When scripture bites

This week I am reader at Divine Office, and this morning at Matins I had to read possibly my favourite section in the Old Testament, the death of Absalom and the lament of his father, King David (2 Samuel 18:-19:4). It is a remarkably moving piece of scripture. What is even more notable is that there is about it an air of such authenticity that I can only think with scorn of the excesses of the historico-critical method applied to scripture. Indeed, most of the narrative about King David has such a degree of authentic detail regarding his human emotions, failings and successes that it strikes me as being very authentic and accurate indeed.

King David and Absalom, by Marc Chagall
King David and Absalom, by Marc Chagall

When scholars raise doubts about the dating, authorship and historicity of certain canonical books, very often it appears like ungrounded reason on steroids. It takes insufficient account of the strength and integrity of oral tradition in ancient cultures. The mourning David endured for his son, traitor but flesh of his flesh nevertheless, must have captured the attention and memory of the Hebrew people because of its strength and its unexpectedness. This would explain the detail with which David’s grief is described, which while not overwhelming still rings true. David was obviously a man of great passions, judging by his relationships with Bathsheba and Jonathan, and his ability to rage one day, to repent in fulsome terms another day. Such a man would be much talked about, not least because if his stature as king and national father, and it does not surprise me if history was constantly repeated in all its detail.

Whenever I hear the sad old line against the atonement, that God the Father, if he had willed his Son’s death on the Cross, must be an ogre, I instinctively think of David lamenting for Absalom. Obviously the parallels are very few, and God the Father is not subject to emotion as we humans are, being impassible. Still, if there is something in scripture that would express in some brittle, imprefect way how we should see the Father’s allowing Christ his Son to be crucified, this is it – this, and Abraham’s obedient willingness to sacrifice Isaac. If God could lament, he would have for his Son on the Cross, and David’s lament would be its nearest earthly echo.

But the point here is not to fight exegetical wars, nor to tip-toe along the borders of heresy. This episode in scripture has inspired two sublime pieces of music that fit the text and the episode marvelously. So turn up your speakers and let scripture come alive in music. The first version is by Thomas Weelkes (1576-1623), the second by Thomas Tomkins (1572-1656). I find it hard to choose between them. The libretto being sung is:

When David heard that Absalom was slain, he went up to his chamber over the gate, and wept: and thus he said, O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would God I had died for thee, O Absalom, my son, my son!

UPDATE: New Lectionary & ESV: Some official clarification

Given the time we have devoted recently to the proposed new Lectionary based on the English Standard Version (ESV) of the Bible, including a brief comparison of an ESV sample text with other translations, and given the lively and interesting comments it has elicited, I made so bold as to email directly to the Most Reverend Mark Coleridge, the Archbishop of Canberra-Goulburn and Chairman of the International Commission for the Preparation of an English Language Lectionary (ICPELL), seeking some authoritative clarification on some of the questions raised in our discussions.

With admirable speed for a busy diocesan bishop, he very kindly sent a concise but richly informative reply which answers the questions I asked him, and also one I failed to ask him! Apart from chopping the head and the tail of the email which were brief and directed to me, I shall quote him in full:

…  In answer to your questions, the facts are these.  The ESV was chosen over the RSV because the ESV, in its 7% modification of the RSV, seeks to incorporate the fruit of more recent biblical scholarship, i.e. since the publication of the RSV.  In other words, the RSV is out-of-date.  We were looking for a more up-to-date version of the RSV; and when the NRSV proved impossible, we chose the ESV.  Unlike the copyright holders of the NRSV, the copyright holders of the ESV have shown themselves quite open to the kind of changes we would need or want to make for Catholic lectionary purposes; and the copyright arrangements for the project are now in place.  What will appear in the lectionary will be a modified form of the ESV.  This may in time look to the production of a Catholic edition of the ESV, though that is not decided.  I know too little of the permission given to the English ordinariate, but I doubt that it will have an effect on the lectionary we are producing.  That would depend on the Holy See.  It is very hard to say when the ESV lectionary will be ready for publication.  We have all but finished work on the first volume (Sundays and Solemnities), and it may be that the first volume will appear before the others.  But it depends on how quickly the bishops of the five Conferences get back to us within the process of consultation.  Many of them are keen to have a new lectionary as soon as possible, so it may be that we will have the entire new lectionary by 2014…


So the rationale behind the choice of the ESV is made clear. The ESV is a revision of the Revised Standard Version (RSV) that takes into account the latest insights of biblical scholarship and textual criticism, and only 7% of the RSV is actually revised in the process. Moreover, using the NRSV (New RSV) was not a viable option due to the copyright holders not being open to the Church making the necessary modifications to the text for our use. The ESV’s copyright holders are amenable to our need to edit texts for the purposes of the Lectionary, and to bring certain passages into line with Catholic tradition.

