Epistles of Thomas

June 10, 2012

What languages did the disciples know?

Filed under: Uncategorized — Thomas @ 17:00

Some time ago (3+ years actually) I posted on whether or not Jesus could speak Greek. https://epistlesofthomas.wordpress.com/2009/01/12/did-jesus-speak-greek/ I recently read Bart Ehrman’s Forged in which he denies that Jesus and his disciples would have been fluent in Greek. Specifically, they could have been fluent enough to write the works attributed to them. e.g. 1, 2 Peter could not have been written by Peter because Peter was an illiterate fisherman. That and a recent comment on my Jesus post has got me thinking…

I have taught English overseas and Vancouver is one of the most linguistically diverse areas in the world today and thus in history. If new immigrants want to succeed in life, whether fishing, farming or the service industry they need to learn at least some English. In much of Africa this would be French, in Central Asia it would be Russian, in South America it would be Spanish. And in Brazil Portuguese is close enough to Spanish that one can get by. Was Greek Peter’s mother tongue? Obviously not. Is it possible to imagine that he could speak Greek – certainly. My wife was fluent enough in English that on immigrating to Canada most people thought she was born here. It took her five years to become fluent and she had never left her native country where English is taught in school but never used in public discourse. Given her experience and the many non-highly educated English speakers I have met it seems more than likely that Peter or any other disciple could have picked up enough Greek to be reasonably fluent in day to day life.

I would like to mention that I have also worked in a tri-linguistic area, meaning that people speak English, their mother tongue and the national language. All three are from completely different language groups and use totally different written languages. Obviously peasants are not fluent in all three but in order to sell their produce two languages are required. And anyone who wants to work with foreigners must speak English. I’ve met folks with only the minimally required education who can speak English and act as tour guides/translators. Can I imagine a fisherman being able to speak English if his livelihood depends on it – yes. Can I imagine a Galilean fisherman desiring to spread the Good News to the world learning to speak Greek – yes I can.

Oral proficiency and written excellence are two different things and Ehrman makes much of the fact that a fisherman could not have written the excellent Greek of Peter’s letters. I would tend to agree because I know hundreds of ESL folks who can hold a conversation but cannot write an argumentative essay in English. However, it is ludicrous for Ehrman to cavalierly dismiss Peter’s possible use of a secretary or proofreader on the basis that his letters don’t read like translated documents. The early church contained many native Greek speakers and according to Acts they were present on day one at Pentecost. Is Ehrman suggesting that these native Greek speakers would not have worked with Peter to produce an excellent Greek document that made his point persuasively? I have edited hundreds of essays and my wife is a professional translator/editor. Our job is to make non-native English speakers sound like native speakers when they write. There are many 2/3 world Christians who have been translated into English and enjoyed by us and yet they don’t speak or write a word of English. How is this possible – they are helped by brothers and sisters who do speak English natively. If our product reads like a translation and not a native speaker then we have failed. A “good” translation is one in which you don’t know the original language was not English, etc. I would suggest Ehrman read Stanisław Lem’s The Cyberiad. I couldn’t believe it was a translation from Polish because even the humour comes across and humour is the most difficult thing to translate – much more so than Peter’s epistles which have been successfully translated into thousands of languages with meaning intact.

Let me conclude with an illustration. Yesterday my wife was proofreading a translation of the subtitles for a video by Stephen Baldwin (http://www.iamsecond.com/seconds/stephen-baldwin/). Let’s say that 1000 years from now all that was left of Baldwin’s life are copies of some of his movies: Threesome (1994), The Usual Suspects (1995), Bio-Dome (1996) and Fled (1996) and the translated subtitles from this short video. The only evidence we would then have that Baldwin became a Christian was a non-English translation of the subtitles from this video. Scholars would argue that it obviously was not authentic. From watching all of his extant movies there is no evidence that he could even speak a language other than English so he certainly couldn’t have written this. Furthermore, based on the content of those extant movies we cannot except that he was ever a Christian. Therefore this so-called evidence is spurious and in no way connects to the real historical Stephen Baldwin. Rather it is a Christian forgery written in Baldwin’s name. This is the conclusion that Ehrman and others come to based on their interpretive framework and it is one they must come to given that framework. However, I think that I have demonstrated that it is more than possible to conceive that another explanation is tenable, even likely given the linguistic milieu in which the early church grew.

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