Tag Archives: book review

Reading Challenge #1: Stories from Ancient Canaan.

In three weeks I graduate with my BA in Classics and Religious Studies.  This fall I hope to begin an MA in Biblical Languages, in preparation for an eventual PhD.  The plan is to start part-time this fall then transition into full-time next spring.

I’m very excited.

For many years I have known I wanted to be a scholar.  When I realized I was called to biblical studies, it was like a sudden click.  I had been preparing for this for years without even realizing it.  (You’d think a couple years of Greek and Hebrew would have tipped me off…)  Mostly I am interested in looking at the Bible through the lens of intercultural and interreligious exchange and dialogue.  A weird part of me is considering focusing on intertextuality between the Bible and the Qur’an.

Anyway, as preparation, I’ve prepared a summer reading list of primary sources in the Ancient Near Eastern and Greco-Roman worlds, Second Temple Judaism, and early Christianity.  Of course I plan to read the whole Bible. The list draws from graduate reading lists and other bloggers’ advice, especially Ben Blackwell and Michael Bird.  I’m using BookHabit and the Bible Companion App on my phone to track my reading.  As I read each book, I’ll post some thoughts on it here.

Book Review #1: Stories From Ancient Canaan, ed. Michael Coogan

51loCb-rcVL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Coogan gathers here several stories discovered on 14th-century BCE clay tablets in cuneiform from Ugarit.  These stories tell us about the slaughter of Aqhat, King Danel’s son, at the hands of Anat, the goddess of love and war; King Kirta’s need to sire a son and the challenge his son later offers to his kingship; and the infamous Baal’s quest to become king of the gods over El.  Coogan translated these stories as a teaching text, so his introductions to each story really helped me understand the opaque cultural references and fill in some of the gaps of missing text from lost portions of each story.  Coogan is himself a biblical scholar, and his notes constantly make reference to biblical parallels.

A few things I got out of these stories:

  1. There are many literary techniques in common between ancient Israelite and ancient Canaanite writings.  Most important is parallelism, in which “a single idea is expressed in units of two or three lines … by repetition, synonyms, or antonyms” (15).  Some of the symbolic numbers in these stories, such as seven as a unit of time, also appear in biblical literature.
  2. Reading Canaanite literature helps us better understand some of the references to God in the Hebrew Bible.  Many of the titles for God in Israel were borrowed from Canaan.  For example, the title “El Shaddai,” which Coogan takes to mean “God of the mountain,” makes sense because the Canaanite El lived on a mountain.
  3. There are a lot of interesting thematic parallels regarding kingship between Israelite, Canaanite, and Greco-Roman literature.  For example, the storm-god Baal conquering the sky-god El and taking his primary position in the pantheon is similar to Zeus’ takeover of his father Kronos’ position as head god.  On the human level, King Kirta’s son Yassib challenged his father’s right to rule, claiming that he was incompetent and should step down.  This is similar to David’s sons Absalom and Adonijah trying to take over their father’s reign before his death.  This does not necessarily indicate direct literary borrowing, but points to common problems in the ancient Near East and Mediterranean in monarchy and succession.  Different cultures struggling with similar problems of power might come up with similar literary themes.

Reading this Canaanite literature gives us a glimpse of Baal, El, and Asherah, so maligned in the Bible, on their own terms.  Plus the stories are just really cool.

Next up: Hesiod’s Theogony!


Review: Commentaries on Plato’s Crito and Euthyphro.

This past quarter I read Plato’s Crito and Euthyphro in Greek.  My classmate Brian pointed out that this was the first time we’ve ever finished a work in Greek — previous classes on Herodotus and Homer clearly didn’t offer that satisfaction, and even when we read Euripides’ Medea we only got through about 2/3-3/4 of it.  This quarter’s plan was to read the two dialogues above, but we actually finished before the quarter ended, and got to read Aristophanes’ speech from the Symposium as a treat.

I thought it would be helpful for other Greek students to review the three commentaries we used this quarter: John Burnet’s 1924 critical edition with notes, Chris Emlyn-Jones’ Bristol Classical Press commentaries, and the Bryn Mawr Commentaries on each dialogue.  Obviously, I am not a Plato scholar, so I can’t assess how accurate and current each commentary is on Platonic scholarship.  But I can speak from my experience as a member of each commentary’s target audience: an intermediate student of Classical Greek.  Since it would be impossible to analyze every detail of all three, here I use a test case from the Euthyphro to generalize about all three commentaries and their series.

