The Throne of God (What’s going on in Isaiah 6?)

Fresco of St. Ambrose in Sant’Ambrogio, Milan (photo by me!)

One of the most famous parts of Isaiah, one of the few parts of the Bible useful for angelology, and a source for part of the liturgy, Isaiah 6 can be a perplexing place to find oneself, in any language. I was recently reading Ambrose of Milan, On the Holy Spirit, and I noticed that the translator did not provide Isaiah 6:2 as I expected. What I expected was what I grew up with, NIV:

Above him were seraphim, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying.

Instead, where the NIV has ‘their faces … their feet’, I read ‘His face … His feet’. Being smug, I assumed the translator got his Latin wrong and confused the two different Latin words for ‘his’, one which can be rendered ‘his own’, the other which means someone else’s. But I checked Ambrose, On the Holy Spirit 3.160, and found:

et Seraphim stabant in circuitu ejus; sex alae uni, et sex alae alteri, et duabus velabant faciem ejus, et duabus velabant pedes ejus, et duabus volabant

Which is to say that the translator got it right. This is the same text that Vulgate has — the Seraphim are covering the Lord Sabaoth’s face and feet, not their own. My guess is that, since the Geneva Bible, the KJV, the NIV, and the ESV have the Seraphim covering their own feet, the Hebrew has the same. The Greek is vague — each Seraph covers the face and the feet, using the definite article and no possessive. (Unless this is a use of the article someone could detail for me…)

Hence the Old Latin used by Ambrose and the later Vulgate version of this verse.

Therefore, we cannot give priority to the Vulgate/Ambrose text, since the Septuagint (and presumably the Hebrew) needn’t lead that direction.

Nevertheless, the Seraphim covering the Lord of Sabaoth’s face and feet pointed to an important point that I (we?) rarely acknowledge, barely grasp:

Isaiah has had a vision of the throne-room of God, and he presumably saw some sort of anthropomorphic figure seated on a throne and surrounded by six-winged Seraphim.

We probably subconsciously shy away from this due to the fact that the LORD has already told Moses that no one may look on his face and live and that 1 John says that no one has ever seen God. And yet in the Gospel of John Jesus does say that if we have seen him, we have seen the Father.

I think we should confront two possibilities here. I suspect that modern readers who are willing to take Isaiah’s vision as literal (as opposed to those who think it a theological-literary fiction) will go for option number one: God has created an image to project into Isaiah’s feeble, earth-bound, image-driven mind as a means of communicating with the prophet.

The second, and one I do hope has Church Fathers to back it up, is that this is Christ in glory. This one is less popular today either because we don’t like reading the New Covenant into the Hebrew Bible on literary-historical grounds (Isaiah can’t see Jesus because he doesn’t know about Jesus, even if Jesus is the Messiah) or we don’t like the implied supersessionism and appropriation of Jewish Scripture.

But if we actually believe historic Christian orthodoxy, we’ve already appropriated the entirety of Jewish Scripture simply by stating that Jesus is the Christ — Messiah, or that Jesus is Lord. Moreover, we go much further when we affirm Nicene-Chalcedonian orthodoxy and say that Jesus is of one substance with the Father.

Throw eternity into the mix, and we are also affirming that the man Jesus who was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate has also always existed in that body in the throne room of God. Because He is God and exists outside of time.

I find, therefore, a tantalising idea in the throne room vision of Isaiah, and that idea is that Isaiah has seen the risen, glorified Jesus of Nazareth, the Second Person if the Trinity, the pre-incarnate (yet incarnate!) Christ, who is the leader of heaven’s armies and will return on a white horse to bring justice to the earth (cf. Revelation).

Several decades after Ambrose, the goal of the monastic life was the vision of Christ-God, the beatific vision, found through cultivating purity of heart, according to John Cassian. And so ascetic-mystical theology, dogmatic theology, and biblical interpretation embrace.

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Jesus our mother (wherein I court controversy)

What follows will likely either offend some Christians in different ways whilst leaving most thinking, ‘So what?’ I hope it will appeal to somebody out there (maybe a Classicist or two), and I have no doubt, if I’m right, a biblical scholar has already addressed the bit where I talk about Greek. #philologywillsavetheworld

In Chapter 8 of A World Transformed, ‘Being Reborn’, Lisa Deam discusses the Ebstorf Map, from c. 1300, where Jesus’ head, hands, and feet peek out from behind the round globe of the world. She argues that this represents Jesus pregnant with the world. Not being an art historian, I can neither affirm nor deny this idea. It’s kind of neat — I’ll take it from Deam, who is an art historian, that this is a feasible interpretation of the map. Here it is:

