Thursday, September 6, 2007

How Aristotle Reads Psalm 68

Others are doing a wonderful, masterful job of giving us insights into Psalm 68. Incredibly, through the new literacies of blogging, we read how Bible-language experts Bob, Dave, John, and Suzanne read. If you’re ready, you’ll find links below.

I had better start with Aristotle (especially since I’m working with him on a dissertation). We all know by reading his writings how Aristotle analyzed the lyric poetry of the Hellene ancients before him (namely Sappho, Hesiod, and Homer).

How then did Aristotle muse over the much older songs of the non-Greek Barbarians (and in particular the poetry of David the Hebrew and/or some woman writing of/to/for him)? How did Aristotle study תהלים (which we transliterate Tehillim)? How did he interpret that one Tehillim song of David’s which he would have called, in translation, ψαλμς εξήντα οκτώ (our Psalm 68)? Hmm . . . that’s a lot of speculation. And, besides, weren’t the Hebrew תנ״ך (or Tanakh) translated into Greek (as the Septuagint) long after Aristotle?

Maybe we had best just stick to how we read “Psalm” 68.

But can we, even with our 21st century literacies, really get around Aristotle? or beyond translation? I’ll come back to him, and to that. First this:


I remember (though it’s been 20 years now since I was sitting in that M.A.-in-linguistics, SIL-Dallas summer-course-in-Hebrew) when visiting Professor-of-Hebrew Robert Bergen said:

“I love listening to the children in the museum in Jerusalem reading aloud the psalms. They can hardly understand anything of the old texts they’re reading, but they pronounce it perfectly and effortlessly.”

A point we students of Dr. Bergen came away with is this: that the contemporary Yiddish-ish Hebrew we hear today is yet a far cry from what the ancient Jews tried to preserve, when singing and writing and then copying and copying and copying so faithfully so long ago. But even the Jewish traditions have split and still do splinter on just how to read תהלים. So how do we read that one “Psalm” (i.e., “68”) now?

John helps us get started, and more! Bob massages the text, and shows it to us. David (aka lingamish) reads it as a missionary prayer, with parts of it “yucky” and all of it “most difficult.” Suzanne kicked off the discussion and keeps it going with commentary, invitation to collaboration, and other important (feminist) issues (such as the explicit references to the equal care for “different classes of people” and the hint that the psalmist is an authoress); there’s a “precipice” up ahead, she advises.


How does Aristotle read ψαλμς εξήντα οκτώ? And who is this ριστοτέλης? Most would say this:

“Aristotle reads Psalm 68 in a way very very differently from how most Jewish and Christian Barbarians do.”

Joseph Priestly and Martin Luther would definitely say that.

First Priestly writes this thesis two centuries and three years ago (in The Doctrines of Heathen Philosophy, Compared with Those of Revelation):

What is peculiarly remarkable in Aristotle, is that though he reasons much, and disputes with wonderful subtlety, he seems to have felt nothing. He never expresses himself with any warmth, or any degree of sensibility, when he is treating of the most important subjects; but writes concerning God, and the soul, and of virtue and vice, with as much coolness as he describes his plants and animals.

So, on the one hand, we have Aristotle’s way, the cold unaffected observer. And, Priestly suggests, on the other hand, there’s another way of looking at texts (and we can imagine this other way applies even to Psalm 68):

How different, in this respect, as well as in many many others, are the writings of Aristotle from the Psalms of David, the writings of the prophets, and other devotional and moral articles in the books of scripture, penned by men of no uncommon ability of any kind, but deeply impressed with the importance of the subjects on which they write, and having more knowledge of them. They know infinitely more of God, and of his constant attention to the affairs of men, individuals as well as nations, and therefore they write as if they were really sensible of his presence with them, and his unremitted attention to them, as the proper author of all the good and evil that fell to their lot. They regarded him not only as their moral governor, and final judge, but as their father, and their friend; and thence were led to address themselves to him on all interesting occasions.

Just to be clear, then, we see from Priestly that David (and the other men and women with the Hebrew God’s revelation) will both read and write the תהלים with some subjectivity, with personal investment. But not the objective Aristotle. And Martin Luther writes, some five centuries (minus a decade or so) ago, in a similar but more damning way about Aristotle.

