Monthly Archives: April 2014

Sunday Roundup #2: 4.27.14.

Last week I began what I hope to make a weekly practice of finding my favorite blog posts of the week – related to ancient languages and culture, of course.

1. The International Qur’anic Studies Association blog had a review of a new Qur’an translation. This one apparently dialogues with both traditional Islamic scholarship and Western higher criticism:

He is interested not only in the scholarly theories and methods surrounding the interpretation of the Qur’an but also in its relationship to pre-Qur’anic texts. Droge is evidently knowledgeable of and comfortable with the texts of the Hebrew Bible and New Testament, as well as the interacting discourses of the Qur’an with them. Moreover, he demonstrates great awareness and familiarity with other earlier translations of the Qur’an by Muslims (Pickthall, Yusuf Ali, and Abdel Haleem) and non-Muslims (Bell and Arberry) (xxii, xxvi).

2. I enjoyed Jacob Cerone’s blogging through a conference he attended on the textual criticism of the “Pericope Adulterae,” the story of the woman taken in adultery. I particularly enjoyed his two final posts. His summary of each speaker was a good reminder of the difficulties of applying textual criticism to homiletics and preaching. As he puts it,

We do not try to excise that passage in order to get back to what the original author of the book wrote. Instead, it is accepted as a part of the final form–whatever that form might be–of the text. In that vein, I don’t think that John wrote the PA. I do think that it was artfully crafted, inserted into the Gospel, received, affirmed, preached, and taught within the church. I am not resolved on this position. This is simply me thinking out loud, and I am open to persuasion.

3. I have been enjoying (and wanting to get around to translating!) medievalist Nathaniel Campbell’s posts exploring the Latin hymns of Hildegard von Bingen. This week’s installment is just the latest.

O virga mediatrix,
sancta viscera tua
mortem superaverunt
et venter tuus omnes creaturas
illuminavit in pulcro flore
de suavissima integritate
clausi pudoris tui orto.

O branch and mediatrix,
your sacred flesh
has conquered death,
your womb the world illumined,
all creatures in the bloom of beauty
sprung from that exquisite purity
of your enclosèd modesty.

4. I haven’t had a chance to read it yet, but Rodney Decker has posted a draft of his work on the Greek verb.

5. Last but not least, I should mention that registration for Michael Heiser’s online courses in biblical languages is open! Heiser is a scholar of Hebrew Bible and Semitic Linguistics and works for Logos. That Ugaritic course looks tempting…

Caves, Dining Halls, and Civilization in Homer’s Odyssey.

[Note: As part of my course in Homeric Greek, each student had to write a paper analyzing a key term or set of terms in the Odyssey.  Three of us are blogging our papers for my upcoming blog carnival.  This one is based on my paper, though obviously pruned!]

Homer skillfully uses terms for living spaces to demarcate civilized from uncivilized people.  This adds to the characterization of Odysseus as a hero “of many twists and turns” (πολυτροπος) who traverses and masters both the civilized and uncivilized worlds.

The most fundamental distinction in dwelling places in Homer is the division between cave-dwellers and house-dwellers.

Those who live in a cave (σπέος and ἄντρον):

  • Polyphemus and other Cyclopes
  • Kalypso, who slept with Odysseus “in hollowed caves”
  • Skylla
  • local deities and spirits, including the water-nymphs of Ithaka

Those who live in a house with a dining-hall (μέγαρον):

  • Odysseus
  • Other great lords: Agamemnon, Menelaos, Alkinoous
  • Zeus and other Olympian gods
  • Circe on her pleasure-island

Only civilized people or gods live in a house with a dining-hall.  In the Homeric world, the dining hall was not only was the physical center of a house and the location of its central hearth.  It was where socializing happened, where ξενοι (stranger-guests) were received, where feasts took place.  The term μεγαρον does not refer to the entirety of a house (δωμα).  But it is often used to refer to the most important part of the house, where the action happens.

What’s the difference?  Cave-dwellers are uncivilized.  They are lawless and do not interact with others of their kind, whether human or god.  Since they do not meet in assemblies, there is no need for them to have a room of their house devoted to dining with guests.  Polyphemus eats, sleeps, and receives his guests all in one giant cave.

