how to read biblical scholarship when you’re not a biblical scholar

I’ve spent many unedifying hours reading books by biblical scholars in ways that have not been … ideal for my purposes. Today I’m going to share with you all some important lessons I’ve learned through my suffering. 

1) The first part of the book will explain in mind-numbing detail how the author situates himself or herself in relation to several hundred other biblical critics. (Maybe only several dozen, but it will feel like several hundred.) The author will insist on explaining to you at, frankly, shocking length that there are

(a) scholars whose position he or she doesn’t agree with at all but whose work, in the cause of fairness, must be described thoroughly;

(b) scholars whose position he or she has partial sympathy with and whose work therefore must be described even more thoroughly; and

(c) scholars whose position he or she largely agrees with, though hopes to extend, and whose work must therefore be described until you are old and gray and full of sleep.

Skip all this. Seriously, don’t read any of it. If you’re not a member of the guild it will be neither interesting nor valuable. (All scholars interact with previous scholars in their chosen subject, but biblical scholars are in my experience unique in their devotion to “literature reviews” and “methodological introductions.” One gets the sense that they would write nothing but literature reviews and methodological introductions if they could get away with it.)

2) Next, read the last chapter, or conclusion. This is the place where you’ll find out what the author actually believes and get at least an outline of why he or she believes it. You should scrutinize the conclusion with great attentiveness, because almost all the good stuff is there.

3) As I say, the conclusion will give you at least an outline of why the author holds his or her views, but sometimes you won’t get as much detail as you need. No worries! The author will sometimes say things like “As I argued in Chapter 3” or “As noted above (pp. 173–79)” — so follow those bread crumbs and see the complete argument about whatever you’re interested in. And don’t bother with what you’re not interested in.

And that’s it! Three easy steps to getting great benefit from biblical scholarship at the least cost to your health and sanity.

The long slow work of combatting ignorance

As our cultural elites lose even the most elementary biblical literacy, this is going to happen more and more often: reading the Bible-saturated literature of the past and missing, not secondary and trivial illusions, but the entire point of stories and novels and plays and poems, and for that matter paintings and sculptures and musical compositions. The artistic past of the West will become incomprehensible, but — and this is the scary thing — no one will know that they’re misreading. Gross errors will be passed down from teacher to student, from scholar to reader, and it is difficult to imagine circumstances arising in which they can be corrected.

I wrote this a couple of years ago, and I continue to think regularly, almost daily, about this problem. One of the chief tasks of Christians in our time, I think, is simply to correct errors: to engage patiently and gently in the tedious work of explaining to people that what they think they know about Christianity is simply wrong.

On False Teachers: Bleat the Third

Steve Holmes recently wrote of his experience defending the traditionalist view on homosexuality at the Society for Biblical Literature conference:

I was slow to understand what went on in our session at ETS; the Rottweilers were out in some force, and challenging Megan and Bill [who were arguing for affirming same-sex relationships] on their understanding… But there was repeatedly an extra step stated or implied in the questions, from ‘this is wrong’ to ‘you are not a Christian’. I admit I did not understand where this was coming from.

Then someone came up to me at the end, and asked why I had been defending my friends. I began to say some stuff about love and loyalty but he cut across me, ‘They are leading people onto the highway to hell!’

I’ll set aside my difficulties with serious use of the phrase “highway to hell” in our post-AC/DC era, and just note that I have heard this before from my fellow theological conservatives: that people who teach that same-sex unions can be affirmed are not just wrong but are “false teachers” — people teaching something clearly other than the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and therefore to be denounced and cast out rather than treated as brothers and sisters with whom we disagree.

I think this is the wrong way to look at the situation and want to explain why. (Let me also add that I affirm with my whole heart the rest of Holmes’s post, and his further reflections in the comments thereupon. The affirmations I share with him are useful context for my views on this particular matter.)

Let’s begin by positing a few assumptions, because the argument I want to explore only arises when the following assumptions are granted: (1) that the Church must, in order to carry out its mission, confront theological and moral error; (2) that Holy Scripture is our authoritative guide to theological and moral truth and falsehood; (3) that sexual behavior is taken very seriously throughout the NT and that erroneous teaching about it must therefore be seen as profoundly consequential; (4) that the traditionalist side is correct on the merits, and the affirming side incorrect; (5) that there really are “false teachers” whose message is something other than the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

And perhaps one other assumption should be noted as well: that it is our place to decide who the false teachers are and to denounce them, something I have raised questions about here.

Now: onward.

As far as I can tell the two passages that are foundational for the concept of the “false teacher” are 2 Peter 2 and 1 Timothy 4. I assume that Peter’s pseudodidaskaloi are pretty much the same as Paul’s didaskaliais daimoniōn, though perhaps the latter are even worse. That is, we could have three categories of error (teachers who are sometimes wrong, false teachers, demonic teachers) — but I suspect there are just two, and the latter two categories should be seen as one.

It is interesting, I note in passing, that 2 Peter coins pseudodidaskaloi by explicit analogy to pseudoprophētai, the latter being a far more common term in the NT. But clearly false teaching and false prophecy are distinct things, though if what I say in my previous paragraph is right they have a common origin: didaskaliais daimoniōn would also be anolagous to prophētai daimoniōn.

