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The Strange New World of the Bible

9th August 2006

I believe that one of the greatest hindrances to the proper interpretation of the Bible is a false sense of familiarity. There are a number of things that contribute to this false sense of familiarity, including Bible translations that mistakenly modernize idioms and contexts (A translation should not make its readers think that they understand the Bible better than they actually do). While this may sound counter-productive, one of the first steps to properly interpreting the Bible is to create some historical distance between our world and (to echo Barth) the “strange new world within the Bible.” If we don’t take care to create this historical distance, then we will read our modern presuppositions into the biblical text. Gadamer notes: “If we fail to transpose ourselves into the historical horizon from which the traditionary text speaks, we will misunderstand the significance of what it has to say to us” (Truth and Method, 303). Similarly, “it is constantly necessary to guard against overhasily assimilating the past to our own expectations of meaning. Only then can we listen to tradition in a way that permits it to make its own meaning heard” (Truth and Method, 305).

One example will suffice for now (I have some ideas about further posts): the impact of the industrial revolution on our understanding of the world around us. This was brought home to me recently as I was reading Bruce J. Malina and Richard L. Rohrbaugh‘s excellent Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels (2nd ed; Fortress Press, 2002; Buy from | Buy from Malina highlights some of the vast differences between our industrial world and the agrarian world of the Bible in order to remind us how great the transformation really was — here is a list of examples from Malina (pp. 6-8):

  • In agrarian societies more than 90 percent of the population was rural. In industrial societies more than 90 percent is urban.
  • In agrarian societies 90-95 percent of the population was engaged in what sociologists call the “primary” industries (farming and extracting raw materi­als). In the United States today it is 4.9 percent.
  • In agrarian societies 2-4 percent of the population was literate. In industrial societies 2-4 percent are not.
  • The birthrate in most agrarian societies was about forty per thousand per year. In the Unites States, as in most industrial societies, it is less than half that. Yet death rates have dropped even more dramatically than birthrates. We thus have the curious phenomenon of far fewer births and rapidly rising population.
  • Life expectancy in the city of Rome in the first century BCE was about twenty years at birth. If the perilous years of infancy were survived, it rose to about forty, one-half our present expectations.
  • In contrast to the huge cities we know today, the largest city in Europe in the fourteenth century, Venice, had a population of 78,000. London had 35,000. Vienna had 3,800. Though population figures for antiquity are notoriously dif­ficult to come by, recent estimates for Jerusalem are about 35,000. For Capernaum, 1,500. For Nazareth about 200.
  • The Department of Labor currently lists in excess of 20,000 occupations in the United States and hundreds more are added to the list annually. By contrast, the tax rolls for Paris (pop. 59,000) in the year 1313 list only 157.
  • Unlike the modern world, in agrarian societies 1-3 percent of the population usually owns one- to two-thirds of the arable land. Since 90 percent or more were peasants, the vast majority owned subsistence plots at best.
  • The size of the federal bureaucracy in the Unites States in 1816 was 5,000 employees. In 1971 it was 2,852,000 and growing rapidly. While there was a political, administrative, and military apparatus in antiquity, nothing remotely comparable to the modern governmental bureaucracy ever existed. Instead, goods and services were mediated by patrons who operated largely outside governmental control.
  • More than one-half of all families in agrarian societies were broken during the childbearing and child-rearing years by the death of one or both parents. In India at the turn of the twentieth century the figure was 71 percent. Thus widows and orphans were everywhere.
  • In agrarian societies the family was the unit of both production and consump­tion. Since the industrial revolution, family production or enterprise has nearly disappeared and the unit of production has become the individual worker. Nowadays the family is only a unit of consumption.
  • The largest “factories” in Roman antiquity did not exceed fifty workers. In the records of the medieval craft guilds from London, the largest employed eight­een. The industrial corporation, a modern invention, did not exist.
  • In 1850, the “prime movers” in the United States (i.e., steam engines in factories, sailing vessels, work animals, etc.) had a combined capacity of 8.5 million horsepower. By 1970 this had risen to 20 billion.
  • The cost of moving one ton of goods one mile (measured in U.S.:dollars in China at the beginning of the industrial revolution) was: Steamboat 2.4; Wheelbarrow 20.0; Rail 2.7; Pack donkey 24.0; Junk 12.0; Packhorse 30.0; Animal-drawn cart 13.0; Carrying by pole 48.0; Pack mule 17.0. It is little wonder that overland trade at any distance was insubstantial in antiquity.
  • Productive capacity in industrial societies exceeds that in the most advanced agrarian societies known by more than one hundredfold.
  • Given the shock and consternation caused by the assassination of John F. Kennedy and the forced resignation of Richard M. Nixon, we sometimes forget that this sort of internal political upheaval is nothing like it was in the agrarian world. Of the 79 Roman emperors, 31 were murdered, 6 driven to suicide, and 4 were deposed by force. Moreover, such upheavals in antiquity were frequently accompanied by civil war and the enslavement of thousands.

