Archive for the ‘languages’ Category

Deportation and return as stimulus for textualisation

One of the highlights for me of this week’s episodes of Jacob Wright’s excellent The Bible’s Prehistory, Purpose, and Political Future was the interview with doctoral student Aubrey Buster. Her paper, by comparing the treatment of contested belonging within communities in Athens and Jerusalem (at approximately the same time), offers an exciting empirical support for theories that the experience of the dislocation of the Judean elite (deportation and return) led to the greater textualisation of Judaism.

She spoke of comparing Athenian citizenship trials, which depended on personal testimony to support someone’s claim to be a member in good standing of the community (by ancestral descent) with the claims of Ezra-Nehemiah that such issues in (post-exilic) Judah were established primarily on the basis of documents. It is often claimed that the experience of dislocation of the Judean elite led to the writing, editing and/or authorising of many of the biblical texts. I have not previously seen contemporary evidence used to support the claim in this sort of way.

Such research is excellent in itself, but also within such a course presenting current research not only gives students the sense of an open discipline, but also shows how evidence and argument can be used to better understand the biblical texts.

It also helps to firm op our understanding of the social and technological history of writing in relation to Scripture – an ongoing interest of mine :)

How English-speakers misunderstand the gender of God

English uses natural gender, inanimate objects are neuter “it” while animals and humans are gendered along the lines of the individual’s sex (except for some dialects)1 where the sex of the individual is unknown a guess is made (with e.g. cats being often assumed female and dogs male) rather than the neuter used. This usage means that many English-speakers have difficulty understanding languages that use grammatical gender. Since Hebrew is such a language, with only two genders “masculine” and “feminine”, this creates problems for discussions of the gender of God.

English-speakers, based on how their language treats sexual identity, and surprised by the novel idea of this being attributed to inanimate objects,2 assume that, where language refers to people, “gender” in some way correlates with identity. And, of course, if we are talking correlations, it does. Men are usually “he” and women “she”. Except, not always. In French3 if one speaks of a woman (f)4 who is a government minister (m)5 then the grammatical gender one uses, and hence the pronouns used to refer to her, will depend on whether the reference is to her name:Marie would be referred to later as elle (she), or her function: le ministre will be referred to later as il (he).

In Hebrew the word for God ‘elohim is masculine, as is God’s name yhwh. But what does this imply about God’s sexual identity (or indeed gender in whatever non-grammatical sense)?

Tony Reinke in an article Our Mother Who Art In Heaven? on John Piper’s Desiring God website argues that this data implies that God is in some sense masculine.

His argument is based on work by John Cooper whose book Our Father in Heaven: Christian Faith and Inclusive Language for God, whom he quotes:

Linguistically, all the clear and plausible instances of feminine reference to God are imagery or figures of speech: similes, analogies, metaphors, and personification. . . . there are no cases in which feminine terms are used as names, titles, or invocations of God, and thus there are no feminine pronouns for God. There are no instances where God is directly identified by a feminine term, even a metaphorical predicate noun. In other words, God is never directly said to be a mother, mistress, or female bird in the way he is said to be a father, king, judge, or shepherd.6

Notice that Cooper’s argument is not merely the crude misunderstanding I have outlined above. Though he seems to give weight to this misunderstanding :( “There are no instances where God is directly identified by a feminine term,” his more significant claim is that: “God is never directly said to be a mother, mistress, or female bird in the way he is said to be a father, king, judge, or shepherd.”

I challenged this argument in chapter 5 section 4 of my book Not Only a Father. There I engaged with Elizabeth Achtemeier as a strong representative of the claim that masculine and feminine imagery for God works in different ways. She had used more traditional language to express the argument, father language about God is metaphorical while mother language is merely comparison (simile).

