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The Locus of Biblical Inspiration

I was doing my morning reading a couple of days ago from the book of Hebrews. One of the verses that caught my eye this time was Hebrews 2:6-9, and particularly verse 7, quoted from Psalm 8:5 (all verse numbers from the English Bible, Psalm 8:5 is 8:6 in Hebrew). Now this quotation is an excellent example of a couple of translation problems, and though that is not my purpose here, I need to outline them in support of my major point.

First, there is the issue of translation in Psalm 8:5. Translations split between reading “a little lower than the angels/heavenly beings” or “a little lower than God/the gods/a god.” It’s interesting that mainstream to liberal translations such as the NRSV and REB find themselves in at least partial agreement with the very conservative NASB on this issue. (The NASB’s “than God” is a little less jarring to Christian ears than the REB’s “little less than a god,” perhaps, but both tend in the same direction.)

In Hebrews, you will find the quotation consistently translated as “lower than the angels” or something quite close to that. The reason for the consistency in Hebrews is quite simple. The quotation is from the LXX (Septuagint), which translated this passage as “angels.”

The other translation issue of note is whether to translate the Greek “brachu” as “for a little while” or “a little.” The Greek word could possibly handle either interpretation, but the context and grammar tends to suggest “a little while.” Some translations, such as the NIV, try to accommodate the two translations, using “a little lower” in Hebrews 2:7, and keeping the translation as consistent as possible with Psalm 8:5, but adding a footnote to the alternate translation. Others, such as the NASB and the NRSV again simply translate the text of Hebrews without concern for consistency with Psalm 8:5.

Note here that I’m justing making note of these translation choices, not criticizing any of them. With very little work I could justify the actions of each translation team, and considering that alternatives are indicated in footnotes in many cases, I have no problem. What I do what you to see is that there are a couple of differences between the LXX text as quoted by the author of Hebrews, and the Hebrew text as we have in our Old Testaments. And that’s why this particular verse caught my eye this time through.

I’ve been writing about Biblical criticism in a number of recent posts. (This isn’t part of that series, but it does relate.) One of the things that got me thinking when I first started looking at the tools of Biblical criticism, especially form and source criticism, was that an author would grab hold of his favorite tool and apply it to every scripture in sight willy-nilly, and with interesting results. Many times the main objections to the use of a critical tool could be eliminated by carefully defining the tool itself and the types of texts on which it could be effective, and then carefully applying that tool only in those places.

But there was a further problem. Even in the case of texts in which a particular tool applied, many students would use just the one tool and then be done with it. For example, in studying Isaiah, one might use form criticism to define the boundaries and structure of a prophetic oracle, then define it down to a subcategory of oracle, place it in the appropriate setting, and come up with a plausible (hopefully!) understanding of what Isaiah intended when presenting that oracle orally to its original audience. A person dedicated to form criticism as a method of interpretation would stop there. The study of the book of Isaiah was simply a study of a series of oracles. The book of Isaiah itself tended to disappear.

Another example comes from Genesis 1 & 2, which have some contradictions or apparent contradictions (I don’t care which for the moment) in terms of the chronology of creation. (I mentioned these in my previous post on source criticism.) A source critic may simply respond to these problems by stating that the two chapters come from different sources, and consider the question answered. But we are left with the question of why an apparently intelligent person (and anyone who has studied the literary structure of Genesis must concede that its author is intelligent) would put the two chapters together with such obviously (to us) contradictory content. The fact that he did put the two chapters together suggests that to him they are not contradictory, and that if we understand them as contradictory, perhaps we are missing the point. That doesn’t mean that he may not have had two creation story sources or traditions in front of him as he wrote. It does mean that he understood those sources as compatible and thought that each had a necessary message.

Many of these problems have been alleviated considerably by the use of such methods as canonical and genre criticism. A good example of the use of canonical criticism is Brevard Childs’s commentary on Isaiah (OTL). This is one I’m studying right now, and it has grown on me as I use it. Childs is really a remarkably good commentator. I would note, however, that this canonical approach to criticism has by no means won the field. Much of the work on the historical Jesus, especially that of the Jesus Seminar, is heavily based on the approach of form criticism, whether that is admitted or not. The starting point for Jesus Seminar material is in breaking the text into blocks on which the analysis is performed to determine just how authentic that saying is. As oral material–Jesus himself didn’t write it down–the sayings of Jesus are well suited to study through form criticism. My topic here, however, is whether such study is all we need to do here. Compare The Five Gospels with Darrell Bock’s Jesus According to Scripture to see both methods in action clearly.

But back to Hebrews 2:6-9. I think it is clear that the author of Hebrews is getting a somewhat different point from Psalm 8 than was actually intended. Psalm 8 celebrates God, and the position of humanity in God’s creation. Hebrews 2 uses that passage either as a prophecy or a type of Jesus, who is made lower than the angels for his earthly ministry, and then crowned with glory and honor afterward. My modern mind can get a little twisted with that. After all, the author is not doing exegesis, at least not such as would get an ‘A’ grade in seminary. He’s using the wording of the text in a slightly different way than it was intended. What’s more, assuming that since he seems to translate loosely himself in some places, and may well have had the Hebrew text available to him, he is cherry picking his translation to suit his message! What gives?

In my view, what gives is that he was inspired. We are heavily trained both by a modern worldview to look for the source, for the original meaning, for the oldest form. (However much we talk about postmodern, most of the public still has more “modern,” I believe.) Because of this bias we are quite susceptible to the claims of certain critical methods. Form and source criticism will get us closer to the original. Who wouldn’t want that? The methods are challenged primarily on the basis of results–they didn’t get us to where we thought they would–but not on the goal itself.

Where did God act?

I think that’s the wrong question. Perhaps we should more be asking “Where didn’t God act?”

I’m confident that Isaiah made prophetic utterances orally. I’m confident that they were later written down and collected, and that they were finally shaped into the book as we have it today. As authority in the church, we accept the book of Isaiah, because that is canonical, i.e. that is what we have officially made authoritative. But from the historical point of view, and also based on my interest in knowing how God has worked with people throughout history, I’m interested in the whole process, because that tells me something about God.

I don’t mind the search for the historical Jesus. I’m interested in precisely what Jesus said. But from the practical point of view isn’t it somewhat odd to try to filter out the voices of the first century Christians who wrote down and collected what Jesus said, and those who shaped the result into gospels, in favor of filtering purely through my own mind? While I do want to know precisely what Jesus said (though I’ll have to wait until the kingdom to actually know), I suspect the filter of the early Christians is actually more reliable than my own. It’s interesting to hear people claim that the early Christians quickly corrupted the teachings of Jesus and at the same time assume that they can extract the true story.

I think it’s perfectly valid for the author of Psalm 8 to make one point, and the author of Hebrews to use his words to make another. In fact, I think those points are typologically related. Where did God speak? Well, he spoke in Genesis, which was probably in the mind of the Psalmist as he wrote. He spoke in Psalms 8, which is a wonderfully encouraging passage. He spoke again through both the words and deeds of Jesus, especially his death, resurrection, and exaltation at the side of the Father. He spoke again through the author of Hebrews who points us to the change of status that Jesus accepted, and who provides an interpretation of those actions for us.

I believe God speaks in all these things, and that we can get valuable insights from the whole experience of God’s action in the world. Hebrews 2:6-9 gives us a snapshot of inspiration in action.

(I ran across this text again because I’m preparing to teach a series on the book of Hebrews from my study guide, To The Hebrews: A Participatory Study Guide. One of the 13 lessons in that volume invites students to look at the use of Old Testament passages in the book of Hebrews.)

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