Answering a question I wished I had asked (but didn’t!), given comments made by Theophrastus in another post here, it is conceivable that a full-blown, standalone Catholic edition of the ESV could be produced, though no decision has been made on that. As suggested yesterday, given the international, large-scale diffusion of the Catholic Lectionary, a Catholic ESV should be a viable proposition, at least economically. This would address the concerns raised over not having a Bible edition that matched the the texts of the Lectionary.

Archbishop Coleridge also kindly gave us some sort of ballpark figure for when the Lectionary might be implemented, given the variables of the time needed to revise the texts and for the necessary episcopal consultation process: 2014. This is sooner than I had expected, and is very heartening. Given that these processes often take longer than first envisaged, perhaps 2015 might be a safer bet, but still that is much sooner than I had expected. 2014 would be just wonderful, even if it were only the first volume.

The Archbishop’s reply has addressed the major questions and concerns so far raised here, and filled in a few gaps as well. The speed and informativeness of his reply has left me feeling even more encouraged about the proposed new Lectionary. One gets the feeling that ICPELL is getting on with the task without fuss, and with a strong sense of service to the Church. The fact that ICPEL has a relatively low profile rather supports the intuition that its members are more interested in the work than in publicity. May God prosper their work, that it might bear much fruit to God’s glory.

UPDATE here – 6 August 2013

Comparing the texts: the ESV and friends

While waiting to see if an enquiry regarding the ESV and the proposed new Lectionary bears fruit, we might take a look at the ESV text as it stands in comparison with some other established texts. As it stands, that is, because it seems sensible to expect that the texts used for the Lectionary will be revised and edited by one or more Catholic scholars so, if only (though, surely, not only) to ensure the approval of Rome.

By way of an aside, it was interesting to find that a Baptist (holding that the King James Version is the one ordained by God) arguing – here and here – that the ESV (and other translations like the NIV) are actually Catholic translations already. His line of argument, detailed as it is, is not convincing, it has to be said, but it does rather suggest that the ESV, even prior to any Catholic editing, is not an intrinsically un- or anti-Catholic translation. We do well also to remember that the wonderful RSV itself originated as a Protestant work, which was later edited by Catholic scholars to produce a Catholic Edition. A precedent for the ESV is thus clearly established.

If you would like to read a detailed comparison of ESV and RSV translations on certain topical texts then the work has already been done over at Bible Researcher. As a taste, some examples provided include Isaiah 7:14, part of which in the original Protestant RSV was rendered “Behold, a young woman shall conceive and bear a son”; in the ESV it is translated “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son”. Even before a Catholic team has revised the text we have a translation that is fully consistent with Catholic tradition, and with the original reference to a “maiden”. In the study version of the ESV there is a lengthy and informative note attached to this verse explaining the preference for “virgin”.

Another example provided is Genesis 22:17, which ends in the RSV (including the Catholic edition), “And your decendants shall possess the gate of their enemies”; whereas in the ESV it is “And your offspring shall possess the gate of his enemies”. The ESV notes give the reason: the logic of Genesis, especially as illuminated by the New Testament, is that God is preparing from among Abraham’s descendants a line from which a new King, a new Adam, a Messiah, will emerge. This is confirmed by St Paul in Galatians 3:16, who equates “offspring” with the “Christ”. This restores the proper Christological perspective to the text and is quite consistent with Catholic interpretation. Indeed, it is a real improvement on the RSV.

The Bible Researcher site also adverts to instances where it thinks the RSV is superior. It is not offering apologetics for the ESV.

For our purposes, we might consider the second reading at Mass today, 1 Corinthians 1:22-25. In the Catholic RSV it reads:

For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.

In the ESV, as untouched by Catholic revisions, it reads:

For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.

As can be seen, the ESV (which takes as its starting point the RSV) has seen fit to leave the RSV unaltered.

By comparison, the New American Bible (NAB) in use in the USA’s lectionary reads:

For Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are called, Jews and Greeks alike, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.

It is an inoffensive translation and quite dignified, though it has made the effort to remove the reference to “men” and so meets the demands of inclusive language, without, it must be said, making a song and dance about it.

In the Jerusalem Bible (JB), used in most lectionaries used outside the USA, we find:

While the Jews demand miracles and the Greeks look for wisdom, here are we preaching a crucified Christ; to the Jews an obstacle that they cannot get over, to the pagans madness, but to those who have been called, whether they are Jews or Greeks, a Christ who is the power and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.

