[I have an abiding interest in kitsch and this post provides some theoretical background into kitsch. Originally posted 20th October 2005]
I’ve been asked by some readers “What is ‘Kitsch’?” In this post I will attempt to define it, or more accurately, I will show some ways that it has been used in the discussion of religion & popular culture. I should say at the onset that much of my thoughts on kitsch have been formed in part by the following books:
McDannell’s work is perhaps the classic work on the material culture of different religions from an outsider religious studies perspective, while Brown’s monograph focuses more on the aesthetics of taste. I have not had a chance to examine Spackerman’s work yet, though it looks intriguing. Miller’s absolutely excellent work is an analysis of the effect of advanced capitalism on religion, especially on the effects of the commodification of religion in our culture.
While I am primarily interested in “Christian” kitsch, all religions have their own material culture, and consequently their own kitsch. There are many examples of “Judaikitsch,” Islamic kitsch, and kitsch from eastern religions. Thus you can buy Mitsvah Bears, Krishnah action figures (as well as Shiva and Buddah), or “I Love Allah” rulers.
What is “Kitsch”?
The term “kitsch” gained popularly by the 1930s when it was used to describe poor art. While the etymology of the word is unclear, many suggest the term was coined by German painters during the mid-1800s to deride the cheap “tourist art” bought in Munich (Kitschen with the sense “to make cheap”). Thus, the term “kitsch” is used by many to denote trivial literature, low quality materials, sentimental arts, or vulgar merchandise. Beyond this, McDannell finds that there are three distinct ways or approaches that scholars, artists, and cultural critics use the term “kitsch”: cultural, aesthetic, and ethical.
A Cultural Approach
Sociologists, anthropologists, and cultural studies specialists note that for many the term “kitsch” is pejorative and reflects a cultural bias. In contrast to this understanding of the term, proponents of this perspective understand kitsch as a reflection of educational and economic levels, among other things. Thus Bourdieu notes, “art and cultural consumption are predisposed, consciously and deliberately or not, to fulfill a social function of legitimating social differences.” One person’s art will be another person’s kitsch.
Every social group has its own artistic expression that include a system of aesthetics with its own internal logic and we should not judge one group’s material culture by the standard’s of another.
An Aesthetic Response
Artists and cultural critics are not as forgiving as social scientists, and some tend to see kitsch as mass produced and inferior art, a cheap imitation of good art.
This approach places kitsch as a subset of art — it tries to be art, but it ultimately fails. Some proponents of ths approach understand this low quality art as an attempt to identify with the “real art” of the upper classes. Thus, kitsch required the existence of a mature cultural tradition from which inferior copies could be made (Greenberg). Of course, this approach begs the question of who gets to decide what is real art and what is not!
An Ethical Response: Kitsch as Anti-art A final approach to kitsch understands it as containing a negative moral dimension. It holds that art should reflect the true, the good, and the beautiful — and kitsch does not. “Art, then, is, in its own way — no less than theology — a revelation of the Divine” (Lindsay). If this is the case, then kitsch is “the element of evil in the value system of art” (Broch). For example, the ability of kitsch to “sentimentalize the infinite” has ethical connotations as it reduces something meaningful to a bauble and divorces it from its original meaning-providing context. I can’t help but think of all of the “Precious Moments” figurines that elicit an “aww… isn’t that cute” response.
Kitsch and Commodification
The rise of Christian retailing in the 19th and 20th centuries added a new dimension to the whole kitsch debate. While “Jesus junk” has its origins in the 1800s, it exploded with the development of advanced capitalism in the late 1900s. In the 1990s the sales of Christian products exceeded 3 billion annually — and that’s just in the United States! Advanced capitalism, with its outsourcing, niche marketing, and new marketing and advertising techniques has clearly demonstrated that anything — absolutely anything — can become a commodity. This results in the reduction of beliefs, symbols, and religious practices into “free-floating signifiers” to be consumed like anything else. The result is the proliferation of what some would consider “kitsch.”
I have sympathies for all of the approaches to kitsch noted above. The more neutral social-scientific study of kitsch is crucial for understanding the material culture of different groups within Christianity. This I believe has to be the first step in any analysis of kitsch. In regards to the aesthetic approach, I think it is very difficult to maintain a rigid dualism between good art and kitsch — especially in the light of blurred distinctions between camp, pop art, hyper-realism, and even kitsch art.
But when I put on the hat of a theologian and take an “insider” perspective, I find it difficult to maintain neutrality. But rather than take an ethical stance based on some idea of aesthetics, I would base my ethical repsonse based on the affect of advanced capitalism on Christianity. In this sense, I am more concerned with the commodification that much of Christian kitsch represents, than with any evaluation of its artistic merit. I can’t help but think that much of what I would consider “kitsch” devalues and cheapens Christianity (or Judaism, Islam, Hinudism, or any religion) by taking it out of its faith context and reducing it to a product to be consumed like anything else. But then again, I could be wrong!
[With the Oscars quickly approaching, I figured I could highlight some of my previous reflections on film. This was originally Posted 15th February 2006. As far as this year is concerned, I would give top honours to The King's Speech, though True Grit and Inception were also great films]
Ben Myers over at Faith and Theology had asked me to contribute an entry on film to his “Essential… for Theologians” series. I was honoured to be asked and have spent some time formulating my list. My original list may be viewed on Ben’s blog here.
In the grand film tradition of producing a “Director’s cut”, I decided to expand my original list by both adding four additional films and including a number of “runners up.” I also explained a bit of my rationale for selecting the films I did.
I published my list with some trepidation knowing that I omitted a number of significant religious films — particularly a number of older classics that many such top ten lists include (see, for instance, Ken Ristau’s recent list of “Essential Movies for Theologians.” For an extensive list, see the Arts & Faith Top 100 Spiritually Significant Filmshere.
In my list, I tried to be representative of different film genres and included some “art house” and foreign films, as well as more popular films. I wasn’t too concerned with a film’s box office success, though there are some successful films in my list. And, of course, I readily admit to including some of my personal favourites.
Update: You may also want to check out my “Essential Films of 2005 for Theologians – Extended Edition” here.
Top Ten Fourteen Essential Films for Theologians
(Listed in alphabetical order)
The Apostle (Robert Duvall, 1997; IMDb; Buy from Amazon.ca or Amazon.com). Robert Duvall’s sympathetic portrayal of Euliss “Sonny” Dewey, a southern Pentecostal preacher, is masterful. While this movie may hit too close to home for some Christians, it reveals the conflict within the life of faith as Sonny, a deeply religious person, struggles with his rage and sensuality.
Balthazar (Au hasard Balthazar; Robert Bresson, 1966; IMDb; Buy from Amazon.ca or Amazon.com). The film follows the life of a humble donkey named Balthazar through a series of masters, paralleled by the life of a young woman, Marie. The cinematography and score are both magnificent. The film has a sparse and evocative feel to it. It’s the type of film that you could view repeatedly and ponder endlessly (as the critics appear to do). I’m not sure if Bresson meant it to be understood typologically or allegorically, but such a reading would certainly fit with Balthazar portrayed as an unassuming Christ figure. At the very least it narrates the life of a simple beast of burden who humbly accepts the cruelty of his masters. The simple grace in this movie reminds me of another classic, Gabriel Axel’s Babette’s Feast (Babettes gÃ¦stebud; 1987).
