Saturday, November 7, 2015

Eth-Cepher: A Wacky New “Translation”

A friend of mine who just got back from an archaeological dig in Israel and is studying Semitic languages at Rutgers sent me a link to this errr…“translation” as a joke.
From Pidgeon's website

The Hebrew word ETH means 'divine'?

The front page of the translator's website asserts that his is the only English translation in the universe that renders the Hebrew word את. We read:

“The Hebrew word את (eth in English) means divine, and the Hebrew word ספר (cepher in English) means book; hence, the את Eth-CEPHER is the ‘Divine Book.’”

Sorry boys and girls, the Hebrew word את doesn’t get translated because it’s the Hebrew accusative marker.  It’s the most common independent word in the Hebrew language. To translate it as ‘divine’ is goofy.  Want proof?  Here ya go:

Ezekiel 4:15:
"Then he said to me, ‘See, I assign to you את cow's dung instead of human dung, on which you may prepare your bread’

If eth means ‘divine’ then cow excrement is divine in Ezekiel 4:15. In Leviticus 11:7 the את is placed before swine, and in Leviticus 15:3 Pidgeon’s claim would render a plague on the skin being inspected for leprosy divine:

“and the priest shall examine the את diseased area on the skin of his body.”


Pictographic Silliness:

Skin diseases, swine and cow droppings! Most objects in the Bible that function in the accusative can thus be translated with the adjective ‘divine’ if the author is serious about this claim. But on what basis does he assert it?  He horoscopes the idea outta the original pictographs on which paleo-Hebrew was derived.  This method (which is so popular on the internet) is so subjective that you can literally create any new meaning you want for a Hebrew word.  You might as well break out the tarot cards and ouija board if you are going to be using this chart to interpret the “real” meanings of words in your Bible. Sorry everyone, Semitic philology is a much less sexy process.


Let me be emphatic.  You CANNOT derive meanings from the pictographic origins of Biblical Hebrew anymore than you can with words in modern English.  The Hebrew language developed independent of the Phoenician alphabet system and merely adopted it to represent the sounds of their already existing language.  The Israelites attached no significance to the ancient derivatives of their alphabet anymore than we or the Greeks did. To misunderstand this is to demonstrate a profound ignorance of how Israelite chronology and language-in-general works.

In the words of Michael Brown, who has a PhD in Semitic languages from New York University: “…we have no business attaching pictographic meanings to ancient Hebrew [anymore] than we have attaching those same pictographic meanings to the Greek alphabet or to our English alphabet.” 

Revelation was written in Hebrew?

Totally off-topic, but apparently this stands in the Holy city. My
Southern theology professor comments, "I didn't know the
temple still stood in Jerusalem."
The author also translates eth as ‘divine’ as an elaboration of the claim that Revelation was originally written in Hebrew.  What evidence does he give that Revelation was composed in Hebrew?  Well, John does give the Hebrew names of some places in the book.

I don’t know of a single New Testament scholar on earth holding a university chair who defends the idea. (Revelation is highly dependent on the Greek Septuagint.)  By the same logic, we could say that Josephus must have originally written his Antiquities in Hebrew since he transliterates it on occasion. (He was commissioned by Greek speaking gentiles.)  This argument is a hopeless mess of a non-sequitur.

All that Sacred Name stuff:

At 4-4:45 in his video he tells us when Jesus said, “I have come in my Father’s name, and you do not receive me” that he was referring to the inability of the Jews to pronounce a set of vowels and consonants.  Anyone who turns to John 5 will quickly see that Jesus was not referring in that passage to the morphological reconstruction of the Hebrew name for God.  He was referring, rather, to the fact that the Jews wanted to kill him because he was claiming the authority of God.

I don’t know how far the author takes this name theology. Some messianic types can go so far that they court a different gospel with it. (I.e. they literally teach that you have to be vocalizing a certain set of sounds to really be worshiping God.) But, I want to impress on the reader that it is almost totally unimportant. I’ve spent years taking Biblical language courses. I’m not saying the languages aren’t important.

