A Pedantic Rant on the Translation of a Greek Word

In 1 Corinthians 1:20 Paul asks ποῦ συζητητὴς τοῦ αἰῶνος τούτου;

The NIV translates “Where is the philosopher of this age?”  A more accurate translation is “debater.”  Bruce Winter, in his book After Paul Left Corinth describes how the movement known as the “Second Sophistic” affected the Roman city of Corinth.

Earlier, in the time of Socrates the first Sophistic movement entered Athens.  The Sophists taught eager young men–for a good fee–the arts of being successful.  Success for these ambitious students who hoped to move quickly up the ladder in politics meant learning the art of persuasion, how to sway a crowd with moving words and convincing arguments.  It didn’t matter if the arguments were true, what does that have to do with winning?

It was on that point that Socrates disagreed with the Sophists.  How do you know what success is, if you don’t care about truth?  How can a life be called successful if it is based on sleazy manipulation?

Four hundred and fifty years later the Sophistic movement gained a new life and the Sophists came to Corinth.  A teacher would advertise a sample oration or debate (in which vicious insults was often the key to defeating his opponents) and then would enroll tuition paying students in the full course.

Once more the philosophers and the Sophists became bitter enemies.  That’s why the NIV translation in this verse is historically inaccurate.  It is also misleading.  It gives the impression that St. Paul is anti-intellectual.

Paul is attacking pride in human accomplishments and the idea that life is a struggle of all against all, a contest to be won at any cost and by any means.  That is what the “debater” represents.  It is also what the system he calls “the world” represents.  It’s what we used to call the establishment, the machine, or the Man.

But Paul is not attacking clear thinking or clear and effective communication.

More thoughts on teaching ancient languages

Here’s another post on Pedagogy of teaching biblical Hebrew.  One thought the author has is that we should have a full three-year course.  The other is that language learning and exegesis (the study of texts) are two different and unrelated activities.  In my experience, most people who study ancient Hebrew or Greek are interested in studying texts.  I’m not sure where this leaves us.

Concluding Thoughts on Learning Ancient Languages

One of my students this morning asked if I knew where we could get a flux capacitor.  If we had one, we could build a time machine and transport ourselves back in time and learn Greek by immersion in the language and culture.  Barring that, we could go to Greece for a six-week summer language immersion program and we would be speaking real Greek.

I think that would help quite a bit.  We would be internalizing the language and building vocabulary.  It still wouldn’t be ancient Greek; there would still be a lot to learn if we wanted to read Paul or Plato.  Ideally, we could spend a couple of years mastering the modern language and then enroll in a classics program at a University in Athens or Thessaloniki.

Lacking a time machine or the funds to live in Greece several years, the old fashioned text book approach to learning grammar and vocabulary will get you there.  I have decided in my teaching of Greek to use all the help I can find, to try creative things like conversations, drama, role playing, games, etc.  Someday I will bring some Greek food to class, blindfold students, and have them name each item in Greek based on taste.

But it still comes down to this: the goal of most of us who study ancient languages is not to communicate with ancient people but to analyze ancient texts.  For that reason, we can’t get away from learning grammar.

If I were able to become proficient in communicating in ancient Greek I would succeed in creating my own style.  I don’t know if that would help me or anyone else who wanted to study ancient literary or documentary texts.

I had a class in “Latin Prose Composition.”  When I thought I was getting pretty good, my professor told me my style was too poetic.  Well, I had been studying Latin poetry but not so much prose.  My professor was right, of course.

I have found that each ancient author has his or her style and it takes quite a bit of effort to get used to a new author.  Without developing good analytical skills that can be an insurmountable challenge.

So I probably won’t be joining the ancient Greek conversation cult.

Another Cult

The cult that is currently trying to draw me in is the cult of speakers of ancient languages. They don’t just study ancient Greek, they have conversations in it and argue over how it should be pronounced.

I first became susceptible to the thinking of this group nearly thirty years ago. I was learning two languages at the same time: biblical Hebrew and German.

In fact, I was in my second semester of Hebrew when I started my German class, and about six weeks into the German class I felt more confident in that language than in Hebrew.  If someone asked me to say something in German I could blurt out, Guten Tag! or Wie Geht’s.  If asked to say something in Hebrew, I might mutter, bereshith bara or something like that.

So I thought to myself, what if we could reconstruct ancient Hebrew conversation and learn the language conversationally?

A couple years later I found myself in a graduate program in classics and started asking the same questions.  Since the dialogues of Plato were already conversations, I thought, they might be a great place to start.

Then I found out it wasn’t a new idea, in fact, folks had already been doing it with Latin.  Not only had it been done, but up until just a year or two previous it had been done at my university.  They taught Latin conversationally and continued their Latin conversations outside of class.

The program had been discontinued because the university officials thought it was becoming a cult!  The students began to imagine they were medieval monks living in medieval monasteries, and evidently some of the students had evidently converted to medieval Christianity, and the university was threatened with lawsuits for advocating a particular religion.  All this I learned through the grapevine.

Soon after learning about this I found myself teaching Latin, strictly by the book, not by immersing myself and my students in Latin conversation.  I had a few students in the class who had learned Latin via vocis viventis by the conversational method.  I was impressed with them the first few weeks.  Their pronunciation was excellent and they had a pretty good head start.  But I also noticed that by the sixth or seventh week of college Latin they had reached the limits of their high school students, and from then on no one had an unfair advantage.

