Qere-Ketiv, Pseudo-Clementine Annihilationism, the Best Possible World

1. Martin Jan Mulder, “The Transmission of the Biblical Text,” Mikra: Text, Translation, Reading and Interpretation of the Hebrew Bible in Ancient Judaism and Early Christianity, ed. Martin Jan Mulder (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2004) 112.

“In the course of time, many theories have been put forward about the origin and nature of the ketivqere cases, such as the opinion that they contain variants from very ancient manuscripts. Another opinion is that they are emendations replacing incorrect, difficult or unusual words or expressions. In his study, Gordis presents a classification of the words with ketivqere, the number of which he estimates at 1350, and further demonstrates that, generally speaking, both forms are of equal weight. The ketiv need not always be inferior to the qere. According to Gordis’s statistics, qere is superior to ketiv in only eighteen per cent of the cases, ketiv to qere, on the other hand, in twelve per cent of the cases. In sixty-two per cent of the cases, they balance each other out. Therefore, the qere-forms are not variants of the ketiv-forms considered problematic…In later times, the system of annotations in the margin was also used to record the variant readings of certain manuscripts.”

In the Masoretic Text, there sometimes appear two alternative words in a given verse–the qere and the ketiv. The ketiv is what is written down in the text. The qere is what people are supposed to read aloud in the synagogue. For example, the biblical text has YHVH as God’s name. But when Jews come across YHVH as they’re reading the Torah, they’re supposed to say Adonai–“my lord” (or, more accurately, “my lords”). This is to honor God’s name, since God’s name becomes more sacred when it’s not uttered. But there are other examples of qereketiv that are not so dramatic, in which (for whatever reason) Jews are simply supposed to say aloud what is not written in the official text.

In the quote above, Mulder wrestles with the reason for qereketiv. In the end, he seems to maintain that the qere and the ketiv most of the time represent equally plausible ways of reading the text: they’re simply variants, and one is not better than the other. But, if that is the case, then why are the Jews supposed to read the qere aloud and not the ketiv? Doesn’t that demonstrate a preference for the qere?

2. Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Volume II: Ante-Nicene Christianity (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1910) 440.

[According to the Pseudo-Clementines,] the ungodly, since the soul becomes mortal by the corruption of the divine image, are annihilated after suffering a punishment, which is described as a purifying fire. When the author speaks of eternal punishment, he merely accomodates himself to the popular notion.”

I’m supposed to come up with topics to research for my comps, and I think that eternal punishment is one that I’d like to tackle. My Armstrongite heritage was annihilationist, meaning it held that God will destroy the wicked rather than burning them in hell forever and ever.

In the Hebrew Bible, “eternal fire” often refers to a fire that destroys, specifically sinful cities like Jerusalem (see Me on Universalism: “Forever”). When we reach the time of the deutero-canonical writings (second century B.C.E.), there is more of a belief in eternal torment (see Ben Sira’s View of the Afterlife). In the early Christian writings, we mostly see references to “eternal punishment” (whatever that means), as we do in the New Testament (see Clement, Dispensationalism, and Salvation).

It’s interesting to encounter an annihilationist view in an ancient text. (The Pseudo-Clementines are dated from the second-fourth centuries C.E.). I wonder if it crops up anywhere else.

3. Jacob Neusner, Judaism’s Story of Creation: Scripture, Halakhah, Aggadah (Boston: Brill, 2000) 211-212.

“For at issue throughout is the simple question, How can creation be ‘very good’ if there is evil in the world? So we systematically review the challenges to the view that Creation is ‘very good.’ These encompass death, IX.V.1 sleep, death’s counterpart, IX.VI, the impulse to do evil, IX.VII, suffering, IX.VIII, Gehenna, IX.IX, the angel of death, IX.X, and the measure of punishment, IX.XI….Everything people think mars creation in fact marks its perfection. Death is good because it prevents the wicked from getting what they have not earned, hence, death ensures justice in Creation. Sleep is good because it permits the sage to study the Torah all the more effectively when he awakes. The evil impulse produces good results. Suffering is the route to eternal life. Gehenna likewise insures justice for those who have earned a reward, by preventing those who have not earned a reward from getting one. The angel of death takes up the same task. And as to punishment? It is inflicted only with justice. So, in the end, there is a mete punishment for those who deserve it and a proper reward for those who earn it…”

Neusner refers to a rabbi who claimed that God created several worlds before he finally made ours. In the mind of this rabbi, ours is the best possible world that exists, whereas all the prior ones were rough drafts.

People can easily laugh at that sentiment, since this world clearly does not look like the best possible world. Christians will usually appeal to the Fall in Genesis 3 to explain how we arrived at this decrepit state, and rabbinic literature also embraces that kind of idea. In the eyes of the rabbis, the present world is not exactly the way God wants it to be, for Israel is in exile, and sin rules the day. That’s why God will bring us a much better World to Come.

But there are rabbis who try to show that this world is still “very good,” notwithstanding Adam and Eve’s sin. I’ve heard rabbis who claim that Jews do not focus on Genesis 3, but rather on Genesis 1, which presents a divine order that people are to honor. I think that the view that this world is still the best possible one exemplifies that sort of perspective.

A few years ago, I took a class on Job, in which we covered Maimonides’ interpretations of the book. (Maimonides was a twelfth century Jewish philosopher). I vaguely recall that Maimonides did not believe that the natural world had evil. Even earthquakes have some proper function in the natural scheme of things! The purpose of religion, for him, is to teach people how to thrive in the world as it is.

This is an interesting thought. My parents often taught me that there is a divine order to the natural world: there’s a reason that animals eat other animals, since that preserves the balance of life. Without predators, we’d have an over-population of who-knows-what!

But such a view did not always coincide with what I heard other Christians teach. In their eyes, there were no predators and prey in the Garden of Eden, since death did not exist yet. That implies that there’s more order after the Fall than there was before. But maybe this world, which seems imperfect, actually has a certain beauty, order, and rationality behind it. I don’t want to be too dogmatic on this, though, since there’s a lot of suffering, and I don’t want to blow that off.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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