Reading Scripture and Holy Love (Or, Cleary I Understand Nothing at All)

Roger Pearse, that veritable zealot of Christian antiquity and free access to information, has commissioned the translation of several letters of our venerable father, St Isidore of Pelusium, whose feast we celebrated last Tuesday, February 4/17. (Our good friend Aaron Taylor, as is his wont, produced a marvellous post on St Isidore for his feast.) Mr Pearse, of fame, has characteristically decided to freely share the commissioned translations by posting them in his blog. The latest installment contains a letter whose content is undoubtedly relevant for all those who undertake the reading of the Scriptures in faith, and particularly for those of us who wish to involve ourselves in the task of academic biblical studies in various ways and to various degrees. St Isidore writes:


I understand that it is said that you are interested in the divine books and that you make an appropriate use of their testimonies in every circumstance, but that you are a covetous man, furiously grabbing for yourself from the lives of others. I am extremely astonished that this assiduous reading has not blessed you with the divine love, a love which should have modified your former behaviour, something which not only prevents us from desiring the goods of others, but further prescribed us to distribute our own goods. So, when you read, understand, or, if you do not understand, read!

Which is to say that, even if I have the ability to quote the Scriptures right and left without ever doing violence to their context and with a keen awareness of their historical meaning, but have no love, I am nothing (cf., of course, I Corinthians 13, and also our friend James McGrath’s 1 Corinthians 13 paraphrased for academics).

The way to recapturing the wonder is the way of holy love. After all, as we have seen, some things are better understood by means of practice, rather than by words alone.


Felix Culpa on the the OSB, Pars Quarta

A short few days after my evocative mention of the much-missed author of the best “Orthodox blog” in existence, the estimable Felix Culpa, we have gladly witnessed his return to the blogosphere (and with a vengeancewitness his seven posts in a short two days!). In his most recent post, he has taken up again his serial review of the lamentable Orthodox Study Bible, this time focusing on its shoddy treatment of Genesis 49:10, which is regarded as one of the pivotal Messianic prophecies of the Old Testament by both the Fathers and the Liturgy. As always, his post makes for required reading.

For my part, I expect to celebrate the return of Felix Culpa to the blogosphere by posting in the near future my long overdue treatment of the OSB’s fallacious (mis)translation of λειτουργέω and λειτουργία, which I introduced in an earlier post.

Saturday à Machen: On Miracles

In the last Saturday à Machen, we had the opportunity to consider Machen’s argument for the miraculous occurrences of the New Testament. But in order to arrive there, he had previously addressed the idea of the “supernatutural” and the character of miracles, in that order. Since we started at the end, so to speak, let us then pursue Machen’s argument backward, moving from the particular to the general.

J. Gresham Machen“[I]t has often been said that all events are works of creation. On this view, it is only a concession to popular phraseology to say that one body is attracted toward another in accordance with a law of gravitation; what really ought to be said is that when two bodies are in proximity under certain conditions they come together. Certain phenomena in nature, on this view, are always followed by certain other phenomena, and it is really only this regularity of sequence which is indicated by the assertion that the former phenomena ’cause’ the latter; the only real cause is in all cases God. On the basis of this view, there can be no distinction between events wrought by the immediate power of God and those that are not; for on this view all events are so wrought. Against such a view, those who accept our definition of miracle will naturally accept the commonsense notion of cause. God is always the first cause, but there are truly second causes; and they are the means which God uses, in the ordinary course of the world, for the accomplishment of His ends. It is the exclusion of such second causes which makes an event a miracle.

“It is sometimes said that the actuality of miracles would destroy the basis of science. Science, it is said, is founded upon the regularity of sequences; it assumes that if certain conditions within the course of nature are given, certain other conditions will always follow. But if there is to be any intrusion of events which by their very definition are independent of all previous conditions, then, it is said, the regularity of nature upon which science bases itself is broken up. Miracle, in other words, seems to introduce an element of arbitrariness and unaccountability into the course of the world.

