Author: Ben S.

The Bible in Jacksonville

I wrote some lectures on the Bible to present in Paris, although due to scheduling and communication conflicts, only the first was actually delivered. I’m now scheduled to do two of them in Jacksonville, FL in the next two weeks. These will be held at the LDS Chapel on 440 Penman Rd. in Jacksonville. The first is next Sunday at 7PM (flyer below), the second (similar to my presentation here) will be Friday the 23rd, same time and place. Given that I speak English slightly better than French, these will probably be a bit more spontaneous and expansive. If you’re in the neighborhood, come check it out and say hi.

“Rediscovering the World of the Old Testament”- A Report

As noted a few weeks ago, I gave my first of three lectures last night, on the Rediscovery of the World of the Old Testament.   It was open to the public, and although several groups of an inter-religious nature were invited (apparently the local ward has had some contacts and activities with them before), I think most of the 30-odd in attendance were LDS. I prepared about 35 slides, with a projecteur, divided into three parts. 1) Why “Rediscovery”? In short,  the full “World of the Old Testament” was lost. We had nothing but the Bible. It was akin to having a deep textual tradition about Cuba (like Israel, a relatively small, powerless, and insignificant country) but knowing nothing about Spain, Russia, or the USA, the major influences on it, then discovering their own massive records. Israel was surrounded by much larger and influential nation-states and empires, like Egypt, Assyria, and Babylon. 2) What Have We Discovered? Here I picked 7 major rediscoveries of a textual or linguistic nature, e.g. The Behistun inscription, which cracked open Akkadian; the Lachish Letters; The Elephantine Papyri; The Rosetta Stone, and so on. We have hundreds of thousands of non-Biblical texts that we can read today. Most are only of interest to specialists, but all tell us something about the world of the Bible. 3) How Have these Discoveries Changed our Understanding? Here I gave several specific examples of things we now understand in the Bible thanks to…

Giving lectures in Paris on “The Bible from Yesterday to Today”- Help me narrow my topics.

I’ve been asked to give a series of three 1-hr lectures on the Bible in French, to be held at three different LDS chapels in Paris, beginning in mid-June. (Yes, we’re currently in Paris, where man can live on bread alone. Quite happily, too.) These lectures will be open and advertised to the public, as a kind of open-door/public education thing. They’re still to be finalized and scheduled, but I’m trying to narrow down my topics, which will not be Mormon-centric. Each lecture must be freestanding, because we’re not going to get the exact same group each time, though presumably some will attend all three. I have five general areas that need to be reduced to three, either combining, condensing, or just eliminating. Old Testament Period between the OT and NT, sometimes called the Inter-testamental period, or 2nd temple period (term which also includes the New Testament time under that term) New Testament Transmission/translation process Reading/interpreting the Bible today My general thought is to talk about the contextual world of the Bible and perhaps major events that shaped it, contrasting the OT and NT. I wrote elsewhere that roughly speaking, the New Testament involves less than 100 years of history, two cultures (Greco-Roman and Israelite/Judaic), and a few languages (Greek, and to a lesser extent, Hebrew, Aramaic, and Latin). By contrast, the Old Testament covers more than 1000 years of history (not counting the deutero-canonical Apocrypha written in the 400…

Books! A small timely plug (updated!)

As you know, we are to study out of the best books, which entails reading. President Hinckley once lamented, “I confess that I am constantly appalled by the scarcity of my knowledge, and the one resentment I think I carry concerns the many pressing demands which limit the opportunity for reading.”

Everything is a Remix, Genesis Edition: Intro

In this recent post (which I plan to revisit in the near future) and others, I mentioned the discovery of various ancient Near Eastern texts related to Genesis, such as Enuma Elish. The relationship between these accounts and Genesis has never been definitively settled, though dominant interpretive trends have been clear. At first, German scholars such as Friedrich Delitzsch, driven largely by Protestant bias against the Hebrew Bible and a good bit of anti-Semitism, seized on them as the original sources of Genesis, assuming the relevant bits had been taken more-or-less whole cloth from the Israelites neighbors. This undermined longstanding assumptions of their originality or uniqueness, easily conflated with claims of religious and/or revelatory value. (See “Babel and Bible” controversy.) Other scholars pushed back, particularly conservative scholars. Others came to recognize that claims of direct borrowing were highly overstated, and ignored important and significant differences. It is a rare scholar today who argues that Genesis has nothing to do with these other accounts. Positions run from (paraphrasing here) the far conservative position asserting the similarities are mostly coincidental or meaningless, and the differences matter most, to the “breathing the same air” or sharing a general worldview to “the editor of Genesis was intimately familiar with these accounts, and they played a direct role in how Genesis was written.” To my knowledge, today no serious scholar thinks Genesis was a slavish copy. What then are we to make of these similarities and differences? As a prelude to further discussion, watch this…

