Pope Francis waves to crowds as he arrives to his inauguration mass on 19 March 2013.This version of The Weekly Francis covers material released in the last week from 9 to 17 August 2014.

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assumptionAugust 15 is the solemnity of the Assumption of Mary.

In the United States, it is a holy day of obligation.

What is the Assumption of Mary, how did it come to be defined, and what relevance does it have for our lives?

Here are 12 things to know and share . . .

 

1) What is the Assumption of Mary?

The Assumption of Mary is the teaching that:

The Immaculate Mother of God, the ever Virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory [Pius XII, Munificentissimus Deus 44].

 

2) What level of authority does this teaching have?

This teaching was infallibly defined by Pope Pius XII on November 1, 1950 in the bull Munificentissimus Deus (Latin, “Most Bountiful God”).

As Pius XII explained, this is “a divinely revealed dogma” (ibid.).

This means that it is a dogma in the proper sense. It is thus a matter of faith that has been divinely revealed by God and that has been infallibly proposed by the Magisterium of the Church as such.

 

3) Does that mean it is an “ex cathedra” statement and that we have to believe it?

Yes. Since it is a dogma defined by the pope (rather than by an ecumenical council, for example), it is also an “ex cathedra” statement (one delivered “from the chair” of Peter).

Because it is infallibly defined, it calls for the definitive assent of the faithful.

Pope John Paul II explained:

The definition of the dogma, in conformity with the universal faith of the People of God, definitively excludes every doubt and calls for the express assent of all Christians [General Audience, July 2, 1997].

Note that all infallibly defined teachings are things we are obliged to believe, even if they aren’t defined “ex cathedra” (by the pope acting on his own).

The bishops of the world teaching in union with the pope (either in an ecumenical council or otherwise) can also infallibly define matters, but these aren’t called “ex cathedra” since that term refers specifically to the exercise of the pope’s authority as the successor of St. Peter. (It’s Peter’s cathedra or “chair” that symbolizes the pope’s authority.)

 

4) Does the dogma require us to believe that Mary died?

It is the common teaching that Mary did die. In his work, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, Ludwig Ott lists this teaching as sententia communior (Latin, “the more common opinion”).

Although it is the common understanding of that Mary did die, and although her death is referred to in some of the sources Pius XII cited in Munificentissimus Deus, he deliberately refrained from defining this as a truth of the faith.

John Paul II noted:

On 1 November 1950, in defining the dogma of the Assumption, Pius XII avoided using the term “resurrection” and did not take a position on the question of the Blessed Virgin’s death as a truth of faith.

The Bull Munificentissimus Deus limits itself to affirming the elevation of Mary’s body to heavenly glory, declaring this truth a “divinely revealed dogma.”

 

5) Why should Mary die if she was free from Original Sin and its stain?

Being free of Original Sin and its stain is not the same thing as being in a glorified, deathless condition.

Jesus was also free of Original Sin and its stain, but he could—and did—die.

Expressing a common view among theologians, Ludwig Ott writes:

For Mary, death, in consequence of her freedom from original sin and from personal sin, was not a consequence of punishment of sin.

However, it seems fitting that Mary’s body, which was by nature mortal, should be, in conformity with that of her Divine Son, subject to the general law of death.

 

6) What are the earliest surviving references to Mary’s Assumption?

John Paul II noted:

The first trace of belief in the Virgin’s Assumption can be found in the apocryphal accounts entitled Transitus Mariae [Latin, “The Crossing Over of Mary”], whose origin dates to the second and third centuries.

These are popular and sometimes romanticized depictions, which in this case, however, pick up an intuition of faith on the part of God’s People.

 

7) How did the recognition of Mary’s Assumption develop in the East?

John Paul II noted:

There was a long period of growing reflection on Mary’s destiny in the next world.

This gradually led the faithful to believe in the glorious raising of the Mother of Jesus, in body and soul, and to the institution in the East of the liturgical feasts of the Dormition [“falling asleep”—i.e., death] and Assumption of Mary.

 

8) How did Pius XII prepare for the definition of the Assumption?

