Saturday, August 31, 2013

Do I have to study Koiné Greek?

Following my recent comments about debates on the Historical Jesus, I went away and listened to a couple more debates. One was between Dan Barker and Mike Licona on the resurrection - did it happen? You can find the audio of it here.

I'm not going to get into the details of the debate or the old 'minimal facts' argument that Licona used (expressed in a very 'appeal to consensus' manner here) in the debate. But what irked me the most about the debate was that it, once again, degenerated into an argument about the precise meaning of words in Koiné Greek (the language that the New Testament documents were written in).
2 Timothy 2:14 says "Warn them before God against quarreling about words; it is of no value, and only ruins those who listen."
Indeed. At one point in the debate Licona got Barker to say how long he'd formally studied Greek for. Barker said "two years". Licona casually dismissed two years of study as being 'basic to intermediate' level, and then trumped Barker by claiming to have formally studied Greek for five years, and so he therefore understood Greek at an advanced level, and therefore his interpretation of a given word was correct and Barkers was wrong.

They were arguing whether the nuances in this particular Greek word for 'raised' implied that Jesus was raised purely spiritually or raised physically.

Hang on, it takes 5 years of study to be able to resolve this question, and even then it all hangs on an ambiguous word, so ambiguous that someone who had studied for only 2 years would misunderstand it?

If that's the case, then the original ambiguous word couldn't be inspired by a God actually trying to communicate a message.

Sorry, I simply don't have the time or money to take 5 years out of my life to devote to the study of an ancient language. If it takes 5 years of study to be sure of the interpretation of some crucial verses in the bible, then I will never have a correct interpretation or understanding of some of the bible, and therefore will never be able to decide for myself what to believe. The only option open to me is to trust the opinion of one expert or another, so how should I choose?

If correct understanding of nuances in the original Greek is required to understand the original message of the NT writings, then the original intent of those writings will be forever lost to me and to billions of others, whose salvation apparently depends on it.

And yet, Christian apologists want me to believe that an omniscient and omnipotent God would inspire a book which is ambiguous on some pretty important things. For me, that is a truly unbelievable claim. If there is a God who intends to convey a message to his creation through a book, he would have done it in an unambiguous way.

Thus I can't help but conclude that if the finer points of an apologist's argument rely on a correct understanding of subtleties in the text, then that argument is invalidated, by default.


Vain Saints said...

There are a lot of problems that have to be cleared up here.

First of all, with the Resurrection, the overwhelming probability is that bodily resurrection is what was being preached from the beginning. It was the unambiguous understanding of the Early Christians, with the sole exception of the Gnostics, there is no evidence of any evolution in belief from some spiritual resurrection to a bodily resurrection, and there is no evidence of serious conflict between spiritual resurrectionists and bodily resurrectionists in the early church. (Those who denied or downplayed bodily resurrection--the Gnostics, and almost no one else--tended to deny the resurrection in full, or even corporality of Jesus himself.

While one could have reasons for being skeptical of the historicity of the resurrection, there are no real grounds for contesting the *doctrine* of bodily resurrection, other than an insistence on Cartesian certainty, which you will never find.

This brings me to my next point. Your entire preoccupation with doubt and uncertainty is a product of a critical disposition that swept through Europe during the "Enlightenment". The Enlightenment Project was all about testing received wisdom against empirical evidence, and it did have its good points. A lot of untenable dogmas were refuted, and a lot of unaccountable authorities had to be called into account.

But the global Enlightenment Project to reconstruct reality from the ground up without recourse to tradition had to fail. The Enlightenment put critical investigation to the forefront, but it always needed something to criticize. A great deal of our knowledge and our identities still derives from the residues of ancient traditions, something that the Enlightenment can never replace. Critical scholarship can penetrate into the tradition and try to verify things and sort things, but the substance of the tradition will always be the main material.

Vain Saints said...

A perfect example is Homer. Critical Scholarship is great at generating the illusion that it is the source of our knowledge of the Homeric tradition. In reality, all the scholars have been able to do is piece together theories of varying strength as to how the Homeric tradition *might* have come down to us. Some of its conclusions are stronger and more relevant than others, but the point is that the cart is placed before the horse. The real substance of the Homeric tradition is the Homeric tradition. In comparison, all the scholars have been able to do is dance around at the margins. It is no surprise that the single greatest achievements of modern scholarship and science have been in what they have *verified* about the tradition, such as the recovery of Troy, or the discovery of the artifacts attesting to the historicity of Pilate.

It is similar with the Christian Tradition. It is the tradition that the Gospels are of any critical interest at all. It is the tradition that provides us with the core substance of Christianity, not its critical examination. The Big Lie of the Enlightenment is that a tradition should be discounted unless it can be verified critically (often--as is the case with this silly non-controversy as to whether the bodily resurrection was preached to arbitrary standards of evidence) rather than embraced unless it can be refuted critically. Until critical analysis came along, tradition was THE reality, was THE source of meaning, and in the case of the special claims of Christianity, THE source of revealed truth.

The only other argument you put forth that is worth mentioning (if only for a quick and unequivocal refutation) is the silly whining about why an Omniscient God would leave his Revelation in an obscure and difficult language. This is a variant of the classic "God should act in the way I want him to" whine, along with "He should show me a miracle just to prove to me that He exists!". Problem is, if he did that, he'd be obligated to show everybody else a miracle to prove that He exists, which would amount to 7 billion miracles for each generation, which would then be so common that they would cease to be miracles, so He would have to keep upping the ante with his miracles to get us to believe in Him on a perpetual basis. And this is just one response. Likewise, perhaps you would be happier if God left Holy Script in every language in every corner at every grade level. But life ain't like that. If you really want Knowledge, it's up to you to invest the time an energy to get it. If you don't want Knowledge, then simply make a decision, Faith or Skepticism.