This somewhat random list should remind us of the massive changes that occured as the result of the industrial revolution. To quote Malina: “It [the industrial revolution] has been a watershed unlike any the world has ever seen. Should we be surprised if major changes in our perception of the world have occurred as well? And should we be surprised if that in turn has had a fundamental impact on our ability to read and understand the Bible?”

We need to do as much as we can as readers and interpreters to recognize the gulf between our world and the “strange new world within the Bible” so as to ensure we properly read and interpret and understand the biblical text.

Posted in Hermeneutics, New Testament, Translation Theory | 3 Comments »

Marijuana and Hashish in the Old Testament?

7th August 2006

The Eastern Arizon Courier has a letter to the editor by Chris Bennett arguing from the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible that marijuana/cannabis is “God’s gift to the rest of humanity” and that while the “laws of man” may prohibit its use, the Bible does not. In fact, based on Genesis 1:29 (“I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food”), Bennett maintains that cannabis was created by God.

I found this excerpt particularly interesting:

On the subject of cannabis, like the history of the Zoroastrian religion, the Bible may have been influenced by cannabis. . . . remember Moses and the burning bush that talked to him. According to a number of academic sources in the original Hebrew and Aramaic sources for the texts, that bush commanded Moses to make a holy anointing oil that contained cannabis, under the Hebrew name keneh bosem.

I don’t think the author meant to imply that Moses was obviously high when the bush talked to him! (Though we may suspect that if someone today made such a claim!) Rather I believe what is being referred to here is Exodus 30:23 where Moses is being given instructions for the tabernacle (not the burning bush incident). One of the spices which Moses is supposed to gather is קנה־בש×? (keneh bosem), which is variously translated as “aromatic cane” (NRSV, NJPS), “fragrant cane” (NIV, NASB, NAB), “sweet calamus” (KJV), or “sweet cane” (NLT). The LXX translates it by καλάμου εá½?ώδους, “fragrant calamus/reed.” While scholars are not sure what excatly the Hebrew word בש×? (bosem) refers to, I’m not sure how anyone can make the jump from it being used as one of the many ingredients for an anointing oil for the tent of meeting and the priests to smoking it for a buzz! Furthermore, even if this does refer to cannabis (which it doesn’t), a few verses later the following strict restrictions are placed on its use:

You shall say to the Israelites, “This shall be my holy anointing oil throughout your generations. 32 It shall not be used in any ordinary anointing of the body, and you shall make no other like it in composition; it is holy, and it shall be holy to you. 33 Whoever compounds any like it or whoever puts any of it on an unqualified person shall be cut off from the people” (Exod 30:31-33).

The rest of the letter only cites some general studies about the use of cannabis in the ancient world without getting into specifics.

Hashish and the Old Testament

There is another article floating around cyberspace that I am aware that of tries to make similar arguments for the use of hashish in the Old Testament. The 1903 article was by C. Creighton and appeared in JANUS 8 (1902 or 1903) 241-246, 297-303, under the title “On Indications of the Hachish-Vice in the Old Testament” (available online here).