John Paul II noted:

In May 1946, with the Encyclical Deiparae Virginis Mariae, Pius XII called for a broad consultation, inquiring among the Bishops and, through them, among the clergy and the People of God as to the possibility and opportuneness of defining the bodily assumption of Mary as a dogma of faith.

The result was extremely positive: only six answers out of 1,181 showed any reservations about the revealed character of this truth.

 

9) What Scriptural basis is there for the teaching?

John Paul II noted:

Although the New Testament does not explicitly affirm Mary’s Assumption, it offers a basis for it because it strongly emphasized the Blessed Virgin’s perfect union with Jesus’ destiny.

This union, which is manifested, from the time of the Savior’s miraculous conception, in the Mother’s participation in her Son’s mission and especially in her association with his redemptive sacrifice, cannot fail to require a continuation after death.

Perfectly united with the life and saving work of Jesus, Mary shares his heavenly destiny in body and soul.

There are, thus, passages in Scripture that resonate with the Assumption, even though they do not spell it out.

 

10) What are some specific Old Testament passages?

Pope Pius XII pointed to several passages that have been legitimately used in a “rather free” manner to explain belief in the Assumption (meaning: these passages resonate with it in various ways, but they don’t provide explicit proof):

Often there are theologians and preachers who, following in the footsteps of the holy Fathers, have been rather free in their use of events and expressions taken from Sacred Scripture to explain their belief in the Assumption.

Thus, to mention only a few of the texts rather frequently cited in this fashion, some have employed the words of the psalmist:

“Arise, O Lord, into your resting place: you and the ark, which you have sanctified” (Ps. 131:8);

and have looked upon the Ark of the Covenant, built of incorruptible wood and placed in the Lord’s temple, as a type of the most pure body of the Virgin Mary, preserved and exempt from all the corruption of the tomb and raised up to such glory in heaven.

Treating of this subject, they also describe her as the Queen entering triumphantly into the royal halls of heaven and sitting at the right hand of the divine Redeemer(Ps. 44:10-14ff).

Likewise they mention the Spouse of the Canticles “that goes up by the desert, as a pillar of smoke of aromatical spices, of myrrh and frankincense” to be crowned (Song 3:6; cf. also 4:8, 6:9).

These are proposed as depicting that heavenly Queen and heavenly Spouse who has been lifted up to the courts of heaven with the divine Bridegroom [Munificentissimus Deus 26].

11) What are some specific New Testament passages?

Pius XII continued:

Moreover, the scholastic Doctors have recognized the Assumption of the Virgin Mother of God as something signified, not only in various figures of the Old Testament, but also in that woman clothed with the sun whom John the Apostle contemplated on the Island of Patmos (Rev. 12:1ff).

Similarly they have given special attention to these words of the New Testament: “Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with you, blessed are you among women”(Luke 1:28), since they saw, in the mystery of the Assumption, the fulfillment of that most perfect grace granted to the Blessed Virgin and the special blessing that countered the curse of Eve [Munificentissimus Deus 27].

 

12) How can we apply this teaching to our everyday lives?

According to Pope Benedict XVI:

By contemplating Mary in heavenly glory, we understand that the earth is not the definitive homeland for us either, and that if we live with our gaze fixed on eternal goods we will one day share in this same glory and the earth will become more beautiful.

Consequently, we must not lose our serenity and peace even amid the thousands of daily difficulties. The luminous sign of Our Lady taken up into Heaven shines out even more brightly when sad shadows of suffering and violence seem to loom on the horizon.

We may be sure of it: from on high, Mary follows our footsteps with gentle concern, dispels the gloom in moments of darkness and distress, reassures us with her motherly hand.

Supported by awareness of this, let us continue confidently on our path of Christian commitment wherever Providence may lead us. Let us forge ahead in our lives under Mary’s guidance [General Audience, August 16, 2006].

 

 

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Questioning Q

by Jimmy Akin

in Bible

Q fadeIn a previous post, I looked at the hypothetical document Q, which most contemporary Bible scholars think was used by Matthew and Luke when they composed their Gospels.

The reason they think this is that there are 235 verses in Matthew that are paralleled in Luke but not in Mark or John.

The proposal is that there was a document in the early Church that contained (roughly) these 235 verses and that both Matthew and Luke copied from it.