For Homer, law and assembly define civilization for both mortal creatures and gods.  Cyclopes observe neither laws nor hospitality etiquette.  Just as the (quasi-)human cyclopes are lawless and ignore custom living in caves, so do the local deities who also live in caves.  This is clear in book five, when Kalypso remarks to Hermes that he does not come around to her island very often.  Kalypso is out of communication with the Olympian assembly of the gods.  Like other nymphs in the epic, she is not in assembly with the other gods.  Here she follows their laws only grudgingly.  And both the human Polyphemus and the goddess Kalypso display their lack of civilized behavior by flagrantly violating ξενια (guest-stranger) codes, one by eating his guests and the other by keeping him as a prisoner.

The μέγαρον as imagined by George Autenreith.

Homer uses this duality to characterize the suitors as animalistic.  The suitors eating up Odysseus’ home are presumably civilized men.  They come from established families of Ithaca.  Yet after they die, when Hermes leads them to the underworld, Homer makes an interesting comparison:

[Hermes] waved them on, all squeaking
as bats will in a cavern’s underworld [μυχῷ ἄντρου],
all flitting, flitting criss-cross in the dark
if one falls and the rock-hung chain is broken.

The suitors are compared to beasts living in caves.  The suitors are as unlawful as animals.  They fail to respect their host Odysseus/Telemachos by eating his home to the bone and conniving to take his wife.  Although they seem civilized because they come from civilized families, their actions are not.  Odysseus’ task in cleansing his hall of the suitors is not merely gaining back his own house, but symbolically cleansing Ithaca of uncivilized forces that threaten its stability.

In the first line of the entire epic, we hear that Odysseus is πολυτροπος.  He is a man of many twists and turns, able to function and succeed in many different circumstances.  In the first half of the Odyssey, Odysseus’ most well-known struggles take place in caverns, such as those of Kalypso and Polyphemus.  But later in the epic, his challenges take place in dining-halls, especially Alkinoous’ and Odysseus’ own hall.  In both situations, Odysseus succeeds.  He is crafty, independent, and resourceful enough to beat opponents who have no care for laws and social mores.  Yet he is also tactful, using “winning words” in social situations where verbal persuasion is called for rather than brute force or trickery.  The use of the interrelated terms for cave and dining-hall help flesh out this distinction between civilized and uncivilized peoples.

Five days left until the Ancient Languages Blog Carnival!

Submissions for the very first ancient languages blog carnival close at midnight on April 30!  Please, send me your blog posts, here or at  While there will definitely be some overlap with the Biblio-Blog Carnival and the Patristics Carnival, I already have submissions with studies in Qur’anic Arabic.  (And not just my own!)

There is no need for the posts to be current either – feel free to send me older stuff for this first carnival at least.  Although there are some great websites about ancient languages, there seem to be few blog discussions on the topic, and little discussion between those from different disciplines.

As for me, I will be contributing some posts on Homer, with help from my classmates who read the Odyssey with me last quarter!

An Easter Reading of Surah 103.

It is often said that Latin makes one learn English better.  In my case, learning Arabic is helping my Hebrew – so many cognates, so many grammatical similarities.  I could write a post on every surah we study!  Instead, I’m trying to get into the routine of one post per week.

Saturday we read Surah 103, “Time”:

Wal ‘Asr
Innal insaana lafee khusr
Illal ladhenna aamannu
Wa ‘amilus saalihaati wa tawaasau bilhaqq
Wa tawaasau bis sabr

As the day runs out
Man is certainly in a state of loss
Except those who keep the faith and do good deeds
Who exhort in the truth, who encourage endurance (translation of my class and me)

As I wrote last week, the Qur’an’s poetry can be enigmatically brief.  With a little explication, we can see that this isn’t just a poem of apocalyptic moral judgment.  It isn’t just God sounding angry.  It is a surah of hope.

First, the opening phrase, “Wal ‘Asr.”  This is rendered “By (the Token of) time (through the Ages)” by Yusuf Ali.  Arberry renders it “by the afternoon!”  Sells renders it “by the age, the epoch.”  As explained to me in class, this phrase literally refers to the afternoon or dusk, but figuratively applies to a period of time that is running out.  The afternoon is a taxing time.  It is hot.  We feel sluggish.  The concrete image of daylight running out brings with it the danger of eschatology.  This image would be even more powerful in an ancient time when there were no lightblubs to run at night.

Second, the word “khusr.”  This term is also used in finance to refer to being broke or bankrupt.  Here is refers to humanity’s moral bankruptness.  We are in loss.  I see a parallel here to the Christian concept of original sin.

But there is hope.  The final verse names an exception to the impending doom on humankind: those who keep the faith, do good deeds, and exhort others in truth and enduring patience.  But given that the day is running out, there is no time to sit on the fence in such a matter.  There is no agnosticism possible here.  You either believe or you don’t.

