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God’s Word in Human Words with Dr. Kenton Sparks

25th September 2007

fccimage.jpgTomorrow evening I will be picking up Dr. Kenton Sparks at the airport. He is the speaker for Taylor University College’s “Faith & Culture Conference” which runs Thursday and Friday of this week. The title of this year’s conference is “God’s Word in Human Words: The Prospects and Perils of Believing Criticism.”

Here is a rundown of the different sessions:

  • Session 1: “To Err is Human: A Biblical View of Epistemology” (Thursday 27 September; 11:30 am)
    Evangelical Christians often believe that error is a bad thing, but the biblical view of things is otherwise. Scripture teaches that human error is an inevitable and natural part of normal, healthy living. This observation has profound implications for our epistemology and theology.
  • Session 2: God’s Word in Human Words: The Problem and Promise of Modern Biblical Criticism? (Thursday 27 September; 1:15 pm)
    Modern biblical scholars have highlighted features in Scripture that seem incommensurate with the Bible’s divine origins. However, when we understand these features as an affirmation of our humanity and as an expression of theological orthodoxy, we shall find they are wholly suited to a high view of Scripture’s inspiration and authority.
  • Session 3: God’s Astronomy: Accommodation, Inspiration, and the Bible? (Thursday 27 September; 7:30 pm)
    Does the Bible get the science right? And if not, what does this mean for Scripture’s authority and inspiration? The Church has long had the theological resources to deal with the apparent difficulty created by conflicts between the Bible and science. Evangelicals have largely forgotten these resources, which we shall try to recover.
  • Session 4: The Path of Wisdom: The Church and Biblical Criticism? (Friday 28 September; 11:10 am )
    The biblical critics are right about many things, but this does not mean that we can carelessly bring their insights into church pulpits and Sunday School classrooms. “True facts,” when misunderstood, become false and potentially destructive facts. How can the Church wisely assimilate the insights of biblical criticism without being destroyed by them?

I am looking forward to these sessions as his talks will be dealing with a number of crucial topics for those of us who consider ourselves “evangelical” biblical scholars. It seems to me that evangelical biblical scholars get a raw deal from both sides of the spectrum. On the one side, scholars such as N.P. Lemche argue (somewhat recklessly) that the label “evangelical biblical scholar” is an oxymoron. You can’t be both an evangelical and a scholar at the same time — at least not a real scholar. Then, on the other side, the more conservative elements of evangelicalism question the evangelicalism of those biblical scholars who don’t hold to the traditional party line on questions such as the authorship of the Pentateuch, the unity of Isaiah, historicity of Jonah, among other questions. While I believe the situation is much better now than in the past (due in large part to the fact that evangelical scholarship has improved immensely in the last 40 years or so), Mark Noll’s comment that “The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind” remains valid in many quarters of evangelicalism.

sparks_kent_07.jpgWhat Kent will be drawing our attention to the human side of Scripture. And he is well-equipped to do such a task. He holds the PhD from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, where he specialized in the study of the Hebrew Bible and the Ancient Near East (his adviser was John Van Seters). His publications include numerous articles on the Hebrew Bible and New Testament, as well as four books:

  • God’s Word in Human Words: An Evangelical Appropriation of Critical Biblical Scholarship (Baker Academic, forthcoming March 2008; pre-order from or
  • Ancient Texts for the Study of the Hebrew Bible: A Guide to the Background Literature (Hendrickson, 2005; buy from or
  • Ethnicity and Identity in Ancient Israel: Prolegomena to the Study of Ethnic Sentiments and their Expression in the Hebrew Bible (Eisenbrauns, 1998; buy from or
  • The Pentateuch: An Annotated Bibliography (IBR Bibliographies, no. 1; Baker Academic, 2002; buy from or

sparks_ancient_texts.jpgKent’s Ancient Texts for the Study of the Hebrew Bible is one of the best and most recent guides to all of the background literature to the Old Testament. It includes an introduction to comparative study of ANE texts and ANE archives and libraries, as well as a discussion of all of the relevant texts organized by genre. Original publication data and other useful bibliography is included for each ancient text — I highly recommend it. At present, Kent is preparing a book-length treatment of Israelite origins for Oxford University Press.

In addition to his academic credentials, Sparks is also an ordained Baptist Pastor, who served in that pastoral role for seven years before moving to Eastern University in St. Davids, PA, where he is presently a Professor of Biblical Studies. Sparks is also a recipient of the Lindback Foundation Award for Excellence in Teaching.

If you are in the Edmonton area, you are welcome to attend the sessions — especially the Thursday evening public lecture. Recordings of the talks will be made available on-line, so stay tuned.

Posted in Bible, Conferences, Criticism, Faith & Scholarship | 5 Comments »

Nominations Open: Most Fruitful Examples of Biblical Interpretation

6th July 2007

Inspired by Ben Meyer’s “Worst theological invention” and “worst liturgical invention” posts, I thought I would open nominations for the “Most Fruitful Examples of Biblical Interpretation.” By this I mean particular examples of interpretation/exegesis that illuminate a biblical passage in a significant way. More specifically, I am looking for examples of particular critical methodologies applied to specific texts, whether the texts are classic difficult texts or texts that are (too) familiar.

