Posted by: mattcolvin | November 3, 2017

Linguistic Cynicism

In an article for Unravelling, John McWhorter writes:

No linguist says that people should ignore the fact that it is preferred in some settings that you say “Billy and I went to the store” rather than “Billy and me.” What the linguist is saying is that those rules are not based on any kind of logic or any kind of scientific principle, and the reason that’s important is because it means that when you hear somebody using one of these prescribed [sic: he means proscribed, i.e. prohibited] constructions, they’re not doing something that’s dirty, broken, or wrong.
Yes, if somebody is saying “acks” instead of “ask” when making a public speech, that’s unfortunate. They should say “ask” just like they should wear underwear, just like they shouldn’t be using a cane today, just like they shouldn’t be wearing a waist coat, just like in 1950 they would have to have been wearing a suit. Fashion is arbitrary, just like things with language.


It’s delightful to see a radical descriptivist like McWhorter committing howlers of diction (prescribed for proscribed). But it’s even more delightful that he reveals his presuppositions so blatantly. For him, the rules of formal English grammar and morphology are “fashions.” By this he means not merely that they are conventions, but that they are arbitrary conventions. Violations of prescriptivist rules are not “dirty, broken, or wrong.” They are simply the way language is developing. They are natural.

Nature! But which nature? Diogenes the Cynic (404-323 BC) thought that a life “in accordance with nature” meant that we should all urinate in public, disregard rules of commerce by eating food in the marketplace without paying for it, have sex wherever we want, etc. He deliberately showed his contempt for all social conventions: “Thus do I trample on the pride of Plato!” The result was that he acted like a dog (κύων, κύνος > Cynic). But his philosophical opponents, the Stoics, taught that we ought to pursue life in accordance with human nature, not the nature of dogs.



Diogenes in his pithos outside the temple of Athena Nike, being taunted by Athenian women. Painting by J.W. Waterhouse.

Linguistic descriptivists who decry the artificiality of prescriptive grammar are the spiritual heirs of Diogenes. They see a new linguistic development and say, “See? This is according to the nature of language.” But is it? It is in accordance with human nature for language to develop in an unregulated, wild manner? Human beings are natural gardeners. Pure descriptivism bids us leave the garden untended: no pruning of solecisms, no weeding of ugly forms, no cultivation of graceful constructions shaped and defended by rules or pedagogy or the framework of traditional models. Instead, just admire all linguistic developments: they all have equal integrity and beauty, right?

In a recent interview, McWhorter remarks on the recent usage of the word “literally” to mean “figuratively” — as in, “Trump is literally Hitler”:

The fact that literally can mean both itself and its opposite is — admit it — cool! The way literally now works is a quirky, chance development that makes one quietly proud to speak a language.

No, it isn’t cool. It’s a sign of a fundamental misunderstanding of the concepts (not merely the words!) of literal and figurative. I’m sure it’s fascinating to a descriptivist from a certain point of view to see how this sort of thing can happen, much as a chemist who knows all about oxidation reactions might be delighted by the rusting of a vintage sportscar’s bodywork. But if we ask, “Does this sort of development help people communicate precisely and elegantly?” the answer is surely, “No.” Any word that “can mean both itself and its opposite” has lost much its usefulness for expressing its original meaning.

Posted by: mattcolvin | October 9, 2017

Mom of Constant Laundry

Many years ago, my wife recorded a parody of “Man of Constant Sorrow” from O Brother Where Art Thou. It’s called “Mom of Constant Laundry”. I posted it on my old blog, but the link got broken, so I am posting it again. You can download it here

Posted by: mattcolvin | July 13, 2017

Instone-Brewer on “Who is the greatest?”

“It was natural that the disciples would discuss who was the greatest at this meal, because the seating plan and the progress of the meal depended on it. The head of the group leads the prayers and readings, and the youngest male who asks him the questions would have a prominent role that night, so he might sit near the head (or center) of the triclinium. The seating of the rest was probably determined by their relative age or importance — they would line up in order before they reclined, with the least important individuals furthest away from the head. All this would explain the heated debate among the disciples, before or during the meal, about their relative importance (Lk.22.24-27; cf. Jn.13.15f). It appears that ‘the one whom Jesus loved’ (usually identified as John) was the youngest and yet was next to Jesus, probably because of the special role which the youngest plays in the Passover liturgy. Peter, being the most important disciple, was next to him (Jn.13.23-25). If Judas was next to Jesus on the other side (as suggested by Jn.13.26-28), this would indicate that he was either considered to be very important, or he had pushed himself forward.”