“The objection ignores what is really fundamental the Christian conception of miracle. According to the Christian conception, a miracle is wrought by the immediate power of God. It is not wrought by an arbitrary and fantastic despot, but by the very God to whom the regularity of nature itself is due by the God, moreover, whose character is known through the Bible. Such a God, we may be sure, will not do despite to the reason that He has given to His creatures; His interposition will introduce no disorder into the world that He has made. There is nothing arbitrary about a miracle, according to the Christian conception. It is not an uncaused event, but an event that is caused by the very source of all the order that is in the world. It is dependent altogether upon the least arbitrary and the most firmly fixed of all the things that arenamely upon the character of God.

“The possibility of miracle, then, is indissolubly joined with ‘theism.’ Once admit the existence of a personal God, Maker and Ruler of the world, and no limits, temporal or otherwise, can be set to the creative power of such a God. Admit that God once created the world, and you cannot deny that He might engage in creation again.”

(J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism [1923; reprint, Grand Rapids:Eerdmans, 1999], pages 101-102)

And the Winner Is…

…Peter Lopez of Beauty of the Bible! Peter didn’t get three entries for announcing the giveaway in two different blogs, as he suggested, but his eagerness must not have tempted the wrath of the whatever from high atop the thing, for in the end his name was clearly written on the winning ballot. (Sorry, no dangling chads here, folks.) So, congratulations to Peter! I will be mailing the book out to him shortly, though I might punish him by delaying all shipping activities a day or two on account of his grievous misspelling of my last name. ;-)

Pre-Revolutionary Russian Orthodox Church Shows Militant Americanists How It’s Done

In a recent comment, Peter Kirk mentioned that the Tolkovaya Bible, a remarkable Orthodox study edition of the Holy Scriptures produced in Russia on the eve of the Bolshevik Revolution, was reprinted by the Institute for Bible Translation as gift of the Nordic countries (Denmark, Norway, and the Faroe Islands) to the Russian people on the 1,000-year anniversary of Christianity in Russia (1988).

Upon hearing of this wonderful study edition, the indefatigable Kevin Edgecomb undertook an exhaustive (Google) search that turned up a website on which image files of the entire work are available and may be accessed for free. Further, PDFs of the New Testament and selected Old Testament books are available here. I was once shown, very briefly, a copy of this Bible dating from pre-Revolutionary times, but had filed the information somewhere in the far recesses of my memory. I am therefore very glad to be reminded of its existence, and simply delighted that the whole thing is available online for all to see.

Now, Peter and I seldom agree, but allow me to quote his comment on this particular as though it were my own: “Perhaps [….] Orthodox [in North America] should translate this into English rather than sending the Russians second rate resources in English.”

OSB To Leave the US in Attempt To Impose Militant Americanist Hegemony on Traditionally Orthodox Lands

It has just come to my attention that the Russian Orthodox Greek Catholic Church of America (usually styled “the Metropolia”), with the blessing of its First Hierarch, has recently shipped 276 copies of the lamentable Orthodox Study Bible to various theological seminaries in Russia and the Ukraine. According to the news release, officials at the Theological Academies of St Petersburg and Kiev are reportedly “excited [to have] this resource available to their faculty and students.”I predict that their honeymoon with this jarring volume will be short-lived. After all, as the much-missed Felix Culpa has demonstrated at length, the notes and articles in the first few pages of this book embarrassingly fail to teach correctly on the dogma of the Holy Trinity and the doctrine of Creation, rendering both unrecognizable and even directly contradicting the teaching of the Holy Fathers at various points. I nervously await news of the first Archimandrite to collapse after reading a reference to the Holy Trinity as “They.”

More puzzling to me is the fact that part of the money raised for the “Bible for Russia” program should have been used to buy Bibles in the English language (and such expensive ones at that!). I suspect that either the Bible Society or one of the presses of the Moscow Patriarchate would have been able to produce many, many more Bibles in Russian if provided with the same amount of money that the Metropolia shelled out to Conciliar Press and/or Nelson (perhaps some $9660, if they received the usual discount).

