Out of the mouth of babes

A friend asked me about these two verses, and I don’t believe that we’ve looked at them before:

Out of the mouth of babies and infants, you have established strength because of your foes (Psalm 8:2a, ESV)

And Jesus said to them, “Yes; have you never read, “‘Out of the mouth of infants and nursing babies you have prepared praise’?” (Matthew 21:16b, ESV)

Now as your Bible’s footnotes probably tell you, this is another example where the New Testament has followed the Greek Septuagint rather than the Hebrew text.

Why though did the authors of the Septuagint translate this verse as they did? I don’t know, but maybe you do, and can help explain these strange verses.

It is also worth noting that our many English translations vary quite widely on these verses. Which do you think conveys the meaning best?

12 Comments

  1. Mike Tisdell
    Posted October 18, 2012 at 2:15 pm | Permalink

    This is a difficult verse to reconcile because the LXX and the MT vary significantly and their is little textual evidence that would allow for this to be easily reconciled. The DSS contain Ps. 8 (except for the first couple of verses) so they shed no light on this passage. Maybe the best other ancient witness we have comes from the Aramaic Targums and they follow the MT text reasonably close with one prominent exception; they explicitly attribute (by name) the destroying of the enemy to Yahweh. This is implicit in the MT.

    Here is the Aramaic text:

    מפום עולימיא ויונקיא אשׁתיתא עושׁנא מן־בגלל מעיקיך ייי לבטלא בעיל־דבבא וגזומא

    Here is the Hebrew text:

    מפי עוללים וינקים יסדת עז למען צורריך להשׁבית אויב ומתנקם

  2. Mark Denning
    Posted October 18, 2012 at 2:58 pm | Permalink

    “C. Use in Jewish Sources. The Targum to Ps. 8:3 (8:2 ET) is noticeably expansive at this point, attaching “by the mouth of babes and infants” to the end of the previous sentence, “thou whose glory above the heavens is chanted” (8:2). Then it continues, “Thou hast founded a bulwark because of thy foes, to destroy the author of enmity and the violent one” (translation taken from Moloney 1981: 661). In the rest of the rabbinic literature various texts debated who the children were who were praising God (Str-B 1:854–55). The most interesting rabbinic reference contains a parable to explain why children were selected to praise God in the first place: they were the only ones whom God did not yet have something against (Midr. Song 1:4)! None of these references, however, sheds any direct light on Jesus’ use of the psalm, nor do any come from pre-Christian times.

    The early rabbinic midrash Mekilta (on Exod. 15:1), however, does connect Ps. 8:2 with Exod. 15:2 and its reference to praise as part of the Song of Moses and Miriam. This provided precedent for later rabbinic texts to bring these two passages together as well, supporting the belief that at the Red Sea children praised God (Davies and Allison 1988–1997: 3:142). We should not be surprised, therefore, to find the same two texts linked in the opposite direction, with the LXX inserting the “praise” from Exodus into its translation of the psalm. There is also a more general allusion to Ps. 8:2 in Wis. 10:21, with praise to God “because wisdom opened the mouth of the dumb, and made the tongues of babes speak clearly.”

    D. Textual Background. Despite this quotation being found only in Matthew, it follows the LXX (8:3) verbatim. The LXX produces a quite literal translation of the MT, except, as noted above, for the final word. There the MT reads “strength,” whereas the LXX renders “praise.” One might also translate the Hebrew as “fortress” or “stronghold.” One could surmise that the LXX paraphrased the text at this point to explain what the psalmist meant “by its unusual metaphor of an audible bulwark” (Kidner 1973: 67n1)!”

    G. K. Beale and D. A. Carson, Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI; Nottingham, UK: Baker Academic; Apollos, 2007), 70.

  3. Mike Tisdell
    Posted October 18, 2012 at 6:50 pm | Permalink

    @Mark

    You said:

    “C. Use in Jewish Sources. The Targum to Ps. 8:3 (8:2 ET) is noticeably expansive at this point, attaching “by the mouth of babes and infants” to the end of the previous sentence, “thou whose glory above the heavens is chanted” (8:2).”

