Dave Black has been posting some interesting things on his blog, and yesterday he wrote a bit about Greek and Hebrew language and culture. I’ve put this on jesusparadigm.com to provide a permanent link. Here’s the bottom line:
The bottom line: I think it’s a bit misleading to insist that grammar and thought are inherently related. There are just too many philosophical difficulties inherent in any theory of mental representations.
He’s absolutely right. I think it’s difficult to get this sort of thing balanced because of two problems. First, there is a relationship between the forms of language an the culture that speaks it, and second, we like to find a theory that settles everything. So the New Testament must be either all Hebrew or all Greek in thought. Why? Because it’s easier to handle. If I know that the background must be Hebrew, then every time someone uses a background from Greek philosophy in interpreting a passage, I can declare them wrong and come up with one final and absolute answer.
In fact, it’s necessary to check many things. Take Hebrews and “shadows of heavenly things,” for example. Is this an idea based on Plato’s philosophy, or do we adjust it to fit better into some idea of Hebrew thought? Perhaps we need to consider the possibility that the author of Hebrews actually has his own view of the relationship between earthly shadows and heavenly realities, and that it doesn’t derive entirely from the background.
Which leads be to an aside. One thing that can suffer when we study the background of thought in order to categorize it, is that we can miss the original thought of an author. But we also need to balance that against the soil in which the thought germinated. There’s probably a reason that an author chooses specific words from those available to him in order to express his original thought.
Similarly, we have the word hilasterion which either occurs or is closely related to words that occur in other Greek literature and is used in the LXX to translate some specific Hebrew terms. So when it’s used in Hebrews do we import the meaning of kapporeth, do we seek for meaning in its usage in Greek, do we spend our time on it’s etymology in Greek (surely an interesting subject!), or do we look strictly at its context in Hebrews?
I’d suggest that we’re going to do some of all of the above, because it’s likely that the author of Hebrews was acquainted with all of that material. He was skilled in Greek, he was acquainted with the LXX, and he was capable of original thought and composition. The final arbiter needs to be the context of his specific usage, but all those other elements form the soil from which that particular meaning is nourished.
I doubt that very many of those who argue the different positions really deny the role of other options. They just sound like they do as the press a theory. Sometimes, however, the main reason to press a theory is that it is distinctive and thus identifiable as our work. I recall hearing a sermon in which the preacher started by saying that he would show us how everyone got the story of the prodigal son wrong. He proceeded to present some good thoughts, though they were not nearly as revolutionary as his opening statement. He denied some other ideas, though his presentation had hardly made it clear that those ideas were wrong. After the sermon concluded, many people left talking about how they had been so enlightened by hearing the “real” meaning of the parable.
I would have said, instead, that they had heard an interesting interpretation of the parable, one with some considerable value, yet neither so original, nor so revolutionary, nor so exclusive as everyone thought. I had to wonder, however, if things had been stated in my preferred way, with “one option for understanding” and “maybe we should consider” and “different understandings are possible” strewn about in the sermon.
When we’re making a point, the temptation is to present all the evidence in favor of our viewpoint and try to downplay the things that are not in agreement. I encountered this in comparative literature. You could find those who thought that Genesis 1 & 2 were clearly copied from the Sumerian and Babylonian stories, and others who thought they were so different that they were clearly unrelated. The fact is that if you get to choose your elements you can make them appear to be very close or very distant. I’d suggest that the reality is that there is a relationship (I suggested in my work for my MA that this was one of sharing cosmological language more than one of literary borrowing/copying).
Similarly I’ve mentioned the etymological fallacy a number of times on this blog. The idea that a word’s meaning is determined by etymology is a fallacy. But I’ve invented the anti-etymological fallacy to go with that. That’s the opposite error which assumes that any use of etymology in determining the meaning of a word is a fallacy. Determines, no. May have some relationship, yes. Thus I’m certain to look at hilasmos and hilaskomai (amongst others) when studying hilasterion. How much help do I get from etymology? That depends on the particular word, and the circumstances of its use.
The pursuit of absolute and certain answers can tempt us to invent them when they don’t exist. It’s nice to settle back comfortably knowing that all words in the Greek New Testament should be understood as expressions of Hebrew thought. One can discard so many thick, multi-volume sets of references, and certainly one doesn’t need to read all those difficult classical Greek quotes to get ideas of the usage of the word. But comfortable and right are not the same thing.
I can think of so many applications of this that I’d better just stop!