A Test Case: Euthyphro 10e9-11a3

In this passage Socrates concludes the argument that began in 10a about the difference between something being carried and somebody carrying something.  Clearly, the action comes before the state: something is carried because someone carries it, not vice versa.  In 10e9-11a3, Socrates crowns this line of reasoning by pointing out that Crito cannot equate piety with being god-loved, because, according to Crito’s logic, something’s being pious makes it beloved by the gods, so defining piety and beloved by the gods is circular reasoning.  Here Socrates plays with the distinction between φιλεῖσθαι and ἐφιλεῖτο, between “to be loved” and “someone loves it” (the middle voice cannot be rendered into English).  This is one of the most convoluted and difficult to translate passages of this dialogue:

ἀλλ᾽ εἴ γε ταὐτὸν ἦν, ὦ φίλε Εὐθύφρων, τὸ θεοφιλὲς καὶ τὸ ὅσιον, εἰ μὲν διὰ τὸ ὅσιον εἶναι ἐφιλεῖτο τὸ ὅσιον, καὶ διὰ τὸ θεοφιλὲς εἶναι ἐφιλεῖτο ἂν τὸ θεοφιλές, εἰ δὲ διὰ τὸ φιλεῖσθαι ὑπὸ θεῶν τὸ θεοφιλὲς θεοφιλὲς ἦν, καὶ τὸ ὅσιον ἂν διὰ τὸ φιλεῖσθαι ὅσιον ἦν:

G.M.A. Grube translates it:

But if the god-beloved and the pious were the same, my dear Euthyphro, and the pious were loved because it was pious, then the god-beloved would be loved because it was god-beloved, and if the god-beloved was god-beloved because it was loved by the gods, then the pious would also be pious because it was loved by the gods…

A real headache-inducer in any language!

John Burnet

John Burnet’s critical edition and commentary on Plato’s Apology, Crito, and Euthyphro is the starting-point for the other commentaries, which both rely on his text.  Though he was one of the foremost Plato scholars of his day, by now his references to Plato scholarship are dated, since his text was published in 1924.  But his philological help is still good, and he also gives text-critical notes, which the other two do not focus on.  Judge for yourself:


But one major frustration with Burnet is that he often assumes a higher level of Greek than most of his readers would have nowadays.  We don’t see it here, but sometimes he will throw out a phrase such as “Archilochus writes that…” and quote the Greek of another author as if we have read him and know the work well.  Because of this, Burnet’s commentary is not enough for an intermediate Greek student to read Plato without a teacher.

Chris Emlyn-Jones’ Bristol Classical Press commentaries

Chris Emlyn-Jones, who wrote BCP’s commentaries on both Crito and Euthyphro, is a British classicist.  His texts come complete with lengthy introductions providing a guide to the arguments in each dialogue and some of the key contemporary scholarship.  His commentary provides some philological help, but more often focuses on the argument itself.



I really liked using Emlyn-Jones’ commentaries because they helped with the arguments more than the other two.  But having used the Bristol Classical Press commentaries on Homer’s Odyssey last year, I don’t think this is a general feature of the whole series, as those ones were more philological in nature.  In sum, if I were only using this commentary, I don’t think I would have been able to read the Euthyphro very well.

Bryn Mawr Greek Commentaries

John Hare‘s commentary on Euthyphro and Gilbert Rose‘s commentary on Crito are both much shorter, and geared strictly toward philology.  I had never used a Bryn Mawr Commentary before but this appears to be the modus operandi of the whole series.



Of all three commentaries, this was the best for understand some of the linguistic oddities of the text itself.  He helps parse unusual verb forms, explains messy syntax, and gives rough translations when necessary.


Which commentary should you buy?  All three, of course!  Each has different strengths.  Burnet’s is good for the text of Plato.  The Bryn Mawr commentaries were the most invaluable in actually reading Plato.  Emlyn-Jones’ were the most important for understanding Plato.  What’s more, while writing this review I also encountered Jacques Bailly’s commentary on Euthyphro for Focus Classical Commentaries, so there are at least four commentaries.  This is good news for anyone who is trying to read Plato without a teacher.

