Psalm 102: Bird on a Wire

This is the third of a series of occasional posts on the penitential psalms. Here we will focus on a single aspect of Psalm 102: its use of ornithological imagery. Pictorial language is not only central to the very nature of the psalms, but it is also key to understanding them. Focusing on the threefold use of bird metaphors will help us reflect on the question, ‘who is speaking this psalm?’

Here are verses 6 and 7 [verses 7 and 8 in the Latin and Hebrew textual traditions] from the NIVUK translation:

6 I am like a desert owl,
like an owl among the ruins.
7 I lie awake; I have become
like a bird alone on a roof.

Augustine, following the Latin text, identifies the three birds as pelican, owl (or night raven) and sparrow. Perhaps because of his desire to distil everything of value from the Scriptures he argues that the three birds are not necessarily to be understood as a metaphorical unity:

We have three birds, then, and three habitats. A single person may combine the characteristics of all three birds; alternatively, the characteristics of the bids may be distributed among three persons. [1]

This is arguably a case of overinterpretation when we consider the uncertainty of the original terms and the use of parallelism in the Hebrew text. When we recognise the parallelism of v.6a and v.6b, the ‘pelican’ and ‘owl’ become one and the same. It is perhaps the case that the translators of the NIVUK have made this more readily apparent by their choice of rendering the first two uncertain Hebrew words as ‘desert owl’ and ‘owl’, and thus inviting a singular interpretation. The identity of a single persona behind the threefold imagery is also natural in that v.7 in its entirety parallels v.6.

Augustine also makes another interpretive decision that does not chime with modern understanding, although this time it is scientific rather than poetic understanding that has changed. And to be fair Augustine seems at pains to indicate the facts are far from certain:

Pelicans are alleged to kill their chicks by pecking them, then for three days to mourn the dead chicks in the nest. Finally the mother is said to wound herself gravely and pour her blood over her babies, which came back to life as her blood flows over them. [1]

From this supposed ornithological observation an argument is then developed by Augustine linking the pelican’s unusual childrearing approach with Christ’s salvific blood. Reading Augustine on the Psalms is worthwhile but, on this occasion, his Christological interpretation is forced. Interestingly, although Augustine is often thought to have established the identification of the seven penitential psalms—Psalms 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130 and 143—he does not make a consistent focused penitential interpretation here. Writing a century, or so, later Cassiodorus dismisses a Christological interpretation of the bird imagery and the psalm as a whole [2]. He does focus on a penitential interpretation. He also makes much of the physiology and behaviour of the three birds [3]. In doing so he argues that they are figuratively distinct types of penitents. His close reading is nevertheless an over-interpretation of the text given its overt reliance on a rich parallelism. This Hebraic poetic convention has often, and perhaps surprisingly, been variously forgotten and eclipsed over much of the past two millennia.

Writing rather more recently than the two Fathers, Goldingay, argues that tawny owl, screech owl and bird are fitting translations arguing from both a philological and poetic basis that the three terms point to birds that stay awake at night and are likely to keep people awake through their cries. His translation reads:

6 I have come to resemble a tawny owl of the wilderness,
I have become like a screech owl among the ruins.
7 I have been wakeful and I have become like a bird
on its own on a roof. [4]

Comparison with the NIVUK text above reveals this to be a less terse and more explanatory translation. The tension between preserving the terseness of the Hebrew text and helping the modern reader is a constant challenge for the translator. Robert Alter famously accuses the modern English textual tradition of ‘the heresy of explanation’, of being too quick to explain, thus undermining the texts intentional mystery and polyvalency [5]. In translating these verses, Alter captures both the terseness of the original and provides a clear poetic translation:

7 I resemble the wilderness jackdaw,
I become like the owl of the ruins.
8 I lie awake and become
like a lonely bird on a roof. [5]

Addressing the question of the psalmist’s identity in a given psalm, or set of verses, can be a fruitful reflection. It can also be rather vexed, if any singular and overriding claim or assumption is applied across the Psalter. Over the centuries attempts have been made to read the psalms as consistently the words of David. Others have pursued, with similar singlemindedness, Christological readings. Hypothetical religious festivals have been proposed which make the words of the psalms the words of the king of Israel. In the past century there have been a series of critical methods for reading the psalms. My suspicion, however, is that those who have read the psalms as a spiritual discipline have rarely felt the need to be so singular in their reading. The same words and psalms can readily be heard as David, Christ, a precentor, or an anonymous ancient poet. Such polyvocality is not always welcomed by the academy because of its desire for explanation nor some conservative readers who expect contextual certainty. Early Christian interpreters were sometimes too quick to read Christ—his person and actions—into the text. Historical critical interpreters have sometimes been guilty of reading quite different things into the text. The nature of the Psalter stands against any such singular agendas.

