A Brief History of Biblical Commentaries and Glosses
Commentaries and Glosses in the Antebellum South
Harriet Jacobs, Nat Turner and the Re-Imaging or Re-Imagining of Identity
The Aftermath of the Field Negro/House Negro Identities on Modern African Americans-An Autoethnographic Depiction
Commentator against Commentator-The Causes and Effects of Splitting Communities
The Necessity of Violence as a Biblical Commentary and Identity
My Personal Commentary and Identity-Conclusion and Suggestions
A Brief History of Biblical Commentaries and Glosses
The Holy Bible consists of sixty-six separate books written over several centuries by a variety of authors. As biblical authors wrote, they borrowed from their biblical predecessors and other pre-existing texts. For clarification, the most commonly used pre-existing texts for New Testament authors was the Talmud. Simultaneously, Jewish academics and theologians known as rabbis and later as Amoraim (an Aramaic title meaning “those who tell over”) began to create teachings, known collectively as the Talmud, based upon Old Testament texts. These teachings originally defined the literature found in the Old Testament. The Talmud began as a list of definitions or explanations for the Jewish student. Rabbi Yehuda Shurpin explains, “As anyone who has learned the Bible can attest, there are certain verses where there is no way of knowing what it refers to by just looking at the verse.” (Shurpin) For example, Genesis 2:10-11 explains, “Now a river flowed out of Eden to water the garden; and from there it divided and became four rivers. The name of the first river is Pishon . . .” (New American Standard Bible, 3). As a person who has read this particular verse more than a dozen times and who has been to seminary, I would not know the location of the Pishon River without a biblical gloss, however; the Talmud alerts the reader that, “Pishon: This is the Nile, the river of Egypt . . .” (Talmud).
The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory defines a gloss as a comment on or explanation of a word or phrase. (Cuddon 306) For example, in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, the wife of Bath says, “To be my wardecors” (279) when she is speaking about one of her five husbands. A simplified gloss of the word “wardecors” is bodyguard. Glosses should objectively relay information to the uninformed (due to language, culture or era) reader. Because it is possible for meaning to be lost or transformed through language, culture, era and the lens of the person doing the gloss; glosses can be slanted to favor a position, authority or culture.
The group of men who started the biblical glosses publicly studied Old Testament literature over several centuries. The temple leaders knew, “Any written text is subject to ambiguities, multiple interpretations, dissensions among the people, and confusion with regards to what actions to take based on the law” (Shurpin). In order to deflect possible ambiguities, multiple interpretations and dissensions, the rabbis and Amoraim invited the most gifted students to analyze and explain as they learned. Each generation’s most astute biblical minds helped create the original biblical commentary known as the Talmud. Not only were these men the most gifted students in the synagogues, but they were also among the elite of society. The men who wrote the Talmud consisted of princes, friends of various emperors and tutors for the children of Babylonian dignitaries (Shurpin). In other words, they were important men. It is possible their political and social allegiances colored their commentary. After all, people who do commentary or analysis bring their own beliefs, assumptions, biases, desires and fears to the text.
My initial belief (which I brought to the biblical text as I analyzed it) when starting this final journey of finishing my Master’s in English is that there was bias and error in the actual translations from Hebrew, Aramaic or Greek to English. Furthermore, I initially believed that translators manipulated biblical languages to maintain a disproportionate amount of power over already marginalized groups of people such as people of color. However, my proved the opposite. I found no information that suggested translators were incorrect in their word choice in any translations. However, I did find that the commentaries and sometimes the glosses varied greatly from the biblical texts and the Talmud. This discovery brought me to the realization that the problem is not the text, translator or translation of the text; the problem is the commentary and the glosses of the texts.
This text is not an attempt to proselytize the reader or to dispute the biblical text, but it is an attempt to research and analyze the words which are behind the words, in the best-selling book (or books) of all time. No 21st century reader can deny words are powerful. Reader, please notice that I stated “the words which are behind the words” in the book. I am specifically referring to glosses or commentaries (for all intents and purposes these may be verbal or written) within the various biblical translations themselves. More specifically, I am interested in commentaries and/or glosses, and the messages they can convey to and the identity they can shape in the African American (black) community.
I am aware that not all of my readers are biblical or historical scholars so I will provide a textual roadmap of the journey this thesis will take. The first stop will be to assess the first commentary available to black slaves. This commentary is called the Curse of Ham. The commentary and the explication that follows the commentary will explain how antebellum whites arrived at their literary and theological reasons to enslave members of the black race. After the discussion of the Curse of Ham, I will discuss the Joshua/Ibrahima commentaries from the Antebellum South, which includes the responses from the perspective of slave narratives and slave actions. I will then assess how each type of response and commentary affected future African Americans.