Onward and upward!

Review: A Brief Introduction to the Arabic Alphabet.

513Gt9F-IsL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Ever since my brief stint studying Arabic last year, I’ve wanted to get back into it.  Since I won’t have any Hebrew courses this spring, now seems like the perfect time.

In preparation, I picked up John F. Healey and G. Rex Smith’s A Brief Introduction to the Arabic Alphabet.  This short (106 pages) book details the history of the Arabic alphabet.  Both authors are scholars of the Arab world, and Healey in particular specializes in writing systems of Semitic and Near Eastern languages.

This book’s seven chapters can be divided into roughly three parts.  The first part contains two chapters on the various writing systems that led up to the Arabic alphabet: Nabatean, Syriac, Aramaic, etc.  I really liked this chapter because it helped me see the connections between the Arabic and the Hebrew alphabets, including how letters that sound different in Arabic and Hebrew today likely corresponded more in biblical times.  He spends several pages reviewing every letter of the Arabic alphabet to trace how its shape evolved from Nabatean to early Arabic papyri to the Arabic script we know today.

The next two chapters describe the earliest Arabic writing, including inscriptions (dating back to the 3rd/4th century CE) and papyri (7th century CE).  The earliest papyri, dating to 643 CE, is a receipt given by ‘Abdullah ibn Jabir, the commander of the Muslim conquest of Egypt, for 65 sheep.  This corresponds to year 22 in the Islamic calendar — the 22nd year since Muhammad and the early umma moved to Medina.  It fascinates me to think that the earliest extant written texts in Arabic correspond to the beginnings of Islam.  One wonders if this is the actual beginning of Arabic writing on an extensive scale.  The Mecca of Muhammad’s youth was a major trade hub, and it stands to reason that there were receipts and other trade-related documents written in Arabic before Muhammad began his prophetic career.  And while there were oral poems in Arabic before the Qur’an, one wonders if the Qur’an marks the beginning of written literature in Arabic.  I wish Healey and Smith had discussed some of these issues.

The final part of the book describes various Arabic scripts.  Of course, Arabic’s cursive script lends itself naturally to calligraphy, and Islam’s aniconic tendencies meant that Arabic writers developed complex, artful, and often practically illegible forms of calligraphy with which to embellish the words of Allah.  Healey and Smith provide 16 illustrations of various forms of calligraphy.  They conclude the book by describing other languages that use the Arabic script, including Persian, Pashto, and Urdu.

When I’m studying a language, I like having background information about the history of the language and how it evolved.  One of my frustrations with Greek is that I haven’t been able to learn that information!   In this book in particular, I would have liked more maps clarifying exactly where different scripts emerged and different inscriptions found.  Other than that, this book was a helpful, hour-long read, and for the adventurous there are several suggestions for further reading in the back.  I would recommend it to any student of classical or Qur’anic Arabic.


Review: Two Greek Philosophical Lexicons.

Since I have been studying Plato this past quarter, I thought I would order F. E. Peters’ Greek Philosophical Terms: A Historical Lexicon to see what I could glean from it.  I later discovered J. O. Urmson’s The Greek Philosophical Vocabularyanother book with the same objective.  Here I review both as a student of Greek, not a scholar of ancient philosophy.

Introducing the Competition

F. E. Peters, an ex-Jesuit classicist and scholar of Islam, wrote his short book in 1967.  J.O. Urmson‘s background is slightly different: he was also trained as a scholar of Greek philosophy, and translated Aristotle for Penguin, but went on to do work in moral philosophy.  Both market their books to intermediate students of Greek language and philosophy who perhaps have studied little to no Greek but still want to understand the ambiguous philosophical terminology they encounter in ancient texts.  Having taken a several philosophy courses, including three specifically on ancient Greek philosophy, I think I’m in his target audience.



Urmson’s book seems to be to be better for beginners.  In his introduction, he writes that his book has 500-600 entries, so he clearly covers more terms than Peters does.  For example, Urmson has 79 entries under A, while Peters has only 31.

Urmson’s definitions are much simpler and to the point.  He never runs over one succinct paragraph, always with quotes in both transliterated Greek and English from various philosophers.  For example, see his entry on kakos (evil, bad):


Urmson 2

And so on, so that we get a good sense of what the word means and where to go to look it up.  I do wish Urmson hadn’t transliterated the Greek: it doesn’t help the Greekless reader, and it gives me a headache because, well, Greek should be in Greek!