Our reflecting on the identity of the psalmist is arguably most important in as far as it helps us to become the psalmist. How do we make these words our own? Are we being instructed? Are we being given words to pray? Are we being taught a vocabulary of prayer? How do we sing these words as a new song?

Psalm 102 is an example of the plasticity of so many of these poems. Countless faithful followers of Christ have owned this song in the midst of old age, loneliness, failure, impending death, and/or moral failure. Numerous others have prayed these words remembering and praying for others whose experience of the life of faith is currently a dark valley. We can also find Christ here, whether in his own experience or in gathering all our prayers as petitions to the Father. The ‘I’ of this psalm at the authorial level is undoubtedly singular, the voice of one psalmist. And yet in faith by the Spirit the reading of this psalm is infinitely polyvalent: it is a sing for all the faithful who are as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore.

To conclude, we note that Psalm 103 might have been deliberately placed after Psalm 102 because it frames the answer to the psalmist’s prayer in Psalm 102 with a positive bird metaphor:

1 Praise the Lord, my soul;
all my inmost being, praise his holy name.
2 Praise the Lord, my soul,
and forget not all his benefits –
3 who forgives all your sins
and heals all your diseases,
4 who redeems your life from the pit
and crowns you with love and compassion,
5 who satisfies your desires with good things
so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.

1. Augustine, Expositions of the Psalms, volume 5, Maria Boulding (translator), John E. Rotelle (ed.), Hyde Park, New York: New City Press, 2003, p.53.
2. Cassiodorus, Explanation of the Psalms: Volume 3, P. G. Walsh (translator), New York: Paulist Press, 1990, p.1.
3. Ibid. pp.6–8.
4. John Goldingay, Psalms Volume 3: Psalms 90–150, Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008, p.152.
5. Robert Alter, The Hebrew Bible: Volume 3 The Writings, W. W. Norton and Company, 2019, p.xix.

Psalm 6: The First Penitential Psalm Today

This post will provide some examples of penitential commentary on Psalm 6 from the likes of Augustine, Cassiodorus, Denis the Carthusian, Luther and Calvin. In this way it introduces the reader to ancient readings and a facet of psalm interpretation which is unpopular today but was once immensely generative in doctrine, personal piety, Lenten practice, literature, and music. It also initiates an exploration of why such penitential readings of Psalms 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130 and 143 slowly waned in modernity. [1]

The first of the group of psalms designated the Penitential Psalms, Psalm 6, poses two acute challenges to the interpreter. Firstly, it is very short and so provides rather limited contextual information. Secondly, much of the content is open ended as to where it fits on the spectrum from literal to figurative. Augustine (354–430), who is thought by some to have established the grouping of the seven psalms, is quick to connect God’s wrath in v.1 with the psalmist’s sin which is not directly mentioned in the psalm. Having done this, he interprets the psalm as referring to what might be termed soul sickness thus conflating the reference to ailments in the bones (v.2) with that concerning the disturbed soul (v.3):

Accordingly the next verse, and my soul is greatly perturbed, makes it clear that the language of bones does not refer to the bones of the body. And you, Lord, how long? Here, obviously, is a soul wrestling with its own diseases, but long untreated by the doctor, in order that it may be convinced how great are the evils into which it has launched itself by sinning. [2]

Later interpreters might object to this singular focus on the soul on a number of grounds not least due to the potential for an anachronistic importing of Greek notions of the soul into the Hebrew text. This important matter will not delay us here but will be considered in a later post when we turn to another of the Penitential Psalms.

Like Augustine, Cassiodorus (c.485–c.585) sees the psalm as both penitential and concerned with spiritual sickness. Augustine and Cassiodorus both find support within the psalm for a penitential reading from the psalm’s superscription or heading. Issues regarding the Greek and Latin translation of the heading gave rise to a long tradition of what now seem very fanciful interpretations of this and many psalm headings. Here is the NRSV’s rendering of Psalm 6’s heading compared to that in the Latin Vulgate and its translation in Denis the Carthusian’s late medieval Commentary [3]:

To the leader: with stringed instruments; according to The Sheminith. A Psalm of David.

