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The Bible and its Traditions

 When I was in the seminary (just after the dinosaurs became extinct), a new French translation of the Bible sponsored by the École biblique in Jerusalem began to appear, first in individual fascicles and then as a single volume that would later be translated into English and published as The Jerusalem Bible. It was distinguished by its introductions and notes that were based upon the latest historical, textual, and literary scholarship but also reflected the Christian tradition of biblical interpretation.

The other day I discovered that the same École biblique de Jerusalem is sponsoring a very interesting and exciting new undertaking designed (1) to establish a critical original text, (2) to provide a faithful translation, and (3) to relate the text to other biblical and extra-biblical texts, including ones that illustrate the reception of the text in Jewish, Christian, and even Muslim traditions.

The home website of the project is here.  A fascinating history of the original Bible de Jerusalem can be found here. An outline of the new project is here. And as illustrations of what is intended: the passage on the anointing of the sick in the Epistle of James here and, so far only in French ten other biblical texts, including the story of Abraham and Isaac here.

I must say I do like the principles they set out under the Under the heading: “Translation: making it possible to taste an ‘original’ flavor:

Like the reception of other sacred texts, that of the biblical writings occurred very early with a real concern for the text as text. The linguistic material is itself significant, with its “rustling” and its apparent incoherencies, providing the stones [pierres d’attente: toothing stones] for re-readings and later developments. This can already be noted in the intra-biblical rewriting and allusions. Thus, the translator of The Bible in its Traditions upholds two simultaneous exigenciies:

First, for the translation itself, the translator definitely takes the side of the text as it is and gives primacy to the figures of speech that are present in the source language rather than ease in reading it in the target language. His and her motto is: “neither more obscure (!) nor (above all) more clear that the original.”

Second, the translator offers philological notes ranging from grammar to prosody, and points out the most important literary facts (which served as supports for the previous interpretations. He or she indicates the best results coming from the methods of literary analysis that have fortunately been invented or reinvented by contemporary biblical exegesis under the influence of the humanities. [Translation slightly altered in accord with the French.] 


Commenting Guidelines

JAk --

The second and third "here' sites in paragraph three bring up blank pages (on my MacBook Pro).  

Interesting that Tolkein was one of the translators of the original Jerusalem Bible.  He translated the whole of Jonah and advised on some other texts.  Few fine writers combine Tolkein's scholarship with fine wriing, but a good many first-rate poets do get into translating poetry.  Why not ask them to help with, say, Isaiah?  Tolkein was a novelist.  Why not routinely ask all the best writers, whether poets, novelists, or non-fiction writers, to help wiith translating Scriptue and the liurgical tests?

What a fascinating project! Perhaps I missed it, but I didn't see anything in the way of a date by when the project might be finished. Or what prospects there might be for English and other translations, though I'm not quite sure how suitable it will be for casual readers (huge footnotes, including references to the Iliad!)

Since my NJB is about to have its covers drop off, I went to Amazon (though I'm trying not to shop at the Evil Empire) to see about a replacement. I note that Jeff Bezos and his gang have solved all the problems of Biblical authorship by attributing the entire NJB to the pen (or stylus) of Henry Wansbrough (though he himself appears to be satisfied  with the title of General Editor).

An exciting project, indeed. The references to literary and artistic uses and depictions of the "sacrifice of Isaac" at the end of the last link are informative and helpful.

Is your understanding that the text will be published in a print edition or only on line?


Thanks for this informaion. As others have commented, I also ask: when do you think it will be published in English?



Ann:   The links open up properly on my computer.  Perhaps you need to scroll down to get to the text?

I don't know anything about this project than what appears on the website. Clearly it's intended to be in at least three languages as it develops, and it's hard to see how the result could fit into a single volume. It would be mammoth!

One of the high spots of my life was to meet Fr. Jerome Murphy O’Connor socially through a mutual friend in the early 1990s in Berkeley.  In those days he spent each summer lecturing in the US, with the proceeds from his efforts being used to help support the Ecole Biblique.  He asked me to let him know when I was next going to be in Jerusalem.  I did exactly that and was introduced to dinner at the American Colony Hotel (a must when one is in Jerusalem) and a personally guided tour of the school.

Fr. M-O’C was in love with the school, its work and he devoted his life to doing what he could do to keep it a place of ongoing scholarship.

I am sure that he is happy to know that the school remains alive and well (even though he no longer is, at least on this earth) and is embarking on yet another amazing adventure.

I have two questions, neither of which is necessarily in conflict with the principles of traslation that Fr. Komonchak cites.

First, i seem to recall that Fr. Raymond Brown, when asked which of the available English translations of the Bible he thought was best, said that it depended on the audience for which the translation was intended. Translations fo rscholars might be noticabluy differrent from those used in the litrgy or by catechists teaching high schollers. Think for example of some of the passages from St. Paul's epistles that have interminable sentences that are part of the lectionary.