One of my major frustrations with this book is that Urmson seems to base his work far too heavily on Plato and Aristotle.  For example, under phusis I found no mention of the pre-Socratics, only 8 citations of Plato and Aristotle.  I found little on any later philosophers.  Also, Urmson could have put something in his introduction about how his work differs from Peters’.


41a2rcDf6BL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Peters’ book, on the other hand, seems better for more advanced students.  Rather than providing a concise explanation for each word, he gives a history of its usage.  That way the reader doesn’t try to read, say, the Platonic use of eidos (form) into the pre-Socratics or Aristotle.  For many entries, Peters also explains how the word was used in pre-philosophical texts such as epic poetry.  His entry on phusis runs for five paragraphs, divided by thinker:

  1. Heraclitus
  2. Parmenides, Empedocles, Atomists, Plato
  3. Aristotle
  4. Stoics
  5. Plotinus

For each thinker, he cites specific passages, making this book far more useful for anyone seeking to trace the history of a term in Greek philosophy.  As a comparison to the entry on kakon in Urmson, here’s Peters’ version:




This format means that Peters’ entries are longer, though he covers fewer words.  For example, his entry on kakon runs for two pages, versus Urmson’s one paragraph.  But there are some words not in here that I felt should be.  Since I was reading Crito and Euthyphro, I looked up the words discussed in those two dialogues.  I found dike, eidos, episteme, kakon, and pathos, but found no mention of idea, which Urmson included.  Neither lexicon included eusebeia or hosion.  Hosion, which means holiness or piety, is a pretty major oversight, since that is the entire subject of Euthyphro.  Nor were “holiness” or “piety” in the English-Greek index.  If these words are missing, what else might be?  To be fair, this book is only 200 pages, and not everything can fit.

In the back of the book, there is also an English-Greek index, so readers who want to know, say, the Greek word for “justice” or “intellect” can figure out where to look.  He provides entries for many English words to account for the diversity of translations, but sometimes still misses the mark, as when he omits “right,” a possible translation for the Greek word dike.

Despite these advantages, Peters’ book might be information overload for beginners.  This book is not very useful for the student who doesn’t know philosophy as well.  I was hoping for something that explained terms on a more basic level, as Urmson does, rather than giving brief references to various thinkers.  I don’t merely want to know that a particular thinker used a term a particular way.  I’d like a brief summary of the text, or a quote from that text.  Without those things this book is less useful to the student of Greek who is just starting her study of philosophy.  Also, it is more dated than Urmson’s book: Peters’ book came out in 1967, while Urmson’s debuted in 1990.


Ideally, you should get both of these, as neither is obviously better than the other. Both Urmson and Peters [1] [2] were reviewed favorably by academics.  But if you’re on a tight budget, I would go with Peters, because his entries make it clearer how different authors define a word, and tend to be more comprehensive in covering a wide range of Greek thinkers.

Review: A Vulgate Old Testament Reader.

When learning ancient languages, I have gone back and forth between inductive and deductive approaches.  So first-year Greek was painful, because there was so much grammar drilling, but my four months of very inductive, surah-by-surah Arabic lessons left me with little ability to read an unfamiliar text.  When I was teaching myself Latin this summer with Wheelock’s Latin, I stopped halfway through the text to spend some time with Scott Goins’ useful reader in Vulgate Latin.

1-59333-215-7Goins bills this as a reader for intermediate Latin students in Vulgate Latin.  Because the Vulgate’s Latin is so simple, very little background is needed to start reading it, even if some nuances might by missed by the beginner.  Goins selects several of the most well-known Old Testament passages and includes them: hits such as the creation in Genesis, the Ten Commandments in Exodus, David’s fight with Goliath, ten different psalms, and the entire story of Jonah.  (You can view the table of contents on Google Books.)  I really liked the variety of the selections included, although he was a little light on Pentateuch readings.

Each selection has running vocabulary at the bottom of the page, but after three uses of any word he includes an asterisk next to subsequent uses to let the reader know they should memorize that word.  The last two readings had no glosses at all, forcing the student to rely on memory and the glossary in the back of the book.

