A few months back I went down a rabbit hole studying all the different ways to talk about swords and spears in the Old Testament (in Hebrew, in Latin, and in Greek).  It was a fun research project but it touched upon a much more fundamental problem when talking about the Old Testament.  Rather than write a long introduction to an already long survey, I let the draft languish.

This is that long introduction.

(Warning: much of what follows is a gross simplification of a complicated scholarly field.  I know no shame and I’m not consulting sources from my old training.) Continue reading Septuagint


Old Testament Adventures: Jotham’s Parable

Toward the end of Gideon’s tenure as Judge, the Israelites offer him a pretty sweet deal: be our king.  Gideon, knowing that God is the king of Israel, declines and that is the end of that.

Just kidding!  This is the Bible (AKA Reality), where everything humans do turns to rot and final victories have to wait for, you know, the end.  After Gideon dies, his bastard son Abimelech murders all his legitimate brothers in an attempt to claim the throne his father declined.

Well, almost all.  Abimelech misses out on one fleet-footed son, Jotham, who runs away from the train wreck he can see coming so clearly.  But before he heads for the hills, he delivers a pretty sweet curse-parable to the people of Shechem who are crazy enough to entertain making this deal with Abimelech.

The parable of the trees serves up a healthy dose of insight wrapped in a delightful cover of mockery and condescension: Continue reading Old Testament Adventures: Jotham’s Parable

Form III Final: Anselmian Dialogue

One of my bright Form III (9th grade) students decided to imitate his older brother and compose his final exam essay question as a dialogue in imitation of St. Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo.  He’s nailed the tone of St. Anselm and thrown back some of Boso’s most sycophantic replies.

Somewhat like my previous Final post from my Quaestio-spinning junior, this answer format puts more focus on his argument and cuts out a lot of flim-flam.  His order of presentation is also quite nice–a good streamlining of St. Anselm’s work.  A fine project: Continue reading Form III Final: Anselmian Dialogue

Form V Final: Strength of the Quaestio

Many years ago, one of my juniors answered one of his his mid-term exam essays in gorgeous, Ciceronian Latin.  It was a pretty fine essay; with a bonus for the Latin I gave him 9.5/10.  It will come as no surprise that he went on to study Classics at the University of Virginia.

I have never seen such a performance since then, but I encourage my students every year to try to dominate the essays with more than mere knowledge.  Wisdom!  Synthesis!  Be remarkable!  This year, for the first time, one of them tried his hand at composing all his essays, both mid-term and final, in the quaestio format of the Scholastics.

Regrettably, this more recent student is not quite as good as my classics genius from bygone years.  The content in each respondeo is just too thin, barely stating the conclusion and devoid of argument or exploration.  Many claims are dubious or flat-out wrong.  In comparison to the excitement of seeing the format, the delivery is a letdown.

However–and this is a big however!–this all turns out to be for the best.  The failed content delivery makes all the more evident the strengths of the quaestio format, which in turn allows me to see the things my student does get right.

The objections are extremely well-chosen and show a nearly perfect framing for the question even when he makes mistakes in them.  They could be worded better to imitate St. Thomas, and they could certainly be polished up for greater argumentative effect, but for a student effort they are really good.  By laying them out in system, he made it easy for me to see that he gets the question–something many of my students with higher test scores fail to do.

The method makes all the more evident that his argument–what I call the kung-fu stage of each article–is weak.  The faults are glaringly obvious when stripped of all the rhetorical flim-flam that students use in hopeless attempts to veil their ignorance.  It’s my job to see through the flim-flam and not be cozened by it; in the quaestio method we have an honesty and humility that makes my job far easier.

It’s not just easier to grade.  It’s easier to correct.  I could sit down with a student and conference over such a project to dramatic effect.  Redirection is easy when the work is laid out so nicely.  Indeed, I could run a suitable Oxford tutorial-style class around this kind of project (assuming I had the luxury of time and assuming all my students put forth a commitment equal to this one).

So here is the glorious failure in all its hideous strength (numerous spelling errors of a dyslexic boy corrected).  Enjoy: Continue reading Form V Final: Strength of the Quaestio

Future of SAAS

What is the future of a school like St. Anselm’s?  We find ourselves in a difficult situation, as shifting cultural values put the squeeze on our student pool.  Can we last?

There will always be boys schools.  No problem.  Plenty of people believe in the benefits of single sex education.  If the last fifty years have not driven that out of our culture, I doubt anything can.

There will always be Catholic schools.  No problem.  We may be in hiding some day, there may not be a lot of us, but there will always be a reason for these to exist.  Frankly, if things got bad for Catholics in this country, we’d probably see more, not fewer.

There will always be a demand for classical liberal arts schools.  But do you see how our pool is winnowing?  Still, all this is ok.  We are fine so far.  It’s the next part that is the problem.

I am not sure how much space is left in the world for a classical liberal arts Catholic school for boys that aims to serve the top 10% of academic achievement and ability.  Two factors coincide: Continue reading Future of SAAS

Form I Final: A Good King Is Hard To Find

On the first day of school I give my Form I (7th grade) students a 1-inch binder full of the course materials they will need for the first month or so.  One of the first pages of that first packet, right behind the syllabus and class procedures, is the final exam essay question they will have to answer at the end of the year:

What makes a good king of Israel?

