the  season. It's not quite Thanksgiving yet, but the commercial radio stations have begun to play Christmas music, the stores have begun to stock Christmas decorations -- and the charities are starting to solicit donations from people who are in the holiday spirit of generosity. But am I the only one disturbed by the tone?

Once I had a nominal facebook friend try to shame everyone on his friends list into donating to his then-favorite charity in support homeless gay teens. If anyone didn't support that cause with a donation, it was implied that they were part of the problem. I've had other friends request contributions to other incredibly-specific-social-problem charities for their birthdays. There is often an element of trafficking in guilt, shame, or victimhood to charity requests, with the worst of them coming across like an excerpt from the comically-insane points system in The Good Place. Goodwill is not manipulative, so why are so many charity requests?

The thing is, as much as I may pray for anyone who requests my help, whether homeless gay teens or people plagued by suicidal thoughts, I tend to help where self or friends or family have been hurt. I'm more likely to volunteer at 12-step events or donate clothing to homeless veterans' charities or contribute to certain medical charities.

We help because we care. But we cannot assume that people who do not help our cause do not care, or are bad people. I may not donate to their cause; they may not donate to mine either. I think many people are generous where they themselves have felt the pain or loss and can relate. If each person shows their generosity in the place where they feel the need, then each group will receive generosity in proportion to the number of people affected. The size of the outreach keeps scale with the size of the need.

For myself, may I pray for all in need. May I cheerfully help where I feel called to help. And may we support each other on our separate journeys with goodwill.

Sunday, November 10, 2019

God's reasons for creating: Insight for parenting

"Why did God create the world?" has been an often-asked question. While some will say we do not know why God created, there is a uniform agreement that God did not create out of need. One traditional answer from Christians is that creation comes from an overabundance of God's love and goodness. Beyond the armchair arguments of theologians, the answer has implications for everyday life. Is God's relationship to us unknown, or based on his need, or based on his generosity and grace? His reasons for creating us form the basis for the whole relationship with us. So for us, it matters very much whether our existence is based on God's overflowing love and goodness.

Scripture encourages us to view God as the model for earthly parenting. And that is where it connects to our own relationships with our children. When we bring new life into the world, why do we have children? Our reasons affect our relationship with our children.

Of course there are happy couples who want children. Then there are couples who have children to try to save their marriage. There are women who have "atonement babies" to try to recoup their emotional losses and family losses after an abortion. There are people who have children to fill the voids in their lives. There are people who have a sense of duty or obligation about having children. There are couples who simply find themselves expecting a child without serious forethought on the matter.

From all these reasons why a parent might have a child, none of them would prevent a parent from loving a child. But some motives would put the relationship on hazardous ground. Some reasons would risk turning the relationship into something about meeting the parent's needs rather than the child's.

I do not write to cause any anxiety or distress, but simply to raise awareness. The more we can meet our own needs, the more overflow of grace we will have for our children.

Sunday, November 03, 2019

Self-love and love of neighbor

Jesus taught that the command, "Love your neighbor as yourself" was of great importance among the commands of the Torah, second only to the love of God. And in that command, the love of neighbor has a touchstone: love of self.

Let's look at Jesus' parable of the sheep and the goats with an eye to recognizing ways to show love to self and others:

I was hungry, and you fed me. I was thirsty and you gave me a drink.
We begin to love people -- ourselves and others -- in meeting the basic needs of sustaining life: food and drink. If we are hungry, we feed ourselves. If we are unable to feed ourselves, we do not neglect ourselves but let others know our need. If we see those who are unable to feed themselves, we provide for them in the way we would want others to provide for us. 

I was a stranger and you welcomed me. 
We recognize our basic need for belonging and for welcome. From this we learn not to isolate ourselves or disregard the company of others. While love of our neighbor may begin with physical needs, it does not end there. We recognize the positive good of hospitality and the value of building fellowship. 

I was naked and you clothed me. 
We recognize the distinctly human need of clothing. From clothing we can infer not only covering, but the need for cleanliness and for dignity. 

I was sick and in prison and you visited me. 
Here we recognize care and compassion in times of distress. Someone who visits the sick gives companionship and relieves their suffering and distress as they are able. It follows that self-care includes a positive duty to care for ourselves when sick or injured, and that love will seek to ease the discomfort of the sick. As for those in prison, we are called to be there even for the wrongdoer. It is an act of mercy and reconciliation. If we are to visit those in prison, how much more should we visit those who are isolated for smaller offenses. This teaching reminds us to remember both justice and mercy in lesser cases where a person did wrong but may not be in prison. 

