Sunday, December 2, 2007

Which text?, part 2

In the previous post, I called attention to the thesis of Brevard Childs:  "that the Masoretic text of the Hebrew Bible is the vehicle both for recovering and for understanding the canonical text of the Old Testament."1

Pace Childs, I argued that partisan considerations may have been at work in the standardization of the Masoretic text. In this post I will consider a specific verse, Amos 9:12, in light of the question at issue.

Variant texts of Amos 9:12

Amos 9:11 begins, "In that day I  [YHWH] will raise up the booth of David that is fallen"2:

Masoretic Septuagint Acts 15:17-18
… that they may possess the remnant of Edom and all the nations who are called by my name," declares the Lord who does this. … so that the remnant of men shall seek,* and all the Gentiles upon whom my name is called, says the Lord, who shall do these things.
*several manuscripts supply objects for the verb:  e.g., "shall seek Me".
… that the remnant of mankind may seek the Lord, and all the Gentiles who are called by my name," says the Lord, who makes these things known from of old.

Surely Christians must take note of the correspondence between Acts 15:17 and the Septuagint translation of Amos 9:12, and inquire into its significance.

James's appeal to Amos 9:12

The issue at stake in Acts 15 concerned the place of the Gentiles in salvation history:  i.e., whether Gentile converts could be added to the Christian community without first agreeing to obey the Law of Moses. James, as the head of the church in Jerusalem, had to persuade a constituency that was vehemently pro Moses.

If Luke's account is historical, and James appealed to Amos 9:12, he must have known a Hebrew text that read, "… that the remnant of mankind may seek the Lord, and all the Gentiles who are called by my name." The Septuagint wouldn't have been authoritative enough to satisfy James's Hebrew-speaking constituency. And a text corresponding to the Masoretic text ("… that [Israel] may possess the remnant of Edom and all the nations who are called by my name") would not have served James's purpose.

Indeed, we may presume that James would not have taken such a pro-Gentile position in the first place unless he had found it in scripture.

Minimal difference between the LXX and the MT

According to Michael Braun,3 only two minor emendations are required to arrive at a Hebrew text which corresponds to the Septuagint:
  • To change Edom into adam (= man) requires no emendation. "In earlier MSS. the former word would have appeared without pointing, so that in the non-vocalized texts with which the Masoretes worked there would have been no difference between the words."

  • To modify yyrsw ("they [Israel] shall possess") into ydrsw ("they [the nations] shall seek"), one consonant must be emended. It is not an unlikely variant:  "In the history of the transmission of the OT there was a time when d and y were virtually indistinguishable."

  • To supply an object for the verb seek ("they shall seek" — who, or what?), "the sign of the accusative in the MT (’t) [could] be emended to ’l, an ancient Semitic title for God." Braun adds, "Dahood suggests that the Masoretes would at times confuse ’l for ’t, failing to recognize the older, shortened title for God."
In sum, the difference between the Masoretic text and the Septuagint is very slight. The question is, which text is original? "They shall possess the remnant of Edom"? Or "the remnant of mankind shall seek the Lord"?

Jewish opposition to Christian proof texts

Childs would evidently give the benefit of the doubt to the Masoretic Text, and assume the Septuagint to be secondary. It seems to me that Christians must be a little more cynical about the Masoretes' motives.

Braun calls attention to a targum:4
Tg. Jonathan shows that there was considerable theological difficulty with Amos 9:11-12 in the Jewish community. It reads:  "So that they shall possess the remnant of Edom and of all the peoples, even the house of Israel, upon whom my name has been called." The flagrant gloss, "even the house of Israel," was certainly added to exclude the Gentiles from any hope of salvation.
The Targum says that God's name has been called upon the house of Israel:  not upon the Gentiles, per Amos 9:12. Here (and elsewhere) we have evidence of Jewish antipathy toward a Christian appeal to scripture.

