Saturday, November 29, 2008


Some days you can ask what seems like a simple question, and find that instead of plucking off a loose thread, you've started unraveling the entire sweater. For example, this morning I asked my wife one simple question, and before I knew it, we were deeply into a wide-ranging discussion of Old Testament history, subtext, context, and translation issues.

One should be very careful when asking questions with potentially Biblical answers of someone who is in her fourth year of studying for the deaconate.

To begin comprehending her answer, then, we should first examine the embedded subtext of the question I didn't even know I'd asked: does a book written 2,000 years ago really have any relevance to our lives today?

Even that question lacks sufficient focus, though. Which book? The Bible? Then which bible? For you must understand that even the word "bible" lacks precision. It is merely the generic word for "book" that was in current usage in, pardon the expression, Biblical times, being derived from the Greek name for the Phoenician city of Byblos, which was in turn the center of the papyrus and publishing industry in those days. Two thousand years ago, at least as far as the Greeks and Romans were concerned, all books were bibles.

[Why is it that right now an annoying little voice in the back of my head is saying, "Pretty good story, kid, but it falls flat at the ending. Look at Samson destroying the temple with his bare hands; now that is one heck of an ending, even if the author didn't leave room for a sequel. But your biggest problem here is the setting. I mean, honestly, do you really think anyone in Byblos gives a fig about stuff that happened in Nazareth?"]

Well, okay then, the Bible. The Old Testament. The Hebrew Bible.

Oops. That was another mistake. There is, properly speaking, no such thing as a Hebrew Bible. According to observant Jews, "Hebrew Bible" is a redundancy; it was always meant to be written and studied only in Hebrew, in the tradition of the midrash. (Note the linguistic similarity to madrassa?) That which Christians call the Old Testament is complete in and of itself, and Judaism not being an evangelistic religion, there was never much interest in translating it. So let us be very precise here and call it by its proper name: the Tanakh, which in turn consists of three distinct sections; the Torah, which can be translated as either the law or the teachings of Moshe (Moses) and consists of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy; the Nevi'im (the Prophets), which consists of pretty much any book that is titled with a first name; and the Kethuvim (the writings, or commentaries), which consists of the Psalms, Proverbs, Chronicles, and so on. Taken together, these books comprise the whole megilloth, which no doubt answers another question you've always wondered about.

So when asking whether a book written 2,000 years ago is still relevant today, first off, we have the date wrong. The scrolls that comprise the Tanakh were consolidated into their approximate current form during the Babylonian Captivity, circa 500 BCE, although the work of refining and clarifying them continued until finally formalized and settled by the Masoretic scholars in the early Middle Ages. But if the contents of the Tanakh didn't settle down until late in the first millennium CE, then what on Earth were all those early Greek and Roman Christians reading?

Well, in the third century BCE, thanks to the conquests of Alexander the Great, much of the Jewish population of Egypt had lost the ability to read and write Hebrew, and so a Greek translation (called by the Romans the Septuagint) was created for their benefit. Likewise, a similar thing happened to the Jews who lived to the north and east of Judea, and so in the second century BCE a second translation into Aramaic (the Targums) was made for their use. It was the Septuagint that was widely read and circulated in the early Christian Era and used as the basis for the Latin translation (the Vulgate) written by St. Jerome in the 4th century CE, and the Vulgate, informed by additional commentary from the Targums, that was used as the basis for the German translation made by Martin Luther in the 16th century and the contemporaneous English translation by William Tyndale that, several revisions later in 1611, finally became the King James version. The King James version in turn became the basis for almost all subsequent English-language Protestant Bibles except the Lutheran version, which is based on Luther's German translation, and a careful reader will note many subtle differences between the English-language Catholic, Lutheran, and other Protestant versions of the Bible. (For example, even today the Catholic version of the Ten Commandments omits the prohibition against worshiping graven images, while the Episcopalian version has been shortened to the Nine Suggestions.)

So to find a definitive answer to my original question, then, we at last turned to the Oxford University translation of the Masoretic Tanakh, and found, in Leviticus, chapter 7 (while also noting that, while most translations follow the Hebrew verse structure, the chapter structure was an interposition created by Medieval Christians in order to improve readability):
This is the ritual of the sacrifice of well-being that one may offer to the Lord:

If he offers it for Thanksgiving, he shall offer together with the sacrifice of Thanksgiving unleavened cakes with oil mixed in, unleavened wafers spread with oil, and cakes of choice flour with oil mixed in, well soaked. This offering, with cakes of leavened bread added, he shall offer along with his Thanksgiving sacrifice of well-being. Out of this he shall offer one of each kind as a gift to the Lord; it shall go to the priest who dashes the blood of the offering of well-being. And the flesh of his Thanksgiving sacrifice of well-being shall be eaten on the day that it is offered; none of it shall be set aside until morning.

If, however, the sacrifice he offers is a votive or a freewill offering, it shall be eaten on the day that he offers his sacrifice, and what is left of it shall be eaten on the morrow. What is then left of the sacrifice shall be consumed in fire on the third day. If any of the flesh of his sacrifice of well-being is eaten on the third day, it shall not be acceptable...
So to answer my original unspoken question: does a book written (roughly) 2,000 years ago really have any relevance to our lives today? The answer is an emphatic yes, for to paraphrase the teachings as given in the Book of Leviticus: on the third day after Thanksgiving, throw out the leftovers.

And to think that I learned all of this just because I asked my wife if maybe it was time to clean out the refrigerator.

P.S. But we still haven't cleaned the fridge.