An Orthodox Christian Handbook on the Koine Greek Bible: LXX/OG & Byzantine Textform by Fr. Dcn. Thomas Sandberg (in progress)
Of the four most interesting books published in 2017, three of them are Christian, and of those three two are in Modern English, and one is in Koine Greek. Furthermore, of those three Christian books, two of them are the New Testament. In Greek, we have The Tyndale House Greek New Testament, and in English David Bentley Hart’s The New Testament: A Translation published by Yale. (For those interested, the other books of the four are The Benedict Option by Rod Dreher, and Discipline Equals Freedom by Jocko Willink.)
One would think that a new edition of the Greek New Testament would be of real interest and impact for Greek nerds, but the months following the release of both have seen unfold a unique situation. Outside of Evangelical Textual Criticism, Exegetical Tools, B-Greek, Textkit, and Nerdy Language Majors it would appear that the scholars, critics, and the rest of the world are either silent about it, don’t care about it, or don’t know about it. Indeed, no Orthodox Christian—clergy, laity, or scholar—has even mentioned it to my knowledge.
On the other hand, DBH’s translation has been addressed by all the groups mentioned or alluded to: clergy, laity, scholars, many of the internet groups and websites previously mentioned—both Orthodox and heterodox—have been talking about this translation. And with everything I’ve been reading, the discussion over this translation has brought out a fantastic amount of discussion concerning Koine Greek, exegesis, hermeneutics, textual criticism, dogma κ.τ.λ.
This isn’t to fault the people behind the THGNT. I own a physical copy and a copy in Accordance too and was reading St. James’ Epistle from the physical Bible on my flight back to Toronto from Winnipeg after Christmas. So I think its great (even though I am a Byzantine Textform proponent). But I think what most people are really looking forward to is the textual commentary that will accompany it, and the audio version read aloud by monks from the Orthodox Christian Monastery of the Transfiguration, Nafpaktos, in proper Greek pronunciation via BibleMesh (well, at least I am looking forward to both).
So due to the amount of relevant Greek material DBH’s translation has brought about I figured I would list here all the reviews, articles, and podcasts I have read and listened to. If any of my readers have found any that I don’t have listed here, please feel free to mention them in the comments or email me the link, and I will post new reviews as I finish reading them.
As for my own thoughts on the translation, which have been asked, I relayed them on Instagram and other than a couple grammatical errors, my thoughts remain the same (so far):
“I think it is incredibly interesting, especially once one really understands what he is and is not attempting to do with his translation. Most reviewers fail to understand, and it shows. I had pre-ordered it on Amazon after reading an excerpt from the preface or intro that appealed to my love of Greek, and at first, as I read it I thought the translation was only of any real value if you know Koine Greek. As I read more, the vividness and oddity of the Greek were really brought forth in the English, so much so I bought my wife a copy for Xmas. It is definitely not for Liturgical use, but that wasn’t his intent. My only criticism so far is that he used the NA28/UBS5 as his Greek text, though he does note Majority Text differences.”
To elaborate, the most disappointing thing about reading the reviews and articles is that they mostly fail to understand what Hart is doing and devise straw man attacks against him due to their misunderstanding. And Hart’s Orthodox opponents sadden me the most, especially when they call his translation into question and then resort to non-Orthodox scholars, translations, and commentaries to support their point—the same point from the same non-Orthodox scholars, translations, and commentaries which were the cause for the translation effort in the first place!
The most depressing thing, however, indeed must be that the Orthodox and heterodox alike seem to take a major issue, not with ἀποκατάστασις, but instead push back against him when it comes to money: The lady doth protest too much, methinks… It reminds me of a story my Bishop told us seminarians during breakfast one morning. A priest and a doctor were out for a walk one day, talking about this and that, lost in conversation when they neared the edge of a cliff. The priest fell and was holding onto the crumbling edge, fingers slowly losing their grip. The doctor yelled to the priest, “Give me your hand, Father!” The priest, unfortuantely, lost his grip and fell to his death. The doctor ran to the priest’s home to tell the presvytera the awful news. She answered the door and broke down in tears as the story was retold, the doctor recounting to her “I said to him, “Give me your hand!”” The presvytera looked up and said to the poor doctor, “Oh, you should’ve said “Take my hand,” instead.”
