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Slight amusements

December 29, 2013

If you find yourself with a few minutes with nothing to amuse you, you may wish to try Classical FM’s “composer or pasta” quiz.

Faith, Trust, and “Miracle on 34th Street”

December 28, 2013

“Miracle on 34th Street,” as most Americans know, is a Christmas classic movie from 1947 about a department-store Santa who claims to be the real thing.  I watched it again this year on Christmas night, after all the presents were opened, Christmas dinner eaten and the dishes washed.

As often happens with the best movies, something jumped out at me in this viewing that I hadn’t seen before.  “Miracle on 34th Street,” with its story of a disillusioned single mother who learns to trust again, and her pragmatic little girl who discovers the joys of imagination, illustrates beautifully the nature of faith.I have felt for a long time that when it comes to faith, both Christians and non-Christians* often seem to miss the point.  This blog post on Counter Apologist, which asserts that “faith is belief without good evidence” encapsulates the usual atheistic understanding of faith:

My main contention is that defining faith as “belief without good evidence” is not only defensible in the religious context, but it’s actually implied that this is what is meant in the Christian bible, at least in some cases. . . The primary piece of scripture that an atheist appeals to which defines faith as “belief without evidence” is Hebrews 11:1 – “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”

Christians, of course, generally deny that this verse is talking about “belief without evidence.”  Their problem with understanding faith is a different one.  As I discussed a few months ago in my post Saved by Being Right: Christianity and Dogmatism, Christians often approach faith as belief in the “right” doctrines — those that constitute foundational, orthodox Christianity.  The ancient Athanasian Creed illustrates this approach when it says:

Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the catholic faith; which faith except every one do keep whole and undefiled, without doubt he shall perish everlastingly. . . He therefore that will be saved must thus think of the Trinity . . . This is the catholic faith, which except a man believe faithfully he cannot be saved.

Though I do hold to the Athanasian Creed, I believe it is to be read as a definitive statement of orthodox doctrine and not as a definition of faith, as faith.  (And I think even the writers of this Creed would have acknowledged, when pressed, that the thief on the cross in Luke 23 was saved without believing, or even understanding, any of these things.)  Despite what Counter Apologist says above about the Bible itself defining faith in terms of belief, faith is actually shown throughout the Bible to be trust in Christ, trust in God, and it is on this trust that belief is based. 

Tom Gilson at Thinking Christian puts it pretty well when he quotes the Holman Bible Dictionary:

Faith in the Greek is pistis, trust. The Holman Bible Dictionary’s entry on faith (as found in Accordance 10.2) indicates that “throughout the Scriptures faith is the trustful human response to God’s self-revelation via His words and His actions.”

In other words, when Hebrews 11:1 says “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see,” this isn’t a complete definition of faith, but a continuation of the understanding of faith as trust set forth in Hebrews 10:22-23:

Let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful.[Emphasis added.]

Faith, then, is not simply belief in certain assertions, but the assurance that those assertions can be believed, based on trust in the faithfulness of the one making the assertions.  This is why the word “faith” also applies to human interactions.  “Have faith in me,” a father says to his child, or a leader to her people, or a wife or husband to their spouse. “Have faith in me, and I’ll make good.  Have faith in me, and I’ll keep my promise.”

So what does “Miracle on 34th Street” have to do with all this?

“Miracle on 34th Street” opens with a round, jolly, white-bearded old man correcting a department-store window decorator on his rendition of Santa’s reindeer.  The old man speaks in the full confidence of apparent first-hand knowledge.  His words and actions throughout the rest of the movie consistently show that he firmly believes himself to be “the one and only Santa Claus.”  The mother and daughter in the movie, caught between their own pragmatic disbelief that Santa could possibly be a real person, and their face-to-face encounters with the sheer believeability of this man as Santa, eventually embrace his Claus-ness.

It isn’t that they believe without good evidence.  If they are willing to see and accept it, there is good evidence that this man is who he claims to be.  He says and does a number of things which are much more consistent with his being the real Santa than with him being simply a delusional old mental patient.  But if they do believe, they must do so against their own common sense, against the prevailing mindset of adult society that Santa simply cannot be real.  The evidence is never overwhelming, to where anyone is forced to accept him as Santa.  Rather than conclusive proof, the standard of the evidence amounts to a “rational warrant.”  My respected scholarly friend Metacrock describes rational warrant as follows:

Rational warrant is any logical argument that warrants a belief, or a sense of placing confidence in a proposition. Being “rational” means there are logical reasons to support it, being a “warrant” means it’s a reason to believe something. . . So the aspect of an argument that logically demonstrates a reason to believe something is a warrant. Rationally warranted belief is confidence placed in a proposition (the belief) that is well placed as demonstrated by the warrant. . . This means one [does not] need to demonstrate beyond all doubt. . . but in demonstrating the rational warrant for belief one has shown that good logical reasons allow for belief.

“Rational warrant” is the difference between belief and knowledge.  No one speaks of “believing” in things that are incontrovertible fact.  No one says, “I believe chickens lay eggs” or “I believe snow is cold.”  Neither the audience nor the characters in the story are able to say, “I know Santa is real and this man is he.”  They can only believe– or disbelieve.  But we are still talking about belief, not faith.  The characters have a rational warrant for belief, but they also have the contradictory force of their own pragmatism and common sense.  How do they move, then, from doubt to conviction?

Their conviction comes from faith.  Faith in this old man who calls himself Kris Kringle, who says he is Santa Claus.  It makes no sense to them, but there is something deeply trustworthy about Mr. Kringle, and as time goes on and they get to know him better and better, they find it more and more difficult to believe that he is lying or delusional.  The child finds her world opening up as she accepts Kris’s teaching in how to be imaginative and open to new possibilities.  The mother finds it within herself to hope again in ideals which she had thought permanently driven out of herself by past disappointment and betrayal.  And the mother’s new boyfriend finds it worth risking his career to defend Kris Kringle’s sanity to a disbelieving tribunal.  In the end they all tell Kris, in one way or another, “I have faith in you.”

It is at the point of triumph that the little girl’s newfound faith is tested.  It appears that Santa has not managed to get her the difficult Christmas gift she had asked for.  Now, against all apparent evidence otherwise, she whispers to herself, “I believe, I believe.” Is this, then, faith showing its true colors after all?  When push comes to shove, is faith really just “belief without good evidence?”

C. S. Lewis’s essay “On Obstinacy in Belief,” published in The World’s Last Night and Other Essays, addresses this issue.

To believe that God . . . exists is to believe that you as a person now stand in the presence of God as a Person. . . You are no longer faced with an argument that demands your assent, but with a Person who demands your confidence.  A faint analogy would be this.  It is one thing to ask in vacuo whether So-and-So will join us tonight, and another to discuss this when So-and-So’s honour is pledged to come and some great matter depends on his coming.  In the first case it would be merely reasonable, as the clock ticked on and on, to expect him less and less.  In the second, a continued expectation far into the night would be due to our friend’s character if we had found him reliable before.  Which of us would not feel slightly ashamed if, one moment after we  had given him up, he arrived with a full explanation of his delay?  We should feel that we ought to have known him better.

Once she had come to know Kris Kringle, little Susan felt that it was due to her friend Mr. Kringle’s character to continue to believe that he would send her the Christmas present she asked for.  It should not be considered (as Lewis puts it) “sheer insanity” that her belief was “no longer proportioned to every fluctuation of the apparent evidence.”  This is because her belief was based in faith, or trust in the person of Kris Kringle– not upon a set of propositions about him, but in the man himself.

