But what did the ancients say about the text you’re wrestling with? How was this verse used or understood by the Rabbis? By the Church Fathers? What about Philo and Josephus? Are there topics or ideas in this verse that were used in other ancient literature?
Standard secondary sources such as these have been available for Logos Bible Software for a while. But there are a lot of them (no, really, see the list at the end of this post!). And you have to know how to search, then you have to be able to evaluate the usages. And that doesn’t even take into account when commentaries refer to ancient literature (which happens frequently).
In Logos 6, it is as simple as looking in the Passage Guide report you probably already ran on the verse. The Passage Guide sports a brand-new section called Ancient Literature. The section provides information on how your passage is used in all sorts of ancient literature. Not only that, but it also classifies the relationship of the reference in ancient literature with the biblical reference you’re examining. It uses simple and general categories like citation, quotation, allusion, echo, topical, lexical, phrase, and historical.
An example—the one that actually prompted us to start assembling the extensive underlying dataset used by this tool—will probably help explain.
Isaiah 54: The Barren Woman
Here’s the text of Isaiah 54:1 from the Lexham English Bible (LEB):
“Sing for joy, barren woman; who has not borne!
Burst forth into rejoicing and rejoice, she who has not been in labor!
For the children of the desolate woman are more than the children of the married woman,” says Yahweh.
Why would a barren woman rejoice? Once you’ve done your initial work within the passage and within the canonical text, it might help to look at how the passage is understood and referred to in other ancient literature, and whether its relation is intertextual or topical in nature. Understanding how ancient literature interacts at either an intertextual or topical level with this passage can give us better insight into how the cultures contemporary with the Bible viewed barren women, their role in society, and why it would be strange for them to be rejoicing.
This is exactly what the Ancient Literature tool gives you. It points you to relevant portions of ancient literature, classifying the relationship so you can determine if the reference is something you’d like to examine further:
Ancient Near Eastern literature
Literature in this category does not directly interact with the text of the Bible, but it is from the same milieu and can give us insight into how cultures contemporary with ancient Israel viewed similar concepts and topics.
One document, known as “Enki and Ninmah” (Context of Scripture 1.159) uses the concept of a barren woman. It also shows the cultural notion that a woman unable to give birth was deemed as somehow defective (the larger context of COS 1.159 is a contest between Enki and Ninmah, where Ninmah is creating defective humans and challenging Enki to somehow redeem them or make them useful):
Fifth—she fashioned from it a woman
who could not give birth.
Enki—upon seeing the woman
who could not give birth,
Decreed her fate, he assigned her
to do work in the Women’s Quarter.1
Here, all that Enki could do with the barren woman was to give her work in the women’s quarter. Understanding the cultural necessity of the ability to procreate and the following derision heaped upon those unable to do so is important for understanding the craziness of commanding Isaiah 54:1’s barren woman to rejoice. She has nothing to rejoice over and is well aware of it.
In Second Clement, one of the earliest available Christian sermons outside of the New Testament, typically dated AD 100–150, the homilist begins (§2.1–3) by quoting from Isaiah 54 and then explaining what he thinks it means. If you’re looking at Isaiah 54, this is good stuff:
2.1 “Rejoice, O barren woman who has not given birth, break forth and shout, you who has no birth pains, for many are the children of the deserted woman, more than she who has a husband.” The one who says, “Rejoice, O barren woman who has not given birth,” speaks to us, for our church was barren before children were given to her. 2 And the one who says “Shout you who has no birth pains,” means this: offer up our prayers sincerely to God, ⌊we should not grow weary like women in labor⌋. 3 And the one who says, “For many are the children of the deserted woman, more than she who has a husband,” since our people seem to be deserted by God, but now we who have believed have become many more than those who seemed to have God.2
In Second Clement, the barren woman is identified as the church, and the growth of the church is identified as the children of the barren woman—pretty interesting.
In the Babylonian Talmud, b.Ber. I.8 mentions Isaiah 54:1. Beruriah is the wife of Rabbi Meir; here she is fielding a question about barren women, specifically referencing Isaiah 54:1:
I.8 A. A certain min said to Beruriah, “It is written, ‘Sing, O barren woman, who has not born . . .’ (Is. 54:1).
B.“Because the woman is barren, should she rejoice?”
- She said to him, “Idiot, look at the end of the same verse of Scripture, for it is written, ‘For the children of the desolate shall be more than the children of the married woman, says the Lord’ (Is. 54:1).
- “What then is the sense of, ‘Barren woman, who has not born’?
E.“Rejoice, O congregation of Israel, which is like a barren woman [that is,] who has not born children destined for Gehenna such as yourself.”3
Beruriah’s scorn for the lazy exegesis of the Isaiah passage by the one consulting her is evident in her response in ‘B’, labeling him an idiot for not reading the rest of the verse, and then in ‘E’ by her declaration that he is destined for Gehenna as well.
And there is so much more. Philo, On Rewards §§158–161 cites Isaiah 54:1 and then provides an allegorical interpretation of it. The Sectarian Dead Sea Scrolls (4Q265 Fragment 2) allude to it so we know the passage was used among the Qumran community. There are references in the Old Testament Pseudepigrapha (2 Baruch 10.14; Apocalypse of Elijah 2.38; and more). There are several references in the writings of the Church Fathers.
Get started with Ancient Literature
In the past, users with all of these resources may not have found these references unless they were serious power users with serious search skills. Even then, the references would not have been classified.
Ancient Literature gives you an entry point into all sorts of ancient writings related to the Bible in one way or another. And it provides you with information relevant to the section of Scripture you are studying. It helps you to see how the ancients—rightly or wrongly—used the passage you’re studying. And that could be just the piece you need to better understand your text.
Literature areas and resources for exploration
As you study with the Ancient Literature tool, you can pull from several different resource categories in your library, including:
Ancient Near Eastern material:
- Ancient Near Eastern Texts
- The Context of Scripture
- Ugaritic materials
- The Amarna Letters
- Semitic Inscriptions
- Fathers of the Church Series
- Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture
- Catena Aurea: Commentary on the Four Gospels
* * *
- William W. Hallo and K. Lawson Younger, The Context of Scripture (Leiden: Brill, 1997–), 518. [↩]
- Rick Brannan, trans., The Apostolic Fathers in English (Logos Bible Software, 2012). [↩]
- Jacob Neusner, The Babylonian Talmud: A Translation and Commentary (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2011), 56–57. [↩]