I have never been one for apocalyptic language.  But I can get into this surah.  It’s very Easter. The first two lines bring you to (in Christian terms) the foot of the cross: all hope has been lost. But the last two lines bring you to the empty tomb, to hope.  Time is running out and the world is going to pot.  But Allah has given humanity a way to get out of this mess: the message of faith in Allah that has been preached by every prophet from Abraham to Noah to Jesus to Muhammad.

Although Muslims believe in Jesus as an exalted human prophet, the Qur’an denies the crucifixion and resurrection.  Instead, Jesus was “taken up” (ascended) to God at the end of his earthly ministry.  So Easter doesn’t hold much sway for my Muslim friends.  But on Easter, this surah evokes for me both the despair of the cross and the hope of the empty tomb.  It reminds me that God can make good come out of despair.  Despite their very different versions of what happened at the end of Jesus’ time on this earth, the Qur’an and the Gospels both hold out hope as a gift from God.

Handout: Timeline of the Vulgate.

One thing I like to do when studying a new subject is make diagrams and charts.  I made my own verb charts when I was learning Hebrew, because that way I knew I was making sense of it myself.

I just stumbled across a timeline of Vulgate translation that I made when I was working through the Old Testament Vulgate Reader.  Here it is: Vulgate Translation TImeline.  I mostly based it off of Catherine Brown Tkacz’s article, “Labor Tam Utilis: The Creation of the Vulgate.”  If there I anything I’ve noticed about studies on the Vulgate, it is that there seems to be an absolute paucity of them.

Caravaggio, "St. Jerome Writing."

Caravaggio, “St. Jerome Writing.”

Feel free to use it for whatever you want.  I appreciate any comments or corrections.  In the next few days I will make a section of this site for these handouts.

Sunday roundup #1: 4.20.14.

As we said in church this morning: “Alleluia!  Christ is risen indeed!”

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, ‘They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.’ Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went towards the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples returned to their homes.

But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look* into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping?’ She said to them, ‘They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.’ When she had said this, she turned round and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping? For whom are you looking?’ Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Mary!’ She turned and said to him in Hebrew,* ‘Rabbouni!’ (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, ‘Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” ’ Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’; and she told them that he had said these things to her. (John 20:1-18)

As a way to note articles and blog posts I find interesting, I’m trying to start a weekly habit of rounding up my favorite posts of the week.  Here goes.

1.  Patristics Carnival XXXIV: After a few years, the carnival has been resurrected – what better day than Easter?

2. Reading the Odyssey in Greek: The Repetition of Sound:

Presented here is one side of Odysseus: his warmongering tendency to use cleverness and cunning tricks–”ways”–to bring destruction upon others. However, this poem will emphasize not his exploits in war but his wanderings, for the word planchthe, at the front of the line, takes precedence over his time as a war hero.

3.  NT Exegesis’ Impromptu Readers of Greek readings for Good Friday and Easter Sunday.

4.  The Magical Powers of Hebrew (And Greek, I Guess):

So I’ll admit, when I first decided to study the biblical languages I thought I was going to be entering into a magical world where the Hebrew and Greek languages were going to make things come alive in new ways I’d only imagined before.

When I first heard that there were no such things as original manuscripts, this was my first of many future mental stutters. But it made sense, so I moved on. Then, when I realized Biblical Hebrew and Koine Greek were just another language obscured with boring rules of grammar and syntax, my original enchantment began to wear off.

Also, a few older posts that I stumbled across in cleaning out my email:

On Being Wrong, Bold, and Humble as a Bible Scholar – of course, this advice applies to any kind of scholar!

Chagall and Jewish-Christian Dialogue – in my other life I am really passionate about interfaith dialogue, so I liked this post.

Martin Luther on the value of learning Hebrew and Greek.

A Short Note on God’s First Greek Words | Words on the Word.

A Short Note on God’s First Greek Puns: Earth, Birth-Word, Woman, Know | BLT.

On Ridiculous Goals and Divine Tongues.

Earlier this week I stumbled across Alyxander Folmer’s post on “The Value of Sacred Language“:

I believe there’s a LOT that the we Heathens could learn from the Jewish community, but if I had to pick a starting place it would be that idea of sacred language. […] If we want to grow and embrace the depth of meaning behind the old legends, we need to promote a culture that encourages individuals to read and interpret those stories for themselves. I believe it’s time we started teaching the next generation of Heathens to define themselves, and move beyond letting others interpret our Lore for us.

