Friday, October 12, 2012

From the Mouths of Babies

Jesus made a triumphant, yet extremely awkward, entrance by riding on both a donkey and its colt in order to fulfill a prophesy which did not appear to apply to Him. Then immediately, or the next day, or way back in the beginning of His public ministry, Jesus chased merchants and moneychangers out of the Temple courtyard, despite them being there to facilitate sacrifices to God according to His Law. Associated with that event were two more ill-applied prophesies.

Next, there is another misused prophesy to cover. This one just goes to show you that kids say the craziest things...

From the Mouths of Babies
Sometimes, it seems like you can just tell that the Gospel writers were combing the Scriptures for any verse they could use, regardless of the original context, to support the Jesus legend. If they were in the age of digital media, they would have found hundreds of verses they could have applied by searching on various words or phrases. But they were still in the era of ink. Their searches were limited by time, memory, and the available scrolls, such as the Septuagint - a Greek version of the Old Testament made in the late third century BCE. The Septuagint, with its infamous translation tweaks, is often an easily identifiable source when it is quoted. We will see the Septuagint signature in this study, and explore the implications.

In Matthew 21:14-15, we find Jesus in the Temple area, where He heals the lame and blind people who come to Him. Children in the area were praising Jesus, calling Him the "son of David." That angered the Chief Priests and the Teachers of the Law, so they questioned Jesus about it, which we see played out in Matthew 21:16 like so:
"Do you hear what these children are saying?" they asked Him.
"Yes," replied Jesus, "have you never read,
'From the lips of children and infants you, Lord, have called forth your praise'?" NIV
Jesus asked this question as though the Chief Priests and the Teachers of the Law should have been familiar with the verse of Scripture He partially quoted. There is just one problem: that verse does not exist. Well, that is not entirely true. It does exist, but only in the botched translation of the Septuagint.

The Chief Priests and the Teachers of the Law would not have been reading some Greek translation of their Holy Scriptures in Jerusalem. They would have been reading Hebrew transcripts, and possibly some Aramaic texts, but Greek ones are highly unlikely because they would have been translations from the originals, and translations are not always good...

The original text comes from Psalm 8:2, and is rendered in the AKJV like this (See the lower section of this post for more translation details.):
"Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings have you ordained strength
because of your enemies, that you might still the enemy and the avenger."
So, from these children, has God called forth praise, or has God established strength? Odds are that the original Hebrew is correct and Jesus is wrong. In fact, the original text breaks the association with the praise-giving children, thereby making this whole episode seem contrived and based on the sloppy Septuagint text. For more evidence on why this is the case, we will have to dig in a little deeper.

Lost in Translation
I kind of like Psalm 8. It is short and sweet. Attributed to the Jewish King David, it is a song about the marvelous universe created by God, and the incredible honor humans have received in being granted by God to have dominion on the earth. Do not get me wrong. I am not big on the "dominion" side of things, but I can get behind the spirit of appreciation and sense of wonder this song communicates.

That brings us to Psalm 8:2, and what it actually means. I have studied various translations of Psalm 8:2 in the lexicon and Psalm 8 in its short entirety. As arrogant as this may sound, I think all of the translations have missed the mark, but that is not too surprising. This verse in particular is challenging with its seemingly odd mention of foes and avengers. The NIV gets the closest to the meaning I have seen so far:
"Through the praise of children and infants you have established a stronghold against your enemies, to silence the foe and the avenger." NIV
That is close, but they are trying to be a little too sympathetic to matching up with Jesus' misquote by throwing in that "praise" word which does not really belong based on the definitions of the actual Hebrew words.

To get it right, I think we have to look at the surrounding context. In Psalm 8:1, we see:
"...You (God) have set your glory in the heavens." NIV
We know we are talking about some pretty awesome stuff here, namely the universe God created. And on the other side, in Psalm 8:3-4 we see:
"When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place; what is mankind that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them?" NIV
Again, here is an expression of marvel and wonder, and the seeming insignificance of man within the universe of God's creation.

Based on this context, I would render Psalm 8:2 like this:
"Through the questions of children and infants you have established a vexing stronghold, to silence the foe and the avenger."
Just to be clear, the Hebrew text only talks about God's strength being established by what comes out of children's mouths. We have to interpret what it is that they say, or, as I render it, what it is that they ask. Let me explain.

Children have to be taught to praise God at a young age. However, children do not have to be taught to ask questions about the world around them. It is natural. Both the child of the most debased pagan and the child of the most righteous Jew will ask questions about the amazing world around them. Those questions would have been a reminder to foes and avengers back then that it was the God who created the universe; the God of the Bible who was really in charge of everything. So they best proceed with some trepidation in respect of His power.

Psalm 8:2 is not about praise. It is about questions, and the enchantment of the splendid world around us. The Septuagint, and Jesus, got it wrong.


  1. That's great! Chalk it up to another problem with trying to make reality out of myth. Anybody looking into all thew many issues with just a straight reading of the Bible, much less an indepth reading like this, should be able to see it is far from perfect, "God breathed" and even "inspired". . .although it may seem to be as every time you go(prayerfully)searching in it for a word from God to prove your point, you will inevitably find it.

  2. Thanks Angela! Yeah, there is a huge problem with confirmation bias. I think that if you are still one of the flock, so to speak, it is very difficult to read it as it really is. The mind plays trick us.

  3. Great analysis. I agree, it appears the people who were writing the NT were just looking back at old texts trying to fit something into their narrative. I love to see details laid out like this.

  4. Thanks Hausdorff! It has been amazing to me just how a little digging below the surface has revealed so many holes in the narrative. It becomes obvious that the leaders of the movement were capitalizing on the fact that Scriptural scrolls were relatively rare (at least by today's information access standards) and literacy rates were low when they were matching up prophesies to Jesus.

  5. I know, I feel the same way after my readings of the bible. It's actually hard for me to believe anyone could read this thing and think it is great. I think most people don't read it at all, others just have extremely selective reading I guess. But it's just hard to imagine, the volume of terribleness is overwhelming.

  6. I have a son, when he was 7 months old he uttered his first word "Abba", up until now his already 2 years old and learning to speak, he still says Abba. I know for sure that the he calls the Father of Heaven, and that God is always with him. He also makes signs such as crossing his fingers, he does this on unexpected way. Anyway, God loves the children, because they are still pure in heart, they acknowledge him, and praising him. When the child praise Jesus, it was the fulfillment of what is written in Psalm 8:2. that from a child lips, they call upon what was ordained to them, Jesus was the "strength" against the enemy. We all know that children are fragile, even how good or bad you take care of them, the spirit of God was better in taking care of them. The same with planting a tree, you may plow the soil and put in the seeds, but God makes it grow. It was His will that make things happen, and not us. Jesus existed before the creation of the earth and the rest of mankind, for God the father created everything for his Son. So how could he be wrong for what he had said? Your understanding is just your own, if the Holy Spirit is within you, understanding will be in your heart.

  7. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Anonymous. Have you considered just how easy it is to say "Abba"? It's nothing more than "aa" with an opening and closing of the lips. I would argue that it is sound, not a word, to babies at that stage, and one of the easiest for them to make with their mouths. Furthermore, "Abba" is not praise any more than someone saying your name is praise. It can be, but isn't usually. Now, if you're child started out with the Lord's Prayer, well, then, that would be pretty special! ;-)

    I can understand a lot of things, but, yes, it does take the Holy Spirit to understand them with a perspective such as yours. May you ever grow in true understanding.