Thursday, May 13, 2010

An Evening with Father Christy: The Greek (?) Orthodox Church

In this second installment of my reflections on Fr. Paul Christy’s lecture, I’d like to depart from the questions of church history which dominated his talk and address a peripheral issue. The Father addressed on a number of occasions the text of Scripture, commenting that when one goes back to the original Greek and translates it without agenda, the validity of Orthodox claims become self-evident. (I will not, for the sake of space and tact, address at length the claim that the Orthodox translate from the original text. Let it suffice to say that it is arguable whether the Byzantine recension on which the Orthodox translation is based is in fact more “original” than the much older Alexandrian recension on which the agenda-driven Protestant translations are based. As for the question of whether or not the Orthodox translation lacks agenda, I hope the answer to that will come in due course.) On two particular instances I would like to call his translation into question.

The Particularizing Function of the Article

It is Fr. Christy’s belief that the church in Acts is “liturgical, hierarchical, and sacramental.” To substantiate the first of these claims (the only one I truly object to), Fr. Christy directed us to Acts 2:42, which a Protestant (myself in this case) might translate: “but they continued steadfastly in the apostolic teaching and in fellowship, breaking bread, and prayer.” Fr. Christy objects that this is a misrepresentation of the text, which actually says, “the prayers.” The reference to “the prayers” is understood by Fr. Christy to be a reference to the liturgical prayers of the early church. There is, however, a flaw in his unbiased translation, viz. the confusion of the English definite article with the Greek article. The article in Greek does not have an exclusively particularizing function in the way that Fr. Christy would require in order to definitely demonstrate that the reference here is to a particular set of prayers.

To demonstrate this, I turn to trusty Daniel B. Wallace and his Greek Grammar:
The function of the article is not primarily to make something definite that would otherwise be indefinite. It does not primarily “definitize.” There are at least ten ways in which a noun in Greek can be definite without the article. For example, proper names are definite even without the article. Yet, proper names sometimes take the article. Hence, when the article is used with them it must be for some other purpose. Further, its use with other than nouns is not to make something definite that would otherwise be indefinite, but to nominalize something that would otherwise not be considered as a concept. To argue that the article functions primarily to make something definite is to omit the “phenomenological fallacy” - viz., that of making ontological statements based on truncated evidence. No one questions that the article is used frequently to definitize, but whether this captures the essential idea is another matter.

Wallace divides the function of the article into three concentric categories: definitize, identify, conceptualize. Whatever definitizes, also identifies, and whatever identifies also conceptualizes. The reverse is not true. While every article conceptualizes in some sense, not every article identifies. Every article that identifies does not therefore definitize. To suggest that the presence of the article with prayer in Acts 2 must indicate a liturgical understanding goes beyond merely particularizing what is likely not a reference to particular prayers but anachronistically reads the later tradition back on to the text. Would Fr. Christy really embrace the logical implications of his understanding of the article?

John 2:25 becomes an enigma if the articles are made particular. Instead of saying, “Thus, he did not need to have anyone testify concerning man for he knew what was in man” it would say, “Thus, he did not need to have anyone testify concerning the particular man for he knew what was in the particular man.” Who is this man, Fr. Christy?

Or Matt 18:17, where “Gentile” and “tax-collector” are understood as concepts or categories, Fr. Christy would have us read “He will be to you as the Gentile and the tax-collector,” but which one? Which Gentile and tax-collector should we treat him as?

Do we suppose that Eph 5:25 is directed at particular husbands about particular wives or a general exhortation for wives and husbands? The article is present before both cases.

More frightening, if the article particularizes and the abstracts by its absence, what are we to do with John 1:1 where Jesus is not the God but merely a god?

Superimposing a particularizing function on the Greek article is fundamentally bad Greek (which I thought was ironic given the context in which the error occurred). It is not beyond the realm of possibility that Acts 2 is reference particular prayers. It is within the semantic function of the article to particularize, but it is by no means ironclad evidence of an agenda that most scholars do not identify that article as particularizing. An equally valid case might be made that it is evidence of bias that the Orthodox choose to see the prayers are particular. Wallace, for his parts, identifies the multiple uses of the article in Acts 2:42 as representing the “familiarity” function of the article, where it is used to designate concepts which are familiar to the audience. The readers were familiar with the practices of teaching, fellowship, prayer, and breaking bread to which Luke was referring. For my part, I wonder if the article is not anaphoric, reaching back to Acts 1:14 to draw continuity between the prayers of the apostles and the church. Either way, Christy’s translation is by no means clear cut.