Goins’ introduction includes a brief history of Jerome and the Vulgate, a guide to Latin pronunciation both classical and medieval, and a brief list of basic vocabulary to memorize. He also has a short bibliography of useful books for the student of Vulgar Latin.  Though adequate for intermediate students, his introduction and bibliography are based on survey texts and omit many of the more recent scholarship on Jerome (e.g. Tkacz’ article or Michael Graves’ scholarship).  A better place to go would be Stefan Rebenich’s recent introduction to Jerome, which includes excerpts from the several different types of writing he did.

The Vulgate is a tricky text for Latin students, because often they already know what it will say.  While that could be seen as a defect allowing students to be lazy, it enabled me to connect with the Latin more, because I was personally and spiritually interested in what I was reading.  Knowing the Latin of the Vulgate is also important to understand medieval theologians, who constantly quote and allude to the Vulgate.  More importantly, it was a nice break from Wheelock’s relentless grammar lessons because it let me get comfortable with reading long Latin passages.

Overall, this was a very useful book, especially alongside Smith’s volume which I recently reviewed.  I can only hope that Goins decides to produce an accompanying volume for the  Vulgate New Testament!

Review: Ecclesiastical, Medieval, and Neo-Latin Sentences.

7982Last summer I taught myself Latin using Wheelock’s Latin, Groton and May’s 38 Latin Stories, and Richard Upsher Smith, Jr.’s Ecclesiastical, Medieval, and Neo-Latin Sentences.  One of the frustrations of being interested in Medieval Latin is the scarcity of teaching resources.  While classical authors such as Ovid, Vergil, and Catullus have numerous glossed readers and commentaries for students, Augustine, Bonaventure, and Aquinas do not.  So I was excited to find this volume, which was just published this year by Bolchazy-Carducci, a specialist in Greek and Latin teaching texts.  Smith, a professor at the Franciscan University of Steubenville, provides medieval and ecclesiastical Latin sentences to accompany Wheelock’s gold standard Latin textbook.

For every chapter of Wheelock, Smith provides 15 Latin sentences.  The blend is diverse: some Vulgate excerpts, a few quotes from patristic and medieval theological Latin, and often a few bits from contemporary Latin liturgy or Vatican II documents thrown in.  I really like how Smith provides the sources for his excerpts, so that the reader can dive further into a text if they wish.  I also like that he grades each sentence in order of difficulty.  (I felt better if I couldn’t get a sentence when I saw that it had an “A” for “Advanced”!)  My only complain here is that he often fails to provide context for more obscure sentences.  This is particularly a problem for quotes from scholastic or astronomical treatises.

In the second part of the book, Smith provides 16 readings drawn from the Vulgate, Augustine, Latin hymns, Bede, and other famous Latin writers.  Trying to include many different types of literature, he even includes a monastery charter and an entire passage from the scholastic Summa of Thomas Aquinas.  I haven’t had the chance to work through these yet, so I can’t comment on them too much, but he gives glosses for everything.

Then come the appendices.  He has a 12-page outline of differences between medieval and classical Latin, as well as an extensive bibliography of the Latin texts he draws from, with many short biographies of Latin authors.  At the end there is an index of every author and book of scripture from which he included exercises.

For the student using Wheelock’s Latin who wants some exposure to ecclesiastical and medieval texts, there is no need to justify this book.  Rather than trying to reinvent the wheel and write a new Latin textbook, Smith has added to what is already the gold standard in many high school and college Latin programs.  This book would also be very useful for someone trained in classical Latin who wants a segue into medieval and ecclesiastical texts. Working through Smith gives the student an idea of some of the medieval and ecclesiastical Latin authors out there, and provides basic vocabulary to understand those texts.

But for the beginning student with no Latin and no prescribed textbook, why not use Collins’ A Primer of Ecclesiastical Latin?  Before Wheelock’s, I tried Collins’ book, and found it to be less useful for self-teaching.  Because Wheelock’s is so popular, there is a wealth of study aids, flashcard sets, and accompanying volumes (like Smith’s) to use alongside it.  Plus Wheelock’s is just fun in a way that Collins is not, and it exposes the student to classical authors and Roman culture along with the grammar.  Having tried both methods, I think it better to use Wheelock’s with Smith’s volume, rather than Collins’ by itself.