Soren Kierkegaard, who coined the term “leap of faith,” did not see it as a leap into an evidentiary abyss, or into a set of doctrines.  He said:

[A]ll the individuals who are saved will receive the specific weight of religion, its essence at first hand, from God himself. Then it will be said: ‘behold, all is in readiness, see how the cruelty of abstraction makes the true form of worldliness only too evident, the abyss of eternity opens before you, the sharp scythe of the leveller makes it possible for every one individually to leap over the blade–and behold, it is God who waits. Leap, then, into the arms of God’.

Faith is a leap, yes– but it is a leap of trust.  It is like a child on the edge of a swimming pool responding when her mother, in the water with arms outstretched, calls “Jump!”  God is not like that mother in having a voice we can hear or arms we can see, but countless Christians through the ages, like Lewis, like Kierkegaard, have understood faith in terms of trust in Someone they have directly and personally encountered.

Faith isn’t rocket science.  It doesn’t have to be.  It’s more like a child meeting Santa Claus.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, a story is worth a thousand pictures.

Thanks, writers of “Miracle on 34th Street.”


Cross-posted from Wordgazer’s Words

*Disclaimer:  I recognize that the viewpoint of this blog post is limited to the question of faith as it is set forth in Western Christianity and the secular response to the same, and doesn’t take into account the viewpoints of non-Christian religions.  This should not be construed as intentional disregard of such viewpoints, but rather as simply a recognition of the limitations of my own education, understanding and perspective in dealing with this topic.  Readers of other faiths are welcome to give input on their own definitions of faith in the comments. 

The First “First Noel” Poem

December 25, 2013

In the Greek gospel of Luke there’s intended or unintended wordplay that hearkens to the literatures of Hesiod’s Theo-GON-y, Aristotle’s GENE-eration of Animals, and the Septuagint’s GENE-sis. The language is poetic, rhetorical, political, historical. Above all it’s Generative, GYNakatic, Birth-Womb-Earth-ish, sometimes Male-on-top sexist, other times subversively feminist.

A while back some of us looked at just Luke 2:14 (and some of us as Glorious Wordplay). This morning mainly to read aloud with my family, I had a go at more:


Dolls and train sets

December 22, 2013

I was floored to discover that little girls really do prefer dolls and pretty dresses, even if you clothe them in blue jeans and keep giving them toy trucks in their hand. There was something deeper, more ancient, more body-based in gender roles than I had realized.

I read this paragraph by a notable woman theologian and cringed. I have been reminiscing a lot about past Christmases, toys and gender. My kids seem very stereotypically their own gender to others. But I remember the little boy who stopped playing blocks to attend to his dolly, and the little girl in love with her kiddy car. I remember the years of buying Brio train sets for both children to build a bigger inventory. I remember the inclusive non-gendered toys, as well as the pretty dresses and Tonka trucks.

I remember how as a child, I spent hours lying on the floor watching my brother play with his electric train set. My sister and I spent hours with out Tinker Toy set. I remember my brothers knitting, my own children working on crafts together. Today we all hunched over a new Puzz 3D.

Let’s rewrite the quote above, “I was floored to discover that MY little girl really did prefer dolls and pretty dresses.” Well, have your own private crises, but don’t make them mine.

I won’t deny your experience of reality, but by generalizing, you deny mine. You exclude me from the group of “acceptable women.” Piffle on statements like these. Don’t deny my humanity, and I won’t deny yours. I have had enough of exclusion and shunning.

Was David a Virgin when his soul was pregnant?

December 22, 2013

Was David a Virgin when his soul was pregnant?

This is, of course, as we all would agree just a silly little question. And yet it is seriously my attempt to bring some attention to the way in Bible reading and translation we highlight gender and sex and motherliness so dogmatically. Some of my facebook friends in a particular theology group have gone on and on for hours and literally days arguing this one:

“The virgin birth, is it essential?”

Galileo said that the heart cannot rejoice in what the mind rejects. I think that millennials are going to have a harder time accepting the previous generations’ obstinate views of a faith that is contrary to science. Pew reports that 76% of Americans believe in it but only 66% of young people 18 and below.

I accept the virgin birth but I don’t think it would be a deal breaker for me if it turns out that he had an earthly father. If he did, so what? (There is that matter of NT scripture though…) Nor do I think that assent to the view is an essential part of coming to faith in God.

So, “So what?”

As Christians around the world on this fourth advent Sunday, the one before Christmas, focus on the Magnificat of the Virgin Mother Mary, I myself also recall the Magnificat in the Greek Psalms.

Here’s a bit on that from a post at another blog:

How, really, can one compare King David’s Psalm 34:1-3 and this bit of Mother Mary’s Magnificat found in Luke 1:47-49?

Well, let’s assume we really want to do that first. Okay, well then, we go to Luke’s Greek. He has her starting in like this:

ἡ ψυχή μου
τὸν Κύριον

Yes, her words have gender, and her words for herself and to herself and about herself are female.

My dear feminine motherly soul
the LORD

And yes, yes, the Roman Clementine Vulgate only makes this femininity abundantly clear, which is important, since, as we all know, Latin, like Greek, has other gender options, not only the feminine. So we hear Mary begin this way:

anima mea

Mary the wo-man, of course, is not a man. S-he’s not a he. S-he, this wo-man is a fe-male, not a male.

David, of course, is a man. So let’s hear his language. In Hebrew, he starts in this way:


The Alexandrian Jewish translator for his Septuagint renders him starting in in Greek this way:

ἐν τῷ κυρίῳ
ἡ ψυχή μου

Well, hmm. Well, sure. David’s word for himself, the nephesh, is a feminine noun. This is not his sex. It’s the gender of his grammar. Let’s not get carried away here. Everybody knows he has something, some body part, that Mary lacks. Maybe Luke is making his singing Mary mimic the Septuagint translator’s psalmist David. Well, hmm. They’re both feminine, the nouns that is. Psyche just does what nephesh does. It doesn’t mean, necessarily, that David’s soul, like Mary’s must be, is fe-male.

Never mind that the Roman Clementine Vulgate with its Versio Gallicana makes him saying:

In Domino
anima mea

Jerome is just trying to follow that Alexandrian Jewish fellow with his fancy Hellene. Yes, that’s true. They both have David continuing by saying:

Magnificate Dominum mecum

μεγαλύνατε τὸν κύριον σὺν ἐμοί

See how unclear this is? And, besides, Jerome makes David compel his fellow singers, real men of biblical manhood, to taste and see that the LORD “sweet

When it’s a man and we know its a man in the context, then we read the words differently. When it’s a woman and we know she is a virgin and is pregnant – an anomaly – so Mark-Ed and Un-Usual and Ab-Normal and Fe-male-ish and Wo-man-ish, then we read her OOOh So differently.
Read the rest here.

know your biblical sex verbs

December 19, 2013

The writer of the Greek gospel of Matthew knew his biblical sex verbs. His intended Jewish audience knew them too. Their shared biblical knowledge signaled a sort of insider intimacy.

This worked somewhat like I’m trying to make this English blogpost work. My intended American pop culture readers will get the fact that I’m having fun. Like tv talk show host David Letterman’s “Know Your Cuts of Meat” is intended to get people involved and chuckling. My title itself is pun-funny in other ways that I won’t give away in explanation here.

I may be pretending, even, to be convicted by that thing that Robert Alter would avoid, what we all know, because of his coinage of it, as “the heresy of explanation”: “the use of translation as a vehicle for explaining the Bible rather than representing it in another language, [which] in the most egregious instances . . . amounts to explaining away the Bible.”

Alter translates Genesis 4:1 from the Hebrew to the English, as follows:

And the human knew Eve his woman and she conceived and bore Cain, and she said, “I have got me a man with the LORD.”