Sunday, October 27, 2019

Zechariah the priest's literacy, and the name of John the Baptist

There has been some interest in recent years over literacy in ancient Judaism. Some advocate the view that the ability to read or write was incredibly rare; others advocate the view that the ability to read at least short passages was fairly common for men. In general, though, both sides agree that certain people in ancient Judaism were certainly literate, such as the priestly class.

In Luke's gospel we are told of a priest named Zechariah, father of John the Baptist. For those not familiar with Luke's account: when his son was named, Zechariah had been unable to speak for some months. His wife Elizabeth had said the son's name would be John (Luke 1:60), but the others present for the circumcision expected the child to be named Zechariah like his father. So Zechariah motioned for a writing tablet and wrote "His name is John," and the people present for the circumcision marveled at that. Luke does not record whether this was a home circumcision or took place in a synagogue; the information I've found so far would indicate those were common places for a circumcision in that era.

So much for the account we have. Based on it, it's reasonably certain that Zechariah could read and write. Based on his membership in the priesthood, we would expect that Zechariah was literate. There are a few implications to consider: When he motioned for a writing tablet and there was one handy, it stands to reason that it was not too uncommon for someone literate to be present. When he wrote on the tablet and someone else read it, it follows that there was at least one other person present who could read. Zechariah was not the only literate person present at the circumcision. We do not have information on specifically how many people gathered for the circumcision of Zechariah's son or how many of them were able to read it for themselves, so the presence of at least one more literate person does not necessarily help us to estimate the percentage of people who were literate.

Next, consider the fact that Elizabeth already knew Zechariah's wishes on naming their son. How would Zechariah have passed this information to Elizabeth since he could not speak? We can consider the possibility that he might have written his wishes and had someone else read it to Elizabeth -- and yet the other people present at the circumcision, including any literate ones, had not previously known Zechariah's wishes in the way that his wife Elizabeth had. We must at least consider the possibility that Elizabeth could read. She had been the wife of a priest for long years, married to a man engaged in studying the Jewish Scriptures. And it is not the first time we'd have known of Jewish women who were literate; there were various mentions of literate women in the Talmud, such as in the discussions of whether women and minors were eligible to read the Torah portion of the Scripture readings at public worship services.

When we look at ancient literacy, there is a tendency to all-or-nothing thinking. It is common for people to assume that if someone was not literate by modern industrial standards, then instead they were so wholly illiterate that they could not decipher even a short phrase such as "His name is John". That kind of all-or-nothing thinking is, most of all, inaccurate in its disregard for what is practical. Literacy is a spectrum starting from knowing the letters of their alphabet, building up to being able to recognize some words and sound out others, all the way to more fluent literacy that involved both reading longer passages and writing.

We know Zechariah, as a priest, was literate. Based on a brief glimpse into the life of this literate man in ancient times, we know that among his everyday companions he was not alone in his literacy.

Sunday, October 20, 2019

Prayers on the themes of peace and love

Today I find myself in search of prayers on the topics of peace and love. I've adapted the first two below from St Therese of Lisieux based on existing English translations; the third I've translated/adapted from St Teresa of Avila ("Nada te turbe").
Lord, we launch out from our hearts toward You.
Today, whether we find ourselves in the heights of joy or the ruts of despair,
We are grateful for Your love. 

Lord, I have found my place in the world,
and that place is love.
Beacon Light of love, I know how to reach you.
Grant me the calm and serene peace of the navigator
Who sees the lighthouse that will lead home.

Let nothing disturb me
Let nothing frighten me
Those things will all pass
My Savior remains

Sunday, October 13, 2019

"You shall love the Lord your God"

"You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength." (Mark 12:30, from Deuteronomy 6:5, see also Luke 10:27). 

In my reading I have come across a teaching attributed to Maimonides, that the command to love God can be acted on by meditating on the infinite love of God towards us:
I have loved you with an everlasting love. (Jeremiah 31:3)

In time, as we become more aware of God's love, our own love for God awakens. And so "You shall love the Lord your God" is not only a command, it is also a promise. Yes, that has been said of other commandments before. This, too, God will add to us.