Smith writes in his preface that as medieval studies grows, more books like his will be needed.  In future posts I will review some of these recent texts, such as Randall Meissen’s Scholastic Latin: An Intermediate Course and Scott Goins’ A Vulgate Old Testament Reader.  And no student of medieval Latin should be without Leo Stelten’s Dictionary of Ecclesiastical Latin.

Book Review: D. A. Carson’s “The King James Version Debate.”

One of the highlights of my summer trip to Oregon was Powell’s Books.  I was 17 the last time I was there.  It’s got SO many books that I actually got tired of looking at books.  My wallet was thankful.

517y7rh1O3L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_One book I picked up there was D. A. Carson’s The King James Debate: A Plea for Realism.  Carson, a prolific Evangelical New Testament scholar (this is one of his early books), examines the arguments of the “King James only” school of thought.  These exegetes argue from many angles: that the KJV is based on the best manuscript evidence available, that modern textual criticism denigrates the authority of Scripture, that the KJV is the most accurate and literal translation available.  Carson refutes these arguments one by one.  He introduces the reader to textual criticism and the principles of biblical translation along the way.

Having never studied textual criticism before, some of the facts in this book amazed me.

In no instance do we possess the autograph […] what we possess is something over 2,100 lectionary manuscripts, more than 2,700 miniscules [smaller cursive script], just over 260 uncials [capital letters], and about 80 papyri.  To keep things in perspective, it is important top remember that the vast majority of these 5,000 or so manuscripts are fragmentary, preserving only a few verses or a few books.  Only about 50 of these 5,000 contain the entire New Testament, and only one of these 50 is an uncial (codex Sinaiticus). (17-18)*

Carson goes on to describe the different text-types, or manuscript families, that textual critics use to establish the biblical text.  When textual criticism was in its infancy and Erasmus put together the Greek text (the “Textus Receptus”) used as the basis for the KJV, he based it on a very small number of later Byzantine manuscripts.  Contemporary textual critics, by contrast, prefer an eclectic approach, using all the manuscript evidence available and resolving manuscript differences on a case by case basis. Carson reviews many passages where the Textus Receptus falls short of modern eclectic texts.  He refutes point-by-point the argument of some KJV-only advocates that the Textus Receptus is better than the results of modern scholarship.

I was more intrigued by Carson’s comments on translation.  In the second half of the book, he argues that the KJV is not the most accurate, literal, or doctrinally orthodox translation available.  He points out the obvious: that no translation can be “literal” or “objective.”

Take, for example, the Hebrew word nephesh.  It can mean “soul, heart, life, man, beast”; it sometimes takes the place of a pronoun … and if idioms are considered, it can mean “neck, throat, and desire.” (91)

I can’t recall any English word that conveys all these nuances.  Carson also takes to task the view that the King James Version is more suitable for God because of its lofty language.

In the first century, books written for the literati were still written in Attic Greek.  Is there something to be learned from the fact that the New Testament documents were written by men who, moved by the Holy Spirit, chose rather the colloquial Hellenistic Greek? (98)

I found this book useful because it condensed many different areas of scholarship to make a cogent point.  It’s clear that Carson wasn’t crazy about writing this book or engaging with the writings of people outside the pale of responsible scholarship, but he engages with charity and never resorts to ad hominem attacks.  He does not say that we should stop reading the KJV — he understands that it is meaningful and beautiful to many people.  But he does say that it shouldn’t be the only translation used in congregations, and that if we are looking for accuracy we should look elsewhere.

*This book was written in 1979 — doubtless more have been discovered since then!

Review: A Gentle Introduction to Old English, Murray McGillivray.

When I look back on this summer in 20 years, one of the strongest memories will be the amount of insight I have gained from my Old English study group.  My university does not teach Old English, but a group of five of us — an English faculty, three recent grads hoping to become medievalists, and myself — have been learning this tongue under the tutelage of a husband-and-wife Anglo-Saxonist team.

There is plenty more to say about that — but it will have to wait for another post.

9781551118413We began learning the grammar with Murray McGillivray’s A Gentle Introduction to Old English.  McGillivray’s book is meant to be a primer to get students into the original texts as rapidly as possible.  In twelve brief chapters, he takes students from pronunciation to the meter of Anglo-Saxon verse.  Along the way he includes exercises and brief readings from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Luke’s Gospel, the story of Ohthere, and a riddle.  The back of the book contains extended readings in Luke’s infancy narrative, Abraham and Isaac, the Voyage of Ohthere, and Aelfric’s Colloquy.  The readings have glossaries and notes on tough passages.  McGillivray also has an accompanying website.