In any case, all this is foundational to a NT anatomy of error, it seems to me.

So — setting aside as irrelevant to this canonically-based inquiry the question of whether Peter wrote 2 Peter — let’s look at the famous dispute between Peter and Paul about the “circumcision party.” Paul says he told Peter to his face that he was wrong about this, and of course Paul’s view won out at the Council of Jerusalem (where, I have always thought comically, Peter presents it as his own view, with no reference to Paul having corrected him). Now, clearly, this is a foundational issue in relation to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and if the circumcision party had won out it would have been the death of the Church in its infancy. So it is scarcely possible for Peter, assuming that he did at one time hold this view, to have been more catastrophically wrong. Does this then mean that for a time Peter was one of the pseudodidaskaloi?

That’s not quite what Paul says when describing the disagreement in Galatians 2. Instead, he says that in the circumcision party there was a failure to “walk correctly” (orthopodousin) in relation to “the truth of the Gospel.” A fascinating turn of phrase. Here interpreters will surely differ, but it seems to me that Paul is not treating Peter as a false teacher, but rather a brother, even though a brother who has made a terrible error — for if Peter is right, the conclusion of Paul’s argument says in verse 21, then “Christ died for nothing.” Paul does not anathematize Peter, but strives to correct him as one apostle to another, not questioning his place as one of the “acknowledged pillars” (v. 9) of the Church.

So perhaps the pseudodidaskaloi and didaskaliais daimoniōn are going further and questioning or denying the most elementary and foundational teaching of all: that Jesus is Lord, according to the Christology of John 1 and Colossians 1:15-20. This would be supported, I think, by the description of the false teachers in 2 Peter: they have “licentious ways,” “destructive opinions,” and “deceptive words,” none of which are spelled out except to say that “they will even deny the Master who bought them” — which may give us some hint about how deep the errors are here and therefore what qualifies as pseudodidaskaloi. Peter, by contrast, was not — not any longer, after his shameful behavior on the night Jesus was taken away! — denying the Master who bought him, but was mistaken about what the saving power of that Master meant for the Mosaic law.

So if you can be as wrong as Peter was about something foundational for the Gospel and still not be denounced as a false teacher, then I think it follows that if people do not “walk correctly” in relation to biblical teaching about sexuality, they likewise need not be treated as pseudodidaskaloi but can be seen as brothers and sisters whom those who hold the traditional view patiently strive to correct, without coming out from among them, speaking with the patience and gentleness commended in 2 Timothy 3:24-25.

humility, shame, etc.

I want to follow up, briefly, on yesterday’s post.

The presiding spirit of the ESV, from its beginning to its conclusion, is J. I. Packer. Packer just turned 90, and, as a result of macular degeneration, can no longer read. Since he has always written at least his early drafts by hand, and since travel can be extremely difficult for people who can’t see, he has called a halt to his career in ministry — or rather, he feels that God has called a halt to it. This of course means also an end to his work on the ESV.

Given Packer’s strong leadership at every stage of the project, it is difficult to imagine how he might be replaced — especially since several other members of the translation committee are near or beyond retirement age.

Yet Stanley E. Porter and David I. Yoon insist, repeatedly, in their original post and in the comments, that the only possible explanation for cessation of work on the ESV is that the translators believe “there is no room to improve or change their product” and that “they think of themselves as infallible translators.” The behavior of Packer and his colleagues is therefore “inappropriate,” “hubristic,” “manipulative”; the “whole enterprise smacks of incredible arrogance”; they need “lessons in … humility.” To sum up: “Shame on them”!

In response, I want to say two things. First, I hope that, should Porter and Yoon serve the church as well and as long as Packer has, even if they have made mistakes — in translation, for instance —, they’ll be granted more charity. (Any charity at all would, of course, be more.) And second, I hope that if they are so blessed, they’ll pause for a moment to remember how they treated Jim Packer.

The Frozen Standard Version

Beginning in the summer of 2016, the text of the ESV Bible will remain unchanged in all future editions printed and published by Crossway—in much the same way that the King James Version (KJV) has remained unchanged ever since the final KJV text was established almost 250 years ago (in 1769). This decision was made unanimously by the Crossway Board of Directors and the ESV Translation Oversight Committee. All future Crossway editions of the ESV, therefore, will contain the Permanent Text of the ESV Bible—unchanged throughout the life of the copyright, in perpetuity.

— ESV BibleA good many people seem to be freaking out over this — here’s a hysterical and factually challenged example — but I am at loss to understand why. Contrary to what the just-linked screed claims, Crossway and the ESV committee haven’t said that their translation is perfect. They’ve hardly insisted that no further English translations of the Bible be made. The committee has merely said that they’re not going to revise their work in the future, and they hope people will continue to use what they’ve produced for a long time. Given that the founding leader of the committee, Jim Packer, is 90 years old, and some of the other committee members are also getting up in years, isn’t that decision understandable? Maybe they’re just tired.

But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t reasonable criticisms to be made of the ESV, and especially of some of the most recent changes to it. Scot McKnight makes some of those reasonable criticisms here, and comments: “It is profoundly unwise for a translation to alter this kind of text to this kind of reading without public discussion of it, and then to pronounce it Permanent.” Unwise seems a fair enough judgment (though only because of those as it were last-minute changes).