Perhaps some examples would help clarify what I am looking for.

  • Mary Douglas’s Anthropological Approach to Purity in Leviticus. In contrast to the traditional interpretations that either see the purity laws in Leviticus as arbitrary, connected with pagan worship, or examples of ancient medicine, Douglas’s anthropological approach understands them as having to do with wholeness and normality and are based on the Priestley worldview.
  • Honour and Shame for Reading the Bible. While this one is admittedly broad, the value of social-scientific understandings of honour and shame for the ancient Near Eastern and Mediterranean world are difficult to underestimate.
  • The Comparative Method for understanding the Plagues. Sarna’s (and others) view how the plagues against the Egyptians may be understood as polemics against Egyptian religion.

These are just some simple examples, not necessarily the best nor the most compelling.

What examples can you think of?

Posted in Bible, Criticism, Hermeneutics | 8 Comments »

Top Ten Old Testament Scholars Since 1800

24th May 2007

Charles Halton has written an interesting list of the “Top Ten Old Testament Scholars Since 1800” over at Awilum.  The only surprises on the list (IMHO) are the inclusion of Thompson and Van Seters at number nine.  While I am not denying their significant input in biblical studies and would probably be in a top 50, they are not top 10 material. I would have to agree with some of the comments that as far as living scholars Emanuel Tov should perhaps be included.

The big question is what criteria were used to make the list. I would think that such a list should only include scholars whose influence spanned across sub fields within Old Testament studies and who influenced the field not only through their publications but also through their students. Thus, the inclusion of Wellhausen, Gunkel, Noth, von Rad, Albright, and Childs. On the other hand, I wouldn’t include Thompson or Van Seters, since they are one trick ponies (no offence intended). That is also why I wouldn’t include the likes of Jacob Milgrom, Sarah Japhet,  Phylis Trible, etc., but I would perhaps include S.R. Driver, C. Briggs, Sigmund Mowinckel, and Dominique Barthelemy high up in my list. Furthermore, Dever isn’t even an Old Testament/Hebrew Bible scholar, so he wouldn’t make my list at all (that, of course, depends on how narrowly you define “Old Testament scholars”).

Ah, “the making of many books lists there is no end, and much study wearies the flesh”

Posted in Bible, Criticism, Old Testament, Scholars | 2 Comments »

“The LXX says…” – Taking Septuagint Criticism Seriously

17th May 2007

Shawn Flynn over at Palimpsest has some interesting thoughts on Septuagint criticism and its use in biblical studies, particularly in the study of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament.

One of the primary issues that he raises at the beginning of his post is the distinction between “interpretive” translations and “faithful” translations. While I understand what he’s getting at (and the theoretical model underlying his perspective), I’m not sure that such a distinction is always easy to maintain. Nevertheless, the distinction does underscore the important first step of assessing the nature of the Greek text you are dealing with.

Shawn further highlights six steps/questions that should be considered while determining the nature of the LXX text:

  1. First, textual criticism of the LXX must be conducted.
  2. With a tentative LXX/OG text, consider the possible Vorlage of the LXX.
  3. When there is a likely equivalent between the Vorlage and the LXX, other questions must still be considered before equivalence (in terms of equivalent meaning) is assumed.
  4. When there is a divergence between the likely Vorlage and the LXX, what is the reason?
  5. Is there enough information to make a decision?
  6. Did the LXX translator just misunderstand their [sic] Vorlage?

These are all good questions and they represent sound method.

The question that his post raises for me is the high expectations often places on biblical scholars. I personally have read enough NT or OT scholarship to know that scholars often use the LXX uncritically. In fact, even when I was reading some articles for my posts on Psalm 2:12 I was surprised by the way the LXX was appealed to by scholars — some of whom should certainly know better.  The problem is that it is hard enough to keep up in your own field of studies, let alone someone elses field!  Should the NT scholar have to be a LXX scholar in order to use the LXX? These unrealistic expectations plague scholarship in general. Archaeologists look with contempt at biblical scholars who attempt to engage archaeological data; biblical scholars roll their eyes at theologians when they appeal to the Bible. I could list many more examples, but you get my point.

In my opinion, while any biblical scholar who appeals to the Septuagint in a scholarly context should use the best critical texts available and employ sound method, that does not mean she or he has to become a Septuagint scholar. Of course, the degree to which an argument depends on the LXX, the more expertise is required. Thus, a NT scholar who is investigating the quotations of the Old Testament in the New better have a good grip on Septuagintal scholarship! It is the responsibility of Septuagint scholars to disseminate the results of their research to others and produce tools for others to use without having to re-invent them, so to speak.

So while I agree in principle with Shawn’s post, I wonder if he is being too idealistic?  What do my readers think?

Posted in Criticism, Septuagint, Text Criticism | 6 Comments »

The Final Word on Psalm 2:12

15th May 2007

The debate surrounding the translation and interpretation of Psalm 2:12 continues. For some context, you can see my previous post here, while John Hobbins has some further (good) reflections on why it is inappropriate to capitalize “Son” in this verse (assuming you understand the phrase as “kiss the son”), even if you understand further christological significance in the passage.

