A translation assumption in Layton’s Coptic grammar

I was somewhat gobsmacked (can you be “somewhat gobsmacked”, or is that akin to saying “almost a virgin”?) to read the following comment made by Layton in talking about how he chose his examples:

There is no reason to doubt that Biblical Sahidic Coptic is normal, idiomatic, and polished in character even thought its wording and rhetoric are also governed by the Greek original. (xii)

This brought me to a stop in my reading. As Layton says (albeit much less colloquially) in his opening chapter, there is much about how Coptic operated that we don’t know because it hasn’t been a spoken daily language for around a millennium. He also says that the Nag Hammadi texts “whose language resembles Sahidic display a non-Standard mix of isoglosses, sometimes fluctuating, from all over Egypt” (xii) so he has omitted them. I have no difficulty with the idea that the Biblical Sahidic in the oldest manuscripts is polished. I am less sure that it is necessarily either normal or idiomatic.

I think it is eminently sensible of him to chose the Sahidic Bible and the writings of Apa Shenoute (which he also uses) as the standard for Standard Sahidic because the corpora that we have available are those, Nag Hammadi and non-literary material such as personal, magical, legal and medical texts.  I think it making too sweeping an assumption to say that religious texts, especially those translated from another language are either normal or idiomatic, though. Certainly, most modern English bible translations  are neither particularly normal nor particularly idiomatic and there are loud cries of dismay when a version comes out that attempts more normal and idiomatic usage (and no, I don’t think I’m confusing this with colloquial usage, which is definitely not well accepted – I am thinking about how well the TEV/Good News is accepted in most church circles).

While we have no evidence that the Copts were like us in this, we have no evidence that they weren’t either.  I think it would be safer to assume that the Sahidic Coptic Bible and the writings of Apa Shenoute are good examples of polished, formal, religous Sahidic and since it’s what we’ve got to work with, to use it as the standard. Even in my limited reading of the Nag Hammadi Sahidic corpus, I  have come across examples where a word is clearly using the spelling of another dialect, so I would not doubt his expert judgement about the isoglosses in it.  I just don’t think we can assume that religious documents are necessarily good examples of normal idiomatic usage and I think that there have been times when too-broad assumptions that “everybody knows” have blinded people to important discoveries for too long in the past.


Layton’s Coptic Grammar – some comments

As I said in my previous post, I’ve just received my copy of Bentley Layton’s A Coptic Grammar.  This is the revised, 2004 edition, which he says has been kept affordable by a grant from they Yale Endowment for Egyptology. If that’s the case, I am very grateful to Yale, because it is not a cheap book. I can see why, though, because, unlike many paperback books, it is perfect bound, ie the pages are divided into a number of sections which are folded and stitched before being glued into the binding. Cheap paperbacks have their pages cut to size and are then glued to the binding, making it much more likely that they will fall to pieces in your hands with frequent use.

It’s a grammar, so I am not actually planning on reading it from cover to cover, but I am reading the introduction and first few of chapters and am finding them enlightening. As I commented here in 2007, Layton uses a different terminology for describing Coptic to the one used by Lambdin (who, incidentally, taught Layton Coptic). It is the same as the terminology used by Ariel Shisha-Halevy (Coptic Grammatical Chrestomathy – A Course for Academic and Private Study. Leuven: Peeters 1988.) which I had difficulty following, because although he says that the book can be used to teach yourself Coptic, the level of explanatory material provided in it is very limited and I was used to the Lambdin terms.

After outlining the history of twentieth-century Coptic linguistics, Layton says:

Finally, a word about traditional terminology.  Readers accustomed to the traditional terms of Coptic grammar in English, French or German will find many of these included, as cross-references, in the subject index at the end of this book.  But as might be expected in a new full-scale grammar some old terms had to be abandoned or replaced, and some new ones created, when the overall structure of the language more precisely came into view.  For these innovations I ask the readers’ indulgence, hoping they will look beyond the new names and consider, instead, the enduring structural entities that they merely serve to label. (xiii-xiv)

So, happy, happy, joy, joy, I need to get my head around some of this and be able to use both sets of terminology so that anything I say will make sense to those who are used to the older terminology (probably the majority of Coptic scholars at the moment) and those who are used to the new. I expect them to increase in numbers now that Layton’s Coptic in Twenty Lessons is available as a teaching tool and of course I don’t want to be thought out-of-date when I publish. 🙂  Note that Coptic in Twenty Lessons is also a perfect bound paperback.

