Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Linguist Friend: More on Mary's Consent

Linguist Friend put this in the comments section of his last post and I thought it was helpful clarification.

CC had expressed curiosity about this text on several occasions, so I took a look at what sense I could make of the Greek text in the form it has. This requires a certain amount of analysis from philological disciplines which will be dull to many people, but is necessary to know what form of the text should be used, and what it means. Since my early training was as a linguist/philologist, this is familiar territory for me. I am fallible, but I have had enough grounding here to have been invited to and carry through collaboration with the Society of Biblical Literature to publication on one occasion, although I no longer work in that area. I was rather surprised to realize that the modern revisors who created the NRSV had not escaped the influence of Jerome in their treatment of the text in question.

Beyond this is the issue of how people of the first century AD wrote and talked, and for what purposes. The people who wrote the NT were deeply imbued with the preceding oral or written texts of their peoples, as were the people who composed the Homeric poems and the Rig Veda. Thus Luke, like them, did not write like the author of a modern newspaper or history book. I need not believe that Mary literally saw and talked with an angel to attribute importance to Luke's text.

Indeed, as you say, one should not hang one's soul on the turn of a Biblical phrase. That way lies madness. I do not look at the text as if my religious beliefs depended on it, since I have never been a member of a Christian church. But it means much that I know the text when I must interact with people whose religious beliefs do depend on it, or who are in spiritual agony because they can no longer trust in those beliefs. Lack of knowledge of historical Christianity, on the other hand, is a problem both for UUs and Christians (some of whom overlap, of course).

The NT contains two versions that contain at least partial accounts of Jesus's birth and childhood, in Matthew and in Luke. They do not agree very well, and there is no reason to think of Luke's account of the Annunciation as a historical account. But, in view of the importance of Christian tradition in the world, the text is a historical phenomenon that is worth studying, like the texts of many other religions.

To reach defensible conclusions, however, first one must study it as a text, as I do here, and only then can one interpret it in terms of what the person referred to as Luke wanted to accomplish. Almost regretfully, I think that the person who has read my paragraphs on Luke 1:38 will be better prepared to evaluate the text in this sense than the person who works from the current translation and interpretation of the text of the text cited at the beginning of my note.

Linguist Friend

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