Warnings from biblical lexicography
James Barr was for many years, I think, the scholar most feared by other members of the biblical-studies guild. He had a knack for spotting and exposing fallacies that were widely accepted by his peers as standard practice. Probably the best-known example of his work was his book The Semantics of Biblical Language, in which he singlehandedly decimated the scholarly credibility of the massive Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, a many-volumed opus, originally produced by German scholars and translated into English by the prodigiously productive (as a translator, anyway) Geoffrey Bromiley. It was a must-own set for scholars, pastors, and serious students for many years (and as such pulled much revenue into the coffers of the publishing house for which I work). Truly, it contains a great deal of valuable history of usage, so it is still in my opinion worth reading, as is a one-volume condensation that some of us still reference through Bible software packages. If you know its problems, you can use it critically.
One of its problems is that much of it was written by Nazis or Nazi sympathizers or men who, if not Nazi sympathizers, nevertheless partook of the same jaundiced view of Judaism that formed the soil in which Nazi antisemitism germinated, took root, and so horribly flourished.
Its other problems—the ones that Barr pointed out—had to do with misunderstandings of how language works. For example, the entire work is predicated on the assumption that if you want to know what a word means in a particular New Testament text, you can find out by ingesting the history of the meaning of that Greek word—and of the Hebrew word or words rendered by it in the Greek Old Testament. So every article works through multiple layers of etymology and history of usage. When you’ve absorbed all that, voilà: you know what that word means in Matthew or Romans or wherever.
But really you don’t. Barr painstakingly exposed the etymological fallacy (the mistaken belief that etymology determines meaning) and others, including one that he called illegitimate totality transfer. This latter abuse occurs when you take the whole set of denotations and connotations of a word in some earlier usage, or in all earlier usages, and read them into an instance of the same word in a later text.
Barr’s phrase “illegitimate totality transfer” is useful in other settings. What I have in mind is this: You may be right in thinking that a biblical passage that you are reading applies to you. But you may be wrong in transferring the totality of its meaning to yourself and your own context.
How not to pray Psalm 44
What got me started on this today was reading Psalm 44. I have pasted the NRSV translation in below. Reading through this or any passage of scripture, you might be struck by one thing this time, and another time by something else. For example, once before when I read this psalm I was struck by the piety whereby the psalmist attributes everything in his experience—whether blessing or affliction—to the hand of God. This isn’t Calvinism, I realized; it’s normal, instinctive godliness.
But this morning, here’s what struck me: the writer and his community have a conception of the past in which God did all sorts of wonders for their ancestors, but these days they are beaten down and oppressed. They have a theology that says God will bless them if they are blameless in their ways. God isn’t blessing them, but they are quite sure they are blameless in their ways. Hence their loud complaint to God.
Now, what does it mean to pray this psalm as an American Christian in 2022? I can imagine that for some it means this: We acknowledge that God worked mightily in the founding of our country. The Founding Fathers, good Christians that they all were, were blessed by God, who led them through an upward spiral of material prosperity and military victory until this nation came to be a powerful force in the world. Now our hegemony is threatened, and some speak of this nation being called to account for its sins—its oppression of some of its own people, and of other peoples around the world. But they are wrong! This nation is innocent of serious wrongdoing. So let us call upon the Lord to bless the USA again as in the past.
But that reading would constitute an illegitimate totality transfer. It would plug the USA into this psalm as the exact and complete equivalent (replacement) of biblical Israel. In so doing, it would turn scripture into pretext for a two-fold American myth: a myth of divine founding, and a myth of perpetual innocence. Honest historians of the United States can in short order show both of those myths up as blatant falsehoods. (Which is why some devotees of the Americanist heresy—Christotrumpians and others—wish to ban the teaching of honest history in our schools.) (For that matter, historians of ancient Israel and experts in biblical interpretation would also contest the reading of this psalm as straightforward Israelite historiography; but that’s a different question.)
How to pray Psalm 44
Are we not allowed, then, to pray this Psalm? Yes, we are. Christians believe that we are not only permitted but urged to find ourselves in the scriptural stories, and to apply scriptural teaching to our own lives. But this is not an undertaking in which “anything goes.” Wisdom is required. The guidance of the Spirit is required. That guidance sometimes comes through sound teachers.
