aefenglommung (aefenglommung) wrote,

Here's to Biblical philology

I've been re-reading some stuff by Tom Shippey on J.R.R. Tolkien. Shippey was educated in much the same manner as Tolkien -- a course no longer easily available anywhere in the English-speaking world. Both were philologists. Philologists are intensely interested in words: words as they are used in speech, words in literature, words as they change over time. The philologists were eventually ousted by the literary critics from Departments of English and academic curricula. One reason why so many critics hate The Lord of the Rings has to do with their intense dislike of Tolkien's professional point of view and how it found popular expression in a work that outsells anything written by the literary elites.

It occurred to me while I was reading this that my love of the old philology is why I took so gladly to the discipline of exegesis in seminary. In fact, about the only place left that I know of where people take words seriously and use them to construct reality after the manner of Jakob Grimm or Tolkien himself is in those scholars who intensively analyze the words of the sacred text, whether in Hebrew or Greek.

And just as there are literary critics in charge of English Departments who see philology as a stumbling block to what they think the study of English should be about, so there are plenty of theological and ecclesiastical leaders who see exegesis as a dull, plodding, and ultimately inconvenient exercise that keeps one from appropriating and celebrating what they want the Bible to say (as opposed to what it in fact says).

This is also why I have to grit my teeth over many new translations of the Bible (the latest barbarity is the "Common Bible" published by Cokesbury). I understand "dynamic equivalence" and all that, but you have to understand what the words actually mean -- what they meant to those who wrote them and first heard them -- before you can do justice to translating them afresh.

It all reminds me of the Scout camp chaplain (from a small, indie church) who was preaching on the text, "to hold fast what is good." He told the boys that this meant that when something really good comes your way, you need to grab it quick before it's gone. I couldn't believe my ears. He was probably six times saintlier than I am, but the man couldn't even construe English. Would you trust this preacher to illuminate the sacred text for you?

I still take down my Greek New Testament from time to time to check my understanding of a passage or the flavor of a word I suspect is hiding behind the English translation. And I never check a passage without coming away excited about what I've found. This is also why I like to read the Bible in Old English. The ancient Anglo-Saxons were excellent translators, and if you want to sharpen your ability to express something in English, their understanding will enlighten your own.

Amidst the pressure to make college more "relevant" and seminary training more "practical," all I can say is, we need more study of languages, not less.

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