Second, no target language "stands still." Nineteenth century English, for example, is no longer coin of the realm.

Conclusion: Though there are obviously bad translations, is there any good reason to look for the unqualifiedly "best" translation? Or isn't it the case that the very notion of "le mot juste" is utopian and misguided?

Thanks, JAK.  I scrolled down, and did find the history fascinating -- it raises many interesting hermeneutical questions.  

I see that some first-rate "literary specialists" did have a great deal of input into the original translation, including some unsolicited words from the great Claudel.  (As I remember he did some Scripture translations on his own.)  Even if the literary specialists of the first edition did fight, no doubt that raised the literary standards. i just skimmed the second article (instructions for the new edition).  Apparently they aren't going to solicit literary specialists of the first rank for the new edition. Too bad.

I'd like to second Bernard Dauenhauer's suggestions. Well do I recall that period when boxed Jerusalem Bibles sprouted on the mantles of Christian Family Movement living rooms. I couldn't afford one as our family was growing. (According to the kids, the age of dinosaurs had not yet ended.) But it seemed to turn out that  the JB was too scholarly to settle arguments. Or, more precisely, it had a tendency to scatter the thoughts of seekers in all sorts of different directions when it was used. Of course, it was never designed for unbackgrounded study, so we were asking for simple answers and finding that we had asked interesting questions.

I remember the Jerusalem Bible's advent into the homes of my Catholic friends. We had a KJV that my mother got in Methodist Sunday school as a kid, and the JB was actually something a 10-year-old could read. Somewhere along the line, a Catholic boyfriend gave me a JB, which I used for many years. The RCIA ladies discouraged use of the JB as "too complicated and not up-to-date" and gave us copies of the CCC and New American Bible. 

Translations, so tricky. But what a great way to promote interfaith understanding with references to other faiths! What I'd like to see is a Bible that helps readers understand passages as they are interpreted in different Christian traditions. Maybe starting with Revelation ...

In my extreme youth under the illusions of a scholarly life (instilled by John L. McKenzie), I bought La Sainte Bible (pub. 1956). My French was better then and so was my brain, even so it was supplanted by the English, The Jerusalem Bible (pub. 1966), and I now find on the shelves The New Jerusalem Bible (pub. 1989?). I must go back and look again.

But speaking of translation and originalist intent: the Liturgical Press, Benedictine Daily Prayer, uses a translation of the psalms that I think came out somewhere at the turn of 2000. As I recall the translation was meant to capture the original Hebrew cadences. I know language gets imprinted in our memories, but I honestly get tried of those cadences and every now and agains turn to my old ratty, falling apart Christian Prayer (1976) to reassure myself that these are the same psalms but with the proper cadence (at least for my memory bank).


Joseph, thanks for the information.  Very interesting.


Jean, the Yale Anchor Bible Series will be bringing out its Revelation in September.

The Anchor Bible is much better than the Jerusalem Bible, imho, for many reasons.  Having individual books, e.g,, emphasizes the fact that the Bible is not just a book, but a library of many books, from many genres, many authors, many historical and cultural settings, etc.

Various scholars have done the translations (over the past fifty years) and written the brilliant commentaries.  (Raymond Brown, as many will recall, did the Gospel of John.)

Here’s an old NYT Book Review article about the Anchor Bible (before Yale bought it from Doubleday).


Margaret, I know what you mean.   I often look at the old Catholic Girls Guide for the best versions of old prayers.



Thanks, Gerelyn.

Margaret, do you think people resent fiddling with the Psalms so much because they're perhaps the Bible verses that tend to get memorized? I use the 1979 Book of Common prayer for daily devotions, but I wish they'd left the Psalter alone.

At Amazon, the various books of the Anchor Bible, are much cheaper than at the Yale Press site, and used editions are available.  Plus, great Amazon provides very generous samples.  (Including bibliographies, etc.)

Here's the link to Tobit, my favorite book of the bible:

The author says in his introduction:

"But after spending the past nine years of my life with Tobit and his family, I can honestly say that I really like and admire them.  I ‘feel at home’ with them.  Perhaps, because over my lifetime I have met countless Tobits, Tobiahs, Hannahs, Raguels, Ednas, and Sarahs, albeit rarely with those names.  Some were Orthodox, Conservative, or Reform Jews.  Some of them were Christians—Protestant, Catholic, or Greek Orthodox. . . ."



Am I correct in understanding that they’re planning a print version in addition to the digital? I’ve looked at their example PDFs, but I admit that I’m still struggling to grasp what this will look like as hardcopy. And they will be providing full translations of each of the main 4 textual traditions in the digital?