Such antipathy is perfectly understandable, given the historical circumstances (the desperate position Jews were in after the events of 70 C.E.). Regardless, we must recognize the severe pressure the Masoretes were under to protect the faith against threats, particularly threats emerging from within the Jewish community.

Christianity was just such a threat.


I will respond here to some of the comments that were made on my previous post.
  • Two readers (both much more knowledgeable than I am) indicated that it is inaccurate to speak of "the" Septuagint. D.R. Driver commented, "It's surprising how much of the literature still refers to this unproblematically, whereas it is a highly eclectic text."

    Point taken. And it suggests that the title of my first post is misleading:  we are not choosing between the Masoretic text and a similarly standardized Septuagint text.

    Nonetheless, the observation doesn't obviate the point that I wanted to make. I set out to problematize Childs's emphatic preference for the Masoretic text, and I believe I have successfully done so.

    It would be a mistake to assume that the Masoretes had pure motives as they went about standardizing the Hebrew text. Variant Greek manuscripts (however ecclectic) may testify to an original text that was distorted by the Masoretes:  perhaps inadvertently, or perhaps as part of a deliberate campaign to undermine the claims of Christianity.

  • The same readers objected to one of my statements in the first post:  "… at many points the Septuagint is more open to a Christian reading than the Masoretic text." I concede that the statement is a generalization that I cannot justify.

    On the other hand, Tim pointed to a couple of important verses (Is. 7:14 and Ps. 22:16) in support of my contention. Allow me to restate my position more cautiously:  in some cases, the Greek text(s) is more open to a Christian reading than the Masoretic text.

  • John stakes out an intriguing position. In cases where the Greek text differs significantly from the Masoretic text (e.g. Jeremiah), John maintains that exegetes should explore both versions. John comments:
    I think a return to the older pre-Reformation and pre-Tridentine tradition is in order, in which the outer limits of the canon and the precise contents of the text of the component books were up for grabs. Why not return to allowing a degree of fluidity on these matters?
    This is certainly an acceptable proposal to me.

    The title of my previous post set up a false dichotomy between the Masoretic text and the Septuagint, as if we had to choose either one or the other. I suppose the title was poorly chosen. I never intended to argue that Christians should prefer the Septuagint to the Masoretic text in every case. (Nor did I state such a thing anywhere in the post.)
My thesis ought not to be controversial. I submit that any responsible interpreter must take all variant readings into account. (Certainly that is the practice among New Testament scholars.)

I understand why exegetes begin with the text in the original language, and only secondarily turn their attention to versions. However — and here is where I part company with Childs — there are extenuating circumstances to consider with respect to the Masoretic text. The Masoretes were under extraordinary pressure to undermine any distinctively Christian reading of scripture.

Therefore:  (a) when an Old Testament passage is taken up in the New Testament, and used as a proof text for a distinctively Christian doctrine; and (b) there is a significant difference between the Masoretic text and the New Testament quote (or allusion); then (c) the Christian interpreter must seriously consider the possibility that the Masoretic text is corrupt.

Amos 9:12 is an outstanding illustration of my point.

If Luke's account of the so-called Jerusalem council is not historical, then we cannot trace the apologetic use of Amos 9:12 back to James. In that case, it is Luke himself who appeals to Amos 9:12 as a proof text.

Even so, the Christian interpreter must seriously consider the possibility that the Masoretic text of Amos 9:12 is corrupt.

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1Brevard Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament As Scripture. Fortress Press, 1979, p. 97.

2Scripture is quoted from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version.

The English translation of the Septuagint text comes from Michael A. Braun, "James' Use of Amos at the Jerusalem Council: Steps Toward a Possible Solution of the Textual and Theological Problems", JETS 20 (June 1977) 113-121 (translation of LXX at p. 115).

3Braun, ibid., p. 117.

4ibid., p. 116.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Which text: Masoretic or Septuagint?

I'm currently studying two topics. (1) I'm reading Brevard Childs's Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture, in preparation for two posts on the canonical approach. (2) I'm familiarizing myself with the book of Amos, because I plan to blog my way through the whole book.