In case it escapes you, the moral of the story is that priests want to take and not give, they love money. And if the reviews of Hart’s translation are anything to go by, it appears money and the defence of having and acquiring it is one issue that Protestants and Orthodox are united on, amongst the laity, and sadly even more so among the clergy.
November 2017 – The Gospel According to David Bentley – Paul V. Mankowski, S.J.
29 December 2017 – The Hart Idiosyncratic Version – Fr. John Whiteford
January/February 2018 – A Mind-Bending Translation of the New Testament – James Parker
8 February 2018 – A Wild and Indecent Book – Garry Wills
11 February 2018 – Anent Gary Wills and the “DBH” Version by David Bentley Hart
11 October 2018 – The Vale of Abraham by David Bentley Hart
David Bentley Hart is an Eastern Orthodox scholar of religion, and a philosopher, writer and cultural commentator. He is an fellow/associate at the Notre Dame Institute for Advanced Study, and has held positions at the University of Virginia, Duke University, and Providence College. He lives in South Bend, Indiana and attends a Greek Orthodox parish.
My Goodreads rating: 2 of 5 stars (2 stars on Goodreads = “it was ok”)
My Amazon.ca rating: 3 of 5 stars (3 stars on Amazon.ca = “It’s okay”)
“James: A Commentary on the Greek Text.” By William C. Varner. Fontes Press, 2017, 423 pp. ISBN: 1-948048-01-9, $22.90 on Amazon.ca.
There were many reasons why I wanted to read and review this book. Obviously, those that know me know that I’ve become a nerd over Ancient Greek. That is one reason. The other is that among Orthodox Christians—and ironically among Greek Orthodox Christians—the Biblical, Patristic, and original Liturgical languages are given very little thought. In fact, when they are it is in order to move away from them toward the vernacular or something similar; and so anything written about Greek interests me immensely.
The reasons for the general lack of interest in original languages are tied to our rich Orthodox history of bringing the Scriptures and Liturgy to the people in their own native tongue. Also, we don’t subscribe to verbal plenary inspiration—which is also why textual criticism is almost non-existent within and among us Orthodox. Well, that and the Orthodox φρόνημα and Tradition contain views such as Origen’s that all the variants were/are inspired, and the idea of the great Slavophile lay-theologian Aleksei Khomyakov’s that everything the (Orthodox) Church writes is Scripture.
One of the difficulties in reviewing a book by a non-Orthodox author is that it must be taken on its own merits and not measured against an Orthodox standard to which it was never written to be measured against, or as I believe Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick wrote somewhere: the Orthodox Church doesn’t theologize outside of Her bounds. With that in mind I proceed, and for those reading this, I am attempting to write from the stance of an Orthodox Christian who loves Greek writing to other Orthodox Christians who love Greek too.
William Varner’s James: A Commentary on the Greek Text is a serious piece of work; he subscribes to Porter’s view on “verbal aspect,” and in his recent appearance on Exegetical Tools, he says it is intended for those who are at least second-year Greek students. At 442 pages, it is much, much longer than the actual text it is commentating on, which can be to its detriment. It is easy to lose track of the verse in question and end up deep in a textual discussion related only to a section (or just one word) of the verse being commented upon. For comparison, The Epistle of Saint James: A Commentary by Archbishop Dimitri Royster (whose relics have been found to be incorrupt, but not officially declared as such) is 152 pages in length.
On page xv, we are told that it is a reworking of an earlier book, and while reading this book, it came to my attention that Evangelical academia has had a few issues with plagiarism as of late. And it was via the Facebook Nerdy Language Majors group that I discovered that unfortunately Varner’s original book of which this is a reworking of was one of them. I am not in any level of academia to be saying anything about those issues, but as a student myself plagiarism is always something on my mind and even more so now when I can see that even at the highest level it can occur, at least hopefully, accidentally. I didn’t want to mention this topic, but there were at least two areas in the present work where proper attestation was probably accidentally missed. A footnote appears to be missing sourcing Metzger’s Commentary on verse 1:19, and on page 325 a footnote sourcing Patrick J. Hartin’s commentary on James in the Sacra Pagina series appears to be missing.