More to come . . .

Alleged Alligators

I like this famous expression that comes from Chicago politics:

I deny the allegation and defy the alligator.

My gripe is with the way I heard the passive participle “alleged” used on the morning news show today.  They spoke of the “alleged murder of David Hartley by Mexican Pirates”  in Falcon Lake on the border between Mexico and Texas.

I understand the concept in our legal system that a defendant is innocent until proven guilty.  So it is proper to say “the alleged murderer.”

Allege meant in older days, “to affirm on oath,” then more generally, “to accuse without proof.”  In 1586, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, one T.B. was enlightened enough to say,

wee must not therefore alleadge anie imperfection in the creation of the woman.

In journalism today “allege” means “to accuse of a crime” and “alleged” means “accused.”  So it is proper to speak of the “alleged perpetrator” of a crime, but it is wrong to speak of an alleged victim, or even an alleged crime when the fact that a crime has been committed is obvious.  Tiffanie Hartley has the spattered blood of her husband on her vest.  She was with him when he was shot in the head in Mexican waters by someone aboard a boat.

The word “alleged” should be reserved for occasions when someone has been named and accused of a crime.  Crimes and crime victims should not be “alleged.”

More from Lamin Sanneh

I re-read the interview with Lamin Sanneh in Christianity Today from 2003, and was again moved with a great sense of admiration for him and the way God has worked in his life.  I urge everyone to read the interview (by clicking above).  I plan to read a couple of his books this summer.

In the last post I referred to him with regard to Bible translation and the classics of English literature.  Here are three quotations from the interview:

The overwhelming majority of the world’s languages have a dictionary and a grammar at all because of the modern missionary movement.  …

More people pray and worship in more languages in Christianity than in any other religion.

I grew up reading the classics of Islam, with religious and historical accounts steeped in the vindication of the things of God. As a child I remember stumbling on Helen Keller’s The Story of My Life, which had a profound influence on me. It made me resolved to pursue the world of learning and scholarship. I became a voracious reader. Later on at school I read the works of the Western masters, such as Shakespeare, Chaucer, Milton, Keats, Longfellow, Flaubert, Goethe, and so on. All that unlocked the teeming world of the imagination to me, just as Helen Keller intimated.

There are some disturbing descriptions in the interview.  Sanneh tells how when he came to a living faith in God who revealed himself through Jesus Christ, both protestant and catholic church leaders were suspicious and tried to keep him at arms length.  I thought of Saul of Tarsus after his Damascus Road experience.  But it seemed Lamin Sanneh had a hard time finding a Barnabas to come to his aid.

He also described western Christianity as feeble because of its captivity to the West.  At the same time he describes a vibrant faith arising in Africa and Asia.

A True Story from Papua New Guinea

Papua New Guinea is home to thousands of distinct tribes speaking  830 living languages.  It is one of the most diverse places on the globe in terms of peoples, geography, ecology, and linguistics.  Many of the 830 languages have never been written down, have never had an alphabet.

My friend John Relyea gave his life learning, analyzing, and describing one of those languages–Aruamu–and translating the Bible into it.  His wife Marsha gave twenty-three years of her life working with John as his partner in learning and translating and in literacy training.

John died of a sudden heart attack in January of 2005, just after completing his life’s work and sending it to the printers.  In fact, April of that year was to be the celebration of the arrival of the Aruamu Bible.  After returning to the United States for John’s funeral, Marsha went back for the combined celebration and memorial service.

John and Marsha worked with Pioneer Bible Translators.  A few years before John’s death, I remember talking to a friend about their work.  I was asked, “Will they be translating Shakespeare and other great literature?”

I had two thoughts:  “I don’t see any English majors risking malaria and other dangers to bring Shakespeare to the tribes,”  and “It is certain no one will do that until they have an alphabet and literacy.”  Then I also realized, “They may have a great oral literature–but the rest of the world will never have access to it until their language is written down.”

Yale historian Lamin Sanneh argues that missionaries have done more than anyone else to preserve indigenous languages and cultures.  I remember John telling me about the adventure of learning the ways of the Aruamu people.

But don’t missionaries change native cultures? Not nearly as much as western corporations and entertainment do.  Modern missionaries are trained to respect indigenous cultures, traditions, and ways.  Do they sometimes encounter aspects of those cultures that need changing?  Of course.

About two years ago I met another Bible translator working with a different tribe in Papua New Guinea, who told of a man who said, “I wish you had brought us the Bible sooner.” He described how as a boy of about eight years he witness his mother being strangled to death by the village elders.

Why?  The boy’s father knew he was dying and couldn’t bear the thought of his wife going to another man.  One taboo of the traditional religion they then practiced involved an idol.  If any woman looked at the idol, she had violated the taboo and death was the penalty.  The dying husband asked his friends to place the idol in a location where his wife would see it–and then catch her in the act–as soon as he was buried.  The friends carried out the man’s wishes, and a little boy saw his mother cruelly taken from him.

Many traditional ways are beautiful and meaningful.  Some are deadly.  If you have the opportunity to enjoy a visit to an island paradise and enjoy the hospitality of the island people,  thank a missionary that you are not on the menu.