An earlier translator translated Genesis 4:1 from the Hebrew to the Hellene, as follows:

Αδαμ δὲ ἔγνω Ευαν τὴν γυναῖκα αὐτοῦ καὶ συλλαβοῦσα ἔτεκεν τὸν Καιν καὶ εἶπεν ἐκτησάμην ἄνθρωπον διὰ τοῦ θεοῦ

And now I’m beginning to engage with the “all kinds of questions” that Victoria (Gaudete Theology blogger and my BLT co-blogger) has raised, beginning with just these:

Kurk, how would you translate that key word ἐγίνωσκεν [in the Greek sentence of the nativity episode of the gospel of Matthew, aka Mt 1:25 – καὶ οὐκ ἐγίνωσκεν αὐτὴν ἕως οὗ ἔτεκεν υἱόν· καὶ ἐκάλεσεν τὸ ὄνομα αὐτοῦ Ἰησοῦν]?
Can we tell anything about it from its use in non-Biblical texts? What about its etymology? Is it a verb that is only ever used with a male subject, or could it equally well be used with a female subject?

Linguistically, did it function as a euphemism for sex, like the English phrase “sleeping together”? Or is it a more direct word that might be used of animals as well as of people?

She asks more, and I’ll think about them for a long time. Let’s just look at these five or so.

I would translate ἐγίνωσκεν into English with scare quotes:  “and he didn’t ‘know’ her until . . . ” I’d also give the readers a long footnote (to explain, like one might explain an inside joke):

The writer of the Greek gospel of Matthew knew his biblical sex verbs. (The gospel opener is political, and see this blogpost on that). The verb γινώσκω /ginóskó/ is not used for human sex or animal “generation” before its use in the Septuagint, where the Hebrew verb יָדַע /yada/ is an ambiguous verb for human sex between two individuals. If you’ll pardon my Greeky English, it’s probably a euphemism. And yet it seems to function more as a play on words. There were other Hebrew words that are biblical sex verbs. The King James translators translated this one as “know.”

(Those other phrases, different Hebrew verbs for “sex,” the KJV Englishers translated as “to lie with” and “to force” and “to love” – as in the narrative of the rape of Tamar by her brother Amnon in 2 Samuel 13. And they rendered other Hebrew phrases for sex as “to give [a daughter to]” and “to take [a wife]” and “to go into” – as in Deuteronomy 22, in the instructions regarding a virgin who’d been had sexually. Some of these biblical sex Hebrew verbs are used in combination, and so the KJV has English translations like this one for 2 Samuel 12:24 -

And David comforted Bathsheba his wife, and went in unto her, and lay with her: and she bare a son, and he called his name Solomon: and the LORD loved him.

And there are other verses with two Hebrew verbs for sex, like this one, Numbers 31:17 / 18 -

Now therefore kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that hath known [ginóskó – LXX, yada – MT] man by lying with [koité – LXX, mishkav – MT] him.

But all the women children, that have not known [eido – LXX, yada – MT] a man by lying with [koité – LXX, mishkav – MT] him, keep alive for yourselves.

The second Greek phrase there in the verse in Numbers – κοίτη or koité – refers metaphorically to a “bed,” and its Hebrew equivalent does too. Outside of the LXX, before the Septuagint, this phrase does show up in Greek literature as a euphemism or metaphor for human sex.

But that first verb in the first verse above [i.e., in Numbers 31:17], as a Greek verb, is really Hebraic Hellene. It shows how – at least in Greek translationese – it is a verb that is not only always used with a male subject, but it could also sometimes also be more or less “equally” used with a female subject. In the verse, the female subject has “known” a male object and earns capital punishment, death.)

So this Greek verb γινώσκω /ginóskó/is a Pentateuch word. It appears in Greek Torah. It is something the writer of the gospel of Matthew would have known, and so would his readers. He includes a Tamar in his genealogy of the baby Jesus. And in the LXX Greek Genesis 38:26, there’s this Hebraic Hellene for sex -

And Judah acknowledged them, and said, She [Tamar] hath been more righteous than I; because that I gave her not to Shelah my son. And he knew [γνῶναι – gnonoai] her again no more.

Early in the Five Books of Moses translated into Hebraic Hellene, there’s Adam “knowing” Eve (and having the baby that may have been prophesied about, a foreshadowing Matthew’s readers might assume). There’s this baby, Cain, growing up and saying as an adult – in answer to where his dead murdered brother his – “I know not; Am I my brother’s keeper.” There’s Cain “knowing” his wife, and Adam “knowing” his wife again, (and the boy born may be another baby prophesied about, another foreshadowing perhaps of a second adam.)

Greek readers who didn’t know the Greek Pentateuch, the LXX, or the various Jewish Hebraic Hellene literature that grew up around it would not have really understood, wouldn’t know,  all the wordplay in Matthew 1:25’s Greek verb for biblical knowing, for sex.

That’s why I’d translate ἐγίνωσκεν in Matthew 1:25 into English with scare quotes:  “and he didn’t ‘know’ her until . . . “

Last Christmas

December 18, 2013

Card perfect view

From the bridge

Of the tumbling creek

between loaves of snow

But walk in those woods

Under the branches

heavy with snow

where the low grey stripped

limbs of hemlock

curl up toward

the overhanging branches

still needled and green

under their winter burden

Lichen dangles down

like grey green yarn

twisted and ready to skein

Filaments of frosted web

Hang like threads

Without ornaments

Alder cones cluster

on low bushes

orange red ash berries

pucker in the cold

The lake stretches

white with solid ice

to the other side

but open black water ripples

by the rush grown shore.

Matthew’s Political Baby Jesus

December 17, 2013

The language of Matthew’s gospel – the Greek of the nativity of Jesus – is political. We readers today can do our best to imagine who the original intended readers were. I believe much is clearly lost on us. And yet we can see a few things that give us the sense that the birth historiography is rhetorical and strategic.

1. Here’s a little background. Then 2. we’ll get more to a few adult political phrases in what’s now referred to as the Christmas story told to little children along with stories like The Christmas Carol.

1. Background

Didn’t a writer in Jerusalem, recording the alleged events, have a choice about which language to use? The writers of the gospels of Luke (in a variant text) and of John, recording the death events of Jesus, say clearly that his crime written on the Roman cross was published in Hellene, Roman, and Hebrew (or Greek, Latin, and Aramaic: γράμμασιν Ἑλληνικοῖς καὶ Ῥωμαϊκοῖς καὶ Ἑβραϊκοῖς Οὗτός ἐστιν // καὶ ἦν γεγραμμένον Ἑβραϊστί, Ῥωμαϊστί, Ἑλληνιστί). John’s account, in Greek, peppers the death episode with Hebrew-Aramaic names accompanied by Greek glosses to the Greek reader and pops in the Latin word Caesar with the Greek transliteration / Καίσαρα / for the Greek reader. And right before the languages on the cross are specified, the Greek of John’s infers that the peoples of the region and of the City may have known how to read all of them; Willis Barnstone translates this Greek into English as “Many Jews read the placard because the place where Yeshua was crucified was near the city”: τοῦτον οὖν τὸν τίτλον πολλοὶ ἀνέγνωσαν τῶν Ἰουδαίων, ὅτι ἐγγὺς ἦν ὁ τόπος τῆς πόλεως ὅπου ἐσταυρώθη ὁ Ἰησοῦς. I bring up Barnstone for a couple of reasons.