[UPDATE: Here’s a response to the McKnight post that I’ll want to reflect on.]

On almost all of the points at which serious scholars disagree with particular decisions made by the ESV committee, I side with the scholars. It really does seem to me that a particular theological agenda (sexual complementarianism) has guided the ESV’s translations of certain passages, and that’s very unfortunate; perhaps for many a flaw that renders the translation unusable. But to say that the ceasing of work on the project,  the committee’s choosing not to continue working on it until they drop dead at their desks, “smacks of incredible arrogance” — that’s just crazy talk.

P.S. I don’t use a single translation: depending on circumstances I might use the KJV, the RSV, the NRSV, or an interlinear New Testament (I don’t have enough Greek to move confidently through a standalone Greek text). Sometimes I’m moved by delight in books that I have owned for a long time: both my KJV and my RSV are more than thirty years old, and they keep me connected with a long personal history of encountering and meditating on Scripture.


I don’t use the ESV as enthusiastically as I did when it first came out, largely because I have listened to the scholars who’ve been critical of some of its decisions, but it still has a place in my rotation. There are two reasons for this.

The first is that the ESV committee’s Prime Directive — defer to the RSV whenever possible — means that the translation retains much of the linguistic and poetic excellence that the RSV had inherited from the KJV. For someone who has devoted much of his life to teaching and writing about poetry, this can’t not be a consideration. By contrast, the utter stylistic incompetence manifest in all versions of the NIV makes it simply unreadable to me. Indeed, all translations not directly in the Tyndale line of succession suffer from one or another disease of the English language, and even the NRSV translators were often deaf to the music of what they had inherited. (N.B. People who say that translators of the Bible — which is comprised largely of poetry and narrative! — should focus only on accuracy and ignore aesthetic questions simply do not understand the concept of accuracy in translation. Beauty matters, and not in “merely” aesthetic ways.)

My second reason for keeping the ESV in my rotation is not unlike the first: Crossway has devoted far, far more time and energy and skill into quality book-making than any other Bible publisher. Look, for instance, at this gorgeous edition of the Psalms — and it is but one example among several. Crossway has lavished similar attention on their smartphone apps; in this area they have only one real competitor, Neubible, which is still very much a work in progress and in fact could take a few lessons from Crossway’s apps. Why doesn’t any other Bible publisher care about these matters as much as a little conservative evangelical press in Wheaton, Illinois does?

Sometimes I want to sit down to read the Bible in well-wrought English, within a book that is well-made, and on pages that are admirably formatted and presented. Those are all features that help me concentrate on what I believe to be the Word of God. And that’s why the ESV, for all its flaws, is still in my reading rotation.

12 Romans walk into a bar…

I’ve been thinking a good bit lately about this passage from Julian Baggini’s review of Martha Nussbaum’s new book:

Unconditional forgiveness, in which repentance is not required, is not much better. It too sometimes “channels the wish for payback,” following revenge’s road of status by elevating the pardoner to the moral high ground. It is perhaps telling that Christianity often “juxtaposes an ethic of forgiveness with an ethic of spectacular retribution.” Nussbaum points to a fascinating passage in Paul’s “Twelfth Letter to the Romans” which makes this link explicit. Paul advises against revenge, not because it is wrong, but because we should “leave it to the wrath of God.” You should treat your enemy kindly, not to reward him, but to compound his punishment. “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.”

Bold text my own. I checked Nussbaum’s text, and I think I see what happened. On page 77, Nussbaum introduces the relevant chapter by writing, “In Romans 12….” My suspicion is that Baggini had seen references to, for example, “2 Corinthians” or “1 Kings,” and knew that those numbers indicated separate “books,” and so assumed that Nussbaum was doing the same thing, with the number in a different place. Perhaps he assumed that Brits put the number at the beginning (12 Romans) and Americans at the end (Romans 12).

To be sure, the error might not be Baggini’s: he could have written “Romans 12” and had it changed by a copyeditor, and didn’t notice. Or noticed but thought the editor knew something he didn’t. Whose error it is doesn’t matter to me — though it’s interesting that nobody at the Prospect caught this — so much as the kind of error it is. It catches my attention because it’s the error of a person who isn’t afflicted by the kind of biblical illiteracy that people often comment on (failing to catch a biblical allusion in one of Abraham Lincoln’s speeches) but something deeper: an ignorance of even the basic shape of the Bible.

If you think that Paul wrote at least twelve letters to the Romans, how many letters do you think he wrote overall? How many books do you think are in the New Testament, assuming you know that the Christian Bible has two testaments? More generally, when you think about the Bible, what images and ideas present themselves to you?

Please understand, in asking these questions I am not in any way playing a gotcha game or reveling in the ignorance of wicked infidels. I am genuinely and deeply curious, in an anthropological kind of way, about how the Bible is imagined by people who just don’t have any clear idea what’s in it.