When I was 20 I made a vow to learn every language with a sacred text.  I made a list: Sanskrit, Hebrew, Arabic, Greek, and a few others.  I was fascinated by the way religious traditions enshrine their tongues as sacred.  In my Buddhism course I learned that certain Vedic thinkers believed Sanskrit embodied the structure of the universe.  According to these thinkers, the connection between sound and meaning in Sanskrit is not arbitrary (as linguists would hold) but exists prior to the creation of the universe.  I read about Kabbalists who believed the Hebrew alphabet holds mystical significance.  Muslims call Arabic “the tongue of the angels.”  (I don’t know of any equivalent movement in Christianity that considers Greek a divine language.)  I thought I could learn something from these special languages.

I don’t think I need to explain how naive that goal is!  The concept of a “canon” does not apply so neatly outside Abrahamic traditions.  In Buddhism, the “canon” varies by region, so that Sri Lankan Theravada Buddhists don’t read the same books as Tibetan practitioners.  Whatever books they do share, they don’t read them in the same language.  So to read the sacred texts of Buddhism, I would at least need to learn Pali, Sanskrit, Chinese, Tibetan, and Japanese.  A tall order — I don’t work with Sino-Tibetan languages well.

Even within Abrahamic traditions, the idea of a canon can get messy.  Take Latin.  It’s not the sacred language of the Bible for Catholics.  But they used it to read, pray, and chant those scriptures for a millennium.  So is Latin a sacred language for Catholics?

Cuneiform, anyone?

Cuneiform, anyone?

And, to respond to Folmer, I didn’t even know that neopaganism existed when I set that goal.  Folmer rattles off several tongues that a modern-day Heathen would have to learn: Old English, Old Norse, and other English and Germanic languages.  One might as well get a Ph.D. in early medieval literature.  It’s a tall order.  And that doesn’t include other neopagan/reconstructionist groups, such as the Egyptian and Near Eastern traditions.

So while learning every sacred language is a lofty goal, I think I will be dead long before I reach it.  And who’s to say that any language isn’t sacred?

Compact Qur’an: Surah 109 and Isaiah 24:16.

A few weeks ago I gushed about the value of writing concisely.  Today I had another moment of bliss.  I was translating Surah 109 for my Arabic class:

Say: O ye that reject Faith!
I worship not that which ye worship
Nor will ye worship that which I worship.
And I will not worship that which ye have been wont to worship
Nor will ye worship that which I worship.
To you be your Way and to me mine. (Yusuf Ali translation)

Verses like this made me think the Qur’an was shoddy poetry.  To English ears, this surah sounds bad both semantically and syntactically.  It has too much semantic repetition, and the syntax is just confusing.  But in Arabic, the same verses have a concise beauty to them.

English prides itself on its huge vocabulary.  English wordsmiths can choose from several words with the same meaning but slightly different connotations or sounds.  So this kind of repetition sounds bad to English ears.  Teachers correct it.

Similarly, English requires too many syntax words for this surah to translate well. Take the verse“I worship not that which ye worship.”  Phrases that “that which” are clumsy and give me a headache.  But in Arabic, it works:

Laa a-‘budu ma ta-‘buduna
Not I-worship that you-worship

Qur’anic Arabic does not need as many syntactic words as English does.  There are only two.  The verbs contain their subjects, so you do not need words for “I” and “you.”  A verse that requires 7 words in English can be expressed by 4 in Arabic.  Yet these 4 words evoke so much: Muhammad’s repudiation of Arabian Jahiliyyah polytheism, his relatives shunning and outcasting him, the hatred and ridicule he faced on a daily basis for the revelations he preached.  There is a lot packed into these punchy four words.  The awkward syntax is not a defect of the Qur’an but a limitation of English.

As for the semantic repetition, I was immediately reminded of Isaiah 24:16:

bogedim bagadu ubeged bogedim bagadu
For the treacherous deal treacherously, the treacherous deal very treacherously. (NRSV)
The deceivers deceive, and with deception the deceivers deceive. (my rough translation)

When this verse came up in my Hebrew class last fall, the entire class laughed, because it sounded so silly!  It has a noun referring to actors performing an action, the verb for that action, and another noun referring to the action.  In Hebrew, all three of those words would come from the same root — in this case B-G-D.  This is possible to do in English, but as you can see above it seems ungainly.  As above, English requires more words.  A word-for-word translation would look more like this:

Deceivers deceive, and deception deceivers deceive.

In both Hebrew and Arabic, the compactness of these verses is made possible by the linguistic structure of the languages.  Neither translates very smoothly into idiomatic English.  Yet I love the compactness these Semitic tongues enable.  After reading flowery Greek and Latin prose in my classics courses, they are a breath of fresh air.