    However, it is nearly identical at this point to the Hebrew text; both the Targum and the MT are more expansive that the Greek quote. Additionally, it should be noted that “babes” conveys a much more narrow meaning than does עולימיא or עוללים, both which can indicate older children (or even young men and women).

  4. Posted October 19, 2012 at 1:33 am | Permalink

    First of all, if I may shamelessly plug my work–I’ve written my dissertation on Psalm 8 which deals with, among other things, the citation of the psalm in the NT. It should be published in book form early next year in the Eisenbrauns JTISup series.

    Now on to the substance of the questions, in very short form:
    1) Re: the LXX translation, it seems to me that this is merely poetic license and something of an explanatory gloss. How, exactly, do the “babes and sucklings” become instruments of strength to thwart strong enemies? By praising God. I think that’s the sense that the LXX is trying to bring out. I think it’s a paraphrase that sort of tries to explain the Hebrew, if that makes sense. I’m not, first and foremost, a LXX scholar, but it seems to me that the LXX is not consistent in terms of “translation philosophy” the way that modern translations are. So, sometimes the LXX is rigidly literal, sometimes paraphrastic, and sometimes a sort of hodge-podge of each. Also, it’s not always clear what the Hebrew base-text used by the LXX is; so, it’s not always easy to expalin why the LXX does the things it does.

    Re: Jesus’s use of the verse in Matthew, well, you’ll have to buy my book ;0)

  5. Mike Tisdell
    Posted October 19, 2012 at 1:51 am | Permalink

    @hjimkeener

    Your description of the LXX is how the LXX was perceived for many centuries; however, the DSS discovery has significantly changed our understanding of the LXX (and for that matter our understanding of the MT). Among the DSS there were three different textual traditions of the Hebrew bible, one was a proto-LXX text that gave strong textual evidence for many of the previously assumed liberties taken by the LXX translators. Today we recognize that the LXX translators were far more faithful to the original text than had been previously assumed. The LXX text of Ps. 8 is far more likely a representation of a vorlage than it is of a translator’s gloss.

  6. Posted October 19, 2012 at 1:53 am | Permalink

    OK, seriously:
    Re: Jesus’ use of the verse in Matthew.
    There are a lot of questions and ambiguities to untangle here, and many respectable scholars disagreeing on many points. In my book I succinctly point out that the scene in Matt 21 parallels that described in Ps 8:3.

    Davies and Allison suggest that there is a tradition connecting Ps 8:3 with the exodus (specifically Exod 15:1) that would have been known by Matthew, and that Jesus’s citation of Ps 8:3 here would contribute to the way in which Matthew consistently portrays Jesus as a new Moses. While this suggestion can’t be proven with complete certainty, it makes sense to me and has some interesting implications.

    Beyond that, I’m wary of putting too much weight on any given minute point of detail in Jesus’s use of Ps 8:3. After surveying several key interpretive dilemmas and putting forth some modest suggestions, I conclude as follows:
    “While many interesting explanations to these questions have been proposed, I suggest that neither Matthew nor Jesus directly address such questions; when Jesus cites Ps 8:3a in Matt 21:16, he does not present a clear explanation of every word of the quotation for his audience. Rather, it is part of the rhetorical strategy of Matthew here to push the reader to ponder the question that Hübenthal identifies as the [central question of the pericope]: ‘Who is this?’ Therefore, in light of such ambiguities at the level one meaning of the text, the canonical interpreter ought not to force the text to give a refined and systematic
    answer to every Christological question that the reader might have. Rather, the reader ought to . . . turn to the rest of Scripture for clarification on Christological questions.”
    Clear as mud?

  7. Posted October 19, 2012 at 2:10 am | Permalink

    @ Mark Denning
    I hadn’t read your quotation when I posted. First of all, at the risk of sounding uber-nit-picky, the passage isn’t written by Beale and Carson, but by Blomberg; Beale and Carson are the volume’s editors, fwiw.

    And I see that some of what I’ve said repeats what Blomberg points to here, including the Davies and Allison suggestion that Matthew could be drawing on the rabbinic connection b/t Ps 8:3 and Exodus 15:1.

