Ode to Paniskos

One thing students of Koine should do more is read and translate papyri. If there is one practice that will sabotage your sense of arrival as a student, it is reading legal documents about loans that transpired between farmers and soldiers in cities like Krokodilonpolis in 105 BC. Unlike the Bible, you’ve never seen it before in translation. You have nothing to rely on except pure competence in Koine. This is an area where reading the Hebrew Bible is superior to the New Testament: few if any of us have memorized the sweeping narratives of 1-2 Samuel. When we read them in Hebrew, we have nothing but our competence to guide us. Seminarians especially should never mistake ability to read the New Testament for proficiency in Koine.

Thanks to the help of a generous friend, I’ve been working slowly through the papyri in Pestman’s reader (which is excellent by the way) and comparing its language with selections from the Septuagint. It’s been insightful in many ways. Yes, the linguistic data is invaluable (have you ever seen a semelfactive in the wild?). But more than anything else, I’ve been surprised by how moving it is to have contact with the people who wrote these documents. Translating legal transactions notarized two millennia ago, and reading the names, dates, towns, and descriptions of the faces and homes under review reminds me how deeply human these people were—as human as I am today. So human, in fact, they might have spent a Tuesday afternoon transacting business with a young Jew from Galilee and not thought twice about him.

Life is incredibly brief and most of us, given enough time, will be lost to the memory of human history unless some accident, like a chance papyrus protected by the Egyptian desert, doesn’t preserve our memory. These people—Paniskos, Panevkounios, Nikias—were as truly alive as we are today. Think about that. They had real dreams, real hopes, real fears and needs. Which of them never laughed until they cried with their friends on a warm summer evening or lay awake at night worried about their families? Which of them never labored until dusk and came home, tired but happy, to a group of rowdy toddlers and a busy wife? They had preferences, tastes, bad habits. Some were kind. Some were mischievous. And others wanted justice.

This is what we lose when we dispose with the humanities and its ‘dead’ languages, which are meaningless to our current system of capital. We lose access to the literature—the legal documents, even—that reveal to us the drama of this shared humanity connecting us across epochs of history. Education is about more than generating capital.

The Language of the Septuagint: A Constructive Proposal

Within ‘old’ Greece this expansion of the Koine naturally took place at the expense of the ancient dialects, written and spoken, while in the new Hellenistic kingdoms the Koine was from the first the only written standard, and the spoken language of the Greco-Macedonian aristocracy. It was soon learned widely by non-native speakers (though not always perfectly), and it inevitably shaped the development of spoken Greek among the colonists who went out from many different parts of Greece to populate the newly founded cities. It is essential, then, to see the Koine not only as the standard written and spoken language of the upper classes (periodically subject to influences from belletristic classical Attic), but also more abstractly as a superordinate variety standing at the pinnacle of a pyramid comprising an array of lower-register varieties, spoken and occasionally written, which, in rather different ways in the old and the new Greek worlds, evolved under its influence and thereafter derived their identity through their subordinate relationship to it (Horrocks 2014: 84).

What does this mean? It means, contra mundum, that Koine is not a bastardization or infantalization of ‘pure’ Attic Greek. Koine is simply post-classical Greek—the next stage in the evolution of the language. Like any other language, its register was regularly adjusted for its perceived audience and language users could adapt it to their needs (literature, letters, legal documents, etc). There was nothing inherently ‘poetic’ or ‘rich’ in Attic that was not also shared by Koine. In fact, both Attic and Koine are motivated by the same cognitive processes that motivate language in general. Like Attic before it, Koine’s semantic structure reflected conceptual structure, meaning in Koine was embodied (conceptual metaphors structured abstract ideas in terms of bodily experience) while being more or less schematic, categories were fuzzy, words and constructions externalized thought (like all languages!), and its morphosyntax was adaptable to the way language users wanted to construe an experience. In other words, ‘the language of the Septuagint’ did everything Attic did except at a different time by different language users in different uses.

Why then should the canon of classical literature in Attic Greek determine the way Septuagintalists evaluate the quality of a Hebrew translation into Koine? Why are some lexical items considered ‘poetic’ and others vulgar, and the style of a certain translator considered ‘poor’ while another is ‘lucid’? How is it the fault of a translation to fail to conform to the extinct uses of a language’s previous era? There is no ‘pure’ form of Greek (or any other language for that matter) to which the LXX translators more or less conformed, but simply Greek as it was used in its subordinate and super-ordinate varieties—one of which was Alexandrian Jewry’s scripture. Although it was not a special kind of ‘Jewish Greek’, it did represent a genuine and natural example of vernacular Greek comprehensible to Alexandrian Jews, whose own fluency has been unjustly underestimated.

Perhaps a problem is that Septuagintalists have not defined what they mean by language when they write about the language of the Septuagint. Do they mean langue (in this case, Attic literature)? Or do they mean a special Jewish Greek? It is not always clear. Perhaps they might consider a usage-based approach. This may require a radical reevaluation of the ubiquitous aesthetic judgments in Septuagint scholarship (i.e. ‘good Greek’, ‘poor Greek’ etc), but it also provides the benefit of a productive theoretical framework and a controlling methodology for analysis of the data. If the usage-based approach is right, language-in-use is the only kind of language that exists. In the usage-based thesis,

…language is seen as a dynamic system of fluid categories and flexible constraints that are constantly restructured and reorganized under the pressure of domain-general cognitive processes that are not only involved in the use of language but also in other cognitive phenomena. . . Usage-based linguists conceive of language as a dynamic network in which the various aspects of a language user’s linguistic knowledge are constantly restructured and reorganized under the continuous pressure of performance. (Diessel, 2017: 1-2)

