The Lord’s Prayer kerfuffle, from a Hebraist’s perspective

Pope Francis has a gift for generating news, even over the nuttiest things. I’m not a big fan (even though I’m Catholic), but I do recognize the genius of his media strategy (assuming it’s a strategy).

His latest news-making comment was an offhand remark about translating the Lord’s Prayer / Our Father, specifically the line “Lead us not into temptation” (Matthew 6:13). He apparently suggested that, since a father doesn’t lead his children into temptation, nor would God; rather, this is what Satan does. (See here and follow the youtube link for the interview with Pope Francis).

Now, apart from the theological fireworks this engendered (see here or here for basically intelligent discussions, or here for a less intelligent conversation, or google it and read until you drop), it has also raised questions about translation. One might think that this is interesting, but in fact the lack of grammatical thinking about the issues has made it a largely misguided discussion.

But not to fear, a grammarian is here!

The Greek in question is this: μὴ εἰσενέγκῃς ἡμᾶς εἰς πειρασμόν, in which the verb εἰσφέρω “to bring in” is inflected as a 2nd person singular aorist active subjunctive. But let’s forget this Indo-European language and consider what the Hebrew or Aramaic prayer would have looked like and what that could have meant.

Though I think it entirely plausible that Jesus and disciples spoke Hebrew or perhaps Aramaic, rather than starting with a reconstruction, it’s easier and philologically more defensible to begin with an attested text, in this case the Syriac Peshitta. The relevant text is below:

ܘܠܳܐ ܬ݁ܰܥܠܰܢ ܠܢܶܣܝܽܘܢܳܐ

In the Syriac, the verb used is ܥܠܠ or in square script, עלל, which is functionally equivalent to Hebrew בוא. The form of the verb is a 2ms imperfect in the Aphel, with a 1cp attached pronoun as the object (like Hebrew Hiphil jussive אַל תְּבִיאֵנוּ or in the imperfect לֹא תְּבִיאֶנּוּ), hence “do not cause us to enter” or “do not bring us in” and the following PP is “to trial” or “to testing” (or even, if you really prefer, “to temptation”). So this seems pretty straightforward, no?

No. In Syriac, as in Hebrew, the causative formation can have a modal nuance that indicates permission or toleration; thus, the connotation could also be “do not allow us to enter” or “do not permit us to enter”. And I strongly suspect the Greek can tolerate the same range of nuances (pun intended).

And so Pope Francis’ wild and hairy suggestion may have some real (Semitic) traction. Whether or not Jesus intended this permissive nuance or the more straightforward nuance is almost beside the point (as it often is, really); the absence of any grammatical nuance in the plethora comments about Pope Francis’ suggestion is the real point — why doesn’t anyone study grammar deeply anymore? This whole non-issue has been painful to read about.

As a final thought, concerning the theology of God inducing temptation, what about putting that damnable tree of knowledge in the Garden of Eden and then proscribing its juicy fruit? Seems kind of temptation-inducing, doesn’t it? But oops, that’s just the text getting in the way of theology again.



My SBL papers—abstracts and handouts

In a rare occurrence, this year I am actually finished with both my papers and the handouts before I fly to the annual meeting. To celebrate this oddity, I’m posting my handouts here for interested folks, along with the abstracts and the meeting information (for those going to San Antonio). After the conference, I’ll follow-up with summaries of how the papers were received.

#1) Ugaritic and Northwest Semitics unit

Sunday (Nov 20) morning, 9am, Mission A (2nd Level) – Grand Hyatt (GH)

Clarifying Apposition in Ugaritic // The Displacement of “Parallelism”

The juxtaposition of two constituents of the same category, such as noun apposition (e.g., Niqmaddu, the king) or noun-numeral apposition (e.g., thirty (shekels), lapis lazuli), is a fundamental noun modification strategy, alongside adjectival modification, noun cliticization (the bound relationship), and relativization. Though studies of Ugaritic grammar have long noted the use of apposition, particularly with numerals, the distribution and semantics of apposition are worthy of a focused analysis, which I will undertake in this study. Moreover, I will provide an initial investigation into the possible relationship between verb phrase or clausal apposition (types of apposition rarely recognized in Ugaritic or Hebrew studies) and the use of parallelism in poetic texts.

Handout here.