I appreciated that he simplified the grammar greatly, making it possible to start in on real texts as soon as possible.  But now that I am starting to read Anglo-Saxon poetry, I find my understanding of the language (particularly thorny issues like strong verbs) lacking.   While he does lead the student into the grammar step-by-step, he primarily wants the student to learn Old English inductively, through reading texts with glossaries.  The chapters do not have vocabulary lists (let alone principal parts of verbs) for the student to learn, and the grammar is not presented as systematically and step-by-step as it is in Wheelock’s Latin.

Is this book useful?

It depends on your goals in learning Old English.  If you want to work with Old English, follow scholarship about the literature, and be able to look up a few words here and there, it is very useful.  But it is not the kind of primer that will build your knowledge of the language deductively.  Nor will it give the finer points of grammar; Bruce Mitchell’s Guide is a necessary supplementary volume for that.  I would have preferred something halfway between the gentleness of McGillivray and the linguistic overload of Mitchell, which is more of a reference grammar.

One of my main frustrations for this book was the readings in the back.  The Bible readings were useful, and Biblical translation is often a good place to start in any language because, well, you know what it’s going to say!  But the Ohthere and the Aelfric readings were very tedious.  The Ohthere reading included a lot of nautical vocabulary that I doubt I will see again — not perhaps the best vocabulary builder.  The Aelfric reading was written as a pedagogical exercise for children — not the most exciting stuff!  I understand McGillivray’s desire to stick to the simpler syntax and smaller vocabulary of prose readings, but he could have included Bede or the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle instead, readings found in Mitchell’s text.

Within the next few days, I will explain what I have gleaned about language learning from my experience with Old English.  Stay tuned!

Review: Heaven on Earth: Art and the Church in Byzantium.

heaven-on-earth-safran-linda-paperback-cover-artByzantine art, while majestic and regal, is often accused of being bland. No creativity, just repetitive images of saints and biblical scenes. After taking a class on the topic, I am still trying to make sense of the deeper aesthetic of Byzantine art. Linda Safran’s edited volume, one of the books of my class, brings together eight major scholars of this art to connect that art with the religion that inspired it.  All of the chapters in this volume were originally talks given in connection with a Smithsonian Institute lecture series in 1991. I decided to finish the volume to see what lay in store for me. Here I’ll focus on the three chapters I enjoyed most.

While sight is invoked most often in the chapters that follow, the other senses augmented the experience of the Byzantine church-goer or pilgrim: the holy books were read aloud, hymns were sung, icons or relics were touched or kissed, scented oils were used for anointing, and the smell of incense exorcised evil spirits and accompanied veneration. From differing but overlapping perspectives, the eight chapters that follow consider how Byzantine religious arts functioned in their settings and in society, and how they responded to and shaped the circumstances of their creation — in short, how art and architecture contributed in significant ways to the experience of the faithful. (8)

Eric D. Perl’s chapter, “…That Man Might Become God: Central Themes in Byzantine Theology,” expanded on the central theme of theosis, or deification, the idea that humanity can become God or Godlike. He explores how theosis expressed itself in the Byzantines’ strongly incarnational Christology, its negative theology of Pseudo-Dionysus’ “divine darkness” and the hesychasm, and the liturgy, where God reveals himself to us through the senses. I was left with a strong sense of the Christian paradox that while God becomes human, allowing for the overwhelming sensuality of Byzantine devotion, God is also beyond all the forms of art, scripture, and liturgy.8112316284_6cd1cf9d93_z

Theology is liturgy in thought, liturgy is theology in action. (53)

In “The Responding Icon,” Anna Kartsonis explicates the multiple meanings of icons for Byzantine Christians. Icons were not just images of holy figures. They were representations of those figures, embodiments of them on earth. Byzantine literature abounds with stories of people being healed after touching icons of Jesus, Mary, and saints. Icons are themselves incarnations of heavenly bodies. I see this as the Byzantine equivalent of the Roman dogma of the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist: a way to bring Jesus into concrete contact with the faithful. This kind of presence, which in folk miracles can veer on the superstitious, was one of the fuels in the Iconoclasts’ fire.