The Big Kahuna (John Swanbeck, 1999; IMDb; Buy from Amazon.ca or Amazon.com). This unassuming film about three lubricant salesmen, one of whom is an evangelical Christian, contains some of the most compelling dialogue around matters of faith, integrity, and manipulation I have seen.
Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982; IMDb; Buy from Amazon.ca or Amazon.com). This classic science fiction film explores what it means to be human as Deckard, a “blade runner” played by Harrison Ford, has to track down and terminate four replicants that are virtually indistinguishable from humans. Based on the short book Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Phillip Dick, the dark look and feel of this film inspired innumerable science fiction films. While the DVD transfer of the Director’s cut is not that great (it was one of the first DVDs made), rumour has it that a multi-disc special edition is set to be released in time for its 25th anniversary in 2007. Other science fiction films that are worthy of mention include Stanley Kubrick’s masterful 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), The Matrix (1999) by the Wachowski brothers (the first is by far the best), and Dark City (Alex Proyas, 1998).
(Of course, I also have to give honourable mention to the original Star Wars (George Lucas, 1977) and the original trilogy (I have not been impressed with any of the prequels). I have to confess that I saw the original Star Wars around 17 times in the theatre when it first was released. I also had made myself a light sabre (a painted dowel; not like one of the fancy ones available now), dressed up as a Jedi knight, and had virtually every Star Wars model available. Truth be told, not much has changed. I have been able to watch Star Wars with my kids and my four-year-old son and I frequently have light sabre battles in the living room (a painted dowel no longer have I). In sum: I still like it after all of these years even if some parts are a bit cheesy (And I still think Princess Leah looks hot in her “Jabba the Hutt” golden bikini). I have included this film on my extended list not only because it has profoundly shaped popular culture, but because its a parable of the epic struggle between good and evil.)
The Decalogue (Dekalog; Krzysztof Kieslowski, 1989; IMDb; Buy from Amazon.ca or Amazon.com). This ten-part series of films was originally aired on Polish TV in the 1980s. Each episode narrates a story, set in the same apartment block, that is loosely tied to one of the Ten Commandments (as enumerated in the Catholic tradition; see my blog entry here for other enumerations).
For 6,000 years, these rules have been unquestionably right. And yet we break them every day. People feel that something is wrong in life. There is some kind of atmosphere that makes people now turn to other values. They want to contemplate the basic questions of life, and that is probably the real reason for wanting to tell these stories. – Krzysztof Kieslowski on The Decalogue.
Each episode is well done and thought-provoking, though I found 2, 5, 6, and 7 particularly meaningful. Kieslowski’s more popular and widely distributed Three Colors Trilogy: Blue, White, and Red (Trois couleurs: Bleu, Blanc, et Rouge; 1993-4) are also worthy of mention.
Magnolia (P.T. Anderson, 1999; IMDb; Buy from Amazon.ca or Amazon.com). This is perhaps my favourite film. It is a thought-provoking exploration of “the sins of the fathers,” forgiveness, and redemption as the lives of nine individuals interconnect one day in San Fernando Valley, California (its title is from one of the San Fernando Valley’s principal thoroughfares, Magnolia Boulevard). The ensemble cast is marvellous, the direction and cinematography superb, and the soundtrack by Aimee Mann moving. And what can I say about the frogs?! If I was going to number this list, I would have to put this as film number 8.2!
The Mission (Roland Joffre, 1986; IMDb; Buy from Amazon.ca or Amazon.com). This film is an absolutely beautiful yet troubling exploration of the question of grace and redemption, love and hate, and what it means to lay down your life for your faith and friends. Its cinematography and musical score are moving and deservedly won awards. Set in 18th century South America, this film raises questions — and provides no easy answers — about the Christian mission, war, and slavery. Simply superb. Other films that have similar themes and garner special mention include Black Robe (Bruce Beresford, 1991), Romero (John Duigan, 1989), and At Play in the Fields of the Lord (Hector Babenco, 1991).
Monty Python’s Life of Brian (Terry Jones, 1979; IMDb; Buy from Amazon.ca or Amazon.com). If we can’t laugh at ourselves, then something is wrong. Eric Idle himself is reported as saying, “If anything can survive the probe of humour it is clearly of value, and conversely all groups who claim immunity from laughter are claiming special privileges which should not be granted” (hmmmâ€¦ do you think this quote is relevant to a current international news story?). But this film is not all laughs — it actually presents aspects of the time of Jesus somewhat accurately, such as the ubiquitous messiahs and prophets during that period as well as the sheer diversity with Judaism at that time. In the humour/satire category I would also include Dogma (Kevin Smith, 1999), Saved! (Brian Dannelly, 2004), and Keeping the Faith (Edward Norton, 2000).
Wings of Desire (Der Himmel uber Berlin; Wim Wenders, 1987; IMDb; Buy from Amazon.ca or Amazon.com). I was first introduced to the German director Wim Wenders through the music video for U2′s song “Stay (Far Away, So Close).” This films explores what it means to be human from the perspective of angels as it follows the lives of two angels as they comfort and help lost souls in Berlin, one of whom decides he wants to become human. While Hollywood has remade the story as City of Angels (Brad Silberling, 1998), the original is superior on all accounts. I should also mention Wim Wender’s collaboration with U2′s frontman Bono on The Million Dollar Hotel (Wim Wenders, 2000). While this film has its flaws, Jeremy Davies’s portrayal of Tom Tom is one of the best Christ figures in recent film.
I figured my original list was lacking in four genres: war films, westerns, gangster films, and fantasy. Most films in these genres explore the myth of redemptive violence, and as such are worthy of theological reflection. Other excellent films that explore this theme include Batman Begins (Christopher Nolan, 2005) and In the Bedroom (Todd Field, 2001).
The Godfather Saga (Francis Ford Coppola, 1972, 1974, and 1990; IMDb; Buy from Amazon.ca or Amazon.com). Don Corleone made me an offer I couldn’t refuse, so I had to add this trilogy to my list. The first two in the series are superior, and I think the first is the best. One of my favourite scenes is at the end of the first film when you have the juxtaposition of Michael Corleone renouncing “Satan and all his works” at the baptism of his nephew and the executions of the heads of the other mob families. On the soundtrack, Bach’s organ music is punctuated by gunfire. Other mobster films that deserve mention include Goodfellas (Martin Scorsese, 1990) and The Untouchables (Brian De Palma, 1987).
The Lord of the Rings Trilogy (Peter Jackson, 2000, 2001, and 2002; IMDb; Buy from Amazon.ca or Amazon.com). I am a huge Tolkien fan and I loved Peter Jackson’s film adaptations of the Lord of the Rings. That isn’t to say that I agreed with all of Jackson’s modifications; in fact, I think Jackson and the screenwriter Fran Walsh are both Hollywood sell outs! Since when do Ents make rash decisions?! If there were any more unnecessary dramatic turns added, I would have sued for whip-lash! At any rate, these are ground breaking films that are surely worthy of mention!
The Thin Red Line (Terrence Malick, 1998; IMDb; Buy from Amazon.ca or Amazon.com). I have watched this film about the conflict at Guadalcanal during World War II many times and find its juxtaposition of war and (seeming) paradise haunting. It is visually beautiful and the writing is superb. The ensemble cast is excellent — especially the roles played by James Caviezel, Nick Nolte, and most notably Elias Koteas. Other great war films include Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola, 1979), The Deerhunter (Michael Cimino, 1978), Platoon (Oliver Stone, 1986), as well as the less know, though theologically relevant, films A Midnight Clear (Keith Gordon, 1992) and To End All Wars (David L. Cunningham, 2001).
