Official Blog of the Bishop of Durham

Archive for the ‘Biblical interpretation’ Category

Kugel Lecture: Midrash before the Rabbis

Posted by NT Wrong on December 14, 2008

kugelJewish Tanakh scholar, James Kugel recently delivered a lecture at Stern College entitled ‘Midrash Before Hazal: Why It’s Important For Orthodox Jews’. Via Hadassah Levy.

A transcription of the lecture was made at Curious Jew.

Posted in Biblical interpretation | Comments Off on Kugel Lecture: Midrash before the Rabbis

Breaking Wind from Your Ass – Biblical Scholar Slips a Fart Joke into the Bible

Posted by NT Wrong on December 12, 2008

A Biblical Scholar's Fart Joke?

The (alleged) fart of Achsah: A Biblical Scholar

There’s a story in Joshua 15.15-19 (repeated almost verbatim in Judges 1.11-15), in which Caleb offers his daughter Achsah to any warrior who can defeat the city of Debir. The warrior Othniel accepts Caleb’s challenge and successfully conquers Debir. As Debir lies to the south of Hebron, towards the Negev, it’s a dry and dusty place. On arrival in Debir, the new bride Achsah is understandably pissed off at her father for offering her as a prize, particularly because she has ended up in some desert hellhole. So Achsah requests her new husband to ask Caleb to give her a pair of wells as well. And Caleb agrees, giving her the region’s famous ‘Upper’ and ‘Lower’ wells.

When the bride comes to Caleb (Josh 15.18 // Judg 1.14) she does something which is described using a verb which only appears in this story and in Judg 4.21:

וַתִּצְנַ֖ח מֵעַ֣ל הַחֲמֹ֑ור

After she does this thing, Caleb asks (apparently in response), “What can I do for you?” (מַה־לָּֽךְ). The interpretive crux is: what has provoked Caleb’s response? There isn’t any obvious cognate for the verb root ṣ-n-ḥ, and as a result there have been a variety of (educated) guesses. The traditional English interpretation has been “alighted” or “dismounted” (from her donkey), although the LXX translates “shouted” (adding that Achsah also “murmered”, in Judges).

However, G. R. Driver translated it as follows:

“She broke wind … from her ass.”

As far as I can tell, Driver first suggested this translation in an article in a book published in 1955 (Mélanges Bibliques rédigés en l’honneur de André Robert). However, he never tired of his farting translation, and the same explanation gets a second (and third) wind in articles from 1964 (ALUOS 4: 6-25) and 1967 (JQR 57: 49-165).

Before you exclaim, “WTF?”, you should also know that this farting translation was then adopted by a major Bible translation: the New English Bible (NEB) (1970). As it so happened, the Convener of the Old Testament Committee which translated the NEB was one… Sir G. R. Driver. Arthur Gibson, in Biblical Semantic Logic, confirms that Driver admitted to him that the translation was made “at his own insistence” (30). Although Driver’s farting translation made it into print, it was widely ridiculed. And the translation “she broke wind” was eventually changed to “she dismounted” when the NEB was revised [in 1972, and was not included in the NEB’s successor,] the Revised English Bible (1989).

Driver considered that his farting translaton was “sufficiently proved” from the Akk. cognate ṣanāḥu and the LXX. Although in fact, the LXX of Joshua and Judges has Achsah “shouting” in both accounts. Driver interpreted this ‘shouting’ as an anal noise, without any examples of such an anal usage for what is everywhere an oral noise, and even citing a completely different word for “fart” in Aristophanes. Arthur Gibson (following a proposal by G.E.M Anscombe) dubbed Driver’s interpretation an example of “the anal/oral fallacy” (Biblical Semantic Logic, 31). So the argument from the LXX seems to be quite creative. Furthermore, the Akkadian term ṣanāḥu is a specialist medical term for anal bleeding, and is not used in Akkadian to mean “break wind”. There is in fact another standard Akkadian term for farting; it is ṣarātu (Biblical Semantic Logic, 32).

