It’s official–I have begun the first sabbatical of my career. I have many projects on the plate, all relating to topics of interest to this blog. The first major one, with which I’ve been busy, is a book project pertaining to Alfred Loisy. Loisy was a Catholic priest and Bible scholar from the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century. He was excommunicated as a Modernist in 1908. In fact, he was at the heart of the controversy over Roman Catholic Modernism which Pope St. Pius X condemned as the “synthesis of all heresies” in his 1907 papal encyclical, Pascendi Dominici Gregis. I’m convinced that the biblical scholarship of Loisy and many of his contemporaries, as well as the responses to such scholarship from the Magisterium and from other anti-Modernists, played a very significant role in what came later in Catholic biblical scholarship in the second half of the 20th century, and today. I’m excited about the Loisy project because I have found that most scholars of Roman Catholic Modernism are either historical theologians, systematicians, fundamental theologians, or the like (or a combination), but tend to know less about the history of biblical criticism. With few exceptions, when they do write about Loisy’s work in biblical studies (which is what got Loisy in trouble), they focus on his New Testament work without dealing much with Loisy’s quite substantial work on the Old Testament. Moreover, fewer know much about Loisy’s early work in the related field of Assyriology. The first few chapters of the book I’m working on during my sabbatical deal especially with Loisy’s Old Testament work and his work in Assyriology. They build upon work I’ve already done for conference presentations at the American Academy of Religion, La Société Internationale d’Études sur Alfred Loisy, and the Near Eastern Archaeological Society, which in turn resulted in an article last year in the Near Eastern Archaeological Society Bulletin, another article that came out earlier this year in Journal for the History of Modern Theology/Zeitschrift für Neuere Theologiegeschichte, as well as another article forthcoming from the Journal of Religious History. The work I did for those presentations and articles underscored for me the significance of Loisy’s early Assyriological work for his Old Testament studies. So, I’m enjoying pulling this all together as I write my book. So, thus begins my year-long sabbatical at undisclosed locations. I will try to post on some of the interesting findings as I progress.
Here’s another old book review I published in the Review of Biblical Literature back in 2010. It deals with the various versions of a later non-biblical book called The Life of Adam and Eve. As Murdoch’s fine volume shows, there were many different versions of this text. It was an incredibly rich tradition that found itself travelling all over Europe in the medieval period, influencing art, story, theater, etc. The story, in its varied forms, was about Adam and Eve after the Fall. At its core, the story is one of penance, of Adam and Eve’s sorrow over their sins, and the various ways in which they expressed this sorrow penitentially, including immersing themselves in the cold water of a running stream. For me, one of the other very interesting aspects of this tradition–which clearly has Christian influences in many of its later expressions, but which Murdoch believes may have Jewish roots in its earliest form–is the depiction of the demonic serpent as a violent aggressor. In his more popular work, A Father Who Keeps His Promises, Catholic Theology and Scripture professor Scott Hahn interprets the account of the Fall in Genesis 3 in such a way that the serpent was delivering a veiled threat of violence to both Adam and Eve with the serpent’s retort: “you shall not die.”(1) Indeed, such conflict may be implied in its ancient context, in light of comparable ancient literature from the ancient Near East.(2) Interestingly, The Life of Adam and Eve implies such violent intent on the part of the serpent. In fact, after Satan’s failure here, popular versions of the text depict the serpent going after their son Seth, and even biting him in the face. Murdoch’s volume is thus a welcome addition to the scholarly literature on the history of biblical interpretation, showing some of the many ways earlier readers understood Genesis 3 and its aftermath.
(1) Scott Hahn, A Father Who Keeps His Promises: God’s Covenant Love in Scripture (Cincinnati: Charis, 1998), 69, where Hahn writes:
“He said, ‘You will not die.’ And that defiant contradiction hung in the air until slowly the serpent’s meaning became clear: ‘You will not die–if you eat the fruit…’ In other words, Satan used the form of a life-threatening serpent, with his evil stealth, to deliver what Adam rightly took to be a thinly veiled threat to his life, which it was from the outset.”