Unforgiven (Clint Eastwood, 1992; IMDb; Buy from Amazon.ca or Amazon.com). What’s a list without a western? While there are many “shoot ‘em up” westerns that are perhaps entertaining, Unforgiven is unique in that it deconstructs the typical western. The (anti)hero is unlovable, the gun fights are devoid of romanticism, and nothing is really settled at the end when the cowboy rides off into the sunset. “It’s a hell of a thing, killin’ a man. You take away all he has, and all he’s ever gonna have,” says Will. The Kid stammers, “I guess he had it comin’.” Will almost whispers: “We’ve all got it comin’, Kid.”
OK, I need to wrap this up. There are many more films which are worthy to be mentioned, such as Breaking the Waves, Chinatown, Contact, Dead Man Walking, Lawrence of Arabia, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Pulp Fiction, Shadowlands, Slingblade, The Shawshank Redemption, etc., etc., ad nauseum, but this list has to end!
What films do you feel are essential for theologians?
[Originally posted 8th March 2006; While this post is not necessarily the "best" of Codex, it certainly is one of the most popular -- at least if Google searches count for anything. This post (and others on Hebrew tattoos) generates numerous requests from people about Hebrew spellings for this or that word or phrase, many of which I try to respond to when I have time.]
Believe it or not, one of the more frequent Google searches by which individuals happen upon my blog is a search for “Hebrew Tattoos.” This search, which appears to happen once every few hundred visits to my site, leads readers to my tongue-in-cheek post “Posh Hebrew Tattoos, David! (Beckhams Inscribe their Love).” I have also had individuals email me asking advice on Hebrew tattoos, primarily wanting verification about the spelling of this or that word. My own students also ask similar questions (the latest being just last week).
This interest in Hebrew tattoos intrigues me. It obviously piggy-backs on the popularity of tattoos in general, though I suspect that the fact you have high profile celebrities like David and Victoria Beckham, Madonna, and Britney Spears with Hebrew tattoos boosts their popularity. And, of course, you have the religious crowd that likes tattoos of a biblical character, whether Hebrew, Greek, or even Aramaic.
At any rate, after reproducing the Google search for “Hebrew Tattoos” you will come across a number of web sites that specialize in tattoos, even ones devoted to Hebrew Tattoos that want to cash in on the craze. Most of these sites have sample pictures of actual Hebrew tattoos. What I found troubling is the number of mistakes in these tattoos. As a public service to any individuals thinking of getting a Hebrew tattoo, I thought I would highlight some of the mistakes so that others may avoid them in the future.
Hebrew Tattoos You Don’t Want
This first example of the Hebrew term for “God” makes a simple mistake of confusing Hebrew characters that look similar (of which there are a few!). The bottom letter on the tattoo is a samech (a Hebrew “s”) while it is supposed to be a mem (a Hebrew “m”). Another possibility that Yitzhak Sapir noted in the comments, is that the final letter is the Rashi script for final mem. He suggests that “some Jewish figure who was uncomfortable writing out the name of God changed scripts as a result.” While this is certainly possible, it seems odd that the rest of the tattoo is standard Aramaic square script. I am also not sure how many Jewish tattoo artists are out there who know Rashi’s script! I think my explanation makes a bit more sense. This tattoo is an example of a simple mistake made by someone who was trying to match the letters from a picture or something (I get quite a few papers from students who know a little Hebrew and try to include Hebrew words but they confuse stuff like final mem and samech, resh and dalet, etc.). Either way, if you are going to get a tattoo, it’s probably better to use the same script for the entire thing!
This tattoo, which has a Hebrew word purported by the website I found it on to mean “freedom” (perhaps based on Lev 19:20?) has the vowel points shifted incorrectly to the left. As such it is nonsensical. Moreover, as the comments to this post indicate, in modern Hebrew this word (if correctly pointed) means “vacation” — which I am pretty sure the individual who got the tattoo did not want (especially considering the symbol of the Holy Spirit above it!).
This tattoo, which means “holy to the LORD/Yahweh,” has letters which are either not drawn very carefully or confused (note the difference in width in the second last character in the bottom word; the tattoo has what looks like a dalet or resh, which it should be a vav) as well as incorrect vowel pointing.
This tattoo is supposed to say “in blood” according to the website where I found it. The expression is not biblical Hebrew, but a modern Hebrew phrase for “blood relative” or the like (see the comments by Yitzhak Sapir). Of course, the tattoo is still incorrect since it is missing the silent sheva after the resh (and the resh looks a bit like a yod). (If I was going to write “in blood” in Biblical Hebrew, I would simply do it as I have it on the bottom.)
This tattoo of the name of the God of Israel, “Yahweh,” is fine, though the web page identified it as Aramaic. In fact, this is a paleo-Hebrew script of the divine name.
There is nothing wrong with this Hebrew tattoo. I just thought it’s funny because the word inscribed can possibly mean both “love” as well as “leather” (some scholars suggest that there is a homograph which means “leather” [see KB3]). It arguably occurs in Hosea 11:4 [perhaps] and Song 3:10 [more likely]). Perhaps this can be taken as a warning not to spend too much time in the tanning salons?! (Of course, in modern Hebrew it clearly means love, and as I already noted, there is nothing wrong with this tattoo.)
The lesson here is that you cannot trust pictures of Hebrew tattoos on the internet! Make sure to double check the spelling of the Hebrew word you want tattooed!
Tips for Getting Hebrew Tattoos
If you are thinking of getting a Hebrew tattoo, consider the following:
First, think long and hard about getting a tattoo because they are permanent (notwithstanding modifying tattoos or erasing them). If you are set on the idea of getting a tattoo, think about getting a temporary one first. Also think about where you put your tattoo. Based on the experience of friends, I wouldn’t suggest getting a tattoo on any place where your body may change drastically as you age (and women, beware of tattoos on your stomach as if you ever get pregnant, your tattoo may be stretched beyond recognition (and it may not go back to its original shape — ask my friend!).
Second, if you are getting a Hebrew tattoo, make sure to double check with someone who knows Hebrew (or Greek if you are getting a Greek one) whether or not you have the proper spelling of the word. It would be a bummer to get a tattoo like those above — the only consolation would be that most people wouldn’t know you have a spelling mistake permanently inscribed on your body!
Third, one thing to decide before getting a Hebrew tattoo is whether or not to just use consonants (as Hebrew was originally written) or use consonants with the Masoretic vowel pointing (the little dots and dashes above and below the consonants). The vowel points were added to the text of the Hebrew Bible in the early centuries of this era by Jewish scribes called the Masoretes. While the vowel points represent an ancient reading tradition, they are not original to the Hebrew text, so you may not want to include them. (I personally wouldn’t include them if only for aesthetic reasons)
Finally, make sure to go to a reputable tattoo shop!
As a side note, I don’t have any tattoos nor any intention of getting one — and I hope that this trend will die down by the time my kids are older! My primary problem with tattoos is that they are too permanent; what you may think is cool when you are younger, you may later regret.