(It's amazing to me to read, for the first time, the Song of Songs in French.  So much more erotic/exotic than in English.  And the comparison of the Jewish and Christian interpretations is fascinating.  What a wonderful project.)

I don't know whether there will be book-version.  It's hard to imagine what it would like!  But then think of those medieval manuscripts with the glossa wrapped around the text.

That's kind of what I pictured, as well. Indeed, after a reread, it does say that a printed version is in the workds.

Two things:  1) I agree as strongly as possible with the comment that there is no such thing as a "best" translation. I would tell my students that--if they were short on Hebrew/Aramaic and Greek--to use five (English) Bibles: KJV, NAB, RSV, Jeruslalem Bible and "The Way/the Living Bible" (paraphrase). To this day, the KJV is liturgically sonorous, and however erroneous its inconsequential mistakes--to use it for short passages for weddings and funerals.

2) a) On the other hand, I want people to appreciate, for example, the difficulty the Semitic lnaguages had in expressing comparisons ("many are call, few are chosen"--a circumlocution tor "more."  I prefer--and this too is a strong opiinion over a lifetime of Scripture immersin--creative modern translations over the somewhat wooden ones that Tyndale got from the Vulgate and passed onto us;

b) i  feel, for instance, that "blessed/blest" does not capture at all the essence of the (Greek/Semitic) beatitudes. and "The Way" seems to convey that word (success, achievement, wealth--the oxymoron inherent there--the way Jesus seems to have liked to talk) better than the majority of translations. The word in Hebrew of course ('ashre') conveys blessedness in some sense because the Semitic mind associated wealth and success with the favor of 'elohim. But the prophetic emphasis on the 'anawim balances that, and the inherent oxymoron of "rich are the poor" is certainly there, if we see all the similar "least/greatest," "last/first," etc. elsewhere.

About translations, and church art generally, here comes a rant:


Translation can be and *ought* to be the finest art -- just look at the KJV and weep.  But neither sincerity not academic qualifications confer the ability to produce first rate art, and first-rate translations are art.  The Faithful need and appreciate great art in Scripture and liturgy -- just look at the popularity of the Psalms that are so fine that they remain great even in poor translation.  So why isn't the official Church encouraging the very best of contemporary artists to contribute to Scriptural translations and to Church art generally?


Yes, the original JB utilized some "literary specialists", including J.R.R. Tolkein (who translated the Jonah), but most weren't of his eminence.  Still, their presence did make a difference in the end literary quality.  But apparently the new edition of he JB is not calling on the very best "literary specialists".  The powers-that-be wouldn't think of enlisting less than the best theologians, best historians, and best linguists to work on translating Scripture and liturgical texts.  Yet the new JB project is apparently going to rely on *less than fine writers* to assist in the *literary aspects* of translations.  


(By "fine writers" I mean writers who know best how to combine individual words into word-structures which  produce *total* poetic meaning.  They're the writers who know how the placement of each word in context with the other words produces not only the same complex *sense* as the original work but also produces the same associations, memories, feelings, evaluations and whatever else it is that the best writing elicits in us as we read or hear it.  Granted, amateurs can translate parts of great writing well.  Only the best writers can put the parts together well into the holistic experience we call poetry or fine writing.  No, I don't draw a clear line between the best poetry and prose.)


And since VII  the problem of translation also extends to liturgical texts.  So why don't the translation overseers ask for help from experts of *every* sort including the best writers?  In the medieval period the Church obviously  didn't ask the town carpenters to design the cathedrals.  In the Renaissance it hired the greatest of the visual artists and architects and musicians. Why does it leave the literary aspects of the liturgical to the mercy of the academics and to essentially amateurs? 


Even though there might be no giant English-speaking Catholic authors left at the moment (Seamus Heaney just died), there are some first-rate ones, e.g., Dana Gioia is a notable Catholic poet who, I suspect, might be honored to be asked to help.  And why not invite Alice Munro, a first-rate fiction writer who knows a great simple sentence when she sees one.  They're the professional word-smiths, for Heaven's sake.


Not only might they and others help with liturgical text and Scripture, I bet they could write some fine hymn lyrics, which are also badly needed.  The lyrics of the new hymns  sung at my church rarely say anything worth singing about. They're saltless pablum. 