Paul’s Twelfth Letter to the Romans

Unconditional forgiveness, in which repentance is not required, is not much better. It too sometimes “channels the wish for payback,” following revenge’s road of status by elevating the pardoner to the moral high ground. It is perhaps telling that Christianity often “juxtaposes an ethic of forgiveness with an ethic of spectacular retribution.” Nussbaum points to a fascinating passage in Paul’s “Twelfth Letter to the Romans” which makes this link explicit. Paul advises against revenge, not because it is wrong, but because we should “leave it to the wrath of God.” You should treat your enemy kindly, not to reward him, but to compound his punishment. “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.”

Anger—what is it good for? | Prospect Magazine. I’m not sure a guy who believes there’s something called “Paul’s ‘Twelfth Letter to the Romans’” is in the best position to evaluate a critique of Christian theology. (And there was no one at the magazine equipped to catch that??)

Bonhoeffer and the Song of Songs

This is the text of a lecture I gave several years ago at an American Academy of Religion meeting. I’ve never known what to do with it. Its a purely amateurish effort, and probably not worthy of being published anywhere reputable. But I have often over the years returned to some of the ideas in it, wishing I had the skills and knowledge to develop them further. So I’m posting it here, with a few links in lieu of proper footnotes, just in case anyone finds it interesting.


The most famous of all statements about the Song of Songs was uttered by Rabbi Akiba. It occurs in the Mishnah, in tractate Yadayim, which is concerned with the washing of hands and therefore with what is holy and defiles the hands, so that they must be washed. This leads, curiously but inevitably, into a discussion of the canon of Scripture. Says one rabbi,

All the holy writings defile the hands. Shir ha-Shirim and Qoheleth [Ecclesiastes] defile the hands. Rabbi Yudah said, “Shir ha-Shirim defiles the hands, but Qoheleth was in dispute.” Rabbi Yose said, “Qoheleth does not render unclean the hands, but there is a dispute about the Song of Songs.” … But Rabbi Akiba said, “God forbid! No one in Israel disputed the fact that Shir ha-Shirim defiles the hands, for the entire world does not compare with the day that Shir ha-Shirim was given to Israel. All the writings are holy, but Shir ha-Shirim is holiest of all.” (Midrash Yadayim 3:5)

The “writings” to which Akiba refers are, of course, the kethuvim, the Biblical texts other than the Torah and the Prophets. So Akiba is giving the Song of Songs a higher place than, for instance, the Psalms. But his celebration of the Song is contingent upon the understanding that it be interpreted as a poem about the love between Israel and its God. Thus the Tractate Sanhedrin says, “Our Rabbis taught: He who recites a verse of the Song of Songs and treats it as an air [that is, a secular poem], and one who recites a verse at the banqueting table unseasonably, brings evil upon the world. Because the Torah girds itself in sackcloth, and stands before the Holy One, blessed be He, and laments before Him, ‘Sovereign of the Universe! Thy children have made me as a harp upon which they frivolously play.’” This passage suggests that one who treats the Song of Songs as an erotic poem not only insults it, but insults Torah — since in this little story, Torah identifies with the Song: “thy children have made me as a harp.” The relationship between the Song of Songs and Torah is developed both in further rabbinical commentary that associates the Song with the Exodus — one tradition has it that the Song is a transcription of words that passed between Yahweh and Israel at the Red Sea — and in Jewish worship, since the Song is read at Passover. It is within such a context that Akiba and like-minded teachers celebrate the Song; to treat it as something other than a part of the covenant history is to “bring evil upon the world.”

In a June 1944 letter to Eberhard Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “While you’re in Italy I shall write to you about the Song of Songs. I must say I should prefer to read it as an ordinary love song, and that is probably the best ‘Christological’ exposition.” This intriguing comment comes right in the middle of the most famous sequence in the letters, in which Bonhoeffer explores the possible avenues for Christian faith in a “world come of age” and in which he so forcefully repudiates a “God of the gaps” and a Christ who comes to “solve our problems.” But it appears that he never wrote the promised letter, so we have to guess what he meant. I want to suggest, first, that we can make a pretty good guess; second, that that guess leads us into productive theological territory; and third, that Bonhoeffer’s provocative idea leads us back to the Song, and to Akiba’s deep concern that it be rightly read.

In short, I am trying to see what happens when I put Akiba and Bonhoeffer in conversation with each other. I think that conversation will lead to the awareness that we are not confined to a simple choice between a literal and an allegorical meaning, and will enable a way of seeing erotic love as a benefit of the Covenant itself.

As I have noted, the immediate context of Bonhoeffer’s comment about the Song of Songs is the great letters of May and June 1944, when he finds opening up before him wholly new possibilities of theology, and indeed of the Christian life — possibilities that emerge from “the question of what Christianity really is, or indeed who Christ really is, for us today” (279). But there is another level of context that matters here just as much, one that leads us back to the Advent season of 1943. At this point Bonhoeffer was still hoping that his release from prison would come soon, perhaps even before Christmas; but that hope was beginning to fade, and in a long letter to Bethge (dated December 18th) he confesses his “homesickness” and “longing” — longing especially (though he does not say so explicitly) for his fiancée Maria. He wishes “above all” to avoid self-pity, but as he thinks of one of the most common Christian ideas used to counsel those who suffer in this world — the Pauline reminder that “this world is not our home” — he has some doubts, not about the truthfulness of the claim (“That is indeed essential”) but about the ways in which we use it. And quickly what emerges is the unfortunate effect such a reminder can have, not so much on the one who suffers, but on the one who (like Bethge) is blessed with freedom and the presence of loved ones.

