Monthly Archives: February 2014

Jerome on the “firmamentum” in Genesis 1:6.

When translating the start of the Vulgate I came across this verse:

Dixit quoque Deus: Fiat firmamentum in medio aquarum: et dividat aquas ab aquis.

The Latin here is very simple and can be rendered: “And God also said: Let there be a firmament in the middle of the waters: and may it divide waters from waters.”

The word firmamentum, famously rendered in the KJV as “firmament,” is translated from the Hebrew word רָקִיעַ (rāqîaʿ).  In English it is rendered as “vault” (NIV) or “dome” (NRSV, NAB) in contemporary translations.  What is going on here?


From G. L. Robinson’s Leaders of Israel (New York: Association Press, 1913), p. 2.

When ancient Israel wrote of the “dome” separating the lower waters from the upper waters, it seems they took it quite seriously.  And there is some sense to it, especially for a culture that hasn’t flown airplanes above the clouds.  Why else would the sky be blue like the waters below?  Why else would water come from the sky?

In classical Latin, “firmamentum” referred to a support or prop (often architectural) or the main point of an argument.  So it seems to me that Jerome expanded the meaning of the word.  Since Greco-Roman cosmology did not involve a dome, he had to adapt a Latin word to fit this Hebrew concept.

Jerome, a contemporary of Augustine, was one of the last Latin-writing Church Fathers to get a classical education.  He spent much of his career as an ascetic teacher and biblical scholar emphasizing how he left pagan culture behind.  He advised patrons to only have their children read Christian thinkers, even as the literary forms and linguistic styles he wrote in were undeniably of pagan Rome.  So (it seems to me) he is uniquely positioned on the cusp of medieval Latin.  He wrote as a scholar of the pagan classics, but in translating the bulk of the Vulgate he created the turns of phrase that would infuse the Western medieval church’s liturgy and theology.  This use of firmamentum might just be one example of such a turn of phrase.

What do you think?  To what extent did Jerome shape the course of medieval Latin in his creative translation effort?

EDIT: For the curious, Scribalishness has a great post explaining the dome and Genesis 1’s cosmology.

How I discovered the beauty of the Qur’an, Part Three: Jumping into Arabic.

Often in my Islam class, my professor would toss out an Arabic term and quiz students.  Several in the class were students of Arabic.  (It’s very popular with ROTC and political science students.)  One of the great joys in the class was recognizing Arabic words simply by their Hebrew cognates.

Take dhikr, a term referring to the devotional practices of Sufis.  It literally means “remembrance” and is cognate with the Hebrew root zākar of the same meaning.  Another is kitab (“book”), as in `Ahl al-Kitāb (“People of the Book”), a term in Islamic thought referring to Jews and Christians.  This is cognate with the Hebrew verb kātab, “to write,” as in Ketubim (“Writings”), the Jewish term for the part of the Tanakh containing poetic books, wisdom literature, Daniel, Ezra-Nehemiah, and Chronicles.

I would be taking Arabic already, but as a devotee of linguae antiquitatum, I am not interested in modern standard Arabic.  So last week, when I ran into my university’s Arabic professor, I asked him if he was teaching a course in classical Arabic.  And lo, he will soon be running a course for Muslims who can sound out Arabic but not parse and decipher it.  I have a month to learn the Arabic alphabet.

So it is highly likely that I will be the only non-Muslim student in the class.  I learned biblical Hebrew the same way: not from a university, but from a rabbi.  I won’t have any surahs on the tip of my tongue, but I will have a much better knowledge of Semitic languages from my understanding of the intricacies of Hebrew verbs.  Most of all, I enjoy being a religious guest.

Book Review: Berossos and Manetho.

berossos-and-manetho-introduced-and-translatedThis book collects all the fragments by and about Berossos and Manetho, two historians in the early Hellenistic age who wrote about their own cultures for a Greek audience.  I read this for my Hellenistic Age class, which is so far one of the most fascinating courses I’ve taken at university.

