Thursday, June 29, 2006

Herma-WHAT-ics? Exege-huh?

I've been going to Bible studies for a good long while. Currently, though, it's gotten very interesting, as I'm involved in an 8-week study of Paul's letter to the Romans. My wife recently got me an exhaustive concordance to my preferred translation, the NASB, including every Greek and Hebrew word as well, which has proved to be an excellent resource. Now, for those not "in the know", Romans deals a lot in soteriology, the faith vs. works argument, the state of the Jews post-Christ, predestination, and the permanence (or impermanence) of our salvation. Pretty weighty stuff. I'm not going to get into that right now, though. What's really got me thinking is the manner in which I choose to approach scripture, particularly as a scientist.

In the sciences, all systems of thought (to the best of my knowledge) are axiomatic. That is, they rest on a relatively small set of axioms, which are taken to be true without explicit proof. These form the basis of all other conclusions in that system. Kurt Godel (forgive my inability to apply umlauts) showed that all axiomatic systems either incomplete (meaning that there exist unprovable statements) or inconsistent (meaning that there exists at least one contradictory statement). In layman's terms, he demonstrated that you can always construct a self-referential statement that says "This statement cannot be proven". If it is true, then your system is incomplete because it is unprovable; if it is false and can be proven, then your system is inconsistent because the statement is false, but was logically derived from the given axioms.

As an article of faith, I believe the Bible to be a perfect document as it was originally written, meaning in its original Hebrew and Greek. This, admittedly, is axiom number one. The rest of the axioms of my faith are given either implicitly or explicitly within the Scriptural text. (Side note: I am not a Biblical literalist, but I tend to believe that everything from at least the Patriarchs on represents at least some historical fact. Rather, I believe the Bible is perfect in its expression of God's promises, His will, and the rules by which we must live our lives as Christians). And there the fun begins: If scripture is perfect, it cannot be inconsistent. I am perfectly willing to accept, however, that it may be incomplete (we are told as much in Romans 8:33, for example).

So, as a scientific endeavor, if I rely on my axiomatic belief that scripture is inerrant, the great joy for me as a rational thinker and faithful Christian occurs when two things in Scripture, as I read them in English, are apparently contradictory. Because I know they cannot be actually contradictory, it becomes an investigation, and my tools are great and varied: commentaries, linguistics, cultural cues, multiple translations, even (and most importantly) delving into the original languages.

For instance: the "almah" controversy. Isaiah 7:14 is the particular prophecy that refers to Christ being born of a virgin. Liberal scholars, agnostics, and others with a vested interest in Biblical prophecy not being true like to point out that, in Hebrew, the word translated as "virgin", which is "almah", actually means "young woman", and has no explicit connotations of virginity; moreover, Hebrew DOES have another word which actually means "virgin". The controversy arises in the fact that the author of Matthew references this verse, and unambiguously uses the Greek word for "virgin" in his own translation -- thus, an apparent contradiction. However, when one combs through the OT scriptures, it is evident that every single use of "almah" refers to a woman who is, in fact, a virgin! Moreover, it is used as a stand-in for the word "virgin" on at least once occasion!

That's the translational cue. Moreover, there's a contextual cue: the whole point of this passage in Isaiah is that God Himself will provide the people of Israel with a sign. Without going into details, it is clear contextually that this must be a pretty important sign. Read the verse. What is so special about a woman giving perfectly natural birth to someone whose name happens to be Emmanuel? What sort of sign is that? What's to prevent the next Joe Schmo from naming his kid Emmanuel? I knew an Emmanuel back in college. Was the kid who played Webster a "sign from Yahweh"? Clearly, something more special is going on here, and the only thing that could be, contextually speaking, is that a VIRGIN bears a child.

Additionally, we have the historical clue: The NT authors relied primarily on the LXX, the Greek translation of the OT scriptures. Without getting into an argument about the authenticity of the Septuagint, let it suffice to say that this document, produced between 300 and 100 BC (that's BEFORE CHRIST, folks!), indeed translated the word into Greek as "virgin" (parthenos). This work, composed by pre-Christ Jewish scholars, was much more "in-tune" with ancient form of Hebrew spoken by the pre- and post-captivity Jews than modern scholars, some 2500+ years removed from the events of authorship. Even THEY thought it meant "virgin". Why, if it "so clearly" means "young woman"?

I could go on, but I think I've made my point. It really is a fascinating "detective"-type problem. And usually, when overly complicated theories that precariously weave the evidence into elaborate schemes to "prove" some controversial (and usual anti-establishment) point, IT'S THE WRONG THEORY. It's amazing how well Occam's Razor sides with traditional Biblical interpretation.



Anonymous Marty said...

Great post, Ben. You have enough subtlety and exigetical care to be a Jesuit. But you still have your faith!

6:10 PM  
Blogger Benjamin said...

Even the most rational, logically-minded self-proclaimed atheist has a great deal of axiomatic faith, whether he admits (or knows) it or not.

7:51 AM  

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