#2) Linguistics and Biblical Hebrew unit

Tuesday (Nov 22) morning, 9a, 303C (3rd Level) – Convention Center (CC)

Parenthesis in Biblical Hebrew

Like other interruptive structures, such as vocatives, exclamatives, and even non-restrictive relatives and appositives, parentheses pose challenges for linguistic analysis. In general linguistics, the terms “parenthesis” and “parenthetical” are used for a wide range of phenomena, which may or may not represent a single linguistic construction (Burton-Roberts 2006). It is thus not surprising that there has emerged no consensus on how parentheticals relate to their the adjacent or surrounding clause with which they share an apparent connection. This general state of confusion is well-represented in the only full study of parentheticals in Biblical Hebrew (Zewi 2007)—parenthesis is described as simultaneously “syntactically unattached” and “maintain[ing] a certain syntactic connection”, and a wide range of arguably disparate Hebrew constructions are cited as varieties of parenthesis. The current study is an attempt to bring some order to the relative chaos and so present a coherent analysis of parenthesis in Biblical Hebrew.

Handout here.

2014 summary, with a new article posted

After a very crazy year (not all of it academics-induced), I can at least say two positive things: First, I had a wonderful year teaching (I am teaching through our BH textbook this year, which is very fun, and I taught a graduate course on Ezekiel, which was challenging and deeply satisfying). And second, though I have not blogged much at all, I have been productive (as has John, but he’ll have to tell you in his own post). Last year witnessed the appearance of my article with my doctoral student, Andrew Jones (see the post here), a just released article on the grammar of זֶה (more on that below), and a soon to appear article on “edge constituents” (i.e., left and right dislocation, topicalization, and extraposition).

The article on זֶה appeared in the Journal of Hebrew Scriptures last week and represents one of the last little puzzles I needed to solve before finishing my book on the relative clause (almost done!). This was a very satisfying article to write, since I both solved my problem to my satisfaction and used both sets of skills sets I received in my academic training — linguistics with C.L. Miller-Naudé and close textual reading with M. F. Fox. You can get the article at the JHS site, or I’ve posted it right below.

Holmstedt, Robert D. 2014. Analyzing זֶה Grammar and Reading זֶה Texts of Ps 68:9 and Judg 5:5. The Journal of Hebrew Scriptures 14, no. 8: 1-26. (PDF link)

The article on edge constituents represents the fruits of many years labor. I first addressed left dislocation and topicalization for a regional SBL paper way back in 1999. My conclusions back then were not entirely adequate, so I left the issues simmer for over a decade before picking them back up in 2013 and 2014. Though the nearly 50 pages of the KUSATU article (which should appear very soon) do not say *everything* about these issues that should be said, I provide what I consider to be an accurate framework for understanding the syntax and function of the constructions in BH. I will post the article here (as well as to my page) when it appears.

Holmstedt, Robert D. 2014. Constituents at the Edge in Biblical Hebrew. KUSATU: Kleine Untersuchungen zur Sprache des Alten Testaments und seiner Umwelt 17, 109-156.

Additionally, I have begun drafting a descriptive grammar of the War Scroll (1QM) with another doctoral student in our program, John Screnock. I will post a few of the spin-off articles here, when they are further along in the press cycle.

Finally, John Screnock and I finished and submitted our Baylor Handbook on the Book of Esther! Phew.

All things considered, 2014 was a busy year. Mostly good, some frustrating. I hope 2015 is more of the good and less of the frustrating.

New Article in the Journal of Semitic Studies

The latest issue of the Journal of Semitic Studies (2014; 59/1) is out and has an article that I wrote with my doctoral student, Andrew Jones.

Robert D. Holmstedt and Andrew R. Jones. 2014. “The Pronoun in Tripartite Verbless Clauses in Biblical Hebrew: Resumption for Left-Dislocation or Pronominal Copula?” Journal of Semitic Studies. 59(1): 53-89.

This article is related to this earlier post, as well as this JBL article that came out last Fall.

For the full article, see here and scroll down.

A little Phoenician

Phoenician is a close relative of ancient Hebrew, so …

I’m happy to announce the imminent release of a collection of articles that I’ve co-edited with Aaron Schade (BYU-Hawaii). The volume is dedicated to the memory of J. Brian Peckham, who taught NWS epigraphy at U of T for 30 years. Aaron wrote his doctoral thesis under Peckham at U of T and had the privilege of knowing Brian a few more years than I did. But even during the all-too-brief three years I knew him, I came to understand just how encouraging and inspiring this scholar-teacher was — he was warm, welcoming, witty, and more than happy to share his considerable knowledge and wisdom. Indeed, on one our first meetings when I came to U of T, he shared his many class notes with me; after he passed, I learned from his executor that Brian had specified that I was to get first choice of anything in his extensive library. For these and many more reasons, I will also be indebted to J. Brian Peckham.

