Book Review: John C. Jeske’ s “Treasures Old and New: Daily Readings From the Greek and Hebrew Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions”

Jun 9th, 2010 | Category: Book Reviews
By Andrew Steinmann
One of the challenges for students who have completed the basic study of biblical languages is to retain a working knowledge of those languages and to grow in their proficiency in reading. I have always urged my students to read something—even one verse in each Testament—every day. Yet often those who have learned the languages yield to the other pressures of daily living, and their skills atrophy. I cannot count the number of parish pastors who have told me that they have essentially lost their ability to read the Scriptures in the original languages. This is a sad state of affairs for the church, for if the church loses access to original languages of Scripture, it risks losing the Scriptures themselves. One would hope that one’s pastor could retain at least enough Hebrew and Greek to be able to consult it when preparing a sermon or reading a commentary just to make sure that he is not misunderstanding some important nuance of the text that is lost or obscured in English translation.

One attempt to provide a reading from Hebrew and Greek for pastors and others was Heinrich Bitzer’s 1969 work Licht Aug dem Weg/Light on the Path. His book had a verse or two from both the Old and New Testaments for each day. By faithfully reading for only a few minutes daily, one could maintain and even improve one’s skills in Hebrew and Greek. However, Bitzer’s work had several drawbacks: He provided some German and English glosses (i.e., suggested nuances of meaning) for the Hebrew, but none for the Greek. Moreover, his selections were often among the more difficult passages of Scripture, leading many novices to give up after a few frustrating attempts.

In 1998 David Baker and Elaine Heath published More Light on the Path to improve on Bitzer’s work. In this volume (still in print) both Greek and Hebrew glosses were provided, and each day’s readings were accompanied by a prayer. The verses chosen were less difficult than those in Bitzer—a major improvement. However, the prayers often left much to be desired. Some are blatantly synergistic in respect to the sinner’s justification before God, and others appear to assume outright that deeds alone can make one righteous before God. Moreover, the verses chosen are rather heavily weighted toward the Law, with clear Gospel passages in the distinct minority. Passages featuring the Sacraments are virtually non-existent in Baker and Heath.

Jeske’s volume—drawn from the notes the former Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary professor left—is a second attempt to improve on the scheme developed by Bitzer, and it has a decidedly Lutheran cast to it. There is a good balance of Law and Gospel, but clearly the Gospel predominates. The themes of the Hebrew and Greeks readings are coordinated. The readings are selected from a wide range of biblical books, with only nine books (six in the Old and three in the New) having no verses represented. Passages related to the power of God working through the Gospel in Word and Sacrament are not uncommon.

The Hebrew text presented follows that of Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia, though the accentuation system has been simplified. Only the atnach and silluq are presented for each verse. Other words have no cantillation mark unless the accent is not on the ultima. This seems to me to be somewhat confusing. I suspect that readers will end up accenting every ultima, since they will cease looking for the accents. It would have been better had the full masoretic cantillation been included. (One would not consider writing only some of the Greek words with accents, so why write only some of the Hebrew words that way?) The choice of Hebrew font—New Jerusalem—is an unfortunate one. This is a very boxy-looking font with very thin vertical lines, quite boring to the eye. I would have liked to have seen something more akin to an elegant ancient book hand such as SBL Hebrew.

The Greek text follows that of 27th edition of Nestle-Aland. Here, too, the choice of font could have been better. Graeca II is a very rectilinear font that looks almost stilted on the page. Once again a font such as SBL Greek would have been much more readable and enjoyable in its presentation on the page.

I would have liked also to have known on what basis the English glosses for Hebrew and Greek words were chosen. While many of them are quite helpful, at times it seems to me that some very basic words that virtually every reader of Greek and Hebrew ought to know are included. For instance, do readers really need to be told that Hebrew bēn means son or that Greek kakos means evil (page 206)?

Along with the daily readings drawn from the Old and New Testaments, Glen Thompson, the editor, has supplied a reading from the Book of Concord. These confessional selections build on the daily theme in the Scripture verses. The translation of the Book of Concord used is Concordia Publishing House’s Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions—A Reader’s Edition of the Book of Concord, and the numbering of passages follows that of the Kolb-Wengert edition.

For the most part these readings accompanying the Scripture verses are appropriate, well chosen and can lead the reader to a helpful meditation on God’s Word. However, in a couple of instances, I questioned whether the best choices were made. For instance, the Scripture readings for August 25 are Genesis 3:1 (where the serpent challenges God’s command to Adam) and Galatians 1:8 (where Paul warns about those who teach contrary to the Gospel). The reading chosen from the Book of Concord is from the Tractate, 38 which quotes Galatians 1:8. In this passage Melanchthon excoriates the papacy for teaching contrary to the Gospel. However, the Confessions do not limit their use of Galatians 1:8 to pointing out the errors of the papacy. In fact, this is one of the more oft-quoted Bible verses in the Confessions. I submit that for a short devotion on Galatians 1:8, Formula of Concord, Epitome, 1 (which applies this verse to judging all teachers) would have been much more appropriate. After all, the general concern of the Lutheran Confessors was not simply that the papacy’s false doctrine was to be resisted, but that all false doctrine—no matter what the source—is to be resisted. This concern is a pastoral concern that souls led away from Christ and his word in the Scriptures are in danger of being lost eternally. Melanchthon’s words in the Tractate need to be viewed in that light so that they can be understood correctly and not simply dismissed as misguided anti-Catholic pope bashing. In fact, Melanchthon’s application Galatians 1:8 to all teachers of false doctrine in Apology, VII and VIII, 48 demonstrates that in the Tractate he was not simply engaging in gratuitous polemics against the pope.

Despite these few reservations, this book is a welcome resource for anyone wishing to maintain a hard-won facility in the biblical languages. It could even be a way back into the languages for those who have allowed their skills to deteriorate. In addition, on many days a useful meditation on Scripture and the Confessions can be had—all on one page. Northwestern Publishing House is to be thanked for bringing this project to the market. Hopefully, it will encourage the marvelous habit of reading and meditating on the Scriptures in their original languages among those in the church whom God has blessed with the knowledge and skill to read them as they were written. LEJ

Jeske, John C. Treasures Old and New: Daily Readings From the Greek and Hebrew Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions Milwaukee: Northwestern, 2009. Paperback $24.99

Author Information

Dr. Andrew Steinmann is Professor of Theology and Hebrew at Concordia University Chicago. He is the author of ten books on the Old Testament and Hebrew and Aramaic grammar, including commentaries on Daniel, Proverbs and Ezra and Nehemiah in Concordia Publishing House’s Concordia Commentary Series. Contact Dr. Steinmann at Andrew.Steinmann@CUChicago.edu.

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