(A quick feminist aside is this: Luther hated the way Aristotle by his cold method concludes that woman is a “botched” man. Now, after Luther’s anti-Aristotelian feminist writings, there have come three twentieth century works which are very helpful: The Concept of Woman: The Aristotelian Revolution 750 Bc-Ad 1250 by Prudence Allen; Feminist Interpretations of Aristotle edited by Cynthia Freeland; Engendering Origins: Critical Feminist Readings in Plato and Aristotle edited by Bat-Ami Bar On. Luther, we’ll have to add, was not completely free of sexism, but that’s something for another discussion).

Luther, in a series of theses, wrote these statements against Aristotle (which I’m quoting in English translation, passages which can be found from several internet sources they way I did, by googling):

43. It is an error to say that no man can become a theologian without Aristotle. This in opposition to common opinion.

44. Indeed, no one can become a theologian unless he becomes one without Aristotle.

50. Briefly, the whole Aristotle is to theology as darkness is to light. This in opposition to the scholastics.

51. It is very doubtful whether the Latins comprehended the correct meaning of Aristotle.

53. Even the more useful definitions of Aristotle seem to beg the question.

Elsewhere, Luther derided the “religious scholars” whose cold, rational method was Aristotle’s and not the Scripture’s alone. In mimicking Paul’s authoritative “Hebrew of Hebrew’s” boast, Luther wrote:

I will go further with my boasting. I can expound psalms and prophets; they cannot. I can translate; they cannot. I can read the Holy Scriptures; they cannot. I can pray; they cannot. And to come down to their level, I can use their own dialectics and philosophy; and besides I know for sure that none of them understands their Aristotle.

Indeed Luther, as once an expert on Aristotle, could expound on Aristotelian methodology. But as one subsequently converted by and now given to the God of Scripture only, Luther could also expound the psalms. And Luther would have insisted that Aristotle, if reading Psalm 68 without allowing it to read him so to speak, could not really read it. Reading” requires “translation” and, in turn, “translation” requires much of the “reader.”

Luther’s reading of Psalm 68 got him into non-Aristotelian reading and translation:

No one should be surprised if here and in similar passages we occasionally differ from the rabbis and grammarians. For we followed the rule that wherever the words could have given or tolerated an improved meaning, there we did not allow ourselves to be forced by the artificial Hebrew of the rabbis into accepting a different inferior meaning. For this is what all schoolmasters teach, that words are to serve and follow the meaning, and not the meaning the words. We know this too, and St. Paul informs us in II Corinthians 4 [3:13-15], that the face of Moses is hidden from the Jews and that they seldom catch the meaning of the Scriptures, especially in the prophets. So at this point [Ps. 68:8] the Jews interpret “those who joyfully go out early and late” to mean the sun which rises in the morning and the stars which rise in the evening. Although this interpretation may be good, it has not appealed to us here.

Again in Psalm 68 we ran quite a risk, relinquishing the words and rendering the sense. For this many know-it-alls will criticize us, to be sure, and even some pious souls may take offense. But what is the point of needlessly adhering so scrupulously and stubbornly to words which one cannot understand anyway? Whoever would speak German must not use Hebrew style. Rather he must see to it—once he understand the Hebrew author—that he concentrates on the sense of the text, asking himself, “Pray tell, what do the Germans say in such a situation?”

Thus here in [Psalm 68] verse 13 we could also have rendered the Hebrew quite literally, like this, “If you lie within the marked boundaries, then the wings of the doves will be covered with silver and their pinions with gleaming gold,” etc. But what German understands that?

The non-Aristotelian method of Luther, the method of solo scriptura he and the following protestant reformers would use, involved translation.

In it’s purest form, this Lutheran method (as Luther applies it to Psalm 68) demands the perspective of the German Christian to the exclusion of the perspectives of the original Hebrew, and to the exclusion of the perspectives of the Roman Catholic scholars, and to the exclusion of the perspectives of Hellenes, and particularly of Aristotle. From our pluralist American twenty-first century perspective, we see that Luther missed much with such exclusion. He begins to sound like what he says Aristotle sounds like: like a bigot (an elitist and, perhaps, a racist -- if not an evangelical religionist or a sexist).

But, from our pluralist American twenty-first century perspective, we see that Luther found much: he is interested in reading folk, in empowering them from their subjective perspectives, in individuals meeting one another and their God as people.


