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September 30, 2014

October 2014
Rich Rhodes 

Where Angels Fear to Tread
Thoughts on Reading Scripture in the Original Languages


Since there’s a lot of talk right now about the value of learning the original languages — something that I highly recommend, by the way — I’m giving my two cents as a linguist on the matter of learning a dead language. But first I want to warn about a particular kind of pitfall, which far too few are aware of. And if you are aware of it, will help you get the most out of even a minor investment in Greek and Hebrew.

When I was in high school many, many years ago, the language I studied was Latin. (That should give you a good idea of just how long ago that was.) Some time in the fourth year, when we were reading Vergil and doing translation exercises, I noticed that no one’s translations sounded like anything we would normally say. Instead they sounded rather more like the English of the Bible and the Prayer Book. (I was raised an Episcopalian.)

And it bothered me.

Now, given that it was forty years ago, I’m a little fuzzy on the details, but somehow during that school year I ended up with a different Latin dictionary. And, lo and behold, my translations started to sound different. I remember very vividly that they sounded more modern. I don’t remember if Miss Lang gave me better or worse grades for them. But the translations were much more satisfying.

Decades later I remember this experience as an “ah-ha” moment.. I got an early glimpse into how centrally important reference materials are to students of a dead language.

But it wasn’t until March of 1995 when Geoff Nunberg, doing his semi-regular piece on Fresh Air, reviewed an album of Elvis songs in Latin,that the full implications hit home.

A short version of Prof. Nunberg’s review goes like this. He pointed out that we tend to think of Latin as a polite, vaguely British exercise. (He called it Edwardian.) That view is possibly best epitomized by Winne Ille Pu (Winnie the Pooh in Latin) — and, yes, I still have the copy I got in the 1960’s when it first appeared). But we’ve lost sight of the fact that Romans were Latin, as in Latin lover and Latin America. Prof. Nunberg’s review pointed out that Elvis’s lounge songs translated into Latin do remarkably well, because the songs are, well, Latin.

This, of course, set me off re-thinking all of my classical education.

Suddenly Cicero’s Cataline orations sounded to me like the DA in Palermo bringing charges against a major Mafia don.

Caesar seemed like just another ego-obsessed Latin American dictator.

I started to hear Latin in my head sounding like it was spoken by the characters in Mediterráneo.

Why am I telling you this?

Because the thing about learning dead languages is that there is no corrective for misleading views of what the meanings, implications, and worldview are. If you study German and go to Germany, your mistakes are quickly apparent. There’s a lot of “Oh, so THAT’s what that means”. But not so with Greek and Hebrew. We have to supply the corrective ourselves.

That’s why I was so mad at Mel Gibson. He blew his chance to show us what the languages of that day really sounded like in The Passion of the Christ.

Aramaic from that era should have sounded like Arabic, both in having the pharyngeal sounds that make Arabic sound strangled to our ears, and in having a wide range of intonation. There should have been no Latin to speak of. Everyone in the Eastern Empire was speaking Greek as the lingua franca. And the whole thing should have been louder and much, much more emotional.

Keep this in mind as you study Greek or Hebrew. You can learn enough to read the Bible and still hear the KJV in the back of your head. You can read the Greek and still come away thinking in terms of twentieth century theology.

No, these writers were Jews, Italians, and Greeks. They were much more Levantine­, more animated and rougher around the edges than we deem proper in our churches nowadays.

Don’t get me wrong. There are great rewards for the investment in learning Greek and Hebrew, but the biggest lesson to learn is not how to parse the verb forms or how to recognize apparently odd uses of singular agreement with neuter plurals.

The biggest lesson is to learn how to let the text speak for itself, lest you think you’re hearing the original but you end up where angels fear to tread.

(This meditation was adapted from an original post on Better Bibles Blog.)

Richard Rhodes (Ph.D.) is Associate Professor of Linguistics and Associate Dean in the College of Letters and Science at U.C. Berkeley. His work has been centered on American Indian languages, but he spent some years as a regular contributor to a popular blog on Bible translation, and he is a member of the Society for Biblical Literature.

Posted on September 30, 2014 at 5:45 PM

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