In finem, in carminibus. Psalmus David. Pro octava.
Latin text from Denis the Carthusian

Unto the end, in verses, a Psalm for David, for the octave.
English translation of the Latin

Like many other ancient and medieval interpreters Augustine, Cassiodorus and Denis each make much of ‘the end; and the ‘octave’ to refer to the Day of the Lord and other eschatological motifs concerning judgement. For example, Augustine and then Cassiodorus argue that:

. . ., it is possible to understand the day of judgement as the eighth day, because immediately after the end of this age, once eternal life has been gained, the souls of the righteous will not be subject to the ebb and flow of time. Perhaps because all time revolves around a seven-day cycle, the time which will be subject to none of that changeableness has been called the eighth day. [4]

For the octave denotes the Lord’s coming when the seven days of this age are at an end, and He comes to judge the world . . . That is why the penitent now introduced before us earnestly supplicates in the ordered divisions of his prayer that he may not be convicted for his deeds on the day of judgement. [5]

Cassiodorus is the first extent source to present the traditional seven penitential psalms as a group. He was also a keen advocate as to their ongoing value:

Though we should apply our eager intelligence to all the psalms, since the greatest resources for living are sought from them, yet we ought to pay particular attention to the psalms of the penitents, for they are like suitable medicine prescribed for the human race. [6]

Such exhortations about the value of the Penitential Psalms were taken very seriously by the medieval church. It is difficult to capture the magnitude of the importance that these seven psalms had for over a millennium. A snapshot of this rich reception can be found in a forthcoming Grove Booklet written by me and comprehensive assessment of their medieval ubiquity in a much larger study centred on Psalm 51 by Clare Costley King’oo [7]. By the thirteenth century King David was central to readings of Psalm 6, and the other six Penitential Psalms. Arguably the most famous example is Dame Eleanor Hull’s Middle English c.1420 translation of an earlier French text (probably mid or late thirteenth century) on the seven Penitential Psalms [8]. By this time David was understood as the model penitent [9]. His adultery with Bathsheba and the murder of Uriah are alluded to in the heading of Psalm 51—the fourth of the seven Penitential Psalms—and this psalm was understood as David’s contrite words spoken to the prophet Nathan. All seven Penitential Psalms were read from this perspective facilitated by their being collecting together in Books of Hours and other devotional works on the seven like those of Dame Eleanor Hull. In short King David became the model penitent whose contrition and compunction all faithful Christians should aspire to follow. For example, we read in Hull’s commentary on Psalm 6 about the contemporary sinner:

. . . thinking and saying to himself, ‘I am young and hale and flourishing in my youth and prosperity in this world is mine. And God is meek and merciful and will mend me as he has done on previous occasions.’ I say to you truly that this man lies in his bed. But he rises not with his tears as David did every night. You should understand that such nights betoken deadly sin. For just as a man by night goes stumbling and knows not what he should hold onto but by some light coming upon him from the moon or some star, just so the reason of man goes stumbling into the pit of delight of the night of his sin wherein he lies asleep, lest the light of grace from above shows him the way of great repentance, as she had done to David who washes his bed with his tears every night, . . . [10]

By the time of Denis the Carthusian (1402–1471), at the other end of the medieval period, the sacrament of penance had taken on great importance in church doctrine and practice. This sacramental practice is very much in evidence in Denis’ interpretation of Psalm 6 where he devotes a lot of space to the relationship between the necessity of internal contrition and the outward penitential actions of the penitent:

I have laboured in my groanings: that is, I am interiorly contrite of my sins, although I do not omit the exterior acts of penance and the works of satisfaction, but weeping, abstaining, persisting in holy vigils I prostrate myself . . . [11]

. . . Also, this which is said—I laboured in my groanings—can be understood here to refer to the interior effort, for indeed the interior effort exceeds the exterior effort, just as the interior pain exceeds the exterior pain . . . [12]

because the Lord has heard the voice of my weeping, that is, the interior affection, from which the voice and tears spring forth, and on account of which they declare themselves to be heard. For not clamor, but love, not the tears of the eyes, but contrition of the heart penetrates the heavens and enter into the ears of God. [13]

The English Bishop and Cardinal, John Fisher (1469–1535) had similar concerns and focused on responding to the psalm as consequential for the age to come:

There are three different ways almighty God deals with sinners, according to the three different kinds of them. There are some sinners who continue in their wretchedness till they die, and those almighty God punishes in hell’s eternal pains, whose ministers are the devils. There are other sinners who have begun to be penitent before their death and to amend their lives, and these almighty God punishes in the pains of purgatory, which have an end and whose ministers are angels. Thirdly, there are still other sinners who, by grace in their life, have so punished themselves by penance for their offences that they have made sufficient repayment for them. And these almighty God accepts in his infinite mercy. [14]

