Icon (Close Menu)

Jesus’ Bible

“Do you know that the Bible begins in the middle of a sentence?” The seminarians in my living room look at me pityingly, and nod. They learned this in their first year of coursework. To a lay historian like me, however, it is a new perspective that makes many aspects of that almost too-familiar Genesis text fall into place: in medias res, amid the higgledy-piggledy primeval chaos, you don’t have to worry too much about where the “waters” come from, within the world of the story, except that they are brought into order by the loving agency of God. Some part of my buried, 10-year-old, Pentecostal self is obscurely relieved by this.

“And John 1 doesn’t have an article, even though Greek could easily give you one. ‘In beginning was the Word ….’” I have been talking with the Rev. Dr. Rebecca Abts Wright, who, after a teaching career at Sewanee spanning over 30 years, will be stepping down from full-time faculty responsibilities at the School of Theology. Dr. Wright will continue to teach students in Hebrew, part time, partly to safeguard the language offering at the college, partly because it is her passion.

The daughter of a Methodist minister, Becky Wright was ordained deacon in 1974 in Baltimore, and ordained priest in the Washington National Cathedral, since, she says, the Methodist conference was too large to fit anywhere else. It was a fitting beginning to a vocation that has always existed squarely in the middle ground between teaching and ordained ministry, and indeed, between the Methodist and Episcopal churches.  But she has more than a streak of the Methodist independence of mind and conscience. “I was thrown out of my parish, my father was thrown out of the conference, and my brother was thrown out of the denomination, so I’m the slacker in the family.”

Becky Wright has always followed her own path in vocation, not least because there does not seem to have been an already existing path for her follow. Self-taught in Greek and Hebrew, and already a priest with five years of parish experience when she applied to graduate school, no one was more surprised than she when she was accepted into Yale Graduate School, where she was the only woman graduate student in her department at the time. Already fiercely committed to the work of parish and community, she seems to have had little desire ever to be a pure academic, and indeed, was often infuriated by the dismissal of her ministry and of parish experience broadly speaking. “What can you do [that’s] real?” she was once asked by a very eminent biblical scholar. She may have forgiven him, but the question still clearly makes her angry, even now.

As Becky Wright steps away from full-time teaching in the School of Theology, Sewanee is faced with the task of finding her successor. In the last several months, I have been particularly struck by the — I am told, near-insurmountable—difficulty of finding ordained academics within the Episcopal Church who specialize in the Hebrew Old Testament and who might be willing to teach in a residential seminary. Most of our faculty in Episcopal seminaries who teach the Old Testament are, like Becky Wright, not Episcopalian — and thank God for them! But setting seminaries aside for a moment, it seems a curious problem for our denomination to have, indicative of deeper structural concerns and preoccupations within the church. It remains the case that, lectionary or no lectionary, clergy still find preaching on the Old Testament to be a difficult task, and one to be avoided if possible. The psalter, the ancestral bedrock of both monastic and lay devotion and the foundation of the daily office, seems likewise unloved in most congregations. The critical distance necessary to appreciate on their own terms, and open for the church’s learning, texts that clergy may find difficult to apply to current events takes experience and practice, the vague ideal of prophetic preaching notwithstanding. And yet, our denomination claims to appreciate biblical scholarship, and a more complex attitude to Scripture than a simple fundamentalism: so why the difficulty? Is it that the Old Testament continues to be just disturbing enough, just spiky enough, just difficult enough, just angry and aggrieved and indignant enough, that on some unconscious level we don’t want to hear it? Is the Old Testament just too un-genteel?

In an era of both rising anti-semitism and anti-Judaism, as well as uncritical and apocalyptic interpretations of the war in Israel and Gaza, the Episcopal Church cannot afford to not educate its clergy in this area. More than a simplistic position piece on current events, Episcopal clergy’s education in biblical studies should be founded on the conviction of the richness and complexity of the Hebrew Scriptures we have received, however rarely we may preach on them. If we really believed the former, perhaps the latter might change.

Supersessionism, argues Wright, is not a viable intellectual position for a Christian today. More than anything else, Hebrew, she finds, helps. Teaching Hebrew, for her, has always remained a tool to open Scripture to people in the church in a deeper way. Biblical languages may seem an “academic” luxury to some, but Wright is insistent on its necessity as an integral part of seminary formation, not least amid the present tragedies in Israel and Gaza, which are very close to her heart. She will continue teaching to ensure that no seminary student will go without the opportunity of learning Hebrew. For my part, as more dioceses turn to online programs of formation, I am concerned about whether biblical languages, and Hebrew in particular, will be consistently offered to clergy within the Episcopal Church. Duolingo notwithstanding, foreign languages remain extremely difficult for faculty to teach and for students to learn effectively and sustainably through an online platform beyond the level of asking where the train station is — “dead” languages with different alphabets, exponentially more so. When asked what we lose by only reading Scripture in translation, Wright doesn’t hesitate a moment. “You lose Jesus’ Bible. You lose ‘the God of our fathers.’” Does this not seem like a casualty we ought to be concerned about?

“The problem is, translations are all on the flat,” Wright continues. The compressed nature of Hebrew allows for complex wordplay and multiple registers of meaning conveyed simultaneously in the original text, all of which is lost to the reader when a translator, however sensitive, chooses one primary meaning in English. “For example, Hebrew verbs in the seventh stem simultaneously indicate reciprocity, iteration, or ironic ‘feigning.’ When Elijah taunts the prophets of Baal [1 Kings 18:27], he’s using a verb in the seventh stem that means all of these things.” The prophetic books in particular often use pun-like juxtapositions of ideas that sound similar in Hebrew, almost a kind of sight-rhyme, all of which vanishes in English. “In the end, we have a very domesticated sense of what a prophet is supposed to be like.”

If there is a running thread throughout my conversation with Becky Wright, it is this: Hebrew Scriptures understood only in translation are, if not one-dimensional, then at least flattened versions of the original texts. As with the lectionary’s pruning of the Psalter, this flattening nearly always exists to domesticate, to soften raw emotional impact and shrink the emotional register, and to simplify and make monochromatic the compressed and explosive beauty of the Hebrew. The verbal play, which seems inherent to so much of the prophetic literature in particular, recedes; we have only diatribes, dimly understood. Wright points me to passages in Job in which Job’s complaint is taken up by God, then taken up by Job quoting God quoting Job, which reminds me of nothing so much as jazz improvisation, or two dueling rappers. What would it do to our inherited fears of an angry “Old Testament God” to recapture God’s intimate, conversational, messy entanglement with human suffering, the lament and the honest indignation so present in Hebrew Scripture? Surely it couldn’t hurt.

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

DAILY NEWSLETTER

Get Covenant every weekday:

MOST READ

Most Recent

A Ministry of Christlike Service

A sermon for the ordination of deacons, given at Christ Church Cathedral, Nashville, Tennessee, June 1, 2024 Today is...

Only One Future

The story of the Episcopal Church in the modern era is usually reckoned in terms of presiding episcopates,...

At the Heart of All Being

Christ the Logos of Creation: An Essay in Analogical Metaphysics By John Betz Emmaus Academic, 592 pages, $59.95 In this ambitious work,...

What are the Liberal Arts For? The Case of Tom Ripley

Spoilers for Netflix’s Ripley and the Book of Job The liberal arts seem neverendingly threatened, most recently at small...