Basically I have two problems with Achtemeier’s and Cooper’s argument:

  1. I am not convinced that the neat distinction of how metaphor and simile (direct identification and comparison)  operate in Biblical Hebrew can be sustained. When God is described as “being” a father or the rock (m) of our salvation (Ps 95:1) always only some aspects of rocks and of fathers are in view in any place. Just as is the case also when God is described as like a mother, or indeed as “being” the rock (f) of Israel (Gen 49:24).7
  2. I am however convinced that to call God father in ways which are significantly different from the ways one refers to “him” as mother is idolatry. Such talk (whether indulged in by Achtemeier, a biblical scholar, or Cooper, a philosophical theologian) makes God a member of one class of beings (male or masculine) and not a member of another (female or feminine). Such a partial8 god, one who is precisely a god and not a goddess, is not the God of Scripture.

For more on this see my book Not Only a Father.

  1. In some dialects of English, especially in the westcountry, inanimate objects have gender, a wardrobe is “he”, a fork “she” and so on. []
  2. With only two grammatical genders every noun must be “gendered” []
  3. Another language with two grammatical genders. []
  4. I’ll identify feminine words as (f) and masculine ones as (m). Since she is a woman this ascription of feminine gender to her does seem natural. []
  5. The word ministre is masculine. []
  6. John Cooper, Our Father in Heaven: Christian Faith and Inclusive Language for God (Baker, 1998), 89. []
  7. Incidentally, I must sometime check Cooper’s book to see how he deals with that last case… []
  8. Pun intended []

Are Hebrew Bible scholars cooler?

OT scholars are way cooler than NT scholars. Maybe funnier, too.
(David Ker in a comment on my podcast Humour in the Bible: 21B: Ecclesiastes (again))

Photo by Otto Phokus

All I should say is: you might possibly think that, I couldn’t possibly comment!

But I will offer a challenge to those Old Testament scholars (and would-be scholars) applying for my job to see if they can help instantiate his claim. And to those New Testament people applying for George’s job, you have a hard act to follow!

Incidentally I think we OT people have a head start, after all the NT was written in Greek, and it is a well-known fact that the Greek language causes people to claim to think logically and rationally, whereas Hebrew is the language of relationship, and relationships are always funny.1

PS: I also challenge all you NT scholars out there to start producing podcasts or blog posts that show examples of humour from every book of the NT to match my series covering humour in the Hebrew Bible :)

  1. PPS yesterday was our 36th wedding anniversary, and we still make each other smile, so it must be so ;) []

Liminality? Well transgressing boundaries…

I do not like boundaries. (Well except the ones I erect to keep the animals in ;) It is fun to cross borders, things are different on the other side. Travel broadens the mind.

So, for my latest Librivox reading I’ve tried two of La Lontaine’s Fables both from book 9. Both were fun, and both, for an anglophone, mind-twisting. I read:

05 – L’Écolier, le Pédant, et le Maître d’un jardin – 00:02:48
[mp3@64kbps – 1.3MB]


08 – Le Fou qui vend la Sagesse – 00:02:23
[mp3@64kbps – 1.1MB]

But what a shame that so few people try to experience the “otherness” of Scripture by learning to read in Hebrew or Greek (or Aramaic, but all that effort for just a few chapters may be more understandable laziness).

PS for my English readings of other really good literature (one example which involves transgressing borders is Kipling’s American Notes) here’s the list so far.

Isaiah and Empire: Colloquium: Call for Papers

Colloquium and Book

Call for papers:

Aoraki Mt Cook across Lake Pukaki, NZ

This colloquium (sponsored by Laidlaw-Carey Graduate School in Auckland, New Zealand) will explore cultural and theological implications of aspects of the book of Isaiah in the context of empire. Potential papers might include, but are by no means limited to:

  • readings of particular texts in the light of ancient imperial contexts
  • studies of the redaction history of Isaiah
  • Isaiah (or a particular text) in contemporary “imperial” or post-colonial contexts
  • theological reflections
  • cross cultural perspectives on Isaiah in imperial contexts
  • contemporary political reflections

The colloquium will take place in Auckland, NZ, on 14th-15th February 2011 (this is summertime in NZ but after schools have begun for the year). Since we intend to publish a book with the same title in 2011, draft papers will be circulated among participants in 2010 and final form submitted by April 15th 2011.

