Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Pericopes, passages or paragraphs?

Scholars love their jargon.  And New Testament scholarship is choc-full of jargon.  Sometimes I get a bit tired of it.  For a bit of fun, I am experimenting with banning myself from using certain jargon-y words and phrases in an introductory article I am writing at the moment.  One of the things I am trying to avoid is "pericope".

There are several disadvantages with the use of the term "pericope" for Synoptic-Gospel units of text.  The first is that it is a jargon-word and functions mainly to make scholars feel superior to everyone else.  It's "in" language.  If you talk about a Biblical "passage", you are not one of us!  You are probably doing a horrid Bible Study with your horrid, non-academic friends, and you have no idea about how to study the Bible academically.  If you were an academic, you'd talk about pericopes!  

The second disadvantage is that no one knows how to do the plural of "pericope".  It's pericopae if one is being truly clever and "in".  But some scholars worry that this is a step too far.  It's just too ponsey.  So they go for "pericopes".  And that looks even more ungainly.

The third great problem with the word is that it cannot survive in the age of auto-correct.  MS Word knows that there is no such word as "pericope".  Surely, you must be intending to write "periscope".  And it will change it for you.  Without even asking you.  It's a free chuckle every time I see "periscopes" in a student paper.  And lest I become too puffed up, I have found it more than once in my own hand-outs, where auto-correct has done its worst.

In any case, what was ever wrong about talking about "passages" in the first place?  The word "pericope" is in any case a legacy of the kind of form-critical approach to the Gospels that we have all long-since abandoned.  Austin Farrer so disliked that kind of atomistic approach that he used to talk about "paragraph criticism", noting that he was quite happy to look at isolated paragraphs but that, in the end, it was the Gospel as a whole that rewarded careful, critical study.

16 comments:

Michael Barber said...

Great post!

Another problem is that the term "pericope" gives the impression that one can neatly divide the stories /passages in the Gospels into clearly defined units. The problem, however, is that it isn't always easy to do that. The Gospels are not always so easily "chopped up", i.e., the "seams" are not always self-evident.

Mark Goodacre said...

Excellent point, Michael; thanks. Yes, I often find that when I am adding references to a "pericope", it is not self-evidence where the beginning and end is!

Mark Goodacre said...

Sorry about that; it arrived and then disappeared! Not sure why.

I agree with you on "redaction" and I have become more worried about this term given the pervasive use of this term to mean something fairly different (in "redacted" documents) in popular newsy and journalistic usage.

A nice idea for a further blog post!

thedivinelamp said...

I think you should also get rid of the word "ponsey" which appears in this post. A Google search for a definition of the word brought up nothing. I'm guessing it's some sort of king's English thingy.

You can afford not to use big words in order to sound pompous and intellectual, you're English, the effect is built into you're accent. Me, I hear Onslow talk on the PBS reruns of KEEPING UP APPEARANCES and I think he's a freakin' scholar. This is the reason I always make it a point to effect a John Gielgud accent every time I experience the misfortune of having to be around instructors who use words like "pericope," "ponsey," and those long, stinking, German words I can never remember how to pronounce, let alone spell.

Rick Sumner said...

This is entirely too true. Case in point, David Attenborough. Try watching Planet Earth with Sigourney Weaver narrating. It's just wrong.

And heavens, the number of times I've had to look up a German word that I've looked up a half dozen times before. I can't imagine a pre internet time. I'd have had to learn German to read English scholarship.

Bob MacDonald said...

I recall periscope from over 10 years ago - thank you

jamesdowden said...

Whilst I admit the problem of identifying the beginning and end of certain p-words in the Gospels, we shouldn't lose sight of their episodic nature (especially Mark).

For instance, the following episodes should be familiar as Mark 2: Healing a Paralytic, the Call of Levi, Fasting Controversy, Sabbath Controversy. These are immediately followed by another healing miracle at the beginning of chapter 3. Indeed, it's not really clear on quite what basis chapter 3 is separated from chapter 2 that would not itself recommend that chapter 2 were four units and not one. Yes, we are used to occasionally slightly weird chapter numbering from the 16th Century, but there is a part of me that wishes that we numbered chapters in the Bible to be a similar length to chapters in non-canonical and classical works: and then the word "pericope" could go and die.

Jens Knudsen (Sili) said...

Do people even know how to pronounce "pericopae"?

I'm sorry I can't take a course (or more) with you. Your approach is refreshing. Please write more books.

Speaking of which: Do you have an opinion on Jean Louis Ska's "Introduction to Reading the Pentateuch"? What would you recommend I get if I want to get a grounding in the Pentateuch? And the Deuteronomistic History and the Prophets?

Geoff Hudson said...

One advantage of using the Whiston version of the writings attributed to Josephus is that it is not split up into verses. The long numbered paragraphs forces one to consider whole chapters and their inter-relation.

Tom said...

In discussing sections of the text, I have used the term pericope, and gotten blank looks from people . . . you are right, passage is a more generic term.

The division into stories/passages is an improvement over a verse by verse approach to the text . . . but, ultimately, it is the relationship to the whole that is the key to understanding. Too many of us, as layman, read the text in a segmented way, while the need to constantly move from the micro-perspective to the macro-perspective is the key to developing a better understanding of the text.

But I run into all kinds of resistance to this idea . . . people still want, even need, to cling to the verse-by-verse approach to the text. This hinders understanding and provides an opening to read meaning INTO the text, not uncover meaning FROM the text. Just a thought.

Unknown said...

MS Word's interference is a little ironic. If I'm correct 'pericope' is from the Greek to 'cut around'. The fact that Word is cutting and pasting in 'periscope' is amusing. By the way, spell checks are great, but I think MS Word acts a little like a cantankerous old teacher . Even if you think you've found the well hidden controls to turn off it's opinionated interference, it will frequently somehow turn itself back on and edit everything you're doing. Fighting over spelling and formatting made me give it up in favour of Open Office, which is much less 'smart', and so less inclined to interfere.

Unknown said...

MS Word's interference is a little ironic. If I'm correct 'pericope' is from the Greek to 'cut around'. The fact that Word is cutting and pasting in 'periscope' is amusing. By the way, spell checks are great, but I think MS Word acts a little like a cantankerous old teacher . Even if you think you've found the well hidden controls to turn off it's opinionated interference, it will frequently somehow turn itself back on and edit everything you're doing. Fighting over spelling and formatting made me give it up in favour of Open Office, which is much less 'smart', and so less inclined to interfere.

Unknown said...

MS Word's interference is a little ironic. If I'm correct 'pericope' is from the Greek to 'cut around'. The fact that Word is cutting and pasting in 'periscope' is amusing. By the way, spell checks are great, but I think MS Word acts a little like a cantankerous old teacher . Even if you think you've found the well hidden controls to turn off it's opinionated interference, it will frequently somehow turn itself back on and edit everything you're doing. Fighting over spelling and formatting made me give it up in favour of Open Office, which is much less 'smart', and so less inclined to interfere.

Jim Preston said...

It gets you good marks when your tutor is marking your paper though, I ound this blog whilst trying to google, "what is the plural of pericope?" and this article lightened up my mood trying to write an essay! Thankyou!

Mike Stewart said...

Surely the plural of "pericope" (a first declension noun in koine Greek) should be "pericopai" not "pericopae"? Why do all my learned teachers appear to make this elementary grammatical error? (does this qualify me for a Pseuds Corner award?)

Mark Goodacre said...

Thanks, Mike. Yes. There was a nice thread about this on Synoptic-L a few years ago:

https://groups.yahoo.com/neo/groups/Synoptic/conversations/topics/2361