That proposed document is commonly called Q.

 

Hypothetical vs. Lost

Previously, I pointed out that the Q document is not simply lost.

There are lots of documents from the ancient world that we know existed even though they are now lost. We can be confident that these works existed because the ancients talk about them in their surviving writings.

But Q is not in that category. We don’t have any ancient references to it. It isn’t just a lost document; it’s a hypothetical lost document. That means we must be more cautious about its existence than the lost documents that we know existed.

Here’s another reason we should be cautious . . .

 

A Unique Document?

If it existed, Q seems to have been a unique document. We are not aware of other documents of the same kind. In other words, Q does not fall into a recognized literary genre.

You will often hear the opposite. Specifically, you will hear that Q belongs to the same genre as the non-canonical Gospel of Thomas, which was rediscovered in 1945 in Egypt and published in 1956.

The Gospel of Thomas is a collection of 114 sayings that are attributed to “the living Jesus.” A few of these involve a brief dialogue with another character, but there is no story—no narrative—to the Gospel of Thomas.

Many have claimed that Q belongs to the same genre as Thomas because a lot of the verses paralleled in Matthew and Luke are sayings of Jesus.

The difficulty is that, unlike the Gospel of Thomas, the hypothetical Q document is not simply a “sayings gospel.”

 

Narrative in a Sayings Gospel?

If it existed, Q included a large number of narrative elements. These are documented by Mark Goodacre in his book The Case Against Q (pp. 170-185).

There, he shows that the hypothetical Q would go beyond sayings and have a narrative structure as follows:

  1. Q introduces John the Baptist, apparently before it introduces Jesus (Q 3:2), who is located in the region of the Jordan (Q 3:3; note: In contemporary scholarship, citations attributed to Q are based on the verses in Luke, so Q 3:2 is found in Luke 3:2).
  2. There, people come to him to receive his baptism (Q 3:7) and John warns them to bear fruit befitting repentance (Q 3:8).
  3. Then John begins contrasting himself and his baptism with the one who comes after him, who will have a greater baptism (Q 3:16-17).
  4. Jesus is then introduced, there is a reference to the Spirit descending on him, and he is indicated to be God’s Son (Q 3:21-22).
  5. The Spirit then takes Jesus to the wilderness (Q 4:1), where he is tested by the devil with regard to whether he is God’s Son (twice: “if you are the Son of God . . .” Q 4:3, 9).
  6. Then Jesus goes to “Nazara” (Q 4:16).
  7. Jesus then gives a major discourse (Q 6:20-49).
  8. Q then notes that after Jesus finished these sayings he entered Capernaum (Q 7:1). This is a very clear indicator of narrative structure, particularly in an alleged sayings gospel.
  9. We then have the healing of the Centurion’s servant (Q 7:3, 6-10).
  10. Then John the Baptist hears what is going on with Jesus and, apparently unable to come himself, sends messengers to ask if Jesus is the one after all. Jesus responds by pointing to the many miracles he has done and his preaching of the good news and urges John not to disbelieve (Q 7:18-23).
  11. When John’s disciples has left, Jesus speaks to the crowd, he reminds them of when they went out to see John (referenced earlier in Q), and he pays tribute to John (Q 7:24-28).
  12. Afterward, Jesus pronounces woe on Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum for failing to respond to the wonders he did in them (Q 10:13-15).

Goodacre goes into more detail than we can here, but the point is made: This is a narrative; it’s a story. It’s not just a collection of Jesus’ sayings.

It has a geographical progression (Jordan, the wilderness, Nazara, Capernaum); it has elements pointing forward and backward (e.g., the early indication that Jesus is the one to come, followed by the later questioning of whether this is the case); there are narrative transitions between one unit and the next; and it contains at least one miracle account, while referring to many more being done.

It is only after this narrative sequence that Q would have been largely composed of sayings, and that places it in what seems to be a unique category: a work that would start as a narrative and then become a sayings collection.

How does that compare to other ancient sayings collections?

 

Actual Sayings Collections

There were sayings collections in the ancient world—and not just Thomas. Proverbs and Sirach spring readily to mind.

