Wednesday, January 12, 2022

Moberly on von Rad, and Augustine

In preparation for an upcoming course, I've been reading R. W. L. Moberly, The Theology of the Book of Genesis (Cambridge, 2009), which is, of course, wonderful. Of the two chapters that deal with the call of Abraham (Gen 12:1–3), the first concerns the correct construal of the blessing formula in Genesis 12:3. God promises Abraham, "in you all the families of the earth shall..." what? Be blessed? Bless themselves? Is Abraham being charged with becoming a source of blessing for others, or a model of others' blessing formulae? Is this some sort of a missionary text, as if Abraham is called by God for a purpose, to bring blessing to the world? Or is this a promise of divine protection and blessing, that Abraham will become so prosperous that others will use his name as they bless people: "May you become as prosperous as Abraham!"? 

It is quite common for Christians to read the text in the first way, as a quasi-missionary text, and Moberly cites some heavy-hitters favoring this reading: Westermann, Childs, Christopher Wright, Bauckham. Moberly himself argues for the other reading, that Abraham's name will be used in the blessing formulae of others, and he cites Gunkel as a proponent of a rather negative version of this second reading strategy.  

The scholar with whom Moberly interacts most in this chapter is Gerhard von Rad. Moberly quotes a long passage from von Rad's Genesis commentary, a quotation that takes up more than a page of Moberly's text (pp. 142–44), and then he quotes von Rad again for about half a page. Von Rad was a proponent of the missional reading, and von Rad connected the call of Abraham very strongly to the New Testament. Moberly argues against von Rad's position. But rejection is not Moberly's last word on von Rad's interpretation. 

Von Rad's original formulation of the significance of the Yahwist and Genesis 12:1–3 was in the context of 1930s Nazi Germany, and his specific situation was as a member of the Confessing Church working at the University of Jena, where National Socialist policies were strongly promoted. [Moberly cites this essay.] In such a context, where the authorities degraded the Old Testament and denied any positive enduring significance to it, von Rad's work was a profound and imaginatively serious contribution; his argument for strong continuity between the Old and New Testaments is an argument that is intrinsic to Christian faith and was particularly timely as a Christian Old Testament scholar's response to Nazi ideology. By contrast, Gunkel's reading of God's call and promises as an example of Israel's rather inflated sense of self-importance would in no way have made any (would-be) Nazi or anti-Semite think twice. Good theological interpretation of the Old Testament is not necessarily that which might aspire to be recognized as correct in any time or any place; rather, part of its rightness may be specific and contextual, in its ability to articulate biblical priorities in relation to particular situations of need. To say this is not to prioritize relevance over accuracy, but rather to recognize, with the sociology of knowledge, that human understanding and insight depend on many factors other than pure reason and do not achieve finality in any one situation. (pp. 158–59)

There is a  lot in this paragraph that calls for reflection, and I'm thinking particularly of the way Moberly here formulates the task of theological interpretation. For now I want merely to put Moberly's interpretation of von Rad in conversation with Augustine. 

So anyone who thinks that he has understood the divine scriptures or any part of them, but cannot by his understanding build up this double love of God and neighbour, has not yet succeeded in understanding them. Anyone who derives from them an idea which is useful for supporting this love but fails to say what the writer demonstrably meant in the passage has not made a fatal error, and is certainly not a liar. (De Doctrina Christiana 1.86, trans. Green)

Putting Moberly's reading of von Rad's interpretation next to Augustine's hermeneutical advice suggests that von Rad's incorrect interpretation of Gen 12:3 was more correct than a correct interpretation might have been. Of course, there were probably ways of articulating the "correct" interpretation more "lovingly" than did Gunkel (e.g., Moberly's own articulation of it), but one wonders how imaginable such an articulation would have been in von Rad's context. 