Please send enquiries and abstracts before 30th September 2010 to:

Dr Tim Bulkeley or
Dr Tim Meadowcroft

For some reason SBL do not seem to have added this colloquium to their online listing, despite emailing them, though SOTS and some other professional societies have circulated the Call for Papers. In order to make it better known please either repost this, or email the link to any scholar you know with an interest in Isaiah.

Articulated texts

Articulated trucks are easier to turn ;) photo by crabchick)

In this post I am NOT thinking of the clear or muffled ar-tic-u-lation that my speech teacher prized, but the other sort. And, teaching “Understanding and Interpreting the Bible” this week the topic of textual articulation came to the fore. First in trying to explain the nature and function of a “conjunction”  to students who have no understanding of grammar (not even those who attended secondary schools with “Grammar” proudly flaunted in their historic names).

Conjunctions, I said are the (often little) words that join and articulate text. They tell us how the parts work together. As such they are very important clues to what a text is doing.

They are. And all1 languages have them. But2 not all languages have them, or use them, equally. And3 they certainly do not use them in the same places. Different languages and different speakers articulate their texts differently.

For this week on spotting the workings of text at a local level, we studied 1 Tim 6:17-19. Most of our students do not learn Greek or Hebrew :(4 so we were working on an English text and with English grammar. 1 Timothy 6:19 provides a nice example:

thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life.
ἀποθησαυρίζοντας ἑαυτοῖς θεμέλιον καλὸν εἰς τὸ μέλλον, ἵνα ἐπιλάβωνται τῆς ὄντως ζωῆς.

Eduard von Grützner's Falstaff from Wikipedia

Actually the NIV makes the point more dramatically opening the verse “In this way” where the Greek just has a participle. Hebrew texts offer even more of these challenges, since the paratactic constructions favoured by the language use fewer written markers of syntax.

At which point I’ll call back my speech teacher, a grandiloquent old act-tor, for it is only by articulating a written text clearly that we can begin to understand it. For where written grammatical markers of syntax are lacking only clear articulation can “make sense” of the text.

  1. Or at least, all that I have studied so far. []
  2. Yes, I know this is the second time I have started a sentence with a conjunction :) I do hope all prescriptive grammarians are spinning like tops in their graves, or soon will be, since prescriptive grammar is unnecessary and unwanted. Well actually it is not, I need to know that starting sentences with conjunctions is “wrong” for my use of this construction to be chosen for effect, and not mere carelessness. So prescripts you may cease your rotations forthwith :) []
  3. Yes, a third! When you are on a roll it is hard to stop ;) []
  4. No, I don’t know how someone can be a serious Bible student without the languages, either. Though I note that only Greek was compulsory at Oxford, and that I failed to take Hebrew, to my shame. To Oxford’s shame I believe that even Greek is now not required for the Honours School of Theology :( []

Bible Study tools online and free to download

The latest Tyndale Tech email just arrived. I do not usually repeat them here, I reckon if you are interested you subscribe! But this one has a much wider than usual potential readership. In it David Instone-Brewer of Tyndale House, Cambridge presents a pretty full list of the remarkable range of online or freely downloadable Bible study tools, and also highlights briefly the main ones to buy as well.

If you study the Bible, at any level at all from beginner to PhD there is likely to be something here for you that you did not know about! The range of superb online tools has grown so fast over the last few years, that it is now amazing what is available.

The Invention of Hebrew: Conclusion

The concluding chapter is short, and to the point. It’s a rattling good read, not only nicely summing up the more exciting ideas that have been presented and argued in the preceding chapters, but also pulling them together into a more coherent whole.

Like most good conclusions there is a tendency to over-simplify, so probably the history of history is more complex than the presentation of Foucault’s Jerusalem/Rome typology suggests, but isn’t it a stimulating way of approaching the issues!

There is also much to think about, and develop in so many ways in the presentations of the history of Hebrew literature from Iron Age epigraphy to Hebrew Scripture. Not least here the place given to prophets like Moses ;) Through it all, and not only in the material summarised in the final section, the interest in the political face of texts is deftly woven.