Yet Driver also offered one further reason for good measure — Achsah probably farted “as a sign of her disgust” at the dry waterless desert her father had given her husband. Why would Achsah have chosen such a foul sign of her discontent, rather than choosing some more civil means of attracting her new husband’s attention? This is where Driver seals the argument. She was Middle Eastern. Arabs are, not least in the imagination of Sir Godfrey Rolles Driver, a farting and belching lot. That’s how they communicate, don’t you know, what?

“Such customs persist amongst the Arabs of Transjordan to the present day, as shown by the anonymous traveller’s account [The Times, 6 May 1957, p. 12] of belching as a means of signifying approval of an entertainment. As he was leaving the country, he went to a certain village to say farewell to the head man (muḫtâr) and was not surprised to find that a special banquet had been prepared in his honour; then ‘as, according to custom, I belched my satisfaction after the meal and complimented him in particular on the delicious cooking of the fish, he removed a fish-bone from between his teeth and his eyes twinkled. “Such a pity it tasted a little like donkey,” he said.’ The unchanging East is rapidly changing, but many old customs and habits linger on and can still be cited to illustrate many in the Old Testament, which are now quite unintelligible to Western readers.”
– Sir G. R. Driver, explaining his farting translation

So, what makes it really more likely that Achsah farted than, alternatively, emitted a loud oral complaint or perhaps clapped her hands together to attract her husband’s attention? What clinches Driver’s translation is the belching and farting Arabs of the Transjordan, as recorded in The Times newspaper by an anonymous belching English traveller of the exotic Orient. Now, I don’t deny that belching is a compliment to the chef in many parts of the world. But isn’t it interesting how this serves as an explanation of Achsah’s gesture from the top of her ass. Driver notes that the customs of the East are “rapidly changing” — but apparently not enough to make it inappropriate to make this most extraordinary generalisation… and not enough to stop referring to the East as “the unchanging East”!

You know what I suspect? G. R. Driver was playing a joke. (There’s nothing quite as funny as a fart joke, after all.) This was all a deliberate and elaborate ploy to get the phrase “she broke wind… from her ass” into the Bible. It was something like a public school dare. But G. R. Driver’s joke has now been exposed.

Fortunately, Sir Godfrey died in 1975, comfortable in the knowledge that he had slipped a fart joke into the Bible.

Posted in Biblical interpretation, Colonialism, Historical Books | 9 Comments »

April DeConick’s ‘More Scientific’ Biblical Studies – Proposing a Middle Range Theory

Posted by NT Wrong on December 9, 2008

In a recent series of posts, April DeConick has been talking about social memory, again. In particular, she’s airing some of the issues raised in the Memory and Textuality session, at which she was the respondent. April has an excitement about the area of memory which is contagious:

“I think that the study of human memory is the future of biblical studies. The people that are giving papers in the memory sessions are really on the cutting edge of future methodology. They are setting us on a new course.”
– April DeConick, SBL sessions: Memory and Textuality

In her latest post, she proclaims that biblical studies should become more scientific in its study of the processes behind the writing of biblical texts:

“In order to know how this process [of memorizing] worked [in the ancient world] and how it might have affected the composition of our texts, it is essential in my experience to experiment and to read in cognitive psychology which tells us how human memory operates and affects the transmission process. When we compare the results of this knowledge with what we see in our texts, it is really quite amazing what we can learn about the ancient people processes.”
– April DeConick, ‘Become more scientific’

I am in fundamental agreement with her on this point. Although it pushes us outside our comfort zones, and if done badly can result in worse results than not being done at all, the potential for new and better ways of understanding the texts is huge.

I’ll suggest a way to do it, too. I think we could apply the basic archaeological theory called “middle range theory” as a model, an approach originally put forward by Lewis Binford and the ‘New Archaeology’ of the 1960s — although adapted for the subject-matter of biblical studies. At its simplest, “middle range theory” involves the systematic study of the complex interrelationships between modern material artifacts and their related modern human cultures, for the purpose of applying this interrelationship to the ancient material artifacts that archaeologists dig up. Although we can study how material artifacts are used by living peoples today, we can only study the material artifacts of ancient peoples. We have no direct access to their minds, to their cultures. So middle range theory serves to fill this gap, a bit like this:


The basis for Binford’s method is simple yet compelling:

“if a distinctive combination of material traits could be demonstrated to correlate with a specific pattern of behavior in living societies, the discovery of the same combination of material traits in the archaeological record would permit similar behavior to be associated with a [material] archaeological culture.”
– Bruce Trigger, A History of Archaeological Thought (2006): 508.