Not a missing citations per se, but rather that there possibly should be citations; to clarify my point: on pp. 99-100, when I read that I thought I had read it before, and to me, it appears to come nearly verbatim from Metzger.
“Instead of the abrupt Ἴστε opening 1:19, the Byzantine family of manuscripts and the Textus Receptus connect the following ἔστω δὲ (dropping δὲ) more closely with 1:18 by substituting ὥστε, which is supported by a variety of later witnesses (Κ Π Ψ 614 Byz syrp). The reading adopted as the text, however, is strongly supported by both Alexandrian and Western witnesses (אc B C 81 1739 it vg).”
“Instead of reading the abrupt ἴστε, the Textus Receptus connects the following ἔστω (dropping δέ) more closely with ver. 18 by substituting ὥστε, in company with a variety of later witnesses (K P2 Ψ 614 Byz syrp, h al). The reading adopted as the text is strongly supported by both Alexandrian and Western witnesses (ℵc B C (81) 1739 itff vg al).”
Same with p. 325,
“This expression of dependence on the Lord is known as the “Jacobean condition” (conditio Jacobaea). Such a sentiment is not absent from secular authors. Probably the most characteristic example is found in the following exchange: “‘If you wish, Socrates.’ ‘That is not well said, Alcibiades.’ ‘Well, what should I say?’ ‘If God wills’ [ἐὰν βούλῃ σύ, ὦ Σώκρατες. οὐ καλῶς λέγεις, ὦ Ἁλκιβίαδη. ἀλλὰ πῶς χρὴ λέγειν; ὅτι ἐὰν θεὸς ἐθέλῃ]” (Plato, Alc. 1.135d). The attitude that it expresses, however, is thoroughly widespread among NT characters and authors.”
“The expression “If the Lord wishes” has been called the “conditio Jacobaea.” However, the phrase was not coined by James, as there is ample evidence to show it was a common expression in the Greco-Roman world (“deo volente”): e.g., Plato’s Dialogue, Alcibiades I, contains an interesting exchange:
Socrates: And do you know how to escape out of your present state …?
Alcibiades: Yes, I do.
Alcibiades: By your help, Socrates.
Socrates: That is not well said, Alcibiades.
Alcibiades: What ought I to have said?
Socrates: By the help of God.
Alcibiades: I agree … (Plato, Alc. 1:135d [Jowett]; see also Plato, Phaed. 80d).
A similar thought and expression are found in other New Testament writings: e.g., “But I will come to you soon, if the Lord wills …” (1 Cor 4:19; see also 1 Cor 16:7; Acts 18:21; Heb 6:3). This shows that James is using a popular phrase from the culture of his world, be it Hellenistic or Christian.”
(Patrick J. Hartin, James, ed. Daniel J. Harrington, vol. 14, Sacra Pagina Series (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2003), 225.)
Could be a forgotten citation, could be different researchers independently arriving at the same conclusions, could be plagiarism. I don’t know, I just know that to me they appear too similar and make me more cautious with my own writing.
To be fair, typing those sections into Grammarly and turning on plagiarism detection yields nothing, and Metzger’s Commentary is listed in the Bibliography; however, Hartin’s Sacra Pagina volume is not, but other writings of his are.
Again, staying away from critiquing theological issues, it is pertinent to note that this book takes positions on St. James and the Theotokos which are incompatible with Orthodox Christianity. However, a point that is of concern for Orthodox Christians that I will comment on is Varner’s view that the Majority Text and the Byzantine Text are “basically synonymous.” I would say that he is basically correct, but that at higher levels of Greek scholarship the distinction between the Byzantine and Majority Texts should be stated and that they should be referred to as separate (a mistake even The Center for the Study and Preservation of the Majority Text makes, in my opinion). I maintain this view despite what the editors of The Orthodox Study Bible with its NKJV English and Majority Text Greek say.
