Thursday, March 21, 2013

Totally Modally

The English adverb totally is an interesting study. My guess is that most dictionaries would define it along the lines of "not partially," and it is certainly not uncommon in this meaning, as in the following instances (all citations are from the COCA corpus):

1. He wanted to have it totally reconstructed. (= He wanted all of it, not part of it, reconstructed.)
2. Totally paralyzed patients require artificial ventilation. (=Partially paralyzed patients may not need artificial ventilation.)
However, many of the uses of totally these days use it as a near-synonym of very, with gradable adjectives:

3. It was totally gross. (=It was very gross, not "All of it was gross.")
4. He is totally creative. (=He is very creative, not "He is creative in every way.")
5. I think to focus on that is to totally do a disservice. (= To focus on that is a big disservice, not "To focus on that is not just a partial disservice.")

There is a third use of totally that is gaining ground, at least in informal speech, which utiizes totally as a modal expression expressing certainty or obligation:

6. I totally have to go on a diet. (= I must go on a diet.)
7. I can totally, totally, totally explain this. (= I am definitely able to explain this.)
8. I totally didn't ever hear it. (= I assure you, I didn't ever hear it.)
9. I totally felt violated. (=I definitely felt violated.)
10. Q: It makes you more relaxed, right? A: Totally. (=I definitely agree.)

A trademark of the third use is that totally usually precedes the verb phrase instead of an adjective or adjective phrase. (Note that no. 5 above could be interpreted as an example of the third type: I think to focus on that is definitely to do a disservice.) You can feel the difference if we move the position of totally in no. 9: I felt totally violated (= either I felt very violated or I felt violated in every way, but not I definitely felt violated).

My interest in this is that the so-called tautological infinitive absolute (TIA) in Biblical Hebrew has some interesting features in common with the forms in #6-10, in that the infinitive preposed to a verbal phrase often has modal meaning:

kol asher yedabber bo yavo (I Sam 9:6) "All that he says will certainly happen"
mot tamut (Gen 2:17) "You must die"
mahor yimharennah (Ex. 22:15) "He has to pay the marriage price for her"

In fact, I would go so far as to say (with a recent study by Scott Callaham) that the vast majority of the uses of the TIA fall into this category. The standard grammars don't convey this, and in fact several of them, while noting the modal use of the TIA, also suggest its use as a adverb with a gradable notion (as in #3-5). For instance, van der Merwe et al. (see Bibliography) state that the use of the TIA is sometimes "to define more clearly the nature and scope of the verbal idea" (p. 158). Examples they give are:

ki barekh abarkhekha "I will bless you richly" (Gen 22:17)
mikkol es haggan akhol tokhel "you may freely eat of every tree of the garden" (Gen 2:16)

However, it seems clear to me that both the cited forms should be interpreted modally: "I will certainly bless you" and "you may indeed eat from any tree of the garden." But perhaps it is possible that there is a development here from a "gradable" adverbial use, as in #3-5 of totally to a modal use, as in #6-10. Cross-linguistically, it might make sense.

In the meantime, maybe we should experiment with translating by totally: "If you eat that fruit, you will totally die!" "I will totally bless you." Call it Today's Bible, and it will totally be a best-seller.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: Van der Merwe, C. H. J., Naudé, J. A., & Kroeze, J. H. (1999), A Biblical Hebrew reference grammar (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press); Callaham, S. N. (2010), Modality and the Biblical Hebrew infinitive absolute (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz).

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

C. S. Lewis's Conversion Revisited

I notice that Alister McGrath has recently moved up the date of C. S. Lewis's conversion. I wholeheartedly concur with his reasoning and I would only note that I proposed the same thing a few years ago.

Thursday, March 07, 2013

Did Josephus Call Jesus the Messiah?

There is a famous passage in the Antiquities of the Jews by Josephus, which speaks of Jesus of Nazareth — the so-called Testimonium Flavianum (Antiq. 18:63 [18.3.3]). In general, scholars now think that at least some of this passage (available here with background) is authentic, although it contains Christian interpolations.

