Who vandalized the Old Testament?!

I read a very good devotional Monday on Wisdom of Solomon 5:15 – 6:3. I wanted to share it, together with an excerpt from this book of the Bible.

But I couldn’t find a hypertext English version online, and therein lies a tale.

The content of the Christian biblical canon is a fairly vexed topic, which is one reason why lurid fantasies like Dan Brown’s capture people’s attention. I was going to try give you a thumbnail Orthodox version, and try not to load it up with hyperlinks. But a version that was simultaneously truthful and concise eluded me. So here goes a pretty defective version.

When the New Testament was being written, there was no New Testament yet. (Gee! Thanks, Mr. Obvious!) New Testament references to Scripture generally are almost invariably to the Old Testament, the exception that come to mind being II Peter 3:15-16, where the Apostle Peter refers to unidentified writings of the Apostle Paul implicitly as “scriptures.”

One of the most notable New Testament scriptures that, in referring to “scripture,” refers to the Old Testament is that favorite sola scriptura prooftext, II Timothy 3:14-17. Read in the Protestant way, but in historic context, it teaches not that the Christian Bible is all you need to be “perfect,” but that the Old Testament is all you need.

But I digress. What was the Old Testament? That had not then been defined authoritatively. Why should it have been? In “New Testament times,” there had never come any point when Jews said “okay, scripture’s all done now; we’re just waiting for Messiah.”

Many Jews of the diaspora were Greek speakers first, Hebrew second if at all.  There was, consequently, in those “New Testament times,” a Greek translation and collection of Hebrew writings called the Septuagint. It included books that remain in Roman Catholic and Orthodox Bibles but are omitted from Protestant Bibles – one of which is Wisdom of Solomon, whence my difficulty finding an online hypertext version.

The New Testament repeatedly (340 times, by one source) quotes the Septuagint and much less often (33 times by that same source) quoted Hebrew texts. Here’s a table of the references, using the Roman Catholic numbering and divisions of books.

Centuries into the Christian era, the Jews formally closed their canon. They chose a 39-book “Masoretic” canon rather than the canon of Septuagint. There’s some Christian suspicion that they did so because some of the prophesies most clearly fulfilled by Christ are in books they omitted.

So why do more mainstream Protestants omit books with pointed Messianic prophesies? I honestly am having difficulty finding an argument that doesn’t sound like I’m setting up a straw man. I probably could do better with time, but the most sympathetic and credible account I’ve found is from the Orthodox Wiki:

The differences [of the Orthodox Old Testament canon] with the Protestant canon are based on the 16th century misunderstanding of Martin Luther. When he was translating the Old Testament into German, he mistakenly believed that the oldest source for the Old Testament would be in Hebrew, so he found and used the so-called Masoretic Text (MT), a 9th century Jewish canon compiled largely in reaction to Christian claims that the Old Testament Scriptures belonged to the Church.

I’m frankly making a judgment call here about the relative credibility of “scholars.” I discount sectarian internet cranks like Jim Searcy who, in claiming that Jesus and the New Testament writers never quoted the Septuagint, sound as if they could as well be arguing that Jesus never drank wine, or that “leaven” in the New Testament is always a bad thing. (Large red text on a turquoise background is a dead give-away, isn’t it?) They are not mainstream Protestants, but some kind of particularly deluded Fundamentalists.

I’m not likely to welcome comments from King James Only, New Testament Don’t Quote No Stinkin’ Septuagint types, but I’d welcome some Protestant accounts, especially those that aren’t circular (e.g, we reject from the canon those books that teach error and only retain those books that teach the truth, as we understand the truth, based on the correct Bible canon), to explain my tendentious question: Why do you prefer, to the Bible Jesus and the New Testament writers apparently used, a Hebrew canon that was not settled until centuries into the Christian era? Just because it’s in Hebrew?

Other Sources:

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“The remarks made in this essay do not represent scholarly research. They are intended as topical stimulations for conversation among intelligent and informed people.” (Gerhart Niemeyer)

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.

More, obliquely, on The Common Core

I was assembling over several days some clippings for another set of Tasty Tidbits when I saw a common theme emerging from two of them. Truth has many facets.

1

Brave New World is a work of genius, a phrase almost in common coinage, and probably the only work for which Aldous Huxley will be remembered. He died the same day JFK was assassinated, a rather depressing anticipation of Timothy Leary, dropping acid on his death bed, his last 31 years never having come close to his magnificent 1932.

John Naughton thinks Huxley was a greater visionary than C.S. Lewis or George Orwell. As an admirer of Harrison Bergeron, I’d have to agree.

