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?

The Ascension of Isaiah claims the authority of its visions derives from the Psalms:

And all these things, behold they are written in the Psalms, in the parables of David the son of Jesse, and in the proverbs of Solomon his son, and in the words of Korah and of Ethan the Israelite, and in the words of Asaph… (Asc. Isa. 5.21).

Is the vision of the descent and ascent of the Beloved really to be found in the Psalms? One of the Psalms cited is by Ethan the Israelite. That’s Psalm 89 in our Bibles, but Psalm 88 in the Septuagint. But if we read that Psalm literally we will have a difficult time trying to find anything about anyone other than David and his descendants in it. And his descendants are said to be lawless! So what is going on here?

Hall plays a mind-game of sorts. He reads Psalm 88 (LXX) he suggests authors or readers of ancient texts did.

In verse 3 we read that God’s truths are to be found in heaven:

thy truth shall be established in the heavens

So when we come to verse 5 and read . . .

I will establish thy seed for ever, and build up thy throne to all generations

. . . are we not permitted to read here that David’s seed is “in the heavens”!

Perhaps so, because the next verse, six, says

The heavens shall declare thy wonders, O Lord; and thy truth in the assembly of the saints.

And is that exactly what we have read in the Ascension of Isaiah — a vision of heaven where we see angels and saints praising the Beloved?

But there’s more. Look at it all as a single paragraph and see that there is no change in whom is being addressed: it is David throughout!

I sware unto David my servant. 5 I will establish thy [thy = David] seed for ever, and build up thy [thy = David’s] throne to all generations. Pause. 6 The heavens shall declare thy [thy = David’s] wonders, O Lord; and thy [thy = David’s] truth in the assembly of the saints. 

But, as Hall asks,

Therefore, God addresses David as ‘Lord’ and ordains that the heavens praise him. If God calls David Lord, how can David be simply David? (157)

David = the Beloved

Yes, we may infer that David stands in for his messianic descendant. But the readers of the Ascension of Isaiah had something more specific to go on. The messianic figure in the Asc. Isa. is always called Beloved. Beloved is his title.

The title ‘Beloved’ may glance at a number of texts17 but it traces most convincingly to the re-reading of David’s name: דָּוִד֙, ‘David’, repointed is דּוֺד, ‘Beloved’  

17 Isa 5:1 I will sing for my beloved a song of his vineyard: My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill.

….Is 26.17 (LXX) And as a woman in travail draws nigh to be delivered, [and] cries out in her pain; so have we been to thy beloved.

….Zech 12.10 and they shall make lamentation for him, as for a beloved

….Psalm 44:1 (LXX) a Song concerning the beloved

….Psalm 2:7 as read in Matthew 3:17, This is My beloved Son

….Isa 42:1 as read in Matt 12:18 or 17:5 etc, Here is My servant, whom I have chosen, My beloved, in whom My soul delights

(157, I have added the text for each of the biblical citations)

The visionary who penned these parts of the Ascension of Isaiah read Psalm 88 (LXX) references to David as words speaking of the Beloved in heaven.

As God addresses the Beloved as Lord in the Ascls (10.11) so God calls David Lord in Septuagint Psalm 88 (88.6). As the Beloved is ‘Lord of all this praise that you see’ (9.32) and as the angel tells Isaiah to see in the Beloved ‘your Lord, the Lord, the Lord Christ’ (9.5) and ‘worship this one’ (9.31) so God commands all the heavens to praise David, that is, the Beloved (LXX Ps 88.6;).

How did this reader understand, then, the Psalm’s references to “David’s seed”?

If David is the Beloved, the reference to the Beloved’s seed (LXX Ps 88.5) must refer to the Beloved’s people, held in readiness. As we will see, Ethan offers a glimpse of their heavenly readiness as well (88.16-19).