Some might object that people aren’t as predictable as pottery, so any scientific study is doomed to be uncertain. This is undoubtedly true. But I have a couple of rejoinders. First, in the humanities nobody is aiming for certainty. Lack of certainty is a given, whether our methods are more or less robust. So, why not aim for more robust methods? Second, what is the alternative? In the absence of tested assumptions, people tend to fall back on a version of Rudyard Kipling’s ‘Just-So Stories’. That is, they tend to ask, ‘what would I do in their situation if I were a first-century illiterate peasant?’ And although this is something of a caricature of the alternative, under the “Just-So Story” approach there is a much higher risk of our interpretation of ancient cultures being determined by our untested current prejudices. At the very least it opens up new possibilities for interpretation. There are many aspects of biblical studies which a more scientific approach would benefit from — not every aspect, but certainly a great number.

So, I agree with Dr DeConick — biblical studies should become more scientific. Whether this should be carried out by specialist biblical scholars (knowledgeable of both biblical studies and, say, cognitive psychology) or ‘outsourced’ to other disciplines is an interesting question. But, either way, in order to be successful, a “middle range theory” for biblical studies should certainly be carried out by trained experts. That’s my one proviso. Otherwise – bring it on!

Posted in Academia, Biblical interpretation | 14 Comments »

ESV Endorsed By Lesbians

Posted by NT Wrong on December 3, 2008

The translators of the ESV are planning a special 'Lesbian Edition' of the ESV, following an endorsement from Lesbians for the Increase of Christian Knowledge (LICK).

Proposed New ESV cover: The translators of the ESV are planning a special 'Lesbian Edition' of the ESV, following an endorsement from Lesbians for the Increase of Christian Knowledge (LICK).

The new ESV translation of the Bible (alternatively, ‘English Standard Version’ or ‘Evangelical Standard Version’) has now been endorsed by Lesbians for the Increase of Christian Knowledge (LICK).

Although this may come as a surprise to those who are acquainted with the mainly conservative, androcentric ESV translation, it appears that the ESV has also slipped in the odd pro-Lesbian passage. For example, check out the ESV’s translation of Luke 17.35:

There will be two women grinding together. One will be taken and the other left.”

As Mark Strauss prudishly explained at the 2008 Evangelical Theological Society Meeting:

“In contemporary English, “grinding together” suggests seductive dancing or something worse. (Perhaps both should have been taken for judgment!)”

“Something worse,” huh? I bet Mark Strauss can only imagine how these two women were grinding together. I bet he spent some time imagining it, too.

On the other hand, in an official press release, LICK has approved the ESV translation as endorsing the salvation of (at least some) lesbians, which is a considerable improvement from earlier conservative evangelical positions.

“I think this shows that God likes a good scissor,” commented LICK spokesperson Sapphie Powerscourt.

Posted in Biblical interpretation, Fundamentalism, Gender, Humour | 7 Comments »

When Bible Scholars Dream of Utopia

Posted by NT Wrong on December 2, 2008

“According to Deuteronomy the Israelites are commanded to exterminate all of the Canaanites and not to leave a soul of them living (Deut 7:1-2; 20:16-17). Such a policy, obliging the extermination of the whole population of the land whether fighting or passive, is utopian and is indeed unheard of in the historical accounts of Israel… the command of Herem of all the Canaanites in Deuteronomy is a utopian program that reflects the ongoing bitter struggle with the Canaanite religion and culture from the time of Elijah until the time of Josiah.”
– Moshe Weinfeld, Deuteronomy 1-11: 52-53

Hmmmmm… surely Moshe Weinfeld must have meant that the idea of killing entire populations in Palestine was utopian to the authors of Deuteronomy. Or could that be his idea of utopia, too? It’s a little bit unclear to me.