An apologia for classics majors.

This weekend I helped recruit for the classics major to incoming first-years.  I should say first-year because only one showed up to our session!  This is normal for a program like classics.  The good thing for me was that the session forced me to think about why I value the major.

When I transferred to my university, I started taking Greek to better understand the New Testament.  I quickly learned that my university did not offer many Greek reading courses on texts relevant to early Christianity.  There was one New Testament Greek course.  I decided I would major in Greek, resigning myself (!) to reading Homer, Herodotus, and Sophocles.

But when I read these authors in translation, I was hooked.  I decided to not only continue reading these classical Greek writers, but to add the whole major, not just the language courses.  This was definitely one of the best decisions of my time in university.


Classics is interdisciplinary.  I do not like disciplinary boundaries.  I prefer playing with them to see the broad connections between many fields of study.  Classics enables me to do this.

For example, last quarter I took a philosophy class on ancient Stoicism.  The Stoics, who stressed living in accordance with the pantheistic telos of the universe, were one of the most famous schools of thought of the Hellenistic age.  At the same time I was also taking a course on the history of the Hellenistic era.  I saw how philosophical schools fit into the Hellenistic world, as one more school providing answers and roadmaps for those uprooted by the strange new world wrought by Alexander.  I also connected the Stoics with my fall religious studies “Gender in Early Christianity” course, as the Stoics make the same connection between manliness and virtue that Greeks, Romans, and early Christians made.  These connections between philosophy, religion, and history also tie into the Latin language itself, where vir (man) and virtus (virtue) are connected by etymology.

One sacrifice we make for interdisciplinary is breadth.  A history major might not let you engage in as many modes of reading culture, but it would give you a better overview of many different times and cultures.  But if you begin with Hesiod (7th/8th century BCE) and end with the fall of Rome (476 CE), you are still covering 1,200-1,300 years of human history in classics.  And that’s not counting the Minoans and Mycenaeans beforehand, or the 1,500 years of classical influence on Western culture afterwards.  Nor is that counting the interactions Greeks and Romans had with Near Eastern and Asian cultures via warfare and the Silk Road.

Classics gets respect.  The unfair but true fact is that some liberal arts majors are seen as fluff.  I would know – my other major is religious studies.  Even though few people study Latin or Greek any more – perhaps because of it! – it still carries a certain cachet.  Studying it makes people perceive you as intelligent.  And rightly so — language courses are definitely the hardest part of a classics major!

If you are applying to graduate school in the humanities, a background in Latin or Greek will make you stand out.  My Buddhism professor, who knows Tibetan, Sanskrit, Chinese, and Pali, tells me he wishes he could read Greek.  My Islam professor actually began grad school in classics before switching to Arabic!  And I can’t tell you how often in class a professor asks me how to pronounce a Greek word correctly.  Those moments make me proud.

Classics students are crazy about their major.  At both community college and university, I noticed that small departments tended to have really dedicated majors.  This applies to classics — but also to many other underpopulated disciplines that students have likely never heard of before college.  The truth is that I have met scores of English, history, and political science majors who seem lukewarm to their major.  But the anthropology, religious studies, womens’ studies, and classics majors I have met were all crazy about their major.  Most had existential questions and life discernments impelling them toward their chosen field of study.  I’m curious if other people have observed the same correlation between major obscurity and major devotion.

Anyway, I hope you found my apologia convincing.  What did/do you love about your college major?

Some thoughts on “Noah.”

Today I got out to see Noah with my friend Brian.  I can’t say I was too impressed.  The special effects were great.  The landscapes and scenery were amazing.  But the plot itself, and its rethinking of the Biblical story, didn’t convince me.  Much of it felt gimmicky.  By the end of the movie I was quite bored by the theological conflict Noah went though.  (I can’t say any more without spoiling the plot!)

An angry Noah.

An angry Noah.

That said, I loved the beginning of the movie.  The writers really conveyed a sense of Noah as man with pietas, a facility for listening to the movements of God in the world around him.  There’s one scene where Noah rebukes his son for picking a flower: it belongs in the earth, for that is where it grows.  I am not the first to notice the obvious ecological slant of the movie.  I mention it because it moved me greatly.  In the primordial harmony of creation, we live in balance with the earth and we treat one another with kindness.  I am going to spend more time pondering how my environmental choices fit with my faith, and how the beauty of the natural world calls to me as a sacrament of God.