And when they had sung an hymn…

Mark 14:26 records “And when they had sung an hymn, they went out into the mount of Olives.” Sometimes people have asked, did they have a hymn book? What did they sing? Israelites did indeed have a hymn book; it was called the Book of Psalms, and certain Psalms were sung on different occasions. Some were sung as one ascended to Jerusalem for certain feasts and holy days, others at the crowning of a new king, others in the temple/tabernacle to accompany certain sacrifices. Notably, the Psalms for Passover were referred to as The Hallel, Psalms 113-118. Hallel should look familiar, as it’s the first half of hallelujah, or hallelu-yah, meaning “praise (a plural command) Yahweh” i.e. the Lord. Psalm 113 embodies this faithful praise, repeated elsewhere thought the Hallel. hallelu yah, hallelu ‘avdey Yahweh, hallelu ‘et shem yahweh. Praise The Lord, praise, o servants of The Lord, praise the name of Yahweh. As he surely knew what was shortly to come, the words of Psalm 116 in Jesus’ mouth may have tasted just as bitter as the Passover herbs they were eating. I love the LORD, because he hath heard my voice and my supplications. Because he hath inclined his ear unto me, therefore will I call upon him as long as I live. The sorrows of death compassed me, and the pains of hell gat hold upon me: I found trouble and sorrow. Then called I upon the…

Study Genesis and the Gospels through Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon, this weekend only (updated)

One issue that appears repeatedly when studying scripture is dealing with conflicting accounts and multiple perspectives. We have four Gospels that vary in detail, several creation stories, both inside the Bible (Gen 1-2:4, 2:4ff, and the scattered watery Chaoskampf account), and outside (Genesis accounts, Book of Moses, Book of Abraham, Temple), as well as two conflicting accounts of Israelite history (Samuel-Kings vs. Chronicles), and two interpretations of the destruction of Ammonihah (Alma 16-17 vs 25, see Grant Hardy’s article). Our modern tendency is to treat all of these, and indeed nearly all scripture, strictly as history, although bad or inaccurate history, and since we really don’t like multiple accounts, we then wrest ahem… harmonize them. To some extent, that misses the point; none of these were written as history as the modern person would understand it, as a dispassionate, journalistic wie-es-eigentlich-gewesen how-it-really-happened neutral account written down by an eyewitness clerk. Perhaps that’s a bit exaggerated.

Genesis vs. Science: Background, Readings, and Discussion

One of the problems that crops up with Genesis is its proper context, its genre, what background it should be read against (modern science or ancient Near East?) That is, modern western English readers have a particular (modern) worldview with various questions and issues. When they read Genesis, they naturally place it into that setting, and read it against that (modern) background, which creates conflict. It’s as if we’ve summoned an expert witness to trial, only to surprise her with questions far outside her area of expertise. Although she gives strong indications to that effect, the judge forcefully says, “Just answer the questions please!” The lawyers seize upon any statement, and force it into relevance. Only recently have defense attorneys appeared in the courtroom to object to this treatment, with several lengthy briefs detailed below. The history of interpretation of Genesis’ early chapters is fascinating, particularly the science/religion debate. The Creationists: From Scientific Creationism to Intelligent Design, Expanded Edition is a great history of the interpreters and the conflict generated by their interpretations. Alas, Mormons get several mentions. 1  Another good volume on the science side is Saving Darwin, which I found enlightening. The commonly-held and mistaken view of the history of interpretation goes something like this. Since the dawn of time, the “literal” reading of Genesis has been the correct and only reading. But then Darwin and Science came along, and now the only reason people reject the traditional “literal” reading is…

With apologies to President Kimball, Shorten Your Stride! Or, thoughts on running, scriptures, and pushing metaphors too far.