But this isn’t just a matter of the absence of qualification (‘to the authors of Deuteronomy this idea of pregnant-mother-slashing, baby-head-smashing, mass carnage must have been a dream come true!’). When Weinfeld does comment on the ‘utopian’ genocide, he seems instead to justify it. This ‘utopian’ genocide is justifiable as some real-life (for Weinfeld) “ongoing bitter struggle” with abominable, non-Yahweh-worshipping Canaanites (53). It’s a good thing, just as the Bible tells me so. Nay, not just ‘good’ — it’s a wet-dream!!

I know there’s a complex interrelationship between utopia and dystopia, and they’re hard to distinguish at the best of times. But I might have thought that a description of the genocide of Palestinian peoples, made in the late twentieth century, might have deserved some further comment in addition to the unqualified “that’s utopia!” Bloody genocide is certainly not what I think of when I get all dreamy and romantic.

But my dreams might be different from most biblical scholars.

Posted in Biblical interpretation, Justice, Pentateuch, Violence, War | 5 Comments »

Jesus’ Anus Is Key(-Hole) to the Incarnation

Posted by NT Wrong on November 18, 2008

zizek-and-badiouRoland Boer has denied that Jesus and I have even one anus between us. This is blasphemous heresy. Jesus is wholly man; wholly arse. Not only does Jesus have an anus, but the divine anus is the key to the meaning of the Incarnation, in which God becomes his own shit.

The theology of Jesus’ excremental identity is discussed by world-leading theologian Slavoj Žižek, who addresses the divine anus immediately after his discussion of the Johnny Cash song, ‘The Man Comes Around’ (which he describes as “an exemplary articulation of the anxieties contained in Southern Baptist Christianity;” The Parallax View, 186).

According to Žižek, the message of Christian love has its dark underside in the message that “the just remain just and the filthy remain filthy.” It doesn’t matter what you’ve done or who you are, God will fuck you up the arse if he whimsically decides to do so. The “love which suspends the law is necessarily accompanied by the arbitrary cruelty which also suspends the law.” The Christian conception of grace can be less nicely — and much more truthfully — expressed: as arbitrariness, as the law-ignoring, bastard behaviour of divine wankery. And Mankind (to use the theological term) is thus most accurately defined, in light of the Incarnation, as a bunch of little shits:

“Martin Luther directly proposed an excremental identity of man: man is like divine shit, he fell out of God’s anus. We can, of course, pursue the question of the deep crises that pushed Luther toward his new theology; he was caught in a violent debilitating superego cycle: the more he acted, repented, punished, and tortured himself, did good deeds, and so on, the more he felt guilty. This convinced him that good deeds are calculated, dirty, selfish: far from pleasing God, they provoke God’s wrath and lead to damnation. Salvation comes from faith: it is our faith alone, faith in Jesus as savior, which allows us to break out of the superego impasse. This “anal” definition of man, however, cannot be reduced to a result of this superego pressure which pushed Luther toward self-abasement — there is more to it: only within this Protestant logic of man’s excremental identity can the true meaning of the Incarnation be formulated. In Orthodoxy, Christ ultimately loses his exceptional status: his very idealization, elevation to a noble model, reduces him to an ideal image, a figure to be imitated (all men should strive to become God) — imitatio Christi is more an Orthodox than a Catholic formula. In Catholicism, the predominant logic is that of a symbolic exchange: Catholic theologists enjoy long scholastic juridical arguments about how Christ paid the price for our sins, and so on — no wonder Luther reacted to the most contemptible outcome of this logic, the reduction of redemption to something that can be bought from the Church. Protestantism, finally, posits the relationship as real, conceiving Christ as a God who, in his act of Incarnation, freely identified himself with his own shit, with the excremental Real that is man — and it is only at this level that the properly Christian notion of divine love can be apprehended, as love for the miserable excremental entity called “man.” ”
– Slavoj Žižek, The Parallax View, 187

Ah! Don’t those canny continental theologians (such as Žižek, Badiou, Agamben) make that other bunch — those puritanical guardians of dogma — appear just as unpalatable as shit on a plate?