No sooner than I go out of town to a conference than an interesting debate begins in the blogosphere. It appears that the question of the appropriate label for what Christians traditionally have referred to as the “Old Testament” is being debated.Â This is not a new debate among bibliobloggers; back in January 2006 I started a similar debate. This time around Claude Mariottini got the ball rolling and Richie (at a blog called “Ecclesiastical Mutt”), Chris Heard, and Chris Weimer have all responded.
My position hasn’t changed since my previous post, so I thought I would reprint it here for you all.
Old Testament/First Testament/Hebrew Bible/Tanak: Whatâ€™s in a Name? Quite a Bit Actually!
Labels don’t really matter that much, do they? A rose by any other name would still smell as sweet — or so they say. A little while ago there was a discussion on the biblical studies email list about different names for the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible/Tanak. This discussion highlighted the significance that each of the different monikers has as well as potential problems with pretty much all of the terms. When it comes right down to it, it does make a difference what label you do use since each of the names relate to a particular community of faith and audience. That being said, I don’t think there is anything wrong with employing the various labels at different times depending on your intended audience.
From the get go, it should be noted that all of the different terms are, in fact, external labels. The collection of books that make up the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible/Tanak do not have any self-referential label. The closest you get to a self-referential title are the references to parts of the canon by the terms such as “Torah,” the “Torah of Moses” (Ezra 3:2; 7:6; Neh 8:1), the “Torah of the LORD” (Ezra 7:10), or the “book/scroll of Moses” (2Chron 25:4; 35:12; Neh 13:1).
Once you get outside the books of the Hebrew Bible you find references to “the law of the Most High,” “the wisdom of all of the ancients,” and “prophecies” in Sirach 38:34-39:1. Similarly, in the Greek translation of Sirach (completed around 132 BCE), you find reference to the Law, Prophets, and the “other books” — the last phrase being a disputed reference to the third division of the Hebrew Bible. A similar (disputed) reference to the tripartite Hebrew canon are found in 4QMMT, while there are a few reference to a bipartite canon in other DSS such as the Community Rule (1QS) and the Damascus Document (CD).
Within the Christian New Testament the books of the OT are referred to variously as “the Law and the Prophets” (Matt 7:12; 22:40; Luke 16:16; Acts 13:15; Rom 3:21) or “Moses and the Prophets” (Luke 16:29, 31; 24:44) or the like. One of the most common ways the NT refers to the books of the OT is by the generic term “scripture” (Gk. Î³Ï?Î±Ï†á½´; usually in the plural, “scriptures”). So for instance, in 2 Timothy 3:16 the books of the OT are referred to as “Scripture” that is “God breathed” (Gk. Î¸ÎµÏŒÏ€Î½ÎµÏ…ÏƒÏ„Î¿Ï‚).
The point of this survey is to illustrate that there was no uniform way that Jewish or later Christian communities referred to the collection of books that make up the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible prior to the second century CE.
The traditional Christian label is the Old Testament. This label for the books otherwise known as the Hebrew Bible or Tanak (note that in some traditions it also includes additional apocryphal/deuterocaonical books) is probably the most common label used overall. Its first known usage appears near the end of the second century CE. Melito of Sardis reportedly went to Palestine and “learned accurately the books of the Old Testament/Covenant” (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 4.26.14). Irenaeus also employed the term, though it is only after him that you find undisputed uses the labels “Old Testament” and “New Testament” for the two collections of books in early Christian writings (e.g., Clement, Tertullian, Hippolytus, etc.).
Since this term arose within a Christian context, it isn’t surprising that it is tied to a Christian understanding of these books being only one part of the two part Christian Bible: The Old and New Testaments. Historically, however, there is some difference of opinion within Christian circles what books actually make up the “Old Testament.” The early history of the debate over certain books is quite complex. It ended up that the Protestant tradition limited the term to refer to the books of the Hebrew Bible, while other Christian traditions, e.g., Catholic and Orthodox, include the books commonly referred to as apocryphal or deuterocanonical.
One of the main objections for using this term in biblical scholarship is that it clearly presupposes a Christian understanding of the Bible, which not everyone in biblical studies (obviously) shares. But even within Christian circles, this label is considered misleading by some since it may be interpreted as unnecessarily devaluing one section of the Christian Bible by calling it “old” or by implying that the “new” testament supersedes the “old” testament (the different understandings of the relationships between the testaments is beyond the scope of this post). This dissatisfaction spawned the use of the terms First and Second Testament. These terms are an attempt to recognize the two parts of the Christian Bible without some of the negative baggage associated with “Old” and “New Testament.” I believe this term was coined by James Sanders and has been adopted by the Biblical Theology Bulliten and a growing number of Christian scholars. Even John Goldingay employs it throughout his recent book Old Testament Theology: Israel’s Gospel (IVP, 2003; he only uses the term after the first chapter).
The label Hebrew Bible originates within the Jewish community and is gaining ground in academic biblical studies. It is considered less ideologically loaded than OT, though it has its share of problems. Perhaps the most obvious problem is that it is imprecise, since some of the books are actually written in or contain Aramaic portions. It still conveys religious overtones by including the term “Bible,” while Christians may object because it obscures the connection between the Hebrew Bible and the Christian New Testament. It also doesn’t take into consideration traditions that hold to the expanded Christian canon including the apocryphal books.
Another popular Jewish term for the Old Testament is the Tanak. This term is an acronym for the three major divisions of the Hebrew Bible: Torah, Nebe’im, and Ketubim — TaNaK (×ª×•×¨×” × ×‘×™×?×™×? ×•×›×ª×•×‘×™×? in Hebrew). This is perhaps one of the most common terms used within the Jewish community. Since the label is tied to the contents and order of the Jewish Hebrew Bible, it has the same, if not more, limitations as the term Hebrew Bible. Of course, this traditional Jewish division and ordering of the books appears to be quite old and even reflected in some of the NT passages noted above (also see Matt 23:35).
Other terms have been suggested, but none have really gained widespread usage. Perhaps the traditional labels, albeit problematic, are the best we have. As long as they are used with charity and understanding, I don’t see much of a problem. I have never been offended by any of my Jewish friends referring to the Old Testament as the Hebrew Bible or the Tanak, nor do I think they have been offended when I or other Christians refer to the Old Testament. I probably use the awkward “Old Testament/Hebrew Bible” the most, and reserve “Old Testament” when engaging specifically Christian theological topics and concerns. And I’m still not sure what I think of “First and Second Testament.”
There are a total of 37 places where the LXX Psalter has either additions (13x) or expansions (24x) to the superscripts in comparison to the MT Psalter. While these may be classified in a number of ways, I will discuss them under four headings: personal names; genre designations, liturgical notices, and situational ascriptions. This blog entry will focus on personal names. (Note: Chapter and verse references are to the MT with the LXX indicated in parentheses).