Both Denis and Fisher read the psalm penitentially in dialogue with late medieval sacramental praxis and doctrinal development. Luther (1483–1546) is also concerned about the fate of sinners. He tends to speak, however, less abstractly and mechanically, and more personally than either Denis or Fisher:

God’s strength and consolation are given to no one unless he asks for it from the bottom of his heart. But no one who has not been profoundly terrified and forsaken prays profoundly. He does not know what ails him, and he remains secure in the strength and consolation of another, his own or that of creatures. In order, therefore, that God might dispense His strength and consolation and communicate it to us, He withdraws all other consolation and makes the soul deeply sorrowful, crying and longing for His comfort. Thus all God’s chastisements are graciously designed to be a blessed comfort, although through weak and despairing hearts the foolish hinder and distort the design aimed at them, because they do not know that God hides and imparts His goodness and mercy under wrath and chastisement. [15]

Calvin (1509–1564) writing a few years later than Luther commentates in a very different style. His approach seems much more like a modern commentary as he seeks a clear methodology to interpret the text in context before applying it. He still, however, sees the context as the life of David like many pre-critical interpreters. In the end his conclusions are often close to Augustine with who we began this journey:

David, being afflicted by the hand of God, acknowledges that he had provoked the Divine wrath by his sins, and therefore, in order to obtain relief, he prays for forgiveness. . . What the kind of chastisement was of which he speaks is uncertain. Those who restrict it to bodily disease do not adduce in support of their opinion any argument of sufficient weight. [16]

Contemporary academic interpreters tend to avoid David as the subject of the psalms and look to the content of the psalm itself to provide context. [17] In this way Goldingay, for example, argues that the psalm is not penitential but that the psalmist experiences God’s wrath in a manner akin to Job’s experience. For Goldingay the psalmist is not struggling with sin and God’s righteous punishment but is in the thick of lament in part because of the puzzle of why they are so afflicted by God. In closing his consideration of Psalm 6 he reflects on the whole:

All this can be brought to God without expressing either a correlative awareness of sin that needs confessing or a conviction about personal commitment that makes it possible to make a statement that trouble is undeserved. [18]

In a similar way Charry explains Psalm 6’s context by noting that:

In Christian tradition, it is also often read as the first of the Psalter’s seven penitential psalms, yet no confession of sin and no plea for forgiveness are offered. Nothing indicates that the speaker understands his adversity to be punishment for sin, only that it has apparently been going on for some time. The speaker cries for healing, not forgiveness. [19]

In appropriating Psalm 6 today, as functional Scripture, do we really have to choose between what was for a long time a dominant penitential reading and the modern rediscovery of biblical lament? I don’t think so. Whilst there are issues with some aspects of pre-critical interpretation both ancient and modern readings can cohere with the language of this psalm and inform our prayer. Intertextuality might be a dangerous tool in scientific exegesis but surely in a living textual faith there are interpretive connections and riches which legitimise using the words of this psalm as the basis for calling on God as a suffering sinner and/or struggling supplicant. A case can surely be made that a penitential prayer is just one specific subset of the complex lament that is central to the life of faith. These possibilities will be explored further when we turn to some of the other Penitential Psalms in future posts in 2022.

Many people of faith will at some point in the life of faith own the words of this psalm. As the Sidney Psalter expresses the opening verses we too might cry for a variety of reasons:

Lord, let not me, a worm, by thee be shent
While thou art in the heart of thy displeasure:
Ne let thy rage, of my due punishment
Become the measure. [20]


