Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Should Biblical Scholars Learn Modern Greek?

Bob Dylan's Chronicles has been translated into Modern Greek. As with all translations of this fascinating work, I wonder how they translated his description of a friend's wife as "cool as pie, a solid viper." Some excerpts are located here. The cover, it should be noted, is much better than the one on the US publication.

Occasionally I like to look at Modern Greek and see how well my knowledge of Koine Greek helps me figure it out. Usually the answer is "not much." I can tell you however that Sherlock, the do-everything utility that comes with Mac OS X, handles Modern Greek pretty well. Here's a sentence from the above-noted article on Dylan:

Ο Dylan έφτασε στη Νέα Υόρκη τον Ιανουάριο του 1961, κάνοντας αμέσως αισθητή την παρουσία του στη folk κοινότητα του Γκρίνουιτς Βίλατζ.
And here's the translation, unrevised, from Sherlock:
The Dylan reached in the New York in January 1961, making immediately perceptible his presence in the folk community of Gkrj'noyjts Vj'latz.

Good enough. And for you Koine fans out there, you can see the faces of some old friends: παρουσία (presence) and κοινότητα (community). έφτασε gave me some trouble, but it must be derived from φθάνω (arrive, reach); the Koine form would be ἔφθασεν (cf. Matthew 12:28). And the orthography of Γκρίνουιτς Βίλατζ (Greenwich Village) is itself a short course in Modern Greek phonology.

All of that leads me to yet another question: Should Biblical scholars know Modern Greek? My friend Fr. Bill Gartig believes that scholars should use the Modern Greek pronunciation in their study, on the grounds that the living tradition of a language is always preferable to an artificial reconstruction. And in fact it is now normal for scholars of the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible to use the Israeli Hebrew pronunciation when vocalizing the text; anyone who uses the vocalization found in older, Christian textbooks will be derided for using "seminary Hebrew."

I've differed with Bill about this on the grounds that the Masoretic Text is uniquely the sacred text of Judaism, while the Greek Bible (LXX and New Testament) is not in the same sense the special property of Greek-speaking Christianity. We should pay attention to how today's Jews vocalize the text, because that text and its vocalization has been the special gift of that faith community. But does that analogy hold true between, say, the Greek Orthodox Church and the Greek Bible?

Nevertheless, I have to admit that most of the reasons I would give a bible scholar for learning Modern Hebrew and its pronunciation could also be used to support learning Modern Greek. Does anyone in Biblioblogdom have any light to shed on this?

UPDATE (2/10): More here.

UPDATE: "Expecting Rain" readers: More here.


Targuman said...

Perhaps I am lacking as a scholar, but I am less concerned about historical pronunciation than I am in comprehension (on the one hand) and access to contemporary scholarship (on the other). {Of course, one can argue that in certain cases a better understanding of historical pronunciation will allow us greater comprehension, in which case I am of course eager to engage in that study.}

In terms of scholarship, I would ask how much contemporary biblical scholarship is being written only in Modern Greek? A fair amount is in Modern Hebrew, thus the primary reason for scholars of ancient Judaism to learn it.

When one considers the pronunciation of Modern German or even English one must consider the tremendous range of pronunciations, dialects, etc. So to suggest that Modern Greek/Hebrew pronunciation has a particularly vital (relevant?) clue to their ancient antecedents is somewhat misleading.

So, if the modern language opens an otherwised closed door, fling wide the portals! If it is just an academic or cultural conceit, well...

Bill B. said...

I'm late entering this discussion but have entered because after years of studying and teaching Koine, I'm considering trying to learn Modern Greek to help me with my facility with Koine.

I understand the tremendous differences/developments between modern Greek and Koine, HOWEVER, while I was teaching New Testament some years ago at DePaul in Chicago, I had one section of students, of whom over half were of Greek extraction. Most of these students had been"forced" to attend Saturday Greek school by their parents. And while they grumbled about the fact that as kids they were forced by their parents to learn modern Greek, to a person, they could make their way through Nestle Aland 27 with a high rate of comprehension!

This experience has always stuck with me. If these undergrads could so easily understand so much of the Koine text, without having studied Koine, then there must be something of an advantage to knowing modern Greek for understanding Koine.

Has anyone else had this or similar eperiences?

Bill B. said...

Sorry, I neglected to leave my name - Bill B.