Personal Names in the LXX Psalm Superscriptions
In the MT many of the psalms have references to personal names in the superscripts (typically with the preposition ×œ l). Seventy three psalms contain David; others have Asaph (12x; Pss 50; 73â€“83); the sons of Korah (11x; Pss 42; 44-49; 84-85; 87-88); Solomon (Pss 72; 127); Ethan (Ps 89), Heman (Ps 88), Moses (Ps 90), and possibly Jeduthun (Pss 39; 62; 77). With rare exceptions, the construction lamed + name is rendered with an articular dative. This includes all of the Asaph psalms and virtually all of the Korahite psalms (there are two contested cases where Ï…Ï€ÎµÏ? + genitive is used: Ps 46(45) and 47(46)). In connection with the David psalms, Pietersma has argued that the six places that Rahlfs uses a genitive in his lemma text should be read as datives. Of the two psalms with Solomon in their titles, one is translated by a dative (Ps 127(126)), while the other is rendered by ÎµÎ¹Ï‚ Î£Î±Î»Ï‰Î¼Ï‰Î½ “for Solomon” (Ps 72(71)).
David in the Septuagint Psalter
In the LXX there are a number of instances where personal names are added, including Jeremiah and Ezekiel in Ps 65(64); Haggai and Zechariah in Ps 146(145); 147:1-11(146); 147:12-20(147); and 148. Most of the changes in personal names, however, relate to David, the “sweet psalmist of Israel.” In 13 cases the LXX adds a reference to David (Pss 33(32); 43(42); 71(70); 91(90); 93(92); 94(93); 95(94); 96(95); 97(96); 98(97); 99(98); 104(103); 137(136). (I should also note that there are two instances where references to David are omitted in the Greek tradition: Pss 122(121) and 124(123)). In all but one instance (Ps 98(97)), the LXX adds this association to psalms that are untitled in the MT. The question that immediately comes to mind are whether these additions reflect a different Hebrew text or are the product of transmission history. Unfortunately, it is difficult to gain any critical purchase on this question since Ï„á¿· Î”Î±Ï…Î¹Î´ is the default rendering of ×œ×“×•×“. In three cases it is more than likely that the additions reflect a different Hebrew text, as there is textual evidence to support the variant reading, whether among a few Masoretic texts (43(42)), or among the DSS (e.g., 11QPsq has ×œ×“×•×“ in Ps 33(32); and 11QPsa and 4QPse also have ×œ×“×•×™×“ in Ps 104(103).
The remaining ten instances are more difficult to access. Al Pietersma, in his study “David in the Greek Psalms” (VT 30 (1980) 213-226), suggests that the Davidic references in Pss 71(70); 91(90); 93(92); 95(94); 96(95); and 97(96); may be called into question because other elements of the LXX superscripts are clearly secondary. While this is essentially a “guilty by association” argument, it’s the best we can do considering the evidence. This leaves four superscripts that add an association with David: Pss 94(93); 98(97); 99(98); and 137(136). It is almost impossible to make any determination with Ps 94(93), as the superscript is uncontested. As a royal psalm, it may be understandable why Ps 98(97) would attract a Davidic superscript, though this does not help explain Ps 99(98) (contra Pietersma). The only superscript where some judgment may be made is Ps 137(136). There is quite a bit of variation among the textual witnesses, with many of them including an ascription to Jeremiah, and some conflating the two and associating the psalm with David and Jeremiah. The textual rivalry between David and Jeremiah could be an indication that the psalm was originally untitled, as it is in the MT tradition and Qumran.
Jeremiah & Ezekiel in the Septuagint Psalter
As noted above, some Greek texts of Ps 137(136) include a reference to Jeremiah in their superscripts. The association with Jeremiah in the Greek tradition is perhaps understandable considering the psalm’s exilic setting, though according to biblical tradition Jeremiah never goes to Babylon. There is a tradition, however, that places Jeremiah in Babylon. In fact, 4Baruch 7:33-36 Ps 137(136):3-4 is actually put into the mouth of Jeremiah. The text reads as follows:
For I [Jeremiah] say to you that the whole time we have been here, they have oppressed us, saying “Sing us a song from the songs of Zion, the song of your God.” And we say to them, “How can we sing to you, being in a foreign land?”
While there is a possibility that the superscript led to 4Baruch making the association, it seems more plausible the other way around because 4Baruch has Jeremiah in Babylon, where singing the psalm makes sense. In addition, in 4Baruch there is no indication that Jeremiah is quoting Scripture.
The reference to Jeremiah in Ps 137(136) is not the only one found in the LXX Psalter. The prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel are mentioned together in Ps 65(64). The full superscript reads as follows:
Îµá¼°Ï‚ Ï„á½¸ Ï„á½³Î»Î¿Ï‚ ÏˆÎ±Î»Î¼á½¸Ï‚ Ï„á¿· Î”Î±Ï…Î¹Î´ á¾ Î´á½µ Î™ÎµÏ?ÎµÎ¼Î¹Î¿Ï… ÎºÎ±á½¶ Î™ÎµÎ¶ÎµÎºÎ¹Î·Î» á¼?Îº Ï„Î¿á¿¦ Î»á½¹Î³Î¿Ï… Ï„á¿†Ï‚ Ï€Î±Ï?Î¿Î¹Îºá½·Î±Ï‚ á½…Ï„Îµ á¼”Î¼ÎµÎ»Î»Î¿Î½ á¼?ÎºÏ€Î¿Ï?Îµá½»ÎµÏƒÎ¸Î±Î¹
To the end. A psalm for David. A song. Of Jeremiah and Ezekiel from the account of the sojourning community, when they were about to go out.
The superscript is somewhat contested, though Rahlfs considered it OG. What is interesting about this superscript, is that like the previous example, there is a double association: a connection with David and with Jeremiah and Ezekiel. Unlike the previous example, it is not clear what triggered the association with Jeremiah and Ezekiel. Within the psalm itself there are no explicit connections with these prophets or the return from exile in general. The reference to “Zion” and the addition of “Jerusalem” in v. 2 may suggest this is one of the “songs of Zion” mentioned in Ps 137. While these (and others I won’t bore you with) readings of the Greek translation may provide some clues as to why the association was made, it is more certain that the association is due to an inner-Greek development rather than a different Hebrew parent text. This is almost certain due to the fact that the superscript employs the atypical conjunction á½…Ï„Îµ, and that the grammatical construction of the modal Î¼ÎµÎ»Î»Ï‰ (“about to”) plus a complementary infinitive is never found elsewhere in the LXX Psalter, and thus is not congruent with the translator’s technique.
Haggai & Zechariah in the Septuagint Psalter
The final two individuals that we meet unexpectedly in the superscript of the LXX Psalter are the post-exilic prophets Haggai and Zechariah. Ps 146(145); 147:1-11(146); 147:12-20(147); and 148 all include Î‘Î»Î»Î·Î»Î¿Ï…Î¹Î±, Î‘Î³Î³Î±Î¹Î¿Ï… ÎºÎ±á½¶ Î–Î±Ï‡Î±Ï?Î¹Î¿Ï… “Hallelujah. Of Haggai and Zechariah” (or “A Hallelujah of…”). If you look beyond Rahlfs’ text, then Haggai and Zechariah also show up in Ps 149 and 150, as well as 111(110), 112(111), and even 138(137) and 139(138). Of courses, not all attestations are as strong textually, though it is interesting to note how the tradition surrounding Haggai and Zechariah grew.