In related news, Henry Neufeld (whose other review posts I mentioned earlier) has wrapped-up his posts on the OSBat least for the moment.

Fasting, Christians, and Jews in the Late First Century

It is well known that Orthodox Christians customarily fast on Wednesdays and Fridays throughout the year. There are four exceptions to this each year, however, one which is the Week of the Publican and the Pharisee: after hearing of the Pharisee who thanked God because he fasted twice a week, we take a break from our own fasting, lest we fall into a similar temptation.

The discovery of the Teaching of the Twelve Apostles (usually styled the “Didache”) by Metropolitan Philotheos of Nicomedia in 1873 not only corroborated the exceeding great antiquity of the Christian practice of fasting on Wednesdays and Fridays (tracing it back at least to the early sub-Apostolic age, if not earlier), but interestingly also set it in the context of the struggle between the emerging “normative Judaism” and “normative Christianity”1. Consider this portion of the text:

Αἱ δὲ νηστεῖαι ὑμῶν μὴ ἔστωσαν μετὰ τῶν ὑποκριτῶν· νηστεύουσι γὰρ δευτέρα σαββάτων καὶ πέμτῃ· ὑμεῖς δὲ νηστεύσατε τετράδα καὶ παρασκευήν. (8.1)

But do not let your fasts coincide with those of the hypocrites: since they fast on Mondays and Thursdays, you must then fast on Wednesdays and Fridays. (8.1)

The term ὑποκριταί (hypocrites) is evidently borrowed from Jesus’ rhetoric against the Pharisees and his other opponents in the Gospels, and it seems to be directed to the representatives of “normative Judaism” contemporary to the author of the Didache. The mention of Mondays and Thursdays help us make this probable identification, for as Shmuel Safrai has noted,

“Mondays and Thursdays, which were synagogue days, when country-folk came to town and the courts sat and the Torah was read, were the favoured days for public and private fasts. People would assemble for prayer, mention the reason for the fast, as follows from a baraita in the Babylonian Talmud. Most texts which mention fasting on Mondays and Thursdays are later than 70 C. E. though some are definitely earlier. Epiphanius says that these were the days of the Pharisees’ fasts in Jesus’ time, and the Didache warns against fasting ‘along with the hypocrites’ (the Pharisees) on these days, urging for Wednesday and Friday instead. The Pharisee in Luke who boasted of his twice-weekly fasting must have meant Mondays and Thursdays. But the custom was confined to certain circles among the Pharisees and their disciples”2.

One further comment about the word ὑποκριτής itself: Moisés Silva has noted that, like its English cognate, it “indicates inconsistency between what one says and one does, but it would be difficult to prove that the Greek word carries the offensive overtones (such as dishonorable motives) that we normally associate with the English word. Paul describes the behavior of Peter and other Jews in Antioch as hypokrisis, but it is unlikely that he was thereby impugning their motives”3. This may be the case in the New Testament, of course, but as we all know, the word eventually became a term of abuse in later Christian discourse. It would be particularly interesting, then, to examine at which stage in the history of the semantic change of the word do we find its use in the Didache 8.1. My own sense is that by this point the word has at least become a technical designation for the “normative Jewish” opponents of “normative Christianity,” and therefore is already a step beyond its New Testament use.



1 It should be noted, of course, that both of these designations are problematic; however, properly qualified, they are eminently useful as descriptors of the dominant traditions that arose from the tensions of the first century. For the important qualifications that make the use of such terminology possible, see Arlan J. Hultgren, The Rise of Normative Christianity (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1988). For the seminal (and often criticized) work that introduced the term “normative Judaism,” see George Foot Moore, Judaism in the First Centuries of the Christian Era: The Age of the Tannaim, 3 vols. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1927-30).