Turning our attention back to the actual text critical problem with this passage, Chris Heard has posted on the difficulty of translating  נשקו־בר (“kiss the sonâ€? or the like) in Psalm 2:12. He notes a recent article in German by Liudger Sabottka on this passage in question in Biblica 87 (2006), entitled, “Ps 2,12: ‘Küsst den Sohn!’?â€? [“Ps 2:12: ‘Kiss the son!’?â€?]. Sabottka suggests taking the verb נשק as an example of נשק II, “arm or equip” with a privative meaning, e.g., “disarm.” He further takes בר as “pure, sincere,” and offers the translation, “Rüstet ehrlich ab!â€? or as Chris translates it,  “Really/truly/honestly disarm [yourselves]!â€?

While this interpretation is possible (are not all things possible?!), I’m not convinced it is the best. While the privative use of the Piel stem is acknowledged by all Hebrew grammarians, it is not very common. According to GKC it is limited to denominative verbs (i.e., verbs that derive from nouns) and occurs only a handful of times (see 52 h).  Jenni similarly notes this usage in his Das Hebraische Pi‘el (p. 273), though he eschews the specialized privative function and understands it as a general factitive-resultative use (and Waltke and O’Connor follow Jenni in this regard, see 24.4f). While this understanding נשק in Ps 2:12 is certainly possible, I am not sure that such a rare usage is warranted. Furthermore, in all of the examples of the privative function noted, none of them are ever modified by an adverb, let alone an adjective. To say the least, I remain unconvinced by Sabottka’s proposal.

While many proposed interpretations of the phrase נשקו־בר focus on understanding בר bar, perhaps a better way forward is through an examination of the verb נשק nashaq. The verb itself occurs 35x in the Hebrew Bible (this includes supposed homonyms), including the passage under scrutiny.

Here is a breakdown of how the verb is used:

  • The verb most often occurs with an expressed personal object. Most frequently (21x) the object is marked by the preposition lamed: “A kissed ל-Bâ€? (Qal: Gen 27:26,27; 29:11; 48:10; 50:1; Exod 4:27; 18:7; 2Sam 14:33; 2Sam 15:5; 2Sam 19:40; 20:9; 1Kgs 19:18; 19:20; Job 31:27; Prov 7:13; Ruth 1:9, 14; Piel: Gen 29:13; 31:28; 32:1; 45:15).
  • Four times a pronominal suffix marks the personal object: “A kissed him/her/me/youâ€? (all Qal: Gen 33:4; 1Sam 10:1; Song 1:2; 8:1).
  • There are two instances where the verb takes an impersonal object; in both of these cases the object is not marked by the preposition lamed, but simply precedes the verb (Qal: Hos 13:2, “people kissing calvesâ€?; Prov 24:26, “he kisses the lipsâ€?).
  • The object of reciprocal kisses are not marked with a preposition lamed; in these two cases the object may either follow (Qal 1Sam 20:41) or precede the verb (Ps 85:11 [Eng v. 10]; many conjecture this form should be pointed as a Niphal).

The remaining five instances are more problematic:

  • Three times it appears in military contexts connected with קשת qeshet, “bowâ€?: Ps 78:9 “equipped with bowsâ€?; 1Chron 12:2 “equipped with bowâ€?; 2Chron 17:17 “armed/equipped with bow.â€? In these instances most lexicons hypothesize a different root, e.g., נשק II “handle, be equipped withâ€? (BDB), “to join one to another,â€? i.e., to “take one’s place in rankâ€? (HALOT). This homonym is understood to be a denominative from the noun nesheq, “equipment, weaponsâ€? and is perhaps related to the Arabic nasaqa, “to line up, to place in order.â€?
  • The remaining two instances are connected to נשק II by HALOT: Gen 41:40 (Qal) “Order themselvesâ€?? and Ezek 3:13 (Hifil) “the sound of the wings touching one another.â€? I personally would relate the occurrence in Ezek 3:13 to נשק I “kissâ€? and understand it as an idiom, lit., “and the sound of the wings of the living creatures kissing each to its sisterâ€? i.e., “brushing against one another.â€? This example is parallel to the construction found in 1Sam 20:41 “each his neighbourâ€?; we also use the English verb “kissâ€? in the same manner.

Based on this examination of the verb usage, some parameters on how best to understand this passage may be set:

  • When the verb clearly means “kissâ€?, it never takes the preposition ב bet to mark the object of the kiss. This seems to rule out the common emendation “kiss his feetâ€? with the bet. (BHS also notes the emendation with a lamed, though that emendation requires more exegetical gymnastics to explain where the lamed came from).
  • There are no instances where נשק nashaq is modified by an adverb, and it never occurs without an expressed object. This makes the proposed interpretations, “kiss sincerelyâ€? or “pay homage in good faithâ€? or the NET “Give sincere homageâ€? unlikely.

Thus, the understanding “kiss bar,� with בר bar being the object of the verbal action is the most plausible interpretation based on the clear cases of the usage of נשק nashaq in the Hebrew Bible. This still leaves at least two options: the more popular “kiss [the] son� and the more obscure “kiss [the] ground/land.�

I am still unconvinced that the first alternative is the best option. While you do find some contexts where you have an Aramaic word thrown in among Hebrew (the parade example cited is Prov 31:2-3); it is difficult to see it in this context when the Hebrew word for son (בן ben) is used a few verses earlier. Furthermore, while Aramaic would perhaps be an appropriate address to foreign powers, no other parts of the address are Aramaic. In addition – and this is the clincher in my opinion — when נשק nashaq takes a personal object (like “sonâ€?) it is always marked by the preposition lamed, and in Ps 2:12 it is not.