How the association of Haggai and Zechariah with these psalms arose is a perplexing question. F. W. Mozley (The Psalter of the Church, Cambridge University Press, 1905, p. 188), conjectures that Haggai and Zechariah were compilers of a small collection of psalms from which these psalms were taken. While that may be the case, a more plausible solution may be to look in these psalms for connections to the post-exilic community. Both Martin RÃ¶sel (“Die PsalmÃ¼berschriften Des Septuaginta-Psalters,” in Der Septuaginta-Psalter, Herder, 2001, pp. 125-148) and Al Pietersma (“Exegesis and Liturgy in the Superscriptions of the Greek Psalter,” in X Congress of the IOSCS, Oslo 1998, Society of Biblical Literature, 2001, pp. 99-138) appeal to Psalm 147(146) as the text that triggered the initial association. Verse 2 in the LXX has an explicit reference to the return from exile. The texts read as follows:
Î¿á¼°ÎºÎ¿Î´Î¿Î¼á¿¶Î½ Î™ÎµÏ?Î¿Ï…ÏƒÎ±Î»Î·Î¼ á½? ÎºÏ?Ï?Î¹Î¿Ï‚ ÎºÎ±á½¶ Ï„á½°Ï‚ Î´Î¹Î±ÏƒÏ€Î¿Ï?á½°Ï‚ Ï„Î¿á¿¦ Î™ÏƒÏ?Î±Î·Î» á¼?Ï€Î¹ÏƒÏ…Î½Î¬Î¾ÎµÎ¹
The Lord is the one who (re)builds Jerusalem; and he will gather the dispersed [diaspora] of Israel
The translation of the Nif’al participle from × ×“×— “drive away” by Î´Î¹Î±ÏƒÏ€Î¿Ï?Î± is atypical. Elsewhere the translator renders × ×“×— by ÎµÎ¾Ï‰Î¸ÎµÏ‰â€œto expelâ€? (5:11) or Î±Ï€Ï‰Î¸ÎµÎ¿Î¼Î±Î¹ “expel, banish” (62:5). Rather than these more general terms, in the passage under question he employs a technical term for the exilic dispersion, Î´Î¹Î±ÏƒÏ€Î¿Ï?Î±. Perhaps significant, is the fact that this term also shows up in some witnesses in connection with Zechariah in the superscript to Ps 139(138). This reference to the exilic dispersion in Ps 147 may have spawned the initial association with two prominent figures of the return, Haggai and Zechariah, which then expanded to include other psalms. The fact that the names are in the genitive may suggest these superscripts are products of transmission history, as it is unclear what the Hebrew text could have read to produce such a translation (If the Hebrew was lamed + name, then you would expect an article in the Greek, and there is no precedent for a construction “the hallelujah of Haggai and Zechariah”).
Personal Names and Authorship
One question that comes up in examining the LXX superscripts is how the translator understood the notion of authorship. Interestingly, it appears to be the case that the Greek translator (one of the earliest biblical interpreters) did not see the personal names in the superscripts as an indication of authorship, as a genitive construction would be expected. For example, Didymus the Blind (a 4th century Alexandrian theologian) makes the distinction in the Tura Psalms commentary in connection with Psalm 24:
(Î¨Î±Î»Î¼Î¿Ï‚ Ï„Ï‰ Î´Î±Ï…Î¹Î´): ÎµÎ¹Ï‚ Ï„Î¿Î½ Î´Î±Ï…Î¹Î´ Î¿ ÏˆÎ±Î»Î¼Î¿Ï‚ Î»ÎµÎ³ÎµÏ„Î±Î¹ Î±Î»Î»Î¿ Î³Î±Ï? ÎµÏƒÏ„Î¹Î½ “Ï„Î¿Ï… Î´Î±Ï…Î¹Î´” ÎµÎ¹Î½Î±Î¹ ÎºÎ±Î¹ Î±Î»Î»Î¿ “Ï„Ï‰ Î´Î±Ï…Î¹Î´” Î»ÎµÎ³ÎµÏ„Î±Î¹, Î¿Ï„Î±Î½ Î· Î±Ï…Ï„Î¿Ï‚ Î±Ï…Ï„Î¿Î½ Ï€ÎµÏ€Î¿Î¹Î·ÎºÏ‰Ï‚ Î· ÏˆÎ±Î»Î»Ï‰Î½. “Î±Ï…Ï„Ï‰” Î´Îµ Î»ÎµÎ³ÎµÏ„Î±Î¹, Î¿Ï„Î±Î½ ÎµÎ¹Ï‚ Î±Ï…Ï„Î¿Î½ Ï†ÎµÏ?Î·Ï„Î±Î¹.
The psalm says “to David,” for others are “of David” and others “to David.” It says “of David,” when he made/wrote it or sang [it]. But it says “to him” when it was brought to him.
So while the Old Greek translation does not seem to indicate authorship, the growing trend in later witnesses is to spell out authorship explicitly by using the genitive. This suggests that the emphasis on individual authorship grew with time.
The evidence from the Greek Psalter fits nicely with a theory of Burton Mack’s I came across a number of years ago in an article entitled, “Under the Shadow of Moses: Authorship and Authority in Hellenistic Judaism” (SBL Seminar Papers 21 (1982) 299-318). In this article Mack argues that the interest in individual authorship only developed as Israel interacted with Hellenism. In the same way that the Greeks had their famous individuals, so too Judaism began to emphasize their own: Moses and the Pentateuch, Solomon and wisdom literature, and — as is clear from the Greek Psalms — David and the Psalter. The growing Davidic connection in the LXX Psalter is also paralleled in 11QPsa, where the prose piece notes that David composed over 4000 psalms “by the spirit of prophecy.”
[Originally posted 14th December 2005; Note that some of the original links are now unfortunately dead due to some blogs being defunct]
Why is it interesting debates spring up right when I am swamped with end of term grading and other publishing deadlines? Well, in an effort to avoid some marking, I figured I would offer some observations on the recent debate about historiography among some bloggers (dare I say, “bibliobloggers”?!).
The Debate Thus Far
First, some background. The recent debate was sparked in part by a post by Ken Ristau reflecting his frustration with the apparent inconsistency that some scholars bring to questions of ancient Israelite historiography, especially in regards to their disregard and/or scepticism of parts of the Hebrew Bible as a historiographic source (History in the Bible?). It is important to note that Ken wasn’t claiming that the Deuteronomistic History, for example, is equivalent to modern critical historiography. All he was arguing for is a recognition that the biblical texts — with all of their ideological limitations — can be used productively and critically in reconstructing the history of Israel. It should also be noted that, if I read Ken correctly (e.g., the reference to floating axe heads), his post is directed more, though not exclusively, against some comments made by Jim West at Biblical Theology), than the published views of scholars like Davies, Lemche, Thompson, and Whitelam.
Ken’s initial post was responded to by Jim West here. In addition, Keith Whitelam (on Jim West’s Biblical Theology blog here) understood some of Ken’s criticisms directed at his scholarship and chastised Ken for not interacting with specific views, among other things. James Crossley also made some balanced observations at Earliest Christian History blog. Ken clarified his views in his response to Keith Whitelam’s concerns here, then more fully here.
A parallel series of posts examining specific archaeological discoveries that may correlate with the portrayal of Israel in the Bible has been going on among some blogs. This series was initiated by Joe Cathey’s posts on the Merneptah Stele (initial post here) and Tel Dan Inscription (initial post here) in response to Jim West’s request for “proof” for the existence of Israel. These posts resulted in a flurry of blogging activity that I don’t have the energy to track in detail, but here are some high points.
In regards to the Merneptah stele, Jim responded to Joe’s initial post here (also see here), Kevin Edgecomb responded to Jim in kind here (see Jim’s response here), while Chris Heard produced a superb post here.