More liberties have taken here than in the other translations so far. “Here we are preaching” has the gratuitous addition of a temporal/ spatial adverb, adding nothing to our understanding. The JB also feels the need to elaborate on “obstacle” as something the Jews “cannot get over”. That may be true, but it is another gratuitous addition that might almost appear to be labouring the point. The “pagans” as a translation of “nations” is fair enough, though saying that for them the Cross is “madness” again oversteps the Greek original text, which calls it “folly”, or foolishness, or even we might say, silliness. It is not wildly inappropriate, but I wonder if yet again the JB is labouring a point too long. And lastly, the JB too avoids reference to “men”, which is clearly present in the Greek (anthropon).

Moving now to a traditional Catholic translation, we find in the Douay-Rheims (DR) version:

For both the Jews require signs, and the Greeks seek after wisdom: But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews indeed a stumblingblock, and unto the Gentiles foolishness: But unto them that are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men; and the weakness of God is stronger than men.

This accurately accords with the Greek text, and really only differs from the RSV/ESV in a slight archaism of style. “Stumblingblock” is a picturesque synonym for “obstacle” (skandalon in the Greek, whence our “scandal”). Despite its relative antiquity, the DR provides an easily understood and accurate translation of our text.

Lastly, the Knox (K) version, at one time approved by the English bishops, renders our text thus:

Here are the Jews asking for signs and wonders, here are the Greeks intent on their philosophy; but what we preach is Christ crucified; to the Jews, a discouragement, to the Gentiles, mere folly; but to us who have been called, Jew and Gentile alike, Christ the power of God, Christ the wisdom of God. So much wiser than men is God’s foolishness; so much stronger than men is God’s weakness.

K, like the DR, is a translation of the Vulgate, though with reference to the Hebrew and Greek manuscripts. Monsignor Knox was working far more in the tradition of what is now called dynamic equivalence. He elaborates and adds in parts, uses synonyms, and generally seems to seek for a more rhetorical effect. Thus he replaces “wisdom” (sophia[n] in the Greek) with “philosophy” which is of course the “love of wisdom”: rhetorical, but no damage done to the sense. More difficult to accept is his use of “discouragement” for “obstacle”, or “stumblingblock”. K strikes me as too weak here, and conveys a mood that does not match the stridency of “obstacle”, “stumblingblock”, or even (literally) “scandal”. He transforms the “those” who are called to “us”, which is not faithful to the Greek (tois kletois – “the called ones”) and becomes just a little too smug in its self-reference. Lastly, the double use of “so much” is an elaboration and addition to the original text for rhetorical effect. Again, K seems to take a few too many liberties with the text, though it reads quite well.

From this little comparison of translations available or projected for Catholic use, it seems that the ESV emerges well, reflecting as it does the RSV. The example scripture was provided by the liturgy for today, and used for convenience. Perhaps a more controversial text could be found if desired.

[UPDATE] I should have mentioned that Timothy has provided a useful brief comparison of 12 interesting translations in the NRSV and ESV. You can read it here.

Updates: the Ordinariate lectionary and Fr Paul Gunter

Two small updates on recent topics.

The first is that Fr Paul Gunter OSB has a new short essay out on Zenit, on the Church’s liturgy as being located in the life and activity of the economic Trinity. In other words, it is first and foremost God’s work for us and in us, more than it is our work. Or put another way, the liturgy is our work insofar as God is at work in us as we perform it. The implications are clear if you dwell on it. If God works through his Church to establish a liturgy that, in giving Him worthy worship, furthers the work of our salvation, then we tamper with it at our peril. When it ceases to be identifiably the liturgy of the Church, I would venture, then it ceases to be a liturgy that contributes to our salvation. God works through his Church and not through cliques of the self-enlightened. But I am going way beyond what Fr Paul writes, which you can read on Zenit right now.

The second update concerns the Ordinariate’s newly-approved RSV lectionary which was mentioned yesterday. The question was raised as to whether the Ordinariate had negotiated their way through the copyright minefield to the point where they could publish anew a RSV lectionary. The answer is, no. Instead one of the other possibilities mentioned was closer to the mark. Monsignor Burnham has confirmed to me that the remaining stock of the Ignatius Press edition of the RSV Lectionary has been bought up in America on their behalf, and each Ordinariate group has been given a set. If the demand proves heavy enough, consideration will be given to trying to get a hand-missal produced for the faithful. But for now, each Ordinariate church having an Ignatius RSV lectionary is sufficient to get the liturgical ball rolling. Strength to their arm!

So it seems the wider anglophone Church will be getting the ESV as originally announced. Soon I will post some examples of ESV passages of scripture as we will find them in the new Lectionary when it comes.


Abraham, the Incarnation and Christian living

Belatedly, happy new year!

At the office of Matins this morning we heard chapter 18 of Genesis, which you can read now here – and you should if you plan to read on here! The chapter appears at first reading to contain two separate stories: the hospitality offered by Abraham to three mysterious travellers, and then Abraham’s intercession on behalf of the wicked cities, Sodom and Gomorrah.