He’s Jewish and multilingual and multicultural. And Barnstone has long wanted to restore the Jewishness of phrases in the New Testament Jesus. In his first translation of the gospels and the book of Revelation called The New Covenant, Barnstone noted in a footnote the following:  “Jesus (from Greek Iesous [Ἰησοῦς]) can be Yeshua, or Joshua, as it is in translations from the Hebrew Bible with the exception of Everett Fox’s The Five Books of Moses, which restores Joshua to Yehoshua. Joshua is simply an older English way of transliterating Yeshua.” In an earlier book, Barnstone gives a bit of an explanation of Jesus from his viewpoint in the mix of languages and cultures:

Yeshuaben Yosef (Joshua Josephson in American) seems to have been a Pharisee opposed to Roman occupation who was crucified by the Romans as a Jewish seditionist, or some say (less persuasively) and Essene or Zealot. Recently, contemporary theologians speak of him as a Galilean peasant or an itinerant Cynic philosopher. Whoever Jesus was, he favored traditional Jewish biblical beliefs over the Hellenic thought and practices that by the first century had also been adopted by the Hasmonean hierarchy as well as by a large segment of the Jewish populace. Greek names were common. Hellenic culture was almost as dominant in Jerusalem as in Alexandria where a Jew such as the neoplantonist Philo Judaeus (?20 B.C.E. — 50 C.E.?) was Greek in training, language, and philosophy. Jesus’s followers, the sect of the Christian Jews, eventually adopted the essential neoplatonist ideas of eternity and the immorality of the soul. Later, the traditional Jews of Jerusalem were also platonized by Greek philosophy and by the increasingly platonized Christians, and the Jews accepted Greek and Christian ideas of the transmigration of the soul from earth to a heavenly or hellish incarnation. Such transcendental concepts had little or no basis in Torah (the Hebrew Bible) or in Greek scriptures (the New Covenant). But Jews and Christians went along with the dominant ontology of the Greeks and changed, as peoples and scriptures of all religions do, toward the spirit of the age.

While anyone might argue with the particulars of Barnstone’s overview of the historical Jesus, the context of the writing of the gospels and of Matthew’s Greek is pretty well established in this short paragraph. There are shifts of both language and culture to account for.

In Jerusalem, and in Rome, around the time of Jesus, and just before him around the time of Julius Caesar, Roman Latin did not dominate. Greek did. The specter of Alexander the Great loomed large. Still, the Greeks and Jews and Egyptians in Alexandria, who used Greek during that time, were not all together in how they used Greek. Barnstone’s little paragraph above just hints at neoplatonism being a shift. He could have said that there was a great rift. Scholar and historian Eric Havelock suggests that Plato (and then Aristotle and then Alexander) had strong political motivations for instituting a Greek language that worked against that of Homer and the poets. This was, if we will, a sort of Political Correctness for the Greek empire; and the Roman empire could not shake it either.

There was (and were), according to legend, Jewish translation(s) of the Hebrew Bible into Greek, in Alexandria, under the Ptolemies. And according to the scholarship of historian Sylvie Honigman there was much less of an Alexandrian paradigm and much more of a Homeric paradigm for both the historiography of the LXX and the actual literary critical theory and translation practices of the Septuagint. Another scholar, Naomi Seidman, points to the Talmud accounts of the LXX, which call it a “trickster text.” Another, Albert Pietersma, suggests in his reading and translating of the Septuagint’s Greek that the Jewish translator(s) knew the Hellene language well, at least well enough to provide literary sparks and interpretive spins.

Of course, we could argue with Barnstone and any of the others about how they read the Greek of the New Testament and of the Septuagint. What I’m interested in is the linguistic evidence of a resistance to Empire.

2. Matthew’s Political Baby Jesus

Here are a few adult political clauses and phrases in the historiography of Matthew on the birth of Jesus.

Is the backdrop of Egypt and of Empire highlighted?

  • Ἐξ Αἰγύπτου ἐκάλεσα τὸν υἱόν μου. This means roughly “Out of the birthplace of Egypt, I have called my son.” It is an excerpt of a translation of the Hebrew and maybe a clip of a paraphrase of the Greek translation of Hosea 11:1 – Ἐξ Αἰγύπτου μετεκάλεσα τὰ τέκνα αὐτοῦ.  That roughly means “Out of the birthplace of Egypt, I have recalled his children.” Matthew’s gospel is explaining the history of why the historical Jesus as an infant was in Egypt. It is not explaining what Hosea the Prophet might have meant by calling Israel a child, whether that meant the historical person Jacob as a boy or the nation of Israel. Egypt was the place of empire. Egypt had been the place of more than one empire. Greek readers of Matthew may have been familiar with the Bible’s Hebrew Hosea or with the LXX’s Greek Hosea. Much had come Out of Egypt to recall.
  • Ποῦ ἐστιν ὁ τεχθεὶς βασιλεὺς τῶν Ἰουδαίων; εἴδομεν γὰρ αὐτοῦ τὸν ἀστέρα ἐν τῇ ἀνατολῇ καὶ ἤλθομεν προσκυνῆσαι αὐτῷ. This is the quotation of what the “Magi” say. Greek scholar and New Testament translator Ann Nyland has notes (in her Source New Testament and also in her Study New Testament for Lesbians, Gays, Bi, and Transgender) around the gospel of Matthew that get at who the “Magoi” were. One note gives context: “By Jesus’ time, the Persian Empire had long been gone, conquered by Alexander the Great. Alexander’s successors had taken over the various parts of the Old Persian Empire…. [T]he Magoi may have been the Official Spiritual Advisors to the Seleucid state [a torn division from Alexander’s Empire].” Nyland also makes a big deal out of the verb in the second sentence I’ve quoted here to begin my paragraph:  human.god.worship

Much has been made of this “Kingly” language too. It appears right here in the birth episode in Matthew’s gospel. Of course it reappears at the end, in the death episode and in the post-resurrection evangelistic episode. It’s the reason for King Herod’s infanticide of baby boys who didn’t make it out to Egypt. It’s the reason for Praefectus Pontius Pilatus’s public trial of the adult Jesus and what appears on the cross in the three languages in the crucifixion.

One way to read the horrors of the second chapter of the Greek gospel of Matthew is a statement of resistance. Jews in Alexandria may have resisted the Ptolomaic Kings’s command for an Imperial Greek version of their Holy Scriptures; out of Egypt instead may have come a trickster text. Jews in Jerusalem and in Alexandria reading this gospel may have seen these worshipers of “the King of the Jews” from the East as those from a rogue split in the Old Greek Empire of Alexander the Great.

Are the names of Jesus subversive?

  • Ἰδοὺ ἡ παρθένος ἐν γαστρὶ ἕξει καὶ τέξεται υἱόν, καὶ καλέσουσιν τὸ ὄνομα αὐτοῦ Ἐμμανουήλ· ὅ ἐστιν μεθερμηνευόμενον Μεθ’ ἡμῶν ὁ θεός. This may be one of the most hotly discussed set of sentences in this Greek gospel. It riffs off of the Greek “translation” of Isaiah 7, which ostensibly changes the Hebrew word for “young girl” to the Greek word that some insist must mean “girl who’s not yet had sex with a man.” For this reason, it’s been wrongly called a “mistranslation.” Well, anyone who knows her Greek understands that the phrase “parthenos” here is much more loaded than that. It’s hardly some proof text that Miriam (aka Mary) was a “virgin” (since the context already fairly establishes that). Did perhaps the translators in Alexandria, Egypt intend to send a subversive message to the King? Had they been aware of how Hesiod had written: “There is a maiden. Justice, [παρθένος ἐστὶ Δίκη] born of Zeus, celebrated and revered by the gods who dwell on Olympus, and…. Bear this in mind, Kings… and put crooked judgments quite out of your minds.” (We may wonder why this language of pregnancy. Why all the literary spin and the interpretive changes by the Greek for the Prophet Isaiah?) Now, the Greek reader of Matthew’s gospel can clearly see that the baby boy born was NOT actually named “Immanuel, which is translated God With Us.” Or is there something else going on?
  • καὶ καλέσεις τὸ ὄνομα αὐτοῦ Ἰησοῦν … καὶ ἐκάλεσεν τὸ ὄνομα αὐτοῦ Ἰησοῦν. “And ye shall [said the Messenger to Josef] call his name Jesus” … “And he called him Joshua.” Here there’s no calling this boy Immanuel (which is a transliteration, which gets interpreted, translated as God With Us). Rather, there’s this other name, Yeshua. It’s Moses’s nickname for Hosea ben Nun born in Egypt. In Hebrew it can mean something like, “G-d will save.” Here Matthew’s readers get the sounds, the transliteration. They get it in Greek like it’s an inside joke. And the whole of the sixth book, after the Five Books of Moses, is named, in Greek, this very name. And there’s another Jesus/Joshua/Yeshua too:
  • The other one is the Jesus mentioned by the Prophet Zechariah (See 3:8 and 6:11-12). In the Hebrew, the name gets interpreted somehow as meaning something like Branch. In the Hellene translation of the Hebrew there’s the strange use of the ambiguous Greek phrase Ἀνατολήν [ / anatolen /], which plays nicely against the verb ἀνατελεῖ in Greek Zechariah 6:12 and against the verb ἀναστήσω (later for resurrection) in Greek Jeremiah 23:5. So what’s that mean? What does the Hebraic Hellene here mean? The Targum of Jonathan (and not only this text) calls the name here Messiah. And Matthew has already used the Greek word for Messiah for Jesus by now. And we’ve already discussed the Magoi worshiping this baby as the King of the Jews under this star, in the East, or in the Rising place of the Sun, τὸν ἀστέρα ἐν τῇ ἀνατολῇ.