David Instone-Brewer. Traditions of the Rabbis from the Era of the New Testament vol. 2A (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011). p. 184.

Posted by: mattcolvin | April 10, 2017

On the Form of Jesus’ Answer to the Sadducees

Harvard professor Jon Levenson includes in his book Resurrection and the Restoration of Israel a chapter entitled “Resurrection in the Torah?” In it, he discusses the various clever exegetical and eisegetical maneuvers by which the rabbis of the Mishnah and Talmud attempted to prove that the Torah taught the doctrine of bodily resurrection. 

One passage relates the response of Rabbi Simai to the Sadducees’ position:

Rabbi Simai says: How do we know that the resurrection of the dead can be derived from the Torah? From the verse, ‘‘I also established My covenant with them [that is, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob], to give them the land of Canaan’’ (Exod 6:4). ‘‘To you’’ is not written but ‘‘to them.’’ Hence, resurrection of the dead can be derived from the Torah. (b. Sanh. 90b)

The form of the argument is identical to that used by Jesus in Matthew 22:31-32, where he appeals to Exodus 3:6’s statement, “I am the God of thy father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” to argue (elliptically)  that the patriarchs must live (or must be resurrected), since God is the god of the living, not of the dead. Whether this argument depended on the tense of the verb, or merely on the patriarchs’ being the stated covenant-partners of the LORD is disputed in the scholarship. 

Rabbi Simai appeals to the pronoun: “not ‘to you’, but ‘to them’. A similar grammatical precision is employed by Paul in Galatians 3:16’s parsing of the promise to Abraham: “Now to Abraham and his seed were the promises made. He saith not, And to seeds (τοῖς σπέρμασιν) as of many; but as of one, And to thy seed (τῷ σπέρματι), which is Christ.”

The rabbis were also capable of suspending an entire argument from a minor grammatical detail, such as the tense of a verb — or even tendentiously misinterpreting the tense of a verb, as Rabbi Judah haNasi does regarding the verse introducing Moses’ song of the Sea in Exodus 15:1:

‘‘Then Moses sang (šār)’’ is not written here, but rather ‘‘Then Moses will sing (yāšîr).’’ Thus we are instructed that the resurrection of the dead can be derived from the Torah. (Mek., Shirta 1)

Levenson’s verdict on early rabbinic attempts to prove resurrection from the Torah is wry:

This interpretation makes for exceedingly bad philology, to be sure, but also for rich and powerful theology.

Posted by: mattcolvin | April 3, 2017

On Daube and Method

The Scottish legal scholar and justice of the Supreme Court of the UK, Sir Alan Rodger, was a pupil of David Daube at Oxford. In a 2004 article he sums up David Daube’s method of reading texts:

…what we do not seem to be taught is a kind of disciplined examination of texts. In Germany, the traditional form was the Digestenexegese, but we have no similar tradition here [sc. in England].
Yet Daube’s work provides endless models of how we should proceed. For it matters little whether the text is a statute, a Digest text or a line of Ovid or Homer. In all cases the crucial thing for Daube is to notice precisely what expressions are used. And then you have to ask yourself why. Why did the draughtsman or author use this word rather than another? Why does that item come at the end of the list rather than at the beginning? Does this text actually make sense or has it been modified and has something gone wrong in the process of modification? These are the kinds of issues which regularly present themselves, or should present themselves, when a reader is trying to understand a modern text just as much as an ancient text.

Elaborating on this point, Ernest Metzger in the same volume puts it this way:

Daube’s work has a quality we can admire even when we are not persuaded by it: he will explain a text in a way which is entirely unexpected, but which seems suddenly to reveal something that had lain unnoticed. How does he do this? According to Alan Rodger, Daube would notice something in a text and ask why it was there; he would then explain the text by answering the question. This essay discusses Daube’s method of reading texts, and discusses in particular why it is useful to begin with a qustion, how Daube finds the right questions to ask, and what makes one answer better than another. I argue that Daube’s method of reading texts produces the explanations it does because it does not rely on inferences from the text so much as prior guesses about what the text means.

