Monday 28 January 2013

An Excursus - Font Size

Being new to blogging I've trusted this site's suggestions for font size, and most of the text you see in my posts is "normal" size, according to Blogger; the one exception outside titles is when I've posted Hebrew with vowel points - I've increased the font size otherwise the points were just unreadable.

However, I'm finding the English text quite small to read, and I wondered what others thought. I've recently got to the age where I've had to procure reading glasses, so perhaps it's just me, but I'm not so sure. This is normal font.

And this is large. What do you think - should I just opt for large for every post?

The Virginal Conception - Is Mark Goodacre right to criticise Francesca Stavrakopoulou? (Part 3)

Here's the next installment of my mini series on Mark Goodacre's recent podcast where he chided Francesca Stavrakopoulou for a part of an interview she gave to BBC Five Live just before Christmas.
I've been a little critical of some of the finer points that Goodacre has made up to now, but from 7:13 in his podcast onwards he gets onto a much stronger point. Put briefly:
  1. Did the idea of a virginal conception arise from Matthew's reading of the LXX of Isaiah 7:14 (as Stavrakopoulou seems to suggest)? Or
  2. Did the idea of a virginal conception come from elsewhere, and Matthew used the LXX of Isaiah 7:14 to support this idea in his gospel (as Goodacre prefers)?

Goodacre introduces some catchphrases to summarize these positions:
  1. Prophecy historicized (he attributes this to Dominic Crossan)
  2. Tradition scripturalized.

I'm not going to be wholly dogmatic about this, but it does seem to me that, in line with Goodacre's thinking, 2 is considerably more plausible than 1, and there are a number of reasons for this, some of which I'll outline below. However, there are a couple of things to point out before doing so.

Firstly, to argue for "tradition scriptualized" is not to argue that it actually happened. A tradition could, of course, have arisen directly from a historical reality; but equally there are other ways that traditions can become established even if they bear little or no relation to real historical events. These unhistorical traditions can go on to become scripturalized. I don't think Goodacre would disagree with this.

Secondly, it seems entirely plausible that the canonical gospels have a mixture of prophecy historicized and tradition scripturalized; just because I think it is more plausible in this particular case to argue for the latter, does not mean I exclude the former from having taken place elsewhere in the texts. I have to confess, I don't know Goodacre's position on this point.

Why is "tradition scripturalized" a better fit for Matt 1:23?
The first thing to note is how poor a fit Isaiah 7:14 is for the point Matthew is trying to make. Isa 7:14 isn't about a biblical hero; by resorting to quoting it Matthew isn't turning Jesus into a new Abraham, Moses, Elijah or Daniel, nor is it about a messiah, eschatological son-of-man or a suffering servant figure. Rather it's an obscure prophecy dating to the time of king Ahaz and the tension between supporting the Assyrians or the Egyptians in 734BCE. It's a rather strange thing to want to historicize, and if Matthew has historicized it he has taken one small point from it, or perhaps two if you include the mentioned-in-passing Ἐμμανουήλ.

To put it another way, there's no big deal in historicizing a lost-in-history character who is probably never mentioned again in Isaiah*, Matthew nor anywhere else as far as we can tell. There's nothing to gain from historicizing this passage. In fact scholars of the Hebrew bible spend their time arguing about who this character was; a son of Isaiah or a son of Ahaz or someone else entirely. The identity is immaterial to the plot of the story in Isaiah, and it's immaterial to Matthew as well.

Goodacre points out another passage (Matt 2:23) where it is even clearer that Matthew has scripturalized tradition when he searches for something that will point to Jesus being from Nazareth. Certainly this bitty way of proof-texting seems to to be quite similar to the Matt 1:23 example.

Goodacre does slightly undermine his (and my) case when he points out that Matthew develops the idea of Immanuel from Isaiah 7:14, although I suspect this is not as strong an allusion as he makes out in Matt 28:20.

It should also be pointed out that Isaiah 7:14 doesn't provide a virginal conception even in the LXX version. The Greek translation takes a Hebrew verbless predicate clause and translates it with a future tense of ἔχω.

 הִנֵּ֣ה הָעַלְמָ֗ה הָרָה֙  
behold the young woman [is] pregnant.
ἰδοὺ ἡ παρθένος ἐν γαστρὶ ἕξει
behold the virgin in belly will have

In fact there isn't a birth here in the LXX at all, simply a future birth of a firstborn child. As Raymond Brown pointed out in his The Birth of the Messiah (I give the page number of the updated paperback edition of 1999, but this passage was the same in the original 1973 edition):

Therefore, all the LXX translator may have meant by "the virgin will conceive" is that a woman who is now a virgin will (by natural means, once she is united to her husband) conceive the child Emmanuel... And so the LXX language makes it clear that the providential child to be born would be a firstborn. (p. 149)

Thus again, the LXX story in Isaiah hardly provides a basis on which to create a story about a miraculous, virginal conception of the messiah. Rather, it is a text which can easily be picked on by someone scouring the scriptures for something to "back up" and already existing idea of a virginal conception. As mentioned above, this already existing idea doesn't have to be historically accurate, but it was an idea already invented or found.