As I lie in bed before falling asleep, the mental inventory of the day can take a toll, inevitably a combo of Jesus’ “these you ought to have done without leaving the others undone” and Paul’s  “I do not act as I mean to… the good things I intend to do, I never do.” 1 Among all the other omissions and commissions of modern life, it’s very healthy to have at least one personal victory each day. If that personal victory turns out to have mental, physical, and emotional benefits such as running does, so much the better.  I’ve become much more of a runner in recent years than I ever was in high school or college. Consequently, I’ve thought more about President Kimball’s saying and taken more note of the various running metaphors in the scriptures.

On Scripture Changes and the Bible Dictionary(s)

I’ve had this post half written for a while, and one of the changes in the new LDS scriptures has prompted me to emerge from my cave to finish it. The introductory section to the Bible Dictionary has been rewritten with some interesting twists. The old version is still available at the “classic” scripture site,  The  oft-ignored disavaowal of the BD as an official position or revelation therein remains, I’m happy to report, as does the statement that the BD represents (light) scholarship, and is subject to scholarly revision. It seems few people know that the original BD was a revision of the Cambridge Bible Dictionary, as reported in the Ensign back in 1982 and perhaps elsewhere.  As the Bible Chronology and Harmony of the Gospels have become their own Help/Aid, they no longer merit mention. Much more interesting is the excisal of a recommendation to use another Bible Dictionary.

One Day, The Past’s Future May Seem Just This (Un)Weird

It’s always fun to read computer/science/tech magazines from the 80’s, and see just how far things have come in 30 years, and what predictions were way off. Even more so from the 1950s. Sometimes the things they herald as bizarre and never-going-to-happen have come to be so taken for granted that I can seem really old for talking about VCRs, and having to look in the newspaper to find out movie times.  It strikes me that such is also the case with the Church, in some ways. But really, I just wanted to post the below image, made with The Pulp-o-mizer. It’s a bit limited in the right images, but captures the spirit.  

Guest post: Failure, by Nate Curtis

No one sets out on a path with the intent to fail. In late 2009 I took the last major hike with my father before he died.  We decided to do the Tapeats Creek/Deer Creek loop, a trail in the Grand Canyon that we had done several times over the years, and is considered by many to be not only the most difficult hike in the Grand Canyon, but among the hardest hikes in North America. It was the first hike my father had done in the Grand Canyon when he was 14 years old, and it was the first hike he took me on in the Grand Canyon when I was 12 years old.  He used to tell a story of a pudgy kid from Houston (himself) who had never even seen a valley, much less the Grand Canyon.  A boy who descended into the depths of those sandstone walls and emerged 20 pounds lighter and fully converted to the Canyon’s mystery. The trail is not easy.  Just a few weeks before our trip, an experienced hiker in good physical condition attempted to hike the trail alone.  He became lost and for some unknown reason began to navigate his way down a large cliff.  After descending a ways he realized he could go no farther down, and lacked the strength to climb back up.  Stranded on a ledge, he soon died from exposure to heat and dehydration. It was…

Writing about Genesis: Status Update

 Last year in September, I posted some thoughts on a book project dealing with the early chapters of Genesis. A good number of my (too rare) posts since then have dealt with those chapters in certain ways: Problems of language and culture (1, 2),  issues of translation (six parts so far, begin here), the structure of the first creation account, and my posts from teaching a Genesis Institute class (start here). I started researching the book and doing some initial writing. Here’s a very quick update.

Pre-storm Report from NYC (updated)

Since I live in NYC, I’ve been following the weather and news pretty closely from various sources.  I left work early yesterday, and it was closed down today. All transit has been shut down, evacuations taking place, and the Ward/Stake communications network is in place. I live up a hill, so I’m not worried about flooding. I went for a short walk this morning to pick up a few more supplies, and the reactions vary broadly. Some places are boarded up and closed, others open like usual. Fewer people are out on the road, but I saw three runners in twenty minutes. And I’ll confess, one reason I went out was to see if I wanted to run in the weather. (RunnersWorld had some good humor on that.) So far, it’s not much different than any other storm. Constant drizzle, but not hard rain. Wind, sometimes really strong wind, but I haven’t seen any downed trees or even big branches yet. It’s selfish and shallow, but I enjoy extreme weather; it’s a change in schedule, a little uncertain, and fun… up to a point, obviously. My wife’s trapped in the Chicago area for a few days, so I spent the day cleaning with streaming videos in the background, reading Saving Darwin as deep cultural background affecting how we instinctively read Genesis (post to come!), and eating through anything that might conceivably go bad quickly in the fridge, if we lose power. That means…

Winning the mini-mini-Lottery: What would you do?