And speaking of hymns, why aren't the finest musicians -- both popular and "serious" -- asked to write hymn *melodies*?  Bach and Mozart wrote glorious, simple, singable hymns.  And you've brought up Tallis.  Well, I dare say  (yes,dare) Paul McCartney has already written some all-time great melodies, why not ask him to write some hymns?  No, he's not Catholic, but be ecumenical.  Bruce Springsteen has already done some very serious popular religious music, and couldn't he do some great lyrics as well? No, he's not my cup of tea, but we're talking about the *Catholic* Church.  Who knows.  He's a powerfully inventive artist.  He might even initiate a new religious idiom.  He might just have some general aesthetic advice worth listening to.  There must also be "serious" musicians also who can write fine melodies.  Consider Andrew Lloyd Webber who not only did Jesus Christ Superstar but has also written a Latin Mass -- yes, Latin.  Leonard Bernstein might have written some melodies of some psalms -- if he had been asked.  Gian Carlo Menotti did an English Mass, but it's rather operatic if I'm not mistaken, but he wrote fine melodies.  (I'd like to hear from some other commenters here about other writers and musicians who might do fine religious work if they were asked.) 


Artists don't have to be particularly virtuous to produce great religious art -- they only have to be *human* and want to honor the Lord.  It's because they're human they can write more deeply about human aspirations and challenges and failures.  Yes, sincerity does count, but who says the greatest poets can't also be sincere (see Bach and Mozart) and show their sincerity even better than sincere amateurs?  Don't the Crashaw and Hopkins poems you present in your next post prove that? 


And doesn't the Good Lord deserve the best we can offer Him?


Sorry to go on at such length, but it's a complex and, I think, important topic.

Singable hymns -- yes, yes, and yes. Two shining examples, from whom we could all learn:

a) the great early Lutheran hymn writers (including, of course, Martin himself), who were such an inspiration for Bach and others (has there ever, before or since, been produced such a collection of seriously singable hymns?);

b) on a more popular level (whatever that might mean): Charles Wesley, and some associated Methodists.

Perhaps there are moderns who could compete in such a race, but if so, why don't we hear from them?

Victor Hugo had a rather exalted idea of the role of translators: (Here's an excerpt. It's in French, sorry!)

Chaque détail de style, chaque terme, chaque vocable, chaque expression, chaque locution, chaque acception, chaque extension, chaque construction, chaque tournure, souvent la ponctuation même, est métaphysique. Le mot, nous l’avons dit ailleurs, est la chair de l’idée, mais cette chair vit.[…] Le style est âme et sang ; il provient de ce lieu profond de l’homme où l’organisme aime ; le style est entrailles. Le style a une chaîne, l’idiosyncrasie, ce cordon ombilical dont nous parlions tout à l’heure, qui le rattache à l’écrivain. Luttez contre ce style pour l’exprimer, contre cette pensée pour l’extraire, contre cette philosophie pour la comprendre, contre cette poésie pour l’embrasser, contre cette volonté pour lui obéir. Obéir, c’est là qu’éclate la puissance du traducteur. 

Le traducteur vrai, le traducteur prépondérant et définitif, étant intelligence, se subordonne à l’original, et se subordonne avec autorité. La supériorité se manifeste dans cette obeissance souveraine. Le traducteur excellent obéit au poëte comme le miroir obéit à la lumière, en vous renvoyant l’éblouissement. 


Religions et traductions, choses plus semblables qu’on ne croit au premier abord. […] Ce qu’ils contemplent, ce qu’ils étudient, ce qu’ils traduisent, n’est pas en dehors de l’humanité, mais simplement en dehors d’un peuple. […] Les traducteurs ont un aïeul illustre, Moïse. […] Moïse est révélateur sous les deux espèces ; sur l’Horeb il est le traducteur de Dieu, dans la Bible, il est traducteur de Job. […]


Habituellement, c’est le fond même des langues qui résiste[…] Le ser et l’estar de l’espagnol ne peuvent se nuancer en français. Ser siginifie l’être essentiel; estar, l’être contingent ; pour les deux acceptions, nous n’avons qu’un seul verbe : être. […]


Les traducteurs ont une fonction de civilisation. Ils sont des ponts entre les peuples. Ils transvasent l’esprit humain de l’un chez l’autre. Ils servent au passage des idées. C’est par eux que le génie d’une nation fait visite au génie d’une autre nation. Confrontations fécondantes. Les croisements ne sont pas moins nécessaires pour la pensée que pour le sang.[…]


Les langues ne s’ajustent pas. Elles n’ont point la même configuration ; elles n’ont point dans l’esprit humain les mêmes frontières. Il les déborde de toutes parts, elles y sont immergées, avec des promontoires différents plongeant plus ou moins avant dans des directions diverses. Où un idiome s’arrête, l’autre continue. Ce que l’un dit, l’autre le manque. Au delà de tous les idiomes, on aperçoit l’inexprimé, et au delà l’inexprimé, l’inexprimable. […]


 Toute langue est propriétaire d’un certain nombre de sens. Elle a ceux-ci et n’a point ceux-là.  […] L’esprit humain, un dans son essence, est divers par corruption. Les frontières et les antipathies géographiques le tronçonnnent et le localisent. L’homme ayant perdu l’union, l’esprit a perdu l’unité. On pourrait dire qu’il y a plusieurs esprits humains. L’esprit humain chinois n’est pas l’esprit humain grec. […] Le tout n’appartient qu’au Verbe. Ici éclate l’identité de l’esprit humain et de l’esprit divin. La pensée, c’est l’illimité. Exprimer l’illimité, cela ne se peut. Devant cette énormité immanente, les langues bégaient. Une arrache ceci, l’autre cela. […]


Les traductions brisent ces cloisons, détruisent ces compartiments et font communiquer entre eux ces divers esprits humains.