Metzger goes on to compare Daube’s method to Karl Popper’s view of science as really driven – contrary to all the school textbooks – by non-inductive, creative, hypothesis-driven research. It is a method only practicable by those who are steeped not only in the languages of the literature they are studying but also in other languages and other literatures, which from ideas and comparanda may be derived.

Gabriel von Max, The Raising of the Daughter of Jairus, 1881.

These are notes for a sermon I preached this morning at Church of Our Lord in Victoria, BC, for the 4th Sunday in Lent.

Mark 5:21-43
This section of Mark’s gospel is a double story: the woman with a flow of bleeding is framed by the beginning and the end of the story of Jairus. And the two stories are intended to play off each other in interesting ways. Jairus is bold, the woman with the flow of blood is timid. The daughter is 12 years old; the woman has suffered bleeding for the same length of time. The woman is not named, while Jairus is. Perhaps this is protective anonymity, lest she suffer for her testimony of what Jesus did for her. Jairus is named presumably because he was well-known in the early Christian movement, and so that readers of the story could ask him about it and thereby verify the testimony that Mark relays from him; perhaps also because he was already dead, and thus safe from persecution.
Jairus is a “ruler of the synagogue” – not a very important person, but a leader the community. He humbles himself quite blatantly, “falling at Jesus’ feet” (5:22), and puts his request: His daughter is “at death’s door” – literally, “disposed finally” (ἐσχάτως ἔχει, 5:23). The father is driven by desperation. We can imagine what has brought him to this point: his daughter’s health has become worse and worse; the doctors can do nothing; the spirits of the household are slipping. So the father goes to find Jesus. Ponder the connection between a father’s love and the humility he shows in his request – prostrate, “begging earnestly”, his worry and fear and love in every word: she is not “my daughter” but “my little daughter”. It is the diminutive of affection. Read More…

Posted by: mattcolvin | March 1, 2017

Lusting for the Hero


A Javanese shadow-puppet of Surpakanaka or Soorpanaka from the Ramayana.

Among the tropes or story-types shared between the Bible and pagan mythologies is the story of the lustful female who is refused by the hero. The earliest such account is in the Epic of Gilgamesh, tablet VI.
The story begins by putting the reader in the position of the goddess Ishtar, watching in an almost voyeuristic way as the narrator describes Gilgamesh’s bathing and re-beautification after the slaying of the ogre Humbaba in tablet V. The description follows the epic conventions of the beautification typescene. Think of it as a sort of verbal advertisement for shampoo and male fashion accessories:

“[Gilgamesh] washed his matted hair, he cleaned his equipment,
he shook his hair down over his back.
Casting aside his dirty gear he clad himself in clean,
wrapped cloaks round him, tied with a sash.
Then did Gilgamesh put on his crown.” (VI.1-5, A. R. George’s translation)

Read More…

Posted by: mattcolvin | February 12, 2017

Focalization in Genesis 8

Noah with the Dove, mosaic from the south barrel vault of the west narthex of St. Mark’s Basilica, Venice, 1215-1235 AD.

One of the literary techniques that classical studies has called to scholarly attention in the last 20 years is the method of focalization. It is a category within the field of narratology, the study of storytelling methods and techniques. Irene F. DeJong’s Narrators and Focalizers: The Presentation of the Story in the Iliad and A Narratological Commentary on the Odyssey are the works that first introduced me to this method. I have found it fruitful for explaining how stories work on us (for instance, in the parable of the prodigal son). It is a method that novelists use all the time, and it is all the more effective because it often escapes our notice. Where the audience might notice a blatant switch into quoted character-speech, or a bald-faced declaration that a character “thought to himself…” or that “he noticed that…”, focalization is more subtle: without switching voices or telling that a character is perceiving things, the narrator describes or narrates, sua voce, things that could only be seen or known by one of the characters. The effect is often to cause the audience to sympathize or adopt the judgments or perceptions of one of the characters.