Sunday, October 06, 2019

A is for Apple, Alef Beth is for Learn Wisdom

In the course of some research the other night, I came across an entry in the Talmud (Shabbath 104a) discussing some of the instructions, lessons, and memory aids that were used in teaching the Hebrew alphabet back in the days of classical Judaism. Seeing that it was both instructive and good-natured, I wanted to reproduce it here as an alphabet chart:

Memory and instruction
Names of letters
Hebrew letters (right to left)
Learn wisdom (alef binah)
Alef, Beth
Show kindness to the poor (Gemol Dallim)

Why is the foot of the Gimmel stretched toward the Daleth? Because it is fitting for the benevolent to run after the poor.
And why is the roof of the Daleth stretched out toward the Gimmel?
Because he (the poor) must make himself available to him.
And why is the face of the Daleth turned away from the Gimmel?
Because he must give to him in secret, lest he be ashamed of him.
Gimmel, Daleth
That is the Name of the Holy One, blessed be He
He, Waw
If you do this, the Holy One, blessed be He, will sustain (Zan) you, be gracious (Hen) to you, show goodness (metib) to you, give you an inheritance (Yerushah), and bind a crown (Kether) on you in the world to come.
Zayyin, Heth, Teth, Yod, Kaf, Lamed
The open Mem and the closed Mem are open teaching (Ma'amar) and closed (esoteric) teaching.
open Mem, closed Mem (final Mem)
The bent Nun and the straight Nun: the faithful (Ne'eman) if bent (humble), will be the faithful, straightened.
bent Nun, straight Nun (final Nun)
Samek, ‘ayyin: support (Semak) the poor (‘aniyyim).
Another interpretation: devise (‘aseh) mnemonics (Simanin) in the Torah and so acquire it.
Samek, ‘ayyin
The bent pe and the straight pe are an open mouth [peh], a closed mouth.
bent Pe and straight Pe (final Pe)
A bent zadde and a straight zadde: the righteous (zaddik) is bent; the righteous is straightened.

But that is identical with the faithful bent, the faithful straightened? The Writ added humility to his humility; so the Torah was given under great submissiveness.
bent Zadde and straight Zadde
Kuf is for Kadosh (holy); Resh for Rasha’ (wicked):

Why is the face of the Kuf averted from, the Resh? The Holy One, blessed be He, said: I cannot look at the wicked. And why is the crown of the Kuf turned toward the Resh? The Holy One, blessed be He, saith: If he repents, I will bind a crown on him like Mine. And why is the foot of the Kuf suspended? If he repents, he can enter and be brought in through this.

This supports Resh Lakish, for Resh Lakish said: What is meant by, "Surely he scorns the scorners, But he gives grace unto the lowly?" If one comes to defile himself, he is given an opening; if one comes to cleanse himself, he is helped.
Kuf, Resh
SHin is for SHeker (falsehood); Taw for emeth (truth):

Why are the letters of Sheker close together, while those of ‘emeth are far apart? Falsehood is frequent, truth is rare.

And why does falsehood stand on one foot, while truth has a brick-like foundation? Truth can stand, falsehood cannot stand.

SHin, Taw
I'm curious how far back we could trace the tradition of teachers making alphabet charts, games, or memory aids. After the custom of teachers everywhere, they do not lose the opportunity to have lessons within lessons, where the examples given are on another subject. Learning letters is generally a preparation for other things that will be learned after reading is mastered. Here the teachers lay the groundwork for what they want the students to learn next. While calling attention to the shapes of the letters, they emphasize learning wisdom, God's benevolence, human benevolence, humility, and truth.

If anyone has any use for this, I'm tagging this individual post as Creative Commons. Please bear in mind that the Talmud and its English edition are not mine (Soncino/Judaica Press, though I've modernized it somewhat). It's possible that there have been enough changes (between modernizing and simplifying the language, and original work added in the formatting) that this may possibly be considered a new work; users are encouraged to check into that as needed.

Tuesday, October 01, 2019

Biblical Studies Carnival #164

Biblical Studies Carnival #164 is up at Reading Acts. For the first time I have participated in the carnival. The host was welcoming and receptive; I'd encourage all the bibliobloggers who are not submitting entries to the carnival to consider participating in the future. The current month's host, Philip Long, writes a blog that looks interesting.

Sunday, September 29, 2019

A Study of Hebrew or Aramaic Loan-Words: 4 Canonical Gospels and 8 Non-Canonical Gospels

This post concludes the recent series studying Hebrew and Aramaic loan-words in various documents that are commonly referred to as gospels, whether inside or outside the New Testament. I approach the study of these documents as an exercise in data analysis, employing computerized methodology whenever possible to give the most objective results that I can manage.

Use of Hebrew or Aramaic Loan Words

The chart below summarizes the total occurrences of Hebrew or Aramaic loan words that I was able to discover in these gospels. Within that total count, there is also a breakdown of how often such words were used in phrases attributed to Jesus by the author ("red letter" usage, based on the typographical convention of some texts that use red letters to show Jesus' words). Currently, full phrases such as Jesus' cry from the cross are counted as a single use in this chart.

