Friday, April 15, 2016

Immigrant English

I'd like to say a bit more about Bart Ehrman's oft-repeated contention that the traditional authorship of the Gospels is wrong because they were written in literary Greek, which would be impossible for Aramaic-speaking peasants to emulate. Ehrman also uses the example of Josephus, who learned Greek later in later, to write books for his Roman patrons. Yet Josephus also admitted that he needed assistance. 

One of Ehrman's many problems is that he doesn't stop to consider obvious counterexamples to his claims. He lacks a flexible mind.

Consider the immigrant experience in America. Take the stereotypical case of adult foreign speakers (parents, grandparents) who move to America. Sometimes they bring little kids with them. Sometimes their kids are born here. Or both.

Adult immigrants often struggle with the language of the host country. They may speak broken English. That's in part because many of them are too busying working (which is admirable) to have time to study the language. But the primary reason is that it's very hard to master a new language in adulthood. 

By contrast, young kids sponge up languages. If their kids are born here, or come here at an early age, they can learn English just by listening to TV shows and hanging out with Anglo playmates. 

Kids of immigrants typically speak fluent, idiomatic, unaccented English. Their command of conversational English is flawless. 

Now, that's not the same thing as literary English. However, I daresay that if you have a native command of the spoken tongue, it's much easier to learn literary or academic English. You have that foundation to build on. 

Ironically, the Jewish uppercuts education that Josephus received was an impediment to his learning literary Greek. From what I've read, Jews of his station didn't consider Greek to be a prestige language. After all, they had Greek-speaking slaveboys. 

By contrast, a Jew who learned street Greek growing up would actually be in a much better position to learn literary Greek later in life. Keep in mind that for many Diaspora Jews, Greek was their mother tongue. And some of them moved to Palestine. Take Barnabas, a native of Cyprus, who was the uncle of John Mark. 

Perhaps Matthew was a tax collector because he was bilingual (or polyglot). Surely that would be a marketable skill for a tax collector in Palestine. 

Finally, although Matthew's Greek is a notch above Mark's Greek, it's not fancy Greek. 


  1. Great piece! I'd add:

    1. C.S. Lewis knew a thing or two about literary beauty and the like. In fact, from a young age he could well read and translate ancient Greek (e.g. Homeric Greek). In his estimation:

    "The only kind of sanctity which Scripture can lose (or, at least, New Testament scripture) by being modernized is an accidental kind which it never had for its writers or its earliest readers. The New Testament in the original Greek is not a work of literary art: it is not written in a solemn, ecclesiastical language, it is written in the sort of Greek which was spoken over the Eastern Mediterranean after Greek had become an international language and therefore lost its real beauty and subtlety. In it we see Greek used by people who have no real feeling for Greek words because Greek words are not the words they spoke when they were children. It is sort of 'basic' Greek; a language without roots in the soil, a utilitarian, commercial and administrative language."

    2. What's considered literary may change over time. For example, was Elizabethan English considered beautiful in Shakespeare's day?

  2. I've often wondered if Bart Ehrman is a native Greek speaker. If not, how does he know so much about Greek? What makes his Greek education superior to that available to Palestinian adults in the first century?

    One argument that he makes is that he knows that speaking Greek was rare among Palestinians because they left little in the way of written records. I just wonder why he hasn't written many papers in Greek. Does he know of any colleagues at Chapel Hill that are not native English speakers that write papers? Do they write papers in their native language for consumption in the American academies? Why not? Do they leave evidence in their homelands that they can write fluently in English or is the evidence of their fluency to be found generally exclusively in English-speaking circles?

    The Apostles were largely Palestinians (although we know that Luke and Paul and possibly John Mark were either Greek or had ties to the diaspora) who wrote for audiences outside of Palestine. Why? Because Palestine had first-hand information.

    I'm generally not one to appeal to common sense, and few have ever accused me of having any common sense, but it's just common sense that there wouldn't be much in the way of Greek manuscripts (and consequently there would be little evidence of Greek writers, though they may have had many) among a people that didn't speak Greek.