In addition to using a post-colonial approach to the analysis of biblical commentaries and glosses on black identity, I plan to use an autoethnographic approach to analyzing the research and commentaries. I believe since I am researching the impact of biblical commentaries and glosses on the black and/or African American community, I am qualified to speak about the community since I am a former seminarian and a black woman who attends church at least ten times per month. Within the discipline of research known as autoethnography, I am going to use the method called analytic autoethnography. Mendez suggests that the analytic autoethnographer is 1) a member of the research group or setting and 2) is committed to developing theoretical understandings of broader social phenomena (Mendez 281). I am a member of both research groups. I am a member of a minority group impacted by biblical commentaries, and I give biblical commentaries as part of my church service.
My plan is to share my personal reflection (as a black woman and former seminarian) on the two main identities created in the black community due to years of biblical commentary and indoctrination by a white power structure directed towards blacks in America. The reader may notice that I will always identify as black before I identify as Christian. This is because I was/am black long before I became a Christian. I am aware on first sight people do not see my faith, but see my race. I am neither disillusioned nor bothered by this truth. On the contrary, I gladly identify more with my racial culture than my religious culture. Thus, all reflections will come primarily from a “black” perspective and my faith-based reflections are secondary. The truth is that my blackness has affected my faith, but my faith has not affected my blackness. My desire is for other people who are in “minority” groups in America, particularly African Americans or blacks to honestly and intelligently assess what they read, hear and believe. I believe this can only be done by non-white scholars admitting and discussing the differences in identity that are propagated by submitting to a hegemonic biblical commentary.
The Terms African American versus “Black” and/or Blacks in America
As not to confuse my reader into believing that my language is not precise, I will briefly discuss the difference between the terms African American and black Americans/ blacks/Blacks/blacks in America. Labels for minorities in America have played an important part of identity. When I say that I am black or a black in America versus saying, I am an African American I am claiming a different ideology than the African American. This is an important distinction because I believe my lens and interpretation is different from a person who claims the cultural identity of an African American. In the early 1960’s, before the spread of the Civil Rights movements, most people of African descent in America were called “colored.” This has a negative connotation to most people of African descent. The title connotes feelings of subservience and complacency to ill-treatment (Smith 499). Stokely Carmichael suggested the terms “Black,” “black” or “blacks in America” to connote strength, power and beauty. The “black” person does not necessarily desire to separate from white society, but instead believes the black community should build itself before seeking full integration (499-501).
Ramona H. Edelin, president of the National Urban Coalition first suggested the use of the term African-American for blacks to identify as an ethnic rather than racial group. The African-American desires cultural integrity rather than racial remembrance (507). In other words, the African American sees themselves within the culture of America first and as black second. As I do not subscribe to this belief, I call myself black and not African American.
This identification is important because my years of observation lead me to believe that the person who identifies as African-American also identifies with their faith before their race while the person who identifies as black usually identifies with their blackness and then their faith.
Commentaries and Glosses in the Antebellum South
The Issue of the Word “Slave” in the Bible
The next portion of text addresses the creation of commentaries to justify slavery in the United States based upon biblical passages. I will provide a concise tutorial from Strong’s Concordance and the Compact Dictionary of the Bible to review the uses of the word “slave” which many theologians state was an antiquated form of the word “servant” by the time the Old and New Testaments were translated into English. Douglas and Tenney inform the reader the English term for the word slave is only used twice in the original languages of the Bible. It appears once in the Old Testament and once in the New Testament. The Old Testament usage is in the book Jeremiah (Douglas and Tenney 558). In this text, the prophet Jeremiah is speaking to the Israelite nation and asks, “Is Israel [the nation] a slave?” (Revised Standard Version, Jer. 2.14) As Jeremiah is speaking to a people who are free at the time, the understood answer is “no.” Thus, his question to the nation is rhetorical. He already knows the answer, but asks the question for dramatic effect. Please note there is no implication of race in this text.