The Beloved’s people? That would be the “church”. So when the Psalm speaks of David’s seed departing from the ways of the Lord then we are to understand the Psalm as speaking of heresy among God’s people. So when the Psalm speaks of David’s seed departing from the terms of the covenant God made with David we are permitted to think of so much of a church turned “apostate”.

What happens to David in this Psalm, though? In the opening verses we read of an abundance of praises being sung in the heavens for this David, this Beloved. But then in verse 39 we find a reversal of all of that:

But thou hast cast off and set at nought, thou has rejected thine anointed

And the next verses establish this fall towards death:

43 Thou hast exalted the right hand of his enemies; thou hast made all his enemies to rejoice. . . . 45 Thou hast deprived him of glory: thou hast broken down his throne to the ground. 46 Thou hast shortened the days of his throne: thou hast poured shame upon him. . . . 49 What man is there who shall live, and not see death? shall [any one] deliver his soul from the hand of Hades? 

David, the heavenly Beloved, cascades towards death. How can the Beloved be delivered? The final verse reads as a message of hope in God despite all the troubles in the earthly realm:

53 Blessed be the Lord for ever. So be it, so be it.

God has promised David/the Beloved to reign in glory forever. The Beloved must therefore have been delivered from death.

Other Psalms are cited, too. But in this one, a Psalm of Ethan, we can see how a visionary might well find confirmation of his belief in the descent of the Beloved to earth, being delivered to the power of Death, and restored to his glory with angels and saints once again praising him in the seventh heaven.

Sacred Scripture was to be read as a window into the otherwise hidden mysteries. One might even say that “the letter” (of the text) “kills”, but the “spirit gives life”.


Hall, Robert G. 2016. “Subtleties of Translation and Ancient Interpretation: Cues for Understanding the Ascension of Isaiah.” In The Ascension of Isaiah, edited by Jan N. Bremmer, Thomas R. Karmann, and Tobias Nicklas, 145–74. Leuven: Peeters.

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Neil Godfrey

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10 thoughts on “How to Read a Sacred Text (a lesson from Psalms and Ascension of Isaiah)”

  1. As long as the mysteries remain hidden, it is left up to someone else to explain them to us. Thus, the example above of the interpretation of Hosea by the passage in Matthew, an interpretation which was certainly not in the mind of the Hosea author, and which limits the meaning for everyone who accepts it. As long as we are seeking after mysteries, we are in the hands of those who hold the keys to the mysteries. Today’s lesson is good for humility, but not so much for understanding.

  2. So, to get this straight., these texts were written by people who “inspired” the Holy Spirit and as such can be thought of as being written by God. And, instead of writing in a fashion that would be clear to all, for however long, they write convoluted, standoffish prose and poetry that will be misunderstood by many and requite “authorities” to tell people what they mean?

    Just how is this a brilliant plan by an all-knowing, all-powerful god? Does anyone defend this convoluted scripture, other than by touting their own wisdom?

    This is continued in the NT in which Jesus tells his disciples that he teaches in parables so the the ordinary folk won’t understand and thus be saved!

    1. I suppose people value poetry, which can be difficult to decipher.

      If a phrase, a sentence, fifty sentences or more had to be memorized or carefully written down by hand (no “Wite-Out”, no printing presses, certainly no delete buttons), one might as well make the material do double duty, triple duty, or more, referring to many different things, as with poetry since it was so hard to reproduce.

      Of course, if one wanted to snow certain audiences, it would have helped to have been obscure, but one might have actually tried not to be obscure but rather to try to refer to as many things as possible, as with some poetry because of the difficulty of reproducing set pieces.

      Also there might have been another phenomenon. I am stating the obvious. If one (as in the orthodox church) was trying to meld different traditions to make them as clear as possible, drawing in different groups, it would have been difficult to make things completely make sense if the traditions are contradictory. If (hypothetically speaking), as an example, this “Truthseek” whose videos I’ve been watching is right and there was one tradition where there was no Jesus on earth, but there were simultaneously other traditions of Jesus on earth, an editor would have a hard time editing. If you also had Simon Magus and others as well on earth, and whoever or whatnot flying up versus this or that figure flying up and this or that other figure being crucified or resurrected here or there or striving against each other, it could get pretty confusing even for the best editor.

