Saturday, December 27, 2014

Eleventh (!) Annual Ralphies


It has been a quiet year for Ralph, as has become usual.  Because of things originally written in this space, I found myself co-featured in a couple of books about Bob Dylan (The Dylanologists by David Kinney, and Time Out of Mind by Ian Bell), and named by Rolling Stone as Bob Dylan's 7th most crazed fan, which says something about that once-great magazine's current level of insight.  Would you like to know how many media calls I got after all this pub? Zero. I'm not complaining.

On to the awards ....

MUSIC: Since we're talking about music, let's do that first. It seems to me that this was a good year for music -- better than last year, for sure.  My impression is that indie rock, the category I pay most attention to, made a turn towards pop this year. Again, I'm not complaining.  Some songs like I'm Callin' (Tennis), How Can You Really (Foxygen), Do You (Spoon), and Talking Backward (Real Estate) are just great pop songs and you wouldn't guess that these were indie bands, with the Pitchfork seal of approval.  In a rational society, there would be a Top 40 based on record sales and radio play, and these songs would be on all the time. But my Song of the Year Ralphie goes to Water Fountain by tUnE-yArDs, and if this song doesn't make you bop across the living room with a smile on your silly face, check your pulse. As for Album of the Year, that goes to Rips, from Ex Hex, a three-piece band that arose from the wreckage of the late great Wild Flag.  This is what used to be called power pop, and for all I know still is. Mary Timony's guitar lines are pretty amazing, in that they are just as hummable as the vocal melody, if nor more so. (Here's a sample.)

MOVIES: Ehhh ... we only saw two movies all year. Guardians of the Galaxy, which was OK, I guess? I love comics, but, honestly, most of the comic book movies out there, no matter how jolly, are not good translations.  People think of movies as a long-form art -- like novels or TV serials -- but they're not. Movies are essentially short stories, and the best ones pack a punch like a great short story. That means that things that require a lot of exposition, like biographies, epics, or novel adaptations, are diluted on the big screen. Comic book stories (good ones) are long-form, and to put them on screen a lot of the character development has to be left out or taken for granted. GOTG was no different. It was noisy, and a little too pleased with itself. The other movie we saw was The Theory of Everything, about Stephen Hawking. It was interesting, but not a great movie. Same problem.  So no movie award, as per usual.

TV: There was not a single current TV show that I watched regularly this year. However, I did catch up with Breaking Bad and binge-watched most of it. I thought it was fantastic, and the last few episodes unfolded like a Greek tragedy. When Walter died (c'mon, too soon? this isn't a spoiler, is it?), I felt like someone I knew had passed away. Powerful stuff. It's true, like the pundits say -- TV has taken over from movies as the genre of choice for quality plot and acting. What I said above about long vs. short form applies here. Breaking Bad is a great novel.

BOOKS, FICTION: Although I didn't see the movies based on them, I did read two best-sellers made into movies that came out this year: Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn and The Fault in Our Stars by John Green. Both were excellent works of their kind -- Gone Girl, in particular, I just couldn't put down -- and I'm glad to have made the acquaintance of these authors. But the best read of all was  Jeff Vandermeer's Annihilation, and its two sequels, Authority and Acceptance.  It was like watching Lost, without the disappointing ending.  Runner-up goes to an  Israeli mystery novel by Dror Mishani, אפשרות של אלימות (Possibility of Violence), which is now out in English translation.

BOOKS, NON-FICTION: I read a lot of non-fiction.

OK, kids, see you next year! Might be a more active year for Ralph, who knows?

Monday, May 26, 2014

Chewing the Quail

In Numbers 11, we have the story of God's miraculous provision of quail for the children of Israel, who were tired of eating manna all the time. Although the quail was provided in massive quantities, the Israelites, according to the standard translation of v. 33, did not so much as eat a single bite before the Lord punished them with a plague: "But while the meat was still between their teeth, before they chewed it, the anger of the LORD burned against the people, and the LORD struck the people with a very great plague" (NET Bible and many others).

The phrase translated "before they chewed it" is טרם יכרת, literally, "before it was cut off." It strikes me as unlikely that the Niph'al of the root krt would mean "chew"; the default gloss for the verb is "be cut, cut off." The Aktionsart of the verb is normally telic (a Vendlerian "achievement") and not iterative (an "activity"). But words develop their little quirks and it's not out of the question that something like "chew" (or "bite") could develop out of "cut off" (and compare the NEB "they had not so much as bitten it"). Nevertheless, this verse seems to be the only one where נכרת is translated "chew."