The New Testament usage of the Greek word that is translated into the English word “slave” is in the book of Revelation. In this text, the disciple John is using personification to talk about the fate of the city of Babylon and “her” destruction. John prophesies And the merchants of the earth weep and mourn for her, since no one buys their cargo anymore, cargo of gold, silver, jewels and pearls, fine linen, purple, silk and scarlet, all kinds of scented wood, all articles of ivory, all articles of costly, wood, bronze, iron and marble, cinnamon, spice, incense, myrrh, frankincense, wine, oil fine flour and wheat, cattle and sheep, horses and chariots, and slaves, that is, human souls. (Rev. 18.11-13)
Similar to the first example, there is no reference to race in this scripture. John is simply informing the reader that those who profited from the purchase of “human souls” will weep because there will come a day when no one will purchase their goods.
The Impact of the Curse of Ham Commentary on the Identity of Antebellum Blacks
For the American person of color, particularly the African American, biblical commentaries helped to shape identity in America. Biblical commentary, at first verbal and then written, shaped the religious, political and social views and identity of the black slave. For example, according to Dr. David Goldenberg, the first exposure to biblical commentary for black slaves was the verbal antebellum commentary of Genesis 9:18-29. The actual translation reads as follows:
The sons of Noah who went forth from the ark were Shem, Ham, and Japheth. Ham was the father of Canaan. These three were the sons of Noah; and from these the whole earth was peopled. Noah was the first tiller of the soil. He planted a vineyard; and he drank of the wine, and became drunk, and lay uncovered in his tent. And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brothers outside. Then Shem, and Japheth took a garment, laid it upon both their shoulders, and walked backward and covered the nakedness of their father; their faces were turned away, and they did not see their father’s nakedness. When Noah awoke from his wine and knew that his youngest son had done to him, he said, ‘Cursed be Canaan; a slave of slaves shall he be to his brothers’ (Revised Standard Version).
What the reader may gather from this text is Noah and his sons may have been a part of a dysfunctional family. Nevertheless, what does it have to do with the identity of black slaves? This text is commonly referred to under the misnomer of the curse of Ham. It is a misnomer because a careful reading shows that Ham was not cursed; Noah cursed Canaan (Ham’s son). In addition, there is no mention of skin color in the text.
Dr. David Goldenberg of Princeton University in his book The Curse of Ham explains:
This biblical story has been the single greatest justification for Black slavery for more than a thousand years. It is a strange justification indeed, for there is not reference in it to Blacks at all. And yet just about everyone, especially in the antebellum American South, understood that in this story God meant to curse black Africans with eternal slavery, the so-called Curse of Ham. (1)
Goldenberg’s assertion that the scripture does not reference blacks is correct, but in referencing Ham, it does reference location. Genesis 10:6 states, “The sons of Ham: Cush, Egypt, Put and Canaan” (Revised Standard Version, Gen. 10.6). A gloss of the Revised Standard Version attributes Cush, Egypt, Put and Canaan to Ethiopia, Egypt, Saudi-Arabia and the Middle East (10.6). Dark skinned and black resident populate these areas. Thus, it is possible that whites in the United States attributed the skin color of people native to these countries with slavery.
Talmud, the world’s oldest biblical commentary, has this to say about the “curse” of Ham/Canaan: “Some of our Sages say: ‘Canaan saw and told his father; therefore, he was mentioned regarding the matter, and he was cursed. Some say that he [it is not specified if the “he” refers to Ham or Canaan] castrated him, and some say that he sodomized him” (Talmud). Even the writers of the Talmud (who had no Hebrew language barrier) indicate that there are no definitive answers on this text as their verbiage says, “Some say this, and some say that.” While they do guess about incestuous behavior between father and son or perhaps father and grandson, there is no mention of race as stated before.
As stated previously, the people who write commentaries have their own lenses through which they write, critique and analyze a text. The largest group of people who perpetuated the Curse of Ham commentary in the United States were white slave-owners (Flournoy 1). They profited financially from the free labor of slaves, and thus had stake in the Curse of Ham commentary. Free slave labor almost completely abolished the need for indentured servants (Up from Slavery), and created more wealth for slave-owners. In addition, more money could be allotted from the federal government and slave states could receive more representation in the federal government (U.S. Constitution, Article 1, Section 2, Paragraph 3 ) while also having an eternal and free work force. By requesting an addition into the United States Constitution that made a provision for slavery (which was based on faulty biblical commentary), the proponents of the Curse of Ham commentary also infected the most important piece of legal literature in the country with faulty commentary.
- Quote paper
- Charmonda Hatcher-Wallace (Author), 2017, Biblical Commentaries and Glosses and Their Effect upon the Black Slave, Blacks in America and African Americans, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/383000