What I am saying is the New Testament authors didn’t even feel the need to ostentatiously transliterate the Hebrew names for God. They simply use the word theos—the same word used to refer to the members of the Greek pantheon. When it came to Jesus, they didn’t pedantically spell out YAHUSHUA or anything of the sort. They just threw down a common Hesus and called it a day.  When Jesus prayed he called God Elah in Aramaic. *gasp* sounds Islamic!

Moral of the story: don’t run around trying to be holier than the Bible, transliterating everything needlessly into Hebrew. It can get annoying. God cares about whether we are receiving the content the language conveys, not the arbitrary set of sounds we vocalize it in. If you constantly interchange common Biblical names with Hebrew where English would function just as well, you aren't communicating. You're self-advertising how smart you think you are, and you're trying to be more Biblical than the Bible.

If you want a really good translation of a book like Genesis, I highly recommend Robert Alter. (He’s professor of Hebrew at Berkeley.)  It’s by far the best I have ever seen in the English language, and the clever nuances he is able to bring out of the text are a joy to read.

-B

Sunday, October 18, 2015

No, Isaiah 45:7 doesn't say God creates evil

This will be short.

An atheist blogger at pathos thinks Isaiah 45:7 shows point-blank that the Biblical God creates evil. I’m going to explain why professional translators can't give this pitch the light of day.

I form light and create darkness
I make peace, and I create ra'

יֹוצֵר אֹור וּבֹורֵא חֹשֶׁךְ
עֹשֶׂה שָׁלֹום וּבֹורֵא רָע

Usually, that last word ra' is the common word for evil in Hebrew. The author cites a bunch of other uses to prove this—no problem there. The problem is the word ra' is one of the most frequent words in the Bible and can be elastic in meaning in something of the same way the English word ‘bad’ can be.

The primary reason translators don’t buy this argument is that it destroys the structure of opposites in the poem:

Line one: I create light/I create darkness
Line two: I create shalom/I create ______.

Transport yourself back to 3rd grade context clue worksheets. What English word should go in the blank for the poetic structure of the unit to be retained? Think about it before reading further

If you put anything like ‘wickedness’ in the blank you fail 3rd grade. No sticker for you! Hit yourself with a newspaper; Bad!

The meaning of ra' here is 'anti-shalom'. Whatever shalom is, ra' here is the opposite in the same since light is the opposite of darkness.

We have good words for anti-peace in English: “calamity,” “strife”…you know, those words most translators put here.  

Actually, and this is probably the only time I will ever say this in my life, the Message translation of “I create harmonies and discords” is somewhat of a clever and borderline perceptive assertion about the nature of shalom.

The idea in this passage is that God is comprehensive in his power. He has the power to create peace and the power to dish out righteous judgement on the nations (what most of Isaiah is about). These judgments are definitely the opposite of peace.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Salon.com's Remarkably Bad Historical Jesus Article


A Muslim friend showed me this viral article about Jesus entitled, “9 Things You Think You Know about Jesus that are Probably Wrong.”

In this post, I don't care about convincing anyone to be a conservative evangelical. I’m mostly here to spank Salon for playing with the loaded gun of history like a 7 year old in a 3:00 AM government ad.

No Historical Jesus scholar, ultra-liberal to conservative could read through the article without laughing, yet, it has blackened social media like an oil spill. These Da Vinci Code myths are eternally being slayed only to reincarnate for sequels like a mummy in a Brandon Fraser franchise.