In working through the data, I have become more convinced that the second interpretation, “kiss the field/ground,â€? is the most plausible. First, it doesn’t resort to head spinning emendations (not that I have anything against emendations). Second, it doesn’t appeal to an odd usage of an Aramaic word in an otherwise entirely Hebrew passage. Third, it fits with the regular usage of the verb, since elsewhere when נשק nashaq is used with an impersonal object, it does not mark the object with a preposition lamed. Fourth — and this is something that Staffan Olofsson notes in his article — there are ANE parallels to this exact phrase as an act of reverence for a king or a god in the Akkadian expression nasaqu gaggara “kiss the ground/fieldâ€? (see his “The Crux Interpretum in Ps 2:12,â€? in SJOT; I would like to thank my friend Staffan for sending me a copy of this article since I don’t have easy access to SJOT). Finally, this interpretation fits the context of the passage.

The one weakness of this interpretation is that the meaning of בר bar as “field� is not very popular and only occurs in a few other places in the Old Testament (Job 39:4 and the Aramaic parts of Daniel, 2:38, 4:9, 12, 18, 20 (2x), 22, 29). That being said, it is a viable usage and makes good sense in this passage.

This, then, is my final word on Psalm 2:12 (at least for now!).

Posted in Hermeneutics, Old Testament, Psalms, Text Criticism | 7 Comments »

Psalm 2:11-12 – A Text Critical Crux Interpretum

9th May 2007

Jim Getz over at Ketuvim has an interesting post on choosing a Bible translation for classroom use. In the end Jim chooses the NRSV, for a variety of reasons which you can read for yourself (For the record, I use the NRSV in the classroom as well, for some of the same reasons). What got my attention about Jim’s post was his discussion of Psalm 2:11-12. To my chagrin, after I had pretty much finished this post I noticed that Chris Heard has also responded to Getz’s post, though luckily (for me at least) Chris did not have all of his resources available to him, so this post actually answers some of the issues that his raised. (UPDATE: Jim has posted a follow-up post on this topic at Ketuvim).

Enough is enough… let’s look at the text in question. Here is a formal translation of the Hebrew of Psalm 2:11-12:

עבדו ×?ת־יהוה ביר×?×”
וגילו ברעדה
נש×?קו־בר פן־י×?× ×£
ות×?בדו דרך
כי־יבער כמעט ×?פו

Serve Yahweh with fear,
and rejoice with trembling.
Kiss [the] son/field/purity(!), lest he be angry
and you perish [on the] way
for his anger burns quickly.

The two major difficulties in this passage revolve around the understanding of the phrase “Rejoice with trembling� (וגילו ברעדה) and “kiss the son� (נשקו־בר). The former is said to be difficult to understand (how does one “rejoice with trembling�?), while the latter includes meaning of the word בר (br), which will be the focus of this post. Most translations follow the pointing of the MT and understand בר as the Aramaic word for son (e.g., KJV, NIV, TNIV, NLT, ASV, etc.). The problem with this understanding of the passage revolves around the question of why would the psalmist employ the Aramaic word for son in this verse rather than the Hebrew word for son (בן) – especially when the Hebrew term is found just a few verses earlier in v. 7?

If we turn to the Versions, like the Greek Septuagint (LXX) or the Aramaic Targums, we don’t get much additional help. The LXX reads as follows:

δουλεÏ?σατε Ï„á¿· κυÏ?ίῳ á¼?ν φόβῳ
καὶ ἀγαλλιᾶσθε αá½?Ï„á¿· á¼?ν Ï„Ï?όμῳ.
δÏ?άξασθε παιδείας, μήποτε á½€Ï?γισθῇ κÏ?Ï?ιος
καὶ ἀπολεῖσθε �ξ �δοῦ δικαίας.
ὅταν �κκαυθῇ �ν τάχει � θυμὸς α�τοῦ

Serve the Lord with fear,
and rejoice in him with trembling,
Seize instruction, lest the Lord be angry,
and you will perish from the righteous way,
when his wrath is quickly kindled.

The translator evidently didn’t know exactly what to make of the Hebrew (נשקו בר), if indeed that was his Hebrew Vorlage (which we’ll assume). He evidently knew the meaning of the two words, since he translated נשק by καταφιλέω “kissâ€? in Ps 85:11 (LXX 84:11) and rendered the Hebrew בר, “cleannessâ€? (noun) and “pureâ€? (adjective) elsewhere with καθαÏ?ιότης “purityâ€? (Ps 18:21,25 [LXX 17:21, 25]) and καθαÏ?ός “pureâ€? (Ps 24:4 [LXX 23:4]). That being said, he didn’t translate it as “to kiss purityâ€? or the like. In his commentary on LXX Psalm 2, Al Pietersma argues that the translator provided more of an interpretation of the passage, taking “to kiss purityâ€? as “a metaphor for adopting improved behaviour,â€? thus the rendering, “seize instruction.â€?