  1. Verse numbers here follow that found in the majority of English translation, for example, the NIV and NRSV. Many of the sources cited here use verse numbering that follows the Latin and Greek texts.
  2. Augustine, Expositions of the Psalms, volume 1, Maria Boulding (translator), John E. Rotelle (ed.) (New City Press, 2000), p.106. In all quotations in this post the psalm text is shown in bold and italics but otherwise identical with the original source.
  3. Denis the Carthusian, Commentary on the Davidic Psalms, Volume 1, Andrew M. Greenwell (translator) (Arouca Press: 2000) p.113.
  4. Augustine, Expositions, p.104.
  5. Cassiodorus, Explanation of the Psalms, Volume 1, P. G. Walsh (translator) (Paulist Press, 1990), pp.89–90.
  6. Cassiodorus, Explanation, p.98.
  7. Mark J. Whiting, The Penitential Psalms Today: A Journey with Psalms 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130 and 143, Grove Books, forthcoming 2022 and Clare Costley King’oo, Misere Mei: The Penitential Psalms in Late Medieval and Early Modern England (University of Notre Dame Press, 2012).
  8. Alexandra Barratt (editor), The Seven Psalms: A Commentary on the Penitential Psalms Translated from French into English by Dame Eleanor Hull (Oxford University Press, 1995).
  9. Michael P. Kuczynski, Prophetic Song: The Psalms as Moral Discourse in Late Medieval England, (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1995), pp.81–119 and passim.
  10. Barratt, The Seven, p.16. My inexpert translation of the Middle English and one Latin phrase.
  11. Denis, Volume 1, p.117.
  12. Denis, Volume 1, pp.117–118.
  13. Denis, Volume 1, p.120.
  14. John Fisher, Exposition of the Seven Penitential Psalms, Anne Barbeau Gardiner (translator) (Ignatius Press, 1998), pp.9–10.
  15. Luther, Martin. Luther’s Works, Vol. 14: Selected Psalms III (Luther’s Works (Concordia)) (Kindle Locations 2613-2619). Concordia Publishing House. Kindle Edition.
  16. John Calvin, Psalms 1–35, James Anderson (Translator) (Calvin Translation Society, 1845) p.65.
  17. This is something of an oversimplification given the vexed question in the last two hundred years as to what the context of psalm is, with David’s life, temple cult, canonical context, being just some of the options.
  18. John Goldingay, Psalms Volume 1: Psalms 1–41 (Baker Academic, 2006), p.141.
  19. Ellen T. Charry, Psalms 1–50 (Brazos Press, 2015), p.27.
  20. Hannibal Hamlin et al. (editors), The Sidney Psalter: The Psalms of Sir Philip and Mary Sidney, (Oxford University Press, 2009), p.17.

I is for Iniquity

It is fair to say that iniquity is not a popular word in modern English. It sounds very old fashioned and is probably used almost exclusively in a religious context to refer to another unpopular concept: sin. In Psalm 51 both of these words can parallel each other, as they do elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible. They can be joined by a third word, transgression. This word also parallels the other two. We can see this is the two opening verses of Psalm 51 which comprise three parallel statements:

Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
and cleanse me from my sin.
Psalm 51:1–2, NRSV

Despite this apparent equivalence of all three words, they each have a different meaning in the original Hebrew. In his magisterial commentary on the Psalms, John Goldingay helpfully uses three different, and less religious words to help capture the original Hebrew [Goldingay, 2007, p.126]:

Transgressions → rebellions
Iniquity → waywardness
Sin → failure

Goldingay explains that behind rebellions lies a Hebrew word which means turning against authority. Similarly, the word translated failure refers to missing a target. This is not accidental failure, there is a sense of responsibility and choice here.

Finally, to iniquity. This old-fashioned word represents a Hebrew word meaning waywardness, or a deliberate deviation from the right path. Whether we are people of faith, or not, I think we all know there are times when we make a decision that sets us on a different path. We also know that sometimes our judgement is poor, we know that we are choosing a wrong path. The problem is that all too often one bad turn leads to another. The psalmist knows that we sometimes need a God-given bath—a factory reset to overwrite our iniquity. By asking God we can be cleansed, washed, and our wrong path blotted out of our copy book. In our next post we hear from someone who was convinced that we all needed to respond to this message.



John Goldingay, The Psalms Volume 2: Psalms 42–89, Baker Commentary on the Old Testament Wisdom and Psalms, Baker Academic, 2007.

The Cambridge Companion to The Hebrew Bible/Old Testament: A Review, Part 3

This is the third and final part of my review of the Cambridge Companion to the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament. The fifth and final part of the book which looks at the reception and use of the HB/OT is the most uneven part of this volume. The first three chapters sit together well, although all three authors are tightly constrained in their respective efforts to capture the significance of the HB/OT to a major world religion. The next two essays, which focus on two aspects of cultural reception, are even more limited by the required chapter length. Despite this, all five of these contributions are engaging and highly informative. It is, in my view, Goldingay’s closing chapter which is the real gem in this section—this essay is excellent in its own right as well as providing an appropriate conclusion to the volume.

Each of the final six chapters is reviewed below. By way of conclusion some final comments are made about the book as a whole.