The Greek / Hebrew names here for the baby Jesus are rather political in contrast to the Empire of Alexander and the Empire of the Caesar. God With Us, G-d Saves Us Out of Egypt, Messiah Out of the East Where the Sun Rises. There’s much here that’s literary, much rhetorical, much translational, much perhaps resistant to the sort of obvious straightforward history writing that platonic/aristotelian/alexandrian Greek writing would lead readers to. I’m not suggesting that the message of Matthew isn’t clear. Rather, what’s clear to us in English translation today and in the telling of the story as a Christmas one for children may not be all there is.

The Olivétan Bible and the Gothic Batarde font

December 16, 2013

Here is part of Exodus 3 in the first Olivétan Bible 1535, printed by Pierre de Vingle. The complicated script is somewhat degraded in this facsimile. You can pick out the name L’eternel at the end of line 15. Screen Shot 2013-12-16 at 9.44.48 AM

Olivétan and the Biblia Rabbinica

December 15, 2013

I began to think that Olivétan had surely not come up with the name “Eternel” on his own. He had a library of 70 books with him as a resource. Certainly a great number for that time. In fact, when he died, he left his books to Calvin who sold them all except for the Biblia Rabbinica of Daniel Bomberg.  This Hebrew Bible with Targums and commentary would have cited Maimonides. So we know that Olivétan had some exposure to Maimonides.

Maimonides, in his Guide to the Perplexed cites Targum Onkelos saying, “Eternal, Eternal, All-powerful, All-merciful, All-gracious,” with reference to Exodus 34:6. However, Olivétan does not actually use “L’Eternel” in Ex. 34:6. He does use the term in Ex. 3 but it is later French translators who used it consistently throughout the Hebrew Bible. Without a copy of the Biblia Rabbinica of Bomberg, or a list of his other books, we don’t know exactly what Olivétan had exposure to and what he had read about the use of “Eternel” for God, but probably something.

In an aside, Olivétan seems to have been a least partially responsible for the use of accents in the French language.

As Nina Catach does not exactly place Olivétan with respect to the orthographic revolution of his time, I would like to present a summary. Olivétan proposed his definition of the correct spelling in a little school manual in 1533, of which the printing is produced by Pierre de Vingle: “L’Instruction des enfans contenant la maniere de prononcer et escrire en francoys … ” He showed his concern to promote the usage of diacritics, accents aigu, grave, and circonflexe, tréma, trait d’union, apostrophe. If these signs do not appear [and they don’t usually] in the publications which he confided to Pierre de Vingle, en particular in the Bible, the fault falls to the printer. Vingle only had old materials, limited to the Gothic Batarde. In this script, not an accent, not an apostrophe, not a hyphen: the break that we mark with a comma is indicated by an oblique stroke. Dans L’Instruction of 1533, the reader is warned “You will also have to excuse the printer who has not observed the manner of writing and punctuating, by the lack of characters which he does not have at the moment.”

Screen Shot 2013-12-15 at 10.40.30 PM

Borges and Guerrero on לִילִית

December 13, 2013

Jorge Luis Borges and Margarita Guerrero together wrote a series of essays on various deities and monsters in literature. These were compiled and published in book form under titles such as Manual de zoología fantástica and El libro de los seres imaginarios. Two different English translations were produced respectively by Norman Thomas di Giovanni and by Andrew Hurley.

Borges and Guerrero likely collaborated with di Giovanni on the one English translation of the original Spanish. But “original Spanish” is open to dispute. Hurley explains this:

It it clear that for much of the material in the original Spanish [book] — sometimes entire “entries” — Borges was translating directly from a source, acknowledged in some cases, unacknowledged in many others, or was using a Spanish translation of a “classic.” Quite often, he seems to have been translating (or rewriting) into Spanish from an English translation from, for example, the Greek…. The nature of Borges’ erudition, creativity, and sense of fun is such that it has been simply impossible to ferret out all the originals, where originals in fact ever existed (some of his “quotations” are almost certainly apocrypha, put-ons)…. [My own translator notes] may make the book [in English language] seem stodgier, more academic, less fun that it was clearly always meant to be. I hope that readers of this volume [translated by me], dipping into it here and there as Borges hoped they would, will not lose (or be stripped of) their sense of playfulness by feeling that they have to go look up the page numbers for Pliny [for example] — think of it as just another of Borges’ ways of blurring lines between the serious and the playful.

I have dipped into just one entry for this particular blogpost. Below is the essay entitled “Lilith” in the Spanish and in the two respective English translations.


Lilith.Borges.Guerrero.di Giovanni.English



For more on Lilith, blog readers may want to consider this BLT Blogpost written by Ann Nyland.

In addition, here is the entry in the online work, Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia, written by Rebecca Lesses.

100 years of Le Sacre Du Printemps

December 12, 2013

2013 marks the hundredth anniversary of the notorious Paris premiere of the Nijinsky ballet and Stravinsky score of Le Sacre Du Printemps conducted by Pierre Monteux. 


The May 29th premiere reportedly generated quite a negative response, according to contemporary accounts, such as this recounting in the New York Times (note, however, that when the lights were turned up, status-conscious Parisians stopped booing):



Aren’t you glad you didn’t see that stinker!  (Although Bel Air Classiques has just reissued in DVD-book format its recording of  the Mariinsky/Valery Gergiev reconstruction of Nijinsky’s Rite of Spring choreography)


In honor of the 100th anniversary, there are a bevy of very nice box rereleases of the recording.  Decca has released a box set of 35 recordings of the Rite of Spring (along with three recordings of the piano duet version and one recording of the Violin Concerto in D)