I believe that we ought so to love and trust God in our lives, and > in all the good things that he sends us, that when the time comes (but > not before!) we may go to him with love, trust, and joy. But, to put > it plainly, for a man in his wife’s arms to be hankering after the > other world is, in mild terms, a piece of bad taste, and not God’s > will. We ought to find and love God in what he actually gives us; if > it pleases him to allow us to enjoy some overwhelming earthly > happiness, we mustn’t try to be more pious than God himself and allow > our happiness to be corrupted by presumption and arrogance, and by > unbridled religious fantasy which is never satisfied with what God > gives… . Everything has its time, and the main thing is that we > keep step with God, and do not keep pressing on a few steps ahead — > nor keep dawdling a step behind. It’s presumptuous to want to have > everything at once — matrimonial bliss, the cross, and the heavenly > Jerusalem, where they neither marry not are given in marriage. “To > everything there is a season.” (168f)

This is a fascinating adumbration of an idea that would become his obsession six months later. Its most famous expression goes like this:

Christianity puts us into many different dimensions of life at the > same time; we make room in ourselves, to some extent, for God and the > whole world. We rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those > who weep; we are anxious ( — I was again interrupted just then by the > alert, and am now sitting out of doors enjoying the sun —) about our > life, but at the same time we must think about things much more > important to us than life itself… . We have to get people out of > their one-track minds; that is a kind of preparation for faith, or > something that makes faith possible, although really it’s only faith > itself that can make possible a multi-dimensional life, and so enable > us to keep this Whitsuntide, too, in spite of the alarms… . God is > no stop-gap; he must be recognized at the centre of life, not when we > are at the end of our resources; it is his will to be recognised in > life, and not only when death comes; in health and vigour, and not > only in suffering; in our activities, and not only in sin.

But now we get to the heart of the matter, for the very next sentences Bonhoeffer writes are these: “The ground for this lies in the revelation of God in Jesus Christ. He is the centre of life, and he certainly didn’t ‘come’ to answer our unsolved problems. From the centre of life certain questions, and their answers, are seen to be wholly irrelevant… . In Christ there are no ‘Christian problems.’ That is, only in the encompassing and all-illuminating light of the Christ-event does this embrace of all life make sense. It is, strangely enough, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ that make it “bad taste” for a man to long for the transcendent when in his wife’s arms. And this gives us a strong indication of why Bonhoeffer thinks the literal interpretation of the Song of Songs is the most Christological one. But of course the logic here is not obvious — at least not to me — so let’s back up a bit and look at the more specifically theological context in which Bonhoeffer makes these claims.

This whole section of the letters is scattered with references to two theologians, Bultmann and Barth, both of whom he sees as deficient. Bultmann’s problem is that his theology is liberal rather than radical: he merely “abridges the Gospel,” to which Bonhoeffer contrasts his own project: “I’m trying to think theologically” (285). There is just too much of life — and indeed of theology itself — which Bultmann gives up on having anything theological to say about. Barth, by contrast — and it’s significant that Bonhoeffer doesn’t seem, here at least, to think any more highly of Barth than of Bultmann — stresses a “like it or lump it” “positivism of revelation” (286), in which the doctrines of Christian theology are simply to be received rather than integrated with the world of human thought and experience. Charles Marsh, in his book Reclaiming Dietrich Bonhoeffer, gets to the heart of the matter — at least as it affects my argument here — by noting that, in Bonhoeffer’s account, “for Barth the world is ultimately depleted by revelation” (21).

This “depletion” of the world by revelation is something that can be seen in Barth’s treatment of Agape and Eros in the Church Dogmatics (IV/2). Though Barth is willing to say that “this other love” — that is, eros — “can claim some of the greatest figures in the history of the human spirit,” he makes this acknowledgment only in order to deny it any theological significance whatsoever. When he writes, “Nor can Christian love be fused with this other to form a higher synthesis,” he is referring to Anders Nygren’s book Agape and Eros, which explores the “caritas synthesis” which medieval thinkers and poets achieved — often by means of a version of the Platonic scala amoris, which one can see a refined, subtle form of in Dante and a coarse, simplistic form of in the “romantic theology” of C. S. Lewis’s friend Charles Williams. Whether refined or coarse, Barth is having none of it. “Man loves either in one way or the other, and he has to choose whether it is to be in the one way or the other. If in fact he loves in both ways at the same time, as is often the case even with the Christian, this can only be with … disruption, [a] “falling out”… . There can be only conflict and not compromise between Christian love and this other.” Indeed, Barth goes so far as to say that “erotic love is a denial of humanity.”