It is common for such collections to have a brief statement at the beginning about who originated the sayings, but in none of these cases is there a big narrative about that person.

Proverbs does not begin with a biography of Solomon but with the simple statement, “The proverbs of Solomon, son of David, king of Israel” (Pr. 1:1).

Sirach does not begin with a biography of Sirach but is prefaced by a brief, non-narrative introduction by his grandson, who translated the book from Hebrew into Greek.

Thomas begins with the statement, “These are the secret sayings that the living Jesus spoke and Didymos Judas Thomas recorded.”

In none of these cases do we have anything like the lengthy, complex narrative that can be reconstructed from the Q material.

Ancient Judeo-Christian sayings collections appear to have been just that: sayings collections, not sayings collections preceded with an extensive narrative about the person from whom the sayings came.

 

More Caution on Q

If there was a Q document, it does not appear to have belonged to a known genre of Jewish or Christian writing from the time.

This means that we have extra reason to be cautious about whether it existed. Not only are we talking about a document that is lost and hypothetical, it is also of an otherwise unknown, unattested type.

It would be one thing to propose a lost document that fits a known type—which is why Q advocates frequently appeal to the Gospel of Thomas as a parallel, though the comparison does not hold up. It is another thing to propose a lost document that does not have any parallels in the relevant ancient literature.

We thus have another reason to be cautious about the existence of Q and another reason to look at alternative explanations of the 235 verses Matthew and Luke have in common—like the idea that one Evangelist used material from the other.

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popefrancisThis version of The Weekly Francis covers material released in the last week from 3 to 10 August 2014.

Angelus

General Audiences

Messages

Speeches

Papal Tweets

  • “If you hoard material possessions, they will rob you of your soul.” @pontifex, 5 August 2014
  • “The Christian is someone who can decrease so that the Lord may increase, in his heart and in the heart of others.” @pontifex, 7 August 2014
  • “I ask all men and women of goodwill to join me in praying for Iraqi Christians and all vulnerable populations.” @pontifex, 8 August 2014
  • “Please take a moment today to pray for all those who have been forced from their homes in Iraq. #PrayForPeace” @pontifex, 8 August 2014
  • “Lord, we pray that you sustain those who have been deprived of everything in Iraq. #prayforpeace” @pontifex, 8 August 2014
  • “I ask all Catholic parishes and communities to offer a special prayer this weekend for Iraqi Christians.” @pontifex, 9 August 2014
  • “I ask the international community to protect all those suffering violence in Iraq.” @pontifex, 9 August 2014
  • “Violence is not conquered by violence. Lord, send us the gift of peace. #prayforpeace” @pontifex, 9 August 2014
  • “Those driven from their homes in Iraq depend on us. I ask all to pray, and for those who are able, to give material assistance.” @pontifex, 10 August 2014
  • “The news coming from Iraq pains me. Lord, teach us to live in solidarity with all those who suffer.” @pontifex, 10 August 2014
  • “An appeal to all families: when you say your prayers, remember all those forced from their homes in Iraq. #PrayForPeace” @pontifex, 10 August 2014

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Pope Francis waves to crowds as he arrives to his inauguration mass on 19 March 2013.

The Weekly Francis – 4 August 2014

This version of The Weekly Francis covers material released in the last week from 20 July to 2 August 2014.

Angelus

Messages

Speeches

Papal Tweets

  • “Dear young people, do not be mediocre; the Christian life challenges us with great ideals.” @pontifex, 15 April 2014
  • “The Church, by her nature, is missionary. She exists so that every man and woman may encounter Jesus.” @pontifex, 17 April 2014
  • “The Lord loves a cheerful giver. May we learn to be generous in giving, free from the love of material possessions.” @pontifex, 19 April 2014

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There are different ways to make low-carb equivalents of macaroni and cheese. Some use actual low-carb macaroni noodles, but these can be hard to find, and the texture often is not the same as familiar versions of the dish.

Here is one of my favorite ways to make a low-carb version. It is extremely easy, and it uses only ingredients that you’ll find at a typical supermarket.