Furthermore, it is disappointing that the Robinson-Pierpont 2005 Byzantine Textform, the Hodges-Farstad 1985 Majority Text, the Patriarchal Text of 1904/1912 are not mentioned in the Bibliography. So one can only assume when Varner refers to the Byzantine and Majority Texts he is referring to 𝔐 as found in NA27, which follows the change NA26 made from NA25, as NA28 (at least in the Catholic Epistles) has brought back a wider variety of symbols regarding the Byzantine and Majority Texts. (It must be noted that as I write this I am in Niverville, Manitoba and I only have with me NA26 and NA28; my copies of NA25 and NA27 are in Toronto, Ontario in my dorm room. I will be back in Toronto on Saturday to correct any mistakes I may have made regarding these symbols and to what they are referring.) Tangent to this is that many times his preference for the Alexandrian Text comes through at the expense of assuming certain things about Byzantine scribal practices as well as their knowledge of Greek grammar and syntax (pp. 273 & 306).
What is great about this book, for me, is that he utilizes the THGNT, he mentions the Orthodox order of the Catholic Epistles in the Πραξαπόστολος on p. 34 (which ironically all printed Orthodox Bibles I’ve seen in Koine Greek, Katharevousa, Modern Greek, and English no longer follow), refers to oral recitation (pp. 106, 318, 324), refers to the ancient pronunciation (p. 225) in a manner Orthodox would agree with, and throughout the whole commentary he makes numerous references to Homer, Plato, Aristotle, the LXX (however, contrary to pp. 379-380, 2 Maccabees is cononical, at least in Orthodox Christianity), Philo, Josephus, the Apostolic Fathers, Epictetus, and St. Bede. For these reasons, I would recommend all second-year Greek students who are genuine Koine Greek nerds buy this book, and I would add further that I truly feel this book would be much better as a book in Accordance or Verbum/Logos/Noet, it would open up a lot of the references for more in-depth personal study.
But I must close by relaying that by far my biggest problem with the book is pretty much the same problem I have with modern Koine Greek pedagogy in general. The book relies far too much on English translations of Greek texts for discussion of Greek grammar and syntax and that there is a plethora of quotes from Greek sources are given in translation. In a book titled as a commentary on the Greek text of James, I would expect there would be almost zero English translation. But the fact that English far outweighs the Greek in this book leads me to conclude that this book is better thought of as a commentary on the Epistle of St. James with reference to Greek, rather than as a commentary on the Greek text itself.
Disclaimer: Thanks to Todd Scacewater and Fontes Press for this opportunity and for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence the thoughts and opinions expressed in my review.
Ἦσαν δὲ προσκαρτεροῦντες τῇ διδαχῇ τῶν ἀποστόλων καὶ τῇ κοινωνίᾳ καὶ τῇ κλάσει τοῦ ἄρτου καὶ ταῖς προσευχαῖς.
-GNT-PT Πράξεις 2·42
“The Fathers formed dogmas on the basis of their experiences of theosis, and not after philosophical reflection on what is mentioned in the Bible.”
-Protopresbyter John Romanides, Patristic Theology
It is common for people raised with a Western φρόνημα to look to Scripture in search of a counter to why heterodox faith traditions don’t believe certain tenets of the Orthodox Christian Faith. This is even more compounded when said people do not know Koine Greek and instead are forced to use Protestant translations of the Scriptures into English (which is itself a Protestant language, which further adds to the problem of arriving at a correct hermeneutic).
The problem boils down to one thing: the approach is wrong. Orthodox Christians have never derived any dogma from Scripture; Scripture is the written record of the dogma which existed prior to it being written down. In the history of the Orthodox Church, it was always heresies that based their teachings on a novel extraction of portions of Scripture. We can see this with Gnosticism’s eisegesis of Scripture (q.v., St. Irenaeus), the Roman Catholic heresy of the filioque from St. John 20:22, Martin Luther’s novel doctrine eisegeted out of the Latin of Romans 1:16-17 (yes, novel. This why Philip Melanchthon had to strike out at the Church Fathers: this (new) doctrine is absent from them; therefore they were in error and Luther a prophet) and complicated further with his addition of “allein” in his German translation from the Koine Greek Textus Receptus. The sad irony in all this is that Luther himself believed in the perpetual virginity of the Theotokos, which is the topic of this post.