Everything we read throughout the year, from Judges 1:1 to II Kings 25:30, plus whatever we can squeeze out of Isaiah, answers this question.  This is one of the ultimate set-up questions for reading the New Testament and really understanding what is going on throughout all four gospels (especially St. Luke’s).

So what’s the answer? Continue reading Form I Final: A Good King Is Hard To Find

Old Testament Adventures: Israel’s First Civil War

Before we jump into the next phase of the “Israel With No Judges” story, let’s say a brief word about the standard form of the stories in Judges.  It’s actually pretty simple:

  1. Israel stops worshipping God and worships Canaanite stuff instead.
  2. Israel becomes morally abominable.
  3. Israel is oppressed by enemies until they realize what they have done.
  4. Israel cries out to God for help, and He sends them a judge.

That cycle should seem pretty familiar given the stories we’ve been reading most recently.  Micah and the Levite is a classic case of the first stage, while the Levite and his concubine are a classic case of the second stage.  Whenever I go back and fill in the tales of the Judges, it’ll show up even more clearly.

But here, in Chapters 20-21, the narrator serves up a great twist on the theme, because Israel is not crushed by another tribe this time.  No, this time, they crush themselves.  It’s time for a civil war! Continue reading Old Testament Adventures: Israel’s First Civil War

Old Testament Adventures: Crime of Gibeah

In Judges 19-20 we get the next step in the Not Quite Happy Ending for Israel.  Wait, the story doesn’t end when we reach the Promised Land?  What a rip-off!

Things start out funny enough, depending on your sense of humor, with a certain anonymous Levite in the hill country of Ephraim.  Wait a minute…!

It’s tempting to connect him to Jonathan from the previous chapters, but that does not seem to make any story-telling sense here.  As the story unfolds it becomes quite difficult to make the two characters coincide.  More likely, the composition of the book is partially influenced by the similarity—two tales of degenerate Levites.  But it’s nice to know that the hill country of Ephraim is the land of plus ça change!

This Levite travels south, to Bethlehem of Judah, to acquire a concubine for himself.  All sorts of questions arise here.  As I teach my students, concubines were something between second-class wives and sex-slaves, depending on time and place.  What’s this Levite up to?  Why doesn’t his wife-wife show up in the tale?  Does he even have one?

We leave that a mystery, although I would say the story seems to run best if the Levite is young and stupid.  We’ll let him be unattached and unwise, to say the least, in the ways of women (and, er, justice).  At any rate, this Levite brings home a concubine from Bethlehem, and she promptly runs away. Continue reading Old Testament Adventures: Crime of Gibeah

Old Testament Adventures: Micah and the Levite (Judges 17-18)

After the death of Samson, Israel has no further Judge to save them for quite some time.  The remaining chapters of the book show what happens to Israel under such conditions.  Spoilers: it’s not good.  It makes for a terrific study in compounding errors, however!

We begin with humor: the story of Micah and the Levite (Judges 17-18).  This is a tough one for catching the tone, but I recommend something along the lines of “1970s British sketch comedy.”  The verse “so they came to the hill country of Ephraim, to the house of Micah” is a comedic refrain of the highest caliber—imagine a still shot of a lonely country cottage on a hilltop and then add a laugh track.  If I were a really dedicated writer I’d pin down a good example and link a YouTube video for you.  Perhaps an enterprising commenter will assist me!

Micah is a good fellow, a properly bourgeois Israelite living in the Promised Land without any sort of guidance from past luminaries such as Deborah, Joshua, or best yet, Moses.  And like any god-fearing Israelite, Micah’s scene begins with him trying to appease his angry mother.  Apparently mom had lost a large quantity of silver in the recent past and, like any god-fearing Israelite matriarch, had called down a curse upon the unknown malefactor.  The god in question of course isn’t God-god, otherwise I’d be capitalizing correctly!  No, this is a good old-fashioned Canaanite death curse courtesy of Baal. Continue reading Old Testament Adventures: Micah and the Levite (Judges 17-18)

Old Testament Intercession: Solomon

The intercessory theme of the Books of Samuel carries over into I Kings in a surprising place: Solomon and the harlot’s infant.

The famous tale of Solomon determining the identity of the baby’s true mother occurs immediately after his dream encounter with God in I Kings 3.  In the dream, reminiscent of Abraham’s dusky covenant encounter with God in Genesis 15, Solomon prays for the divine wisdom necessary to govern the people–and serve as covenant mediator–just as God would.  His actions with the two harlots are meant to demonstrate the God-like wisdom he has acquired.

The standard explanation of his plan is, I think, known to all.  Solomon puts on a show that he intends to kill the child.  The true mother reveals herself by her willingness to give up the child in order that the child might live.  Once Solomon sees this, he knows to award the child to her and to send the other harlot away empty.

I’ve always found this explanation to be a little too simple.  Continue reading Old Testament Intercession: Solomon