Re: John 1:1

On Wed, 30 Nov 1994, Joe Abrahamson wrote:

Thank you for the concern, but if I understand you right, I do not think 
I am guilty of the fallacy you are concerned about.  I am vehemently 
opposed to the Whorf-Sapir hypothesis and linguistic determinism, as you 
are also apparently.  I was not intending to imply that contingent 
language determines the shape of possible thought.  I am certain John 
could have entertained any conception of _theos_: God, divinity, god, 
etc.  What was in his mental capacity was not germane to my point.

I believe (no professional linguist) that language arises metaphorically 
along with lived experience, so that it is marked by its history (the 
history of its speakers).  I wouldn't say language is merely 
self-referential, or that it is easily reducible to behavioral 
signalling, but in determining meaning language is its own layered record 
of its experienced past.  Language does not determine religious belief, 
but it supplies a non-infinite set of signs, signs whose meanings are 
determined by concrete historical contexts in the past of the speakers.  
So inasmuch as any religion is lived through language, it is lived by 
obligatory continuity with the past of the language community.  The 
adoption of Greek was traumatic for Jews, and its translations of Hebrew 
Judaism were only vouchsafed by miracles (Septuagint).  And of course, 
Greek was ultimately rejected for communicating the religion.  Greek 
Judaism placed the translated texts into the context of the wider Greek 
intertext: there is evidence for the almost certain schooling of 
Greek-speaking Jews on classical (pagan) Greek literature.  The allusions 
of Jewish _theos_ are not able to avoid allusion to, say, Apollo or 
Zeus.  This affects the meaning like a gravitational field bending the 
path of light - the space is no longer flat, it is warped.  It *does* 
matter that Homer and Hesiod provided the behavioral and verbal intertext 
for _theos_ as Abraham and Moses did for YHWH.  They shaped the meaning 
by their usage.

I never suggested that polyglot 2nd Temple Jews had a different religion for 
every language they spoke. 

> An Example: Speakers of English have a very wide variety of beliefs
> or disbeliefs about the nature and character of what they each call a god.
> None of these innumerable beliefs can be explained by an appeal to the
> history of the English language or the fact that an individual grew up
> speaking English rather than Mandarin. 

As a matter of fact, histories of verbal belief are histories of 
language, language as _parole_ not as _langue_, which is where our 
misunderstanding starts.  Mandarin speakers *when speaking Mandarin* 
might not be able to exactly convey the English sense of God in Mandarin, 
with all its allusion and association.  Language communities interpret in 
accordance with experiences within their own languages.  I would think 
that if you were polyglot, you would know this first hand.

> But we need not be so extreme as in the example. The inhabitants of
> Palestine at the time of Jesus had at least 4 linguistic cultures available
> to them: Latin (Rome, commerce?), Greek(LXX, Rome, commerce, family?),
> Aramaic (Targumim, oral religious tradition, commerce, family), and Hebrew
> (TaNaKh, oral religious tradition, family?). It is not improbable that John
> grew up knowing these languages as well as when and where it was appropriate
> to use them. The Mishnah, Josephus, the New Testament, the LXX and the
> Targumim demonstrate that during the first century b.c.e. to the middle of
> the second century b.c.e. there was a polyglot and polycultural society in
> both Palistine and its greater environs of the Roman Empire.

There is little evidence that the majority of Jews in this period were 
polyglot to this extent and in this way.  Latin is little evidenced.  
Greek and Aramaic seemed to form separate communities (remember the 
Greek-Aramaic food fight in Acts?) even if Jesus and his circle may have 
been bilingual (no particularly strong evidence, as I remember).  And the 
speakers of Hebrew ... as I understand their situation is is not clearly 

> The debate about the authenticity of bodily resurrection between the
> Pharisees and the Sadducees shows us that a considerably different world-view
> could be maintained by members of the self-same linguistic culture. 

The assumption seems to be that I would have stated this is impossible.  
I certainly didn't.  The Greeks divided Christologically, too, but not 
over _theos_ (how could they get the leverage?) but rather over criteria 
of _theos_: was there a time when the Son was not?  Or was the Son 
eternally begotten?  (eternity=divine characteristic)

> students did. Cultural Antropology has found some value in their theories but
> this is mainly limited to recognizing the different semantic structures and
> associations between words and realia within a limited cultural tradition and
> comparing that to another limited cultural tradition.

Sapir-Whorf is (or ought to be) ancient history for linguists.  What of 
Richard Rorty and his revision of Donaldson?  Jacques Derrida?  Stanley 
Fish?  Stephen D. Moore's _Literary Criticism and the Gospels: The 
Theoretical Challenge_ (1989), invited the application of rigorous 
philosophies and theories of language to Biblical studies.  
Post-Saussurean linguistics, cognitive linguistics, cultural materialist 
anthropology (and its theory of culture/ideology) offer more refreshing, 
challenging reading than their predecessors ever could.

Greg Jordan