how not to read targum neofiti

Again, I shake my head, but stay with me on this one: Mark Driscoll has successfully butchered Neofiti.

Apparently, as a part of an indoctrination informative series of mini-sermons on ‘What Christians Should Believe,’ pastor Mark Driscoll of Mars Hill Church in Seattle attempted to expound on Targum Neofiti. In particular, he attempted to use Neofiti as part of an apologetic defense for evidence of the Christian concept of the Trinity in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament.

Watch the video here first:

I’m not sure where to begin, but please allow me to make a few friendly correctives.

First, one would think that a basic seminary training would have taught Pastor Mark some elementary Hebrew. אלה’ם (“Elohim“) is plural in form, but can be plural or singular in meaning, depending upon whether it is used in reference to the central figure of the Hebrew Bible, YHWH (God). (See Mark Smith’s Early History of God for more info.) If (“Elohim“) does preserve an early plurality, it is from Canaan’s polytheistic past, and not due to any notion of a Trinity, which was a theological construct hypothesized in the first few centuries of Christianity to deal with the Arian-Nicene controversy. The inscription discovered at Kuntillet ‘Ajrud, which offers an 8th century blessing reading “may you be blessed by YHWH of Samaria and his Asherah” (Cf. William Dever’s book, Did God Have a Wife?, or watch the NOVA special here), provides evidence that Israelites all the way down into the 8th Century (that is, long past David and Solomon) and well beyond still worshiped other gods besides YHWH. (Cf. the first 2 of the 10 Commandments in Exodus 20:3-6, and just about every prophet’s complaint about the ongoing problem of the polytheistic worship.)

Another elementary seminary lesson teaches that רוח אלה’ם (“ruah Elohim” or “spirit of God”) and the simple אלה’ם (“Elohim” or “God”) are interchangeable references to the same person depending on the author. A freshman level understanding of Wellhausen’s Documentary Hypothesis (and its descendants) reveals that some authors of the Bible favored a distant God who used messengers (like angels) or referred to God as the “spirit of God” when referring to him making personal appearances, while other authors viewed God in a more anthropomorphic sense, and referred to God simply as YHWH or “God.” Trinitarian apologists have looked to the OT for Trinitarian “evidence” for millennia, and pointing to Genesis 1 for evidence of the Trinity is easily refuted.

Another tactic used by Trinitarian apologists is claiming that the ‘us’ in Gen 1:26 (“let us create man in our image) can only be explained by the Trinity. This view is either ignorant or dismissive of the more widely accepted scholarly interpretation of this verse as employing the “royal we,” that is, God speaking to his royal court of angels, etc. (think book of Job). Of course, this too may also be a holdover from Israel’s polytheistic past (as persistently criticized by Hebrew prophets), where the story dates to a time of polytheism, and was so ingrained in the oral tradition and the minds of Israelites, that they preserved the polytheistic form of the verb and its derivative pronouns, and yet understood it as a singular. To claim that this passage can only refer to the Trinity is either simple ignorance or an unwillingness to consider any explanation other than what Driscoll has already decided. Making up one’s mind regarding what to believe and then scouring the text for evidence is called eisegesis, and is a common tactic among fundamentalists.

A side-by-side comparison of the Hebrew Bible, Targums Onkelos, Neofiti, and Pseudo-Jonathan, and the NIV (English).

A side-by-side comparison of the Hebrew Bible, Targums Onkelos (Aramaic and English), Neofiti, and Pseudo-Jonathan, and the NIV (English). translation of Genesis 1:1. The red arrow points to the word בחכמה “b’hakmah” (Aramaic: “in/with wisdom”) in Neofiti’s Aramaic translation of Gen 1:1.

Perhaps the most egregious of Driscoll’s exegetical errors comes when he attempts to invoke the Aramaic Targums to defend his argument that there is explicit evidence for the Trinity in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament.

First, Driscoll claims that Neofiti was written 200 years before Christ, and not 200 CE, which is the scholarly consensus. Neofiti was written long after Jesus had come and gone. This may be a simple mistake during note taking on Driscoll’s part, but it becomes a huge problem when Driscoll attempts to use this misinformation to turn Neofiti into a prophecy, rather than what it is: an attempt to reconcile two contradicting passages.

Second, and perhaps the most blatant of Driscoll’s errors is his complete misreading of Neofiti’s translation of Genesis 1:1. Anyone who has studied Aramaic targums knows that there is no such thing as translation without interpretation. Neofiti tends to interpret as it translates, which adds language to the original Hebrew text, but was considered permissible since those listening to a targum read aloud were most likely doing so because they couldn’t understand Hebrew. Thus, the targums would interpret and explain while they translated. The practice is not unlike writing a commentary on a passage that integrates the interpretation into the text itself.