Where does Hahn get this interpretation, which to many may sound bizarre? From the combination of several factors: 1) the man was given the command (in Gen. 2) to “keep” or “guard” (in Hebrew, shamar) the garden (pp. 58-59). Hahn explains further:
“the other word, ‘keep’ (shamar), carries a distinct meaning, ‘to guard,’ implying the need to ward off potential intruders. This was how the word was used to describe the task of the sword-wielding Levites, who were ordered by Moses to keep Israel’s sanctuary free of encroachers (see Nm 17:12-18:6). Perhaps it struck Adam as a curious command, for it seemed to imply not only a need for the sanctity of the garden to be guarded but the existence of a potential intruder to desecrate it” (pp. 58-59).
2) Hahn underscores the ambiguity of the reference to “life” with the tree of life mentioned in Gen 2. He asks the pointed question, “After all, didn’t God already give Adam the gift of immortality? What’s the use of a tree with fruit to make you life forever if you’re already going to anyway?” (p. 59). Hahn thus takes this to imply that there would be a potential threat to life (pp. 59-60). 3) Hahn is also aware of the many ways in which “sons” are tested throughout the Bible, a sort of filial test. He thus envisions the temptation narrative as just such a test (pp. 63-64). 4) Hahn shows that the Hebrew word for “serpent,” nachash, is much broader than what we typically think of as a snake, e.g., it is used of Leviathan in Isaiah 27:1 (p. 66). He explains:
“Across this wide spectrum of usage, the word generally refers to something that bites (see Prv 23:32), often with venom (see Ps 58:4). In any event, at minimum, the serpent here is a life-threatening symbol. And it represents mortal danger. In this case, the danger was not only (or mainly) physical but spiritual, particularly since the New Testament identifies this ‘ancient serpent’ with Satan himself (see Rv 12:9; 20:2)” (p. 66).
5) Hahn also notes that the word employed for “subtle,” (‘arum), can be used to describe “the ‘stealth’ and ‘guile’ of the wicked (see Jb 5:12; 15:5)” (p. 66). 6) Finally, Hahn asks the question about where the man is during this ordeal when the serpent speaks to the woman. He emphasizes how the text seems to indicate the man was by her side, silent, the whole time. The serpent’s verbs are plural, not singular, and there’s no description of the woman looking for the man; apparently, he’s right there when she gives him the fruit (pp. 67-69). Thus, Hahn links the pride and envy of Adam with fear of suffering (pp. 69-74).
(2) Richard E. Averbeck, “Ancient Near Eastern Mythography as It Relates to Historiography in the Hebrew Bible: Genesis 3 and the Cosmic Battle,” in The Future of Biblical Archaeology Reassessing Methodologies and Assumptions: The Proceedings of a Symposium, August 12-14, 2001 at Trinity International University, ed. James K. Hoffmeier and Alan Millard, 328-356 (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2004).
Here’s an old book review I published back in 2009 in the Review of Biblical Literature, when I was still teaching at the University of Dayton as a Lecturer in the Religious Studies Department. I’m posting it here for those of you who do not regularly keep tabs on the Review of Biblical Literature, just in case you are interested. Leonhard’s book is impressive in many ways. One of my disappointments, however, was his starting point when assessing the antiquity of Jewish traditions, and particularly the Passover narrative recounted during Passover Seder meals. He begins explicitly from a position of suspicion. He doubts the antiquity of the tradition, assuming the latest date possible. This raises the debate about methodology. Obviously this is a contested issue. When examining ancient texts, should we assume they are later than they purport to be? What sort of evidence indicates a tradition’s antiquity? Leonhard goes so far as to suggest that the final form of the Passover story in Exodus 12, dates the time of the pilgrimages during the Second Temple period, like those recounted by the first century A.D. Jewish historian Josephus. He also suggests that the earliest use of the exodus story at Passover might be no earlier than the first written examples that have survived, from the medieval period. His work brings up a whole host of questions about methodology that are important to consider as we think about the history of biblical interpretation.
Michael Legaspi begins his fine book, The Death of Scripture and the Rise of Biblical Studies,(1) which treats the eighteenth century origins of modern biblical studies, with an elegantly written description of two approaches to biblical interpretation, what he terms two Bibles–the “Scriptural Bible” and the “Academic Bible.”