Nicholas C. --

I was so glad after ViI when we were allowed to sing "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God".  It's one of my most favorite ones, except that people said it was too martial because of the word "fortress".  Well, I recenly discovered that the word in German is "burg", and it means "castle", which gives the song a very different slant, I think. So now it's perfect :-)

Yes, the German and Methodist hymns are the greatest.  After VII they were sung more in Catholic Churches than they are now.  I wonder why they've been mostly dropped.  I guess the St. Louis jesuits drove them out.  Sigh.  Those folk-songy substitutes just weren't as good, and for some reason rock doesn't lend itself to communal singing, though I don't really understsand why.  It certainly has a regular beat.  That streak of individualism again?  Some of the Beatles stuff invites us to singalong, but not much.  And rock lyrics are so repetitive they're boring.  I still think that style has some promise, however.  But it'll take a genius to invent a whole new rock idiom of hymns.

I may be repeating Joris's point above, but I think there are two types of translations: One for scholars who want a workmanlike, fairly literal gloss next to the original, and those who want a good vernacular translation that captures the spirit and mood of the original. 

I read a piece about the Psalter in the Book of Common Prayer (1979) explaining that the translations of the Psalms followed Hebrew versification (explained in the Psalter's preface), but that it also attempted to incorporate English poetic devices (alliteration, particularly) to make them pleasing to the ear (I can't backtrack to where I read this part). 

For private devotion, the Psalms can be jarring if you were raised up on the KJV or the Psalter in the 1928 BCP. However, when used in Anglican services, in which the Psalms are recited antiphonally, responsorially, or responsively, the new language is much clearer and less likely to be bollixed up. They are also much more accessible to children, which I think is also key to any good translation. If you don't want the kiddies to scamper off to the unchurched-but-spiritual camp as soon as they've collected their Confirmation greeting cards and presentation scapulars, better make that language understandable.

Claire --

Hugo never did anything by halves, did he :-)

I believe the great novelist Paul Horgan had some role in the process that resulted in the New American Bible, but I don't know what it was. In any case, the result is certainly no literary masterpiece.

John Mason Neale translated many of the ancient hymns into English and also wrote some of his own. So did John Henry Newman before him. Newman's poetry is not as good as his prose, in my opinion. "Lead, Kindly Light" is better as a hymn than as a sonnet. He translated many of the Breviary hymns. "Praise to the Holiest in the Height" is his.

I think there are a good number of people writing hymns or translating them from other languages, but I wonder how easy it is to get them published and then accepted and used in parishes. 

I would like to know why the music of Lucien Deiss has disappeared from contemporary hymnals. 

Thanks, Claire, for the passages from Hugo.

There are two things that I might note about what he says. First,It's important to keep in mind that, as he notes, each language has its own strengths and its own limitations. That holds true both for the original language and the target language. That is, all languages are finite.

Second, the very influential philosopher of language, Frege, had the odd view that meanings somehow inhabit an eternal realm. What we do when we say something meaningful is to put it into some particualr language. Translators then attempt to transpose this eternal meaning from that language into some second language. Each of these languages is something like the garb of the idea expressed in them. I think that this is a very wrongheaded understanding the relationship between thought and language. I don't have a full blown alternative theory to propose, but therre is something to the observation of Merleau-Ponty who says that I don't know what I mean until I say it. That is, meanings are just as temporal, just as contingent, etc. as is everything we do or undergo.

IClaire, I'm not sure from ehat Hugo says here whether he would agree with Meerleau-Ponty. Do you think that he would? And would you?

The importance of all this to the question of how we understand a text said to be "Revealed" is obvious. The Koran, according to some Islamic views is that God dictated it to Mohammed. We don't think that about the Bible.

Bernard, I don't know if he believes that ideas exist outside of language. When he says that words are the incarnation of an idea, it might appear to suggest that the idea exists outside them, but I read it to mean that the words are an essential part of the message itself.

He wrote that, I think, to prepare an introduction to his son's translation into French of the complete works of Shakespeare.


To Ann's list of professional wordsmiths,  I hereby add the name of Kathleen Norris.  Read "Dakota" and you'll see why.