This leads into a discussion of medieval piety to Jesus as mother. Interestingly, Julian of Norwich doesn’t come up, possibly because Julian’s references to Jesus as mother are so fleeting as to be almost content-less (in my non-expert opinion). Instead, we get something much more powerful, much more vivid, combining late mediaeval crucifixion piety with the image of Jesus as mother. Deam quotes Marguerite d’Oingt (d. 1310), A Page of Meditations, one of whose passages is this:

Oh, Sweet Lord Jesus Christ, who ever saw any mother suffer such a birth! But when the hour of the birth came you were placed on the hard bed of the cross where you could not move or turn around or stretch your limbs as someone who suffers such great pain should be able to do; and seeing this, they stretched you out and fixed you with nails and you were so stretched that there was no bone left that could still have been disjointed, and your nerves and all your veins were broken. And surely it was no wonder that your veins were broken when you gave birth to the world all in one day. (World Transformed, p. 104)

First, given that this piety is around the same time as the Ebstorf Map, this lends weight to Deam’s interpretation.

Second, this is, I think, totally acceptable, along the same lines as ‘Jesus is my boyfriend’ (that is, keep it to yourself; don’t add it to the liturgy). It is a pious meditation upon the salvific event of the crucifixion of our Lord and Saviour. And it is a realisation that his death brings life. His agony allows me to breathe. The cross, as the ultimate kairos, is an event with trans-temporal significance, backwards to Abraham and Adam, forwards to Judgement Day. The true life of the world is brought forth in the cross.

The theology expressed in what, for us, is entirely novel, is also entirely in keeping with the theology of St Irenaeus of Lyons or St Ephraim the Syrian.

Deam also points out that has nothing to do with the historical gender of the real Jesus. God the Word Incarnate may have had two natures, but he had only one sex. Jesus was a man. This has more to do with seeing His role in our lives and in salvation history in a light we’re not used to.

The argument leading up to Marguerite is also of interest, reminding us of the various biblical passages where God and Jesus are discussed with maternal imagery. Jesus even uses it of himself, after all! I, however, am one of those people who are quick to say that a metaphor or image doesn’t have anything to do divine names or attributes, but points beyond itself to the divine Person in some other aspect of His Person(s). God the mother is about the oikonomia of God the Father acting in our personal and world salvation history, not about renaming the First Person of the Trinity.

God as Father fulfils all the functions of fathers and mothers perfectly. But God is not named Mother in Scripture; therefore, I refuse to use feminine pronouns for God and I refuse to call God ‘Mother’.

However, I am not sold on the reading of Acts 2:24 provided on page 101.

God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it. (ESV)

ὃν ὁ θεὸς ἀνέστησεν λύσας τὰς ὠδῖνας τοῦ θανάτου, καθότι οὐκ ἦν δυνατὸν κρατεῖσθαι αὐτὸν ὑπ’ αὐτοῦ

The word for ‘pangs’ here is τὰς ὠδῖνας. Following Margaret Hammer, Deam renders it ‘birth pangs’, because this is exactly what the word means in Greek. If you check your big, fat Greek dictionary, this is what you’ll find under ὠδίς. It can, however, be used metaphorically, in which case St Peter is not necessarily saying that Jesus was giving birth to the world. In fact, the ὠδῖνας under discussion are not necessarily those that Jesus went through, in the first place. They are what Jesus has loosed, has set free by his death (λύσας from λύω).

Thus, it is our ‘birth pangs’ that Jesus has loosed, not ours.

But I don’t think that St Peter said τὰς ὠδῖνας in the first place, because he would have been preaching in Aramaic, right? If you read the entry for ὠδίς in Liddel & Scott to the end, you’ll find citation of the word in the plural to mean ‘bonds’:

ὠδῖνες θανάτου, ᾄδου, the bonds of death, LXX 2 Ki.22.6Ps.17(18).56 (due to confusion of Heb. [hudot ]ēbel ‘pang’ with [hudot ]ěbel ‘cord’), cf. Act.Ap.2.24.

The ESV, translating Hebrew, gives us this as 2 Samuel 22:6 (LXX 2 Kingdoms):

the cords of Sheol entangled me;
the snares of death confronted me.

This is the same as Ps. 18:5:

the cords of Sheol entangled me;
    the snares of death confronted me.