There's another reason to come to the conclusion that the virginal conception tradition originated independently of Isaiah 7:14 if you don't have Goodacre's take on the Synoptic Problem. Those familiar with Goodacre's work will know that he is today's leading proponent of the Farrer-Goulder hypothesis that concludes that Matthew knew Mark's gospel and Luke knew both Mark's and Matthew's gospel. Although this is a minority view on the Synoptic problem, it is probably the most commonly held such minority view amongst New Testament biblical critics these days. The majority view is still that Matthew and Luke used Mark, but Matthew and Luke were independent of each other (the Two Document Hypothesis - 2DH). Those who prefer 2DH or a close variant of it usually propose that a tradition of the virginal conception circulated independently and was picked up by Matthew and Luke. To put it another way, it is implausible that Luke picked up on a tradition independently, but Matthew took Isaiah 7:14 and historicized it.

If you adopt the Farrer-Goulder-Goodacre hypothesis, then you are less likely to make this particular argument, because in theory Matthew could have historicized Isaiah 7:14 and then Luke picked up on Matthew's historicized prophecy and just ditched the Hebrew bible citation. But fortunately Goodacre doesn't think entirely this way.

The updated scoreline
Well this is where Goodacre catches up and overtakes Stavrakopoulou. Although the LXX did mistranslate Isaiah 7:14 (as Stavrakopoulou correctly pointed out), Matthew doesn't rely on it to create his virginal conception story, but simply uses it as a proof-text for his already existent story (as Goodacre maintained). It's this latter point which is after all what is under examination here, so the majority of the points have to go to Goodacre.

*Some people take the child in Isaiah 9:5-6 (NRSV 9:6-7) to be the same child as 7:14, in which case it would be Ahaz's son Hezekiah. But most people these days take the 9:5-6 character to be an idealized Davidic king. In any case, the prophecy in Isa 7:14-16 is about a timescale: the kings of Aram and Israel will no longer be a problem to Ahaz by the time a child soon to be born reaches an age of understanding.The identity of the child is unimportant to the prophet.

Saturday 26 January 2013

The Virginal Conception - Is Mark Goodacre right to criticise Francesca Stavrakopoulou? (Part 2)

I'm critiquing Mark Goodacre's podcast that criticizes an interview Francesca Stavrakopoulou gave to BBC Radio Five Live. (For Part 1 see here).

Could Matthew read Hebrew?
Goodacre goes on to a different argument next, proposing that his opponents have to adopt a position summarized with this line,

"The argument assumes that Matthew can't read Hebrew and suggests that he was solely, entirely dependent on the LXX, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible." (podcast 6:21)

That is, if you think Matthew supported his idea of the virginal conception with the Greek word παρθένος from the LXX translation of Isaiah 7:14 then you must think that Matthew can't have read Hebrew; if he had been able to read Hebrew he would have known perfectly well that עַלְמָה does not mean virgin.

You will undoubtedly have noticed that this is already a little contradictory of Goodacre, as he believes (erroneously - see previous post) that עַלְמָה does have at least a connotation of "virgin". But setting that aside, is Goodacre's proposition for his opponents a necessary assumption for adherents of that view, including Stavrakopoulou?

A moment's thought would indicate "no". It is perfectly possible for people to work from translations even when they are literate in the original language. Matthew was writing in Greek; it is very likely that he was not intimately familiar with a rather obscure passage (as it was in his time) of Isaiah dealing with conversations with king Ahaz in 734BCE. It is entirely plausible that he scoured the LXX for proof texts (Goodacre is happy with him scouring the Hebrew bible for proof texts) without going to the trouble of checking the Hebrew - and it would have been considerable trouble to do so, given that he must have had the LXX text available to him already; it is unlikely that Matthew was sitting in some sort of library with access to all the scrolls he could wish for.

Even if one were to begin to accept Goodacre's argument at face value, then presumably Matthew's original readership didn't have access to the Hebrew text - or at least Matthew wasn't concerned that they'd catch him out.

Either way, Matthew is at least unconcerned that the Hebrew text fails to speak of a virgin. I think it is rather more likely that Matthew simply didn't check the Hebrew - he was satisfied by what he found in the Greek, and thought something along the lines of "that'll be sufficient for my readership", and it turned out that he was largely right (perhaps I need to do a post on Justin Martyr and Trypho - but that'll be a long way off).