Childs's proposal:

The two topics have come together this week, at least in my mind. It was triggered by Childs's assertions about the Masoretic text:
The thesis being proposed is that the Masoretic text of the Hebrew Bible is the vehicle both for recovering and for understanding the canonical text of the Old Testament. …

There were many different Jewish communities in the Hellenistic period with different authoritative texts. Why should the one community which finally supported the Masoretic text be singled out? The reason is that only this one historic community has continued through history as the living vehicle of the whole canon of Hebrew scripture. …

But was not the relation of canon and text very different for Christians from what it was for Jews? Did not Greek-speaking Jewish Christians continue to use the Septuagint as an authoritative text, as the New Testament and early church fathers appear to demonstrate? Why should decisions within the Jewish community, some of which extended chronologically after the rise of Christianity, be deemed normative in any sense for Christians? …

The crucial point to be made is that the early Christian community of the New Testament never developed a doctrine of scripture apart from the Jewish. It made no claims of having a better text of scripture, as did, for example, the Samaritans. …

In sum, the church's use of Greek and Latin translations of the Old Testament was valid in its historical context, but theologically provides no grounds for calling into question the ultimate authority of the Hebrew text for church and synagogue.1
I wish to make two points in response to Childs's proposal.

Two objections:

First, "that the early Christian community of the New Testament never developed a doctrine of scripture apart from the Jewish" is completely irrelevant. We should not think, anachronistically, in terms of a formal council giving its official imprimatur to a specific canon of books and a specific (Masoretic) text.

There was no promulgation of a canon even at Jamnia, as Childs knows. The various books were recognized as normative by the religious community (or communities) in a piecemeal fashion. The Law and the Prophets were agreed upon first. But the boundaries of the Writings and what we regard as the apocryphal texts were still disputed during the formative era of the Christian Church.

The determinative consideration was the practice of the various communities:  which books they treated as normative when they gathered for worship and instruction. Therefore it is irrelevant that Christians did not develop a doctrine of scripture.

As Childs indicates, the New Testament and the Church fathers appealed to the Septuagint as an authoritative text. This matters, because at many points the Septuagint is more open to a Christian reading than the Masoretic text is.

Which brings me to my second point. The establishment of a normative text was not a purely spiritual act, but also a socio-political one. The stabilizing of the Masoretic text enabled the religious authorities to seize control of the theological agenda. As Childs indicates (p. 98),
Following the stabilization of the Hebrew text, the various Jewish communities began to establish their identity on the basis of the Masoretic text.
Childs sees that development as constructive; and no doubt it was, in large part. But consider the very different perspective of Joseph Blenkinsopp. He says that the decisive factor in delimiting the canon
was the need to resolve conflicting claims to authority, the point at issue being the interpretation of the received corpus of tradition. This may not lead us to view writing, with Lévi-Strauss, as an instrument of oppression and control, but it should alert us to the possibility that it will embody claims of a polemical and tendentious nature.2
I submit that this polemical impulse — an impulse to seize control of the theological agenda from one's opponents — applies not only to the selection of a canon, but also to the many choices which had to be made as the text of the Hebrew Bible was standardized.

Childs indicates that the Masoretic text was stabilized around the end of the first century. In other words, it was stabilized after the core documents of the New Testament had been written.

We ought to consider whether partisan considerations were at work in the formation of the Masoretic text. In a follow-up post, I will consider the text of Amos 9:12 in light of that question.

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1Brevard Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament As Scripture. Fortress Press, 1979, pp. 97-99.

2Joseph Blenkinsopp, Prophecy and Canon: A Contribution to the Study of Jewish Origins. University of Notre Dame Press, 1977, p. 4.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Scot McKnight on emerging Christianity

Last week, Scot McKnight spoke at a convention which brought together three scholarly societies:  the Evangelical Theological Society, the Society of Biblical Literature, and the American Academy of Religion.