Creighton appealed to other obscure Hebrew words to make a case for hashish in the Old Testament. The first passage he appeals to is Song of Songs 5:1, where the beloved says, “I eat my honeycomb with my honey” (×?כלתי יערי ×¢×?־דבש×?×™). The word in question is יער (ya’ar), which modern lexicons gloss with “honeycomb” and understand it as a homograph for יער “wood.” Creighton argues (while primarily dealing with the Latin Vulgate for some reason!) that this phrase should be rendered as “I have eaten my hemp with my honey.” This interpretation is a stretch to say the least. Creighton also appeals to 1Samuel 14:27 where Jonathan dips his rod, lit., “in the comb of the honey” (ביערת הדבש×?) as a reference to “the hemp-plant with the resinous exudation.” I find this interpretation more problematic than the previous one, since the word “honeycomb” (or “wood” if you like) is in construct with honey. If Jonathan would have went to 7/11 for some munchies after tasting the sweet treat then I would put more weight in Creighton’s interpretation! :-) Instead Jonathan ran amok amongst the Philistines — not the sort of activity I would associate with someone being high!

Creighton’s interpretations move from the fanciful to the downright silly when he tries to argue that Saul’s madness was due to him being a “hachish-eater” and “that his ‘evil spirit’ was hachish.” I don’t think this interpretation even warrants a response. The last three passages that Creighton appeals to are similarly lacking. First, he understands the “something sweet” in Samson’s riddle in Judges 14:14 as an oblique reference to hash and maintains that Samson was also a hashish-eater (that was the secret to his strength). Second, he argues that Nebuchadnezzar’s dream of the tree reaching the heavens in Daniel 4 was produced by hashish-induced intoxication (and perhaps the “grass” which he ate in 4:33 was hashish). Finally, Creighton maintains that the weird and wonderful visions Ezekiel experienced are “strongly suggestive of the subjective visual perceptions of hachish.”


In sum, evidence for the use of cannabis and hashish in ancient Israel is not very strong. While I grant there may be ambiguity in some of the passages appealed to, the arguments are pretty weak. Moreover, even if cannabis and/or hashish was used in ancient Israel (which anthropologically may be entirely plausible), that doesn’t in any way suggest that it is therefore OK for it to be used today.

Posted in Bible, Hermeneutics, News, Popular Culture | 8 Comments »

Dilettantes, Interpretation, and Scholarship

6th June 2006

There has been an interesting blog discussion surrounding the qualifications of an interpreter of the Bible. Jim West started the ball rolling with his post in response to this “news” story about “bible scholars” predicting a nuclear attack. Jim’s basic point is that nutballs shouldn’t be allowed to interpret the biblical text. I don’t really disagree with Jim on this point, though you can’t really prevent anyone from reading the Bible. And someone who is a careful reader can get the point of much of the Bible — even without formal theological education or a degree.

Then Peter over at Adverseria posted on “Dilettantes and the Bible” and takes to task those who interpret outside the community of faith. Once again, I get the gist of his point and I agree with it to a certain degree, though he picks on “most scholars” as “dilettantes” since they interpret outside the community of faith. Here I disagree on a number of points. First, and perhaps I am being picky, but no biblical scholar — even those who never darken the doors of a church — would qualify as a “dilettante” (here I am assuming a biblical scholar is someone who has serious academic qualifications and devotes his or her time to studying the Bible). According to, a dilettante is “an amateur or dabbler; especially, one who follows an art or a branch of knowledge sporadically, superficially.” That one may not be a member of a community of faith does not qualify one as a dilettante, IMHO. Second, I would daresay that “most” biblical scholars are part of a community of faith; perhaps they are not part of your community or perhaps they are using a method of interpretation that is not directly relevant to your community of faith, but that doesn’t mean they do not belong. Third, I am not sure that Christian history would support Peter’s claim that the church is the best context for interpretation. Finally, I totally disagree with him when he asserts that “we [=those faithful interpreters] should not even enter into debate with them [= scholars outside the community of faith] on questions of interpretation.” This sort of exclusivism does no good. We should humbly listen to all interpreters and sift the good from the bad.