Was Matthew Jewish?
Goodacre goes on to extol Matthew's Jewish credentials, unfortunately without consideration of whether he might have been a Hellenistic Jew.

Then Goodacre develops the theme a little further, in a way which I think is the most unfair in all the podcast. Note how he frames the argument of his opponents, including presumably Stavrakopoulou:

"It is unlikely, I think, that he was so ignorant of ... the Hebrew bible. And so I think the idea that Matthew is some kind of idiot that didn't quite manage to get the nuances of the Hebrew bible and was, you know, dependent on the LXX the Greek translation is problematic." (podcast 6:55)

Now I think this is uncharacteristic of Goodacre - he is generally much more fair-minded than this, from what I've heard of him. So I suspect this is an aberration which, when he considers it, he'll regret. He has resorted to an internet-style debate tactic of presenting a false dichotomy, attributing one pole of it (a most extreme one) to his opponent. He really should ask himself, is it likely that Stavrakopoulou (or anyone else agreeing with her line of argument) thinks that Matthew is an ignorant idiot?

Of course not. In fact his set up that Matthew must be one or other of these two extremes:
1) A Christian Jew, steeped in Hebrew scriptures and Jewish traditions, or
2) An ignorant idiot, who didn't know Hebrew scriptures and Jewish traditions
is simply fallacious.

On the contrary, it is well known in modern biblical scholarship that Matthew does not get everything right about contemporary Judaism. Some have argued that Matthew was a hellenistic Jew, others that he might not have been Jewish at all but only keenly interested in Judaism and self-taught in its traditions.

Udo Schnelle in The History and Theology of the New Testament Writings puts it this way (p220):

Whether Matthew was a Jewish or Gentile Christian is still a disputed point among scholars. The Gospel provides data that support each possibility.

He provides helpful footnotes with details of sources for scholarly debate on both sides, and goes on to give lists of passages and points in support of both positions. He doesn't entirely resolve this tension and misses one of the biggest arguments against Matthew being Jewish (his failure to understand Hebrew synonymous parallelism - Matt 21:5-6) but does summarize:

The tension between these two lists is best understood to mean that the evangelist Matthew is the advocate of a liberal Hellenistic Diaspora Jewish Christianity that had been engaged in the Gentile mission for some time. (p.221)

Summing up so far
Thus, so far Stavrakopoulou has come out of this squeaky clean, and Goodacre less so. But Goodacre will catch up, just wait for the next post.

The Virginal Conception - Is Mark Goodacre right to criticise Francesca Stavrakopoulou? (Part 1)

I'm a great fan of Professor Mark Goodacre despite him asking me not to comment any more on his blog anonymously. He always seems to me to try to exercise reasonableness (except for that one occasion) and keep his cool despite the madness and unpleasantness of people toward him.

Recently he entered into the fray of a minor storm set off by a radio interview given just before Christmas by Professor Francesca Stavrakopoulou on BBC Radio Five Live, and did one of his podcasts on it. I find myself, whilst conceding that Goodacre is probably right overall in his thesis, feeling he has been rather unfair in his analysis of Stavrakopoulou. So I thought I'd do a series of posts on where I think Goodacre has overstated his case, even though he's probably right in the end. I suggest you listen to Goodacre's podcast (something that is always well worth doing) before reading on.

I'm going to skip over is comment about Richard Dawkins' "fairly ill-informed passage" in The God Delusion, but I might return to this for a future post.

How should we translate עַלְמָה in Isaiah 7:14?
Goodacre states that עַלְמָה can mean "maiden, virgin, young woman, something like that..." (podcast 5:05) and goes on to expand on the old English word "maiden" (I presume attributing this to עַלְמָה  but it's just possible he means παρθένος) which can have "connotations" of virginity. One gets the impression that Goodacre would be satisfied with a translation of "maiden" for עַלְמָה and consequently a connotation of virginity, even if this was not its main meaning.

Is this fair?

Well the first thing to say is a concession. עַלְמָה is also translated by παρθένος in the LXX of Gen 24:43, and I don't think anyone would contest that παρθένος does indeed have strong connotations of virginity; indeed I would suggest that "virgin" is a very reasonable translation of παρθένος almost everywhere it is used.

So does that settle it? Well of course it doesn't. Everywhere else in the Hebrew bible that עַלְמָה appears it is translated not by παρθένος but by νεᾶνις (Exod 2:8; Cant 1:3; 6:8) or νεότης (Prov 30:19). This should be enough to warrant examination of why the LXX of Gen 24:43 and Isa 7:14 render it παρθένος.