One of the agreed-upon interpolations is the sentence ho Christos houtos en, translated as "he was the Christ" or "he was the Messiah." It is felt, and rightly, that this sentence, so understood, would have been impossible coming from the pen of a Jewish writer, and therefore it must be a later interpolation. However, I want to suggest that Josephus did not construe the adjective christos as the title "Christ/Messiah," but as the proper name "Christos."

In general, outside Christian circles, the title "Christ" was understood as a proper name. The reference in Tacitus's Annals refers to Christians as having their name from "Christus." Suetonius likewise may have referred to the founder of Christianity as "Chrestus." In the Book of Acts, the Gentile residents of Antioch call the followers of Jesus "Christianoi," i.e., followers of Christos (Acts 11:26). The Bauer-Arndt-Gingrich-Danker lexicon of New Testament Greek suggests that the construal of the title as a name began among Gentiles because they would not have understood its Jewish background, and took it for the proper name Chrestos (which would have sounded like Christos in spoken Greek).

Josephus only uses the adjective christos in three places: in the Testimonium, at Antiquities 20:200, which deals with James the brother of Jesus "who is called Christos" (Iesou to legomenou Christou); and in Antiquities 8:137, where he refers to a building being "plastered" (christon). He never uses it to refer to the office of the Messiah, or any religious office or rite connected with it. (Philo does not use the adjective at all.) However, if the citation at 20.200 is accepted as legitimate, with most scholars, it seems likely that the word was previously mentioned.

Hence it seems possible to me that we should construe the sentence in Antiq. 18:63 as "this was Christos" — identifying for Josephus's Gentile audience the figure under discussion as the Jewish teacher who might have been known to them as Christos or Chrestos. If so, then this sentence is part of the original text and not a later interpolation.

Monday, March 04, 2013

Call to Action

(This is the beginning of a short story based on life in a Cincinnati branding agency. Loosely, but not currently, autobiographical.)

He sits in a rectangular room, not a cubicle. It has a door, and usually it is closed. He likes it closed, so that people can't see what he is doing, which usually is reading a book or surfing the net or writing on a pad of paper. He is afraid that others might think he is not working, and in fact most of the time he is not — that is, not doing the work they pay him for.

No, he isn't neglecting his job — it's just that there isn't enough to keep him busy all the time. When he first discovered this, he was nervous, and kept asking people if there was anything he could do. Usually there wasn't, so he began to fill up the time with other activities, especially reading. Now he counts on having lots of time to read and resents it if he doesn't.

His "desk" is a kind of table built into the wall, whose surface is covered with a plastic that reminds him of the lunch counters in cheap diners. At one end of it rests the computer monitor; the keyboard sits on a movable tray bolted to the undersurface of the "desk." To the right of the monitor sits a stereo in the shape of a cube: it contains a CD player, radio, and cassette player. The cube's face is liberally outfitted with buttons, toggles, knobs, plugs, and controls, most of which he doesn't use. Then comes a phone, then a rubber sleeve made for holding cold drink cans, but now holding pens and pencils; then a row of books, including novels, dictionaries, the Chicago Manual, three or four old magazines, some plastic file boxes with a collection of old memos, a binder of Ingredient information. The row slants lazily to the right and is kept from falling by a cardboard box of slides and transparencies that he is expected to catalog, a task he has been meaning to do for several months.

The foreground of the desk is occupied by pads of paper, a scattering of CDs, a stapler, a coffee cup, tape dispenser, various binders, a time sheet, and a little plastic box with a hole in the top to shake paper clips out of. Now the hole holds a small chocolate egg wrapped in bright foil.

On the wall is a poster advertising a book he wrote years ago, now out of print, and a calendar of castle pictures, hung by a push tack. A thin black wire stretches up from the back of the music cube across the calendar and winds around the push tack: the antenna. This improves reception.

On a pad in front of him, a list of words: Attention. Customer. Benefits. Differentiate. Prove. Credibility. Value. Call to action.