Berossos was a Babylonian priest who later moved to Egypt, perhaps to be a “fellow” at the library of Alexandria.  He wrote many works, all in Greek.  The most important one is his history of Babylonian culture, beginning with the start of the universe and incorporating Near Eastern king-lists and mythological tales.  He also texts on astrology.  Manetho, an Egyptian priest, also wrote a massive history of Egypt for Greek audiences.  His is the primary literary (e.g. not hieroglyphs on temple walls) source that we have about ancient Egypt.

Although coming from different cultures, it makes sense that their writings are collected in one volume.  Both wrote in Greek.  Both integrate Greek thought into their work, often giving Greek equivalents for whatever deities in their pantheon they were speaking of.  One wonders in both cases how much they had to interpret (perhaps distort) their history to be sensible and palatable to a Greek audience.

Also, both have their primary writings lost to history, coming down to us only in fragments and paraphrases from later authors that Christian scribes saw more fit to copy.  Early Jewish and Christian historians took interest in both of them, so much of what we have of Berossos and Manetho comes from Josephus and Eusebius.  Both of these men in turn used Berossos and Manetho to both bolster their account of the historicity of the Bible (sometimes stretching their sources a bit) and polemicize against the two men when their accounts didn’t match biblical chronology.

The editors speculate on why their texts did not survive – especially in the case of Berossos.  One reason they give is that their histories just weren’t as interesting to a Hellenistic audience.  Near Eastern king lists are not the best bedside reading.  But given that for many parts of Egyptian and Babylonian history this might have been all that was left, what more could they do?  From one perspective, it is better to be accurate than fascinating.  But if you want your text to survive and be copied, best to add titillation.

As a long-time sucker for anything of the ancient near east (really, anything ancient), I enjoyed this book immensely.  I can only fantasize what we might discover if we came upon complete manuscripts of either of these mens’ works.  Verbrugghe and Wickersham have done a great job introducing the fragments and speculating on how they relate to broader cultural changes in the Hellenistic world.

Some recent reading.

GraecoMuse on The Persecution of Christians in Eusebius:

The edict of toleration would have provided the majority of the Christians with a sense of relief.   Though, the sheer number of volunteer martyrs mentioned by Eusebius and Lactantius implicate that for the few the edict removed their chance to show their devotion.  Momigliano asserts that one such response is that some Christians voiced resentment in light of those who “survived in fear” through the persecution rather than in physical pain. An analysis of this suggests that there may have been some resentment for the minority who appeared to seek the persecution.

Daniel Wallace on The Great Commission or the Great Suggestion?:

If Matthew had wanted to say ‘as you are going, make disciples’ he would have used the present participle of poreuomai instead of the aorist. In every other instance when the aorist participle is followed by an imperative in Matthew, the force of the participle is a command. […] How does this relate to the Great Commission? Essentially, it means that the apostles must go before they could make disciples.

Also, I am excited to see a video of “What the Buddha Thought,” a talk given by scholar of Buddhism Richard Gombrich.  Gombrich is one of the most influential and controversial scholars of early Buddhism (especially the Pali Canon) in the world.  I greatly enjoyed dissecting his book of the same name, especially Gombrich’s mining of the Vedas and Jain texts to better contextualize the Tipitika.

How I discovered the beauty of the Qur’an, Part Two: The Beauty of Orality.

In my previous post I wrote about my frustration with stilted Qur’an translations and my discovery of Michael Sells’ more idiomatic translation of the early Meccan surahs.  Once I began to glimpse part of the Qur’an’s beauty, I could take it on faith that there is more.  But I would have to revise my aesthetic expectations to see that beauty.

As an avid fan of the Hebrew Bible and Robert Alter’s work on its narrative, I had a hard time understanding the way the Qur’an is structured.  When we read Qur’anic versions of biblical stories, we would have to flip around, flitting from surah to surah, reading one verse here and one verse there.  Why couldn’t the Qur’an be arranged to make more sense?  Why not put all the verses on Abraham in one place?