This examination is rather easier for Gen 24:43 than Isa 7:14. Here the woman concerned is Rebekah who would become Isaac's wife. Rebekah has quite an introduction to the reader; in particular she is described in these terms just before (Gen 24:16):

 וְהַֽנַּעֲרָ֗ טֹבַ֤ת מַרְאֶה֙ מְאֹ֔ד בְּתוּלָ֕ה וְאִ֖ישׁ לֹ֣א יְדָעָ֑הּ
And the young woman was of greatly beautiful appearance, a virgin, and no man had known her

Note the use of בְּתוּלָה "a virgin" in this description.This passage is considered to be non-priestly (Wellhausen would have said a mixture of J and E), and so this level of descriptive detail is quite characteristic for the author(s). The LXX translators loved the virginity aspect of Rebekah; if the Hebrew text went slightly overboard with her virginity already, note how (rather bizarrely) the LXX translates the passage just given:

ἡ δὲ παρθένος ἦν καλὴ τῇ ὄψει σφόδρα παρθένος ἦν ἀνὴρ οὐκ ἔγνω αὐτήν
And the virgin was of exceedingly beautiful appearance, she was a virgin {again, in case you missed it}, man did not know her

Could anyone be more virginal than that?! Indeed two verses earlier the LXX translators had already announced her virginity before the Hebrew text had got round to it (Gen 24:14). She's "the virgin" in the LXX of 24:55 where, again, in the Hebrew she is simply הַנַּעֲרָ.

So it is hardly surprising that in all this context the LXX of Gen 24:43 translates עַלְמָה with  παρθένος. The translators do seem to have got rather obsessed with Rebekah's virginity. This should have no reflection on what עַלְמָה actually means.

What does עַלְמָה actually mean?
Goodacre (if you hadn't picked up on it the first time) categorically states "παρθένος" is not a mistranslation (podcast 5:51), rather he maintains it is a "perfectly good" translation. This is where he is simply wrong, and Stavrakopoulou is simply right; παρθένος is a mistranslation; a different word such as νεᾶνις should have been used, and indeed was used by the translators of the LXX in the main.

I suspect that Goodacre has unwittingly picked up on the work of evangelical fundamentalists, who have been unwavering in their striving to prove that Isa 7:14 fits exactly with Matthew's quotation of it (in its LXX form) in Matt 1:23. Unfortunately inerrantists have produced tons of nonsense about this matter and have even managed to get some of it published in respected literature.

Contrary to Goodacre, עַלְמָה does not have any nuance of virginity or even purity beyond the English equivalent of "young woman". Yes, some "young women" are virgins, and some are not; the same applies to עַלְמָה and you cannot tell anything from the term itself about the virginity or otherwise of the woman concerned.

I should explain. עַלְמָה is the feminine form of the masculine noun עֶלֶם - young man. Neither masculine nor feminine forms are used a great deal; in fact the masculine form only appears twice in the Hebrew bible, both times to describe David. On the first occasion (1Sam 17:56) David is not yet married, and so could possibly be a virgin. However the second occasion (1Sam 20:22) is significantly after his marriage to Michal (they get married in 1Sam 18:20-27). Does anyone think that David was a virgin at this time? No, of course not. In fact even the evangelical inerrantists tend to be silent about the matter rather than address it head on; I suspect they hope people won't notice the usage of this word.

It used to be thought that the root עלם had only two different meanings: to hide or to be dark. But more recently, as the Clines Dictionary of Classical Hebrew shows, there is probably a third that is in view for עֶלֶם and it's feminine equivalent עַלְמָה. He lists עלם III as meaning "be mature, be deflowered, i.e. robbed of virginity" and suggests this as a translation of its occurrence in participle form in Nahum 3:11. Thus the root of a word which Goodacre suggests carries a connotation of virginity, may actually mean the converse!

But actually I don't even need to go this far from the word as used in Isa 7:14. The very same word is used Proverbs 30:19

 וְדֶ֖רֶךְ גֶּ֣בֶר בְּעַלְמָֽה
 and [the] way of a young man with a young woman.

This is clearly a description of sexual intercourse, and precedes "the way of an adulterous woman" in the next verse. Here עַלְמָה is someone who is having sex, and far removed from a virgin.

So is παρθένος a mistranslation of עַלְמָה?
The translators of the LXX could have used the word νεᾶνις or indeed a number of other Greek words to convey accurately the meaning of עַלְמָה. Instead they chose to alter the meaning of עַלְמָה by using παρθένος. So yes, this is a mistranslation, and on this point the score is Goodacre 0, Stavrakopoulou 1.

Don't miss the next episode on Goodacre's podcast, because the scoreline doesn't remain like this. Also, I'd like to examine in a future post why the translators of the LXX chose to mistranslate here. But first I'll need to complete my critique of the podcast.