Now, to a certain extent Barth and Bonhoeffer — who were of course not talking to each other, about this issue anyway — are talking at cross purposes here. Barth can condemn eros so thoroughly because of the way he has chosen to define it: as either a needy, possessive, grasping desire or an idolatry of the beloved (Barth gets positively Platonic here, in an excursus on the way that eros makes eidola). For Barth, the only genuine alternative to such sinful practices is agape’s “regard for the other.” As Barth so often tells us, on such a wide range of subjects, one must simply make one’s choice. But Bonhoeffer does not define erotic love in Barth’s way — or rather, Bonhoeffer is willing to consider a wider range of possible choice. No doubt he would reject eros as defined by Barth as firmly as Barth himself does. But is the embrace of a loving couple — especially a Christian loving couple — an illustration of that eros? No doubt it can be, but is it necessarily so? And if not, is it then simply an example of agape’s “regard for the other”? If so, it is a very peculiar kind of “regard,” and one which (so Church and Scripture teach us) it is inadvisable to practice indiscriminately. For Bonhoeffer, then, Barth’s position is oddly similar to Bultmann’s, in that he too was, however inadvertently, giving up on having anything theological to say about something, that something being married love. As a Tom Stoppard character says, “It is the third thing when you thought there were only two.” By insisting on there just being two, Barth depletes the world.

But it is important to insist that in his comments on sexual or romantic love Bonhoeffer is clearly not trying to resurrect the old “caritas synthesis,” or to construct a ladder by which we may ascend from erotic love to holy love. Nor is he seeking general approval for sexual desire and experience. Instead, he is trying to imagine a more radical possibility: that through Christ and in Christ erotic love is justified as itself, not requiring a transformation into something “holy.” On the other hand, neither is such love immune from the need to be justified. The canonical place of the Song of Songs would, on this account, be as a witness to the power of God in Christ to dwell “at the centre of life.” Bonhoeffer later says that “the difference between the Christian hope of the resurrection and the mythological hope is that the former sends a man back to his life on earth in a wholly new way… . he must drink the earthly cup to the dregs, and only in his doing so is the crucified and risen Lord with him, and he crucified and risen with Christ” (337). This is true — and here is Bonhoeffer at his most radical and provocative — even when “the earthly cup” is sweet to the taste. “The world must not be prematurely written off,” he writes, and to write it off while in the midst of great pleasure is not only in bad taste, not only an attempt to be “more pious than God himself,” but a deep perversity.

Just how it happens that the Christ-event justifies marital love as itself — and therefore how, precisely, the literal interpretation of the Song of Songs is the most Christological one — Bonhoeffer never got the chance to explain. I do not think I can explain it either; but the heart of it must lie in focusing on Christ’s death and resurrection not primarily as the means by which sinners are justified, but rather as the beginning of the redemption of the whole of Creation from its bondage, the beginning of its reclaiming of its original glory.

(In his Ethics Bonhoeffer protests against the insistence in Catholic teaching that when it is inadvisable for a married couple to have children, they must abstain from sex altogether rather than use artificial means of birth control. Bonhoeffer’s concern is that this takes away the “bodily union” which is one of the chief features and purposes of marriage. This teaching avoids the “unnatural act of preventing conception” only by instituting the “unnatural state of a marriage without bodily union.” The invocation of the category of the “natural” is of particular interest here, since it invokes the possibility of a redeemed Creation operating within its sovereign sphere and according to its own self-governance. If unpacked this notion might be key to understanding his point about the Song.)

But I will leave that speculative line of thought and turn back, this time a little more attentively, to the Song of Songs itself. Because the logic of Bonhoeffer’s point in his letter, if I have discerned it rightly, enables us to see certain features of that text in a new way, and perhaps even enables us to offer some assistance (if we may be so bold) to Rabbi Akiba.

One thing that strikes the “literary” reader of the Song is that its images of beauty and excellence so often come from the local landscape — that is, the landscape specific to the land of Israel. I am not thinking of the frequent references to grapes, apples, gazelles and doves — it is hardly noteworthy that a poet’s images of the natural world would be taken largely from the flora and fauna he sees every day. It is the incessant geographical references that are noteworthy: the “tents of Kedar” (1:5), the “vineyards of Engedi” (1:14), the famous rose (or crocus) of Sharon (2:1), the “slopes of Gilead” (4:1), the “tower of David” (4:4), the mountains of Lebanon, Amana, Senir, Hermon (4:8). The beloved woman is “beautiful as Tirzah, … comely as Jerusalem” (6:4). In the most extended passage of this kind, in Chapter 7, we hear of this woman,

Your eyes are pools in Heshbon,
by the gate of Bath-rabbim.
Your nose is like a tower of Lebanon,
overlooking Damascus.
Your head crowns you like Carmel,
and your flowing locks are like purple;
a king is held captive in the tresses.

As Francis Landy points out, this passage “is in fact a single extended metaphor of the Beloved as the kingdom… . The face evokes peripheries: Lebanon is in the north, Heshbon on the east, Carmel in the west. The landscapes complement one another: the mountain fastness matches the city on the edge of the desert and promontory overlooking the sea. Each suggests power and prosperity in its dealings with the outside world: the tower of Lebanon watches over Damascus; the ‘gate of the many’ in Heshbon is the focus of busy traffic; the sea is dominated by the Carmel, and from it is extracted the royal purple” (314–15).