Tuesday, May 5, 2020

Bickerman on Reviews of His Book

On this occasion many slips of previous editions have been tacitly corrected. It is a pity that the reviewers of my book preferred to praise it instead of pointing to its faults. 
--E. J. Bickerman, "Preface," in Chronology of the Ancient World, 2d ed. (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1980), 7. 

Thursday, April 9, 2020

The Origins of the Use of the Term 'Canon' to Refer to Classical Works

These days, we use the word "canon" in many different contexts in reference to collections of authentic or superior works. If a work is in the Shakespeare canon, that basically means that Shakespeare wrote it (it's authentic or correctly attributed). If something is in the American literary canon, that means it was written by an American and is of superior quality. (Of course, there's not any official list of the American literary canon.) About the Harry Potter canon or the Star Wars canon—in which cases the creators are very conscious of creating canonical works—we might debate what counts as canon, and who gets to decide (and who cares). Anyway, we use the term canon for a lot of different things.

Such usage reflects the earlier use of the term "canon" in reference to classical Greek authors: the canon of Greek poets, or the canon of Greek orators. How early is this use of the word "canon"?

In his book on the New Testament canon, Bruce Metzger has a very helpful appendix on the development of the word canon (and you can read the whole thing here). At the bottom of p. 289, Metzger mentions the use of the Greek word κανών by Aristotle and others with the significance of "criterion" or some such, not in reference to literary works. Then Metzger says:
With reference to literature and style, the grammarians of Alexandria gave the name κανών to the collection of classical works deemed worthy of being followed as models because of the purity of their language. (pp. 289–90)
Metzger goes on to give further examples of "canon" meaning "standard," but not in reference to literature, but in reference to spears or music or epochs or whatever.

But Metzger was wrong about the earliest use of the word "canon" in reference to literature. The grammarians of Alexandria did not, in fact, use the word κανών for any collection of classical works. Such usage of "canon" came only very much later, in 1768, in a work of David Ruhnken. Here's the citation: David Ruhnken, “Historia critica oratorum Graecorum,” in P. Rutilii Lupi: De Figuris Sententiarum et Elocutionis Duo Libri (Lyons: Samuel and Joannes Luchtmans, 1768), xxxiii–c, at xcv. And this one you can also see online.

Here's the description of this development by Rudolph Pfeiffer in the first volume of his History of Classical Scholarship (Oxford, 1968). He begins talking about the way classical Greek works were labeled by the Alexandrian grammarians.
The complete repertories were called πίνακες (indexes); but there was no corresponding Greek or Latin word for the selective lists. In the year A.D. 1768 the term 'canon' was coined for them by David Ruhnken, when he wrote: 'Ex magna oratorum copia tamquam in canonem decem dumtaxat rettulerunt' (sc. Aristarchus et Aristophanes Byzantius). Then Ruhnken dropped the cautious 'tamquam' and went on calling all the selective lists 'canones'. His coinage met with worldwide and lasting success, as the term was found to be so convenient; one has the impression that most people who use it believe that this usage is of Greek origin. But κανών was never used in this sense, nor would this have been possible. From its frequent use in ethics κανών always retained the meaning of rule or model. Aristophanes' grammatical observations about analogy in declension could be called κανόνες, rules, or a certain author and his style could be described as κανών, a model or exemplar. So it was not by the ancient, but it could have been by the Biblical, tradition that the catachrestic use of canon was suggested to Ruhnken. Though the Biblical canon does not mean a list of writers, it does mean a list of books of the Bible accepted by the Christian church as genuine and inspired; and this usage was and is current in all the modern languages. (p. 207)
Pfeiffer correctly refers to the usage of "canon" in reference to the Bible. This usage does go back to antiquity, to the work by Athanasius called De Decretis 18.3, written about the year 350, in which Athanasius says that the Shepherd of Hermas is not in the canon. More famously, in his 39th Festal Letter from about a decade and a half later (367), Athanasius uses the participle κανονιζόμενος ("canonized") in reference to the list of authoritative books. Since then, the word "canon" has been commonly used in reference to the Bible, but apparently not in reference to other literary works until 1768.