The ancient versions, however, unanimously render the phrase with words meaning finish, be over: "While the meat was still between their teeth, before it failed" (πρὶν ἢ ἐκλείπειν, LXX), "before it ran out" (nec defecerat, Vulgate), "before it stopped" (עד לא פסק, Onkelos), "before it went away" (ܘܥܕܠܐ ܥܒܪ., Peshitta). The ancient translators apparently took the phrase to refer to the month-long period that the quails were available for eating (Num. 11: 19-20), so that an overall paraphrase of v. 33a would be "While they were still (daily) eating the quail, before the supply ran out ..." (Rashi mentions both interpretations but favors the translation of Onkelos.) This makes a lot more sense to me, since the episode presupposes that the Israelites consumed a lot of quail.

There does not seem to be any straightforward reference to "chewing" in the Hebrew Bible. The animals that "chew the cud" (Lev. 11:3 and elsewhere) actually "bring up" (מעלה), regurgitate, the cud. The standard verb in later Hebrew (including Modern) meaning "to chew" is לָעַס, which, as far as I know, is first attested in the Mishnah. I have a hunch, though, that Hebrew speakers chewed things before then and probably referred to the act with the same verb.

Monday, March 10, 2014

You Won't Believe These Unbelievable Aramaic Expressions!!


As an Aramaist, I'm always interested to see what people think about Aramaic, which seems to have become a symbol of different things in popular culture. Thanks to its usage in Mel Gibson's film The Passion of the Christ, many people are now aware that it was the (or a) language used in first-century Palestine. It also has become, perhaps for the same reason, an "occult" signifier, appearing in movies or books whenever something magical-sounding is required, as for instance in the movies Constantine and Stigmata, or the book The Celestine Prophecy, about an ancient Aramaic occult manuscript found in Peru (!).

Most recently Aramaic pops up in Lev Grossman's The Magician King (2012) as follows:


The quoted text is from Genesis 1:2 according to Targum Onkelos. I'm not sure if Quentin recited the text from right-to-left, in which case the sentence runs backward (although the words are not backwards), or left-to-right (in which case the words are backwards, but the sentence gives the correct word order). Maybe it's a Unicode thing, or just a magic thing.

I was surprised, though, to hear Aramaic used in the scripts of the series Spartacus on the Starz network. The series (now defunct, I understand) narrates the "lives and loves" of characters in an ancient gladiatorial training academy, and makes liberal use of cable TV's license to display nudity and use profanity. Interestingly, beginning in the second season, a number of foreign gladiators enter the "ludus": Ashur and Dagan, "a hulking Syrian." The Romans speak English -- the producers apparently unwilling to emulate Gibson and put Latin in their mouths -- but not these new guys. They speak potty-mouthed Aramaic. 

I've not found out who did the Aramaic, but I infer from the scripts (which are available here) that the language consultant employed mainly Talmudic Aramaic, as in the following, from "Paterfamilias":
ASHUR (to Dagan, in Aramaic)
Hze aykh hane mistaklin ‘alan. Kma Had minhon. [See how they look to us. As one of their own.]
Hane (הני) "these, they" is found only in Jewish Babylonian Aramaic. One could quarrel with some of the other details, but, hey, it's cable, right? 

Also interesting are the "four-letter words" (obscene language). We don't have any obscene language from ancient Aramaic -- as far as I know -- and it therefore presents a vexing problem in back-translation. I'm not going to go through all of them, lest I arouse distaste in some of my readers. However, the four-letter word par excellence, the F-word, gets a thorough workout in the scripts, and the back-translation is interesting, if not historically valid. The following also is from the episode "Paterfamilias":
Ashur and Dagan, bruised from yesterday’s altercation, glare from the sidelines. Ashur eyes Auctus and Barca, spits.  
ASHUR (in Aramaic)
Hare mezayyne. [Fucking shits.]
It is clear from this and other passages that the language consultant, at a loss for an Aramaic equivalent to "fucking," employs the modern Hebrew equivalent mezayyen (Piel participle from the root זין) with the Eastern Aramaic emphatic plural ending.  Problem solved, and who's paying attention, anyway? (Besides me.) However, in attested ancient Aramaic, the root means "to arm, provide a weapon" and the active participle would mean "someone who is arming (e.g. a soldier)." As for the other word, Aramaic חרי does indeed mean "dung, droppings," but this is not necessarily the same register as "shit." 