  • The Rite of Spring (1921 version; recorded in 1946) Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam, Eduard van Beinum
  • The Rite of Spring (1921 version; recorded in 1950) L’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, Ernest Ansermet
  • The Rite of Spring (1947 version; recorded in 1954) RIAS Symphonie-Orchester Berlin, Ferenc Fricsay
  • The Rite of Spring (recorded in 1954) Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra, Antal Dorati
  • The Rite of Spring (recorded in 1956) Orchestre des Cento Soli, Rudolf Albert
  • The Rite of Spring (recorded in 1956) Paris Conservatoire Orchestra, Pierre Monteux
  • The Rite of Spring (1921 version; recorded in 1957) L’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, Ernest Ansermet
  • The Rite of Spring (1947 version; recorded in 1959) Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra, Antal Dorati
  • The Rite of Spring (1947 version; recorded in 1963) Berliner Philharmoniker, Herbert von Karajan
  • The Rite of Spring (recorded in 1963) London Symphony Orchestra, Colin Davis
  • The Rite of Spring (recorded in 1969) Los Angeles Philharmonic, Zubin Mehta
  • The Rite of Spring (1947 version; recorded in 1972) Boston Symphony Orchestra, Michael Tilson Thomas
  • The Rite of Spring (recorded in 1973) London Philharmonic Orchestra, Bernard Haitink
  • The Rite of Spring (1921 version; recorded in 1974) London Philharmonic Orchestra, Erich Leinsdorf
  • The Rite of Spring (1921 version; recorded in 1974) Wiener Philharmoniker, Lorin Maazel
  • The Rite of Spring (recorded in 1974) Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Georg Solti
  • The Rite of Spring (1947 version; recorded in 1975) London Symphony Orchestra, Claudio Abbado
  • The Rite of Spring (recorded in 1976) Concertgebouw Orchestra, Colin Davis
  • The Rite of Spring (1947 version; recorded in 1977) Berliner Philharmoniker, Herbert von Karajan
  • The Rite of Spring (1913 version; recorded in 1978) National Youth Orchestra, Simon Rattle
  • The Rite of Spring (recorded in 1979) Boston Symphony Orchestra, Seiji Ozawa
  • The Rite of Spring (recorded in 1981) Detroit Symphony Orchestra, Antal Dorati
  • The Rite of Spring (1913 version; recorded in 1982) Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, Leonard Bernstein
  • The Rite of Spring (1921 version; recorded in 1984) Orchestre Symphonique de Montreal, Charles Dutoit
  • The Rite of Spring (1947 version; recorded in 1985) The Cleveland Orchestra, Riccardo Chailly
  • The Rite of Spring (1947 version; recorded in 1991) The Cleveland Orchestra, Pierre Boulez
  • The Rite of Spring (recorded in 1991) Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Georg Solti
  • The Rite of Spring (1947 version; recorded in 1992) The MET Orchestra, James Levine
  • The Rite of Spring (1947 version; recorded in 1994) Deutsches Sinfonie-Orchester, Berlin, Vladimir Ashkenazy
  • The Rite of Spring (recorded in 1995) Orchestre de Paris, Semyon Bychkov
  • The Rite of Spring (1947 version; recorded in 1995) Berliner Philharmoniker, Bernard Haitink
  • The Rite of Spring (1947 version; recorded in 1999) Kirov Orchestra, St Petersburg, Valery Gergiev
  • The Rite of Spring (1947 version; recorded in 2006) Los Angeles Philharmonic, Esa-Pekka Salonen
  • The Rite of Spring (1947 version; recorded in 2007) Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, Myung-Whun Chung
  • The Rite of Spring (1947 version; recorded in 2010) Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela, Gustavo Dudamel
  • The Rite of Spring (1913 version for two pianos; recorded in 1968) Bracha Eden & Alexander Tamir (piano)
  • The Rite of Spring (1913 version for two pianos; recorded in 1983) Güher & Süher Pekinel (piano)
  • The Rite of Spring (1913 version for two pianos; recorded in 1990) Vladimir Ashkenazy & Andrei Gavrilov (piano)
  • Violin Concerto in D (Bonus CD. recorded in 1935) Samuel Dushkin (violin), Lamoureux Concert Orchestra, Igor Stravinsky

Russell Platt wrote a thoughtful review of the box set in the New Yorker

Not to be outdone, Sony has issued its own box set which is notable for some very early recordings:

  • The Rite of Spring (recorded 1929/1930) Philadelphia Orchestra, Leopold Stokowski
  • The Rite of Spring (recorded 1940) New York Philharmonic, Igor Stravinsky
  • The Rite of Spring (recorded 1951) Boston Symphony Orchestra, Pierre Monteux
  • The Rite of Spring (recorded 1955) Philadelphia Orchestra, Eugene Ormandy
  • The Rite of Spring (recorded 1960) Columbia Symphony Orchestra, Igor Stravinsky
  • The Rite of Spring (recorded 1968) Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Seiji Ozawa
  • The Rite of Spring (recorded 1969) Cleveland Orchestra, Pierre Boulez
  • The Rite of Spring (recorded 1972) London Symphony Orchestra, Leonard Bernstein
  • The Rite of Spring (recorded 1989) Philharmonia Orchestra, Esa-Pekka Salonen
  • The Rite of Spring (recorded 1996) San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, Michael Tilson-Thomas

as well as a single disk of Leonard Bernstein’s 1958 recording with the New York Philharmonic. 

This bevy of recordings provides a remarkable opportunity to see just how much influence a conductor can have on a recording, as one compares the differences between styles.  This remarkable recorded history is a wonderful tribute to the genius of Igor Stravinsky.

Borges on Chesterton: forests, trees

December 12, 2013

Bilingual poets are just fascinating. They live in a world of ambiguities, two worlds. Jorge Luis Borges is one such individual. This week I’m a bit compelled to call him and his language(s) “optimistic.” At the very least, I think I want to make a case that Borges was not pessimistic about language. Yes, he quoted G. K. Chesterton, a lot, and was indebted to him frequently, for the Englishman’s use of and expressions about language.

What I’m pushing back against is a caricature of the view of language that Borges expresses and practices. This week on the Language Log, Mark Liberman quotes George Carlin on language followed by another quotation, “[a] less optimistic spin from G.K. Chesterton” followed by another quotation from “Jorge Luis Borges [who] used this quotation from Chesterton, in Spanish translation.” One commenter, then, asserts further: “It’s obvious that, as Chesterton and Borges said, language is a flawed and often inadequate tool for communicating the ineffability of life.” Well, I’d say from my own readings of Borges (and of his of Chesterton), that the translating poet sees language as much more powerful and positive than the blogger’s and commenter’s assertions would have him see it. Let’s take a second look at this.

If anything ought to be obvious it’s how carefully, and very very very precisely, Borges renders the English of Chesterton into his own Spanish, in this particular case:

He knows that there are in the soul tints more bewildering, more numberless, and more nameless than the colours of an autumn forest […] Yet he seriously believes that these things can every one of them, in all their tones and semitones, in all their blends and unions, be accurately represented by an arbitrary system of grunts and squeals. He believes that an ordinary civilized stockbroker can really produce out of his own inside noises which denote all the mysteries of memory and all the agonies of desire.

El hombre sabe que hay en el alma tintes más desconcertantes, más innumerables y más anónimos que los colores de una selva otoñal… cree, sin embargo, que esos tintes, en todas sus fusiones y conversiones, son representables con precisión por un mecanismo arbitrario de gruñidos y de chillidos. Cree que del interior de un bolsista salen realmente ruidos que significan todos los misterios de la memoria y todas las agonias del anhelo.

Liberman does link to sources for the quotation, both in English and then in Spanish. When quoting the English from his linked source, nonetheless, he fails to capture what Alberto Manguel says about Chesterton’s quotation, and it is after all Manguel who is quoting Chesterton in his introduction to On Lying in Bed and Other Essays by G.K. Chesterton. Immediately following the quotation, Manguel asserts:

Paradoxically, in words like these, written against the power of words, Chesterton raises the reader’s trust in that same questioned power.

Both Liberman (saying Chesterton is making a “less optimistic spin” about language) and also the commenter (saying “as Chesterton … said, language is a flawed and often inadequate tool for communicating the ineffability of life”) fail to see Chesterton’s paradox.

Borges gets Chesterton and all of the nuance as well.

