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The Bible is alien to the modern and postmodern era

31 March 2015 / 10:03:09  GRReporter
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Easter is approaching and thoughts of death, resurrection, sacrifice and self-sacrifice, God, history, the Bible, the Old and New Testaments with it. GRReporter offers the opinion of researcher Myrto Theocharous on all these issues. Zdravka Mihaylova talks to her.

Cypriot by nationality Dr. Myrto Theocharous teaches at the Greek Bible College in Athens, Biblical Studies Department – Old Testament. She graduated in Theological studies at the Greek Bible College, Athens, (2005) pursuing afterwards graduate studies at Wheaton College, Illinois, (2007) in a two-year Master’s programme in Biblical Exegesis of the Old and New Testament. Her doctoral studies followed at the University of Cambridge where she defended a dissertation topic: “Comparison of the ancient Greek translation of the Septuagint with the Hebrew biblical text of the Twelve Prophets with the aim of finding and analyzing the use of intertextuality in the translation process”.

She is a member of various professional organizations: the European Association of Biblical Studies, the Society of Biblical Literature, the Evangelical Theological Society, the International Organization of Septuagint and Cognate Studies. She participated in the Text and Canon Project, Tyndale House, Cambridge, for the academic years 2008-2009. She held a part-time job engaged as a Professor of Advanced Hebrew at Artos Zoes Foundation (Ίδρυμα Άρτος Ζωής) in Athens. Apart from her scholarly activities she is a volunteer in Action against Human Trafficking: Organization “New Life”(Athens) whose main aim is seeking out victims and offering spiritual, psychological and physical support to women in prostitution.

Myrto Theocharous has participated in numerous conferences and seminars: “Sacramental Theology: The Eucharist in the Light of the Passover,” Wheaton College, IL, USA (2007), “The History of Zion as a Type for Women in Prostitution and Trafficking,” International Teams, IL, USA (2007), “An Introduction to the Septuagint: Its Origins, Reception, and Use in Biblical Scholarship,” The Greek Bible College, Athens, Greece (2007), “Holy Scriptures: Myth or Reality?”, Kalopothakis Centre, A’ Evangelical Church of Athens (2010), “The Hellenistic Jonah”, EABS Conference, Thessaloniki, Greece (2011), “God in Agony: The Prophetic Experience of the Divine Dilemma Between Justice and Love” [in Greek], Artos Zoes, Conference “The God of the Bible and the God of the Philosophers”, National Research Institute, Athens (2011) and has scholarly publications in academic journals.

Interview with Myrto Theocharous by Zdravka Mihaylova in exclusive for Grreporter.

You are a professor at the Greek Bible College in Athens, you were teaching Biblical Hebrew as well at the Artos Zoes Foundation. Would you elaborate in more detail if the Bible opens a prospect for modernity? If yes, in what ways?

Thank you very much for the invitation to share a little bit about my interests and my work in the Old Testament (OT). This is a very interesting question. I think that the Bible is as foreign in modernity as it is in postmodernity. If we accept that modernity rejects “the miracle” as offering any epistemological basis, then the Bible is not at home in modernity. It is very alien. It has its own logic, its own tradition and is therefore useless in offering any universally acceptable truths. There have been many attempts to find some usefulness for the Bible in modernity through the efforts of various scholars of the Enlightenment who tried to get behind the “myth” to the actual historical facts that took place. The “Historical Jesus” movement is one example and the project was to “demythologize” the text, throw out the husk of interpretation and keep the historical kernel.

Postmodernity, of course, reacts to this, pointing out that no view of the text can be impartial. Nobody can get to the “facts”. Everyone interprets and everyone carries their tradition’s presuppositions. In this sense, modernity is itself a specific tradition that tries to impose itself and eliminate other traditions. The Bible does find its space in postmodernity but it is not very comfortable there either due to its universal claims for the one God.