However, how might the equivalent concepts in the appropriate register (slang + obscenity) have been expressed in ancient Aramaic? We shall probably never know. As C. S. Lewis has argued, four-letter words are generally found only in (a) scurrilous abuse or (b) comedy. Ancient Aramaic is sadly lacking in both types of discourse.

(Apologies to Buzzfeed and that ilk for the title)

BIBLIOGRAPHY; C. S. Lewis, "Four-Letter Words," in Selected Literary Essays (Cambridge, 1979). 

Sunday, December 29, 2013

2013 Ralphies: The Grumpy Edition

No other year in recent memory has so much brought to mind Hemingway's 1923 couplet (originating as a parody of Ezra Pound):

And in the end the age was handed
The sort of shit that it demanded.

This is especially true of American culture in the broader sense, which continues its decline. Americans  this year have cheered, among other things, grotesque social innovations, public skankiness, and dumb books about Jesus.  I survey the cultural landscape with a cold eye, and pray for a charitable heart.

On TV I found little to watch this year. I failed to get on various bandwagons in time. Breaking Bad and Downton Abbey have had to get along without me.  I did fall hard, though, for Call the Midwife, a lovely, lovely show on PBS, and very much enjoyed about half of The Bridge on FX, before the killer was identified and all the air went out of the storytelling.

Cinema was a correspondingly vast wasteland, although I have not yet seen Inside Llewyn Davis, which I expect to enjoy.  I watched Iron Man 3 at home, and likewise Looper, Prometheus, Oblivion, and Kick-Ass 2 (I like sci-fi).  Some of these entertained for longer stretches at a time than others, but none of them stuck with me for long. That privilege belonged to an older film, The Wrestler (2008) which touched me.  I've never much liked Mickey Rourke, but that performance is a keeper.

My favorite literary discovery of the year was the Aubrey-Maturin sea novels of Patrick O'Brian: terrific storytelling, characters, historical background, and style. For my summer reading project, I read 10 of the 20, and will read the other 10 next summer, God willing. I also re-read with great appreciation Charles Williams's All Hallows Eve. Non-fiction? I read of ton of it -- my job requires it -- but, of many worthy books and articles, nothing that demands a mention.

The musical idols of today also leave me cold.  I discovered Ryan Bingham through his haunting music for The Bridge, and he's a better Bob Dylan right now than the original.  Pop-wise, the most infectious contributions (and I mean serious earworms here) came from Au Revoir Simone, although I have to give an honorable mention to Parquet Courts.

Probably the most profound cultural experience I had this year was visual, in the form of the Albrecht Dürer exhibit at the National Gallery.  The depth and solidity of Dürer's vision is something the country could use -- a new reformation, perhaps?

Thursday, September 05, 2013

Levita Meets the Maronites

One of the most interesting encounters in the history of Aramaic studies occurred in the course of the Fifth Lateran Council (1513-1515). Three delegates from the Middle East, religious from the Maronite community, requested permission to hold a mass using the Syriac liturgy. This was the occasion of the introduction of Syriac studies into the west.

This is well known. What is less well-known is that the three Maronites in the course of their stay had some philological discussions with the eminent Jewish scholar Elias Levita, author of the first Aramaic dictionary (Ha-Meturgeman) and thus the father of Aramaic philology as a discipline. He was able to examine the Syriac books they brought with them, and concluded that, although their common language (לשונם ההמוני) was Arabic, the language of their books was
the language of the Chaldeans, which is called also Aramaic, or Babylonian, or Assyrian, or Chaldee, or Tursai (טורסאי), or Targum, having in all seven names.
This passage is found in his Massoreth ha-Massoreth (1548), from the edition of C. D. Ginsburg, published in 1867.

The designation Tursai has proved difficult for scholars to untangle. Robert Wilkinson writes "I do not know what is 'Tursaea' [sic] unless it refers to 'Tarse' the home of 'Les Trois Rois tarsensiens' or the Magi discussed by Postel in Les Merveilles du Monde (Paris, 1552) ..."

However, it is perfectly clear that the word should be read סורסאי, the samekh and tet being easily confused. Sursai means just "Syrian" or "Syriac" (Jastrow 970), a proper addition to the other names for the various Aramaic dialects.