1. Get the ingredients

There are only three ingredients:

  • Heart of palm (14 oz. can)
  • 2 oz. of Velveeta (1/2 inch of the large-size blocks)
  • 3 Tablespoons of unsweetened almond milk (or heavy whipping cream, or Half & Half, or just water)

photo (6)

 

2. Cut the heart of palm into bite-sized pieces (I like thin rounds, but other shapes, sizes are possible)

photo (5)

 

3. Cut the Velveeta into smaller, flat chunks so it will melt more quickly and put it in a small saucepan with 3 Tablespoons of unsweetened almond milk (or whatever liquid you are using).

photo (4)

 

4. Heat the mixture on Medium/Low heat, stirring, until the Velveeta melts (this happens pretty quickly)

photo (3)

 

 5. Gently fold the heart of palm slices into the sauce and serve!

photo (2)

 

NOTES:

  • This recipe re-heats and refrigerates well (particularly nice if you like cold macaroni and cheese, as I do).
  • Heart of palm has a texture that is very much like that of traditional macaroni, even though the shape is different.
  • You can also use other low-carb items in place of or in addition to the heart of palm–e.g., mushrooms (button mushrooms, or pieces and stems), artichoke hearts, and tofu (though tofu is more fragile than the others, so be extra careful folding pieces of it into the sauce).
  • You can make the cheese sauce other ways. Velveeta works particularly well–including better than some store-brand knockoffs of Velveeta.
  • You can add various garnishes to it, including sliced, fresh basil (pictured), chives, or green onion (consider heating the white part of the sliced or chopped green onions with the sauce to make these parts softer).
  • You can also add spices like black/white pepper, garlic, or mustard to the sauce or on top.
  • Think about slicing up and adding other things, like tomatoes or hot dogs.
  • Treat this as you would regular macaroni and cheese and add whatever you normally like to it!

 

 

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Pope Francis is having his "Inaugural Mass"? What's happens in this Mass, and why is it important?This version of The Weekly Francis covers material released in the last week from 12 to 19 July 2014.

Angelus

Messages

Speeches

Papal Tweets

  • “Dear young people, do not be mediocre; the Christian life challenges us with great ideals.” @pontifex, 15 April 2014
  • “The Church, by her nature, is missionary. She exists so that every man and woman may encounter Jesus.” @pontifex, 17 April 2014
  • “The Lord loves a cheerful giver. May we learn to be generous in giving, free from the love of material possessions.” @pontifex, 19 April 2014

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Some Thoughts About Q

by Jimmy Akin

in Bible

greek manuscriptNo, not that annoying guy from Star Trek.

And not the gadget guy from James Bond.

In biblical scholarship, Q is a hypothetical source that both Matthew and Luke supposedly used.

The reason people talk about it is that there are about 235 verses in Matthew that are paralleled in Luke but not in Mark or John.

This is a significant number. Matthew has 1071 verses and Luke has 1151. If they both have 235 verses uniquely in common with each other then that’s quite a substantial portion of the two gospels—more than a fifth.

This is a significant enough portion that many have felt it isn’t due to random chance and there must be a reason.

One reason could be that Luke drew upon Matthew for these verses. Alternately, Matthew could have drawn upon Luke for them.

Today most scholars don’t think that either of these was the case, however. Instead, they think that Matthew and Luke wrote independently of each other, which would suggest a different source for this material.

In the 1800s, this source was dubbed “Q,” allegedly from the German word Quelle (“source”), though this is unclear.

Today the most popular view among biblical scholars is that Matthew and Luke both drew upon two main sources in writing their Gospels—Mark and Q. This is known as the “two-source hypothesis.”

Although the Magisterium of the Church initially prohibited Catholic scholars from advocating this view, this was later changed, and, as Pope Benedict XVI noted, when he was still Cardinal Ratzinger and the head of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, the two-source theory is “accepted today by almost everyone” (source).

 

What should we make of this view?

From one perspective—the perspective of faith—it doesn’t really matter much what the particular sources of the Gospels were. They are all inspired and give us accurate knowledge of Jesus Christ. That’s the important thing.

How they came to be is an interesting question that may shed light on some individual passages of Scripture, but it is not essential to the Christian Faith.