Although Brian passed away (September 2008) before the contributions to the volume in his honor were finished, the project had already taken shape by the summer of 2008 and I was able to tell him about during our last beer-and-burger lunch together in  August, just weeks before his final hospitalization. Surprised delight is the only way to describe his reaction. While Brian loved Phoenician and it was both the topic of his doctoral thesis and a subject he taught his entire career, it seems to me that he didn’t realize how much he contributed to the field. But, that was Brian — humble and self-effacing.

Eisenbrauns is running a sale of Phoenician right now, including pre-orders for our book. Take a look!

Also, take a look at Peckham’s final work — his history of Phoenicia, which will be published posthumously by Eisenbrauns.


Genesis 1.1-3, Hebrew Grammar, and Translation

*(revised after the clarification given in the initial comment)*


Genesis 1.1 is one of the most discussed verses in the Hebrew Bible. It is the first verse of the first book, initiates the Hebrews’ grand cosmology, and … contains an apparent grammatical crux. Phooey! You would think that one could get further than one word into the Hebrew Bible without a grammatical problem.

In fact, there is no problem, only a long-term misunderstanding of Hebrew grammar. In a 2008 article appearing in Vetus Testamentum (which revised a sub-section taken from my 2002 thesis), I argued for an analysis of the first verse that is grounded both in my long-term research on the Hebrew relative clause and comparative Semitic grammar. You can find the article linked here.

But recently I was criticized (on a blog), for failing to explain how my analysis of 1.1 fit into an interpretation of 1.1-3. So, although my argument for Gen 1.1 stands ably on its own, I will take the opportunity presented by the recent criticism to summarize my argument for 1.1 and provide my analysis of vv. 1-3.

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Pedagogy and the Lesser-Taught (Ancient) Northwest Semitic Languages

In late September I sent out a survey via Jack Sasson’s Agade list. The topic was the pedagogy of less-commonly-taught ancient Northwest Semitic languages (that is, courses in Hebrew epigraphy, Phoenician and Punic, Aramaic, and Ugaritic). My interest is to learn from others by determining a sort of ‘best practices’ short list for teaching these languages.

You may wonder why I am concerned. It’s not because I’ve had poor teaching results. Final exam results and the quality of research projects illustrate that my students are learning about as much as is possible in a term (indeed, they might say is that my “as much as possible” is actually “inhumanly” possible, based on how hard I push them!). Rather, what drives the survey and this post is my own dissatisfaction with how the course unfolds. I become … I hesitate to admit it … bored with my own techniques about half way through the term. There must be a better way (or ways)!

As with my undergraduate Biblical Hebrew courses, I am always looking for better techniques—techniques that are both more effective and more fun. For BH this motivated our second textbook, which recognizes the student interest in learning to “read Bible” but also tries to draw what we reasonable can from modern language techniques. The question is, can we do something similar for the less-commonly-taught ancient NWS languages? Is that even possible, given the nature of the evidence? For example, Ugaritic has a large corpus, but little narrative and very little vocalization. How could it be taught more “communicatively”. And if we could find a way, would the method serve our teaching goals (i.e., would the [mostly graduate] students learn enough of what we want them to learn)? [For a thought-provoking blog discussion of this issue on BH, I suggest starting here and following the various links.]

I wrote the simple survey to probe others who teach NWS languages regarding their goals, curricular structure, and pedagogical style. I received only 8 replies, but they were instructive and represented an interesting distribution (seminary and research university, North America, Europe, and Israel).

I used the survey comments to provoke a discussion at the just-finished MICAH gathering (that is, the Mainz International Colloquium on Ancient Hebrew**). Many commented and below I have summarized both the email survey responses.

** What a blast this event was! The level of expertise, and thus papers, on Hebrew and Semitic languages represented by the participants was impressive and inspiring. So much to learn …

I am indebted to the organizer, Dr. Reinhard Lehmann for inviting me to speak and participate in the panel discussion. I will also take this chance to thank publicly those who organized the event with Dr. Lehmann: Dr. Johannes Diehl, Dr. Anna Zarnacke, Kwang Cheol Park, Anna Schneider, Karoline Ehinger, and Editha Lefebre. Vielen Dank!

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