Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Patristic Greek: Not a cakewalk!

Well, here I am, fresh from my crash course in Classical Greek. One of my main motivations for taking the course was that I wanted to be able to read patristic writers. So now I am trying. It is doable, but only with some assistance.

I have started with Theodoret of Cyrus (also commonly spelled "Cyrrhus"). This is in large part because the Catholic University Press has recently published two volumes containing Theodoret's The Questions on the Octateuch (Amazon: vol. 1, vol. 2). There is a critical edition of the Greek text on the left-hand page and an English translation on the right-hand page. The English of these volumes was translated by the late Robert C. Hill. It is a very good literary but meaning-oriented translation, which means that I have to look carefully to determine the correspondences between the English form and the Greek, when I refer to the English.

Occasionally I can follow the Greek without the English, but it is sufficiently stylistically complex that I often have to look at the English. The good news is that I can follow the grammar of the Greek, something I don't think I could have done before my latest courses. However, I can see that it will be a while before I can readily follow it without at least occasional reference to a translation. This is about where I am with Syriac and Coptic, as well. In both cases, the key is to read, read, read!

Aside from linguistic issues, it is interesting to see what questions were being dealt with by the early Church Fathers. Theodoret was born in Antioch (Syria) about A.D. 393. He was a native speaker of Syriac, but he likely grew up fully bilingual in Greek. That was the sort of city Antioch was. He only wrote in Greek. These volumes on the Octateuch are not heavy-duty in their theology. Rather, they address questions that were asked by average Christians at the time. The questions are on a level similar those addressed in modern study Bibles, although some of them are a bit different from what modern readers might think to ask. Here are the first few:
  • Why did the author [Moses] not first set down the true doctrine of God before relating the creation of the universe?
  • Why did he not mention the creation of the angels?
  • Did the angels come into being before heaven and earth, or were they made along with them?
  • Yet, some commentators claim that the angels preĆ«xisted heaven and earth, for "if there were no angels," they ask, "how was the God of the universe praised in song?"
The next question is along the lines of what we would call "the Bible and modern science":
  • If the earth was in existence, how did it come to be, since the historian says, "The earth was in existence"?
"The historian" is a reference to Moses. Theodoret displayed all the tact and diplomacy I am inclined to show when faced with questions of a similar sort:

This is a silly, foolish question. He who said, "In the beginning God made heaven and earth," did not say that the earth was eternal, but that it received its existence after, or along with, heaven. Furthermore, the historian did not simply say, "The earth was in existence," but connected it with what follows: "The earth was invisible and formless." That is, though made by the God of the universe, it was invisible, because still covered by the water, and formless, because not yet arrayed with growth or sprouting meadows, groves and crops.

The question and answer arise from the wording of the Septuagint (Greek) translation of the Old Testament, which was (and still is) the one universally used by the Greek-speaking Church. The people who were asking the question were pulling a phrase out of context, and Theodoret said they had to read it in the context of the rest of the sentence. It seems such a simple point, but people have continued to employ similarly silly approaches to Bible reading up to this very day. So the lessons of Theodoret continue to be quite useful to us.

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