On the other hand, if you don’t share the perspective of faith then the question can be much more important. Some scholars, engaged in the “quest for the historical Jesus” think that the true, original Jesus has been obscured by layers of tradition and transformed into “the Christ of faith.”

For people of that perspective, it matters very much how the Gospels came to be, because all those layers of tradition need to be scraped away so that we can learn about the historical Jesus. For these folks, identifying the earliest possible sources is a matter of prime importance.

Not everybody takes this view, though. There are many advocates of Q who are thoroughly orthodox in their faith and who believe the Gospels as we have them are a reliable guide to the life and teachings of Christ.

In any event, an idea has to be judged by the evidence for or against it, not by how some of its advocates misuse it.

So what about Q?

 

What kind of source are we talking about?

The first question we need to ask is what kind of source Q is supposed to be.

Nobody doubts that the Evangelists used sources when they composed the Gospels. Two of the Evangelists—Mark and Luke—weren’t regarded, even in the early Church, as eyewitnesses of Jesus’ ministry. They had to use sources, and Luke says as much in the prologue to his Gospel, writing:

Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things which have been accomplished among us, just as they were delivered to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may know the truth concerning the things of which you have been informed [Luke 1:1-4].

Here Luke indicates that his account is based on the things that “were delivered to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word”—i.e., those who actually saw the events of Jesus’ life and ministry and those who were authorized bearers of the traditions about Jesus. They were among his sources.

Could Q have been an oral source, derived from one of these eyewitnesses or ministers of the word?

It’s possible, but most scholars today don’t think so. The material in Q is rather extensive—at least the 235 verses paralleled in Matthew and Luke, and possibly more than that (depending on how much of Q each Evangelist left out). What’s more, the material has a narrative structure that proceeds from one event to another. And, if Matthew and Luke wrote independently of each other, it had to be accessible to both.

That’s a lot to ask of an oral source, and so most Q theorists today think that it was a document.

It is very likely that there were documents among Luke’s sources. Although he doesn’t say that he drew upon any, he notes that “many have undertaken to compile a narrative” of what Jesus did, and it is highly likely that he used one or more such documents.

Historically, most scholars thought that he used Matthew. Today, most scholars think that he used Mark. Some scholars even think that he used both.

It is therefore possible that he used a document like Q.

The question is: Did he?

 

Hypothetical vs. Lost

It is worth noting that Q is a hypothetical document. This is not the same thing as a lost document.

We know about lots of documents in the ancient world that have been lost. In some cases, we may have a few quotations from them, preserved by other authors, but in other cases the entire work has vanished and all we know about it is the title, or even just the subject, and possibly its author.

We know about these things because the book is mentioned by one or more ancient authors. For example, several early Church Fathers mention a work called An Exposition of the Oracles of the Lord that was written by Papias, a bishop of Hierapolis who lived in the first and second centuries.

Scholars would love to have a complete copy of this work, but all we have are a few quotations from it preserved by later authors.

We see lost books referred to in the Bible. For example, St. Paul appears to mention several letters that have not survived (see 1 Cor. 5:9, 2:4, 7:8-9, Col. 4:16). Though the matter is debated, these letters appear to be lost, at least in their original forms.

But there is a difference between a lost document and a hypothetical document.

A lost document is one that we know existed. We have definite references to it.

A hypothetical document is one that we don’t know existed. It’s a document that has been proposed even though we don’t have references to it.

Q falls in the latter category, and so its existence is less certain than the various lost documents we know to have existed.

As we’ll see in a future post, there are further reasons to be skeptical that there ever was a Q document.

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PopeFrancis-fingerThis version of The Weekly Francis covers material released in the last week from 23 June to 12 July 2014.

Angelus

Homilies

Messages

Motu Proprio

Speeches

Daily Homilies (fervorinos)

Papal Tweets

  • “With God, nothing is lost; but without him, everything is lost.” @pontifex, 8 April 2014
  • “Do not be afraid to cast yourselves into the arms of God; whatever he asks of you, he will repay a hundredfold.” @pontifex, 10 April 2014
  • “The World Cup allowed people from different countries and religions to come together. May sport always promote the culture of encounter.” @pontifex, 12 April 2014

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our-lady-crushes-the-serpent-2In the Douay-Rheims version of the Bible, we read:

Then the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this that you have done?” The woman said, “The serpent beguiled me, and I ate.”