This is the sort of passage that seems strongly to invite an allegorical reading: the beloved woman does not just remind us of Israel, she is Israel. It is as though the land itself has been animated, transformed into a beautiful reclining woman, so that every feature of the landscape becomes is given life as a part of her body. It is interesting in this context to note that, according to Elsie Stern, “the Song was a popular biblical text for the early Zionist movement” (introduction to the Tanakh translation). Look at 4:11: “honey and milk are under thy tongue,” a clear reminder of Palestine as the land of milk and honey. (A similar strategy is used by James Joyce in Finnegans Wake, where the sleeper whose dreaming thoughts comprise the book is also figured as a reclining giant who is the living cityscape of Dublin at night.) But despite the temptations to read the relentless geographical troping of the poem in this allegorical way, allegory is not the only way to take full cognizance of the phenomenon.

As Robert Alter notes, “the imagery of the Songs of Songs is a curious mixture of pastoral, urban, and regal allusions.” I want to suggest that this division of metaphorical labor is highly purposeful. The pastoral images indicate Israel as the land given to the people, the urban images the building-up of that land by the people (especially in Jerusalem), and the regal ones the rise of Israel to full nationhood under the kingship of David and his son Solomon, who is of course repeatedly invoked in the poem. This threefold edifice of tropes points us always to the assured beauty of the Promised Land, as given by Yahweh and as built up by the children of Israel; the beauty of the beloved is derivative of that. Or, to put it another way, the beauty of Israel is what enables the lovers to live in such a way that they can discern and enjoy each other’s beauty.

I find this idea appealing in part because it is so essential to another great work of antiquity, Homer’s Iliad. In the speeches of the Trojan warrior Hector and his wife Andromache a clear message emerges, one that is extended and confirmed by the detailed description in Book 18 of the great shield that the smith-god Hephaestos makes for Achilles. The message is that the safety and security of the city guarantee the blessings and pleasures of its citizens. Andromache laments her husband’s entry into the battle because she fears that the city is doomed and therefore if he defends it he too will be doomed; and Hector laments the imminent destruction of Troy chiefly because it means the end of the life he shares with his beloved wife. So in the Iliad — just as in the Song of Songs — there is an intimate connection between the public world of the city, or the homeland, and the familial and private loves of the people who live in it. In a world in which civilization is hard-earned and fragile, it is more greatly valued as the guarantor of an environment in which love can be cultivated.

The difference between the two poems, in this respect, is that for Hector and Andromache the value of Troy is purely instrumental — that is, it matters only insofar as it provides for the private joy of their marriage. Hektor says quite bluntly that it is not the destruction of Troy itself that grieves him nearly as much as the fate of Andromakhe, who he knows will be taken into slavery. In the Song of Songs, by contrast, though the security and power of Israel make the lovers’ wooing possible, the land is by no means merely instrumental to the realm of private joy. (“If I forget thee, O Jerusalem… .”) Instead, as I have already indicated, it is the greatness of Israel that is certain, and, because it is certain, provides the anchor of metaphorical value for the descriptions of the beloved.

It is clear that Rabbi Akiba’s praise of the Song as a celebration of the covenant love of Yahweh and Israel, and the Sanhedrin’s general opposition to a “literal” reading as a nearly blasphemous failure to acknowledge that meaning, assume a necessary opposition of the literal (which is, as St. Paul would later put it, “carnal”) and the allegorical or “spiritual.” But if we are right to see the health and strength of the nation of Israel as the guarantor of a social space in which erotic love can be safely pursued, then the literal reading can also be a covenantal and therefore “spiritual” one.

And this way of reading the poem would be, I think, still more potent in the context that Bonhoeffer points us towards, the Christian one in which not the land of Israel but the cross of Christ is the guarantor of value for the realm of erotic love as expressed in Christian marriage. In this account, the Song of Songs celebrates God’s power in Christ to restore relationship, to redeem Creation in such a way that the love which Adam and Eve shared in Eden can be continually imagined and made the object of human striving. In the Cross of Christ lies the power to restore the Edenic conditions of sexual, marital love, if not in full present actuality, at least in hopeful anticipation. The love celebrated in the Song of Songs is a memory of Eden and an implied teleology for every marriage, grounded in the transforming power of the Gospel. In contrast to Rabbi Akiba and the Sanhedrin, I think we must say that this is a “spiritual” meaning which is only liberated for our use by a “literal” reading. It is in this sense that Bonhoeffer was surely right to say that the literal interpretation of the Song of Songs is the most truly Christological one.

Aslan’s entire book is, as it turns out, an ambitious and single-minded polemical counter-narrative to what he imagines is the New Testament’s portrayal of Jesus Christ. The straw-man Jesus against whom he is arguing, however, is a purely heavenly creature, far closer to the solely and absolutely unearthly Christ of the second-century heretic Marcion, than the exceedingly complex man/God depicted by the Evangelists and painstakingly developed in the theological works of the early Church Fathers.

Aslan dismisses just about all of the New Testament’s accounts of the early life and teachings of Jesus prior to his “storming” of Jerusalem and his subsequent arrest and crucifixion. He goes so far as to insist that Jesus’s zealous assault on the Jerusalem Temple is the “singular fact that should color everything we read in the Gospels about the Messiah known as Jesus of Nazareth.” Everything! Aslan goes on to assert that the very fact of his crucifixion for the crime of sedition against the Roman state is “all one has to know about the historical Jesus.” Still, as the New Testament constitutes the principal primary source for these facts as well as for anything else we can know about the “life and times of Jesus,” Aslan has little choice but to rely rather heavily on certain, carefully selected New Testament narratives.