When we evaluate a translation from Hebrew into Greek, we are simply looking at Koine as one such performance—a tool for communication—rather than evaluating its aesthetic quality against compositions in Attic. From a usage-based perspective, the perceived aesthetic quality of a translator’s style is irrelevant—the question is did it work (and if so, how)? This is perhaps too simple, but it leads us in the right direction. The object of analysis when studying the language of the Septuagint should be functionality. What worked? What didn’t work? What might this reveal about the perceived audience of these texts? In reality, there was no objective standard translators failed to meet. The difference between Homer and graffiti is purpose and perception, not langue and parole. The aesthetic judgments of language-users are opinions because there was not an ‘abstract’ form of Greek dangling around in the ancient world to which a translator’s style more or less conformed in purity—only met or unmet expectations given by a prescriptivist aristocracy. If the usage-based thesis is right and the use of language is the only kind of language that exists, the Greek of the Septuagint (despite its idiolectic quirks) was as purely Greek as Demosthenes when Alexandrian Jewry used it with varying degrees of perceived sophistication to translate Hebrew scripture. Analysis that begins there may save itself from flaws built into the very definition of the question.

7 Reasons to Learn Biblical Languages

Biblical Language requirements are declining rapidly in many American seminaries. Jonathan Edwards entered Yale College in 1716 at the age of 12 reading Greek, Hebrew, and Latin. Today, however, you can graduate with advanced degrees in theology from several American seminaries without a single class in a biblical language. But why should it matter, after all? You can pastor a large church successfully for decades without reading a single sentence in Greek. Hebrew morphology or knowledge of Greek discourse markers won’t help you navigate a pastoral crisis, right? The commentators already did the work. Why spend years learning the languages?

Well, here are seven quick reasons:

(1) The Value of God’s Word. Labor in biblical languages reveals the value we place on the scriptures. Excellence here should be unquestionable because it is through these languages that God has chosen to speak. God’s Word itself is the primary reason pastors should be able to read Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic. Who teaches literature in a foreign language without the ability to read the language of its composition? Every Christian tasked with teaching the Bible should consider the example created by their neglect of the biblical languages.

(2) Responsibility. Paul commanded Timothy: “Do your best” (2 Tim. 2:15). Is ignoring biblical languages and linguistics your best? God commands us to love him with all of our mind (Deut. 6:5). Academic excellence is a form of obedience. Hopefully, you’ll be reading the Bible for decades to come. Why not take five years to learn to read it in its original languages? How much time did you spend tweeting last year?

(3) Love. Do we treasure our Bibles? Imagine every word in holy scripture were written red with the blood of Christ. What then would you do with it? In his Homily on Holy Scripture, Thomas Cranmer writes, “These books, therefore, ought to be much in our hands, in our eyes, in our ears, in our mouths, but most of all — in our hearts.” The glorious delight of drinking deeply from the fountain of God’s beauty and majesty in scripture is the reason it was given. If we knew learning to read scripture in its original languages might inflame fresh wonder and devotion in our hearts, what could possibly compel us to neglect them?

(4) Exegesis. Here is the engine of Christian confession. Theology itself is a servant to exegesis. Work done in scripture’s original languages can also potentially impact every area of biblical studies because it is a text-based discipline (this is also an argument for incorporating linguistics into biblical studies, but that’s for another time). Exegesis is cruel and crippled without knowledge of the original languages.

(5) Preaching. The first four reasons above apply to everyone tasked with teaching the Bible, but especially to those entrusted with the ministry of “expository exultation” (Piper). Power, clarity, and simplicity are the lifeblood of expository preaching, and this is normally the result of sustained interaction with the text at the level of its original languages. The Puritan minister Thomas Brightman read his Greek New Testament every two weeks, and Lazarus Seaman did his daily devotions from an unpointed Hebrew Bible. If the scriptures are the flock’s field and food, then its languages are the shepherd’s sling.

(6) Missions. 1.5 billion people cannot read the Bible in their native language because such a Bible doesn’t exist yet. An additional 150 million people don’t have a single portion of scripture translated into their own language. A renewed and vigorous attention to linguistic excellence can expand translation efforts, assist national translators, and provide the resources and tools needed to deploy the scriptures to all language groups. Missions needs biblical linguists.

(7) Apologetics. Objections to historic Christian orthodoxy or misleading claims about the basis of its confession often have a debate about the meaning of some substantive issue in Hebrew or Greek behind them. Those who wish to lead the Christian church as pastors and teachers should be prepared to meet these objections with a personal, discerning knowledge of the issues at stake.

And if these aren’t persuasive, listen to Martin Luther:

Let us then, foster the learning of languages as zealously as we love the Gospel. For not for nothing did God have His Scripture written down in these two languages alone [sic]: the Old Testament in Hebrew [and Aramaic], the New in Greek. The languages, therefore, which God did not despise but chose above all others for His Word we, too, ought to honor above all others.

And let us be sure of this: we shall not long preserve the Gospel without languages. Languages are the sheath in which this sword of the Spirit is contained. They are the case in which we carry this jewel. They are the vessel in which we hold this wine. They are the larder in which this food is stored. And, as the Gospel itself says, they are the baskets in which we bear these loaves and fishes and fragments.

(“To the Councilmen of All Cities in Germany,” 1524)

And, finally, pray with Thomas Cranmer:

BLESSED Lord, who has caused holy scripture to be written for our learning; Grant that we may hear it, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest it, that by patience and the comfort of your holy Word, we may embrace, and ever hold fast, the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ. Amen. 

Many other good reasons exist of course to consider learning to read Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. But certainly these reasons alone place a compelling burden of proof on those who can study these languages but choose not to. They must explain themselves.