The screenshots of Tarico's claims are followed by responses:

It would be sooo unusual if Jesus was celibate, he must have married:







Tarico’s source is a psychologist who wrote a Huffington piece. He gives no sources for his claim.  Bart D. Ehrman, the most famous American New Testament historian alive (and probably the most disliked by evangelical believers), ain't amused with this position:


Bart Ehrman: "Yes, my house does contain
many leather bound books and
smells of rich mahogany."
Sometimes it is argued—for example, in The Da Vinci Code—that Jesus must have been married... [T]his claim, as plausible as it sounds, is in fact wrong. We do know of Jewish men in the first century who were single and celibate. Strikingly, they are men who shared a religious perspective similar to that of the historical Jesus… The like-minded Essenes before Jesus and the like-minded Paul after him—all of them apocalyptic Jewish men—lived life as single and celibate. It is not at all implausible that Jesus did as well.  [1]

Ehrman also points out that Jesus taught there would be no marriage in the kingdom of heaven and regularly implied that we should seek to model the kingdom on earth: “On these grounds, my best guess as a historian is that Jesus was single and celibate.”[2]

I’m not just picking the view of one idiomatic scholar.  Anthony Le Donne has recently written the most significant study on the possibility of a Mrs. Jesus in the English language and concluded the same thing as Ehrman:  Jesus probably wasn’t married...Sorry if that's boring.


The gay Jesus tease:

No Salon article containing the word "Jesus" could exist without also containing the word "gay" at least once.  It's just one of those laws of nature. Since I’ve said Jesus likely wasn’t married, I’ll provide two reasons why it is utterly unlikely Jesus was gay:

1) Every source we have has him declaring the Hebrew Bible authoritative and it was the Hebrew Bible that every second-Temple Jewish text that makes a judgment on homosexuality was informed by when they monolithically pronounce homosexuality sinful. Gagnon's survey found that Second-Temple Jewish writings take a “univocal stance against homosexual conduct.”[3]

2) Galatians is an undisputed Pauline in which Paul swears he hung out with Peter fifteen days in Jerusalem and with Jesus’ brother James. Later, him and the muchachos (including John) met to bust theological kneecaps at the Jerusalem council. Weird his friends forgot to forward him the memo about Jesus being the only member of Judea’s rainbow initiative--especially since Jewish sexual law had him constantly wrestling with such things in his Corinth church plant. 

The Gospel of Philip *sigh*:

Ah! Yes! Those boring four Gospels composed within the 1st century with earlier independent sources and Aramaic allusions are pronounced by Tarico to be a hopeless historical mess.  "Only a set of hunches and traditions." Who cares about them anyways? Your grandmother? The kids want explosions!

But fear not reader! You need a gospel more spiritually auuuthentic--like those Sanskrit tattoos Angelina Jolie has. And preferably one allegedly suppressed by a male Catholic conspiracy. The uber-sexy 3rd century, spiritually abstruse, Gnostic Gospel of Phillip--written by someone with no historical contact with Jesus or his followers--has donned his tights and will deliver the Historical Jesus to us like a damsel in his rippling biceps; This Jesus has a Hollywood crush on, get this, Mary Magdalene (who I assure you was a pale, redhead fox).

Unfortunately, reality is much more boring. The big name New Testament scholar Craig Blomberg writes, “Philip is dependent primarily on Matthew’s Gospel for his information about Jesus...he reveals next to nothing about the pre-Synoptic stages of the Gospel tradition.”[4]

I should point out, the Philip manuscript doesn’t read Jesus used to kiss Mary "on her mouth." That reading must be supplied by the imagination because there is a physical hole in the manuscript.[5] We can’t be certain the original read “kiss her on her mouth” unless we discover more textual-critical evidence. Tarico is aware of this complicating factor but has omitted the detail in this article.

We as modern readers immediately associate the kissing in this text with sex, but there are good reasons to believe Philip’s ancient audience wouldn’t. Christian kissing has a long history in the early church and Philip has an entire mystical interpretation of it that is applied to all the disciples.[6]

In Ehrman's opinion, “When Jesus kisses Mary, then, it is not a prelude to sex. It is a symbolic statement that she received the revelation of truth that he conveyed to his disciples.”