In regard to the Tel Dan inscription, Jim responded to Joe’s posthere and Joe replied here, here, and once again here! And somewhere in the middle of the fray Jim replied here and here (also see Chris Heard’s reply to Jim here). Kevin Edgecomb has a number of excellent posts on the construction BÄ«t + PN in Assyrian/Aramean accounts (see here, here, and most recently here). I need oxygen… OK, I think this will be the last time I try to track a debate in the blogosphere!
I apologize if I have missed any contributions to this lively debate! In addition, you should make sure to read any comments associated with the blog posts in order to get the full picture!
Beyond “Minimalists” and “Maximalists”?
In my opinion, framing the whole discussion — and here I am not necessarily thinking only of the recent blog interchange — as a dichotomy between “minimalists” and “maximalists” is not helpful. There are not two camps, schools, or positions. If anything, the two terms represent a spectrum of possible views, with “minimalists” being at one end and “maximalists” at the other — and everyone else somewhere in the middle (I personally am a centrist — I, and only I, have a perfectly balanced perspective!). But even this portrayal of the debate is not sufficient as there are significant methodological differences between people all throughout the spectrum. For instance, “minimalist” has been used to describe scholars such as Davies, Lemche, Van Seters, Whitelam, among others. While these scholars have a number of presuppositional and methodological similarities surrounding the value of the biblical texts for modern historical reconstruction, they also have some very significant differences — especially in regards to method. This problem is exacerbated for the “maximalist” label since it seems that anyone who isn’t a “minimalist” is grouped together as a maximalist! And if you thought there were differences among the so-called minimalists, there are huge differences among so-called maximalists. In his recent article in SJOT, Lemche even starts using terms such as “maximalist critical scholars” to distinguish them from conservative/conservative evangelical/evangelical maximalist scholars. (I wonder how many “evangelical minimalist” scholars there are?)
The same observation applies equally to using labels such as “Copenhagen school,” “Sheffield school” (the use of the term “school” is more problematic as it presumes more agreement than actually exists), and “biblical revisionists.” On the other side of the debate, the label “evangelical” is used by some in an uncritical and almost derogatory way — at times equated with fundamentalist — to group scholars who have a high view of scripture, even though there is a wide spectrum of scholars who would consider themselves “evangelicals.”
I am not saying anything revolutionary here; most if not all scholars in the debate do not like the labels and have said as much in various publications — even though they continue to use them! So I think it is time for everyone to put the labels to rest and focus instead on interacting with the views of individual scholars (an especailly important step considering that many times our ad homnium or off-the-cuff comments are against views that no scholars actually hold!)
Avoiding Inflammatory Language
Even more than avoiding labels that are not heuristically useful, we need to avoid the caustic and inflammatory language that often accompanies this debate. I think we would all agree that it doesn’t help further the debate to use such language. This inflammatory language occurs in print discussions, email discussion groups, and blogs. I really wish we could all learn to play better among ourselves!
I know that some of the bantering is done tongue-in-cheek (especially in the blogosphere), though the tone of the debate does not contribute to furthering our understanding of how (or if) it is possible to write a history of Israel. We all have to do better (I include myself in the indictment). And I’m not just talking about labels that are thrown around, but statements that imply (or outright state) that so-and-so obviously hasn’t read this or that, tantamount to saying “If you weren’t such a moron, you would obviously see it my way!” That doesn’t mean we have to all agree with one another (though I believe greater miracles have happened!), but when we disagree we should do so with respect since there are learned scholars on all sides of the debate. Furthermore, when we are at the receiving end of a cheap shot or ad homnium argument, we should try our best to not respond in kind, but instead respond with appropriate restraint.
Focusing on Real Issues and Real Differences
Anyone familiar with the debate surrounding the history of Israel knows that there are a number of real issues dividing scholars. An important question that needs to be asked is at what level are the real differences? Most of the time the real differences are not on the surface, but are at lower levels. These lower levels may be methodological, or may be presuppositional and metaphysical. In any debate, it is essential to be able to identify at what level the disagreement exists. In a recent IBR article, V. Philips Long quotes E. L. Greenstein’s comments which I believe are quite appropriate:
in biblical studies we often argue as though we all shared the same beliefs and principles, as though the field were all built upon a single theoretical foundation. But it is notâ€¦. I can get somewhere when I challenge the deductions you make from your fundamental assumptions. But I can get nowhere if I think I am challenging your deductions when in fact I am differing from your assumptions, your presuppositions, your premises, your beliefs.
For example, let’s examine the recent blog debate about the Tel Dan stele. All parties — even Jim — appear willing to concede that the phrase in question is “house of David” (this is not the case in the larger debate where alternative readings are proposed; in which case there would be differences on the level of exegetical judgements). But then at the next step taken by Joe Cathey and Chris Heard, correlating the David of the inscription with the David mentioned in the Hebrew Bible, Jim West demurs. I believe this highlights some low-level differences among those engaged in the debate. Reading between the lines, I would suggest that Jim West has both methodological and metaphysical objections to reading the Hebrew Bible as a historical source, Chris Heard is arguing on the level of the historical critical method and bracketing any personal metaphysical commitments (Ken Ristau appears to be operating at this level as well), while Joe Cathey is probably similar to Jim West, though his methodological and metaphysical commitments likely differ considerably from Jim’s. The end result is that the discussion stalls and a stalemate is declared.
Meaningful and Productive Debate
The $60,000 question is how can we avoid such disagreements? Or stated positively, how can we engage meaningfully in a debate with whom we may have significant methodological and metaphysical differences? The first step would be to be up front about our lower-level commitments. We need to be clear about our method and our metaphysics. This sort of full disclosure will not, of course, produce peace and harmony among us (we know from pop culture that only Coca-Cola can do that!); but it will help us understand where we all are coming from. After this, we can then see if we can find a “middle discourse” to engage one another. We need to agree on the rules of the game before the game starts. Here I wonder if the most fruitful approach may be to work on the level of the historical-critical method and bracket any metaphysical commitments — at least initially. Then, for those of us who may share similar metaphysical commitments, we may take the conversation further.
Of course, perhaps I am being hopelessly naive to think that we can ever really “bracket” our metaphysical commitments, or that we can ever agree on method (there really isn’t any such thing as the historical-critical method!), or that we could even agree on what argument is more plausible than another.
What we can agree on, however, is to treat each other with respect, try to understand each other’s views, and stop with the labels, ad homnium arguments, and making grandiose claims of “proof” on insufficient evidence.
Tim Bulkeley over at SansBlog asked me to expand my analysis of the newly-discovered fragments of Leviticus by describing a bit of the processes involved in identifying and reconstructing the fragments. I thought that I would entertain his request, though I should note up front that I am by no means an expert in this! My interest in the reconstruction of Dead Sea Scroll fragments is a tangent of my work on the so-called Qumran Psalms scrolls for my dissertation that combines my interest in computer technology and really old stuff!
At any rate, I thought I would outline some of the steps in identifying, reconstructing, and analyzing scroll fragments using the Leviticus fragments by way of illustration. (Since I am not an expert at this, I would love to get feedback from those who are!)
STEP 1: Identification
The first (obvious) step in reconstructing a fragment is figuring out what it is a fragment from! This is done by identifying some of the extant letters and words on the fragment and then performing some searches with various computer software to see if you can locate the text.