The difference between ‘cords of Sheol’ and ‘pangs of Sheol’ is the length of the first vowel in Jebel. You can see how the translators of the Septuagint (the Greek Old Testament, aka LXX) could easily have mistaken the Hebrew, given that Hebrew is written in consonants with little markings to represent vowels. If we imagine that Acts 2:24 is, in fact, parallelling 2 Sam. 22:6/Psalm 18:5, then we see St Peter drawing a scriptural parallel, using scriptural language for the great, powerful, salvific act that is Jesus’ death and resurrection.

It works with both the wider and immediate context.

So, in sum: If you want to imagine Jesus as your spiritual mother, that’s totally legit. It’s a medieval thing. It’s not my style, but whatevs. However, I don’t think Acts 2:24 has anything to do with it.

What is the Bible of the ancient church?

An Armenian Bible

The following is cut from a talk I’ll be giving here in Cyprus on Saturday. I have arrived without trouble, and am excited to be here!

This bit of the talk has been cut out on the grounds of being a sideline that made me go on too long. I do like it, though. I like problematising things sometimes (although I still go for a 66-book canon of Scripture).

So, when we’re talking about ancient (or early Mediaeval, I suppose), what do we mean by ‘Bible’? What is the ‘Bible’ of the ancient Church?

For Greek-speaking Christians, it was the translation called the Septuagint, produced in Alexandria during the reign of Ptolemaios Philadelphos (309-246 BC), as well as the texts that form the New Testament, with the occasional addition of the Shepherd of Hermas, the Didache, the Epistle of Barnabas, 1 Clement and several other first- and second-century non-apostolic writings that were very popular amongst ancient Christians — these latter writings, along with the stories of the martyrs, were eventually determined by the whole church (independently of one another) to be worth reading but not Scripture.

The Septuagint contains some books not found in the Hebrew Masoretic Text, as well as longer versions of Daniel and Esther. During the Reformation, Protestants rejected the Septuagint in favour of the Masoretic Text; however, we have ancient manuscripts of the Septuagint that are older than any of the Masoretic Text as a whole, and recent finds, such as the Dead Sea Scrolls, have shown that in many places where the Septuagint and the MT diverge, the Septuagint is not in error but translating a different ms variant (as I learned from Edith M. Humphrey’s book Grand Entrance). So, just because the ancients used a slightly different OT from us does not mean we should cast them aside — most Greek-speaking Jews of the early years after Christ were also using this translation, after all.

For your information, in the West, the Latin versions of the Bible that begin emerging in the 100s and 200s are based on the Septuagint for the OT as well, but Jerome, who lived in Bethlehem and produced a revision of the Latin translation in the late 300s, preferred the Hebrew overall. The Gothic Bible of the 300s was from Greek, so we can assume a Septuagint OT there as well.

East of Cyprus, in what is now Syria, southeastern Turkey, Israel/Palestine, Jordan, and Iran, people spoke various dialects of Aramaic or Syriac. Their OT was translated straight from Hebrew either around the turn of BC/AD or in the 100s and 200s, when their NT was. This text is called the Peshitta, and some mss of it contain the apocryphal books of the Septuagint, but very many do not.

In Egypt in the 200s and 300s, the Old and New Testaments were translated into Coptic, which is the direct linguistic descendent of the hieroglyphics of the Pharaohs, written in a Greek-like script; the OT is from the Septuagint.

During the 300s, the Kingdom of Ethiopia accepted Christianity and began their own translations of the OT and NT; however, their OT is idiosyncratic — they have everything from the Septuagint except for 1 and 2 Maccabees, and add the Prayer of Manasseh, 3 Ezra, 4 Ezra, which are known elsewhere, but also add, uniquely to Ethiopian Christianity, the Paralipomena of Jeremiah (4 Baruch), Jubilees, Enoch, and the three books of Meqabyan. They have the largest Bible of all.

Armenia accepted Christianity in the 300s as well, but did not begin the project of translating the Bible until 402; the Armenian version of the OT in the ancient church accorded with the Masoretic Text, and it was not until the 700s that the other books from the Septuagint were added.

And, if you were part of a ‘Gnostic’ sect or a Marcionite, your set of Scriptures would look very different again, with various additions and subtractions based on which one — although it seems that the ‘Gnostics’ liked the protocanonical Gospels, they just added more of them.

So, when an ancient Christian says, ‘the Scriptures’, we must ask ourselves — where is this guy from?? Thankfully, the traditions of Protestantism, Roman Catholicism, and Eastern Orthodoxy all turn to the same ancient sources as formative for how we do theology, so the only real difficulty comes in the disagreement over the Septuagint — one which even ancients such as Origen of Alexandria in the 200s and Jerome in the 300s had with other Christians. Let us be glad that we are not indebted to Ethiopia for the establishment of Trinitarian theology!