Thursday, February 27, 2020

Enoch in Alexandrinus?

The answer is no.

The question is: does Codex Alexandrinus contain the book of Enoch?

I just received the new Introduction to the Septuagint from Baylor UP, edited by Siegfried Kreuzer, a translation of the German published in 2016. Kreuzer starts with a long introduction (pp. 3–56) on "The Origins and Transmission of the Septuagint."

I was surprised by this statement:
...the Codex Alexandrinus also contains the book of Enoch. (p. 20)
For anyone who knows anything about the transmission of the Enoch materials, this statement is obviously wrong. There is no such thing as "the book of Enoch" in Greek, if we mean by that term what we usually mean by "the book of Enoch" = 1 Enoch. That composite work exists (or, let us say, is attested) only in Ethiopic. (Ancient Christians did sometimes refer to a "book of Enoch," but they weren't talking about the composite work 1 Enoch.) So, at least it's careless wording. But also I didn't remember that any of the individual Enoch booklets appeared in the fifth-century Codex Alexandrinus. So I turned to ch. 6 of this very handy book, which contains a list of the contents of Codex Alexandrinus, and confirmed that Enoch appears nowhere in the manuscript. 

Kreuzer's footnote attached to the above-quoted sentence reads, in part:
... in the edition by Swete, which adheres strictly to the Codex Vaticanus ... [he has placed at the end some material from Codex Alexandrinus]; as a result, the Wisdom of Solomon, Enoch, and the Odes can also be found there. (pp. 20–21n56)
 What to make of that?

Of course, Wisdom of Solomon does appear in Codex Vaticanus, so there would be no reason for Swete to take it from Alexandrinus. Kreuzer means the Psalms of Solomon, which does appear at the end of Swete's edition, in an appendix.

Now, in the first edition of Swete's edition (vol. 3, 1894), Enoch is nowhwere. After 1–4 Maccabees (taken from Alexandrinus because of their absence from Vaticanus), there is bonus material: Psalms of Solomon (p. 765, taken from a minuscule) and the Odes (taken from Alexandrinus).

In the second edition of Swete (vol. 3, 1899), the bonus material now includes Enoch in between the Psalms of Solomon and the Odes (which held true for subsequent editions). But Enoch is not taken from Alexandrinus, which contains no Enoch material. Swete explains on p. xvii where he got the text from: Codex Panopolitanus (= Akhmim Manuscript) and a few other sources.

I wonder if the confusion arose from an earlier statement by Swete (p. vi), introducing the bonus material at the end of the volume.
The Books of Maccabees are followed by three collections which, if they cannot in strictness be said to belong to the Greek Old Testament, have some peculiar claims to a place at the close of the Alexandrian Bible. 
By "Alexandrian Bible," Swete meant the Septuagint, not Codex Alexandrinus, but perhaps someone misunderstood?

I also wonder whether the same problems—the attribution of Enoch to Codex Alexandrinus and the confusion of Wisdom of Solomon with Psalms of Solomon—appear in the German edition. I do not have access to it to check.

I do appreciate this introduction by Kreuzer. I might have some more to say about it later.

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

"Let Doubt (or, rather, certainty?) Prevail!"

I love this quotation from Bertrand Russell that you can find in various spots on the internet. 
One of the painful things about our time is that those who feel certainty are stupid, and those with any imagination and understanding are filled with doubt and indecision.

This is from a radio address presented by Russell in 1953, “Present Perplexities,” part of his radio series, “Living in an Atomic Age.” You can hear Russell read that line here, in the sample on the right, or at YouTube, at about the 4:20 mark. The essay is printed in various collections, usually under the title “Current Perplexities.”

I came across this quotation of Russell while listening to a speech (in a debate) by Stephen Fry, who introduced the quotation by saying: “I would like this quotation from my hero Bertrand Russell to hover over the evening” (see here, 36:10 mark). After he reads the quotation, Fry exclaims, “Let doubt prevail!”