I sat in a comfy chair downtown reading my iPad for two hours, and received $175 in Amazon credit for my troubles. That’s nice work, if you can get it. Even better is getting paid four figures to fly to France on a private G5 and take four naps a day for a week. (Yes, I’ve done that too, but napping on a rigorous schedule is much more difficult than it sounds.)

NYC Institute Announcement: Psalms and Israelite Poetry

I didn’t think I’d be able to teach again in Fall, but my schedule changed and then I was asked. And so, I announce an Institute class to be held Tuesday nights at 8Pm at the Union Square building in Manhattan, on Psalms and Israelite Poetry. Class begins next Tuesday, Sept. 11th, and will continue through the 1st week of December (anticipated.) Why study Psalms? A few reasons, which I’ll elaborate on in the first week’s intro. Psalms was the most translated Old Testament book into Greek during the early NT period, and the most popular book at Qumran (Dead Sea Scrolls); moreover, Psalms is the most quoted book in the New Testament. As Psalms are human responses to God (prayers, hymns, etc.), they cover a lot of our normal situations; frustration at feeling like we’re doing what we should but not getting anywhere, feeling like God isn’t answering, and so on. It’s a very emotive book, easy to relate to. It’s also vastly underread and underappreciated. Although I proposed it, I’ve never taught this class before. I have multiple goals. Expose students to Psalms and poetry, which includes most of the prophetic books (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel), Job,  and things like Deuteronomy 32, Exodus 15, etc. I expect we’ll spend most time in Psalms, with short detours elsewhere. Learn how to parse Semitic poetry a bit. Since it’s so common in our scriptures and so different from what we know,…

Mormon, Helaman, Fiction, and History: Short Notes

We had some interesting discussion in Gospel Doctrine class on Sunday, focused on Helaman 2, where Helaman’s servant was joining Gadianton’s group. From my view, he wasn’t infiltrating the group, but joining for personal gain… until he learned what their higher goals were, at which point he bails out by killing Kishkumen and fleeing to Helaman, who sends out (the army? what? there’s no object in the sentence) to catch them.  11 But behold, when Gadianton had found that Kishkumen did not return he feared lest that he should be destroyed; therefore he caused that his band should follow him. And they took their flight out of the land, by a secret way, into the wilderness; and thus when Helaman sent forth to take them they could nowhere be found. 12 And more of this Gadianton shall be spoken hereafter. And thus ended the forty and second year of the reign of the judges over the people of Nephi. 13 And behold, in the end of this book ye shall see that this Gadianton did prove the overthrow, yea, almost the entire destruction of the people of Nephi. 14 Behold I do not mean the end of the book of Helaman, but I mean the end of the book of Nephi, from which I have taken all the account which I have written. Some really interesting things here.  Sometimes writers start off well, but have no idea where they’re going and write themselves into the ground; I think sadly of…

Why Translations Differ, Part 6: Putting It All Together. Mostly

To summarize the first five parts of the series (linked below) and apply what we’ve learned to the original question- Translations can vary for multiple reasons: 1) Different underlying texts (MT vs DSS) and influence of the versions (LXX, Targums, etc.) 2) Different understandings of the text on the grammatical and syntactic level 3) Different understandings of the text on the semantic/word level 4) Differing philosophies of how to best express one’s understanding of 1, 2, and 3 in English Translators must examine, weigh, and make decisions on each of these issues before actually getting on to providing a translation. With those issues in mind, let’s look at the original passages in question. KJV Isaiah 9:1 (followed by 2 Nephi 19:1) reads negatively, “Nevertheless the dimness shall not be such as was in her vexation, when at the first he lightly afflicted the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, and afterward did more grievously afflict her by the way of the sea, beyond Jordan, in Galilee of the nations” (my emphasis).” At first, the lands are lightly afflicted, and then more grievously afflicted. By contrast, most modern translations such as the NET, NRSV, JPS, etc. read positively, “The gloom will be dispelled for those who were anxious. In earlier times he humiliated the land of Zebulun, and the land of Naphtali; but now he brings honor to the way of the sea, the region beyond the Jordan, and…