Revolutions have overthrown the grimmest real-world versions of 1984 and Animal Farm, and I don’t think that Lewis was aspiring to “visionary” so much as “reteller of sacramental myth” in his great That Hideous Strength (and it’s two prequels, Out of the Silent Planet and Perelandra).

For the sickness of Brave New World and Harrison Bergeron, there may be no cure.

Here endeth my book endorsements disguised as literary criticism.

2

[I]f you follow the fevered lamentations over the Common Core, look hard at some of the complaints from parents and teachers, and factor in the modern cult of self-esteem, you can guess what set Duncan off: a concern, wholly justified, that tougher instruction not be rejected simply because it makes children feel inadequate, and that the impulse to coddle kids not eclipse the imperative to challenge them.

The Common Core, a laudable set of guidelines that emphasize analytical thinking over rote memorization, has been adopted in more than 40 states. In instances its implementation has been flawed, and its accompanying emphasis on testing certainly warrants debate.

What’s not warranted is the welling hysteria: from right-wing alarmists, who hallucinate a federal takeover of education and the indoctrination of a next generation of government-loving liberals; from left-wing paranoiacs, who imagine some conspiracy to ultimately privatize education and create a new frontier of profits for money-mad plutocrats.

(Frank Bruni in the New York Times, with metered paywall)

There’s a lot to like about Bruni’s column. But he hasn’t engaged the sober, nonpartisan, humanistic concerns that militate against The Common Core – concerns I alluded to the other day and above, which Aldous Huxley understood imaginatively, C.S. Lewis understood both analytically and imaginatively, and Ross Douthat recalls in his separate metered paywall column.

3

Douthat links a Huxley page with the excerpt from Brave New World where the Savage and the Controller spar:

There isn’t any need for a civilized man to bear anything that’s seriously unpleasant. And as for doing things–Ford forbid that he should get the idea into his head. It would upset the whole social order if men started doing things on their own.”

“What about self-denial, then? If you had a God, you’d have a reason for self-denial.”

“But industrial civilization is only possible when there’s no self-denial. Self-indulgence up to the very limits imposed by hygiene and economics. Otherwise the wheels stop turning.”

“You’d have a reason for chastity!” said the Savage, blushing a little as he spoke the words.

“But chastity means passion, chastity means neurasthenia. And passion and neurasthenia mean instability. And instability means the end of civilization. You can’t have a lasting civilization without plenty of pleasant vices.”

“But God’s the reason for everything noble and fine and heroic. If you had a God …”

“My dear young friend,” said Mustapha Mond, “civilization has absolutely no need of nobility or heroism. These things are symptoms of political inefficiency. In a properly organized society like ours, nobody has any opportunities for being noble or heroic. Conditions have got to be thoroughly unstable before the occasion can arise. Where there are wars, where there are divided allegiances, where there are temptations to be resisted, objects of love to be fought for or defended–there, obviously, nobility and heroism have some sense. But there aren’t any wars nowadays. The greatest care is taken to prevent you from loving any one too much. There’s no such thing as a divided allegiance; you’re so conditioned that you can’t help doing what you ought to do. And what you ought to do is on the whole so pleasant, so many of the natural impulses are allowed free play, that there really aren’t any temptations to resist. And if ever, by some unlucky chance, anything unpleasant should somehow happen, why, there’s always soma to give you a holiday from the facts. And there’s always soma to calm your anger, to reconcile you to your enemies, to make you patient and long-suffering. In the past you could only accomplish these things by making a great effort and after years of hard moral training. Now, you swallow two or three half-gramme tablets, and there you are. Anybody can be virtuous now. You can carry at least half your morality about in a bottle. Christianity without tears–that’s what soma is.”

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“The remarks made in this essay do not represent scholarly research. They are intended as topical stimulations for conversation among intelligent and informed people.” (Gerhart Niemeyer)

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.

Common Core Initiative

One of the Great Shibboleths of our culture is the obligation of “educated” people to have opinions about everything. Perhaps I’m dating myself by not saying “was” instead of “is.” Maybe the grand shrug “whatever” means the person has no opinion. Maybe it means it’s no longer cool (there I go dating myself again) to have an opinion. Maybe it means “My opinion is too nuanced and refined for a vulgar person like you to understand.”

Whatever.

Anyway, I’ve not been able to shed “you must have an opinion because you’re an intellectualoid” very well. (Sorry for the mixed metaphor of “shedding a shibboleth.” At least it alliterates. You did notice the antecedent “shibboleth” didn’t you?)

So I hereby announce my opinion about Common Core: I’m against it.