Sells yet again explains:

For Muslims, the Qur’an is first experienced in Arabic … In Qur’an schools, children memorize verses, then entire Suras…. As the students learn these Suras, they are not simply learning something by rote, but rather interiorizing the inner rhythms, sound patterns, and textual dynamics – taking it to heart in the deepest manner. (11)

Muslims refer to the Arabian desert culture Islam arose from as the Jahiliyah, a term denoting ignorance.  The Jahiliyah had a rich tradition of oral poetry.  The Qur’an is no different in this regard.  It is meant to be an oral text – hence the Islamic tradition of memorizing the entire Qur’an, a practice that is likely as old as the compiled Qur’an itself.  Devout Muslims don’t need to flip around the Qur’an to read its narrative of Abraham because they have those verses ready to call to mind.

Of course, memorizing the Qur’an means memorizing the Qur’an in Arabic.  Muslims consider the Qur’anic text and its language, its content and its form, to be inseparable.  Muhammad’s Arabic society, as Sells describes it, “had developed one of the most finely honed and scrutinizing tastes in the history of expressive speech” (7). The sounds of the Quran are simultaneously the most important and most untranslatable part.  I began to see this even more when I listened to videos of cantors giving voice to what is for them the word of God.

Previously I mentioned that having a poetic translation of part of the Qur’an helped me see its beauty.  Just as Robert Alter helped me see concretely exactly why the Hebrew Bible is aesthetically pleasing, so Sells helped me see why the Qur’an is such effective poetry.  Understanding its orality, as expressed in memorization and highly developed performance techniques, has given me an even greater peek at this monumental collection of poetic revelation.  In my next post I will write about the beginning of my adventure with Arabic.

How I discovered the beauty of the Qur’an, Part One.

When I first read the Qur’an in ‘Islam 101,’ I had been excited.  Muslim friends had told me it was the most beautiful poetry on earth.  But at first, I only found it tedious and repetitive.  In this and the next blog post I will explore my struggles in understanding this sacred text.

My professor, who is not a Muslim, favored the Muhammad Yusuf Ali translation, a go-to translation for many English-speaking Muslims.  I did not.  I liked his extensive tafsir, but I could not get into his translation.  It reads like the King James Bible, but without the veneer of being the “King’s English.”  To me, it sounds stilted, Victorian, too full of nays and thees and thous.  Take his translation of Surah 102:

The mutual rivalry for piling up (the good things of this world) diverts you (from the more serious things),

Until ye visit the graves.

But nay, ye shall soon know (the reality).

Again, ye soon shall know!

Nay, were ye to know with certainty of mind, (Ye would beware!)

Ye shall certainly see Hellfire!

Again, ye shall see it with certainty of sight!

Then, shall ye be questioned that Day about the joy (ye indulged in!)

The “ye” language is bad enough.  But I really have a hard time with the words in parentheses.  I understand he does it to preserve the integrity of the original, to show that he has added words, but it only adds to the awkwardness of his translation.

approaching_the_quranFrustrated, I despaired at finding beauty in the poetry of the Qur’an.  But given that some of my most intelligent friends believe this is the revelation of God, I wanted to continue trying to find that beauty.  Then I came across Michael Sells’ Approaching the Qur’an: The Early Revelations.  Sells, a non-Muslim scholar of Islam and comparative mysticism, translates and comments on the early Meccan surahs.  More than later revelations concerned with the problems of civilization-building, the earliest revelations focus on the intimate mercy of Allah and provide consolation for Muhammad as he struggled with self-doubt and persecution.  Islamic belief holds that the Qur’an is ultimately untranslatable, but Sells enabled me to glimpse some of the majesty of the original in English.  Take his translation of the surah above:

Acquisitiveness turns you away

Until you reach the graves

Oh then you will know

Surely then you will know

Surely you will know with a knowledge certain

You will see a blazing fire

Then you will see it with an eye certain

At that time then

You will be asked about true well-being

I like the added punch of the last line, its “true” dripping with sarcasm.  I also like the repetition in the middle of the surah.

Sells consistently avoids punctuation.  This conveys the fragmentariness (and often vagueness) of the original Arabic, but it makes the Qur’an sound like e.e. cummings.  That last problem aside, reading Sells’ translation of the early surahs was my first step in understanding the beauty of the Qur’an.  Though I cannot comment on its accuracy, I do think he renders it in good English.  Check out my next post on the orality of the Qur’an and how that helped me see its beauty.