There is a danger, in modernity and postmodernity alike, to silence or manipulate the biblical text for one’s own purposes. But I think the text remains free, in a dynamic relationship with its readers but is also very challenging for every age. Its wisdom is relevant for the modern audience and one can relate to many things taught in its pages, but at the same time it remains an alien voice conversing with us. Not everyone is able to identify with the biblical narrative, though. I have students who have purely historical or cultural interests for it and others approaching the Bible primarily with religious interests. In Greece there is indeed a growing interest in biblical Hebrew and I am grateful for Artos Zoes facilitating the learning of this language. 

You’ve participated in many academic conferences both in Greece (an Artos Zoes annual conference included) and abroad, a number of your studies have been published in specialized academic publications. What is the focus of your scholarly endeavours?

My interests revolve around the Old Testament. In Greece the Old Testament is generally neglected and often misunderstood. Christians tend to think that only the New Testament is relevant for them but they do not realize that the New Testament is simply the climax to the Old Testament story and that Jesus is incomprehensible apart from it. Moreover, its neglect can create a Jesus who is less Jewish in the Christian mind and that can, sadly, lead to distorted forms of Christianity, even to an anti-Semitic Christianity. So, I think that the Old Testament is crucial for Orthodox Greece, today more than ever. My role is to keep “unburying” it as much as I can.

This is the vision that the director of Artos Zoes, Mr. Stavros Zoumboulakis, shares and he always makes a point to bring the Old Testament to the foreground in every conference he organizes, as much as he does in his own writings.

I participated in one of his conferences with a talk entitled “The God of the Prophets.” It was a challenging paper because when one speaks of the God of the Prophets it means that one has to make a synthesis of how God appears in the writings of all the Old Testament prophets and not just with respect to Israel but also with respect to the nations. The title presupposes a canon of prophets. How do these prophets portray their God? What is Ηe angry about? What is it that pleases Him? What is His vision for both Israel and the nations? My talk was a discussion of questions such as these.

Currently, my focus is on the book of the prophet Amos. I am writing a commentary on the Hebrew text of the book and I am fascinated with his concerns for social justice and covenantal faithfulness to both God and the Other. I think it should be completed in two years, hopefully.           

In her insightful and thought-provoking book about the origin of current gender roles and rediscovering women’s power entitled “When God Was a Woman” Merlin Stone explores the ancient female deities of the agricultural societies that flourished in the Middle East at the dawn of civilization (6000-5000 BC) (attempts at discovering a past that has been buried by millennia of Judeo-Christian myth and corresponding social order.) Later they were violently substituted by the male God Yahweh of the Judaic religion thus forming the Judeo-Christian tradition. Does biblical Hebrew imply in any way gender of the deity?

Biblical Hebrew uses masculine verbs for Yahweh’s actions. However, the gender of this God is not as straightforward as we would like to assume and it would be premature to exclude any femininity in God merely on the grounds of verbs or adjectives.

A key text for understanding God is the creation story, where God’s image is revealed in the humanity He creates. In Genesis 5:1-2 the text says: “In the day when God created Adam, He made him in the likeness of God. He created them male and female, and He blessed them and named them Adam in the day when they were created.” This text is very significant in showing that Adam, which means ‘humanity’ includes both genders and, in fact, both of these genders are created in the likeness of God, representing the reality of God. This radical embrace of both genders as legitimate representations of the deity cannot be ignored, especially in the ancient Near Eastern context where only male kings would carry this characterization of “image or likeness of God”.

This text deconstructs the political understanding that the male ruler of a land was the only legitimate child of God, the only legitimate representative. Not only is this title transferred to all humanity but it is also extended to women. Of course, the full implications of this text have not been realized in the patriarchal culture of ancient Israel, but I think the seeds were sown.

Yahweh was not exclusively against the worship of female goddesses, such as Asherah, but primarily against the worship of Baal, a masculine deity. The agenda was not for Israel to deny the worship of the feminine but to resist the worship of any other deity. Moreover, the reason Jezebel, the wife of Ahaz, is so negatively portrayed in the biblical text is not because of her status as a woman but because of the introduction of the worship of foreign deities, Baal and Asherah, into the land of Yahweh (1 Kings 18:19).