If you’ve been reading me for long, you’ll know this isn’t likely to be a partisan political position. I’m not even sure Common Core is a partisan issue, though it might appear such with a Democrat in the White House and Arne Duncan on the stump. But Republicans no less than Democrats, and perhaps even more, are likely to support “rigorous” standards for the most vulgar of educational workforce preparation goals.

I do not claim to have read widely and obsessively about Common Core. And I try to eschew conspiracy theories. But I’m not suggesting a conspiracy. I’m suggesting that our rulers are barbarians who can string platitudes together well enough to get elected, but who with precious few exceptions have no idea what it means to be an educated human being. Their honest, if stupid, reflex is that education is job training; that an “educated” person is a particularly well-oiled cog in the economic machine.

Here is what the Common Core folks reportedly consider an exemplary essay of a high school senior:

The modern world is full of problems and issues—disagreements between peoples that stem from today’s wide array of perceptions, ideas, and values. Issues that could never have been foreseen are often identified and made known today because of technology. Once, there were scatterings of people who had the same idea, yet never took any action because none knew of the others; now, given our complex forms of modern communication, there are millions who have been connected. Today, when a new and arguable idea surfaces, the debate spreads across the global community like wildfire.Topics that the general public might never have become aware of are instantly made into news that can be discussed at the evening dinner table. One such matter, which has sparked the curiosity of millions, is the recent interest in the classification of literature as fiction or nonfiction.

(Life Under Compulstion: The Dehumanities) The author who pulled that execrable passage for critique, Anthony Esolen, continues:

[T]he real problem can’t be cured by a visit to the English stylist.  It’s a problem that the authors of the Common Core Standards cannot recognize; just as a tone-deaf man cannot understand the beauty of the simple air that gives us Bach’s Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.  The real problem is not technical, and is not primarily linguistic.  It is human.

A human being wrote that passage, but not as a human being.  He wrote it as a machine, as a Language Research Trainee, as a Prospective High-Prestige Academy Admission.  He wrote it as a boy-turned-ape, going through the English Language Proficiency Motions.  The passage is unrelieved by the slightest touch of beauty or elegance, of human feeling, of real address to a world of trees and dandelions and dogs.  There is one obvious observation – we have computers and the internet.  There is no wisdom, nor even the sprightly bravado of youth.  The writing is senile without ever having been young.

From political philosopher Patrick Deneen:

I think we can point to five “ascending” aims in the education of the young (while I’m sure there are more, I want to limit myself to five main aims), beginning from a more basic to the more ascendant, and that each have a corresponding end, or purpose. They are:

  1. Education in basic facts or “figures” (math) …
  2. A training in using these facts to more deeply understand things, especially provisional answers to questions that are not so easily achieved by simple memorization or “Scantron” answers …
  3. Civic education …
  4. The cultivation of character …
  5. The highest attainment of education is one that has no further end outside itself: not knowledge that we use toward some end, whether political or social or private, but simply the act of seeking knowledge for its own sake…

… the first two—the learning of various “facts and figures” and their manipulation through “critical thinking”—when divorced of the last three (civic education, education for character, and learning for the sake of learning) are highly prone to being employed toward only one end or purpose—instrumentalism, or utilitarianism aimed primarily toward baser ends of acquisition, material accumulation, the pursuit of pleasure or hedonism, the conquest of nature, and the accumulation of power. Divorced of any higher end, they become tools for the fulfillment of our physical nature without the cultivation of their use toward a higher end involving our role as citizens or the full-flourishing of the human being in virtue and as a creature that desires to know for its own sake.

It is unmistakably the case that the most dominant voices in education today insist that education is or ought be solely about the first two pursuits—the accumulation of facts and “critical thinking,” divorced from higher ends ….

(Common Core and the American Republic)

Set the standards. Reward those who achieve them. What behavior does that “incentivize”? (Can you say “Teach to the test”? I thought you could.) What becomes of students who are capable of higher pursuits?

Whatever.

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Primary sources:

  1. Life Under Compulsion: The Dehumanities, by claccisist and Dante translater Anthony Esolen, and also his other “Life Under Compulstion” essays: If Teachers Were Plumbers;  From Schoolhouse to School Bus;
  2. Common Core and the American Republic, by Patrick Deneen.
  3. This letter sent to all Roman Catholic Bishops by some of the living thinkers I respect most. If it’s bad enough to be rejected by Catholic Schools for the reasons adduced, Common Core is bad enough to be rejected by my state, too.

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“The remarks made in this essay do not represent scholarly research. They are intended as topical stimulations for conversation among intelligent and informed people.” (Gerhart Niemeyer)

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.