The image interrelates the prototypical event (the historical Crucifixion), its numerous representations (visual, verbal, ceremonial), and the faithful, who as beholder, witness, and participant responds to its reenactment and re-creation. In the process, the pictorial representation — the icon — remains both constant and flexible in communicating the interrelation and interaction between the prototype, its representation, and the faithful. (75)

9908301523_f597280560_zLastly, Robert Ousterhout’s chapter, “The Holy Space: Architecture and the Liturgy,” argues that Byzantine architecture was not monotonous repetition, but subtle variations on a theme designed to be decoded by the faithful. Byzantine churches, he points out, were like Byzantine liturgy in that they evoked heaven. Icons and mosaics were placed in the culture in a way too suggest transcendence: saints at the human level, biblical figures up higher, Mary and the angels at the penultimate level, and Christ Pantokrator at the high point of the dome. The Hagia Sophia, that massive and massively atypical example of Byzantine architecture, is an apt example of the evoking of heaven:

The sense of weightlessness, despite the huge mass of the building, led Prokopios to conclude that the great dome was not supported from below but suspended by a golden chain from heaven. … More than anything the architecture of Hagia Sophia was meant to transform the ceremonies it housed, the place them on a level different from common existence, transforming them into more symbolic, heavenly drama. (90-91)

3782041213_6f88dbc46e_zBy way of conclusion, I’ll share a story. I have a friend who attends Gregorian chant mass. Last month I attended at her invitation. Much of the afternoon, I felt bored: why the endless dragging out of syllables, the ceaseless repetition of incantations? Afterwards, she explained to me that the chant is supposed to evoke the angels praising God in heaven, and the chants’ length evokes the eternal bliss of God’s presence. It clicked. Perhaps Byzantine art is the visual equivalent of Gregorian chant: it seems dull at first, but only because it operates on a deeper rhythm than we expect. While Safran’s book does not make those connections — I wish there were a chapter specifically on aesthetics — it does have moments of insight. And as art history, it was solid and enjoyable.

Review: Mastering Greek Vocabulary, Thomas Robinson.

downloadOne of the goals of my just-completed New Testament Greek course was to build our Greek vocabulary.  Vocabulary has always been hard for me — I tend to think in big-picture terms and find flashcards and rote memorization dull.  Thankfully we used Robinson’s book, which is organized both by root and by frequency.

Robinson’s book has six main parts:

  1. Identical Greek/English Words: about 250 words that are identical in Greek and English: e.g., ἄβυσσος and abyss.
  2. Cognate Groups: this section, the heart of the book, lists Greek roots in order of their frequency of use, listing all words derived from each root.
  3. Derived English Words: English words derived from Greek with explanations of exactly how, e.g. glossolalia, surgery.
  4. Prefixes and Suffixes: Lists and explains common Greek prefixes and suffixes, e.g. the suffix -σις, meaning “action or something that results from action,” often “-tion” in English.
  5. Identical Prefixes and Suffixes: A short chart of prefixes and suffixes common to English and Greek, such as the alpha-privative in “agnostic” and “atheist.”
  6. Words Occurring 10-19 Times: Words worth memorizing from the New Testament that don’t have a room in common with other words.

In the past I have used Metzger’s Lexical Aids for Students of New Testament Greek, a standard for Greek students.  However, I found its definitions to be sometimes idiosyncratic.  Robinson has far more information when it comes to etymologies and word roots.  For example, take their respective entries for the root αγγελ, “message.”  You can see which one gives more information!





I found Robinson’s book a really useful guide to taking apart Greek words and seeing how relations between words make a difference.  For example, the root παι/παιδ, “child/education,” gives us both παιδεια, “discipline, instruction,” and ἐμπαιγμός, “public ridicule.”  Putting too much stock in etymology can be dangerous — “understand” has nothing to do with standing under something — but sometimes one wonders what cultural assumptions underlie word relations.

Anyway, I found Robinson’s book useful, more so than Metzger’s.  Another book in the same vein is Van Voorst’s Building Your Biblical Greek Vocabulary.  I have not used Van Voorst’s book, but its counterpart, George M Landes’ Building Your Biblical Hebrew Vocabularyis superb.