Posted in Biblical interpretation, Evil, God, Jesus & Christ, Music, Paul, Soteriology, Violence | 2 Comments »

The Relative Unimportance of Oral Culture for Interpreting Biblical Books

Posted by NT Wrong on November 15, 2008

You read it here, there, and everywhere: literacy levels in ‘ancient Israel’ were less than 5% … less than 3% … less than 1% … etc, etc ….

One percentage is quite assured and of great significance for understanding the way Hebrew Bible authors composed their works, however: Of those who wrote biblical books, the literacy rate was 100%.

Yes – surprising, but true.

Posted in Biblical interpretation | 9 Comments »

Dispensationalists: Hyperbole and Metaphor are now legitimate Figures of Speech

Posted by NT Wrong on October 29, 2008

'Did you hear the joke about the Mid-Trib Pre-Millennialist, the Pre-Trib Post-Millennialist, and the Amillenialist?' Rob Lightner asks Chuck Ryrie.

'Did you hear the joke about the Mid-Trib Pre-Millennialist, the Pre-Trib Post-Millennialist, and the Amillenialist?' Rob Lightner asks Chuck Ryrie.

For those of you who were unable to attend, you will be relieved to know that the Council on Dispensational Hermeneutics, which met last month in Clarks Summit, PA, declared each of hyperbole and metaphor as “a legitimate figure of speech”. The declaration was gratefully received internationally by anxiously awaiting linguists, who could breathe a collective sigh of relief that the dark shadow of possible illigitimacy, which for so long had hung over these language forms, has now been lifted.

“I’m so happy, I could leap over Noam Chomsky in a single bound,” exclaimed Semiotician Umberto Eco. “Well, not literally,” he added sheepishly.

Article 1
“We affirm that hyperbole is a legitimate figure of speech that uses exaggeration for the purpose of emphasis or impact.” …

Article 3
“We affirm that an extended metaphor is a legitimate figure of speech (used in multiple genres) when it can be determined contextually that the author intended it to be understood as such.”
Council on Dispensational Hermeneutics

The Council’s Statement also makes it clear that, just because they’re recognizing the existence of metaphor and hyperbole, this is no excuse to go all crazy and interpret everything in the Bible as though it has no real reference — like those licentious liberals do. I’m not quite sure who they mean by such liberals, and I guess they have some nineteenth-century ghosts in mind. For as everyone knows, liberals these days are even more scriptural than the conservatives.

… I’d comment further, but the statement reads as badly as a Tim LaHaye novel – and that’s no exaggeration.

Posted in Biblical interpretation, Fundamentalism, Metaphor | 8 Comments »

Results of Apologetic versus Non-Apologetic Bible Commentary Survey

Posted by NT Wrong on October 16, 2008

Thank you for all your suggestions concerning possible non-apologetic Bible Commentaries written over the past few hundred years. My count is now complete and I am pleased to present the results of my survey here.


Total Non-Apologetic Bible Commentaries =

1 and 2/3*


Apologetic Commentaries posing as ‘Critical’ Bible Commentaries =



*to wit, Robert Carroll’s Jeremiah commentary and David Clines’ Job commentary

**Gematria-based estimate only

Representative Bible Scholar, surrounded by Bible Commentaries of solely Apologetic Content, Writing His Own Bible Commentaries of Same. Can we break the cycle?

Representative Bible Scholar, surrounded by Bible Commentaries of solely Apologetic Content, Writing His Own Bible Commentaries of Same. Can we break the cycle?

Posted in Biblical interpretation, Criticism | 8 Comments »

Can You Name a Single Non-Apologetic Bible Commentary?

Posted by NT Wrong on October 14, 2008

I was just trying to think of one. Just one.

Actually, there’s one on Jeremiah that springs to mind. But that’s as far as I got.

Is there any one that does not attempt to defend the biblical book’s ideology, wax lyrical about the mellifluous prose or poetry of the contents of its most thrown-together redactions, make vague parallels with the Amarna letters or somesort in order to defend it ancient pedigree or historicity, or include some other specious nonsense?

I mean to ask — of the thousands of ‘critical’ biblical commentaries written over recent centuries — how many, if any, are actually ‘critical’?

Critical shmitical!

Please offer your suggestions.

Posted in Biblical interpretation, Criticism | 23 Comments »