The joys of buying books on line

I finally bit the bullet and bought myself a copy of Bentley Layton’s A Coptic Grammar with Cherstomathy and Glossary- Sahidic Dialect. I have been resisting this for a long time because I am not keen on spending in the vicinity of AUD150 plus postage on a paperback book, but it never seems to be available second hand and I needed it, so in late April I ordered a copy from the place that had the best price at the time, bücher-galerie-ac, a bookseller in Aachen, Germany, for 78 Euro. Cost me around AUD 178 posted. It took an incredibly long time to get here – they posted it on 11 May and it arrived on 17 July.  This surprised me because I have bought items from Germany before and had them arrive much faster – 3-4 weeks. It surprised the bookseller, too, and it arrived 10 days after the bookshop and I both filled in Deutsche Post lost mail forms.  I needed to consult LEO several times in order to do this – my German vocab doesn’t contain many words related to mail.

Today, just out of interest, I looked at Amazon to see what price they were charging. I was fascinated to find that they have the same (revised second edition) listed twice.  If you buy a copy of the item that doesn’t have an image on the website, it’s USD 105. If you buy a copy of the item that does have an image on the website (same description and it’s the book I bought), it costs USD 117.  Or you could buy it from another seller in the US listed on Amazon and pay USD 229 for it. Since USD 105 is the cheapest I’ve seen this book listed in a couple of years of sporadic looking, if you’ve been looking for one too, now might be the time to buy it.

Bible and Critical Theory Seminar 2

Roland has put up a post about the seminar on his blog.  It has photos, which is good because I didn’t actually take any although I did have a camera with me.  Featured in the photo taken outside the Grand are Melissa Pula (University of Denver, “Job’s Body in Pain: Reading Job 16:7-14 with Elaine Scarry”), Simon Holloway (University of Sydney, “‘If I forget you’: a linguistic and stylistic analysis of Psalm 137), Helena Bolle (Macquarie University, “The Vulnerable Body in the Wisdom Literature) and me. I am the one wearing blue jeans and carrying the SBL Auckland bag. Melissa is on my left.

It is interesting that everyone who actually addressed specific biblical texts looked at Hebrew Bible.  In addition to the three above, we also heard from Julie Kelso (University of Qld, “A Woman is being Beaten and Maybe She Likes it? Approaching Song of Songs 5:2-7 with the Formidable Intellect of Andrea Dworkin”), James Harding (University of  Otago’ “Ideology, Intertextuality and the David and Jonathan Narratives”) and Roland Boer (University of Newcastle, “Negri, Job and the Bible”).  Clearly next year the people who are looking at the other stuff need to present  so that there is no need to change the title to Hebrew Bible and Critical Theory. 🙂

Not, mind you, that I minded only getting Hebrew Bible (and more general work).  I don’t have the time or the expertise to do work in this area, so it’s fascinating to hear what other people are doing and the conclusions they’re coming up with.

And now, onto the things that struck me about the papers. Note that this is not by any means an exhaustive coverage of the seminar – just things that stood out for me.

A definite highlight for me was Darren Jorgensen (University of Western Australia) presenting “Simulating the sacred: Theodor Strehlow’s Songs of Central Australia“. Strehlow was the son of the Lutheran founder of Hermansburg Aboriginal Mission near-ish to Alice Springs and because of his relationship with the Arrernte people with whom he grew up he was entrusted with many of their stories. Songs of Central Australia is a book of his translations of these song-cycles into English, although Darren argues that they are not so much translations as conversions. Instead of simply providing word-for-word English versions, Strehlow converted them in poetic form with a rhythm and cadence influenced by Greek and Norse myth.  This has frustrated later anthropologists who are unable to trace back from Strehlow’s versions to the original Arrernte songs, but in trying to recreate the sense of the sacred for a Western audience, Strehlow used, ISTM, the principles of dynamic equivalence.  Perhaps I’m a little slow, but one of the things that stood out for me about this was Darren’s explanation that although Aboriginal societies have much sacred information that is only available to particular parts of the group, when the community gathers, all the information is available to the community.

Stefan Solomon talked about “Revenant Revelation: Reading the Archive in Carpenter’s Gothic“.  His paper presented me with a new way of understanding the word αρχων.  It is related to αρχηων (or perhaps αρχηον) which means archive, a repository of knowledge.  Thus αρχων, which I have always understood as meaning ruler or judge or authority, is actually (also) a guardian of knowledge.  This, of course, makes sense in the context of  gnosticism and the fact that I had not realised it before probably just shows that my understanding of Greek has been limited to New Testament studies, but still…

Julie Kelso gave us a whirlwind tour through her paper (“A woman is being beaten…”). Despite the fact that she had all her quotes on handouts, I found it too dense to follow easily – given that it is right outside my area of expertise. What I took away was the need to think about how often heterosexuality and heteronormativity are functionally equivalent – another new-to-me concept.