For those who don't know, McKnight is a professor, the author of 20 books, and a blogger. He is solidly evangelical in his convictions. Nonetheless, he has embraced emerging Christianity, perhaps with some reservations about its postmodern orientation.

I was surprised to see that the meeting of academics included on its agenda a forum on the Emergent Church. And I'm grateful that Andy Rowell recorded the sessions he attended, including the Emergent Church Forum.

Here is a ten-minute excerpt. McKnight begins by telling a story about a blue parakeet (which symbolizes emerging Christians) stirring up the sparrows (evangelical / orthodox Christians) in his backyard. And then he identifies six uncomfortable questions that emerging Christians are asking.

You can listen to the audio, or read my summary (verbatim at some points, a free paraphrase at other points) below.

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  1. What kind of truth can be found in scripture?
    Emerging Christians are beginning to ask questions about scripture that an older generation thought it had answered. The questions include, Just how human is this book? and Is it possible that the story of Jonah and the whale is just a myth? Emerging Christians hear that there might have been three Isaiahs, and they aren't too bothered about it — it isn't even interesting to them.
  2. Questions about science:
    My students put it like this: If evolution isn't true, I would like to ask God why he made a world that looks so much like evolution. This is a generation that isn't even attracted to questions about proving that Genesis 1-11 is a historical record. They don't care about creation science. They believe in evolution, and that's just the way it is.
  3. Questions about Christians and how they behave:
    Emerging Christians grew up with the scandals of Jimmy Swaggart and Jim Bakker and the priests, and they just don't trust institutional leaders. Behind closed doors, church leaders do things that are despicable. Emerging Christians ask this question:  If Paul says that those who are in Christ are a new creation, why are there so many old creatures in the Church?
  4. Questions about hell:
    I've had students say to me, Scott, my evangelical pastor tells me that people who haven't heard the gospel are going to hell. Is he really telling me that everybody in North Korea who never has a chance to hear the gospel is going to hell? Well, I just can't believe that's true.
  5. A moral critique:
    I've had students say to me, Why is Jephtha in the Bible? And why is he valorized and heroized in Hebrews 11? That is a serious question. It's easier to talk about how many Isaiahs there are than it is to answer that question.
  6. Questions about social location:
    Emerging Christians are aware that what we are interested in comes out of the world in which we live. There are other people in other parts of the world who don't care about our questions.

    Social location matters to everything we talk about, the language we use to discuss it, the way we shape theology, the way we respond to the gospel, etc.

    Emerging Christians don't just admit that, they delight in it. They're not seeking a universal theology. They're willing to live with a theology for the midwest, or the east coast.
I have a few comments of my own. First, none of the questions that McKnight points to are particularly new (except perhaps the last one, which brings us into the realm of postmodernism). What is new is the degree to which the traditional answers — answers which satisfied a previous generation of evangelicals — are now regarded with suspicion. As McKnight puts it at one point in his presentation,
This is not a question that evangelicals and orthodox Christians can simply give a traditional answer and get by with it anymore.
Second, the refusal to settle for easy answers may be related to McKnight's third point, the distrust of institutional leaders. The traditional answers were never intellectually satisfying. They were accepted largely on the say-so of the priest or the Doctor of Theology, who was regarded as a trustworthy authority. Given the new cynicism about church leaders, emerging Christians aren't taking things on authority; they're waiting for an argument that they deem reasonable.

Third, I think emerging Christians within evangelicalism look particularly shocking in the US context. In Canada, you will find extremely few Christians, evangelical or otherwise, who insist that the earth was created in seven 24-hour days. Evolution is perhaps somewhat more controversial, but I think most Canadian believers accept, at the very least, that theistic evolution is a legitimate position.