  8. Mike Tisdell
    Posted October 19, 2012 at 2:12 am | Permalink

    @hjimkeener

    What you have presented, similar to what Mark also suggested, makes a whole lot of sense. It would be consistent with how many of the OT quotes are handled in the NT. It is something that is worth deeper study. Thanks for sharing.

  9. Posted October 19, 2012 at 6:00 am | Permalink

    Thanks for the gracious and enlightening exchanges, Mike, Mark, and Jim.

  10. Mark Denning
    Posted October 19, 2012 at 12:56 pm | Permalink

    Dr. Kenner you are right. I copied the whole thing from an electronic version in Logos and it automatically generated the citation. Don’t know why they don’t site it correctly. I appreciate your precision.

  11. Rev. Bryant J. Willi
    Posted October 21, 2012 at 4:39 am | Permalink

    I see that others have referenced Beale and Carson also.

    If possible, I would highly recommend that you obtain by purchase, borrow (from friend, library, etc.) or beg NOT steal the following:

    G. K. Beale and D. A. Carson, editors, Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, Copyright is by G. K. Beale and D. A. Carson, 2007. Published by Baker Academic, a division of Baker Publishing Group, P.O. 6287, Grand Rapids, MI 49516-6287. http://www.bakeracademic.com.

    The book is what it claims to be: a commentary on the NT Use of the OT. The commentary on Matthew by Craig Blomberg discusses the passage you are questioning about on pages 69-70 in connection of the Temple clearing incident found in Matthew 21:16ff. It is important that one pay attention to the entire discussion reproduced for you below.

    ” 21:16
    A. NT Context. After accusing the temple leaders of corrupting the court of the Gentiles (21:12-13), Jesus heals various blind and lame people who come to him (21:14). Children repeat the refrain that the crowds had chanted as Jesus was traveling from Jericho to Jerusalem: “Hosanna to the Son of David.” The miracles and the acclamation combine to upset the chief priests and scribes further (21:15). They take particular offenseat Jesus being praised as the Messiah, since they clearly believe that he is nothing of the sort (21:16a). Jesus replies by quoting the a psalm that refers to children praising God himself (21:16b)! This can only have worsened matters, but Matthew is silent concerning the leaders’reaction. Not surprisingly, though, he does immediately say that Jesus left them and returned to Bethany, where he was lodging (21:17).

    This partition of the temple-clearing episode (21:14-16) is unique to Matthew, including the Scripture quotation. As in 19:4, Jesus uses a characteristic rabbinic introduction to his quotation, containing a mild rebuke: “Have you never read . . . ?” The quotation also harks back to the previous OT quotation in Matt. 21. The children’s “Hosannas” match the crowds acclamation in 21:9; the children’s praise in the temple reflects the purpose of worship for which it was designed, which the commerce was interrupting (21:12-13).

    B. OT Context. Psalm 8 is a majestic hymn of praise to the excellence of God. He who created the universe (8:1, 3) was also the one who created humanity a little “lower than the angels” or “lower than God” (8:4-5), commissioning them to have dominion over the rest of the created order (8:6-8). Little wonder that God has ordained that he receive praise even from very small children (8:2a). “Babes” or “sucklings” could at times describe children as old as three or four and thus quite capable of praising God (but the lack of really close fit with Matthew’s “children” ensures that the evangelist is not merely inventing the account based on the OT text. Keener (1999: 503) observes, “If God can speak through babies, from the lesser to the greater, how much greater through children. And if children, by the same logic, how mch more ought the religious leaders to join in.” As paradigms of the helpless and often dispossessed, it is not surprising that they should praise him especially for avenging them against their enemies (8:2b). Kraus (1988: 182) adds that his verse shows “how the power of the enemies is broken by the voice of the weaker children,” a striking parallel to what occurs in Matt. 21:14-16. As noted below, the MT literally speaks of their “strength,” not “praise.” Their “strength resides in the cry of one who has privileged access to one who embodies strength” (Broyles 1999:71). Dahood (1965: 49) takes the text more metaphorically: “Before the majesty of God the psalmist can but babble like an infant.” The LXX and the MT number the superscription as v. 1, so that all remaining verses are one number higher than in English translations.

