Monday, August 25, 2014

Found in Transliteration: Scripture and the probelm of harmonizing with Christian Theology

Years ago I saw a Bible published shortly after Vatican II. What made this edition stand out, and made me regret not having picked up a copy when I had the chance, was that it opted to transliterate a number of Hebrew terms, as opposed to following conventional vernacular translation. The most notable being its use of the multiple divine names in the Old Testament (Elohim, Yahweh, El Shaddai, etc.), a characteristic it shared in common with the New Jerusalem Bible, if memory serves.

The decision to reduce the divine names to God or Lord, following the tradition set in the Septuagint, though enacted out of necessity, had negative consequences on Christianity, which neither East or West is immune from. The conventional translation imposes a block in the Christian's access to the text. Concepts in the theology of the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible are denied expression to the Christian reader - and this has been the case since, at least, the second century.

Contemporary Bibles, such as the RSV and NRSV, try to get around the gap of centuries by providing numerous explanatory notes that detail Hebrew terms or the Jewish background. The success depends upon the accuracy of the notes, the tendency of the reader to engage the notes, and whether or not the reader has any background in Biblical languages. In an ideal world, the reader would have such a sufficient knowledge of the original languages that he or she could make his or her own determinations.

It is often asked, and typically with some degree of either paranoia or derision, what significance an understanding of Hebrew has for understanding Jesus of Nazareth, the New Testament, and Christianity. When it comes to Biblical translations and theology, the insinuation behind the question is that proponents of such a perspective imply that somehow, someway, the Church "missed something;" the canons and decrees which came to define Christian orthodoxy are, in some manner, deficient, the result of men who could not bridge the cultural-linguistic gap between late antiquity and its corresponding Neo-Platonism and the multi-layered, often times to the point of obscurity, mythological worldview of an fundamentally Semitic religious movement. They are correct in their insinuations.

By the time Nicaea meets and the first plans to define normative Christian doctrine are set in motion, Christianity has already been approximately three centuries removed from its point of origin, its original linguistic and cultural milieu. During this time, Hebrew and Aramaic have been replaced by Greek and other languages, such as Latin and Coptic, are beginning become the favored means of linguistic expression in their population centers. Although respect for tradition retained memory of the earlier Jewish expression, it increasingly became apparent that the original "language" of religion born from the movement and memory of Jesus of Nazareth was increasingly indecipherable to the Church that professed faith in him. As an example, the angel of Yahweh and panim Yahweh motifs that seem to underlie the theology of the fourth gospel are displaced in favor of an imposed logos theology sprung from the well springs of a Platonic revival. Plainly, a new and culturally relevant language was needed to interpret texts that had become ever more alien to the Church that transmitted them. Yet, there was a trade off; the original theology, doctrine, mysticism, et al., of movement that encircled Jesus of Nazareth's activity, the original Hebrew/Aramaic context, was lost.

There are times I am tempted to go so far to say that the legends of an original Hebrew copy of Matthew that circulated until at least the time of Jerome are evidence that the New Testament itself, in virtue of being written in Greek, was an example of bartering the original cultural and linguistic matrix for a new and more relevant mode of expression. After the New Testament had become relatively prevalent, perhaps by the time of Papias, the memory of the original context was preserved in legends of an original textual source for the New Testament "in the Hebrew tongue."

The idea that there is an original "Hebrew" theology behind the New Testament that was obscured as Christianity became an increasingly gentile  religion is nothing new in scholarly research. Margaret Baker has written a handful of otherwise well received books detailing the survival of particular form of Judaism in the New Testament. For those wishing to study the Apocalypse of John, it is now nearly impossible to do so without considering the book as one part of the continuum of proto-merkavah mysticism. The scholarly evidence is there and for those with a command of the languages the evidence is considerable.