Part V: Reception and use

Chapter 18: The Hebrew Bible in Judaism (Frederick E. Greenspahn, Florida Atlantic University)

The centrality of the Hebrew Bible to Jewish liturgy and the key annual Jewish festivals is outlined. The centrality of the HB in everyday life is also helpfully unpacked. Greenspahn goes on to argue that despite this centrality many Jewish practices are not derived from the Bible. Because much Jewish practice originated with rabbinic traditions that took shape centuries after the writing of the HB texts, the ‘relationship between Judaism and the Bible is therefore more complicated than we usually acknowledge’ [p.377]. Interestingly Goldingay explores a similar point in the final chapter. The rabbis explained the origin of much of their praxis with reference to an ‘Oral Torah’ which existed in parallel with the Pentateuch (the written Torah). This ‘Oral Torah’ is identified as the source of some of the Talmud (comprising the Mishna and discussions of the Mishna). Greenspahn explores the changing understanding of the nature of the authority of the HB and traditions surrounding the origin and nature of the Torah. The chapter concludes with the recognition that in recent decades many Jewish scholars have joined the academic field of biblical studies. This development is central to the core aim of collaboration stated at the outset of this volume.


Chapter 19: The Old Testament in Christianity (R. W. L. Moberly, Durham University)

Moberly opens by recognising the impossibility of the task to resolve the precise role of the OT within Christianity. This difficulty is, according to Moberly, all the more reason to wrestle with the complex issues which converge on interpreting the very nature of these texts, as well as their relationship to the New Testament. Much of the complexity arises because of the need to account for the difference that Jesus’ death and resurrection makes to appropriating the OT. Over two millennia, Christian interpreters have had very different approaches. Harnack, for example, wanted the OT to be given the same status as the Apocrypha. This has never been a major view—most churches and theologians have favoured a more nuanced relationship which preserves the OT’s canonical status. It is noted that some more programmatic solutions, such as Bultmann’s, produce a very ‘thin’ Christianity.

Moberly helpfully points out that the consequences of re-reading the OT were a central development of Christianity from the outset. This is helpfully illustrated in the very distinct way that Matthew reports Jesus words about the OT compared with his own ideas regarding the Hebrew Scriptures. In a similar way, early Christians appropriated the Shema as a central text as it is in Judaism but made it their own by focusing on its theological claim (Deut. 6:4‒5) rather than the praxis which it promotes (Deut. 6:6‒9). Moberly concludes with a sensitive and constructive reflection on Jesus-centred hermeneutics.


Chapter 20: The Hebrew Bible in Islam (Walid A. Saleh, University of Toronto)

Saleh’s point of departure is the earliest Islamic creed preserved in the Qur’an which asks Muslims to uphold the Scripture of Judaism. What this upholding might mean in detail proves to be a complex story. An initial complication is just how much of the Hebrew Bible might be in mind—the Torah and beyond? Only the Torah? Part of the Torah? There is also something of a duality in that the Qur’an also claims that the Jews have tampered with their Scripture. The Qur’an is frequently delimited with reference to the Torah (and the gospels)—Jews have the Torah, Christians have the Gospel and in the Qur’an Arabs have their Scripture [p.410]. The whole picture is, however, more complex given the Qur’an’s doubt about veracity of the HB—an example is the claim that the HB foretold Mohammad but these references have been tampered with.

In the medieval period, four positions emerged as to the nature and extent of this tampering with the Torah. One extreme is that the whole Torah is falsified and it has nothing of its divine character left. The opposite view is that it is only the hermeneutical lens through which the Torah is interpreted which is the problem. Despite this debate, the HB became very much part of the Islamic tradition as the Qur’an contains stories of key figures such as Adam, Noah, Abraham and Moses. Islam has traditionally looked to the HB’s accounts, for example the ‘Israelite material’ filled in background matters with reference to the Torah. Saleh refers to the work of al-Biqa’i c.1457 CE who demonstrated critical textual skills ahead of his time in using the Hebrew original to inform criticism of three Arabic versions. This is an example of a highly positive approach to the HB in which the Muslim scholar can use it, albeit under the authority of the Qur’an. More recent scholarship has sometimes taken Christian higher criticism and used it to cast doubt on the integrity of the HB.