Jim West picked up the ball again with his “Further Observations on Dilettantism and Biblical Interpretation” where he lists his qualifications for the “ideal” interpreter (college degree in reigion/Bible/theology, Jewish or Christian, and community of faith). I guess if we are talking “ideals” I can’t disagree too much, though what is totally lacking in Jim’s qualifications are some things that I would think are essential: humility, grace, perserverance, sensitivity, etc. I am also not convinced that formal training is necessary, though if we are talking “ideals” then I am willing to let it stand.

Finally, James Crossley over at Earliest Christian History put in his two cents with his post, “Who is best at biblical interpretation?” I tend to think James is spot-on in his comments. The Bible is a public document and everyone has the right to read and interpret it. In terms of who is the best interpreter, I would daresay no one is! We all have our faults, our blindspots, our weaknesses. We need each other — whether within or outside of the community of faith — to keep our interpretations honest and plausible. I’m not saying that all interpretations are valid or even that all are fruitful; only that all (OK, to be honest, “most”) interpretations are worth considering.

Anyhow, I didn’t mean to ramble on…

UPDATE: Chris Heard has some excellent thoughts at Higgaion on this debate.

Posted in Bible, Criticism, Hermeneutics | 8 Comments »

Faith-Based Wissenschaft: An Oxymoron?

24th February 2006

Michael V. Fox has a thought provoking essay at the most recent SBL Forum entitled, “Bible Scholarship and Faith-Based Study: My View.” While I have the utmost respect for Fox as a scholar (his various works on the wisdom literature of the Hebrew Bible are absolutely second to none), I am not sure I agree with his bold statement “faith-based study has no place in academic scholarship” (see Danny Zacharias’s reflections at Deinde, as well as James Crossley’s posts here and here).

On the one hand, I’m not sure I like the implication that “faith-based scholarship” (or Wissenschaft) is an oxymoron. While I would agree that any scholarship that presumes its conclusions is methodologically problematic (and borders on disingenuous), faith-based scholarship does not necessarily have to fall in this category (though some certainly does). Furthermore, I would think that secular Wissenschaft could learn a lot from a lot of faith-based scholarship as well as other ideological approaches. As Peter Donovan has recently noted, “the scientific study of religion can ill afford to insulate itself from the thinking of others interested in the same subject-matter, merely because they may hold very different views about theory and method” (“Neutrality in Religious Studies,” in The Insider/Outsider Problem in the Study of Religion: A Reader [ed. Russell T. McCutcheon; New York: Cassell, 1999], 245). What is perhaps most important for any approach to biblical studies is that the approach is academically sound, methodologically rigorous, and up front about any and all presuppositions.

On the other hand, Fox’s point has some validity in that he is not dismissing the “scholarship of persons who hold a personal faith.” In fact, he notes that “there are many religious individuals whose scholarship is secular and who introduce their faith only in distinctly religious forums.” Basically what I understand Fox as saying is that “Wissenschaft” employs a “secular, academic, religiously-neutral hermeneutic” and any scholars who want to engage in biblical Wissenschaft needs to play by the agreed upon rules. Thus, Wissenschaft becomes a “middle discourse” by which people of different faiths and/or no faith can engage in scholarly discourse.

This debate within biblical studies is paralleled by a larger debate within the discipline of religious studies. Since the end of the nineteenth century, the discipline of religious studies has typically been understood to be the “value-neutral” and “objective” study of religions, while theology is the confessional or particularistic study of one religion (see, for example, Donald Wiebe, “The Politics of Religious Studies,” CSSR Bulletin 27/4 [November 1998] 95-98). This distinction played an important part in the establishment of religious studies departments in a number of universities in Europe and North America — and especially Canadian public universities (interestingly, not all educational institutions thought that the distinction was necessary). This traditional demarcation has been challenged on some fronts in light of the postmodern recognition that there is no real objective, value-neutral study of religion (or any other subject for that matter), and thus the only differences between the disciplines are the rules agreed upon by those working within them — the rules of the game, so to speak.

