Thursday, August 19, 2004

Is the Greek of the Gospels 'vulgar'?

David Meadows points out this one on RogueClassicism, a piece in the Athens News bilingual corner:

Is the Greek of the Gospels 'vulgar'?
. . . . The Greek of the gospels was not the Greek of the intellectuals, it was the vernacular spoken at the time, one that the then 'purists' took great exception to. Manolis Triantafyllidis, the patriarch of modern Greek 'demoticism', pointed this out some eighty years ago to his purist opponents the self-appointed 'defenders of the language' (ΓΛΩΣΣΑΜΥΝΤΟΡΕΣ). Keeping his tongue firmly in cheek, he wonders how could the Holy Spirit, supposedly guiding every action of the Apostles, have made such a blunder as to use an allegedly degraded form of Greek to convey the 'Good Message' (ΕΥΑΓΓΕΛΙΟ = gospel) to the world at large.

Prominent among the 'atticisers' of Hellenistic times was a rhetorician and lexicographer named Phrynichus, who lived under the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius (AD121-180) and his son Commodus (AD161-193). Among his writings is a book vituperating against the 'degraders of Greek' - such as the Apostles - and insisting with some stridency on what he called good usage.

He thus objects, for instance, to the third person plural of the verb 'ΟΙΔΑ' (I know) which in attic Greek is ΙΣΑΣΙΝ and not ΟΙΔΑΣΙΝ as in Jesus' statement 'ΑΦΕΣ ΑΥΤΟΙΣ ΟΥ ΓΑΡ ΟΙΔΑΣΙ ΤΙ ΠΟΙΟΥΣΙΝ' ('Forgive them for they know not what they are doing'). He objects strongly to Roman imports into the language and the use of the word centurion (ΚΕΝΤΥΡΙΩΝ) by Mark (15.39). He objects to the word 'ΣΟΥΔΑΡΙΟΝ' (cloth) as used by John in describing the resurrected Lazarus: 'ΚΑΙ Η ΟΨΙΣ ΑΥΤΟΥ ΣΟΥΔΑΡΙΩ ΠΕΡΙΕΔΕΔΕΤΟ' ('and his face wrapped in cloth') as well as to the word ΦΡΑΓΓΕΛΙΟΝ (whip) coming from the Latin flagellum, that Jesus cracked to chase the traders from the temple.

He even forbids the use of the word ΠΑΝΤΟΤΕ, insisting that 'ΠΑΝΤΟΤΕ ΜΗ ΛΕΓΕΤΕ ΑΛΛΑ ΔΙΑ ΠΑΝΤΟΣ' (Don't say always but for ever). How is it then, Triantafyllidis wonders, that Jesus is quoted as saying (John 12.8) 'ΤΟΥΣ ΠΤΩΧΟΥΣ ΓΑΡ ΠΑΝΤΟΤΕ ΕΧΕΤΕ ΜΕΘ' ΕΑΥΤΩΝ, ΕΜΕ ΔΕ ΟΥ ΠΑΝΤΟΤΕ ΕΧΕΤΕ' ('you will always have the poor with you but you will not always have me'). He also objects to the use of ΒΡΟΧΗ to mean rain instead of the attic term ΥΕΤΟΣ pointing out that ancient Greeks such as Democritus and Xenophon used ΒΡΕΧΕΙΝ in the sense of to moisturise, while to rain is only and should always - or rather forever - be ΥΕΙΝ. Mathew (7.25) is then also committing a linguistic sin when he quotes Jesus as saying 'ΚΑΙ ΚΑΤΕΒΗ Η ΒΡΟΧΗ...' ('The rain fell...')

Astonishingly the 'defenders of the language' throughout history, looking backwards and being as a rule one or two steps behind the Greek speakers, seem to have never learnt anything from the repeated failures of their predecessors.

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