What is significant is that the LXX did not understand בר as the Aramaic word for “son� (nor did Aquila or Symmachus). The Aramaic Targum seems to take a similar approach as the LXX.

What the Versions teach us is that there are other ways to understand the Hebrew consonants בר than just the Aramaic word for son – but we’ll return to other suggestions in a bit.

BHS (and many scholars) suggest emending the verse to read as follows:

עבדו ×?ת־יהוה ביר×?×”
ברעדה נשקו ברגליו
ות×?בדו דרך פן־י×?× ×£
כי־יבער כמעט ×?פו

Serve Yahweh with fear,
With trembling, kiss his feet.
lest he be angry and you perish [on the] way,
for his anger burns quickly.

It is this emendation, first suggested by Alfred Bertholet in the early 1900s, which is behind the translation found in the NRSV (among others), and not any sense that בר can mean “feetâ€? in Hebrew (in this regard Getz’s post is inaccurate and Chris Heard is correct insofar as בר doesn’t mean “feetâ€? ). This is a pretty substantial emendation, proposing that the first two letters of ברגליו became separated from the last half and ended up with two words between them, among other things. While this emendation results in two nicely balanced lines of poetry, the gymnastics it requires make me wonder how plausible it really is.

The NEB’s “tremble, and kiss [i.e., pay homage to] the king� follows a less radical conjecture by reworking the Hebrew to read: נשקו לגבור ברעדה. Again, while this may be possible, how plausible it may be is another question. (There are quite a number of other suggested emendations; but these will have to do for this post)

This leads many people (and most English translations) to opt for the admittedly problematic translation, “kiss the son.�

Those opting for this rendering muster a number of arguments in its favour. First, while it is odd to have the Aramaic term for son when the Hebrew term is used just a few verses earlier, this can be explained in terms of who is being addressed. In v. 7 the king is speaking and reporting what Yahweh had declared to him, i.e., “You are my son.� In v. 12, however, the statement is being directed to the foreign kings. Thus it is fitting that they be addressed in the official language of their day, Aramaic. This is similar to the usage of the Aramaic בר in Prov 31:2, when the word is put into the mouth of King Lemuel’s mother. Second, while the above emendation makes good sense (almost too much sense), it is next to impossible to understand how a scribe could have made the mistake. Third, all things being equal (which they rarely if ever are!), the MT is the more difficult reading.

I wonder if a better approach would be to dispense of the problematic understanding of בר as the Aramaic “son,� and try to understand it – like the early Versions – as one of the other Hebrew words with the same spelling. Possibilities include taking בר as “field� (see Job 39:4 etc.), which would produce a fitting act of submission, “kiss the field,� i.e., bow prostrate to the ground in homage to Yahweh. It could also be taken as “purity� or “pure� (in line with the early versions), and be rendered like the NJPS “pay homage in good faith� or the NET “Give sincere homage.�

There are other possibilities for this verse, but when it comes right down to it, this verse is truly a crux interpretum – and as such, it is not the best passage to base your selection of a translation on! That being said, it does reveal some tendencies in the different translations. The NRSV is more likely on the whole to adopt critical interpretations of problematic verses, while the NIV/TNIV/NJPS will tend to stick to the MT as much as possible. Finally, translations that capitalize “Son� (NIV, NASB, ESV, etc.) are clearly expressing a theological agenda, which arguably has no place in a translation.

If this post has piqued your interest in textual criticism, see my series of posts on Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible.

Posted in Old Testament, Psalms, Text Criticism | 7 Comments »

A Comparative Psalter: MT, LXX, and English Translations

10th March 2007

[I announced this back in June 2006; it is just now available]

An interesting resource for the study of the Septuagint has just been published by Oxford University Press:

A Comparative Psalter: Hebrew (Masoretic Text) – Revised Standard Version Bible – The New English Translation of the Septuagint – Greek (Septuagint)
John Kohlenberger (ed)
Oxford, March 2007.

Buy from | Buy from

Here’s the blurb from Oxford: This volume brings together the Psalms in a quartet of versions that is certain to be an invaluable resource for students of this core book of the Bible. The texts featured in A Comparative Psalter represent a progression of the text through time. The ancient Masoretic Hebrew and Revised Standard Version Bible are displayed on one page, while the New English Translation of the Septuagint (by Pietersma) and Greek Septuagint are on the facing page. The same set of verses is displayed for all four texts, making it easy to compare to differences between the MT and LXX. The Modern English versions included in this volume are noteworthy for their fidelity to the ancient texts. The first major translation of the Christian Scriptures from the original languages to be undertaken since the King James Version, the RSV debuted in 1952 to critical acclaim. It dramatically shaped the course of English Bible translation work in the latter half of the Twentieth Century, and remains the Bible of choice for many people. Meanwhile, the New English Translation of the Septuagint is the first work of its kind in a century and a half. This major project brings to the fore a wealth of textual discoveries that help illuminate the Book of Psalms for Twenty-first Century readers.

Posted in LXX Psalms, Psalms, Septuagint, Text Criticism | 2 Comments »

Diplomatic or Ecclectic: How Do You Like Your Hebrew Bible?

