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Wednesday, June 22nd, 2011
I recently got a copy of the Anchor Bible commentary on 1 Samuel. I was especially interested in textual matters, and this did not disappoint. I've had some general questions on the Old Testament text that got a partial answer here.
One matter I've wondered about is how much trust should be put in the Hebrew text versus the Septuagint. Long ago, I would have assumed that since the book was written in Hebrew, the Hebrew was always to be trusted. Not only was that the original language, but I heard stories of how much care was put into the transmission. And stories about how when they found scrolls of Isaiah that were a thousand years older than the oldest ones they had, they matched. This seemed like a good reason.
More recently, I began to wonder just how much of the Old Testament this would extend to. My reasons above were good reasons to trust the Hebrew of Isaiah over the Septuagint Greek. But would that be true throughout the Old Testament?
Right now it looks like it isn't.
The interesting story here is that it was again finding older Hebrew manuscripts that changed the outlook. In 1952, some scrolls were found in Qumran which contained portions of 1 Samuel. Unlike the Isaiah scrolls, the Hebrew of these scrolls was closer in wording to the Greek of the Septuagint.
How could this be?
The idea, as I see it, is as follows. The Septuagint itself was translated between the third and the first century before Christ. And before that there may have been earlier Greek translations of the Hebrew Bible that were used in the process, much as modern English translations often consult earlier English translations. So the Greek can reflect a very old Hebrew text. At this point, the two versions each have a textual history. They get copied over and over. The Hebrew text was subject to haplography, or omissions caused when words or sequences of letters are repeated in the text, and a scribe copies to the end of the phrase, and then finds a similar phrase a little further down in the document and begins transcribing again, missing what is between the two similar parts. This is a very well known occurrence, and is one of the easy ways to identify which manuscript is the more trustworthy. When there is a shorter and a longer version, he longer version is usually trusted if the section left out of the other falls between repeated material. This kind of error crept into the Hebrew but not the Greek.
That said, in a section of the Septuagint that we translated from our Koine Greek Reader, a whole block of 1 Samuel was missing from the Greek text. 1 Samuel 17:1-37 does not contain verses 12-31. I haven't yet looked at the textual history of that section. Nor do I assume that the Septuagint is automatically to be preferred.
4:20 am Pacific Standard Time
Thursday, June 16th, 2011
It is a common belief among Christians that God speaks to us in Scripture. In fact, this was a belief that drove me to regular devotional reading when I was in high school. What I was led to expect was often fulfilled in my reading. But sometimes it was not. Sometimes I would be reading a book like the Gospel of John and would feel directly addressed by God. Other times I would be reading some obscure book of the Old Testament and would not. I knew it was all God's word. But I was not sensible of how this was true in all my reading.
Later I noticed that the kinds of easy applications that many pastors made in sermons were not the only kinds to be found in Scripture. In fact, when Scripture was applying Scripture, it was often more circuitous. When Jesus asks his interrogators "Have you not read...?", what they were supposed to read in the passage is often below the surface. My reading of this is that this is a very strong hint that a lot of us should be reading in such a fashion. Not just moral applications, but broad principles should be found and tested in Scripture.
This is what I like about 1 Samuel, which has some of my attention now. In some ways, as an historical book, it is like other books of Scripture that are familiar. Say Acts or Exodus. But it also has its own strange shape. And God is speaking though it. Not just the familiarly-shaped parts, but also the weird and uncannily-shaped parts. What we are to hear when we spend our time in such a book will involve a different kind of hearing than we often bring to the text. Perhaps knowing that God speaks like this is helpful not just for our gaining benefit from Scripture. It might remind us that how we expect to see God in life has been distorted. He may be present in the lonely times of life similar to how he speaks in the odd sections of Scripture. That is, truly, only it takes some time to trust that.
9:59 am Pacific Standard Time
Tuesday, June 14th, 2011
I'm reading Pascal's Provincial Letters, and stumbled upon a Scriptural interpretation I had not run into before. Pascal is speaking of how Scripture offers examples where those who fall into error are ridiculed. He offers, among many other examples, that of Adam and Eve. Genesis 3:22 records God as saying, after the couple had partaken of the forbidden fruit, "Behold, the man has become as one of us!" (The line is punctuated like this in Pascal's rendering.) Pascal notes that interpreters, such as Jerome, saw in this a cutting irony. I had never read it that way before, but it seems to fit quite well. This couple hiding in the bushes appears as anything but godlike. Does this change the flavor of the passage as a whole? Does it leave the danger of allowing the man to partake of the Tree of Life in the same light, or does this read differently? Are there good reasons not to read this ironically?
4:11 am Pacific Standard Time
Saturday, June 11th, 2011
A month or so back, I watched a film on the life of Blaise Pascal made by Roberto Rossellini. I especially loved where a young Pascal has a dialog with an older Descartes. I had seen these men cited as disparate types by Alan Bloom, but didn't realize they knew each other. Descartes was a generation older, and served as Pascal's physician.
This film made me want to read more. I had read a good portion of The Pensées in school. They left me the impression that Descartes was a genius, but couldn't pull his ideas together into an ordered whole. When I started reading The Provincial Letters, that impression was shattered. This is the kind of book that could be used as a template for stylists. The narration of conversations between the at-the-time anonymous writer is lucid, informative, and witty. I highly recommend this book. I'm somewhat surprised that it doesn't get assigned for reading as much as The Pensées.
I am somewhat motivated to study the casuistry that Pascal attacked. My recent reading in Virtue Ethics suggests that while there were true errors that Pascal attacked, not all of the arguments were probably put in their best light. I have little doubt that the worst of these writers were every bit as bad as Pascal relates. But some of the lines of argumentation are not so bad. Or where the argument is bad, a better argument might have secured the same point.
One thing that is interesting to contemplate is how Pascal comes off looking so pious when his writing is so tendentious. He could have taken his opponents at their strongest rather than their weakest. While he clearly wins against those whom he attacked, the broader question of how ethics ought to be though of is still left open. We know that certain of the Jesuits Pascal cited are not the most trustworthy guides to morals. This does not leave Pascal as our only other option.
8:24 am Pacific Standard Time