      Then the style sticks, becomes a genre in people’s minds, and people in later centuries copy it, as the methodology of skipping around looking for references and symbols is encouraged.

      But as a complete amateur, I have to wonder whether part of the main original phenomenon may have been that since it was so hard to preserve a set narrative with a set wording that people wanted the wording to do extra duty, referring to as many things as possible, the way some poetry does. Also, sometimes having an odd wording or construction can help memorization or draw attention.

      The way to defend it I suppose is to say that at its most sophisticated it might have been an attempt to hint at that which might not be described in words or even quite gotten at by the best of poetry.

  3. A related question: how to write a sacred text?

    What parts of the New Testament books were written to be read in this spiritual way, and what parts were expected to be read as face-value history or mundane discussion?

    If there was a historical and revered Jesus there should much more evidence, such as his places of residence becoming shrines (this kind of behavior in Christians only seems to have appeared centuries later).

    Instead we have letters describing knowledge obtained through reading scriptures and having “revelations”. The writings are the shrines.

    So where are the dividing lines in the later gospels, where the author wrote scripture to be read as scripture requiring digging to get to the mysteries, and where the author expected to be taken at face value?

    Did the author of Mark expect his readers to read his gospel purely spiritually? Was it written to make the spiritual scripture reading process more accessible, with updates and rewrites of older, more obscure scriptures to help converts in digging to get at an esoteric spiritual truth?

    Or was it an attempt to pinpoint the comings and goings on Earth of a celestial Jesus that was deemed “real” because people (including the author of Mark) spotted him as a real being in scripture and so he must have encountered others if had done some business on the earthly plane?

    Or was it purely face value– an effort to write down what was believed to be purely historical events and sayings of a Jesus, that also amazingly aligned after-the-fact with a spiritual re-reading of prophecies in scriptures, making people believe that a human Jesus actually did die and was resurrected, and so must have been more than human?

    That the writings appear to be rewrites of existing scriptures I think points to an expectation that the text was to continue to be read spiritually. But it was so uncanny that many took it as historical, which in turn generated more converts, until the process was irreversible, and any subsequent doubt suppressed by an increasingly powerful church.

    1. Interesting questions. I don’t believe that the authors of Old Testament books intended their works to be read “spiritually” in the sense discussed in the post. They surely were writing what they considered to be appropriate histories, laws, etc. The “spiritual meanings” were read into those works by later readers who understood those works to be “Scripture” with words encoding hidden meanings. Gematria and sound patterns became as important as the literal meanings of words, or more so — they were cues to hidden spiritual meanings. The spirituality was in the mind of the reader and hearer more than the author, I suspect.

      The Gospel of Mark wrote a gospel as a parable but surely the author had a clear idea of the “one” meaning he was enfolding in his words; The Gospel of John also wrote of mysteries to be interpreted, but they were authorized as “true” by a “beloved disciple.” Are they the same mysteries as in Mark only told in “reverse”? I don’t know. The Gospel of Matthew does not appear to be bothered by historical or narrative detail variations from his source, Mark. The Gospel of Luke along with Acts — as they appear to us in their final canonical versions — are more catholic-authority oriented: the prologue tells us that they are meant to be read as resolutions to various contradictions in earlier works.

      But the author of Luke-Acts, and/or the final redactor of the work, took “midrashic” interpretations of Scriptures as their “historical sources” for events that were to be deemed “true”.

      That’s the thing with text-based religions: they promote a hierarchy that finds the only way to maintain control is to dictate a final meaning to the texts. While religious experiences are more inner-spiritual they are subject to different interpretations, readings. But that sort of anarchy rarely lasts when it meets “authorities” who feel a need to maintain control.

