How to Read a Sacred Text (a lesson from Psalms and Ascension of Isaiah)

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by Neil Godfrey

In a recently published volume on the Ascension of Isaiah is a chapter with these arresting words:

It is the thesis of this paper that readers and authors of ancient oracular literature did not assume that meaning lies in the text, that the meaning is what the text says. Rather ancient revelatory authors wrote to open windows on meaning that lay beyond what their texts say, and ancient readers read to look through those windows to the meaning beyond. Perhaps an ancient way of reading can explain ancient translators’ decisions and can lead modem readers to appreciate them – and can open a door through which modern readers can understand the Ascls as its authors and earliest readers may have wished. 

(Hall, 146-47. my bolding)

That reminded me of a conflicted time in my own past life trying to make sense of my church’s teachings against the reality of what the Bible itself said. “Here a little, there a little” (Isaiah 28:10), was the phrase that our church leaders had taught to us: scripture, we were taught, could only be understood by the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and it was written so that only the spiritually guided ones could truly understand it. One passage was to be interpreted by another passage in some other book. You wonder what Hosea meant when he wrote,

When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. (Hosea 11:1) ?

Why, turn to Matthew and you will read the answer:

So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.” (Matthew 2:14-15)

Matthew explains the meaning of Hosea, you see. That’s how the Bible works, we were taught.

My difficulties began one day quite some years ago when I decided study each book in isolation from the other books just to try to get a firm handle on exactly what each book really was saying — in its “own write” — in its own context, without any input from any other book in the Bible. That was an eye-opener. I fairly quickly found myself in a position where I knew more about what the Bible itself says than what our pastors and evangelists and ministers who were teaching us. There begins another tale for another day.

But now I’m studying Christian origins and the more I learn the more I realize that my old church was right — the sacred texts were not meant to be read for literal meaning but as gateways into other texts and visions of the mysteries. At least, that’s how they were read so very often. Such a method is the fundamental assumption of midrashic readings, too. That is how Matthew read Hosea, after all. (Of course, there remains one serious difference between church readings “here a little, there a little”: church authorities have had a habit of cementing their jig-saw readings of the Bible as set doctrine, the departure from which amounts to the crime of heresy; the early explorers of midrashic interpretations of text were apparently free to explore and discover new “insights”, at least for a time.)

The author of the Gospel of John understood the principle well. He even had Jesus propound it:

Robert G. Hall

Nicodemus respectfully offers a careful, precisely consistent interpretation of what Jesus said, and Jesus berates him for it, ‘Are you a leader of the Jews and you do not know these things’? (John 3.10). Jesus refuses to define his statements. Instead, Jesus stokes Nicodemus’ bewilderment by piling on puzzle after puzzle. Jesus had said, ‘Unless one be born άνωθεν, one cannot see the kingdom of God’. Does Jesus mean ‘born again’? or ‘born from above’ or ‘born from the beginning’ or ‘born anew’? When Nicodemus tries ‘born again’ and asks Jesus to explain what he means, Jesus simply replies with another puzzle: ‘Unless one is bom from water and πνεύμα, one cannot enter the Kingdom of God’ (3.5). Jesus’ words do not refute Nicodemus; Nicodemus’ interpretation works as well as ever. Furthermore, Jesus’ second puzzle does not define the meaning of the first; rather it multiplies meaning: Is Jesus speaking of resurrection? ‘Unless one is born again, born from water (death, Lam 3.53; Ps 69.14-15] and breath [Ezek 37.9] one cannot enter the kingdom of God’. Is Jesus speaking of life in the Spirit? ‘Unless one is born from above, born from water [water of life flowing from Jesus who comes from above, John 4.10-15] and Spirit [water from Jesus is the Spirit, John 7.38-39], one cannot enter the Kingdom of God’. Is Jesus speaking of a new creation? ‘Unless one is born from the beginning, born from water and wind [think Gen 1.2], one cannot enter the Kingdom of God’. Jesus’ subsequent statements solve nothing; they simply add depth to the ambiguity. Nicodemus tries to understand the words as propositions, as statements containing meaning. Jesus refuses to fix the meaning: the statements are not propositions; they are windows to meaning that goes beyond what they say. Only by interpreting windows by windows can the statements remain windows; to fix the meaning is to kill them. Jesus refuses to do so.Authors of ancient revelatory literature wrote not to fix meaning but to open windows. Their goal is not a well- expressed message but the readers’ enlightened mind. They expect a reader who will join the inquiry, who will try to see through the text into the realities beyond.

(149-50. italics original, bolding mine)

To add to the “windows of opportunities” for various meanings Hall reminds us that books were far more often heard performed than silently read. And each reading performance was surely different in some way given that Hebrew manuscripts lacked vowels and Greek manuscripts lacked word divisions.

Readers had to decide what to pronounce. Every performance might be different; each would beget its own insight. (150)

Take the most central conundrum of the Jewish Scriptures, the very name of God:

I AM WHO I AM, אֶֽהְיֶ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֣ר אֶֽהְיֶ֑ה (Ex 3.14) is complex. The imperfects denote continual action in the present, the past, the future, continual action always. The Septuagint translates έγώ είμι ό ών. ’Εγώ είμι denotes present continual action; ό ών is timeless, denoting the act of being simply, έγώ είμι ό ών pretty well captures continual action always – much better than έγώ είμι ός είμι έγώ. This last is elegant, but captures only continual present action. Of course, the divine name is carefully composed; readers meditating on it will see much more than ‘continual action always’ and the Greek repays meditation, too. Translators of the Septuagint have tried to open a window rather than simply to translate what the text says. (152)

Recall that the Psalms have those curious musical terms popping up here and there:

The Psalm titles are difficult to understand because they contain musical terms the significance of which is lost. Even the Septuagint offers little help because it prefers to translate the titles as windows for insight rather than as notes to musicians. For instance, the NRSV translates the title to Psalm 45 (LXX 44) as ‘To the leader: according to Lilies. Of the Korahites. A Maskil. A love song’. The LXX has delved for insight: εις τό τέλος ύπέρ των άλλοιωθησομένων τοΐς υίοΐς Κορε εις σύνεσιν φδή ύπέρ του αγαπητού, ‘For the end concerning the things that shall be changed a song by the sons of Korah for insight concerning the Beloved’. The Septuagint translates the title to urge readers and hearers to penetrate to what the song is really about: it is not simply the marriage song of the king, but it opens insight into the transformations at the end for the sake of the Beloved, for David. In the Septuagint the Psalm title offers Psalm 45 as transparent to insight that is behind and beyond its words. (152-53)

The Descent and Ascent of Jesus in the Psalms?

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