The discussion must have been interesting; the only part of it that Levita reports is on the issue of vowel points. He asked if they used vowel-signs, and they replied that, being familiar with the language from their youth, they had no need of them. He fails to note the language in which the discussion took place, although I would guess it was in Latin or possibly Arabic.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: C. D. Ginsburg, The Massoreth ha-Massoreth of Elias Levita, Being an Exposition of the Massoretic Notes on the Hebrew Bible (London, 1867); Wilkinson, Robert J. Orientalism, Aramaic, and Kabbalah in the Catholic Reformation: The First Printing of the Syriac New Testament. Leiden: Brill, 2007.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Reza Aslan's "Zealot": Poor

I am usually glad to see a book about Jesus in the news. Even if the book is controversial or erroneous, it still might lead the curious to read more, and better, books about the life of Christ; and in time, they might even have an encounter with the real thing. All to the good.

So I don't have any problem in principle with the attention being paid to Reza Aslan's Zealot. I am a little puzzled, though, why this undistinguished book should be the next big thing. The author is a professor of creative writing, and not a known authority about the subject he deals with. His overall thesis is a nothing-new retread of S. G. F. Brandon's Jesus and the Zealots (1967), long since dismissed by specialists in the field.

The author also, it must be said, has not really done his homework. Anyone is free to frame a revisionist theory about anything, but to be convincing, the historical data must be clear and accurate. But Aslan often gets the facts wrong.

It would be tedious to go through and enumerate such misstatements in Zealot. There are a lot. However, I will give a couple of examples that might easily be missed by lay readers, but which stand out like a sore thumb to specialists. The first example has to do with the Temple tax. Introducing his account of the story of the cleansing of the Temple (Mark 11:15-19 and parallels), he says:
The money changers play a vital role in the Temple. For a fee, they will exchange your foul foreign coins for the Hebrew shekel, the only currency permitted by the Temple authorities. The money changers will also collect the half-shekel Temple tax that all adult males must pay to preserve the pomp and spectacle of all you see around you: the mountains of burning incense and the ceaseless sacrifices, the wine libations and the first-fruits offering, the Levite choir belting out psalms of praise and the accompanying orchestra thrumming lyres and banging cymbals. Someone must pay for these necessities. Someone must bear the cost of the burnt offerings that so please the Lord.
The tone of contempt is obvious. Reza Aslan does not have a high opinion of Jewish worship. However, what I want to point out here is that his sneer about "foul foreign coins" and the "Hebrew shekel" is mistaken. The Jewish authorities were not allowed to issue "Hebrew" coinage in the era of the Roman occupation of the time of Christ; there was no such thing as a "Hebrew shekel." In fact, the approved currency for paying the Temple dues was the Tyrian tetradrachma -- itself a "foul foreign coin" bearing the image of the god Melqart. The Tyrian coin had a higher silver content than equivalent coins from other mints.

This might not seem to be a major mistake, but anyone who is at all familiar with the political scene in first-century Judaea would know about the privileged position within Judaism of the Tyrian coinage. That Reza Aslan does not is simply a small token of his overall ignorance of the period.

My second example is drawn from the area of literature. In the course of discussing the writings that came from Hellenistic Judaism, Aslan says:
Unlike their brethren in the Holy Land, Diaspora Jews spoke Greek, not Aramaic: Greek was the language of their thought processes, the language of their worship. They experienced the scriptures not in the original Hebrew but in a Greek translation (the Septuagint), which offered new and originative [sic] ways of expressing their faith, allowing them to more easily harmonize traditional biblical cosmology with Greek philosophy. Consider the Jewish scriptures that came out of the Diaspora. Books such as The Wisdom of Solomon, which anthropomorphizes Wisdom as a woman to be sought above all else, and Jesus Son of Sirach (commonly referred to as The Book of Ecclesiasticus) read more like Greek philosophical tracts than like Semitic scriptures.
It is uncontroversially true that Hellenistic Judaism was influenced by Greek thought, and that in some instances this led to "new ways of expressing their faith." However, the two examples given are misconceived. The Wisdom of Solomon is indeed influenced by Platonism and Stoicism, but the image of "Wisdom as a woman to be sought above all else" comes straight from the Hebrew Bible, particularly from the Book of Proverbs (ch. 8), not from any Greek tradition.

The example of Jesus son of Sirach (or Ben Sira) is an even worse example. It was not written in the Diaspora, but in the Holy Land, in Hebrew (the Hebrew text is still preserved in part), and only translated a generation later by the author's grandson into Greek. It most emphatically does not read like a Greek philosophical tract. I suspect that Aslan has not even opened either one of these books, and that his information comes from secondary sources which he has misunderstood.

