Friday, March 25, 2011

The Friday Figure

This week's Friday Figure comes from John chapter 3.  This was the reading this last week in church.  It is the conversation that Nicodemus has with Jesus about being "born again," "Born from on high."

I want to focus on John 3:8.  It reads:
τὸ πνεῦμα ὅπου θέλει πνεῖ καὶ τὴν φωνὴν αὐτοῦ ἀκούεις, ἀλλ᾿ οὐκ οἶδας πόθεν ἔρχεται καὶ ποῦ ὑπάγει· οὕτως ἐστὶν πᾶς ὁ γεγεννημένος ἐκ τοῦ πνεύματος. 
to pneuma hopou thelei pnei kai ten phonen autou akoueis, all'ouk oidas pothen erchetai kai pou upagei: houtos estin pas ho gegennemenos ek tou pneumatos
The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
I have included the Greek, a transliteration of the Greek, and the NRSV translation.  The NRSV translation is OK, but it misses some nuances in the Greek.

The first thing to notice is the twofold repetition of the Greek word πνεῦμα (pneuma), and the use of the verb πνεῖ (pnei), which comes from the same root.  The word has three common meanings: wind, breath, and spirit.  The NRSV has chosen to translate the first instance of this word as wind, the verb as blow, and the second noun as spirit, and I think that the NRSV is correct to do so, yet, this obviously misses the wordplay in Greek.   This wordplay is called by a couple of different names in Greek: paronomasia, antanaclasis, eponodos.  Each of these figures means using the same or a similar word in close proximity with different meanings.  In this case, the first instance means wind, and the second instance means spirit. 

In order to capture this figure, English would have to have the same wordplay, which it does not.  If one wanted to try and carry the figure over, they could translate the verse with the same meaning for each word as follows:

The spirit spirits where it wills, and you hear its sound, but you do not know from where it comes and where it is going.  So it is with everyone born of the spirit.

The second figure at use here is that of personification, in which something that is inanimate is given a human trait.  In this case, I think the NRSV misses out.  What they translate as "sound" is actually the Greek word φωνήν (phonen), which is most naturally translated "voice."  Now, phone can carry the meaning "sound," but its most common use is that of voice.  In this case, I think the more poetic translation would be voice, especially since John seems to be playing on the multiple meanings of pneuma as both an animate subject and inanimate force. 

Either way, this is a wonderful piece of language and unfortunately English just does not have the same richness in this instance.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Rhetoric of Punctuation

Punctuation marks, those seemingly insignificant jots and tittles in our language, are often overlooked.  In usual discourse, we do not really need a period, or question mark to let us know what is going on in a sentence.  But, before you completely overlook them, take a gander at the following two letters.  Punctuation indeed can make all the difference in the world.

Dear John:

I want a man who knows what love is all about.  You are generous, kind, thoughtful.  People who are not like you admit to being useless and inferior.  You have ruined me for other men.  I yearn for you. I have no feelings whatsoever when we're apart.  I can be forever happy --will you let me be yours?



Dear John:

I want a man who knows what love is .  All about you are generous, kind, thoughtful people, who are not like you. Admit to being useless  and inferior. You have ruined me.  For other men, I yearn.  For you, I have no feelings whatsoever.  When we're apart, I can be forever happy.  Will you let me be?


(HT Roy Williams at Monday Morning Memo via my wife

Now, considering that Old and New Testament manuscripts did not have any punctuation at all, and that these have been added later by editors, are there places in the Bible that could carry different meanings if the punctuation marks are rearranged? 

This also made me think about the rhetorical task of delivery in the ancient world.  When we speak, we communicate punctuation through our tone of voice, pauses, etc.  Check out the following example of a teleprompter gag which also illustrates the importance of punctuation.

Friday, March 18, 2011

νόμος or law

νόμος or law is the 14th and final in the list of ancient progymnasmata.  The exercise on law has to do with refuting or confirming laws that are either already in effect or laws that are proposed in the assembly.  This last preliminary exercise seems especially suited to students who would have gone on to professional rhetorical training, the primary aim of which would have been to speak in the law courts of Greece and Rome.

Through this exercise, students would continue their practice of confirmation and refutation that had already begun in earlier exercises.

According to Theon, one may refute laws according to the following topoi: what is "unclear, impossible, unnecessary, contradictory, unjust, unworthy, inexpedient, shameful." (Theon 129, Kennedy).  According to Hermogenes, the topics by which to refute or confirm a law are: "clarity, justice, legality, advantage, possibility, appropriateness." (Hermogenes 27, Kennedy).

In Mark 10 there is a discussion of the law concerning divorce.  The setup is as follows:
Some Pharisees came, and to test him they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” He answered them, “What did Moses command you?” They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.” (Mark 10:2-4).
Now, in what follows, Jesus will refute this law of writing a certificate of divorce, and he will do so using a number of the topics listed above.  Jesus responds thus:
But Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’  ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” (Mark 10:5-9).
It was because hardness of heart that Moses wrote this provision of the law, but that does not conform to the Law of God.  Therefore, Jesus refutes this provision of the Law based on several different fronts.  It could be seen as truly "illegal" based upon God's law.  It could be seen as "shameful" based upon the shame of having a hard heart.  It could be seen as "inappropriate" based upon its failure to conform with the perfect plan of God.

Practice in confirmation and refutation of laws was of great importance for the biblical writers, and the progymnasmata would have instructed Greek students in performing such tasks.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

θέσις or thesis

Thesis is the 13th exercise in the ancient progymnasmata and deals with arguments.  According to Theon, thesis "is a verbal inquiry admitting controversy without specifying any persons and circumstance; for example, whether one should marry, whether one should have children, whether the gods exist." (Theon 120, Kennedy).

Thesis differs from topos in that a topos is a stock argument about which there is great agreement.  Thesis on the other hand is a proposition about which there is disagreement.  Theon says that one can get the subject of a thesis from a maxim, proverb, chreia, or another useful saying.

After coming up with the thesis itself, the student would attempt to either confirm or refute the thesis.  One can confirm or refute according to a number of topoi, such as, is the thesis possible, necessary, beneficial, pleasant, praiseworthy, etc.

In Luke chapter 20, the Lukan Jesus engages in the refutation of a thesis using the topos of possibility.

In 20:41, Jesus asks:  “How can they say that the Messiah is David’s son?  The thesis presupposed here is that the Messiah is said to be the Son of David.

Jesus then goes on to refute even the possibility of this claim from the topos of impossibility as follows:
For David himself says in the book of Psalms,
    ‘The Lord said to my Lord,
    “Sit at my right hand,   
until I make your enemies your footstool.” ’
 David thus calls him Lord; so how can he be his son?”  (Luke 20:42-44).
Jesus has claimed that it is impossible for David to call his son "Lord."  Here Luke has engaged in the simple preliminary exercise of thesis and has used it to great effect in his Gospel.