I don’t want to defend Aristotle (or Luther) if it’s Aristotelianism I must defend. I do suspect we all are tempted to approach Psalm 68 with some cold objectivity. No doubt, many of us succumb to the temptation to read in an exclusionary way, that denies translation of the text and denies translation of ourselves in reading what the writer says.

I would like to advise that Aristotle’s “reading” has influenced our “reading” more than we know. I think there’s something Aristotle could not get around: let’s call it “rhetoric,” or “feminism,” or “translation.” The crucial aspect of that is this: Aristotle is a human being in society with personalities all around him. The ones immediately around him and before him and after him were called the Hellenes. They spoke a language named after a person (i.e., Helen) grappling with personalities here and above.

Aristotle and the Hellenes refer to “reading” (in Greek) as “top-knowing” or “knowing-from.above” or “knowing-again” or “re-cognition” or να-γινσκω, as if the knowing by reading comes from the sky, from the gods. (So John the disciple translates Jesus into Greek as saying to Nicodemus, “ἐὰν μ τις γεννηθ ν-ωθεν, ο δναται δεν τν βασιλεαν το θεο”; which we might translate further into English as “Should anyone not be born from.up-above, that person isn’t able to see the dominion of God.” If Jesus spoke Aramaic Hebrew, I still think it's highly likely that he read both that old dusty Hebrew of Psalm 68 and its less than 3-century-old translation into Hellenism, i.e., the Septuagint. John likely heard Jesus in Aramaic and read the תהלים, the Holy Scriptures, in Greek.)

There is humility and there is courage in this kind of subjective reading. It acknowledges someone above me (and us). It recognizes a wildness in that God above us (a characteristic which one of the bloggers on Psalm 68 noted above, and a personality that Psalm 68 itself suggests). It takes into account my (or our) place and others’. (John the blogger on Psalm 68 follows this method when writing this: “In my view, no one has the right to judge this psalm except from the perspective of a shocked nation which has just experienced a Pearl Harbor or a 9/11.” John is from the USA, and doesn’t hide it, but if he were from Japan he might have written, “just experienced a Hiroshima or a Nagasaki.” The Americans from the US feel the Psalm as from the attacked Israelite/Israeli perspective; the Japanese feel the Psalm from the Israel perspective, but as those once horrificly bombed by the Americans. The place, the perspective, the subjectivity of our bodies makes all the difference. You get the idea.) And this kind of subjective reading (i.e., of Psalm 68) requires deep change in me the reader because of the text read (from another's perspective not my own).

Let me segue to C.S. Lewis, who’s written one of the most helpful books (his only such book I think) on reading the Scriptures. It’s Reflections on the Psalms. And it’s a segue because his non-Aristotelian approach: Lewis is humble, is invariably aware of his subjective position, and is open to change because of others. From the opening page, Lewis tells he is not an expert in the scriptures or the Hebrew language; he admits he’s a learner, a mere literary critic, and one who’s become and is becoming a mere Christian as well. Thus, he reads the “psalms” from a Christian’s “love” perspective and from a scholar’s “literary” perspective. (He, more than once, discusses Psalm 68.) The “love” perspective would seem to constrain a text such as Psalm 68, a text about "judgment"; will the Christian reader "read into" the difficult "judgment" psalm by insisting that it really does advise the reader on a God who must be loving by the Christian standard and not an “unloving” God who "judges" as certain readings of the psalm might objectively require. For John the disciple, God is love; and for no disciple of Jesus is God basically judgment.

(For more on this “love” perspective, see William J. Webb’s Slaves, Women & Homosexuals: Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis; James K. A. Smith’s and Henry Isaac Venema’s The Hermeneutics of Charity: Interpretation, Selfhood, and Postmodern Faith; and what Dallas Willard says is the acid test of any theology being whether God is lovable, in The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life In God.)

But the “literary” perspective takes allows for multiple perspectiveS. Lewis calls these “Second Meanings” in the chapter by that title. There, Lewis discusses: (1) a Greek lad who says more than he intended (and regrets it); (2) Virgil who writes a prophecy of Jesus Christ’s virgin birth (but would deny it); and (3) Plato who writes a prediction of “the passion of Christ” (and would acknowledge it). Lewis is trying to make a point that Plato can be really platonic in writing more than he intends. The shadows in his cave point to the reality of the loving Christian God.