If the above is true, then, well so what? Hasn't Christianity gotten along well enough with the theological system that gradually came into being and was eventually solidified during the great ecumenical counsels? Well, yes and no. A new language of interpretation was needed, but in the process of finding a new interpretive lens there was a very real loss of much of the tradition, as it was rendered unintelligible. If, for instance, the point and purpose of John's Apocalypse is mystical experience and revelation of arcane knowledge, then the eschatological obsession over the book is possibly misplaced. If this is the case of a book that seems to have come out of the Christian matrix, what of those books that are decidedly pre-Christian? How much has the Old Testament been misread? Additionally, one wonders how much an amnesia around Christian origins has contributed to the "one true Church" mentality; if Christianity really did undergo a revolution whereby its original interpretive lens was displaced in favor of something more palatable with Greco-Roman culture, then the claims of any one church to have preserved the faith of the apostles would have to be taken with a grain of salt. Moreover, it is worth asking whether or not the orthodoxy that displaced the original strata has exhausted itself and if anything of the original Jewish strata could be retrieved and reapplied in our contemporary context.

Reading the Old Testament as it was meant to be read is a start, and it is perhaps inevitable. Simple things such as transliterating terms that are often translated by glosses, or by faithfully translating the anthropomorphism in the Hebrew text, have the effect of orientating the reader more in the direction of the original author's intention and potentially re-discovering a perception of reality that has been lost.

Is any of this possible on a Church-wide level? Probably not. There is a very real way in which one can see a survival of Marcion's thought in the definition of classical Christian theology, in so far as it is by and large a theology that is admittedly foreign to the thought of Scripture. Certain elements of classical Christian theology can be read into the New Testament only with much presupposition. With regards to the Old Testament, Christian theology, as it has come to define orthodox belief, is often times only possible by either ignoring the theology of the Old Testament, claiming it has been superseded by Church tradition, or seriously mutilating the thought of the books.

At this point, it is common to bring up Tradition and, in Catholic or Orthodox circles, observe that the religion does not abide by sola scriptura. True enough. On the level of pure religion, Christian theology and the gap that sometimes exists between it and the earliest documents related to the tradition is almost irrelevant. A religion either works or it doesn't; if it fails to communicate certain perennial truths about our condition, our reality, our cosmos, and our destiny, then it simply collapses. More importantly, the Tradition, both Catholic and Orthodox, has succeeded in cultivating religious experience. People are able to experience religion and, in this manner, attest to its veracity. Faith makes reality....but, this does not eliminate the evidence demonstrating that when the cultural and linguistic milieu shifted, a profound alteration of paradigm took place, one which Christianity has not reconciled with. From this perspective, there is crucial chapter in Christianity's past that the Church has not come to terms with and it is uncertain if such is possible on a religion-wide scale.

As one trained in historical criticism, I am, of course, biased towards the perspective that, most sacred above all is not necessarily the theology or interpretation hallowed by the Tradition, but, ultimately, the original thought and intention of the ancient author. On an individual level, recapturing the original theology of the ancient author is indeed possible, and, I would argue, ought to be done. Religion, however, requires a myriad of other considerations that must be met and these considerations may well exclude the thought of the ancient author. Although the book of Job may well follow the traditional concept in Semitic theologies that one may justifiably raise a charge against the Deity for unfaithfulness to his covenant, such thought does address the theological or practical concerns of religion, which may be better served by expounding Job as an exemplar of patience in suffering or following a Christological interpretation. Neither Christian piety or theology allow for the possibility that God could unjustifiably be unfaithful to his end of the covenant, although Job intends to provide the vocabulary to raise such a charge and demonstrate that the Deity can be called into account before man.

This is the paradox we face. There is a certain integrity to the Christian theological tradition; no serious scholar would dispute this. Yet, one cannot ignore that a notable points of disagreement exist between what appears to have been in place during Jesus of Nazareth's life to the close of first century, and the Christian tradition that begins to come into its own. No one is entirely sure, aside from individual assimilation, the data of the first century ought to be applied to the Christian context, or if it even can be applied. Nevertheless, it is there, it exists. For some, it is the result of the machinations of faithless secularists who want nothing more than to dismantle Christianity. For others, it is part of the quest to encounter God on the most unadulterated manner possible.

In Jewish thought, reflected in both the Old and, incidentally, the New Testament, there is notion of name theology. To learn the name of the Deity is to discover its essence and power. The various names of God transmitted in the Hebrew text reveal aspects of the Deity. We find this name theology transmitted into the New Testament - "Who do you say I am?", "the name above every other name," etc. It is impossible to fully integrate the significance of the name theology in the New Testament without understanding how and what the names of God reveal. To this point, transliteration and a rediscovery of the first century are integral.

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