However, if you spend a little time with the chapter you will find that in fact it is one act with two scenes. Abraham’s act of hospitality in hosting the three wayfarers is in fact the justification for his intercession on behalf of the inhospitable cities of the plain. As is so normal in scripture, there is more than one level of meaning to be found.

The three men who visit Abraham are often depicted as angels, but it is clear from the text itself that these three men are a manifestation of the Lord God himself. Christian reflection on the Lord’s appearance as three men finds in it a prefiguring (however unwittingly by the sacred author) of the Blessed Trinity. One famous example is Rublev’s icon of the Trinity, which depicts this very scene, with strong allusions to the Eucharist and the supreme Table of divine hospitality.

So the human Abraham is host to God himself, and receives him into his tent. Whatever else it might be, this is a prefiguring of the Incarnation, in which God comes to dwell in the tent of human flesh. Abraham in his hospitality represents all humanity. And just as God’s making a home in the tent of human flesh changed humanity forever, so too Abraham is not the same after having received the Lord into his tent.

The fruit of the Incarnation was the person of Jesus Christ, true God and true man, who became the Lamb of God, the sacrifice that takes away the sins of the world, and the one mediator between humanity and God, the great High Priest. He intercedes for us constantly at the right hand of the Father (Romans 8:34). Just as the Incarnation established the God-man Jesus Christ as the only true and effective mediator for humanity before God, so too we can see that Abraham, after he has welcomed the Lord into his tent, has become a new person. He is not a divine person like Christ, nor is he a fully effective mediator like Christ. Nevertheless, Abraham, a mere man, is enabled now to stand before God and intercede on behalf of the sinners of Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham seems to be aware of the audacity of his action (v.27):

Behold, I have taken upon myself to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes.

Abraham’s actual intercession is stunning if you let it sink in. In a wonderful piece of Hebrew haggling, Abraham bargains God down to 10 righteous men as the price for sparing the cities – their very presence in the cities of human sin would be enough for God to spare those cities from the just punishment for their sin. Abraham has effectively convinced God (but not really convinced – it was His plan the whole time) to accept the principle that a righteous person can avert the just punishment due to those among whom that person has chosen to dwell.

Sadly, as we know, there were no just people able to avert justice for the cities of the plain. Indeed, no number of truly just people could be found until the Incarnation, when God’s dwelling with human nature revealed the one just man able to avert divine justice from humanity, in the midst of whom he had chosen to dwell. The power was from God but manifested in a beautiful justice, that since by a man came sin unto death, so by a man came also the resurrection from the dead. God had to do it, and so too (in terms of fittingness) did a man. Thus we see the reason for the Incarnation.

It is of course not the whole story. There is the little matter of the Cross! Abraham, a sinner, used words to intercede for the cities, seeking a righteous man to be their ransom from death. In Christ we find the sinless one interceding for sinners, not by words that aim to turn aside divine justice for human sin, but by the action of taking the burden of divine justice on himself, by paying the penalty for sinners. That was his death, on the Cross, his death as a man, not as God. In his humanity we find the first and only truly sinless, truly righteous man. His righteousness lies not merely in his sinlessness; it lies most powerfully in his selflessness – he gave his life for ours, when as the righteous one he was not under the penalty of death himself. That is the consummation of the Incarnation.

So, in its own way, this chapter from Genesis also reveals to us the purpose of living as Christ has commanded us, which is not least to love one another as he has loved us. And the greatest expression of that love is, of course, to lay down one’s life for another. Our laying down our lives for others by acts of selflessness – our crosses – are the means by which we share in Christ’s Cross. This means (among others) of sharing in his Cross enables our little crosses to make of us righteous ones, conforms us to Christ and strengthens his life within us, so that it finally comes to pass that it is not we who live, but Christ who lives in us (Galatians 2:20). By this Christian living, we find ourselves made into that Righteous One for whom God will spare the sinful city. We can be those just ones Abraham hopes to find dwelling among the sinners.

In our worldly city of sin Christ now abides continually, by means of his Spirit which animates his earthly Body, the Church. The presence of the Church is the presence of the Righteous One, and that presence is manifested not least through individual Christians whose lives of selflessness, sacrifice, prayer and worship make active Christ’s saving presence in demonstrable power. That is how important it is for us to strive to live truly Christian, Christ-like, lives – it is not just for our sake that we do, but for the sake of all those around us. To accept the grace to live truly Christian lives is the best gift we can give to sinners.

This chapter from Genesis reveals also the mystery of redeemed humanity: that we are, at the same time, both the sinners dwelling in the cities of the plain, and the presence of the Righteous One for whom God will spare them. The Lord moves in mysterious ways, his wonders to perform.