A wedding? 

Tarico's evidence from the canonical gospels that Jesus and Mary were hitched are literally “clues” we must “decode.” She speculates John 2’s report of a wedding is actually Jesus’ wedding to Mary.  If this is true can someone please explain to me why Jesus had to be “invited” (ἐκλήθη) to his own wedding (2:2)? Also, who goes immediately to stay with momma after their wedding ceremony (2:12)? And why is Mary always distinguished from the other Marys in the gospels by the fact that she was from Magdala? Why didn’t the gospel writers just say Jesus’ wife (or at least the ancient Greek equivalent for Boo Thang?) I’m sure it’s all just part of the international Catholic misogynistic conspiracy.

Jesus' Celestial Posse:



Odd Tarico thinks it’s an open case whether Jesus had 12 disciples. I specifically recall the specialist in Christian origins John Dickson at Macquarie University listing the 12 disciples as a point most historians agree on during an interview. Professor of New Testament Scott McKnight confirms, “that Jesus associated himself especially with twelve of his followers is a datum firmly established by good arguments across a broad spectrum of modern Jesus studies.”[8] In 1994, J. P. Meier concluded in the Journal of Biblical Literature: “When one draws together the arguments...one position emerges as clearly the more probable: the circle of the Twelve did exist during Jesus’ public ministry.[9]

Tarico's anachronistic astrological claims:

The gospels imply Jesus was making a theological statement about renewing the twelve tribes of Israel. Why does Tarico think this is astrology and not history? If you follow her link for this source it takes you to an interview on her blog by a Dr. Tony Nugent. In that interview Nugent includes the twelve tribes of Israel and 12 disciples in a list of things that “have their roots in [the]…twelve signs of the zodiac…”

This thesis is impossible because the zodiac wasn’t reduced into the twelve constellations until the 5th century BC by the Babylonians.[10] The twelve tribes of Israel are reported far earlier. Secular dating of the Genesis sources have the twelve tribes mentioned earlier than the ninth century BC.[11] It's tremendously anachronistic to say allusions to the number twelve in the Hebrew Bible are taken from the zodiac.

 Off topic, but believe it or not, it’s actually true that the origin of eggs being sold by the dozen goes back to astrology.

Actually, no. It’s not. I lied.

Hunches shrouded in the fog of history?


Tarico’s attitude is that our historical grasp of Jesus is the epistemological equivalent of chasing a greased, ghost pig naked in a skating rink. (I'm bad with metaphors lately.) Every time we extend our noetic clutches, the greasy, ectoplasmal sow of history flits through our grapples leaving us with little more than a haze of hunches. (That was an elegant sentence. I think I'll make it into one of those cursive, sidebar-quote things.) In reality, it's extremely popular for scholars to date the creed in 1 Corinthians 15 to the mid-to-late 30’s. Just to be obnoxious I'll plunder 13 big-name examples from Habermas' doctoral dissertation.

I'm told lists like this bore readers, but it's full of German umlaut dots that are supposed to impress you.

Oscar Cullmann (University of Paris); Reginald Fuller (Virginia Seminary); Pannenberg (University of Munich); Wilckens (Berlin Theological College); Hengel (University Tübingen); Marxsen (Westfälische Wilhelms University); Conzelmann (University of Göttingen); Hans-Ruedi Weber; A.M. Hunter (University Aberdeen, Scotland) Raymond E. Brown (Union Theological Seminary); Norman Perrin (University Chicago); George E. Ladd (Fuller Theological); Neufeld (‎University of Waterloo).

We have a written record of a crucified, risen, messianic figure who was at least believed to have appeared to great numbers after his death within less than a decade after his execution. Ehrman’s book on Jesus’ Existence illustrates how the synoptic sources can be grounded in sufficiently early Aramaic culture. The celebrated scholar Richard Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses argues the gospel sources link us with eyewitness testimony. There are huge doubts about certain elements and logions of Jesus’ career, and I’m not interested in regurgitating the banal apologetics party lines here.