The results range from the Gospel of Mary on the low end, where I was not able to find any Hebrew or Aramaic usage in the surviving text, to the Gospel of John on the high end. In the break-down of red-letter usage, most of the texts studied did not contain any Hebrew or Aramaic words attributed to Jesus. The exceptions -- the ones which preserve Hebrew or Aramaic words within sayings attributed to Jesus -- are the four canonical gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, plus the Coptic Gospel of Thomas.

Some of the differences in the number of words may be attributable to the difference in lengths of the documents, and a useful follow-up would be to evaluate the relative frequency of the words (as opposed to simple counts) to control for the length of the documents. Again, some of the differences in the number of "red letter" occurrences may be due to either the shortness of the documents, or the relative or complete lack of sayings attributed to Jesus in some of the documents, and a supplemental review of the relative frequency would be useful.

Range of Vocabulary

This second chart shows the number of distinct words or sayings from those languages contained in each document.

The results range again from the Gospel of Mary on the low end, where I was not able to find any Hebrew or Aramaic usage in the surviving text, to the Gospel of Mark on the high end with the highest number of unique and distinct words. Again, whole phrases in the underlying languages (one such phrase in Matthew, two phrases in Mark) are currently counted as single items. For methodology, it would ultimately be cleaner to break those phrases into their underlying words, as an open item for further work.

Points of Interest

Comparing the charts to each other brings out some interesting points about individual documents:
  • The Gospel of John may have had the most individual occurrences of these words, but that was boosted the usage of "Amen" -- that is, by how often the words in question were, "Truly, truly I tell you". When counting distinct words and range of vocabulary, Mark has the widest range -- even here when currently counting the full phrases found in Mark as single items rather than breaking them into their underlying vocabulary.
  • The Gospel of the Savior follows a pattern not too different from the Gospel of John, in that the use of the word "Amen" constituted a high percentage of the words in question. In the case of the Gospel of the Savior, this is mostly attributed to a single prayer-like section where "Amen" is given as a response 23 times in the reconstructed text. The repeated response of "Amen" accounts for all but one of the appearances of a Hebrew or Aramaic word in that text.
  • The Gospel of Philip may have only had 6 total words in Hebrew or Aramaic, but only "Sabbath" was repeated more than one time causing it to have a relatively high range of different vocabulary words. This reflects the unique vocabulary found in the Gospel of Philip, with its usage of words such as Echmoth and Echamoth which do not appear in any of the other documents referenced so far.
References - Links to Underlying Word Studies
The summary charts are based directly on totals from the material in the linked documents.

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Non-Gnostic Gospels Outside the New Testament: Preserved Hebrew or Aramaic Loan-Words

The series continues with a review of documents sometimes called gospels outside the Bible, here focusing on gospels that are not classified as Gnostic. Again it bears mentioning that the study aids and resources (and reference systems) aren't as fully developed for these are for the canonical Christian gospels. Even though I have had the help of interlinear texts in some cases, there is an over-reliance on translations.

The Gospel of the Savior 

Cherubim: 1x
38 [The angels] and the archangels [bowed down] on [their faces. 39 The] cherubim [...]... 
Amen [manuscript damaged, possibly 23x on a likely reconstruction]
He said, "Amen!" 
Infancy Gospel of Thomas 

Amen: 1x
11:3 And when they departed into the city Joseph told it to Mary, and she when she heard and saw the wonderful mighty works of her son rejoiced, glorifying him with the Father and the Holy Spirit now and for ever and world without end. Amen
Sabbath: 2x
3:1 Now Jesus made of that clay twelve sparrows: and it was the Sabbath day. And a child ran and told Joseph, saying: Behold, your child plays about the brook, and has made sparrows of the clay, which is not lawful.
Gospel of Peter

Sabbath: 3x
5 And Herod said: 'Brother Pilate, even if no one had requested him, we would have buried him, since indeed Sabbath is dawning. For in the Law it has been written: The sun is not to set on one put to death.'
Proto-Evangelium of James

Amen: 3x without the colophon, or 4x including the colophon
6 And all the people said: So be it, so be it, amen.

Again, the documents in this group have relatively few different loan-words, often only "Amen" or "Sabbath". Outside of these two particular words, so far I have discovered only one other use of such loan-words in these texts, a reference to cherubim in the Gospel of the Savior. For those keeping track of unique words, this is the first time that cherub or cherubim has come to our attention in this series. It is used in the New Testament book of Hebrews in its Greek form, and the Hebrew scriptures contain a number of reference, but the New Testament gospels make no reference specifically to cherubim.

Another noteworthy feature is the high incidence of the word "Amen" in the Gospel of the Savior. This tracks to a section that has the format of many liturgical prayers, with "Amen" being the response.