Yahweh includes everything in Himself and the absence of a wife for Him in the text is also telling. There is a sense that God does not want to be envisaged “sexually” and this is very important in a world where the sexual manipulation of deities was a possibility, or more like a common reality. Sexuality in the deity is radically toned down which possibly sends a message that sexual manipulation is not a legitimate path for Israel.

Do texts in biblical Hebrew imply in any way that women’s roles were far more prominent than in patriarchal Judeo-Christian cultures? Would you agree with Stone’s interpretation of this ancient system which, with its disintegration, resulted in a decline in women’s status?

No, there is no indication in the biblical text of a prior era where women’s roles were more prominent. The Bible begins in a world that is already declined and corrupt. Even where the text looks back at primeval times, as in the flood story or even before that, in Genesis 6, women appear to have been the prey of men’s appetites. Israel inherits this corrupt world, it does not create it and it had no power to create it at that time, as it was the tiniest of peoples. They struggle to survive in a world of great empires that are antagonistic to their freedom and beliefs.

Here it is important to point something out. When we read the biblical text we usually try to discern the ethics of this text. However, we need to be very careful when we do that and we must make some crucial distinctions with respect to our object of study. We can state that Israel thought X, we can state that some authors of the Old Testament thought X, or we can state that the OT as a canon seems to think X. These three can be wildly different. For example, the practices and attitudes of Israel at the time of the Judges may have been completely contrary to the attitudes and beliefs of the author of Judges. One has to discern whether the author neutrally describes something, whether he commends it or condemns it.

The prophets, as well, are a great example of radical figures that critiqued their culture very strictly. So, I do agree that the status of women was not as it should be in ancient Israel, but I see that there are many biblical writers rebelling against this state. The last chapters of the book of Judges are very telling of a culture that treats women as objects, to which the author, however, reacts. The prophet Amos (2:7), is another example of a man who very probably reacts against the sexual use of women.

While Stone’s book is very important in alerting us to the widespread suppression of women and makes one wonder whether we have suppressed the feminine side of Yahweh, I am not convinced that there is a necessary correlation between the worship of a female deity and the status of women. For example, ancient Athens worshiped goddess Athena but the women of that world were not given citizen status. No need to mention the status of women in India where multiple female goddesses continue to be worshipped today. Or even in Christian traditions, such as the Catholic or the Orthodox church, where the Virign Mary has a more prominent role than in the Protestant tradition, the status of women is not any better at all. Quite the opposite.

Women are suppressed under any religion at all times. However, I do think that the scriptures contain the material through which one can critique this oppression. There are enough texts that plant the seed of equality, such as the Genesis text we mentioned, and in the New Testament, I consider St. Paul’s statement in Galatians 3:28 (which is curiously not mentioned in Stone’s treatment of the New Testament) to be programmatic for a dynamic justice-generating church: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

Where does your interest in Biblical Hebrew, one of the most important and enduring Semitic languages in which the texts of the Old Testament are written in, stem from? Hebrew is an elliptical language, often it hints to different notions that could be interpreted in more than one way. What challenges does the translator from Biblical Hebrew face? Which of the Old Testament translations is considered the standard one in our days?

I am not a linguist, I am a biblical scholar, so my interest was not in the Hebrew language per se, but in the language as a means of understanding the Hebrew Bible, its culture and thought. I have been reading the Old Testament in a modern Greek translation since early childhood and I was fascinated by the stories. They transported me into this Semitic world. When I began my theological studies in 2001, I was very eager to learn Hebrew. I was certain that this would immerse me even further in the world I was reading about. I guess, you could call it a “romantic” interest in the language rather than an academic one.

You are absolutely right that this language is very different from Greek or English and, as you said, very elliptical. Context is key to a good interpretation that does justice to the ancient text, but we can never arrive at the one and only meaning the author had in mind. We are always working towards approaching it.