6th March 2007

Mississippi Fred MacDowell (I love that name) over at On the Main Line has a good post on why he favours a diplomatic Hebrew Bible based on the Masoretic Text. His post, “Why should we prefer the Masoretic text? Should we? An ahalakhic defense…kind of,” is well worth a read. In short, he argues that “an eclectic text… is compiling a Bible which never existed” and therefore it is better to stick with the MT, which is “simply the text with the best integrity.”

On the whole, I tend to agree with him, though for some different reasons. While I would consider myself a modified Lagardian (i.e., I think there was an original text), I am highly skeptical about our ability to reconstruct it (or at least my ability!). I also don’t think that the tendenz of many of the Dead Sea Scrolls has been determined enough to use them in textual construction with a high degree of certainty. Anyhow, the post is well worth a read.

If you want to read more about the textual criticism of the Old Testament, check out my nine-part series on Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible.

Posted in Old Testament, Text Criticism | 2 Comments »

Form Critical Approaches to the Psalms Post Gunkel

13th January 2007

There have been many modifications and refinements of the form critical method since Gunkel (for a summary of Gunkel’s approach to the Psalms, see my previous post A Form-Critical Classification of the Psalms according to Hermann Gunkel).

Many problems still remain with the form critical approach to the psalms. Recent literature has definitely exhibited more caution about the specific social and cultic settings proposed for the psalms. While earlier form-critical work has continued to be useful — if not essential — to recent psalms scholarship, its usefulness is found in the literary and stylistic features that it highlights, as well as its broad suggestions about situations in life.

Wisdom in the Psalms?

The mouths of the righteous utter wisdom,
and their tongues speak justice.
The law of their God is in their hearts;
their steps do not slip (Ps 37:30-31).

A persistent problem that has continually dogged the form-critical approach to the psalms is the lack of agreement on certain forms. No where is this disagreement felt more than with the wisdom psalms (although Royal psalms would be a close second). Norman Whybray has even refered to the task of identifying wisdom psalms as “making bricks without straw.” While Gunkel’s (Introduction to Psalms; Buy from or characterization of wisdom psalms as having a didactic intent and personal and individual expressions of experience has generally been accepted by scholars, as well as his identification of Psalms 1, 34, 37, 49, 78, 105, 106, 111, 112, and 127 as wisdom psalms, no two scholars are in agreement that these are the only criterion and even on what psalms are wisdom psalms! Other criterion include: learned authorship, specific stylistic features (such as “better than” sayings, numerical sayings, adress to sons, alphabetic compositions, extensive use of metaphors, etc.), common motifs, a mood of private devotion and piety, and a concern for order. This has led some scholars, such as Norman Whybray and Roland Murphy, to identify many more wisdom psalms in the Psalter. In contrast, James Crenshaw (The Psalms: An Introduction [Eerdmans, 2001], 87-95; Buy from or questions the very category of wisdom psalms. He notes:

I do not see any profit in attributing such psalms to the sages when we know so little about the authors and their social contexts. Perhaps we should limit ourselves to what can definitely be affirmed: some psalms resemble wisdom literature in stressing the importance of learning, struggling to ascertain life’s meaning, and employing proverbial lore. Their authorship and provenance matter less than the accuracy and profundity of what they say (p. 94).

Here is a listing of wisdom psalms according to some recent scholars:

Gunkel/Begrich: Psalms 1, 37, 49, 73, 91, 112, 127, 128, 133.
Murphy: Psalms 1, 32, 34, 37, 49, 112, 128 (and wisdom influence in Psalms 25, 31, 39, 40, 62, 92, and 94).
Kuntz: Psalms 1, 32, 34, 37, 49, 112, 128, 133.
Whybray: Psalms 8, 14, 25, 34, 39, 49, 73, 90, 112, 127, 131, 139.

Laments Post Gunkel

As noted above, there have been many refinements of Gunkel’s approach to the psalms and the laments — as the most popular type of psalm found in the book of Psalms — has received its fair share of attention. Some of the most significant changes in the interpretation of the individual laments since Gunkel have centred both on his description of their structure (Formensprache), as well as his reconstruction of their putative setting in life (Sitz im Leben).

By and large, Gunkel’s formal treatment of individual laments has been accepted by most scholars with only minor changes, most of which consisted of refinements or elaborations of the various components that make up the lament. For instance, Westermann, in his Praise and Lament in the Psalms, fleshed out the “lament proper� in lament psalms by identifying its three main constituents which varied in importance at different times:

  • the complaint against God,
  • the psalmist’s lament over personal suffering, and
  • the complaint against those who oppose him, i.e., the enemy.

A more extensive refinement on Gunkel’s classification has been offered by Craig Broyles in his Conflict of Faith and Experience in the Psalms. He has suggested a further division of the individual laments into complaints (psalms where Yahweh is accused of wrongdoing on behalf of the psalmist) and pleas (psalms where the Yahweh is not responsible but is appealed to for help). While this distinction is helpful, at times the distinction between the two categories is ambiguous. It does highlight, however, an important question about the primary nature of the lament and related issues of nomenclature (e.g., should the genre be labeled laments or complaints, etc.; see my post on Laments, Complaints, Prayers, Pleas, or Petitions?).