First, as I’ve said, he uses Spanish to say very very precisely, what Chesterton in the quotation has said. It’s not a translation with a “spin”; it’s not Spanish that is either flawed or inadequate for communicating the Englishman’s English. Liberman links to the Borges translation in his essay, “El Idioma Analítico de John Wilkins.” I’ve also found Borges quoting Chesterton, in translation, in his essay, “De las alegorías a las novelas.” And to introduce and to make conclusions about this quotation, Borges begins: “Chesterton para vindicar lo alegorico.” He is noticing how Chesterton is vindicating allegorical language. Is there pessimism relative to what the comedian Carlin is saying? Is there some expression about flaws in language or its inadequacies for communication? Only if one fails to understand Chesterton’s language, or Borges’s.

Second, just to pick up on allegory and metaphor and so forth, I’d like to turn to how Chesterton (and Borges translating him) uses forest here, and elsewhere, tree.

For Chesterton, the image of “forest” here is a ground for radical variation. Language, in the believer in language that he’s talking about, is to “more” varied, the more being the adjective on the various variations “in the soul” of the language believer, which, are, supposed by this language believer to be “accurately represented” by his language, his words, his utterances, his “grunts and squeals.” The “forest” then is clearly inadequate, from the get go, as a complete analogy to the “soul.” And yet, this is exactly precisely the sort of powerful, optimistic, adequate point of what Chesterton’s astute readers, like Manguel and Borges, are beginning to get. As we all know, the “forest” need not be confused with the “trees.” :) In this particular paragraph, the metaphor is intended to be for the readers (and perhaps this imagined language believer) as something rather invariant (though full of variations upon variations). I’m not trying to run this explanation into the ground, to overexplain. But some the point of a metaphor is how inexhaustible it is, semantically speaking. In other words, to say something like, “A soul is a forest” is to introduce not just one possibility but several. The fun of this little paragraph is that it introduces an argument, as if there can be logic to expose the flaws in the metaphor: “A soul is NOT forest.” :)

This little paragraph somehow reminded me of a conversation that Willis Barnstone, also a multilingual poet, had with Borges (reported in several of Barnstone’s works). It was in English. It goes like this:

BORGES:  When you write down the images, those images may not mean anything to you. It’s what you get in the case of Poe and of Lovecraft. The images are awful but the feeling isn’t awful.

BARNSTONE:  And I suppose a good writer is one who comes up with the right images to correspond to the feeling.

BORGES:  To a feeling, yes. Or who may give you the nightmare feeling with common objects or things. I remember how I found a proof of that in Chesterton. He says that we might think that at the end of the world there is a tree whose very shape is evil. Now that’s a fine word, and I think that stands for that kind of feeling, no? Now, that tree could hardly be described. While, if you think of a tree, for example, made of skulls, of ghosts, that would be quite silly. But what we said, a tree whose very shape is evil. That show he really had a nightmare about that tree. No? If not, how would he know about that tree?

BARNSTONE:  I’ve always been puzzled why my tongue moves, why words come out of my mouth or from in my head. These words are like seconds of a clock happening, sounding almost by themselves.

In this conversation, there’s a similar sort of topic. Is language adequate, if representational? What about when I utter things with my mouth? What about when a poet writes?

And then there’s a quotation of Chesterton, by Borges.

Instead of a forest, there’s the mention of a tree. If you know Chesterton, then you know he uses the tree as an image quite a bit. But Borges is keying in on one little particular instance. The concern is whether Chesterton describes it right. There’s the mention of shape. There’s the metaphor of evil. It’s an apocalyptic, end of the world moment.

So, when and where does Chesterton say this? It’s the opener of Chapter VI of Chesterton’s novel, The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare -

Such were the six men who had sworn to destroy the world. Again and again Syme strove to pull together his common sense in their presence. Sometimes he saw for an instant that these notions were subjective, that he was only looking at ordinary men, one of whom was old, another nervous, another short-sighted. The sense of an unnatural symbolism always settled back on him again. Each figure seemed to be, somehow, on the borderland of things, just as their theory was on the borderland of thought. He knew that each one of these men stood at the extreme end, so to speak, of some wild road of reasoning. He could only fancy, as in some old-world fable, that if a man went westward to the end of the world he would find something—say a tree—that was more or less than a tree, a tree possessed by a spirit; and that if he went east to the end of the world he would find something else that was not wholly itself—a tower, perhaps, of which the very shape was wicked. So these figures seemed to stand up, violent and unaccountable, against an ultimate horizon, visions from the verge. The ends of the earth were closing in.

Notice the language here. “Fancy” and “as in” and “fable” and “that if” and the subjunctive “he would find something” and the supposition “say a tree” and the equivocations “was more or less” and the qualification / modification “possessed by a spirit.”

What we don’t find here in Chesterton’s English is anything about a shape of a tree. Rather, the whole description has morphed, by the time we read the word shape, to “a tower, perhaps, of which the very shape was wicked.”  And so we find Borges doing more with Chesterton’s language. The “tree” is the “tower.” And “evil” really is “wicked.” And yet Borges is able to move his tongue with a system of grunts and squeals, with un mecanismo … de gruñidos y de chillidos. The imprecision, the arbitrariness, the wonder at whether there’s precise representation, is all beside the point. Or perhaps is the point. Language is image. Powerful imagery. Adequate. Optimistic. More or less. Forests. Trees. And so is the language of Borges on the language of Chesterton.

Buber – Rosenzweig on The Eternal

December 12, 2013

Just a few brief citations from Franz Rosenzweig regarding Mendelssohn’s choice of Der Ewige (The Eternal), first from here,  page 175  1923,

Rosenzweig congratulates Mendelssohn for capturing or attempting to capture, in one phrase God’s providence, eternity, and necessary existence. Yet identifying God with eternal being can be something of an evasion. Buber translates God’s proper name as ‘He-is-there’ (Images of Good and Evil, p. 67) and Rosenzweig translates … ICH BIN DA. … The Emphasis which Rosenzweig wishes to bring out here is not on the everlasting being of God but on his eternal presentness,

and from here, page 263, 1929,

[T]his interpretation of the divine name as “The Eternal” or, alternately, as “the eternal essence” was “austere, sublime,” and “genuinely ‘numinous.'” But its origins were Hellenistic, not Jewish.  … According to Rosenzweig, this fundamentally “Hellenistic” interpretation missed Judaism’s richly personalist and this-worldly understanding of God.

(Click on the tag “Eternal” in the top right corner for the other posts in this series.)

The Eternal vs the LORD

December 12, 2013

This will be a bit sketchy, a plane to catch this afternoon. But the problem with LORD is that it is anthropomorphic, and extension of a word for a certain type of human, a male boss, with sometimes unlimited rights. Almost all names for God are anthropomorphic except when He is called our rock and our shield, etc. Even putting the word in all caps doesn’t really make the word LORD non-anthropomorphic.

But another problem is that both “Lord” and “God” are semantically gendered words in English and are not semantically gendered words in Hebrew. That is, they have grammatical gender in Hebrew, they are referred to as “he.” But this is a function of the grammar of the language. A mother eagle can be a “he” or a table is a “he.” That’s just how it goes.

But in English “Lord” is semantically gendered because it is the opposite partner to “lady,” and “God” is semantically gendered because it has the opposite partner of “goddess.” Note the lower cap. They are not equal.

However, in Hebrew Elohim for God has no semantic gender. It is not male and cannot designate a human or indicate that God is male. It has no female contrasting equivalent. It is a plural word to begin with but takes a singular verb or pronoun. However, it has no semantic masculine content.