But it seems that Fry has undermined the point that his hero was trying to make. Russell's comment was not a criticism of certainty; it was a lament that in his day it seemed that only stupid people enjoyed certainty. It is worth noting that Russell considered this aspect of his time “painful,” and he immediately follows the section quoted with the words, “I do not think this is necessary.” He goes on to exude certainty with the intention of overcoming the “present perplexities.” Russell more-or-less exclaims, "Let certainty (for smart people) prevail!"

Of course, both Fry and Russell are complex thinkers whose views cannot be boiled down to a single battle cry. But it is interesting how a lament from Russell became a precept for Fry.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

The Old Testament and Christianity

Some of my thoughts here in an interview on the Overthinking Christian blog. My thanks to Paul Moldovan for asking me to participate.

Here's a taste:
Many Christians have the view that the OT focuses on God’s wrath while the NT on God’s love. What, if anything, is wrong with such a picture?

Ed: Well, let’s see, what would the evidence for such a view be, i.e., that the OT is more concerned with wrath and the NT more concerned with love? It’s not too hard to imagine how people who hold this view would support it. There are a lot of pretty specific laws in the OT, 613 of them according to the traditional Jewish reckoning, and some of these laws have pretty severe punishments attached to them—such as, “Whoever curses his father or his mother must be put to death” (Exod 21:17; Lev 20:9). God seems concerned in the OT about stuff like what people eat (Lev 11; Deut 14), and whether or not they wear clothes made of multiple materials (Lev 19:19; Deut 21:11). And, of course, he commands the genocide of the Canaanites (Deut 7:2; 20:16–18) and Amalekites (1 Sam 15:3). On the other hand, the New Testament presents a Jesus who is all about love (Mark 12:28:–34) and acceptance (Mark 2:13–17; Luke 7:36–50; 14:21; 19:9–10), against the hypocritical Pharisees who like to exclude people from God’s love (Matt 23:13). In the Old Testament, God is jealous (Exod 34:14); in the New Testament, God is love (1 John 4:7).
This is a caricature. 
Read the rest here.

Monday, December 10, 2018

Was Jerome Gay? When in Rome...

The Wikipedia entry on Jerome, as of 10 December 2018, has the following information at the beginning of its section on the saint's life.


The start of the second paragraph says that in Jerome's school days at Rome, "he engaged in the superficial escapades and homosexual behaviour of students there, which he indulged in quite casually but for which he suffered terrible bouts of guilt afterwards."

That was intriguing to me. I had never heard this before, though I have read some of Jerome and some scholarship on him. J. N. D. Kelly's authoritative biography mentions nothing about it. Kelly does summarize for us the evidence from Jerome's writings leading to the conclusion: "Jerome's student days were marked by sexual adventures to which he was afterwards to look back with loathing" (p. 21).

The Wikipedia entry fortunately provides a reference for the source of the information on Jerome's homosexual activities in Rome. Footnote 14 cites Robert Payne, The Fathers of the Western Church, originally published in 1951, pp. 90–92. Only one section of those three pages has anything whatsoever to do with Jerome's sexual adventures in Rome. I quote it below without comment.
A spare, pale youth with large eyes, country bred, he came to Rome only to meet the horrors he thought he had left behind. Sex tormented him. His friend Rufinus was baptized "pure as the driven snow," but of himself he said he had sinned "with unclean lips and with the eyes and with the foot and with the hand and with all his members," and he added that he deserved a second baptism of fire because he had defiled his baptismal robe, meaning simply that he had defiled his body, for in those days the candidate for baptism stood naked before the priest. Caught up in the gay activities of the students, he seems to have sinned quite casually and then to have suffered terrible bouts of repentance: at such times, like many others who were conscious of their sins, he would visit on Sundays the sepulchers of the martyrs and the apostles in the catacombs, and he remembered the horror of it when he was an old man. (p. 91)