One component of the individual lament that has received a fair amount of attention is the “certainty of hearing� that often occurs near the end of lament psalms (though not necessarily). What has attracted the attention is the sudden change in mood from despair to confidence. For example, in the ending of Psalm 6, the psalmist declares (seemingly) out of nowhere that Yahweh has heard his supplication:

Depart from me, all you workers of evil,
for the Lord has heard the sound of my weeping.
The Lord has heard my supplication;
the Lord accepts my prayer.
All my enemies shall be ashamed and struck with terror;
they shall turn back, and in a moment be put to shame (Ps 6:8-10).

The most common explanation of this sudden shift is related to seeing a cultic setting behind the psalm in which a priest delivers an oracle of salvation that promises Yahweh’s response between the lament proper and the words of confidence. This view was advanced and solidified by Bergrich, who drew a number of parallel expressions between the lament psalms and the salvation oracles in Second Isaiah, and attempted to reconstruct what the oracle of salvation would of looked like. The biggest weakness with this view is that there are no extant salvation oracles in any lament psalms, and if this was the common practice, the reasons for omitting the oracle are not clear. Others have tried to explain the phenomenon by appealing to an inward psychological process whereby during his prayer the psalmist either recalls God’s past faithfulness or comes to grip with his situation and moves on, or recalls his faith in God the divine warrior. While there may be some vestiges of a cultic action behind the shift in tone, the notion of recollection of Yahweh’s past deeds or some similar faith-oriented explanation is just as if not more likely.

Since Gunkel’s time there is also a new appreciation for the individuality of each psalm (though it should be noted that as is often the case, it was Gunkel’s students, and not Gunkel himself who applied form-criticism too rigidly). Because form-critical descriptions tended to focus on what is generic and not what is specific, earlier form criticism often resulted in a psalm’s individuality to be glossed over. This new concern is due in part to the renewed interest in Hebrew poetry, and in part to dissatisfaction with the large collection of psalms that didn’t fit neatly into any one genre. What is clear, however, is that a psalm’s internal poetic structure needs to be determinative in breaking down a psalm into stanzas, etc., rather than a predetermined generic mold.

Most of the debate since Gunkel has focused on the Sitz im Leben of the lament psalms, and, on a more theoretical level, on the relationship of Sitz im Leben to form. To a large extent, the discussion of the setting revolved around the identity of the “I� and the enemy in the laments. The debate surrounding the identity of the “I� in the psalms has its roots before Gunkel with the work of Smend, who argued that the “I� in many psalms is not an individual but a personification of the community. Gunkel, and Balla in accord with him, argued that this may be the case when a connection is made explicit (e.g., Ps 129; though I understand the liturgical reference to Israel in the first verse as redactional), and appealed to “Jeremiah’s confessions� and the psalms that seem to make a distinction between the psalmist and other Israelites (e.g., Ps 35) to support the view that the “I� is an individual.

A modified version of Smend’s view has been resurrected in the last century with the work of Birkeland (a student of Mowinkel). He argued in two publications that since the enemies are clearly foreign nations in communal laments, and the enemies in individual laments are describe with similar terms, and are even at times explicitly identified as foreign nations (see Ps 9), then the only logical conclusion is to maintain that the enemies in individual laments are also foreign nations. This view presupposes that the “I� in virtually every individual lament (Birkeland has been rightly criticized for his unequivocal statements) is a representative of the nation, likely the king, which would make them royal psalms. Mowinckel, who had originally maintained (in his Psalmenstudien) that the Sitz im Leben of the individual laments was a healing ritual in which the psalmist would go before the priest in the temple and ask for healing (This view was based on Mowinckel’s understanding of the enemy as the “worker of evil�, i.e., a sorcerer who is responsible for the psalmist’s illness), was partially convinced by Birkeland. Mowinckel’s modified view, as found in his The Psalms in Israel’s Worship, distinguished between personal psalms of lamentation with sorcery and a healing ritual as their setting, and national psalms of lamentation in the “I-form.� The notion that the “I� is the king representative of the nation has also been argued recently by John Eaton (Kingship and the Psalms [SCM, 1975]; Buy from or and Steven Croft (The Identify of the Individual in the Psalms [Sheffield, 1987]; Buy from or, though neither of them are as dogmatic or extreme as Birkeland.

Other settings that have been proposed for the individual laments include a juridical setting in which the psalmist, who had been unjustly accused, would flee to the temple to undergo a trial in order to clear his name (e.g., Beyerlin). He would then pray the psalm to encourage Yahweh to adjudicate a fair judgment. Along a similar vein, Delekat proposed that the laments were originally inscriptions left in the temple by those seeking refuge. Attempts have also been made to understand the enemies in light of socio-economic conditions within Israelite society. Gerstenberger has argued that the context for the laments may be the postexilic family clan, rather than the temple, and that the enemies may often be from within the clan (see his Psalms: Part 1: With an Introduction to Cultic Poetry [Eerdmans, 1988; Buy from or The laments, then, would be used in a ritual to restore harmony to the clan and rehabilitate the individual. The late Gerald Sheppard takes a similar view, arguing that that laments were read aloud in the temple and were meant to be overheard by the enemies (members of the ruling class?), thereby exposing them to the community and perhaps leading them to repentance.