My conclusions (having read the “Conclusion”)

This is a book I will recommend, time and again, and probably refer to again and again. It could easily also be a book that launches a thousand (or at least quite a lot of) articles, there are so many thought provoking ideas and superb one-liners.

The Invention of Hebrew: Chapter 4: The Invention of Hebrew in Iron Age Israel

Chapter 4 discusses matters of most direct concern to biblical scholars (as such). It contains a wealth of material to bring non-specialists (like me) more up to date on Hebrew and other North West Semitic epigraphy from the Iron age.

The Mesad Hashavyahu ostracon presents a field worker's complaint in writing about the confiscation of his cloak. Tracing image from Wikimedia.

There are continually intriguing glimpses of this ancient world and its adopting, and adapting, of a different communications technology. One of the both at the same time most, and also least, surprising details are the parallels between ancient Greek adoption of the alphabet, where early literacy concerned exclusively drinking, dance and sex, and the early adoption of the Internet ;) Noticing this has a serious outcome, to demonstrate that alphabetic literacy did not need scribal schools to flourish. Likewise digital literacy in our day owes little if anything to the formal education system (beyond the basic “learning to read”). This suggests that the lack of evidence of Iron Age scribal schools in Palestine is not sufficient evidence for lack of literacy. Indeed texts like Lashish 3, in which a military commander resents his superior’s asssumption that he may not be able to read and write himself, and the Mesad Hashavyahu ostracon which, although we assume it was not written by the field worker, demonstrates his access to and use of the medium.

This chapter contains fascinating information, and also intriguing claims these are often closely argued. For example the important section which seeks to show deliberate standardisation of Hebrew script in the eighth to sixth centuries, and that this standardised system both crossed the boundaries of the (expected on the basis of biblical accounts) northern and southern kingdoms but also stopped at their boundaries. There are however somtimes annoying jumps in the argument, so although Sanders aims to base his discussion on the epigraphic evidence rather than on the accounts in the biblical texts (where our earliest copies come from a long time after the period being discussed, so offering questionable evidence) he seems to assume two Hebrew kingdoms, rather than discover them. Likewise on p.124:

If written Aramaic and Moabite were created in competition with an emerging standard form of Hebrew, then they re indirect evidence for the invention of written Hebrew in the late ninth century.

I think the argument is circular, since I do not remember evidence being presented to suggest that these other script/languages were indeed created “in competition” with Hebrew.  So, for example the Mesha inscription predates the examples of “Standardized Hebrew”.

For me one of the most interesting aspects of this chapter was the focus on prophetic texts, and on the light epigraphic evidence throws on the possible processes of composition and transmission of such texts. Here both the Deir’ Alla inscription, Hebrew ostraca and the Bronze Age materials from Mari are all woven into a coherent account of how such written prophecy worked among West Semitic peoples, and how this written prophecy changed over time. This is really exciting!

When talking about biblical prophecy (in particular Isaiah 10:5-15) he takes Machinist’s interpretation of the passage as a neat reversal of Assyrian royal propaganda, and includes the evocative phrase: “a new double speaker: the prophet and the god he ventriloquizes” which both expresses the idea and provokes further thought about what is being said. This is typical of flashes if insight communicated in vivid language that are found everywhere and enliven what risks becoming a sometimes technical discussion.

He argues that texts like this, from Isaiah, depend upon the langauage and genres of Neo-Assyrian royal propaganda, and that such propaganda was lost with the rise of Babylon replacing Nineveh as the imperial centre (a claim I would have liked to see backed by evidence). If that is so then these biblical texts must originate from an Assyrian dominated historical context, and not a later one.

One of the key points of this chapter, could have done with being brought more sharply into focus, and discussed at greater length. For the claim that invention of Hebrew was intimately bound up with the invention (or recognition) of a responsive (and in some ways authoritative?) audience, a “you” addressed by the texts, is highly significant for understanding the texts handed to us as Bible. This is also important because this claim is central to demonstrating the thesis of the chapter. From signs like this I get the impression that a bigger, less easy to read, monograph stands somewhere behind the book I am reading. Perhaps rather these more detailed arguments are made in Sanders work published in more specialised places.