I read Norris's "The Cloister Walk" and liked it. But would a translator have to be someone who writes about religion? 

Canongate Books has commissioned writers to reimagine classical mythology (Margaret Atwood's "Penelopiad" got a lot of attention). Might be interesting to assign great modern writers a book of the Bible to reimagine (Leviticus might be a challenge ...). More interpretation than translation, but I bet it would be interesting and sure to spark a lot of argument.


JAK --

I gather from discussions at Pray Tell, the liturgy blog, that parish ministers generally decide which music will be used, though in some parishes pastors decide what they want, and the music publishers decide what they'll put in hymnals.

Rita Ferrone might tell us more.

One thing that made John's gospel come alive for me was seeing the movie version of it.  It gives the gospel word for word ... the Good News translation ...

You can watch the whole movie on youtube here ... ... Christopher Plummer reads it  :)

PS - the film has an intro at the beginning to try to undo the anti-Semitic character of some of that gospel.

Bernard --

I suspect that Frege's notion that a book's meaning exists permanently  in some other dimension is the view of most people.  The influence of Plato on the view is very clear, I think -- there's this sort of immaterial thing existing in some dimension that is accessible through language somehow, but we all understand the language a bit differently so we have different interpretations of "it", 'the" work.  Others seem to think that words do have set meanings that allow us to interpret texts as if there really is some fixed meaning accessible to all of us if we just look carefully enough (see the New Critics).  But others think "the work"  is the set of meanings of the author of the work, and the way to find the real work it to look for what the author meant by the words.  Others theorists think that there isn't any sure way to discover any "one meaning" or set of meanings which is "the" work.  All those theories make the Platonic view an attractive one.  But I go with the post-moderns -- there isn't any one meaning or set of meanings which is "the work".  Sigh.


Bernard --

I suspect that Frege's notion that a book's meaning exists permanently  in some other dimension is the view of most people.  The influence of Plato on the view is very clear, I think -- there's this sort of immaterial thing existing in some dimension that is accessible through language somehow, but we all understand the language a bit differently so we have different interpretations of "it", 'the" work.  Others seem to think that words do have set meanings that allow us to interpret texts as if there really is some fixed meaning accessible to all of us if we just look carefully enough (see the New Critics).  But others think "the work"  is the set of meanings of the author of the work, and the way to find the real work it to look for what the author meant by the words.  Others theorists think that there isn't any sure way to discover any "one meaning" or set of meanings which is "the" work.  All those theories make the Platonic view an attractive one.  But I go with the post-moderns -- there isn't any one meaning or set of meanings which is "the work".  Sigh.


On the chapter on the sacrifice of Abraham and Isaac, it is interesting to have a list of artistic representations in the end, especially with an indication of salient features of each of them. 

But what about the less famous parts of the bible? Has every verse of the old testament been commented on from a Christian perspective?


Ann, I don't disagree with you. I think that Frege was concerned to fight what he took to be Mill's psychologism. Frege, I think, had mathematical propositions in mind. What do we say about the proposition "2 + 2 = 4? Does its truth depend upon some human being ever thinking or saying that 2 plus 2 equals 4? Or is it not that the truth of this proposition is independent of any human acknowledgment of it? For Frege, the latter is the case. Yes, this is "Platonist." It's not hard to see the appeal of Frege's position. But when it is generalized beyond the formal realm, then it runs into trouble. From my perspective, there's no easy way to harmonize in one theory the discourse proper to the formal realm and the discourse proper to the historical realm. I'm pretty confident that Frege is wrong when it comes to discourse in the historical realm. I have to leave it to the logicians and mathematicians to determine what we should say about formal discourse.

Claire, any thoughts?

I would like to know why the music of Lucien Deiss has disappeared from contemporary hymnals. 

Fr. K - I started to write one one of my typical  seven-paragraph, freshman-term-paper comments in response to this, but I think I can start with a few sentences, and expand my thoughts if anyone is nterested.  

I've seen you ask this before, and my response was that his work tended to be organ-based and the meter is irregular, and those are two factors that make it less likely that his work will be used in parishes.  Publishers include in their hymnals what they believe the parishes they serve (which means the pastors and music directors of those parishes) want to sing. Whether we call this democracy or populism or perhaps even the tyranny of the free market, it is how liturgical music works in the American Catholic church.  It would be nice in some ways if some authority of liturgical and musical taste could or would decree that certain works must be retained and used, but the bishops seem to be reluctant to exert their authority in that direction, and when on occasion they do, they seem to be pretty much ignored anyway.  If we have a sort of middlebrow liturgical music praxis, my view is that these are some of the reasons why.



you asked earlier whether Hugo thought that "meanings somehow inhabit an eternal realm". Reading again the beginning of his essay with your question in mind, I would say that, yes, he did think that. Now that you brought it up, it is clear.