And the Lord God said to the serpent: “Because thou hast done this thing, thou art cursed among all cattle, and beasts of the earth: upon thy breast shalt thou go, and earth shalt thou eat all the days of thy life.

“I will put enmities between thee and the woman, and thy seed and her seed: she shall crush thy head, and thou shalt lie in wait for her heel” [Gen. 3:13-15].

This translation, found also in many older editions of the Latin Vulgate, is the basis for common depictions in Catholic art of Mary with a serpent beneath her feet.

The idea is that Genesis 3:15 foreshadows the gospel, in which the power of the devil is broken through Jesus, Mary’s Son.

The fact that Genesis 3:15 is, on one level, an early announcement of the gospel is agreed by Christians of many persuasions. But what about this specific translation, where it says “she” shall crush the serpent’s head and the serpent shall strike at “her” heel?

You won’t find that in in a lot of Bibles. Instead, they will say things like what we read in the Revised Standard Version: Catholic Edition:

I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel [Gen. 3:15].

Here we have masculine pronouns: “He” shall crush, and “his” heel is in danger.

 

Why the difference?

According to A Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture (Bernard Orchard, et al., ed.s):

It can hardly be doubted that the feminine pronoun had its origin in the error of an early copyist of Vg. In his Lib. Quaest. Heb. in Gen. St Jerome quotes the Old Latin version of this text with the masc. (ipse) and translates the Hebrew with the same, PL 23, 943, and ipse is the reading of various Vg MSS. It is therefore highly improbable that he translated ipsa here [comment on Gen. 3:15b].

This is a little dense and uses some abbreviations that may not be familiar, so let me unpack it:

  • St. Jerome himself quotes the Old Latin (pre-Vulgate) version of the text, in which the masculine pronoun ipse is used.
  • Elsewhere, he also translates it from the Hebrew with the masculine pronoun ipse.
  • Various manuscripts of the Vulgate also include ipse.
  • Therefore, it is improbable that Jerome used the feminine form of the pronoun (ipsa) in his original edition of the Vulgate.
  • Therefore, the use of the feminine form in some editions of the Vulgate is due to an early copyist’s error.

 

What does the Hebrew say?

Whether the commentary is correct on how the feminine pronouns got into the Vulgate (and it likely is correct), they are not there in the Hebrew.

In the Hebrew text of Genesis 3:15, the phrase translated “he will strike” is hu’ y’shuph-ka. Similarly, the phrase translated “will strike his heel” is t’shuphe-nu `aqeb, which more literally is “he will strike him on the heel.

Both of these phrases are unmistakably using the masculine gender:

  • In the first phrase, hu’ is a third person singular masculine pronoun, meaning “he.” The equivalent feminine pronoun (“she”) would be hiy’, not hu’.
  • Also in the first phrase, the verb form y’shuph-ka is masculine: “he will strike.” If it were feminine, it would be t’shuph-ka (“she will strike”).
  • In the second phrase, the pronoun suffix -nu (“him”) is unmistakably masculine. If it were feminine, it would be –ah (“her”).

I’ve heard it suggested that the difference in translation is that, in biblical times, Hebrew did not have written vowels and that these were added later, in medieval times.

It’s true that the text was written using an alphabet of consonants and that points were later added to indicate vowels, but this is not the explanation here.

The relevant gender forms are all indicated in the Hebrew text even if it is written without vowels. The consonants alone tell you that we are using masculine pronouns and verb forms.

An example that is fairly easy to see in English is y’shuph (“he will strike”). In Hebrew, the first letter of that is the consonant yod, and that tells us that it is masculine. If it were feminine (“she will strike”) then it would be t’shuph, and the first letter would be the consonant tav.

 

And the Greek?

The Septuagint—the Greek version of the Old Testament that was used by the authors of the New Testament and that has always been the standard version of the Old Testament among Greek-speaking Christians—similarly has masculine pronouns.

The “he” in “he shall strike” is autos (masculine), not autē (feminine).

Similarly, the “his” in “his heel” is autou (masculine), not autēs (feminine).

