Friday, May 8, 2009


Can you read that? It's nthngbtcnsnnts!*

In 2004 archaeologists and researchers were able to translate a tiny silver scroll (shown above close to life-size) found in 1979 at Ketef Hinnom, an archaeological site near Jerusalem. It's understood to be the oldest extant written record of a Bible passage, dating back to the 6th century BC. Written in old Hebrew, it has no indication of vowel sounds. That's not unusual for very old alphabets. As far as I know, all alphabets started with just consonants. And not only were there no vowels, but there were no spaces between the words, or punctuation, or upper/lower case, which was also typical. For example, I don't think the West began to space words until the late Middle Ages. There wasn't much demand for making reading easy until the printing press made books widely available, and a newly-literate public didn't want to labor over their Romance novels. The scribes made a nice living for a few millennia...then literacy became a do-it-yourself job.

Imagine reading a manuscript which is simply page after page of a single uninterrupted stream of consonants. To read it at least the first time could require the assistance of someone who already knew what it 'said'. 'Reading' would be a combination of sounding out the text while hearing or remembering the meaning at least in general terms. And learning the contents of a book might involve more listening and repeating than time spent actually 'reading' the text, especially if a group of students and their teacher had but one copy to share. The Greek word 'catechize' hints at this, meaning to sound-out, or as its root suggests, to echo: the teacher speaks, the students echo back. What we'd call being functionally literate with the Jewish Bible, the Tanakh, in Jesus' day would have thus been a full-time pursuit, involving years of reading/memorization, and restricted to such as scribes and Pharisees. But memorization (think of Homer and the Iliad) would allow for instant access to swathes of information that I can't come up with except by turning lots of pages, or cheating with an online Bible (heh). Easy-to-read prose has stunted my memorization skills. Pharisees would surely roll their eyes at me: just wait a sec, I gotta look that up.

I use the NAB (New American Bible) for general reading. For quoting, I usually use the KJV if it's not too fusty. I like the NAB for its notes; I haven't found another version whose references and commentaries suit me as well. They help me compensate for not having a scribe or Pharisee's instant command of memorized text.

Speaking of the Tanakh, have you ever heard this before:

"And Jesus went into the temple of God, and cast out all them that sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the moneychangers, and the seats of them that sold doves,
And said unto them, It is written, My house shall be called the house of prayer; but ye have made it a den of thieves. And the blind and the lame came to him in the temple; and he healed them."

I understand this. Greedy moneychangers, no respect for the Holy Precincts, righteous anger, Jesus steps on other peoples' turf, heals a wretch or two. No problem. Heard this & read it for 40 years, I got it.

Then one day two items in the notes caught my eye: 'house of prayer' comes from Isaiah 56:7, and 'den of thieves' from Jeremiah 7:11. Oh. Jesus is quoting prophets; I thought he was just talking. But rest assured that any scribe within earshot knew right away that Jesus had just quoted Isaiah and Jeremiah, and wasn't just showing off. He was using the small phrases as oral shorthand to refer to the bigger passages in which they were found, and he meant something by putting both passages together.

Just wait a sec, I gotta look that up.

Isaiah 56:7 Even them will I bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer: their burnt offerings and their sacrifices shall be accepted upon mine altar; for mine house shall be called an house of prayer for all people.

Who's gonna be joyful? To get some context, we have to read verses 1-8 (edited):

1Thus saith the LORD: my salvation is near to come, and my righteousness to be revealed.

2Blessed is the man that keepeth the Sabbath.

3Neither let the son of the stranger, that hath joined himself to the LORD, speak, saying, The LORD hath utterly separated me from his people: neither let the eunuch say, Behold, I am a dry tree.

4For thus saith the LORD unto the eunuchs that keep my Sabbaths, and take hold of my covenant;

5Even unto them will I give in mine house and within my walls a place and a name better than of sons and of daughters: I will give them an everlasting name, that shall not be cut off.

6Also the sons of the stranger, that join themselves to the LORD, to be his servants, every one that keepeth the sabbath, and taketh hold of my covenant;

7Even them will I bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer: their burnt offerings and their sacrifices shall be accepted upon mine altar; for mine house shall be called an house of prayer for all people.

8The Lord GOD, which gathers the outcasts of Israel saith, Yet will I gather others to him, beside those that are gathered unto him.

My synopsis: there will be a time when God's Covenant will extend to all people, including foreigners; even outcasts such as eunuchs. What will matter is not one's status as a son of Abraham, but whether one truly believes God's law and acts accordingly. Indeed the faithful eunuch may be closer to God than sons and daughters.

Just another sec while I look up the other one:

Jeremiah 7:11 Has this house, which bears my Name, become a den of thieves to you? But I have been watching! declares the LORD.

Uh...watching what, exactly? Once again we need context, verses 1-15 (edited):

1 This is the word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD : 2 "Stand at the gate of the LORD's house and there proclaim this message:

"Hear the word of the LORD, all you people of Judah who come through these gates to worship the LORD. 3 This is what the LORD says: Reform your ways and I will let you live in this place. 45 If you really change your ways then I will let you live in this place, in the land I gave your forefathers forever. 8 Do not trust in deceptive words and say, "This is the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD!"

9 "Will you steal and murder, commit adultery and perjury, burn incense to Baal and follow other gods you have not known, 10 and then come and stand before me in this house, which bears my Name, and say, "We are safe to do all these detestable things? 11 Has this house, which bears my Name, become a den of thieves to you?"