  4. My argument is not with ambiguity (words with more than one meaning), nor even necessarily with obscurity (meaning unclear), provided the obscurity has some aesthetic or emotional effect, as is the case with some lines of poetry by, say, TS Eliot. The problem comes with what we might call the “locked text.” The locked text belongs to hieratical structures in literature departments and in churches. The first premise is that the layperson has no access, but must gain limited access through the priest, or by gaining favor with the priest (or the full professor). Thus, the universal Catholic love of mystery, which we see in philosophers like Unamuno, or in writers like Flannery O’Connor, in which certain types of clarity become anathema.

  5. If only we could be time-traveling ethnographers, perfectly speaking any languages of the place and time, able to visit homes of different social groups and strata.

    It would be interesting to know which stories were told in homes or in other sites or occasions. To what extent were texts associated with rituals or perhaps informal enactments? If so, were there visual puns or other physical references to other texts or verbal stories? How many references are we missing? We Anglophones unfortunately are beginning to miss many of Shakespeare’s references. Is it possible there were many references in this or that text that we don’t appreciate? Or none at all?

    Were the texts mocked by the non-priestly nominally belonging to a given religion? Did people commonly casually belong to several sects quarter-heartedly? How common was it for people (various religions) not to take stories literally, at least behind closed doors–clearly the phenomenon of taking stories metaphorically existed and was even organized to some extent, but how common? How common was pure disbelief and contempt for the religion one was supposed to belong to, and if such contempt existed, how would it have been tied to social class?

    On what occasions were the texts read, by whom to whom? Again, was there physical enactment?

    These sorts of questions are silly and stupid questions, because for the most part unanswerable, but I can’t help asking them in my own mind. I don’t know the ancient Mediterranean well, but I think I would need to be a multilingual time-traveler to find out.

  6. I think there may be times when the text in the N.T. traps itself. Spiritual interpretation of scripture is what got the movement started, but it gradually needed to be downplayed in favor of stories about physical proof.

    Acts 9:22-23 “Yet Saul grew more and more powerful and baffled the Jews living in Damascus by proving that Jesus is the Messiah. After many days had gone by, there was a conspiracy among the Jews to kill him…”

    Acts begins with Jesus depicted as providing proofs– physical, bodily proofs. So how does Paul “prove” Jesus is the Messiah in this passage when he is depicted as being in synagogues in Damascus? By the power of his interpretation of the text. Acts presents him gaining some followers among the Jews, but also being rejected by “the Jews”. His only action appears to be speaking, as the text refers to people hearing him and becoming astonished. In a synagogue he can’t just be telling his own tale while on the road– this only makes sense if the author of Acts meant that he is turning to scripture for proof.

    This seems like good fiction writing. Make a character sympathetic by depicting him as converted, and all those who are against him are now the bad guys. When readers/listeners root for Paul they must fill in the blanks as to what that proof from scripture was. If the readers/listeners actually heard the supposed proof from scripture would they be as convinced? Maybe some would be as skeptical as the Jews wanting to kill Paul.

    I think this is a case where the text is saying the scriptures should no longer be interpreted in a free, spiritual way. The text is prioritizing proof from the physical. Esoteric readings are to be skipped over. But not entirely, because they are what got the movement started, and are part of its history. So the text refers to scriptural interpretations but downplays them. The story means to portray the physical is the proof, but trips over itself when a character uses scripture as the “proof” and this needs to be glossed over. The physicality around Paul’s conversion is better “proof” (or at least makes for a better story).

  7. What is the “meaning beyond the text”? It is nothing more nor less than context. Context is created by adding meanings, or by references to other texts, or by new creations/texts influenced by earlier texts. “Biblical interpretation” does not exist unless and until there is a Bible to be interpreted. The meaning of Genesis is not Paradise Lost until Milton writes Paradise Lost. These are not mysteries, these are contexts.

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