 

And the Early Church Fathers?

Similarly, we find the Early Church Fathers using the masculine. For example, the second century Father St. Irenaeus of Lyons wrote:

God said to the serpent, “And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; He shall be on the watch for your head, and you on the watch for His heel” [Against Heresies 5:21:1].

So the Hebrew original, the Greek version used by the New Testament authors and in Greek-speaking Christianity, the pre-Jerome Old Latin edition, various early Fathers, and even Jerome himself all used the masculine rather than the feminine in this passage.

 

Contemporary Recognition

If we look at contemporary ecclesiastical sources, we see that they don’t use the feminine in this text.

For example, in the version of the Vulgate that is on the Vatican’s web site, we read:

Inimicitias ponam inter te et mulierem et semen tuum et semen illius; ipsum conteret caput tuum, et tu conteres calcaneum eius [Gen. 3:15].

This uses ipsum, which is neuter (“it”) rather than feminine. The reason for this gender (which Hebrew lacks) is that the word for “seed” (Latin, semen) is neuter. The idea is that it—the seed of the woman—will strike the serpent’s head.

Similarly, in his encyclical on the Virgin Mary, St. John Paul II wrote:

And so, there comes into the world a Son, “the seed of the woman” who will crush the evil of sin in its very origins: “he will crush the head of the serpent.” As we see from the words of the Protogospel, the victory of the woman’s Son will not take place without a hard struggle, a struggle that is to extend through the whole of human history [Redemptoris Mater 11].

And Benedict XVI stated:

After the original sin, God addresses the serpent, which represents Satan, curses it and adds a promise: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel” (Gn 3: 15) [Angelus, Dec. 8, 2009].

 

Interpreting the Passage

None of this takes away the Marian understanding of the passage, but it does help us take the text on its original terms.

As St. Thomas Aquinas—and the Catechism of the Catholic Church—indicate, “All other senses of Sacred Scripture are based on the literal” (CCC 116).

In the original context, the woman that is being discussed is Eve. It was she who was deceived by the serpent (Gen. 3:13). Her seed, understood in the original context, is all mankind, for “The man called his wife’s name Eve, because she was the mother of all living” (Gen. 2:20).

On the literal level, Genesis 3:15 refers—at least in part—to the conflict that men and snakes have historically had between them.

But on a higher, spiritual level, it has other meanings. Since the serpent is also to be understood as the devil (Rev. 12:9), and the “seed” as Christ (cf. Gal. 3:16; the word in Greek is sperma = “seed”), the passage is also to be understood as an annunciation of the gospel, in which Christ defeats the devil.

This does not happen without Mary, and so there is also a Marian dimension to the text.

Thus St. John Paul II stated:

The Father’s plan begins to be revealed in the “Protoevangelium”, when, after the fall of Adam and Eve, God announces that he will put enmity between the serpent and the woman:  it will be the woman’s son who will crush the serpent’s head (cf. Gn 3: 15).

The promise begins to be fulfilled at the Annunciation, when Mary is given the proposal to become the Mother of the Savior [General Audience, Jan. 5, 2000].

In the same way, Benedict XVI continued his discussion of the passage by stating:

It [Gen. 3:15] is the announcement of revenge: at the dawn of the Creation, Satan seems to have the upper hand, but the son of a woman is to crush his head. Thus, through the descendence of a woman, God himself will triumph. Goodness will triumph. That woman is the Virgin Mary of whom was born Jesus Christ who, with his sacrifice, defeated the ancient tempter once and for all. This is why in so many paintings and statues of the Virgin Immaculate she is portrayed in the act of crushing a serpent with her foot [ibid.].

So both pontiffs acknowledge a Marian dimension to the text: It is through her Son that Mary crushes the serpent’s head.

There is thus no need to pit the Marian interpretation against the Christological one. They are in harmony.

Indeed, there is even an even broader interpretation, for every Christian has a part to play in defeating the works of the devil. It is likely that St. Paul is thinking of Genesis 3:15 when, in his letter to the Romans, he writes:

For while your obedience is known to all, so that I rejoice over you, I would have you wise as to what is good and guileless as to what is evil; then the God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you [Rom 16:19-20].

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