As to whether the truth of a mathematical proposition is independent of any human acknowledgment of it, we certainly behave as though that were true. Most mathematicians act like explorers trying to uncover a structure that is hidden but that exists, and feel like explorers who have some intuition of what exists, not like creators who are making things up. I don't know if that attitude is correct, but it is how most of us operate.


Claire:  I doubt that every verse of the Old Testament was commented on by Christians and given a Christian interpretation. St. Augustine commented on a good number of figures and events in his anti-Manichean work "Against Faustus" who had made fun of the patriarchs and their escapades. In the 1960s a French priest, Pierre Grelot, published a book entitled  Le sens chrétien de l'ancien testament, and then in 1998 Le mystère du Christ dans les psaumes . I always found him worth reading. There are a couple of publishing ventures that are presenting biblical books as interpreted by the Fathers.

Ann and Bernard:   

Fr. Lonergan used to make fun of people who think that truth is so objective that it doesn't have to reside in a mind. (I think he was thinking of neo-Scholastics.)  He often referred to Aquinas's discussion of truth in the Summa theologica, I, q. 16, where Thomas began by quoting Aristotle to the effect that "the true and the false don't exist in things but in the intellect," went on to say that truth is found in judgments and not in the senses or in the act of understanding, and later asked whether a created truth is eternal. His presentation of the issue is interesting. The first argument that there can be eternal created truths instances the nature of a circle and that 2 plus 3 equals 5--nothing could be more eternal, the objection is, and so there are at least some eternal created truths. Here is the fourth objection:

Anything that lacks a beginning and an end is eternal. But the truth of propositions lacks a beginning and an end. Because if truth began when it had not existed before, it had been true that truth did not exist, and it was by truth that it was true, and so truth existed before it began. Similarly, it truth is considered to have an end, it follows that it would exist after it ceased, for it will be true that truth does not exist. Therefore, truth is eternal. 

In his response, Thomas says that "truth is always some relationship to an intellect. Therefore, if no intellect is eternal, no truth is eternal. But because only the divine intellect is eternal, in it alone does truth have eternity." 

In response to the first objection, he replies that the nature or a circle and that 2 plus 3 are 5 are indeed eternal but [only] in the divine mind. Here is his response to the fourth objection:

Because our intellect is not eternal, the truth of propositions that are formed by us is also not eternal but began at some time. And before a truth of this kind existed, it was not true to say that such a truth did not exist except in the divine mind in which alone is truth eternal. But now it is true to say that truth did not exist then. And this is true only by the truth that now exists in our intellectm but not through some truth in reality.  Because that is a truth about the non-existent, and the non-existent has no truth of its own but only in the intellect that grasps it. So it is true to say that truth did not exist to the extent that we grasp its non-existence as preceding its existence.

You will notice that his argument is Aristotelian: bonum et malum sunt in rebus, verum et falsum in mente.

May I ask what is a proposition apart from a mind?

I guess I'm one of those benighted individuals whose fated role is to express the "It seems ..." parts of the syllogisms.  I think I must be a graduate of the the-tree-fell-in-the-woods-even-though-nobody-saw-it school.    It seems that 2+3 equalled 5 before my mind was created and will continue to be true after my brain is decomposing (or, if my wife and kids are cheap, after it's cremated).  Thus its truth isn't contingent on my intellect.  Thomas seems to be positing a sort of collective human intellect, whose truthful propositions are passed from teacher to student and one generation to the next.  2+1 equalled three before any human intellect existed, as when two hydrogen atoms combined with one oxygen atom to create the cluster of three atoms we call the water molecule.   What could be truer - more factual - than the existence of water?   I suppose the existence of water could be said to be not-eternal, inasmuch as the laws of physics had a beginning in the Big Bang.  Do we distinguish between (1) the existence of the water molecule; (2) the truth of the existence of the molecule; and (3) our apprehension of the truth of the molecule's existence?

Before a truth of this kind existed, it was not true to say that such a truth did not exist except in the divine mind in which alone is truth eternal.

Does that sentence mean the following: Before..., it was not true to say: "such a truth does not exist except in the divine mind..."

Or does it mean the following: Before..., saying "such a truth does not exist" was not true, except in the divine mind...

That is, does the "except" refer to the second or first negation?

I'm with Jim. The proposition "2+3=5" is a truth in reality just as much as the proposition "Mountains are higher than oceans". It was true that mountains were higher than oceans even before men existed to form that thought. It was true that 2+3 equalled 5 even before men were around to form that thought. 2,3,5 have just as much reality as mountains and oceans. They're not "the non-existent". I don't get it and I feel stupid.