Tamara Prosic (Monash)  talked about “Orthodox Christianity, Utopia and Socialism”. Through my post-prandial stupour,  the bits I latched onto were those that helped me to understand some of the significance between Orthodox and Catholic and Protestant theology – the Orthodox church does not have a concept of Original Sin, but sees sin as something that disrupts community.

Melissa Pula introduced me to Elaine Scarry’s concept that to be embodied is to be without power and that to have a voice is to have power.   To have a body is to have limits and being able to give voice is a means of survival for a body in pain. God in Job has a voice but no body. OTOH it occurred to me that in Job God describes Godself in bodily terms eg when God asks Job (38: 28-29)

Has the rain a father, or who has begotten the drops of dew: from whose womb did the ice come forth, and who has given birth to the hoarfost of heaven? (NRSV)


James Harding’s paper looked at the problems inherent in misuse of statistics in biblical studies in his examiniation of the work of  Sylvia Schroer and Thomas Staubli on the one hand and Markus Zehnder on the other on what it means for David to love Johnathan. He argued that Schroer and Staubli’s problem was assuming that because the particular Hebrew word describing David’s love for Johnathan is used to describe erotic love in Song of Songs, it must  indicate erotic love in the David/Johnathan relationship. Zehnder argues that because it is more often used to describe non-erotic love, it is not erotic in David and Johnathan. In doing so, he fails to take into consideration the respective contexts and genres of his sources. Thus, although there are statistics, they don’t prove what the people using them suggest that they prove.

Simon Holloway, OTOH, was much more careful with his use of statistics. He justified paying attention to a particular Hebrew word by saying that it is used 88 times in the active voice (in the Hebrew bible, I think, but maybe it was just in Psalms) and everywhere else except in Psalm 137, it has a direct object. In 137:5, we have literally “if I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget” (no object). He looked at a number of ways that commentators have dealt with this anomaly and the problems with them. On the surface, a rather nice option is revoicing the verb.  I found myself wishing that I had enough Hebrew and a sufficient understanding of the transmission of the Hebrew Scriptures to be able to consider intelligently whether this option really does imply that we think we are better at Hebrew than the Masoretes.

So many interesting things to study, not enough time to do it in. 😦 If anyone has any ideas about ethical ways for me to find enough money to study full time for the rest of my life whist still maintaining the standard of living to which I have become accustomed, please let me know. 🙂


Neither Roland nor I mentioned what must surely be considered the most important point of the seminar (at least by Jim West) – Michael Carden mentioned Huldrych Zwingli in his presentation on “Sodomites, Sodomy and Same-Sex Marriage”.  It was only a passing reference to him when Michael quoted Heinrich Bullinger, Zwingli’s successor as head of the Zurich church and pastor at Grossmünster, but nevertheless, a mention.

Bible and Critical Theory Seminar 1

Just back from the 2009  Bible and Critical Theory Seminar in Newcastle, NSW (10 and 11 July) organised by Roland Boer of  Stalin’s Moustache. My enjoyment of this delightful event was somewhat marred by my neck going out of alignment, so I was in significant pain and/or doped for a significant portion of the proceedings.  I was unable to post during the seminar because I didn’t have internet access and I think I will wait until after I’ve had my neck fixed to talk about the content of the papers but here are the obligatory photos of my room.  Note that it’s the spare room at my brother-in-law and sister-in-law’s home, hence the non-motel-room touches.

My room view 2

My room view 2

My room - view 1

My room - view 1

Some info about the proceedings, though:

We met at the Grand Hotel, across the road from the Newcastle Law Courts. Despite being a small group, we had international participation – Melissa Pula from University of Denver, Colorado being the person who had travelled the greatest distance to attend.

This was my first B&CTS and I really appreciated the opportunity to participate in a fairly informal gathering which nevertheless offered high quality papers with plenty of opportunity for interaction and discussion.  It was also great to  meet several people I’d only known via blog before:  Simon Holloway from Davar Akher and Michael Carden of Jottings as well as Roland.  I was disappointed that Marion Maddox had to withdraw at more or less the last minute, but the rest of the company made up for her absence.

None of the papers had any direct relevance to my research, but it was very pleasant to be able to be in the company of people who do Bible at an academic level and to be introduced to new ideas and new approaches to familiar texts. My thanks to Roland for putting it all together and to the presenters for their work.  More anon.