(For an interesting discussion of postmodern theories of religious studies, see the interaction between Garrett Green, “Challenging the Religious Studies Canon: Karl Barth’s Theory of Religion,” Journal of Religion 75 [1995] 473-86; Russell T. McCutcheon, “My Theory of the Brontosaurus: Postmodernism and ‘Theory’ of Religion,” Studies in Religion/Sciences Religieuses 26/1 [1997] 3-23, and William E. Arnal, “What if I Don’t Want to Play Tennis?: A Rejoinder to Russell McCutcheon on Postmodernism and Theory of Religion,” Studies in Religion/Sciences Religieuses 27/1 [1998] 61-68; see also McCutcheon’s response, “Returning the Volley to William E. Arnal” on pp. 67-68 of the same issue).

In practice, religious studies (and biblical studies) in the Canadian public university context tends to be the scientific study of religion which does not privilege one religious discourse above another. Theology, on the other hand, is typically defined as the study of one religion from a confessional standpoint. So in this sense, I agree with Fox that there is a valid difference between faith-based scholarship and secular scholarship. But the question remains “what rules are we going to play by?” While I appreciate Fox’s point, I am skeptical about whether there is any scholarship that is truly “objective” and “value-neutral.” And any scholar who suggests that their work is “objective” and “value-neutral” would perhaps be more at home in the 19th century! I for one live in both worlds and produce scholarship for a variety of contexts. Some of my research is for the broader academy and employs methods appropriate for such work, while some of my study is for the community of faith to which I belong and employs a slightly different approach. I hope, however, that all of my research may stand up under the scrutiny of scholars who take different approaches and have different presuppositions than I.

Let me end with the final exchange between David and his Rebbe from Chaim Potok’s masterful book In the Beginning (Ballantine, 1997; Buy from or

  • Rebbe: “… Are you telling me you will not be an observer of the commandments?”
  • David: “I am not telling the Rebbe that.”
  • Rebbe: “What are you telling me?”
  • David: “I will go wherever the truth leads me. It is secular scholarship, Rebbe; it is not the scholarship of tradition. In secular scholarship there are no boundaries and no permanently fixed views.”
  • Rebbe: “Lurie, if the Torah cannont go out into your world of scholarship and return stronger, then we are all fools and charlatans. I have faith in the Torah. I am not afraid of truth.”

Posted in Criticism, Faith & Scholarship, Hermeneutics, SBL, Teaching & Learning, Theology | 5 Comments »

Recent Trends in Interpretation and Exegesis: The Compilation and Redaction of the Book of Proverbs

13th January 2006

Beginning next week, the Biblical Studies discussion list will be hosting an online colloquium entitled “Proverbs — Recent Trends in Interpretation and Exegesis.” The guest scholar for the colloquium is Knut Martin Heim, Tutor in Biblical Studies at the Queen’s Foundation in Birmingham, England.

Knut has recently published Like Grapes of Gold Set in Silver: An Interpretation of Proverbial Clusters in Proverbs 10:1-22:16 (Walter de Gruyter, 2001; Buy from | Buy from; see RBL review here). Knut’s volume is one of a growing number of works exploring the compilation, redaction, and structure of the book of Proverbs. This exciting avenue of research bucks the traditional view that ignores a contextual reading of individual proverbs or contends that once a proverb is included in a written collection it is effectively “dead.” In contract, Knut, and others mentioned below, contend that the redactors of the book of Proverbs purposefully arranged individual sayings into pairs and larger groups based on common themes, wordplay, catchwords, paronomasia, etc., creating a new literary context for interpretation and performance.

In addition to Knut’s book, there are a number of other significant works in this area, including the volumes by Snell, Van Leeuwen, and Whybray. In addition, some other important studies are noted below.

Daniel C. Snell, Twice-Told Proverbs and the Composition of the Book of Proverbs (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1993; Buy from | Buy from

In this important study, Snell sets out to reconstruct the history of the composition of Proverbs on the basis of the text of the book, i.e., the repetitions found within it.