With regard to Neofiti’s treatment of Genesis 1:1, the text was concerned with explaining away a problematic contradiction within the Hebrew Bible. (See the critique made by Dr. Christian Brady, Dean and Aramaic targum scholar at Penn State here, and Scott Bailey’s treatment of Driscoll’s errors here.) Dr. Brady points out that Driscoll completely misreads Neofiti’s translation of Gen. 1:1, and mistakes the Aramaic words ‏ מלקדמין בחכמה ברא {ד}ייי (“At the beginning, with wisdom, God created…”) with “at the beginning, by the firstborn, God created.” This is not even close! In fact, Dr. Brady and I are hard-pressed to find any possible way the Aramaic word בחכמה “b’hakmah” (meaning “in/with wisdom”, similar to the Hebrew חכמה “hokmah” – see the red arrow in the graphic above) can be misread to derive at “firstborn.” Driscoll simply misreads (if he read it at all) the Aramaic and invents something that fits his theological argument.

So what then is Targum Neofiti doing here by adding this word בחכמה “b’hakmah” (“in/with wisdom”)? Answer: it is attempting to harmonize the claim in Genesis 1:1 that says בראשית ברא אלהים את השמים ואת הארץ (“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth”) with Proverbs 8:22, where in a tribute to wisdom, the Bible claims that God created wisdom first, before the rest of creation (“The LORD created me [wisdom, cf. Prov. 8:22] at the beginning of His course, as the first of His works of old”). Targum Neofiti is attempting to reconcile the natural question of precisely what was actually created first: wisdom (Prov. 8), or the heavens and the earth (Gen. 1)? The answer offered by the authors of Neofiti was quite clever: God created the heavens and the earth in/with wisdom. The authors of Neofiti simply added the Aramaic word בחכמה (“in/with wisdom”), to their translation of the Hebrew text of Gen 1:1, which they felt solved their problem of which came first. God created the heavens and the earth “with wisdom.” Problem solved. The translators added to the Hebrew text, which was actually very common at the time. This practice of adding to the text and harmonizing passages while translating explains why there are so many textual variants of the Hebrew Bible, and is we love to study the targums: they teach about the diversity of thought at the time.

Unfortunately, in the end, Driscoll’s so-called mis-“reading” of Targum Neofiti is a mere fabrication – a complete misreading of the text, which he uses as evidence for something that isn’t there (evidence of the Trinity in the OT). It’s almost as egregious of a fabricated defense of the Trinity as the Johannine Comma, in which a medieval publisher (Erasmus) intentionally inserted text (under pressure from others) in 1 John 5:7-8 in an attempt to provide some explicit Biblical evidence for the Trinity (because there was/is none).

And that is how not to use the targums. How do you mislead your congregation into believing something that you believe, but that the Bible doesn’t mention? You just make something up.

As I said before, “I shake my head.”

It’s actually embarrassing that this video is still up there on the web. The entire sermon is built upon a fabrication of evidence. How long until he pulls it or offers an apology?

this bird must have gone to ucla: a comment on wisdom and mythology



when is an historical fable not just a fable? when the evidence suggests that it is not only possible, but experimentation demonstrates that it is, in fact, true.

meet a smart, problem solving crow. he must have attended ucla. (i say that because not only is he very clever, even tempered, and a problem solver, but it is apparently learning how to deal with the draconian, state-imposed 8% cuts to his water supply.) here, the crow literally reenacts the solution to the problem set forth in aesop’s fable, the crow and the pitcher. (click here to read the story.)

we’ve known for some time that birds in the corvus genus and the corvidae family (like crows, ravens, jays, and rooks) are some of the cleverest birds on earth, possessing problem solving abilities and experimentally demonstrated capacities for self-awareness (via mirror tests). poe has written about them, bernd heinrich and thomas bugnyar have spent years studying them, and of course, they are a great football team.

but from this story, i hope to convey a brief thought on wisdom. true, many of the stories preserved in ancient texts are mythological; they are grand tales of marvels from the past. but there was wisdom even in ancient societies. despite their lack of scientific method and a comprehensive understanding of the universe, they knew they simply could not invent stories and expect people to believe them. the skeptics have always been with us. thus, behind even the most incredible myth, there is usually some kernel of initial truth or observation. to be sure, the tales inevitably grow and are embellished over time, but these stories usually have some root in observable fact, a phenomenological event, or daily routine. etiological explanations are derived over time to explain these phenomena, and cultural wisdom is ingrafted into them over time to make them meaningful. the result is usually a remarkable tale accepted as truth by those members of the community that produced the tale, and as fantastic myth by those outside the group. thus, a culture’s wisdom comes to be conveyed not by scientific fact or experimentation, but by the communal tales told throughout the ages. these stories come to define the group’s history, values, beliefs, and cultures. and unlike modern technologies, which have a very short lifespan, stories have withstood the ages.

so the next time you read a remarkable story, acknowledge that most of it may be embellishment and non-verifiable speculation. but always remember that there were wise men and women in antiquity, and that these stories often grew from a some historical event, or, dare is say, truth. because as much wisdom as a fable from aesop might convey, he just as well may have witnessed history.

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