Nevertheless, Tarico’s position ain't reflective of modern Historical Jesus studies. Michael Bird, who has written a survey of the state and direction of the current situation, writes: “The dominant view today seems to be that we can know pretty well what Jesus was out to accomplish, that we can know a lot about what he said and that those two things make sense within the world of first-century Judaism.”[12] Craig Evan’s assessment of our current place in historical Jesus studies concludes the same, “the persistent trend in recent years is to see the Gospels as essentially reliable.” 

Jesus...If He Even Existed:

You know that hopeless frustration you get when a creationist tells you there isn’t a shred of evidence for evolution? Now you know how New Testament scholars feel when your friends parrot the idea that Jesus may not have even existed.


This is not something the field considers itself uncertain of. Thanks to the ubiquity of this internet myth, I happen to have several dozen quotes by New Testament scholars on hand refuting it. I’ve narrowed them down to seven for brevity:

William Lane Craig who did his dissertation in historical Jesus studies under the celebrity German theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg states:“[The position that Jesus never existed ]…this is a position which is so extreme that to call it marginal would be an understatement.  It doesn’t even appear on the map of contemporary New Testament scholarship.”[13]

Before he went on to write his book explaining why we know Jesus existed, Bart Ehrman once said in interview, “I don’t think there is any serious historian who doubts the existence of Jesus...we have more evidence for Jesus than we have for almost anybody from his time period.”[14]

Paul Maier professor of Ancient History at Western Michigan states in interview: “Anyone who uses that argument [that Jesus never existed] is simply flaunting his ignorance. I hate to say it but it’s about that bad.”[15]

Gary Habermas who I reference because his dissertation surveyed the positions of critical historical Jesus scholars among a variety of topics states, “With very, very, few exceptions virtually no scholar doubts or denies that Jesus existed.”[16]

Graeme Clarke Senior Lecturer at the Department of Classics and Ancient History at the University of Western Australia has been quoted stating, “Frankly, I know of no ancient historian who would ever twinge with doubt about the existence of Jesus Christ. The documentary evidence is simply overwhelming.”[17]

John Dickson Senior Research Fellow with the Department of Ancient History at Macquarie University has become so annoyed with this claim that he wrote:
[It] is simply wrong to refer to "many professional historians" who doubt the existence of Jesus… To repeat a challenge I've put out on social media several times before, I will eat a page of my Bible if someone can find me just one full Professor of Ancient History, Classics, or New Testament in an accredited university somewhere in the world (there are thousands of names to choose from) who thinks Jesus never lived. I don't deny that there are substantial questions that could be raised about the Christian faith, but the historical reality of Jesus of Nazareth isn't one of them.[18]
Head of New Testament Studies at the Swedish University of Gothenburg Gunnar Samuelsson writes:
I see no reason to doubt that Jesus existed. In comparison to other ancient individuals he is well represented by the ancient sources.[19]
(Someone is going to get mad after reading the above quotes and ask why I haven't even mentioned Carrier and Price. So there, I mentioned them.)

I'm tempted to continue my tantrum over the link in the article that leads to Tarico’s website. It claims most scholars hold certain positions that most scholars emphatically reject. For example, Tarico says the gospel story about the women at the tomb is believed by most scholars to be a mythological fiction based in earlier myths.  In reality, this element of the gospel sources is considered one of our more reliable according to Gary Habermas who surveyed more than 1,400 scholarly publications on the historical Jesus in German, French and English. (The testimony of women was so repudiated in the first century that this embarrassing element in the sources wouldn't have been contrived by Christians.) [20]  Modern scholars don't interpret the mystery religions into the gospels because there was little footing for them in 1st century Judea unlike Alexandrian Judaism.

