Wednesday, August 12, 2009

on the allure of learning Greek

Every year around this time (well, in a couple weeks) I ask my students why they decided to commit the time and energy, endure the frustrations, and (even) suffer the stigmata involved in learning New Testament Greek. There are about half-a-dozen typical answers (and usually one or two from out past left field), but one answer is far and away the most popular: "I want to read God's Word in its original language." A little digging reveals an awareness, impressive coming from nineteen-year-olds if not clearly articulated, that reading the Bible in translation entails depending on a layer (or several layers) of translation. If "the Bible" is God's Word, the NIV is a translation committee's mediation of God's Word. The same goes, mutatis mutandis, for the NASB, NRSV, NLT, etc. etc. etc.

Very early in my own experiences as a Greek student, however, I realized that things were a bit more complicated. I learned from D. A. Black's Learn to Read New Testament Greek (now available in a third edition, with an accompanying workbook), the same text I use ten years later in my own course. And as I learned that βαπτίζω means I baptize and ὁ ὄχλος means crowd, I realized that I was exchanging a translation committee's mediation of the texts' meaning(s) for Prof. Black's. Could I ever close the door to the rest of the world and sit—just me and the text—alone with God's Word?

The problem, of course, is that I never read any text alone, whether the New Testament in Greek or the newspaper in English. I've always learned how to interact with texts from others and with others, and even in the solitude of my office or at home I invoke them in my reading of those texts. I don't depend on Prof. Black to understand the nuances of Greek vocabulary, of course; my exposure to and experiences with a variety of Greek texts and lexica have broadened and deepened my knowledge base. And though I feel relatively free (not completely, though) of any of the popular translation committees, I'm more aware than ever that I read the texts as one part of a larger community, one which includes members of translation committees, compilers and editors of lexica, text critics, philologists, exegetes and expositors, homileticians, and a host of others.

Even so, I still long for—strive after, even—an unmediated experience of the text. I want to experience it first-hand, to read it "for myself," to know it face-to-face rather than dimly, through a glass. And I see my longing reflected in Moses' request to see God's glory (Exod 33). And as I finish up Barry Schwartz's book, Abraham Lincoln in the Post-Heroic Era, I see it reflected, and partially realized, in Sigmund Freud's reaction to the Acropolis:
When, finally, on the afternoon after our arrival, I stood upon the Acropolis and cast my eyes around upon the landscape, a remarkable thought suddenly entered my mind: 'So all this really does exist, just as we learnt in school!' Or it would be possible to maintain that when I was a schoolboy I had thought I was convinced of the historic reality of the city of Athens and its history, but that the occurrence of this idea on the Acropolis had precisely shown that . . . I had not believed in it . . . ! (cited in Schwartz 2008: 250)

The challenge, it seems to me, is to stop teaching my students about the Acropolis and to bring them to it—to stop [merely] teaching them Greek so that they can read the Greek texts at some point in the future and to bring them in contact with the texts themselves.


Brother said...

Most of our aim in learning Greek is to get the author's intended meaning, which you have said so wonderfully is nearly impossible for someone two thousand years removed from the text and language.

My question is this: Did you original audience understand it as it was intended? Does any audience ever fully understand a message the way it is meant to be understood. Did every Corinthian understand Paul's letters the way they were intended? Did they all pick up on the sarcasm, on the OT quotations, the allustions to other writings? Did they know when he was angry, when he was gentle, when he was joyous?

In short, my question is this: Are we any further away from the author's intended meaning then those first Christians to hear it?

Blank said...

God communicated to us through Greek. Greek can be understood objectively. Very little is left to the imagination with this precise language. Yes, original readers could understand it's plain meaning and so can we. The problem is that our modern view does not want to accept the plain meaning of certain passages. Therefore, an existentialist view of the Biblical text gives the freedom to ignore what we wish and elevate the 'experience' of the text above the plain fact that in it, the Lord speaks.

Rafael said...

Brother: Perfect communication is (probably) never accomplished; there will always be this or that bit of verbal or nonverbal data that is misconstrued or missed entirely in the act of communication. But we do communicate adequately on a regular basis, and in fact we communicate so adequately so regularly that we are often aware of (and frustrated by) moments when communication breaks down beyond whatever standard suffices as "adequate."

I would dare say that the texts' original audiences adequately understood the texts' authors. Certainly the authors—whether Paul or Luke or whoever, including the author of Revelation!—expected their audiences to be able to understand the text. Even cryptic passages—let the reader understand—are only cryptic to those beyond the pale of their intended audience(s).

So "Did every Corinthian understand" (my emphasis)? I don't know; maybe not. "Did every Corinthian understand" perfectly? I don't know, but probably not. But I have to assume (and this is an assumption I bring to the text) that Paul wrote in such a way that he expected his readers to be able to understand his writings. I even think he probably expected his readers to understand him without recourse to anything more than the "normal" (note the quotation marks) socio-cultural experiences common to the Greek-speaking Roman world and whatever personal history he may have shared with his readers. Some of Paul's readers may have missed this or that nuance, but I suspect he was largely intelligible to those whom he addressed (whether or not we understand him).

Blank: I've been wondering how to respond to your comments with charity as well as clarity. I don't think anyone familiar with NT Greek (or any language for that matter!) could hold such an opinion. Consider this post, by Bill Mounce, whose view of scripture and language is hardly "existentialist." Again, as we read the text with ever increasing precision we may find ourselves less able to explain exactly what the text means. But the text is broadly and normally decipherable.

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