“From behind the icon screen, the priest comes into view, carrying overhead, in solemn procession, an ornately bound, gold-plated volume: the Book of the Gospels. All stand. There is incense in the air. Acolytes, candles in hand, stand by to illuminate the reading of the Gospel. In that moment, the people are told not to look, to follow texts with their eyes, but rather to listen. The priest proclaims, ‘Wisdom! Let us attend!’ and the people go silent.”(2)
He continues by contrasting this image with that of what he calls the “Academic Bible,” using the example of the university biblical studies seminar classroom:
“It too is filled with people. They sit, not stand. At the center is a long table. On it are many Bibles, various copies in assorted languages: Hebrew, Greek, Syriac, Latin. Some lie open, others are pushed aside into impromptu stacks. They share the table with other writings: teacher’s notes, photocopies, reference works, dictionaries, grammars, commentaries. The atmosphere is sociable but cerebral, quiet but static. Heads are bowed, but over books. There are readers here too, but the oral performances are tracked closely by others whose eyes are attuned carefully to common texts.”(3)
Not long ago I published an article length review of Legaspi’s book in the scholarly theology journal Nova et Vetera.(4) I had already read the earlier version of the book, which was Legaspi’s Harvard University doctoral dissertation, and I must say that both versions make an incredible contribution to the field. The published version is a must read for anyone interested in the history of modern biblical scholarship.
The quotations I include above from Legaspi’s book, bring up some very important issues concerning methodology, among other things. The issues relate to the relationship between the scholarly study of the Bible in the academy to more traditional forms of encountering Scripture as the Word of God. Can there be a connection? Can one engage in theological interpretation in a way which is scholarly? Are Legaspi’s “Scriptural Bible” and “Academic Bible” mutually exclusive? Can anything that may be gleaned from the study of the Bible in the modern biblical studies seminar like that Legaspi describes be profitable for the spiritual life? Is there something about theological interpretation that can benefit the study of the Bible in a non-theological context? Is there something in particular about the role of Scripture in the Liturgy, and especially the Sacramental Liturgy (Divine Liturgy or Holy Mass) that can benefit the scholarly study of the Bible?
In thinking about this last question in particular, I am reminded of two important scholarly pieces that Scott Hahn wrote, which are thankfully both available online. The first piece is his article entitled, “Worship in the Word: Toward a Liturgical Hermeneutic.”(5) The second essay is entitled, “Canon, Cult and Covenant: The Promise of Liturgical Hermeneutics.”(6) I published a related piece in the journal Logos wherein I used the example of Genesis 1-3 and its use in the Memorial of St. Joseph the Worker.(7)
In the end, I think that both approaches described by Legaspi have their benefits. I would not want to shut out the theological from the academy, nor, however, do I think that close attention to language and history is inimical to theological enterprises. Afterall, traditional Jewish and Christian biblical interpretation paid careful attention to issues concerning language, various textual traditions among different manuscripts, as well as matters of history. The story of the creation of the “Academic Bible” that Legaspi recounts, however, does represent a dramatic shift from what came before. The mode of scholarship that Johann David Michaelis (the main scholar Legaspi examines) initiates has wide-ranging implications, and has left its mark on the world of biblical studies as it continues today in universities across the globe.
(2) Ibid., vii.
(4) Jeffrey L. Morrow, “The Enlightenment University and the Creation of the Academic Bible: Michael Legaspi’s The Death of Scripture and the Rise of Biblical Studies,” Nova et Vetera 11, no. 3 (2013): 897-922.
(5) Scott W. Hahn, “Worship in the Word: Toward a Liturgical Hermeneutic,” Letter & Spirit 1 (2005): 101-136.
(6) Scott W. Hahn, “Canon, Cult and Covenant: The Promise of Liturgical Hermeneutics,” in Canon and Biblical Interpretation, ed. Craig G. Bartholomew, Scott Hahn, Robin Parry, Christopher Seitz, and Al Wolters, 209-235 (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2006).
(7) Jeffrey Morrow, “Work as Worship in the Garden and the Workshop: Genesis 1-3, the Feast of St. Joseph the Worker, and Liturgical Hermeneutics,” Logos 15, no. 4 (2012): 159-178.