This technique is used to striking effect in Genesis 8. We are effectively placed inside the ark with Noah. There is no description of what the raven sees during its flight over the earth; we are only told that the raven “found no resting place for the sole of her foot, and she returned into the ark to [Noah], for the waters were on the face of the whole earth. So he put out his hand and took her, and drew her into the ark to himself.” (8:9) Though the narrator might have described the land or water beyond the ark from the perspective of the bird, he chooses not to, confining our perceptions to those of Noah himself. We share his sense of isolation.

The subsequent description of the dove’s flight and return is likewise narrated with Noah’s focalization: “Then the dove came to him in the evening, and behold, a freshly plucked olive leaf was in her mouth; and Noah knew that the waters had receded from the earth.” (8:11) The exclamation “behold” (wehinneh) conveys Noah’s surprise and delight, and the deduction that the waters had receded, though an objective fact that might have been expressed by the narrator directly – e.g. “…an olive leaf was in her mouth, for the waters had receded…” – is deliberately phrased as a thought of Noah (“and Noah knew…”).

By contrast, when Noah makes burnt offerings in 8:20-22, the scene is not narrated with Noah’s focalization. For instance, there is no description of the process of building of the altar, or of the process of slaughtering and burning the animals. Instead, the burnt offering is focalized from YHWH’s perspective: “The Lord smelled a soothing aroma. Then the Lord said in His heart…”

These shifts of focalization serve to accentuate for us the suffering of Noah on the one hand – his isolation, his inability to know the state of the wider world except through the indirect means of birds – and the restoration of God to a state of favor with the world.

Posted by: mattcolvin | January 23, 2017

On the meaning of Τί ἐμοὶ καὶ σοί in John 2:4

In John 2:4, Jesus responds to His mother Mary with the question, Τί ἐμοὶ καὶ σοί, γύναι; This has been widely misunderstood either as a harsh rebuke or as questioning the relevance or propriety of Jesus involving himself with the problem of the wine running out. But let’s survey the other instances of the phrase in the Bible.


Judges 11:13 – “ Then Jephthah sent messengers to the Ammonite king with the question: “What do you have against me – Τί ἐμοὶ καὶ σοί (LXX) – that you have attacked my country?”


1 Kings 17:18, the widow of Zarephath has been letting Elijah stay in her house, and he has blessed her with the inexaustible jar of flour and jug of oil. But then her son dies. And she said to Elijah, “What do you have against me – Τί ἐμοὶ καὶ σοί – man of God? Did you come to remind me of my sin and kill my son?”

2 Chronicles 35:21, Pharaoh Necho of Egypt is on his way to fight against the Babylonians at Carchemish, and King Josiah of Judah is foolish enough to get in his way: “Josiah marched out to meet him in battle. 21 But Necho sent messengers to him, saying, “What quarrel is there, king of Judah, between you and me?” – LXX, Τί ἐμοὶ καὶ σοί – “It is not you I am attacking at this time, but the house with which I am at war.”

But Jesus’ statement refers most directly to the scene in 2 Kings 3 where Elisha was confronted by the kings of Israel, Judah, and Edom, who were going to battle against the king of Moab. After marching for seven days they ran out of water. They called upon Elisha to inquire on their behalf. According to the LXX (the Greek translation of the Old Testament), Elisha responded to the kings with the identical phrase used by Jesus in John 2:4 (Τί ἐμοὶ καὶ σοί;). In both texts the narrative reveals a reluctant prophet who is called upon to provide for one in need, a need the prophet sees as an unwanted involvement.

In all these passages the complaint is, “What have I done to you that you are causing me trouble unjustly? Why are you trying to bring disaster on me? Did I wrong you?” Or even, in Hebrew, Ma li valach, “What do you have against me?”


Why should Jesus complain this way to His mother? The answer is in the second half of the verse: “My hour has not yet come.” Why are you leading me to reveal myself this way, mother? Do you want me to get killed?” For we must remember that revealing oneself as the Messiah was a dangerous thing to do. Look in Acts 5 at Gamaliel’s list of all the false messiahs who have “risen up” — Theudas and Judas of Galilee — and how the Romans have dealt with them.

Posted by: mattcolvin | January 6, 2017

Dalman on the Thief on the Cross

Gustaf Dalman was a scholar of Aramaic and rabbinic Judaism who was instrumental in recovering the Jewish background of the New Testament. I particularly appreciated these remarks from his Jesus-Yeshua: Studies in the Gospels (1929), p. 197-199. 