Before you can identify some of the letters it may be necessary to make some adjustments to the image to bring the letters into sharper relief or even to make the fragment readable in the first place! Note that I am dealing with working with images and not the actual original fragments. This is preferable in most cases as the originals may not be readable and (more significantly) they are likely not accessible! High resolution images may be obtained from various sources, including the Ancient Biblical Manuscript Center at Claremont.
I prefer to do my work on the images with Adobe Photoshop. Within Photoshop you can adjust the input and output levels (using the histogram feature), brightness/contrast, among other things to make the text more readable. While the low resolution images of the Leviticus fragments I tracked down on the web are pretty clear, they can be made even clearer by adjusting them slightly:
The adjusted image is a bit easier to read. At times the difference may be dramatic. Compare the two images of PAM 42.141 where the text becomes readable only by adjusting the original image:
Identifying the Text
Once you can read the fragment — or at least some of the fragment — then you can start the process of identification. This is a bit easier for biblical fragments since there are a number of excellent databases of the Hebrew Bible to begin the identification process. I prefer to use Accordance Bible Software for my searches, though Logos Bible Software and BibleWorks, among others, are more than adequate (see my Software for Biblical Studies Pages for descriptions of these and other biblical studies software programs).
With the small Leviticus fragment I did a search for ×›×œ × ×“×¨×™×? “all your votive offerings” which is easily readable in the first line of the fragment. This search discovers that Lev 23:38 is the only occurrence of this phrase in the Hebrew Bible (I also searched a Qumran database with no matches). At that point the rest of the readable words can be checked in the context to see if you have found a match. In the case of the small Leviticus fragment, the other readable words from it easily fit the context of Lev 23:38-39. The same was the case for the larger Leviticus fragment (it is actually two fragments that have been joined), since there were quite a few readable words to make a certain identification with Lev 23:40-44; 24:16-18. You often don’t have as much to work with, however! In my work on 1Q12 (1QPsc) I identified a fragment 8 based on two readable letters and portions of another letter (see my Proposed Reconstruction).
STEP 2: Reconstruction
Once you have the text identified, the next step is to reconstruct it so that you may confirm your identification and ascertain other things about the fragment such as its original size. In order to do this I use Microsoft Word and/or Photoshop (I have also used Quark XPress for this step) to see how the text lines up with the fragment. So, for example, with the smaller Leviticus fragment I imported Hebrew text of Lev 23:38-39 (without pointing) into Word and then adjusted the right-hand margin until the text lined up in accordance with the fragment. In the case of the smaller fragment, the text lined up quite nicely, producing lines of ca. 22-28 letterspaces:
My reconstruction shows the extant Leviticus 23:38 and 39 in bold black type with an outline of the fragment placement. The space at the top of the fragment preserves part of the top margin of the scroll (the dark spot near the top of the fragment is likely an ink dot or a blemish on the leather).
Here is a translation with the extant words in bold:
38 …and apart from all your votive offerings, and apart from all your freewill offerings, which you give to the Lord. 39 Now, the fifteenth day of the seventh month, when you have gathered in the produce of the land, you shall keep the festival of the Lord, lasting seven days; a complete rest on the first day, and a complete rest on the eighth day.
For the larger fragment, it was a bit more complicated since I was dealing with two columns. But once again, the text lined up very nicely producing lines of ca. 22-28 letterspaces for the right column and 20-25 for the left column, and a column height of ca. 33 lines.
Here is an image of the large fragment:
Here is my reconstruction of the columns:
My reconstruction shows the extant Leviticus 23:40-44 (middle of the right column) and 24:16-18 (left column) in bold black type with an outline of the fragment placement. Note that the smaller fragment also nicely fits at the top of the right column.
The one variant from the MT (as represented by BHS) is the plene spelling of ×‘×¡×›×ª at the end of verse 42 (the vav is in red). (click for larger image)
Here is a translation with the extant words in bold:
38 …and apart from all your votive offerings, and apart from all your freewill offerings, which you give to the Lord. 39 Now, the fifteenth day of the seventh month, when you have gathered in the produce of the land, you shall keep the festival of the Lord, lasting seven days; a complete rest on the first day, and a complete rest on the eighth day.
41You shall keep it as a festival to the Lord seven days in the year; you shall keep it in the seventh month as a statute forever throughout your generations. 42 You shall live in booths for seven days; all that are citizens in Israel shall live in booths, 43 so that your generations may know that I made the people of Israel live in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God. 44 Thus Moses declared to the people of Israel the appointed festivals of the Lord.
16One who blasphemes the name of the Lord shall be put to death; the whole congregation shall stone the blasphemer. Aliens as well as citizens, when they blaspheme the Name, shall be put to death. 17 Anyone who kills a human being shall be put to death. 18
Anyone who kills an animal shall make restitution for it, life for life.
The third step is to describe your findings and if you were working with the original fragments, you would also provide a physical description. In this case, if the reconstruction is correct, the larger fragment would have been part of a scroll that was quite large. Based on this height and the number of lines per column, the scroll itself would have been on the large size for scrolls found at Qumran and likely contained the complete book of Leviticus, if not the entire Torah/Pentateuch (see Emanuel Tov, “Scribal Practices and the Physical Aspects of the Dead Sea Scrolls” in The Bible as Book: The Manuscript Tradition [John L. Sharpe and Kimberly Van Kampen, eds.; 1998] 9-33; Buy from Amazon.ca – Buy from Amazon.com).
The nature and type of the leather would also have to be ascertained. While one news report identified the material as “deer hide,” most other authentic scrolls were made from the skins of sheep and goats. While the fragments were not tested, Eshel himself was pretty sure that they were either goat or sheep skin.
An examination of the paleography (the style of writing) is consistent with post-Herodian scripts (end of the first century C.E.), including other scrolls from the Bar Kokhba era, such as the Psalms scroll from the Cave of Letters.
The fragments do not give us much in terms of variant readings. The fragments follow the Masoretic text with one exception: at the end of v. 42 the larger fragment has ×‘×¡×›×•×ª instead of ×‘×¡×›×ª, both “booths” (indicated in red type on the larger reconstruction). This is a minor spelling difference, much like the difference between the Canadian spelling of “honour” and the American “honor.” (The fact that the Samaritan Pentateuch also reads ×‘×¡×›×•×ª is inconsenquential as it consistently uses the plene spelling throughout).
Reconstructing scrolls with biblical studies software and imaging programs takes a considerable amount of work. I personally find the work interesting (even fascinating), which explains why I bothered to write up this analysis! What I find amazing is how the first generation of scroll scholars did so much ground-breaking work without this technology!
In regards to the two Leviticus fragments, my hunch is that they are authentic. If not, then my hat goes off to the person or persons who produced such fine forgeries!
I am flying to Washington shortly. While I may post a bit about the conference from Washington, don’t count on it!
While I am away, I am going to run a little “Best of Codex” series. These are posts that I consider somehow representative of what I do on this blog. Some of the “Best of” posts are ones that are popular, some are ones that I enjoyed writing, while others illustrate some of my academic interests.
Please note that this is not scientific or anything! These are just some of the 500+ posts that I have written in the year and a half since I started this blog. If I thought about it longer, I imagine there would be many posts I would deem better — I will save those for the next time I run a “Best of Codex.”