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).

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