Finally, the six "questions" of McKnight's presentation do not touch on all the elements of emerging Christianity. McKnight knows that:  he has given a very different summary of the movement in a Christianity Today article.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

A prophetic voice decries Christmas consumption

(cross-posted on [A]mazed and [Be]mused)

Yesterday was one of the biggest shopping extravaganzas of the year. Americans celebrate Thanksgiving on a Thursday, and most of them take the Friday off work, too. En masse, they head to the shopping malls to begin buying, getting, consuming:  spending themselves into massive debt to commemorate the birth of the baby Jesus.

baby Jesus Christmas presents losing balancing

Rev. Billy doesn't like it. Not one little bit!
We're trying to get people to back away from the Walmart; back away from the Target; back away from the Home Depot! … Backing away from the product, slowing down your consumption is a spiritual act. … Stop shopping, children! Amen!

Rev. Billy is a persona created by performance artist and activist Bill Talen. He is featured in a movie, What Would Jesus Buy?, which is produced by Morgan Spurlock (who scored big with Super Size Me).

What Would Jesus Buy? is built around a 2005 documentary of Rev. Billy's activist hi-jinks. The original documentary was made by Rob VanAlkemade, the director of What Would Jesus Buy?. Footage from the original documentary alternates with interviews and commentaries from experts and everyday consumers.

According to SignOnSanDiego, the movie's message makes it a tough sell to potential distributors:
"Major distributors have backed away because Wal-Mart pushes half of their DVDs," VanAlkemade said after a sold-out screening of the movie Sunday at the Silverdocs documentary festival near Washington.

Starbucks — a frequent target of Rev. Billy which got a court order to keep him out of its California stores — pulled out as a sponsor of Silverdocs. The festival is presented by the American Film Institute and the Discovery Channel.

Festival spokeswoman Jody Arlington said Starbucks expressed discomfort with the movie and raised security issues, but it let Silverdocs keep the sponsorship money even as it withdrew its logo. Starbucks Mid-Atlantic manager Carter Bentzel denied the decision was linked to the movie.
This is a good illustration of the potential negative impact when enormous, multinational stores like Walmart control the lion's share of a particular market. So much for supply and demand as the sole regulatory principle of a free market! If Walmart doesn't like your movie, they can pretty much turn the lights out on you.

Rev. Billy comments, "The multinational corporations have got as much control over us as the Roman Catholic Church in the 1300s." Then again, there's always the democratic power of the World Wide Web:
VanAlkemade pledged that the movie will find its way to audiences despite the marketing challenges. … "Maybe someone shot this screening today and we'll see it on YouTube tonight. It's worldwide distribution. It's instantaneous."
How will Christians respond to the movie? I haven't seen it; but as I watched the Youtube clip, I alternated between laughter, cringing, and shouts of "Hallelujah! God bless Rev. Billy!" Christianity Today offers a generally positive take on the movie:
Aside from a few more serious, melancholy scenes, WWJB is more or less a comedy. It's hard not to laugh at the confused faces of holiday shoppers as a robed choir marches through Abercrombie & Fitch and Victoria's Secret stores, singing about the impending shopocalypse as hovering security guards call for reinforcements. It's classic agit-prop theater — using humor and stagy gimmicks to shake things up, entertain, and provoke. It's a creative brand of protest, certainly, and according to the choir director (and Rev. Billy's wife) Savitri D, it's a protest grounded in Christian tradition: "Jesus was preaching within a tradition of theater as activism."

… Some critics have noted that the film's playfully sacrilege use of Christian forms and traditions may alienate some audiences. Rev. Billy's character is clearly modeled after a sweaty, breathy, over-the-top southern televangelist (Billy name drops Jimmy Swaggart) who prances around in polyester suits and occasionally "speaks in tongues" or is "slain by the Spirit." Catholics might also take offense at some of Rev. Billy's antics, whether he's in a makeshift confession booth on a city sidewalk (taking "confessions of shopping sins") or "baptizing" a baby outside of a Staples.

Yes, it's condescending. Yes, it cheapens Christianity. But the whole argument of the film is that our commodity culture has already cheapened Christianity.
Aint that the truth! Amen! Amen!

But would it be appropriate if I bought copies of the DVD for everyone I know, as Christmas presents?