All these proposed settings for the individual laments have some merit, though it seems more likely that a multiplicity of situations lie behind the laments. There are a number of psalms in which the setting appears to be one of illness (though Mowinckel’s understanding of the “doer of evil� as a sorcerer was clearly overstated, as he himself eventually admitted). Ps 6 has already been mentioned, and there are many other psalms that make reference to the psalmist’s pain and wounds (e.g., Pss 13; 38). But there are also psalms in which there appears to be a juridical setting where the psalmist is pleading his innocence, e.g., Pss 4, 5 (what the specific setting is, however, can only be answered with speculation). There are also psalms in which the enemies do seem to be equated with foreign nations (though it is not clear to me that this means that the “I� in the psalms therefore needs to be a king or ruler), and others where the enemies appear to be from within the same group. And finally, there are also many laments (the majority?) in which the enemy appears to be a personal enemy of the psalmist who poses a real (or perceived; cf. Keel) threat to the poet.

The point that I’m making is that it is not necessary — or even desirable — to try to find “the� Sitz im Leben of the laments. And even if there was one original setting for them, I think that it is unlikely that we could determine it with any certainty. This is because of the stereotypical and formulaic nature of much of the descriptions in the laments. The situation of the psalmist and the nature of his trouble is never specified and can often fit a variety of contexts. Therefore to try to limit the setting of the laments moves against the direction in the psalms themselves. From a slightly different angle, modern folklore studies have also underscored the fact that the interaction between the performer, his material, and his audience is often quite complex and cannot be understood in simple one-to-one terms. The notion that a genre has a one-to-one connection with a single setting is not born out by the evidence. Even a genre like a hymn, which most would place in the cult, is equally at home in a variety of contexts as history and usage has proven (e.g., Gerstenberger, who places many in the context of synagogal worship). Moreover, while there is likely an original oral (and cultic) background to the lament psalm, at some time they were written down and transmitted throughout the community and used again and again by different people in different contexts. Quite opposite to the notion that something was lost by writing it down, the stereotypical character of the laments (and the psalms in general) allowed for diverse and rich usage. Some laments may even have been composed in such a general way so that they could be used in a number of different personal situations.

This is a perspective that Patrick Miller has done a lot to advance, and I think that he is essentially correct (see his Interpreting the Psalms [Fortress, 1986; Buy from or The open-endedness of the laments make them fruitful quarry for theological reflection. As Miller has argued, this open-endedness allows the laments to be appropriated by people in all sorts of different situations within and without the community of faith. This, however, does not mean that one should not attempt to determine some of the possible settings of the laments. Some knowledge of their setting helps us contextualize our theological reflection and ground it in human experience.

For more thought on Lament psalms and their place in the church, see my post, The Costly Loss of Lament for the Church.

Posted in Bible, Criticism, Form criticism, Old Testament, Psalms | 1 Comment »

Laments, Complaints, Prayers, Pleas, or Petitions?

6th November 2006

In response to my post on The Costly Loss of Lament for the Church, Tim Bulkeley over at SansBlogue rightfully noted that I have tended to continue employ the designation “laments” when referring to what Gunkel called Klagepsalmen. Tim prefers the term “complaints” when referring to the same psalms:

These psalms claim that something is wrong with the world, usually complaining that God has not acted to right the wrong and go on to petition God to put it right. They seldom stop at merely lamenting the wrong.

Tim highlights a fairly common critique of the appropriateness of the term “lament.” I would agree that the term “lament” isn’t entirely satisfactory since in English “lament” tends to be understood passively as a cry of sorrow or grief. In this regard, the psalmist isn’t really “lamenting.” Rather he is describing his distress and appealing to God for aid. That being said, I don’t think that “complaint” is entirely satisfactory either. In common usage, “complaint” tends to be a minor expression of displeasure; you complain about poor service at a restaurant or when your ride is late. In this regard I wonder if using the term “complaint” trivializes the psalms in question.

A number of scholars don’t use either term, but prefer to use terms that derive from the biblical text itself. Thus, Hans-Joachim Kraus, in his excellent commentary on the Psalms, calls laments “songs of prayer” based on the general Hebrew term for prayer, תפלה tefilla. Craig Broyles makes a similar move in his commentary by calling these psalms “prayer psalms.” The rationale for this move is twofold for Broyles. First, he prefers to employ a designation derived from the psalms themselves (as I already noted). Second, he finds that the term “lament” gives undue prominence to one motif in the psalms.

I wonder if a more appropriate name for these psalms may be “pleas” or “petitions.” Gunkel and most other psalms scholars after him have recognized the most important element of the lament psalm is the plea or petition for help. Gerstenberger calls it the “very heart of a complaint psalm” and claims that “in fact, all the other elements can be interpreted as preparing and supporting the petition” (Psalms, FOTL, 13).

I am happy to continue to employ the traditional term “lament” — and even to alternate it with “complaint.” But if I wanted to adopt a more appropriate name, I would probably use something like “prayer of petition” or “plea.”

Posted in Form criticism, Hermann Gunkel, Psalms | 1 Comment »