Failing to find Scriptural support in an English translation of Scripture for one’s ἀπολογία, one is forced into choosing a branch of theology as a hermeneutic. The thing is that no ἀπολογία is needed for the approach is off. For example, the Church has always believed in the perpetual virginity of Mary. When has She not? Even Luther knew this, and he knew it not from Scripture but from <<τῇ ἅπαξ παραδοθείσῃ τοῖς ἁγίοις πίστει>> (GNT-PT Ἰούδα 3), for it was “Quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus creditum est” (Vincentian Canon).
It is sometimes said as an argument against the perpetual virginity of the Theotokos that it is not found in Scripture; hence the teaching was arrived at via a typological exegesis of the Septuagint; the problem with this is twofold. 1., it is indeed found in Scripture (even the great Greek grammarian, Baptist A.T. Robertson was mistaken on this—but this was because he fell into the fallacy that doctrine is built from Scripture rather than Scripture being the written record of a part of the Faith). And 2., as I have already stated, the teaching is not based upon arguments from Scripture, thus whether or not it is “found” in Scripture doesn’t even matter. This last point will become very clear when we get to Ricky Gervais and Stephen Colbert below.
To elaborate upon No. 1., in the New Testament it isn’t explicit, but it is definitely clear in the Greek: καὶ οὐκ ἐγίνωσκεν αὐτὴν ἕως οὗ ἔτεκε τὸν υἱὸν αὐτῆς τὸν πρωτότοκον, καὶ ἐκάλεσε τὸ ὄνομα αὐτοῦ Ἰησοῦν. (Most?) Protestants look to ἕως and commit an exegetical fallacy by usually saying something like “ἕως means ‘until'” (C.S. Lewis would lose his shirt over this), and then also forget all the other uses of ἕως where it is very clear that it does not refer to a terminus, for example, Matthew 20:28 διδάσκοντες αὐτοὺς τηρεῖν πάντα ὅσα ἐνετειλάμην ὑμῖν· καὶ ἰδοὺ ἐγὼ μεθ᾿ ὑμῶν εἰμι πάσας τὰς ἡμέρας ἕως τῆς συντελείας τοῦ αἰῶνος. Ἀμήν. At the end of the aeon Christ leaves us? Further, in Matthew 1:25 above ἐγίνωσκεν is in the imperfect active indicative, so past continuous, not simple past (aorist). To quote Zerwick, “ἐ-γίνωσκεν impf of duration: ἕως would require constative aor. (§253) if indicating termination of action” (Max Zerwick and Mary Grosvenor, A Grammatical Analysis of the Greek New Testament (Rome: Biblical Institute Press, 1974), 2).
Also, many Greek and even Latin Fathers are clear on the grammar, see for example Sts. Chrysostom & Jerome. Going by an English translation, then yes typology definitely makes the perpetual virginity more clear; however, in the Greek vis-à-vis Greek, it is clear.
To elaborate on No. 2. I quote St. Vincent of Lerins,
(1) I have continually given the greatest pains and diligence to inquiring, from the greatest possible number of men outstanding in holiness and in doctrine, how I can secure a kind of fixed and, as it were, general and guiding principle for distinguishing the true Catholic Faith from the degraded falsehoods of heresy. And the answer that I receive is always to this effect; that if I wish, or indeed if anyone wishes, to detect the deceits of heretics that arise and to avoid their snares and to keep healthy and sound in a healthy faith, we ought, with the Lord’s help, to fortify our faith in a twofold manner, firstly, that is, by the authority of God’s Law, then by the tradition of the Catholic Church.