Your last question concerning the best translation is a difficult one. There are so many factors involved in answering this. First, we need to define what we mean by a “good” or “accurate” translation. There are various schools with different approaches today and they differ in their definition of a good or accurate translation. We tend to think of translation in a spectrum, from an extremely literal, almost “wooden” translation to a “freer” translation or, so called, dynamic equivalence. We tend to think that the more literal a translation is the more accurate it is, but that is not always the case. A literal rendering may end up distorting the meaning of the base text rather than transferring it to the target language. Conversely, a “free” translation may do a better job explaining the meaning, through paraphrase perhaps, of the base text than a literal translation would. What is most important in answering this question is the issue of “purpose” (skopos). One should ask who the target audience is. Is it an academic audience that has parallel knowledge of the source text language or is it an audience that is unfamiliar with the biblical text? Is the translation aimed for light, individual reading or is it aimed for an ecclesiastical liturgical setting. The skopos usually determines whether people will consider the translation accurate or not. I would recommend that people have access to more than one bible translation as one complements the other.   

Relevant to what we were talking about is the subject of your doctoral thesis defended at Cambridge: “Comparison of the ancient Greek translation of the Septuagint to the Hebrew biblical text of the Twelve Prophets with the aim of finding and analyzing the use of intertextuality in the translation process”. What are the main conclusions and findings you reach in this scholarly research?

Yes, my dissertation topic has to do with translation theory. The Septuagint is extremely important, not just for biblical scholars, but for anyone studying translation practices and interpretation in antiquity. The Septuagint is the first translation of the Hebrew Bible into another language, if not the first translation of any ancient text of this size. My work involved an analysis of this translation in relation to the Hebrew text. I was interested to see how variations between the two languages could be explained and there are indeed various reasons for them, both intentional and unintentional. I looked at the Twelve Prophets and saw how differences could be accounted for in various ways. There are times when the translator had misread his text or confused similar looking letters. There are cases where he used different vowels which disagree with the later Masoretic tradition. Sometimes, he would run into difficult expressions or very unusual words and would struggle to interpret his text contextually or with the help of another text that was brought to his mind. This latter case was my main interest. In other words, I was after those cases where the translator allowed other texts from other parts of the Hebrew Bible to illuminate the specific text he was translating. There are certain words or expressions he uses in order to render his text that seem to have been borrowed from elsewhere, namely “intertextuality”. This shows a familiarity with a large part of the Hebrew Scriptures but it also reveals the beginnings of a rabbinic exegetical technique we know by the name of gezerah shawah: an obscure passage being illuminated by reference to another passage that contains a common key term.

This is what fascinates me: to look deeply into the way Jewish people interpreted their scriptures and how these methods led organically into New Testament times and interpretations.

The Hebrew word “qibbutz” introduces us to a notion that has evolved into an ideological landmark, a foundation stone of the modern state of Israel. Would you comment on the deeper historical formation and meaning of this “hieroglyph of solidarity”?

Qibbutz, which is initially the name of the "u" masoretic vowel in the Hebrew Bible and is represented by three dots placed diagonally under the consonant, is a noun which means "heap, that which is gathered", and it comes from the root of the verb qabatz "to gather, to collect". It can be applied to a gathering of people, coming together as one and this is where the Kibbutzim communities get their name from.

I’ve never stayed in a Kibbutz in Israel. But this kind of community living has very ancient roots. Communities like the Kibbutz are mentioned by the ancient Jewish philosopher Philo in the 1st century in Alexandria, but even before that we have the Qumran communities, also known as the Essenes or other unknown communities in the land of Palestine. These were more like religious covenant communities, a bit different to the modern Kibbutz, but they would share everything together, work, worship life and meals. The early Christian church, being a covenant community, practiced some of these same values. They had common meals and would even sell their properties to share the money with each other. Modern Kibbutzim are not this radical but they definitely have ancient roots and continue to be nostalgic symbols of a life free from individualistic ambition.  