Raymond C. Van Leeuwen, Context and Meaning in Proverbs 25-27 (SBLDS 96; Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 1988; Buy from | Buy from

According to Van Leeuwen, one of the most crucial problems in the interpretation of literary texts is the determination and use of context in establishing meaning. While form criticism helps define the context of individual pericopes, it doesn’t help with larger contexts. Form criticism was founded on the assumption that smaller oral or literary units had a Sitz im Leben out of which they arose and whose life concerns they served. However, the search for a Sitz im Leben and a concrete referents are particularly acute in certain biblical texts (Psalms, wisdom, legal texts, etc.) where the givens for reconstructing the life situation or historical referent of a text are few or lacking. This problem is acute with Prov 10-22:16; 25-29, as in these chapters we have self-sufficient literary units that are extremely terse and without any historical “hooks.” The concern of this work is the literary context of the proverbs, their Sitz im Buch. This involves two types of contexts: (i) immediate: the juxtaposition of letters, words, sentences, and pericopes, more of less in contiguity; and (ii) distant context: meaningful literary similarities or contrasts that are created and discerned in texts that are not contiguous. Van Leeuwen focuses on the question of contiguous context in the interpretation of Prov 25-27 and argues chapters 25 and 26 are independent literary units, while chapter 27 is a “proverb miscellany” of sorts.

R. N. Whybray, The Composition of the Book of Proverbs (JSOTSup 168; Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1994; Buy from | Buy from

This study important study by Whybray investigates the process by which the disparate material in Proverbs was brought together to form a single book, and also to seek to understand the structure and character of the book in its final form. Whybray assumes that the proverbs were originally independent and were then assembled into collections employing two criteria for discerning deliberately organized groups of proverbs: (1) identity of sense; and (2) identity of sound (alliteration, assonance, rhyme, verbal repetition). He concludes the book of Proverbs is composed of a number of originally distinct sections of which the majority had complicated pre-histories. Despite the disparate origins, these different sections exhibit some common themes, like the importance of the acquisition of wisdom and the contrast between the righteous and the wicked, etc. There is, however, no evidence of a systematic editing of the whole work for dogmatic or theological reasons. In contrast, the book of Proverbs was compiled as a compendium of traditional educational or instructional material in order to gather on to a single scroll all writings of this kind which the final editor thought should be preserved.

Some other noteworthy works include the following:

  • Theodore A. Hildebrandt, “Proverbial Pairs: Compositional Units in Proverbs 10-29,â€? JBL 107 (1988) 207-224. Hildebrandt discusses the formation of “proverbial pairs,” but doesn’t touch on the issue of larger groups of proverbs in Prov 10-29.
  • A. Meinhold, Die Sprüche. I. Sprüche Kapital 1-15 (Zürcher Kommentare AT, 16.1. Zürich: Theologischer Verlag, 1991). Meinhold includes some attempts to discover the process of composition of the book of Proverbs. For 10:1-22:16 and chaps. 25-29 he postulates a series of stages of composition from the formation of pairs and triads to that of larger groups that have further developed into chapters and sub-collections (10-15; 16:1-22:16; 25-27; 28-29) and then finally into main collections (10:1-22:16; 25-29).
  • Otto Plöger, Sprüche Salomos (Proverbia) (BKAT 17; Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neukirchener Verlag, 1984; Buy from | Buy from Plöger conceives Proverbs to have assumed its present shape in the early postexilic period, the result of the gathering together of three collections: (1) that of chaps. 1-9 could have had a seperate existence; (2) that of 10:1-22:16, with two independent appendices in 22:17-24:22 and 24:23-34; and (3) that of chaps. 25-29 with individual appendices in chaps. 30 and 31, each of which is in two parts. In general, the material of the second collection can be assigned to the middle period of the monarchy and that of the third to the latter period. The introductory first collection, while it may contain some preexilic material, in substance represents that final stage of the book’s composition.
  • Patrick W. Skehan, Studies in Israelite Poetry and Wisdom (CBQMS 1: Washington, D.C.: Catholic Biblical Association, 1971; Buy from | Buy from This collection contains Skehan’s classic essays on the structure of Proverbs, complete with scintillating — and compelling — numerical patterns.

If this post has whetted your appetite for this sort of research into the book of Proverbs, I encourage you to participate in the online colloquium with Professor Knut Heim on the Biblical Studies discussion list.

Posted in Bible, Criticism, Hermeneutics, Proverbs, Redaction Criticism | 1 Comment »