“Jesus was mocked not only by those who passed by the Cross, but also by one who was crucified with Him. Mockery of this kind once resulted in a person being punished for an action which he had not committed. He mocked a robber who was standing before the judge (kām lēh gāhēkh kol kebālēh, literally: ‘he stood mocking’; Lk. 23:10: ‘they stood accusing’; verse 35: ‘He stood beholding’), and when the robber was asked: Who was with thee? he pointed in revenge to the mocker as his fellow in the crime: ‘that mocker was with me’ (āhān degāhēkh hū ‘immī). How different is the fellowship which our Lord promised to the robber who did not join the others in their mockery.

This robber said: 

‘My Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy reign!’ (Lk. 23:42)

Aramaic: mārī, anhar lī kidētētē bemalkhūtākh.

“It is impossible to address a person in Aramaic with mār (‘Lord’) alone. Κύριε without a pronoun is a Grecism as is πάτερ without a pronoun (Lk. 18:12, 18; ο πατήρ Mt. 11:26; τέκνον (for υἱέ) Mt. 11:2; Mk. 2:5; Lk. 2:48; 15:31; θύγατερ (θυγάτηρ) Mt. 11:2; Mk. 5:34; Lk. 8:48; ἀδελφέ Acts 9:17; φίλε Lk. 11:5; 14:10; ἑταῖρε Mt. 20:13; 22:12; 26:50). In Aramaic the only possible equivalents (which are also used in the Peshito) are abbā, berī, berattī, ahī, habrī, while the Pal. Evang. often translates literally. For ‘remember’ the Galilean expression is anhar; cf. anā manhar lēh: ‘I think of him’, ‘I remember him’. But neither is the root dekhar impossible. Onkelos and Targum Yer. I have in Gen. 40:14 tidkerinnani (the better reading is probably, according to verse 23, the Itpeel tiddakherinnani). The imperative would then be iddakherinnani, ‘remember thou me’. ὅταν can be rendered by kide or ēmat de. 

“Concerning bemalkhūtākh, the Aramaic form makes it probable that here, as in Mt. 16:28, it refers not to the domain into which Jesus will return but rather to the royal power which at present He does not possess and which will later make it possible for Him to plead for others. Bemalkhūtākh would in that case mean the same as ‘being King’ (Words of Jesus, 133). Moreover, he took it for granted that Jesus will not be just a King of the Jews, as others were before Him, for in that case He would not be able to help a criminal once he had been executed. What he meant was that Jesus would ‘come’ as the God-Anointed One in the full sense if the word, i.e. appear from the invisible sphere. The often-heard question, ‘When cometh the Messiah? (ēmat ātē meshīach — p. Ket. 35a) will then be answered, and the future for which a dying Rabbi wished to be in readiness, when he said in ātē meshīcha wa‘anā me’attad (‘when the Messiah cometh, in order that I may be prepared’), become an actuality. But His kingship must, like God’s, extend to the living and the dead, and He must be able to show forth mercy. For the ‘robber’ asks for an act of grace, which cannot be fulfilled in this life; he does not base this on the Jewish conception that the experience of an earthly punishment gives one a claim to be absolved from the state of punishment in the world beyond. When a criminal prays on the way to the place of execution, ‘May my death be a propitiation for all my transgressions,’ his confession is supposed to bring him forgiveness (Sanh. vi.2), as it did to Achor, to whom Joshua (according to Joshua 7:25) said before the stoning ‘Today thou art ‘akhor (turbid), but thou art not ‘akhor in the future world’. (p. Sanh. 23b; b. Sanh. 44b) The ‘robber’ wishes to see with his own eyes the kingship of Jesus, as it is promised (Isa. 53:9, Targum) to the wicked whose souls God has purified, that they shall behold ‘the kingship of their Messiah’ (malkhūt meshīchahōn). It was only his companionship on the Cross that gave him the temerity to put forward this bold petition; as Joseph’s companionship with Pharaoh’s butler in prison gave him courage (Gen. 40:14). Consequently, it was not works, but faith in the future glory of the One who was being crucified with him, that underlaid his petition.”

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