(2) Here, it may be, someone will ask, Since the canon of Scripture is complete, and is in itself abundantly sufficient, what need is there to join to it the interpretation of the Church? The answer is that because of the very depth of Scripture all men do not place one identical interpretation upon it. The statements of the same writer are explained by different men in different ways, so much so that it seems almost possible to extract from it as many opinions as there are men. Novatian expounds in one way, Sabellius in another, Donatus in another, Arius, Eunomius and Macedonius in another, Photinus, Apollinaris and Priscillian in another, Jovinian, Pelagius and Caelestius in another, and latterly Nestorius in another. Therefore, because of the intricacies of error, which is so multiform, there is great need for the laying down of a rule for the exposition of Prophets and Apostles in accordance with the standard of the interpretation of the Church Catholic.
(3) Now in the Catholic Church itself we take the greatest care to hold that which has been believed everywhere, always and by all. That is truly and properly ‘Catholic,’ as is shown by the very force and meaning of the word, which comprehends everything almost universally. We shall hold to this rule if we follow universality [i.e. oecumenicity], antiquity, and consent. We shall follow universality if we acknowledge that one Faith to be true which the whole Church throughout the world confesses; antiquity if we in no wise depart from those interpretations which it is clear that our ancestors and fathers proclaimed; consent, if in antiquity itself we keep following the definitions and opinions of all, or certainly nearly all, bishops and doctors alike.
(4) What then will the Catholic Christian do, if a small part of the Church has cut itself off from the communion of the universal Faith? The answer is sure. He will prefer the healthiness of the whole body to the morbid and corrupt limb. But what if some novel contagion try to infect the whole Church, and not merely a tiny part of it? Then he will take care to cleave to antiquity, which cannot now be led astray by any deceit of novelty. What if in antiquity itself two or three men, or it may be a city, or even a whole province be detected in error? Then he will take the greatest care to prefer the decrees of the ancient General Councils, if there are such, to the irresponsible ignorance of a few men. But what if some error arises regarding which nothing of this sort is to be found? Then he must do his best to compare the opinions of the Fathers and inquire their meaning, provided always that, though they belonged to diverse times and places, they yet continued in the faith and communion of the one Catholic Church; and let them be teachers approved and outstanding. And whatever he shall find to have been held, approved and taught, not by one or two only but by all equally and with one consent, openly, frequently, and persistently, let him take this as to be held by him without the slightest hesitation.
The Chuch Fathers didn’t believe what they believed because they extracted it second hand from intellectual grappling of Scripture. To be sure, my point is that the belief in the perpetual virginity of the Theotokos is not derived from Scripture, rather it is known experientially by all baptized and chrismated Orthodox Christians through the Holy Tradition, guided by the Holy Ghost in the Church. Just to be clear, I’m not arguing against typology as a hermeneutic, in fact, I think it is great. But by the same token, we need to keep in mind that the Fathers actually knew the language in which their writings and those of our Scriptures were written in—Greek and Latin.
This issue reminds me of a video I saw recently where Ricky Gervais and Stephen Colbert go head-to-head on religion. I have no clue who Ricky Gervais is other than that he is an atheist who shows up in memes on social media, but he said something here that is relevant to my point. He said that if all the holy books were destroyed, in a thousand years they wouldn’t come back as the same texts. This, of course, is only a problem for Protestants and atheists; for Gervais the reason why is explicit in the video, and for Protestants because their dogma is based upon various Reformers eisegesis of a specific “holy book.” Remove the book, and all you have is a dead false prophet.
For us in the Orthodox Church, however, you would have to remove all of us who make up the Church: we who live Tradition guided by the Holy Ghost. This truth is so well known that even throughout history this is exactly what has been attempted: in the Roman Empire, by the Muslim Turks, by the Bolsheviks, and now in our own times by legislating Postmodernism’s anti-Logos ideology via identity politics, and through sharia creep via “social justice.”
The Eastern/Greek Orthodox Bible, “Appendix E: Mark 6:3—The ‘Brothers’ of the Lord”
Prepositions and Theology in the Greek New Testament: An Essential Resource for Exegesis by Murray J. Harris, “Chapter 24. Notable Uses of Selected “Improper” Prepositions, E. ῞Εως οὗ–Matthew 1:25,” pp. 262-263
Early Lutherans and the Greek Church – Fr. John W. Fenton