Research Digest

Please note that the Research Digest aims disseminate (often in a very simplified form) recently published research articles. As such, the views and arguments expressed within this Digest do not necessarily represent those of this website or the project in general.

 

Have you ever wondered, when reading the Book of Revelation, about the imagery of some of its minor characters? For example, in Rev 16:13-14 we come across a dragon that spits out frog-like spirits. An article by Stephan Witetschek from Cambridge University appearing in New Testament Studies 54 (4) 2008. 557-572., looks at the background of this rather remarkable image.  

Revelation 16:12-16

Stephan commences his article acknowledging that the writer of the Book of Revelation uses a “highly developed animal imagery” that he draws from existing apocalyptic tradition. Stephan then places 16:13-14 within its literary context and notes that these verses act as something of a bridge between the Sixth Bowl Vision (16:12-16) which he sees as specific to the kings of the east and the more generalised preparations for “universal final battle” at Harmagedon (16:16) included within the Seventh Bowl Vision. Therefore, the frog-like spirits can be seen as a means by which the writer can further develop his story.  

The question is then raised, why did the author use quite such a peculiar image as a frog? A survey of ‘frogs’ and their use as metaphor within ancient Greek literature suggest that they often depicted as being intrusive and at times highly loquacious, but nevertheless their speech was usually unintelligible and senseless. Within contemporary literature, the frog becomes an image of vaunted pride and stupidity.  

Stephan notes that within Old Testament literature that frogs were the second of the ten plagues recounted in Exodus 7:26-8:12. He further adds that the picture of even the Pharaoh being tormented by frogs in his bedroom must have also had the intention of entertaining and making fun of ‘mighty’ Egypt . Jewish literature develops this theme. The Book of Wisdom describes the Egyptians as worshipping animals that were both ugly and stupid and were therefore punished by these types of animals. Philo (Sacrifices of Abel and Cain 69) characterises frogs’ croaking as an expression of their ‘soulless opinions’. Stephan concludes that his brief survey of Greek and early Jewish literatures tends present frogs being thought of as "disgusting and as exemplarily silly."

However, Stephan contends that the use of the frog imagery in Revelation is not so much a reference to the Exodus plague (there are, after all, only 3 frog-spirits), but to function as a polemical parallel (in opposition) to the three angels which precede from the Son of Man (Rev 14:6-13). While the three angels call the world to worship God and pronounce judgement, the three frog-spirits prepare for the final battle. Part of the frog-spirits' strategy, as Stephan notes, involves inciting the kings into a self-destructive war through deception. But it is the association of frogs with silliness and ridiculousness that gives this image its power. Christ is preceded by three angels, whilst what comes out from the three beasts are the far from impressive frog-spirits. Moreover what they have to say is, "ultimately nothing better than silly, senseless, even grotesque croaking." Consequently, the frog-spirits should be interpreted as a deliberate joke. Stephan concludes that John's use of this particular image creates an “instance of comic relief that strips the ‘villains’ of the apocalyptic narrative of their terrifying power.”  

Like to go a little Deeper?

Felix Just's 'Art, Images, Music, and Materials related to the Book of Revelation' - click here

For Aesop's use of frogs in his fables (fun, but excerpts are not referenced) - click here

Top

---------------------

 

When reading Old Testament references to dogs, would we be right in assuming that within Israelite society the dog was viewed as a vile and contemptible animal? Geoffrey Miller notes that, for the last half century, there has been a prevailing assumption that dogs were indeed seen by the Israelites as contemptuous scavengers and were to be shunned. He also observes that this assumption is reflected in many of our Old Testament commentaries. However, his article in Journal for the Study of the Old Testament. (32 (4). 2008. 487-500.) reassesses attitudes to the dog in ancient Israelite society.

Geoffrey commences his article by examining the role of the dog among Israel’s near neighbours. He notes that pictorial depictions, as well as references in letters, describe how dogs were often viewed as vital aids in hunting and shepherding, as well as for protection (of property and possessions). However, there is also evidence that Egyptian, Greek, Roman, and Persian cultures all kept dogs as pets. Images of dogs with children as well as figurines (some of which may have been used as toys) and collars complete with the pet's names attached serve to indicate a more affectionate attachment between humans and canines. Perhaps the most telling practice for demonstrating the place of the dog within the affections of the ancients was their habit of pet burial. Rather than discarding the bodies of these dead animals on refuse tips, as would be the normal custom, increasingly elaborate tombstones, epitaphs and funerary monuments were erected to commemorate their deceased pet. Geoffrey notes that this type of dog burial was also practiced among the civilisations of the ancient Levant. One site at the Phoenician city of Ashkelon uncovered the carefully interred remains of over a thousand dogs which had, apparently, died from natural causes.