— Jewish Review of Books » What Jesus Wasn’t: Zealot. So The Gospel narratives are a tissue of lies — until they happen to say something an author agrees with, at which point they become absolutely trustworthy.

The matter is quite simple. The Bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand we are obliged to act accordingly. Take any words in the New Testament and forget everything except pledging yourself to act accordingly. My God, you will say, if I do that my whole life will be ruined. How would I ever get on in this world? Herein lies the real place of Christian scholarship. Christian scholarship is the Church’s prodigious invention to defend itself against the Bible, to ensure that we can continue to be good Christians without the Bible coming too close. Oh, priceless scholarship, what would we do without you? Dreadful it is to fall into the hands of the living God. Yes, it is even dreadful to be alone with the New Testament.

I open the New Testament and read: ‘If you want to be perfect, then sell all your goods and give to the poor and come follow me.’ Good God, if we were to actually do this, all the capitalists, the officeholders, and the entrepreneurs, the whole society in fact, would be almost beggars! We would be sunk if it were not for Christian scholarship! Praise be to everyone who works to consolidate the reputation of Christian scholarship, which helps to restrain the New Testament, this confounded book which would one, two, three, run us all down if it got loose (that is, if Christian scholarship did not restrain it).

— From Kierkegaard’s Journals, and beyond question my favorite passage from his works.

Jacobs thinks we’’re stuck with mediocre Bible translations because the divorce between belletrist and philologist will remain, given our ever-increasing specialization, even within the humanities. A major part of the problem is the way students are taught biblical languages. Prior to the Second World War, scholars would have learned their Greek by mastering Homer, Hesiod, Aeschelus, and Sophocles before moving to the New Testament. Now they are taught to master the grammar and vocabulary of the New Testament.

This leads to a raw substitutionary plug-and-play of “dynamic equivalence” as we encourage them to try and stick abstract content into English words. In short, we’’re still structuralists (perhaps unwittingly) who forget we’re living in a post-structuralist age, and for good reason. Structuralists reduce human phenomena — —language, art, literature, music, indeed all of culture— — to the presumed structural relations of a few basic non-linguistic building blocks behind the phenomena, running roughshod over the dynamics of the biblical texts as we try to extract a few basic ideas we can stick into simple English. No wonder our Bible translations are often brutal and banal.

I’’m more sanguine than Jacobs, however, for a few reasons. I see younger scholars and theologians reacting against the centrifugal forces of specialization and compartmentalization and engaging in interdisciplinary endeavors in English and literature. I see a renewed concern for beauty in all things, including language. I see an increasing rejection of the now-naive linguistic theories of the sixties. I see a large Christian body, the Anglophone wing of the Catholic Church, revising its liturgical texts and Bibles in the converging directions of fidelity and beauty.

So to celebrate the Bible of 1611 is not to genuflect before a timeless masterpiece, to salute a perfect translation; the translators would have been both baffled and embarrassed by any such idea. It is to recognise the absolute seriousness with which they sought to find in our language words that would pass on to us hearers and readers in the English tongue the almost unbearable weight of divine intelligence and love pressing down on those who first encountered it and tried to embody it in writing; those who like Moses and Ezekiel found themselves overwhelmed by the sheer “density” of divine presence, those who like St Paul found themselves dizzy with the number of connections and interrelations between God’s acts over the ages and unable to put it all into a theory, only into a hymn.

The temptation is always there for the modern translator to look for strategies that make the text more accessible; and when that temptation comes, it doesn’t hurt to turn for a moment – for some long moments indeed – to this extraordinary text, with its continuing capacity to surprise us into seriousness, to acquaint us again with the weight of glory – and, we hope and pray, to send us back to the unending work of letting ourselves be changed so that we can bear just a little more of the light of the new world, full of grace and truth.

Perhaps you were expecting a purely historical account as one might give of the battle of Waterloo, whereas I was trying to treat it as a religious event which eternally recurs every time it is accepted. Thus the historical fact that the shepherds were shepherds is religiously accidental — the religious fact is that they were the poor and humble of this world for whom at this moment the historical expression is the city-proletariat, and so on with all the other figures. What we know of Herod, for instance, is that he was a Hellenised-Jew and a political ruler. Accordingly I have made him express the intellectual’s eternal objection to Christianity — that it replaces objectivity with subjectivity — and the politician’s eternal objection that it regards the state as having only a negative role. (See Marcus Aurelius.) …

I am not the first to treat the Christian data in this way, until the 18th Cent. it was always done, in the Mystery Plays for instance or any Italian paintings. It is only in the last two centuries that religion has been “humanized,” and therefore treated historically as something that happened a long time ago, hence the nursery prayer of Jesus in a nightgown and a Parsifal beard.

If a return to the older method now seems startling it is partly because of the acceleration in the rate of historical change due to industrialization — there is a far greater difference between the accidents of life in 1600 AD and in 1942 than between those of 30 AD and 1600.

From a letter W. H. Auden wrote to his father in October of 1942, explaining his decision to use a largely contemporary setting for his long poem For the Time Being: a Christmas Oratorio. I’m working on a critical edition of that poem for Princeton University Press, and goodness, it’s fun.

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