    C. Use in Jewish Sources. The Targum to Ps. 8:3 (8:2 ET) is noticeably expansive at this point, attaching, “by the mouth of babes and infants” to the end of the previous sentence, “thou whose glory above the heavens is chanted” (8:2). Then it continues, “Thou hast founded a bulwark because of thy foes, to destroy the author of enmity and the violent (translation taken from Mahoney 1982: 661). In the rest of the rabbinic literature various texts debated who the children were who were praising God (Str-B 1:854-55). The most interesting rabbinic reference contains a parable to explain why children were selected to praise God in the first place: they were the only ones whom God did not yet have something against (Midr. Song 1:4)! None of these references, however, sheds any direct light on Jesus’ use of the psalm, nor do any come from pre-Christian times.

    They early rabbinic midrash Mekilta (on Exodu. 15:1), however, does connect Ps. 8:2 with Exod. 15:2 and its reference to praise as part of the Song of Moses and Miriam. This provided precedent for later rabbinic texts to bring these two passages together as well, supporting the belief that at the Red Sea children praised God (Davies and Allison 1988-1997: 3:142). We should not be surpised, therefore, to find the same two texts linked in the opposite direction, with the LXX inserting the “praise” from Exodus in translation of the psalm. There is also a more general allusion to Ps. 8:2 in Wis. 10:21, with praise to God “because wisdom opened the mouth of the church, and made the tongues of babes speak clearly.”

    D. Textual Background. despite this quotation being found only in Matthew, it follows th LXX (8:3) verbatim. The LXX produces a quite literal translation of the MT, except, as noted above, for the final word. There the MT reads “strength,” whereas the LXX renders “praise.” One might also translate the Hebrew as “fortress” or “stronghold.” One could surmise that the LXX paraphrase the text at this point to explain what the psalmist meant “by its unusual metaphor of an audible bulwark” (Kidner 1973: 67n1)!

    E. Hermeneutics Employed. This would appear to be a fairly straightforward use of typology. God’s act of creation, his commissioning of humanity, and his deliverance of his people elicit praise, even (perhaps especially) from small children. God’s bringing about a new creation, restoring humanity, and delivering his people again in the minority and mission of Jesus. Morever, Jesus; rebuke of the authorities “brought out the inherent constrast in the original Psalm; the children take the name [Son of David] upon their lips…but the authorities are intransigent and complain-in effect, they are the foes and the avengers of the Psalm. But, as in the Psalms, it is the children who have the truer perception, not the arrogant enemies (Craigie 1983: 109-10),

    F. Theological Use. At best, there is implicit Christology here. We cannot prove that Jesus’ logic was this: (1) Ps. 8 praises God; (2) I am God; therefore (3) it is appropriate to prasie me, as these little children are doing. The onlookers, whether the children here or the crowds during the “triumphal entry,” almost certyainly were praising Yahweh for what they believed he was doing in Jesus, not praising Jesus as God directly. The explicit theological teaching of the passage is that Yahweh is worthy all praise and worship (thus the psalm), and now all the more because he has sent his Messiah (thus Matthew). Still, one cannot help but wonder if a more indirect claim of Jesus acting as God was not in mind at least by the time Matthew compiled his Gospel.”

    Finally, I would add that if one looks at the majority of the quotes of the Tanakh, our Old Testament, one will find that it is the LXX that is used. This is because that LXX is “Bible” or the “Scripture” of the Jewish Diaspora, and even, within Galilee and Judea (though less so here) where Greek was used primarily as one’s heart language. It would be equivalent to the use of the KJV for most of the last 400 years by the majority of English speaking peoples; although that has lessened since the RSV, NASB, NIV especially the NIV, etc.

    En Xristwi,

    Rev. Bryant J. Williams III

  12. Posted October 22, 2012 at 8:12 am | Permalink

    Have any of you checked out how Origen’s Hexapla translated that verse?


One Trackback

  1. By a blt Biblical Studies Carnival « BLT on November 13, 2012 at 1:07 pm

    [...] What seems to suck for Dannii Willis posting at Better Bibles Blog is the English phrase “Out of the mouth of babes,” as he wonders out loud why “the New Testament has followed the Greek Septuagint [...]

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