2 Shmuel Safrai, “Religion in Everyday Life,” in S. Safrai et al. (eds.), The Jewish People in the First Century: Historical Geography, Political History, Social, Cultural and Religious Life and Institutions, vol. 2 (Assen: Van Gorcum, 1976), page 816.

3 Moisés Silva, “The Place of Historical Reconstruction in New Testament Criticism,” in D. A. Carson and John D. Woobridge (eds.), Hermeneutics, Authority, and Canon (1986; reprint, Grand Rapids: Baker, 1995), pages 115-116.

Edgecomb on the "Historical Pharisees"

Our good friend Kevin Edgecomb, in a welcome burst of autokeraphonia (his delightful term), comments:

“Last summer I worked up a series of posts (Notes on Pharisees; The Gospels on the Pharisees, Parts I, II, III, IV, V, and VI) investigating the treatment of the Pharisees and Sadducees in the Gospels, inspired by the Jacob Neusner and Bruce Chilton-edited In Quest of the Historical Pharisees (Baylor University Press, 2007). The book is required reading along with Saldarini’s. They are the two most recent, most in-depth treatments on what is known about these complex groups.”

Please do yourselves the favor to read Kevin’s characteristically excellent posts on the subject. Regarding the book In Quest of the Historical Pharisees, I will regrettably have to let Kevin’s recommendation stand without further observations. This is because its publishers, in spite of my warm hospitality, apparently didn’t think The Voice of Stefan was good enough for them to send along the review copy I requested. As a result of this, then, I am unable to comment.

On the Use of the LXX (in Honor of International Septuagint Day)

Last year I noted with deep regret that I had come to find out too late about the IOSCS‘s International Septuagint Day, observed each year on February 8, and that therefore I was unable to write anything of substance in time for the festivities. (For the reason why February 8 was chosen, see my earlier post.) I had intended to produce an adequate treatment of a Septugintal question for this year, but in spite of my best intentions, the day passed me by until I saw Doug Chaplin’s post, again too late to write anything worthwhile on the subject. I was very pleased, then, to happen this morning upon the following bit by the great Frederick W. Danker on the use of the LXX as an aid to NT exegesis, in which he uses the Gospels’ descriptions of Jesus’ opposition to the Pharisees as a test case, and which I’m pleased to now share with you:

“The LXX offers exegetical help [….] in putting into proper focus the Pharisees’ problem in Luke 18:9-14. Psalm 34:14 (35:13 MT) notes that the purpose of fasting is to assist in humbling the soul and stimulating appropriate prayer. In the prayer that “turns back into the bosom”the phrase is obscurewe may see a parallel to the utterance of the publican whose words, coming as they did from a head bowed in humility, fell, as it were, into his bosom.

Hatch and Redpath alert to seven occurrences of the word πίπτειν within the space of five verses in Ezekiel 13. This passage in its context is the best commentary on Matt. 7:24-27. Some in the upper spiritual echelons in Israel misused good intentions in Pharisaism for purposes of moral whitewashing. They sought refuge in their interpretation and hedging of the Torah. But the fortress was to collapse. Jesus’ reiterated ‘You have heard, but I say unto you’ gains significance.”

(Frederick W. Danker, Multipurpose Tools for Bible Study, 4th ed. [Minneapolis: Fortress, 2003], page 86.)

There you have it: Septuagintal, and even relevant to this week’s topic. Happy (belated) International Septuagint Day to all! Also, for a couple of great posts celebrating the LXX on its day, see Tyler Williams’ Reasons to Study the Septuagint and David Miller’s Telescoped Scripture Citation in Acts 7:6-7. Enjoy!

Sundays with Silva: On the Conflict Between Jesus and the Pharisees

“Legalism, theologically understood, can manifest itself in a variety of ways. Whether or not the Pharisees explicitly taught a merit system [….], we must recognize that Jesus is never represented in the Gospels as criticizing them for believing that they could atone for their own sins. He does indeed condemn them for their legalismbut a legalism that finds expression in a somewhat different form, namely, through the relaxation of God’s standards.