Yahweh, translated LORD, in the King James Bible, is the same. It has no feminine contrasting partner and no masculine content. Yahweh is the one who exists forever. Yahweh is also a personal being who relates to humans. Yahweh is not masculine or feminine, but Hebrew has only masculine and feminine grammatical categories, so grammatically it is masculine. This does not mean that Yahweh is masculine any more than a table is masculine. We are wrong to attribute to Yahweh Elohim attributes which we value in males over attributes which we value in females. Actually, humans are skewed in this. Overall, we value courage, honesty, loyalty, and a love of fun – for both men and women. We need to pull this one together and eliminate the great chasm dug between men and women.

Yahweh Elohim Shaddai, another name for God, can command armies and provide women with fertility. Yahweh exists forever as Itself. How shall we refer to Yahweh? As The Eternal? Next post will deal with Franz Rosenzweig’s opinion on this topic just preceding the Holocaust. Who is this Yahweh God?

LORD God in English marches to a masculine tune, but Yahweh Elohim does not. It doesn’t sound feminine, it sounds non-human but relating to humans.

Note: I snuck Shaddai in there and some want to call this the “Breasted God.” I find this icky, I don’t want a phallic God or a breasted God. Just silly. “The One who is sufficient” that is the possible meaning of this name.

Clicjk on the tag “Eternal” at the top to read all posts in this series.

Everlasting One

December 11, 2013

Kurk has noted that Everett Fox wrote, 1995, in his intro, remarks, on page xxix,

Historically, Jewish and Christian translations of the Bible into English have tended to use ‘Lord,’ with some exceptions (notably, Moffatt’s ‘The Eternal’).

But we know that Grace Aguilar, a very well known Jewish writer in her day (died 1847), used “The Eternal,” Benisch, 1852 used “The Eternal” in his translation, and Leeser, 1853, used “The Everlasting One.”

Exo 3:15 And God said moreover unto Moses, Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel, The Everlasting One, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, hath sent me unto you: this is my name for ever, and this is my memorial unto all generations.

Buber and Rosenzweig used Ich Bin Da, “I am present” in German. But David E. Stein found that “The Eternal” was the most popular choice for a translation of Yahweh for the Gender Sensitive Jewish translation. However, for a variety of reasons it was not used. Stein writes,

The most favored rendering was as “the Eternal” — which is popular well beyond the bounds of the Reform movement, where it has appeared in Bible translations and liturgy for at least fifteen years.[3] Most informants involved in ritual settings gravitated toward the idea that the Name is related to the Hebrew verbal root for existence — a connection made by the Torah itself at the Burning Bush (Exod 3). This understanding commended renderings such as the Eternal, the Eternal One, The One Who Will Be There, the One, Being, Eternal Being, Becoming, Source of Being. Of these, “the Eternal” was most often named.

Some who suggested such renderings did so because they understood that for many contemporary Jews, God as a persona either makes no sense or is anathema. A few respondents mentioned der Ewige (a German coinage in 1783 by the Jewish philosopher and translator Moses Mendelssohn) or L’éternel (used in the most widely accepted French translation among Christians, by Louis Segond, 1874). Familiarity with those precedents seemed to make it more likely to find “the Eternal” unexceptional. However, a few respondents objected that such a term over interprets how the Torah presents its Deity; and another considers it “far too impersonal.”

Others focused less on the Name’s meaning than on its sound, finding it remarkable that the Name consists only of vowel-letters, such that its original pronunciation must have been unusually breathy. For Arthur Waskow, a rabbi in the Jewish Renewal movement, this warrants rendering the Name as “the Breath of Life.”

The editors opted for Yahweh written out in the Hebrew letters – a non-interpretive choice. There is a lot of philosophizing and theologizing  to be done on this topic, so more to follow.

If you click on the tag “Eternal” at the top right of this post you should get all 7 posts in this series.

“A” Grades for Him: Sexual Harrassment of Her

December 11, 2013

Here’s from a couple of pages of The Divine Conspiracy by Dallas Willard:

      But if indeed there is now no body of moral knowledge in our culture, then a number of things highly positioned people express surprise about are not surprising at all.  Robert Coles, professor of psychiatry and medical humanities at Harvard and a well-known researcher and commentator on matters social and moral, published a piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education on “The Disparity Between Intellect and Character.”  The piece is about “the task of connecting intellect to character.”  This task, he adds, “is daunting.”

His essay was occasioned by an encounter with one of his students over the moral insensitivity – is it hard for him to say “immoral behavior?” – of other students, some of the best and brightest at Harvard.  This student was a young woman of “a Midwestern, working class background” where, as is well known, things like “right answers” and “ideology” remain strong.  She cleaned student rooms to help pay her way through the university.

Again and again, she reported to Coles, people who were in classes with her treated her ungraciously because of her lower economic position, without simple courtesy and respect, and often were rude and sometimes crude to her.  She was repeatedly propositioned for sex by one young student in particular as she went about her work.  He was a man with whom she had had two “moral reasoning” courses, in which he excelled and received the highest of grades.

This pattern of treatment led her to quit her job and leave school – and to something like an exit interview with Coles.  After going over not only the behavior of her fellow students, but also the long list of highly educated people who have perpetrated the atrocities for which the twentieth century is famous, she concluded by saying to him, “I’ve been taking all these philosophy courses, and we talk about what is true, what’s important, what’s good.  Well, how do you teach people to be good?”  And, she added, “What’s the point of knowing good if you don’t try to become a good person?”

Professor Coles proceeds to comment on how ineffectual his efforts to respond to this young woman were.  He seems genuinely conscience stricken that he shrugged in response to her disappointment.  But he never confronts the fact that he certainly did not tell the students in his courses that they should not treat someone doing menial work with disdain, or that they should not proposition a classmate or anyone else who is cleaning their rooms.

There were no questions on his test about these matters.  He never deals with the fact that he could not use such questions because no one can claim to know about such matters.  The problem here is less one of connecting character to intellect than one of connecting intellectual to moral and spiritual realities.  The trouble is precisely that character is connected with the intellect.  The trouble is what is and is not in the intellect.

Indeed, in the current world of accepted knowledge one can’t even know the truth of a moral theory or principle, much less a specific rule.  You could never grade someone for holding Utilitarianism or Kantianism to be true or false.  One can only know about such theories or principles, and think about them in more or less clever ways.  You can brightly discuss them.  For that the young man got his A’s.  But that, of course, had no bearing on his character or behavior because it is only literary or historical or perhaps logical expertise, not moral knowledge.  And if you are already flying upside down and don’t know it, your cleverness will do you little good.

The Eternal

December 11, 2013

I have found “The Eternal” used in Jewish English Bible translations but it seems to have disappeared again. In the early 1800’s, the very successful Jewish author of fiction and non-fiction, Grace Aguilar, used the expression, The Eternal, in her writings. I found this in Let Her Speak for Herself. But Aguilar died in 1847, before a Jewish English Bible was published. She was, however, known and read by Benisch and encouraged him to produce a translation of the Hebrew Bible. He did this, and published it in 1852, several years after her death in 1847. We Know that both Aguilar and Benisch called God, The Eternal. We also know that this was lost in the JPS 1917 translation. We don’t know who brought “The Eternal” into English, but Aguilar spoke French and translated a book from French and Benisch spoke German. It may be useless to try to narrow this down further.

Women’s wine

December 10, 2013

I am happy to see that not only the Darbyites, but women too, have their own wine. Last night I enjoyed a meal cooked by a woman, wine distilled by women, over five generations, Les Chateau Doms wines, and reading sermons by women – Let Her Speak For Herself , by Heather Weir and Marion Ann Taylor – all in the congenial company of men and women. If you are committed to being aware, you can find women involved in anything and everything. Why do I need convincing? Brought up in a world where men do this and women do that. Anyway, it was a very good wine for those who like Merlot, very smooth and soft. Screen Shot 2013-12-10 at 5.31.49 PM


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