Geoffrey then briefly surveys different cultural attitudes towards dogs and observes that these can appear contradictory and puzzling. However, he notes that to use ‘dog’ as an abusive term does not necessarily mean that dogs were seen as contemptible per se. Such disparity, he argues, can still be seen in some modern societies today. Negative references to dogs in the Old Testament tend to refer to their scavenging behaviours, particularly in relation to cleanliness issues (licking of blood: Psalm 68:24). Although he concedes that positive images of dog on Old Testament literature are sparse, he argues that Job 30:1 indicates that Job at least possessed dogs as sheepdogs which disproves assertions that dogs were prohibited from Israelite life as unclean animals. Moreover, Tobit (6:2 and 11:4) describes how a dog accompanied Tobit and the angel Raphael on their journey to Media. Although its presence is never fully explained, it is possible that it was either for protection or as a kind of travelling companion (pet). 

The article concludes with the suggestion that a distinction must be made between feral dogs (scavengers) and working dogs. In English Bibles, the Hebrew keleb is translated simply as ‘dog’. However, to attain a more differentiated reading, Geoffrey argues that, “[p]erhaps translators should not use ‘dog’ for every occurrence of the word but should instead use ‘wild dog’ when the passage refers to feral dogs patrolling the village. This would distinguish detestable scavengers from valuable helpers." 

Like to go a little Deeper?

To read Lawrence Stager's account (Biblical Archaeology Review) on dogs at Ashkelon - click here

To read the New York Times article on the dog burial site at Ashkelon - click here

For a BBC News report on an Ancient Egyptian animal cemetery - click here

Top

---------------------

One of the most notable features of the Gospel of Matthew is his frequent use of the Hebrew Scriptures. Matthew’s apparent attempt to establish the Christian story within the Jewish milieu has meant that he is often referred to as the most Jewish of all Gospels. However, the selection of texts and the way they are used has been open to question throughout the centuries. J Lionel North (New Testament Studies. 54 (2). 2008. 254-274.) looks specifically at the earliest Christian responses to some of the questions and problems posed by Matthew’s use. In so doing, he provides an illuminating window on how the early Church viewed its texts.

 

For his main analysis, Lionel uses as case studies: Matthew 2:6 where Matthew makes Micah say the exact opposite of the ‘original’ text; Matthew 23:35-36 an apparent conflation of two Zechariahs; Matthew 27:9-10 what appears to be a “pastiche” of Jeremiah, perhaps drawn from Zechariah; Matthew 21:5  the addition of an ass to the triumphal entry. Lionel shows that Matthew’s early readers were well aware of the difficulties posed in these verses. He also demonstrates how they employed a range of responses. Lionel contends that although the Fathers dismissed the possibility of authorial error, they accepted the idea that a text could be corrupted through copying errors and malicious pagan interference. Responses to these ‘errors’ included; textual emendation, harmonization, approaches which reflect historical and textual criticism. Some early manuscripts suggest unease with Matthew’s use of Micah, offering a rewording of Micah or simply omitting the “no wise” in 2:6. Furthermore, the use of allegory in early Christian interpretation meant that even problematic texts could be used to show important doctrinal points; as with Jerome’s reading of Matt 21:5 in which the “tethered ass” represents “observant Judaism” and the “unbridled foal” as the gentiles. 

 

Lionel concludes that the early Gospel readers were aware of the difficulties raised by some of the evangelist's appropriation of the Jewish Scriptures and that they adopted a variety of strategies to meet these difficulties. Whilst generally, the early Church Fathers rejected claims of authorial error, they did accept the possibility of (Jewish and pagan) interference and clerical slips. Consequently, attempts to correct these 'errors', as well as using employing interpretative techniques to create layered meanings which could incorporate any textual problems.  

Like a closer look?

Let's have a look at one of Lionel's examples (Matt 2:6) to see for ourselves the problem:

Look at Matthew's citation of Micah - possibly from the Septuagint (LXX form). 

  • How does he use it? 

  • Why does he use it - what is he trying to say through it?

  • Does he change it in any way?

        Matthew 2:6                                             Micah 5:2-4 (Hebrew)                        Micah 5:2-4 (LXX)

       

By comparing the texts, you will have noticed that whereas the Hebrew and the LXX seem to emphasise the smallness of Bethlehem, Matthew seems to be making the opposite case.

  • Why do you think this is?

  • Read the context of Micah - does this throw any light on why the prophet is emphasising Bethlehem's size?

  • Why do you think Matthew appears to have felt the need to change this?

If you were Matthew, how would you use Micah?

Do you know of any other Old Testament texts which Matthew might have used instead?

 

Like to go a little deeper?

Presentation of fulfilment passages in Matthew's infancy narratives: An excellent, clear presentation, well worth a look if you're just starting out! - click here

John Goldingay's 1980 UCCF paper on Matthew's use of the OT (a little old, but still helpful) - click here

Top

Go to Page 2 of the Research Digest

Go to Page 2

Go to Page 3

Go to Page 4