Chapter 21: The Hebrew Bible in art and literature (David Lyle Jeffrey, Baylor University)

The point of departure for this essay is the tension between the prohibition concerning ‘graven’ images (Exodus 20:4) and the positive recognition of various artistic endeavours as God-inspired (Exodus 31:1‒5). The implications have been felt in the cultures influenced by Jewish and Christian thought. Although nothing survives of the earliest synagogues, from the fourth century ornate mosaic floors are known and from later still manuscripts survive which are highly ornate. These testify to the importance of aesthetics in Jewish worship, although the detail is informed by a mixing of both the HB and other cultures. The extent of medieval Christian art is so large that if defies succinct summary but numerous scenes from the HB are used extensively, often in a distinctively Christian manner. For example, Abraham’s three visitors frequently echo the doctrine of the Trinity.

The HB has had a major influence on poetry from the medieval period onwards. In the medieval period many poems retold classic biblical narratives. Later poetry, such as that of Milton, went further in developing not just the biblical stories but supplying new narrative to more fully develop a theology. The HB was very prominent in Renaissance painting onwards. Over the centuries the artist’s use of the subject matter of the HB has shifted. For example, paintings of Bathsheba bathing can make any number of theological or moral points and can result in pieces of work which are beautiful (Rembrandt’s 1654 Bathsheba) or plainly erotic (Rubens 1635 Bathsheba at the Fountain). The chapter rounds off with an appropriate celebration of the work of Marc Chagall.


Chapter 22: The Old Testament in public: the Ten Commandments. Evolution, and Sabbath closing laws (Nancy J. Duff, Princeton Theological Seminary)

This chapter is especially focused on the USA. Whilst some of the issues surrounding the use of the OT in public are generic to other countries, much of the argument is concerned with the specific role of the US constitution in this regard. This essay has a limited appeal to those whose primary concern lies outside the US.

The essay opens with a concern about how well known the detailed content of either the OT or the US constitution is among the general populace. The First Amendment of the Constitution is outlined as key to understanding the three issues examined in this chapter. In particular the prohibition against the enactment of any law that seeks to establish a particular religion (The Establishment Clause) and the right for any citizen to exercise any religion freely (The Free Exercise Clause). The posting of the Ten Commandments in public is considered first. Duff urges caution about the value of the public display of the Ten Commandments in isolation from the prologue (Exodus 20:2) that makes their origin clear. The 1925 Scopes trial is used illustrate the way in which evolution has been handled in public debate in the US. The danger of seeing God primarily as an explanation for the scientifically inexplicable—the so-called god of the gaps—is lamented. There is a very real risk that this approach relegates God to the margins of life rather than showing his centrality to life. In the final section, Duff argues that Sabbath regulation risks undermining the spirit of freedom and joy which should accompany Sabbath. In fact strict Sabbath regulation makes people US citizens first and foremost and Christians second. Duff suggests that there should be greater emphasis on the issues of social justice; that all have a right to rest, and worship, if and when they wish.


Chapter 23: The Theology of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament (John Goldingay, Fuller Theological Seminary)

This final chapter provides an appropriate conclusion to this volume. Goldingay’s effortless narrative introduces the theology of the HB/OT via key theologians of the past century but cuts to the chase about the challenge of handling the HB/OT with the care it deserves. Walter Eichrodt’s work is eloquently captured in terms of its promise but also its pitfalls. In this way a key element is established for the rest of the chapter—unlike Eichrodt we will look to view the big picture that emerges from the OT rather than any singular system which underlies it. Goldingay steps from Eichrodt to introduce YHWH, Israel and the World as a triptych within the OT narrative. Von Rad is introduced as the theologian who both emphasised the diversity of Israel’s faith and highlighted the gap between the OT and history. Goldingay then introduces two theologians who have handled von Rad’s legacy in distinctly different ways. Childs’ canonical approach is outlined—Childs not only wants to focus on the final form of the biblical books but wants their present religious value to be central to the hermeneutical endeavour. Brueggemann sees things differently, wanting to avoid any tendency of Christian assimilation of the OT. He does this by developing a thoroughgoing literary and rhetorical approach which pays special attention to the sociological implications of the HB/OT texts.

At one level Goldingay suggests that both Christian and Jewish interpreters have shared something in their respective use of the HB/OT—Christians see it through the lens of the New Testament and Jews see it through the Mishnah and Talmud. On the smaller scale of the individual too, even the most faithful interpreters have much to learn from others. How else can we hope to perceive our own all too prevalent myopia?