The Hebrew Liturgist

The second support for the liturgical nature of the early church was an appeal Heb 8:2, where the word leitourgos appears. According to Christy, the typical translation of this word as “minister” is a deliberate rewriting of the text. He all but suggested that another Greek word must be assumed if the translation of minister is to be valid. For Christy, apparently no translation will suffice, since he suggest instead the transliteration “liturgist.”

I confess that without Wallace’s help, I never would have been able to discuss the “phenomenological fallacy.” I can, however, recognize the etymological fallacy when I see it. The only thing more erroneous than assume the static function of the article is assuming the static definition of the word. That our present term “liturgy” comes from the Greek used in Heb 8:2 does not determine the definition of the term historically. It would be grossly anachronistic to look up the word “liturgy” in a modern dictionary or even “leitourgos” in a modern Greek dictionary and assume that the Koine term “leitourgos” can be defined in the same way.

BDAG (the standard biblical lexicon) defines leitourgeo (the verb) as “to serve public offices at one’s own cost,” or generally “to perform public duties.” Within the biblical context, the definition is “to perform a religious service; minister.” This understanding is validated by historical information in TDNT concerning the ancient usage of the term “leitourgos.” “In distinction from the fulfillment of financial tasks, especially in respect of taxation, leitourgeo is the direct discharge of specific services to the body politic.” This usage would eventually be extended to cover all public service. “From the technical and wider technical use there then develops a general and non-technical use in which the words simply denote rendering a service and the significance of the laeitos is lost.” TDNT catalogs the usage of the term in the LXX (which seems an appropriate area of investigation given that the recent translation of the Bible for the Orthodox is from the LXX rather than the MT). In the LXX, leitourgeo and related terms are applied specifically to cultic service but not exclusively to any function of that cultic service and not even exclusively to Jewish cult. The meaning is not even exclusively cultic, as in 2 Kings 13:18 where the term simply refers to a servant. In the New Testament the usage is scarce but nevertheless varied. The term is used to refer to worship in general (Acts 13:2) and even to refer specifically to the collection being taken up for Jerusalem (Rom 15:27; 2 Cor 9:12). “The use of leitourgein, leitourgia in the NT is connected partly with general popular use (Rom 15:27; 2 Cor 9:12; Phil 2:30), partly with the preceding OT cultus (Lk 1:23; Hb 9:21; 10:11), and partly with an isolated figurative use of LXX terminology to bring out the significance of Christ’s death (Heb) or to characterize either Paul’s missionary work with its readiness for martyrdom, or the Christian walk of the community (Phil 2:17). Movement towards a new Christian terminology is to be found only in the one verse Acts 13:2, where leitrougein is used for a fellowship of prayer, which hereby is indirectly described as a spiritualized priestly ministry.”

All that to say what could have been said merely by looking at Phil 2:25. There the phrase “minister to my need” is used. The word translated “minister” is “leitourgon.” I would like to ask Fr. Christy, or anyone who wants to anachronistically transliterate rather than translate these terms, to explain to me in what sense Epaphroditus is a “liturgist to [Paul’s] need” and exactly why Paul would need the Philippian church to send him a liturgist.

I feel confident in asserting that the term “leitourgos” in Heb 8:2 refers to one who performs a religious service on behalf of the church (much in the same way that Epaphroditus should be understood as one who performs a service on behalf of Paul).

I feel even more confident in rebuffing the accusation that Protestants translate with an agenda while the Orthodox have some kind of monopoly on the “original Greek.” Fr. Christy’s translation and transliteration efforts are sufficient to demonstrate that any and all translation is by its nature interpretation. His, by no means above reproach, are in fact more transparent than others. He doesn’t even make an effort to make the method of translation consistent. I will fall short here of suggesting that the Father was attempting to deliberately prey on what he assumed was an audience that knew no Greek. I will say that it is irresponsible (and certainly I am softening my language for the sake of diplomacy) to perpetrate bad Greek onto those who don’t know any better. To the layman, “this says leitourgos, which means ‘liturgist’” is a self-evident truth. Little do they know (though I hope Fr. Christy knows) that the appearance of self-validation is by no means a necessary mark of truth.

The point: if you’re going to be Greek, you ought to be more precise with your handling of the original text not obviously less so. Falling into such obvious linguistic blunders with your own language makes your apology based on cultural continuity with the early church seem farcical.

1 comment:

  1. On the discourse function of the Greek article see: S.Levinsohn "Discourse Features NTG" SIL 2000 and Richard Hoyle "Scenarios, Discourse, and Translation" SIL 2008.