But I think Lewis writes more than he intends. He’s using a method of reading that (A) connects him with others (namely the writer). And the methodology also (B) both demands and allows for his own readerly perspective which demands and allows that he change. (Concerning A: In the Shadowlands movie on Lewis, his character says, “We read to know we’re not alone.” There is the sociality that Nancy Mairs talks about when she publishes a piece book that says, “Publication of any sort is an intrinsically social act.” Concerning B: Lewis is an antimodernist, before any post modernist, and he comes to groundedness – to the Tao or to Joy if you know his works – by things very subjective in his body, such as the signposts of beauty that lead him to his God who is not that beauty.) Of course, beyond (Lewis’s Christ-predicting) Plato comes (our) Aristotle.

Aristotle reads Psalm 68. And if he reads it coldly, objectively, and it never translates him into something else, then Aristotelian wins but he loses. He never gets it. (And we let his Aristotelianism overcome his Hellenism.)

But if Aristotle reads Psalm 68, if he acknowledges his need (as a male reading a female; as a Hellene Greek reading a Barbarian Jew), then text (and author and he, the reader, himself) changes Aristotle. It really gets to him, and gets him.


If Aristotle had to read the right answer to these questions, it would be the one answer that the hearers of Aramaic Hebrew had to settle for, a translation into Hellene text: ς χει τα κοειν κουτω. I’ll translate that into English for us: “for the hearer who has ears to hear.” And if we read it rightly, it will certainly translate you and me.


Peter Kirk said...

Thanks for this.

this Lutheran method ... demands the perspective of the German Christian to the exclusion of the perspectives of the original Hebrew

Surely this is not what Luther is saying. Rather he is excluding the perspectives of the Rabbis based on Jewish traditional understandings and their "artificial Hebrew" which is in fact post-biblical, "Yiddish-ish ... a far cry from what the ancient Jews tried to preserve".

If CS Lewis comes to "groundedness" through "the signposts of beauty", is he perhaps more a late Romanticist than an pre-incarnate postmodern?

J. K. Gayle said...

Two great points, Peter.

Scholars on Luther and Lutherans may best decide whether his comments around Psalm 68 are among his infamous antisemitic statements. You rightly get us thinking that Luther may be pressing German readers toward God-breathed Hebrew senses in the text. (I appreciate Luther's permission to readers, Germans here, to read for themselves and from themselves).

Funny how anti-pomo Christians tend to recruit Lewis to their side. But Dr. Art Lindsey at notes how "at many points [Lewis] makes observations similar to postmodern philosophers." Lewis the "late Romanticist," huh? I like it. Maybe that makes him more a feminist too? (A lingering Romanticist, Lewis wasn't afraid of the writer's or reader's subjective positions, was he? In Women among the Inklings, Candice Fredrick and Sam McBride say Lewis "did not practice the model for Christian marriage he espoused" [p.83] and that he "presumes, even after his tentative embrace of the ‘feminine’ quality of emotion, that being called ‘masculine’ is a compliment to either gender, whereas being called ‘feminine’ is uncomplimentary to men" [p.85]. Was this "late Romanticist" slowly being converted -- by mere Christianity -- into what Fredrick and McBride call "mere feminism"?)

Wayne Leman said...

And if we read it rightly, it will certainly translate you and me.


When I was feeling the urge to do Bible translation work as a freshman in college I had found a banner written in shimmering (check-out counter kind of stripes) letters:


I put it up on my dorm wall. It said what I wanted to do with my life. But it also said what I wanted the translated text to do with my life.

I've had to go through some deep waters since then. But the translation has been taking place, both kinds, of which the life-changing kind is, I assume, the more important.

I'm fascinated reading your blog material.

So you studied with Bergen. And maybe bumped into Longacre on Hebrew a few times.

J. K. Gayle said...

I much appreciate your comments, Wayne. Thanks for telling a bit of your own story, your transformations by translation. Yes, though I didn't study Hebrew per se with Dr. Longacre, he did use lots of examples from the language to illustrate discourse grammar in classes on that topic. I was at UTA (and SIL) from 86 to 88. Have you studied with Bergen or Longacre?