Since 2004 you have been a volunteer for an organisation acting against human trafficking. Is seeking out victims and offering spiritual, psychological and physical support to women in prostitution another aspect of your religious outlook?

In the Hebrew Bible, indeed the entire identity of Israel is the “slave freed by Yahweh”. The story of the exodus, not only recognizes the value of human beings regardless of their status, location or political regime that hangs over them, but at the same time, the exodus deliverance infuses them with a worldview and self-understanding that carries certain demands. The slave who has been freed cannot treat another human being as disposable property. Limits are placed on the authority of the Israelite over another life. For example, not only the slave but also the animals of one’s household have to enjoy the same Sabbath rest with their master. The alien, the widow and the orphan in their towns cannot be ignored for they are the most vulnerable categories of people. The most exploitable.

The exodus experience expressed in the Hebrew Bible dominates Israel’s self-understanding and its laws. We do find in the Old Testament the first texts in the history of our world which begin to relativize slavery and question its ethics. Again, the prophet Amos is one who reacts to the commercialization of humans. So anti-slavery action is the most natural outcome or response to the biblical text. Jesus identifies himself with the anti-bondage Yahweh and adopts the role of setting the captives free, not through military power or violence but through the establishment of a covenant community of radical love, and he reveals his programme in his synagogue reading: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, Because He anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor. He has sent Me to proclaim release to the captives, And recovery of sight to the blind, To set free those who are downtrodden, To proclaim the favourable year of the Lord.” (Luke 4:18-19)

So yes, both the Old and the New Testament are behind my involvement with Anti-trafficking work. My inspiration comes from these texts, not just from human empathy. But it is more than mere inspiration. It is a conscious decision for participation in this way of being. 

How would you define the relation religiosity-scholarship?

Contrary to what many people usually think, the Bible is not a book that fell from heaven, it’s not a list of instructions dictated to a human prophet by God while the former was in a passive ecstatic state. The Bible is a grand narrative that is made up of the writings of many authors from different times and in different genres. Each writer brings in his own experiences of God, his own witness, his own wisdom, his own literary skill and his own emphases. This shows that the historical individuality of the agents is valued, respected and, in fact, necessary.

Since the Bible is written in history, in specific times, in specific geographical locations and in a specific language then any access to it would require the effort of approaching, with scientific methods, the message of this ancient text. Submitting to the text does not mean following blindly what the words on the page say. It means allowing it to speak in its own terms. It means stepping into another culture in order to hear it instead of imposing the ideas of our culture and dominating it. This is where language study comes in, including the study of the historical sociopolitical background of the scriptures. A Greek person may pick up the New Testament, for example, or the Septuagint, and assume that he knows what it is talking about only because he can recognize the words on the page. This is an illusion because words acquire the meaning of the context they are used in. One would need certain tools such as lexicons and concordances, grammar and syntax books in order to interpret it. 

However, while we can study the scriptures with our modern scientific methods we will hit a wall when confronted with its claims of revelation, of miracle, of a life beyond the visible one. What do we do with that? This is where presuppositions come in. The modernist is bound by his own presuppositions which dictate that what is true is only that which I can verify scientifically. So, if the resurrection, say, is scientifically impossible then it is not true, it cannot happen. The modernist does not monopolize rationality and the one who believes in the resurrection is not necessarily an irrational being without any credibility. These are two different kinds of rationality. The one thinks that resurrections are impossible therefore Jesus was not raised from the dead, and the other says that because Jesus rose from the dead resurrection is possible. What is different is the starting point of their thinking. It’s the rationality of Athens and the rationality of Jerusalem (Tertullian).

I think that while science is hugely important for the study of anything, the one practicing it must also be aware that even science cannot be impartial. It has its own presuppositions and starting points. This is a very valuable lesson postmodernity contributed to us. It safeguards us from silencing the voices we cannot understand.

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