Clearly someone who is capable of making such elementary errors about the basic facts is not to be trusted as an authority on ancient religions. By all means, read about Jesus. Start with the Gospels. But Zealot can be crossed off your list as a reliable source of information.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: Reza Aslan, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth (Random House, 2013). For reliable background on the period, the lay reader might enjoy F. F. Bruce's New Testament History. Those who want to read an objective, non-religious book about the historical Jesus could start with E. P. Sanders' The Historical Figure of Jesus. I also recommend Raymond Brown, Questions and Answers on the Bible.

Saturday, August 03, 2013

Wierzbicka on Jesus

I've recently enjoyed reading Anna Wierzbicka's What Did Jesus Mean? (Oxford, 2001). I hadn't realized that Wierzbicka, who is a well-known linguist, was interested in religion and the Bible, but in fact she is a practicing Catholic. In this book she applies some of the insights of her Natural Semantic Metalanguage (NSM) to discussing the Sermon on the Mount and some of the parables of Jesus.

Although I enjoyed the book and indeed found it edifying, I think that ultimately it has not satisfied either of the two groups whom it should have interested most, that is, semanticists and New Testament scholars. From the standpoint of semantics, the problem is that in this book her NSM approach is not deployed to do what is does best, that is, break down the meaning of individual words and expressions and restate them in terms of the "semantic primitives" that W. and her colleagues have postulated to lie at the core of every language. Instead, she uses the same primitives, which she calls here "universal human concepts," to exegete various New Testament texts. Whatever the merits of NSM (I think it has many as a heuristic method), I doubt that it is best used to paraphrase English translations of the Bible.

New Testament scholars probably did not take the book very seriously, because its method is so different from standard commentaries on the NT. Wierzbicka's "reductive paraphrase" approach is alien to the guild and in my view the NSM is insufficiently explained in this book -- W.'s primitives are only given in an endnote on pp. 465-466. Also, although she writes in respectful dialogue with mainstream NT scholars, especially the Jesus Seminar (of which she is not a great admirer), she also without discrimination cites lay or devotional writers like William Barclay or R. C. Sproul.

But my main beef with the book is that W.'s main strength as a linguist -- her ability to analyze nuances of meaning in different languages -- is absent in this book. She does not, it seems, know Greek, Aramaic, or Hebrew, although she sometimes cites other scholar's comments on these languages. This is a great lack, and she overall confines herself to discussing the English translations. (When she doesn't the results are sometimes disastrous. In ch. 2, footnote 2 (p. 466) she says that, of two Hebrew words meaning "poor," aniim is "older" and from "the verb root ny" while anawim is from "the verb root nwm." I presume that it is Wierzbicka's unnamed informant who has produced these dire misstatements. In fact, /ʕaniy/ is from the root /ʕny/, while /ʕanaw/ is from /ʕnw/, two roots connected etymologically.)

This concentration on English, combined with the deployment of NSM as a tool of conceptual simplification (instead of semantic explication) results in some paraphrases that are problematic. For instance, her paraphrase of "kingdom of God" is "living with God." The English verb LIVE is an "exponent" of a semantic primitive in NSM, presented as the opposite of DIE. However, English "live" is polysemous, with at least 3 meanings: (1) to be alive (not dead), (2) to dwell, (3) to conduct one's affairs, follow a certain routine (e.g., "he lived a life of ease"). The expression "living with" normally activates the meaning "dwell," not the meaning "be alive" -- which, I presume, is what W. means in her paraphrase, although at times she seems to be thinking of meaning 3 (and meaning 3 is not an NSM prime, as far as I can tell).

In fact, W.'s understanding of "kingdom of God," as in much of her understanding of Christianity, seems to be more a restatement of an old Harnackian view of Christianity: brotherhood of man, fatherhood of God (without the gender-exclusive language), the presence of God in the soul of the individual. This results from her use here of the NSM primes as lowest common denominator concepts instead of compositional units of individual word senses.

On the other hand, no translation of "kingdom of God" can be worse than the Jesus Seminar's "God's imperial rule."

But I still recommend this book. Although it is not the best introduction to NSM, it may lead readers to explore some of Wierzbicka's other, more rigorous, writings, which are well worth exploration. Plus, although I've criticized her overall approach, she has many insights into the texts she deals with, and an edifying belief in their power to improve the world.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: Anna Wierzbicka, What Did Jesus Mean? Explaining the Sermon on the Mount and the Parables in Simple and Universal Human Concepts (Oxford, 2001). A better introduction to the NSM approach is Wierzbicka's Semantics, Culture, and Cognition: Universal Human Concepts in Culture-Specific Configurations (Oxford, 1992).