Conclusion:

 Some of Tarico’s points in her click-bait article are generally accurate.[21] Despite these, the article contains so much historical puerility and so many allusions idiomatic to sensationalist conspiracy writers that I would rather it not be read at all. I'm aware my words have been harsh, but I deem them appropriate considering Tarico's ideas have been spotlighted by Salon, Huffington and Alternet. I'd like to think Salon and Alternet would update corrections to this article they are "proud to feature."

Update: Salon.com and Alternet made no significant corrections to the article (7/15/2015)



[1] Ehrman, Peter, Paul & Mary Magdalene: The Followers of Jesus in History and Legend (USA: Oxford University Press, 2006), 249-50.
[2] Ibid., 250-1.
[3] See chapter two and three of Robert A. J. Gagnon, The Bible and Homosexual Practice: Text and Hermeneutics Nashville: Abington Press, 2001).
[4] Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the Gospels, 2 ed. (USA: InterVarsity Press, 2007), 270.
[5] Paul, Foster, The Apocryphal Gospels: A Very Short Introduction (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009),47.
[6]  For example, Ehrman (Peter, Paul & Mary, 216.) cites this earlier passage from Philip for contextual consideration:
It is from being promised to the heavenly place that man receives nourishment.
[Gap in the manuscript] him from the mouth. And had the word gone out from
that place it would be nourished from the mouth and it would become perfect.
For it is by a kiss that the perfect conceive and give birth. For this reason we also
kiss one another. We receive conception from the grace that is in one another.
[7] Ehrman 215.
[8] McKnight, "Jesus and the Twelve," Bible.org. https://bible.org/article/jesus-and-twelve.
[9] Meier, J. P. "The Circle of the Twelve : Did It Exist during Jesus' Public Ministry?." Journal Of Biblical Literature 116, no. 4 (1997): 635-672. New Testament Abstracts, EBSCOhost (accessed March 1, 2015).
[10] Ulla Koch-Westenholz, Mesopotamian Astrology: An Introduction to Babylonian and Assyrian Celestial Divination (Museum Tusculanum Press: Coppenhagen, 1995), 163.

The most significant innovation was perhaps the zodiac, the division of
the ecliptic into twelve equal parts or signs. It replaced the earlier series
of 17 constellations on the "Path of the Moon." The zodiac
was first used in Babylonian astronomy in the fifth century B.C.

[11]  Ronald Hendel, The Book of Genesis: Composition, Reception and Interpretation, ed. Evans et. al. (Leiden: Brill, 2012), 80.
[12] Bird, “Shouldn’t Evangelicals Participate in the ‘Third Quest for the Historical Jesus’?”
Themelios 29.2 (Spring 2004): 5-14.
[13] The following quotes are taken from a video and audio compilation “Do Historians Believe Jesus Existed.” YouTube video, 6:05. Dec 27, 2010.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LP15Pc2Lljc
[14] Ibid.
[15] Ibid.
[16] Ibid.
[17] Ibid.
[18] John Dickson, “I’ll Eat a Page from my Bible if Jesus didn’t Exist,” The Drum (blog). ABC.net.au. http://www.abc.net.au/news/2014-10-17/dickson-ill-eat-a-page-from-my-bible-if-jesus-didnt-exist/5820620
[19] Samuelsson. "Questions and Answers." Exegetics.org. http://www.exegetics.org/Q_and_A.html.
[20] Habermas, “Resurrection Research from 1975 to the Present: What are Critical Scholars Saying?” Gary Habermas.com. http://www.garyhabermas.com/articles/J_Study_Historical_Jesus_3-2_2005/J_Study_Historical_Jesus_3-2_2005.htm.
[21] Eg. We know from osteological reconstructions what early Judeans looked like; textual data on crucifixion is complex and ambiguous; the gospel writers sought typological parallels between Jesus and other Hebrew figures; the passage about the woman caught in adultery is in fact the late conflation of two traditions.