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Bitter Words and Inspired Scriptures

Bitter Words and Inspired Scriptures September 17, 2021

My present work concerns one particular psalm, namely 91, and the astonishingly large impact it has had through the religious history of the West. Among many other things, the psalm raises significant questions about how we define scripture, and some seriously challenging issues for anyone who believes in the inspiration of scripture.

First, as to how we define scripture.

Psalm 91 was composed in Hebrew. Somewhere in the third or early second century BC, it was translated into the Greek of the Septuagint, and in the process it experienced quite a few changes that went far beyond casual nuances. Arguably, these were straight mistranslations, and I’ll just give two examples. In verse 3, the Hebrew speaks of the “deadly pestilence” and that is what appears in a modern version like the NIV. The Septuagint translates that as the “bitter word” or “sharp word,” or similar. In verse 6, the Hebrew should give “the plague that destroys at midday.” The Septuagint Greek renders this as the “noonday demon.” These understandings, or mistranslations, were so important because they were carried over into the Latin Vulgate.

For some 1500 years, when virtually all Christians read Psalm 91, whether they used Latin, Greek, or a Bible version derived from those languages, they knew only the “bitter word” and the “noonday demon.” Only with Luther’s translation did Protestants regain the Hebrew meaning. During those long centuries, every commentator on the psalms – even such superstars as Augustine – wrote at pious length about the bitter word and the noonday demon. Later generations subsequently built on Augustine’s commentaries, and still later centuries developed those insights. Cumulatively, we build up a vast and often brilliant literature on (say) the noonday demon. Not until the 1940s did the Catholic church allow translations that were not based on the Latin Vulgate. All subsequent Catholic versions pretty much agree with the NIV, but it was a very long process. Today at least, the bitter word has been silenced, and the noonday demon is an endangered species.

So here is a question. During those long centuries when all the European churches agreed on those mistranslations, when virtually all Christians accepted those misreadings, surely those deviant texts have to be counted as scripture. If they did not directly reflect the Hebrew, they have to be reckoned as authentic in their particular way. Or at least, if they don’t count as “authentic scripture,” we need to think very hard about what “authentic” actually means in that context. What gives something scriptural status is how it is viewed, believed, and accepted. If people think it’s scripture, it’s scripture.

Please don’t take too many political or legal implications from what I say here, but this is one instance where I have little sympathy for the concept of original intent.

Similar issues arise about canon and canonicity. Yes, Catholics and Protestants alike were quite sure thst the Book of Psalms was canonical scripture. But the text(s) they were canonizing were very different. So were the noonday demon and the bitter word part of canonized scripture? For Catholics and Orthodox, who made up the majority of Christian believers, the answer was clearly yes.

Second, as to scriptural inspiration.

If you read the New Testament, you can’t throw a stone without hitting a psalm citation. They are found throughout the gospels, and they abound in a work like Romans. By a comfortable margin, Psalms is the Old Testament book most quoted in the New. In every case, the authors faithfully cite the Septuagint version, with all its quirks, and its outright mistranslations. In other words, the New Testament quotes a Biblical version that differs from the original Hebrew text, often substantially. I know of no instance where a New Testament author points out any problem with those Septuagint readings, or acknowledges any differences from the Hebrew.

To take a specific instance, Luke and Matthew explicitly quote Psalm 91, in the scene of Jesus’s Temptations in the Wilderness. Satan uses its words, properly introducing it as “it is written,” and then accurately quoting the Septuagint. There is no doubt that this is how the evangelists knew the psalm. I have argued in an earlier blogpost that Matthew cites 91 elsewhere in its distinctive Septuagint form, and specifically the verse about the “bitter word.” Unquestionably, the evangelists and other New Testament writers believed that psalm referenced the “noonday demon,” even if none of them had cause to quote that specific verse.

For those earliest Christians, at least, the Septuagint was completely authentic scripture, and perfectly inspired. If someone today believes that the New Testament constitutes inspired scripture, don’t they have an obligation to respect that belief, and those readings? If not, why not?

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