Christians have known this for a long time. In the fourth century, Bishop Athanasius of Alexandria composed a little treatise in response to a question about how to read and apply the Psalms. Known as the Letter to Marcellinus, it is available in English translations. For example, the Classics of Western Spirituality series has a volume containing Robert Gregg’s translations of The Life of Antony and The Letter to Marcellinus. Here is a bit from section 10 of this letter:
“On the whole, each psalm is both spoken and composed by the Spirit so that in these same words, as was said earlier, the stirrings of our souls might be grasped, and all of them be said as concerning us, and the same issue from us as our own words, for a remembrance of the emotions in us, and a chastening of our life. For what those who chant have said, these things also can be examples and standards for us.”
The letter goes on to classify the psalms, and further to name all kinds of situations in which a believer might want to find a psalm to use in prayer. This psalm (44 in our English Bibles, but 43 in the numbering in the Greek Old Testament that Athanasius used), is mentioned thus: “Wishing unceasingly to remember the kind acts of God accomplished for the fathers, and, concerning the exodus from Egypt and the time passed in the wilderness, how God is good, but the men are ungrateful, you have Psalms 43, 77, 88, 104, 105, 106, and 113.”
Note that Athanasius does not encourage substituting one’s own nation for Israel and transferring the totality of the God-Israel relationship—all the promises and prophecies—to one’s own country! The notion that one can do so is an odd and distinctively American (though not with some British antecedents) delusion. We might call it the Americanist heresy. Rather, Christians are to praise God for God’s goodness to Israel. We claim that as follower of Christ we are spiritual heirs of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but we do not claim that our nation has replaced or succeeded Israel. There is no support in this psalm, or anywhere else in Scripture, for the syncretistic, flag-and-Bible, false religion that is American-Christian nationalism, or nationalistic American Christianity.
But there is a right use of this psalm in contemporary prayer, for Christians of any nationality. Christian heirs to Abrahamic faith, and Davidic faith, will find themselves in circumstances in which everything is going wrong for them, and they don’t know why, and they don’t think it is because they have sinned in a way that would provoke God to bring their current circumstances upon them as retribution. In such circumstances, they—we—might well find the words of Psalm 44 to be a useful pattern for prayer.
PSALM 44 (NRSV)
We have heard with our ears, O God,
our ancestors have told us,
what deeds you performed in their days,
in the days of old:
you with your own hand drove out the nations,
but them you planted;
you afflicted the peoples,
but them you set free;
for not by their own sword did they win the land,
nor did their own arm give them victory;
but your right hand, and your arm,
and the light of your countenance,
for you delighted in them.
You are my King and my God;
you command victories for Jacob.
Through you we push down our foes;
through your name we tread down our assailants.
For not in my bow do I trust,
nor can my sword save me.
But you have saved us from our foes,
and have put to confusion those who hate us.
In God we have boasted continually,
and we will give thanks to your name forever.
Yet you have rejected us and abased us,
and have not gone out with our armies.
You made us turn back from the foe,
and our enemies have gotten spoil.
You have made us like sheep for slaughter,
and have scattered us among the nations.
You have sold your people for a trifle,
demanding no high price for them.
You have made us the taunt of our neighbors,
the derision and scorn of those around us.
You have made us a byword among the nations,
a laughingstock among the peoples.
All day long my disgrace is before me,
and shame has covered my face
at the words of the taunters and revilers,
at the sight of the enemy and the avenger.
All this has come upon us,
yet we have not forgotten you,
or been false to your covenant.
Our heart has not turned back,
nor have our steps departed from your way,
yet you have broken us in the haunt of jackals,
and covered us with deep darkness.
If we had forgotten the name of our God,
or spread out our hands to a strange god,
would not God discover this?
For he knows the secrets of the heart.
Because of you we are being killed all day long,
and accounted as sheep for the slaughter.
Rouse yourself! Why do you sleep, O Lord?
Awake, do not cast us off forever!
Why do you hide your face?
Why do you forget our affliction and oppression?
For we sink down to the dust;
our bodies cling to the ground.
Rise up, come to our help.
Redeem us for the sake of your steadfast love.