Certainty will never come. This is why modernism collapsed and broke down. It is why the Enlightenment failed at its more ambitious aims. The Human Mind is not built to grasp the Truth through Knowledge alone. We die too soon.

Ron Price said...

You don't have to learn Greek in order to make an overall assessment of the trustworthiness of the New Testament. However with an enquiring mind and some knowledge of Greek, it becomes clear that there are several key places in the NT where the majority of translations are misleading, apparently because the translators found the likely original meaning unintelligible or unpalatable from a traditional viewpoint. I have concluded, for example, that Gal 2:9 expressed sarcasm ("... those reputed pillars ...", NEB), Jn 18:5 referred to "Jesus the Nazarene" (JB), 1 Cor 15:3 meant "I passed on to you Corinthians first of all ..." (JBP) with the possible implication that the testimony in the following crucial verses originated with Paul.

Vain Saints said...

"However with an enquiring mind and some knowledge of Greek, it becomes clear that there are several key places in the NT where the majority of translations are misleading."

Odd then, that the NT text would have been established as is, considering how clear it is. I take it Mr. Price has "an inquiring mind and some knowledge of Greek." He will perhaps forgive me for being unmoved in my adherence to the inquiring minds and lifelong students of the Bible from whom we derive the current translations, as well as with the millennia of tradition sustaining these translations and their orthodox interpretations.

I am, of course, open to having my mind changed, but not simply by glib assertions about things that supposedly "become clear" (Clear? Really?) with "an inquisitive mind and a bit of Greek". A little knowledge is a dangerous thing, and accordingly, the errors that are stumbled upon by people who know "a bit of Greek" tend to be more farcical than errors of pure ignorance. It's the reason why the ravings of Dan Brown tends to have more unintentional comedic value than that of the average crank. It will take far more laborous and rigorous proofs than "glib statements starting with "Inquisitive minds have demonstrated clearly..."

Again, of course, if I happen to hold that the translations of the Bible that are with us today, which derive from 2000 years of tradition and several hundred years of critical examination are the product of "uninquisitive minds" and have not withstood any real scrutiny from "inquisitive minds", I might be more swayed by such blithe assertions. The fact that I understand that such sentiments could only derive from ludicrous prejudice prevents me from currently doing so.

Ron Price said...

If the meaning of the Greek text of the NT had been consistently clear, then there would not have been a need for so many English translations. For in the real world, even biblical scholars disagree among themselves, and in collaborative translations there will be many places where the translators had to come to some sort of compromise.

Anyone who has studied NT Greek will know that even the underlying Greek text is uncertain in many places because of differences in the extant manuscripts and manuscript fragments.

So there are places in the NT where the Greek text almost certainly represents the original, and where the translation is straightforward. But there are also places where either the original or the translation or both are uncertain.

Since you (V.S.) mention prejudice, I hardly need to point out that it is rife in the sphere of bible translations. What else can account for members of religious groups (Roman Catholics, Protestants, Jehovah's Witnesses, Conservative Evangelicals, etc.) often preferring translations produced by someone who shares their religious beliefs?

Vain Saints said...

Irrelevant, your statement (RP) was that anyone with an inquisitive mind and a bit of Greek should understand that there are certain phrases whose dominant translation is clearly misleading. This implies that the dominant translations were done by uninquisitive minds (since they presumably knew more than a little bit of Greek) and never withstood a challenge from an inquisitive mind en route to becoming the dominant translation. It is this contention which one cannot believe (or even take seriously) w/o a ludicrous degree of anti-Biblical prejudice. If someone knows "a bit of Greek" and a translation seems off to him, the obvious answer is "learn more Greek."

Again, I am perpetually open (in theory) to the suggestion that the dominant translation in some areas may be "clearly misleading" even with a bit of Greek. I have to be, since my Greek is very rudimentary. But this constitutes an extraordinary claim that requires extraordinary evidence. It requires a citation of passages, contemporary lexical use, context, an alternate translation, etc. Otherwise, it's just blithe nonsense.

Ron Price said...

V.S., I did not refer to "anyone", though admittedly my wording was ambiguous. So let's rephrase it. With an enquiring mind and some knowledge of Greek, it became clear to me that there are several key places in the NT where the majority of translations are misleading. I gave examples, with what I perceive to be more accurate translations in those cases, including the alternative (minority) translation from which I was quoting (New English Bible, Jerusalem Bible, J.B.Phillips, respectively). I did not attempt to set out my reasoning in detail. Suffice it to say that in each of these cases (and several others not mentioned here), the more accurate translation probably proved unpalatable to the majority of translators.

Here are two other interesting cases. Aramaic scholars have argued that the Greek word corresponding to "you build" in Lk 11:48 is based on the mistranslation of an Aramaic word which meant "you are their sons". This makes perfect sense, but translators of the Greek are invariably unwilling to accept that the author of the gospel would have written something that doesn't make sense. Several early Greek manuscripts add "their tombs", which supports the conclusion that the Greek as it stands doesn't make sense. But I have yet to find a bible translation which accurately reflects the error here in Luke. Another example is Mk 9:12, in which many translations have the word "scriptures". The Greek text says something is written, but makes no mention of scriptures. The words better translated as "And how is it written about the Son of Man that he should suffer and be treated with contempt?" are almost certainly a marginal gloss. It was originally a scribe's comment in the margin wondering about the meaning of what is written in the text we know as Mk 8:31, a comment which a later scribe mistakenly inserted into the main text.