Final Comments on the Whole Volume

The twenty-three contributions in this volume come together well to provide a thoroughgoing introduction to the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament. I would have liked to have seen a broader and more balanced range of contributors in terms of both gender and cultural background—and like all books of this type it has the typical expected unevenness. This said all of the contributions broadly do what is expected from their respective titles and their place in the volume. As with all multivolume works some chapters stand out, but this can be in part due to the taste and interests of the reader. I have singled out what I judge to be the highlights.

Anyone using this volume as an ongoing reference will be pleased to known that the Index is highly comprehensive, running to some 43 pages. For many the faith stances of its authors will also make it attractive—virtually all of the contributors seem sympathetic to the ongoing religious role of the HB/OT rather than seeing it as only a cultural artefact. The quality and scope of this volume at what is a reasonable price make this hard to beat.

You might also be interested in my earlier review of John Barton’s (ed.) The Hebrew Bible: A Critical Companion. This edited volume which in many ways covers very similar ground has a broader range of contributors than he Cambridge Companion.


Exploring the Role of a Canon-Within-the-Canon in Biblical Interpretation, part 1

“. . . [H]e that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom” exclaims Gandalf in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, in what is arguably the author hinting at his antipathy towards the Enlightenment and consequent technological progress.[1] This saying has a peculiar resonance with the dangers inherent in some Modern approaches to the Bible discussed in this evaluation of the notion of a canon-within-the-canon. The direction of argument, in evaluating the necessity and usefulness of this notion, has been chosen to highlight the diversity of issues that this topic impinges on. Throughout, it will be seen that the notion has a particular bearing on the question of presuppositions in interpretive practice. Towards the end of these posts it will be argued that whilst the notion under discussion is useful in raising all sorts of questions it is not a helpful term in itself. Instead, these posts will argue for the need for clarity regarding the nature, use and value of presuppositions in biblical interpretation.

A Plurality of Meaning
In this section much of the argument is dependent on Goldingay’s distinction between a canon-within-the-canon’s (i) form and identity and (ii) nature and function.[2] Goldingay points out that the notion of kanon im kanon goes back to at least 1863.[3] He considers the idea of what he terms an inner canon[4] and lists some ten examples which are illustrative, rather than exhaustive, of the form and identity of the notion.[5]

It is worth noting that both the term inner canon and a canon-within-the-canon are used in ways that potentially obscure the different inner canons’ relationship with the Bible. Some inner canons, like specific books of the Bible, are usefully described as a canon-within-the-canon. Some inner canons are perhaps more usefully termed a canon-before-the-canon in the sense that something is assumed with a critical method as chronologically prior to the canonical material. An example of this is the search for the ipsissima vox of Jesus.[6] Some theological principles, such as justification, might be argued to be a canon-over-the-canon. It has been claimed that the work of Christ means that Jesus Christ is himself a canon–through-the-canon.[7]

For the moment our point is not to defend the usefulness of these variations on the notion, but rather to note the need for clarity in distinguishing carefully the variety of possible meaning. For reasons of brevity and presentation in much of the rest of these posts the term inner canon will be used.

In addition to variation in the form and identity of the inner canon, Goldingay identifies five different senses of the nature and function of an inner canon. In order of decreasing normative authority these are:[8]

  1. The real locus of truth (norm of absolute truth).
  2. The locus of deepest insight (norm of relative value).
  3. Those aspects of the canon that are still directly binding.
  4. Of organisational value for ordering theology.
  5. A part of the canon that has special importance and value to a specific community at a specific time.

Although some overlap exists between these five senses they help to illuminate the diverse ways with which the notion of an inner canon is used by different scholars.[9] They also point to the important dynamic of there being a significant variation in the strength of the normative role of the inner canon.

Three specific topics have been chosen to illustrate the possible variety of (i) the form and identity and (ii) the nature and function, of an inner canon. These three topics will be considered in the next two posts.

[1] Tolkien, J. R. R., The Fellowship of the Ring, London: George Allen & Unwin, 1954, p.272.
[2] Goldingay’s Old Testament and Models for Interpretation are the only English works known to the author that discuss at any length this helpful distinction.
[3] Goldingay, Old Testament, p.122.
[4] He uses the term inner canon as synonymous with the concept of a-canon-within-the-canon.
[5] Goldingay, Models for Interpretation, p.105. See also Goldingay, Old Testament, pp.122-125.
[6] See, for example, Jeremias, Theology, pp.29-37.
[7] Dunn, Canon, p.572.
[8] Goldingay, Old Testament, pp.125-127.
[9] Frequently the term is used with a bewildering variety of meanings with apparently little recognition that others use the term in quite different ways.