Plato was an idealist - he believed eternal truths, Forms, existed "out there" or I guess in the mind of God, that truth isn't created but discovered.  But are you guys saying that if there was no God, there could be no eternal truths?  Why not? 


The old conundrum is: Does a falling tree make a sound if there's no one there to hear it? And if you don't think you need an ear for there to be sound, then you'd answer Yes. If you think that more than sound waves are needed for there to be a sound, that is, if an ear is needed, then you'd answer No. The latter is Aristotle's position: sound waves are potentially sound, just as an ear is potentially hearing; an ear's actualization of that potentialy is the sound waves' actualization of its potentiality: Sensibile in actu est sensus in actu.

Aquinas would agree that 2+3=5 was true before you existed and will be true after you have ceased to exist, but that is because people before you knew that and people after you will know it, and especially, as he says in the article I cite, because God knows it. 

You ask: "Do we distinguish between (1) the existence of the water molecule; (2) the truth of the existence of the molecule; and (3) our apprehension of the truth of the molecule's existence?" That water exists is the judgment of a mind, one that corresponds to reality and so is called a true judgment. There was water before any human being existed, but only in the divine mind was it then true that water existed. That "there was water before any human being existed" is your true judgment, and mine, too, so that now it is not only in the divine mind true that water then existed. When the last human beings have ceaed to exist, it will again be true only in the divine mind that water then existed. 

Claire:  It means that only in the divine mind was it true that such a truth did not exist beforehand. Perhaps I can rewrite the sentence: "Before a truth of this kind existed, only in the divine mind (in which alone is truth eternal) was it true to say that such a truth did not exist." 

2 is not a human invention. It is what two apples, two oranges, two babies, two mountains, two atoms, two dollars, and two days have in common.


But what about the less famous parts of the bible? Has every verse of the old testament been commented on from a Christian perspective?

Why does the religious perspective of the commenter matter?  Surely the knowledge of Hebrew and of the cultural and historical and literary background is more important than religion.   

The books in the Yale Anchor Bible are translated by various experts from various religions.  Numbers, e.g., is translated by a great scholar (and rabbi) whose perspective is definitely not Christian, but I've never seen a clearer (imho) or more interesting explanation of The Tale of the Jenny. 

Here's the link to Numbers.  Click on Look Inside and search for "jenny."

Gerelyn, a good part of the comments fall under the header "Christian tradition". They happen to be the comments I find most interesting, and so I am wondering how much there will be under that header in the sections about the less famous parts of the bible. 

I'm late to get back into all this. But maybe I can say a few useful things.

1. Re: Claire's 11:17 am> My late wife was a mathematician. I remember her saying: "Therre are more kinds of numbers that we don't know anything about than there are kinds of numbers that we do know about." A clear Platonist. And so were at least most of her colleagues. But if i'm not mistaken Hilbert was a formalist, i.e., someone who held that math was a game that people established and played according to the rule. An extraordinarily more complex invention than ches or Go, but nonetheless, a human invention.

2. Re Fr. Komonchak's comments on Aquinas: I take it that if we assume that there is a God of the kind that Aquinas talked about, that is a God who is eternal and omniscient, then from eternity God knows everything knowable, including the fact that there are and have been people who framed propositions, namely predications that express their take on their world and how they experience it. This God knows knows which of these propositions that they actually have deserve to count as true and also knows which of them afre false, etc.

But unless I am mistaken thhis God knows all this in the simple act of knowing Himself to be the Creator of all that there is. So He knows all that there is to know eminently and not by way of a numerable set of propositions.

Aquinas defined truth as the "adequation intellectus et rei," the fit between the mind and what the reality is. If the mind is God's mind then the fit is perfect, complete, and exhaustive. If the mind is human then the fit is real, but not exhaustive.

On the supposition of such a God, then everything Aquinas says is consistent. But unless this kind of God is presupposed, then all the problems about the temporality or eternity of the truth that 2+3=5 resurface.

In any event, what and how I know that 2+3=5 is not the same as how God knows it. And to bet back to what goes on in natural human language and translation, What and how God knows what we call the content of Revelation is not identical with what we know of that content. His knowledge is exhaustive, ours isn't.

Nonethess, the fact that our knowledge is finite and non-exhaustive, does not, Descartes notwithstanding, warrant any strong skepticism. We do have lots of solid knowledge and we learn more of it from other people, some by way of translations. What we need to make sense of this well warranted claim of ours to rreally have someknowledge is a more nuanced conception of truth from that proposed in the Thomistic definition of truth as a correspondence between mind and thing. Heidegger has some helpful things to say about truth in "Being and Time," but that's for some other day.

As always, I'm well aware of how much there is that I don't know and of how much there is that I am wrong about. Of my ignorance and error, I have a full blown Platonic idea.