“This point can be illustrated most clearly by referring to a well-known legal ruling, the prozbul, attributed to Hillel the Elder, who apparently lived during the reign of Herod the Great. This ruling in effect did away with the command that debts were to be cancelled every seven years (Dt 15:1-3). That command was accompanied by a solem warning: ‘Be careful not to harbor this wicked thought: “The seventh year, the year for cancelling debts, is near,” so that you do not show ill will toward your needy brother and give him nothing. He may then appeal to the Lord against you, and you will be found guilty of sin” (v 9). During Hillel’s time, however, the wealthy were in fact refusing to lend money, fearing they would lose it in the sabbatical year. Since the poor were the ones suffering, Hillel (if we may trust the rabbinic attribution) used the legal fiction that debts cease to be private when transferred to a court, and he ordained that in such cases the debts may be collected. For humanitarian reasons, therefore, Hillel devised a way of ‘breaking’ the Torah; the explanation, of course, would have been that such ‘innovations and amendments . . . fulfilled the basic reason of the commandment, whereas its literal observance nullified its original intent.’ [E. E. Urbach, The Sages, 1:373. -ed.]

“This enactmentand other examples could be usedshow[s] that we miss the point when we view the Pharisees as being concerned with the letter rather than the spirit of the Law. While that may well have been the case in some instances, it does not address the basic motivation for the rabbinic interpretation of the Torah. [….] In a very important sense, the Pharisees made the Torah easier to obey. As a result of the prozbul, wealthy Jews no longer needed to be concerned about the solemn warning of Deuteronomy 15:9. The divine standard had been relaxed. The Torah had been accomodated to meet the weaknesses of the people. [….]

“It turns out, then, that Jesus, who like the Old Testament prophets demanded perfection (Mt 5:48), would have been critical of the Pharisees, not because they obeyed the Torah too strictly, but because they interpreted it too loosely. This is clearly and precisely the point of Mark 7:1-13, generally recognized as a key passage for understanding the conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees. The controversy described in this passage centers on the law that ceremonial washing was required before eating. In fact, this is not an Old Testament law; it is not part of the Written Torah. But it was part of the Oral Torah, that is, the traditions of the elders. Scholars are generally agreed that the concept of the Twofold Law was the most distinctive feature of Pharisaic and later Judaism. The Oral Law was viewed as on a par with the Written Lawindeed, in some respects, as more important, for a ruling that is part of the Oral Law may in effect set aside the Written Law, as in the case of the prozbul.

“Jesus’ response to the Pharisees in Mark 7 is that they ‘have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the tradition of men’ (v 8). And, after describing a particularly insidious example, He concludes: ‘Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down’ (v 13). This undermining of God’s Word, moreover, resulted in a muted consciousness of sin, for normally there were ways of interpreting the divine commands that mitigated their force. This frame of mind is almost surely the background for Matthew 5, whre Jesus is said to demand of His disciples a righteousness greater than that of the Pharisees (v 20). Then, to preclude any interpretive moves that might render the law innocuous, He goes on to intensify specific Scriptural commands. Just in case anyone might have missed the point, He concludes: ‘Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect’ (v 48), the equivalent of Leviticus 11:45, ‘ . . . therefore be holy, because I am holy.’

“The Pharisees were often in danger of thinking that they had adequately fulfilled their duty before God (cf. Lk 18:9-12:21), and therefore no great sense of dependence on God’s grace was likely to arise. In contrast, Jesus emphasized that the truse servants of God are those who are ever conscious of their unworthiness (Lk 17:7-10) and who have learned to pray, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner’ (Lk 18:13).”

(Moisés Silva, “The Place of Historical Reconstruction in New Testament Criticism,” in D. A. Carson and John D. Woobridge [eds.], Hermeneutics, Authority, and Canon [1986; reprint, Grand Rapids: Baker, 1995], pages 119-121.)