12 "Go now to the place in Shiloh where I first made a dwelling for my Name, and see what I did to it because of the wickedness of my people Israel. 13 While you were doing all these things, I called you, but you did not answer. 14 Therefore, what I did to Shiloh I will now do to the house that bears my Name, the temple you trust in, the place I gave to you and your fathers. 15 I will thrust you from my presence, just as I did all your brothers, the people of Ephraim."

My synopsis: Jeremiah stands at the Temple Gate and warns: one's status as one of the Chosen people will not compensate for failing to observe God's law. If God's people do not repent of numerous sins, He will not allow them to stay in "the land I gave your forefathers forever." God offers Shiloh's fate as an example of what could (and did, in 587 BC) happen to the Temple.

What happened at Shiloh? Just another sec while I look it up: 1Samuel: 4 (heavily edited):

Now the Israelites went out to fight against the Philistines; Israel was defeated. The elders of Israel asked, "Why did the LORD bring defeat upon us today? Let us bring the Ark of the LORD's covenant from Shiloh, so that it may go with us and save us from the hand of our enemies."

4 So the people sent men to Shiloh, and they brought back the Ark. And Eli's two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, were there with the Ark.

When they learned that the Ark had come into the Israelite camp, 7 the Philistines were afraid. "A god has come into the camp," they said. 8 Woe to us! Who will deliver us from the hand of these mighty gods? They are the gods who struck the Egyptians with plagues. But the Philistines fought bravely, and the Israelites were defeated again. The Ark was captured, and Eli's two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, died.

12 That same day a Benjamite ran from the battle line and went to Shiloh. 13 When he arrived, there was Eli sitting on his chair by the side of the road. The man hurried over to Eli. "Israel has suffered heavy losses. Also your two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, are dead, and the ark of God has been captured."

Eli fell backward off his chair, broke his neck and died. 19 His daughter-in-law, the wife of Phinehas, was pregnant. When she heard that the Ark had been captured and that her father-in-law and her husband were dead, she went into labor and gave birth to a son, but was dying herself.

21 She named the boy Ichabod, saying, "The glory has departed from Israel"-because of the capture of the ark of God and the deaths of her father-in-law and her husband. 22 She said, "The glory has departed from Israel, for the Ark of God has been captured."

My synopsis: Shiloh was Israel's first assembly-place, a proto-capital where the Ark of the Covenant was originally kept in a tent. Thus it was where God dwelt among his people. Israel had a misplaced faith that God would never abandon them, regardless of any failure on their part to observe his law. The result was this catastrophic disaster. Israel could not have imagined that God would permit the loss of the Ark. Shiloh was destroyed as well (1067 BC). Israel eventually recovered the Ark, but it never was returned to Shiloh.

Now I assume that as fast as Temple cognoscenti heard Jesus say house of prayer and den of thieves, they would have recalled Isaiah and Jeremiah's prophecies; and any Jew would remember Shiloh, as I remember the Alamo and Pearl Harbor.

Putting Jeremiah and Isaiah together I get this:

Jesus stands at the Temple Gate as Jeremiah did, acting out Jeremiah's authority. He says the people (and especially the current Temple staff) are as unfaithful as they were in Jeremiah's day, and predicts through Jeremiah that Jerusalem will suffer a catastrophe as great as Shiloh, which was destroyed and never served as God's dwelling again. A disaster that exceeds any worst-case scenario. Yet somehow amidst that disaster, outsiders, outcasts, and Gentiles might join themselves to the LORD, take hold of His covenant, and enjoy a status that exceeds that of sons and daughters. And this will happen in God's house of prayer, which Jesus implies won't be in Jerusalem, which will have suffered Shiloh's fate.

I expect the chief priests and the teachers of the law understood Jesus' underlying, and more ominous message clearly and quickly; they'd have known the message was for their ears; they would have felt insulted and threatened far beyond the "house of prayer-den of thieves" couplet. And let's not forget, "....the blind and the lame came to him in the temple; and he healed them." Jesus acts out Isaiah, receiving these outcasts into the Temple court, and shows his divine authority to admit them by healing them, a further provocation.

Small wonder that within a few days, Annas & Caiaphas arranged Jesus' crucifixion.

That's an awful lot of Christian prophecy to extract from the zipfile of "house of prayer/ den of thieves."

And this is the problem with lots of easy Bible reading: first I don't memorize, don't remember whole contexts (well, sometimes I do). Second, it's hard to extract deeper meanings from text that makes adequate sense on the surface. There's no boldface indicating "deeper meaning." So I have to ask myself how would a scribe read this? Or better yet, how would a scribe listen to it?

A possible help is that I don't read books of the Bible straight through, except for Philemon and other shorties. Probably due to the influence of my Latin training and 12 years of Internet use, I am always looking sideways as much as vertically. For every few passages I read in a given book, I'm reading another passage in another book, which may require reading yet another passage in a third book before returning to the original. This is why the Bible is so fascinating: the process of seeing and understanding the dim web that knits it all together is also the process of knowing the Mind of God. Sometimes it's exhilarating, like the Enterprise moving at warp-speed through the galaxy; or plunging through spacetime in the Millennium Falcon. Not that spacetime has anything to do with the Mind of God!

It'd be great to have the instant recall that those consonant-only scribes must have had. But in the meantime, thank ya Jesus, for the cross-references.

* nothing but consonants