Thursday, 24 April 2008

Reading Patristics

One of the things that Carl Trueman mentions a few times in Minory Report is the value in reading Patristics (that is the Church Fathers - generally divided by whether they were before or after Nicea).

One area that I am interested in is how they help us with interpreting the New Testament. Moises Silva discusses the pros and cons in his study on Galatians particularly the example of John Chrysostom. You can't automatically assume that because he was a native Greek speaker he read Paul 'fluently'. Silva lists three things that should give us pause:

i. Chrysostom is writing 300 years later and a number of semantic shifts in the language would have ocurred in that time

ii. Chrysostom seems to assume that Paul is writing in the sophisticated 'Attic' style of Greek rather than the down to earth Koine style that he actually wrote. This may have influenced his reading of Paul.

iii. This is Silva's most important point: Being a native speaker does not mean that one can read a text and not be left with any ambiguity. Thus, it is a good principal that where Chrysostom (or another Father) recognises a debate over the meaning of an expression in Paul, his views need to be weighed carefully. However, when he comments on an expression without mentioning a debate - in other words just assumes the meaning, this would give us a strong reason for going with Chrysostom's understanding of the expression.

Interestingly, Silva points out the relevance of this for one of the most contentious debates in NT studies - the meaning of pistis christou. This phrase appears in a number of important texts in the NT e.g. Galatians 2:16 and the debate is whether it should be read as 'faith in Christ' (i.e. something we 'do' - reading it as an objective genitive) or 'the faithfulness/faith of Christ' (something that Christ 'does' - a subjective genitive). Silva notes that Chrysostom simply assumes that it means 'faith in Christ'. He argues that this is very strong evidence for this view - that a native speaker simply assumes this reading i.e. he does not even flag that there might be some ambiguity.


Seumas Macdonald said...

Does Silva really argue that Chrysostom treats Paul as if he were writing Koine? I find that hard to believe prima facie. Chrysostom exists in a climate where Koine has won the field as a language of everyday discourse, and while Chrysostom pursues an Atticising style himself because of his training under Libanios, I find it difficult to believe that he would be so oblivious to the style, register and dialect of Paul to treat him as an Atticist.

Peter Orr said...

Unfortunately Silva doesn't substantiate his claim. This is what he says: 'Chrysostom apparently sought to understand the NT on the assumption that it was written in "good Greek," that is, the archaizing style practiced and preached by the so-called Atticists. So far as we can tell, he was not fully sensitive to the fact that Paul, who wrote without literary pretensions, used the common language of the people.' (2nd Ed; p.30)