Is Erasmian Pronunciation Ugly?

I recently wrote an essay in partial defense of Erasmian pronunciation that will be published in a book (no title yet) which offers essays in defense of different phonological systems for Koine Greek. All the papers were originally read at the annual Society of Biblical Literature conference held in San Francisco in November 2011. In my paper I laid out four basic arguments: historical, pragmatic, philological, and aesthetic. Yes, aesthetic. But rather than offer an argument at SBL, I played a tune which I am making available here. More on that in a moment.

I noted in my presentation that whenever I travel to Greece (which I do every year to photograph New Testament manuscripts with CSNTM) I leave Erasmus behind. I drop him like a bad habit once I board the plane and don’t renew my acquaintance with the Dutch humanist until I return to the States.

Regarding the aesthetic argument, Erasmian pronunciation is often considered cumbersome, unnatural, stilted, and ugly. The implication sometimes is that it must not have been the way Greek ever sounded; it is too harsh on the ears for that. Perhaps images of Jim Caviezel torturing our auditory senses with unnatural Aramaic in The Passion of the Christ come to mind. Or any scholar’s attempt to read Coptic gracefully! This argument fails to recognize that even though, to some degree, beauty may be in the ear of the listener, some languages actually do sound harsh. In order to maintain political correctness, I will not mention any, and simply let your own unbridled imagination run where it wishes. I do not think, however, that Erasmian Greek is among them. To be sure, our execution of the language may falter, but that does not mean that the sound of the language is ugly.

Along these lines, Friedrich Blass long ago offered this insightful comment:

“I am perfectly convinced, that, if an ancient Athenian were to rise from his grave and hear one of us speak Greek, on the basis of the best scientific enquiry and with the most delicate and practiced organs, he would think the pronunciation horribly barbarous.”

Blass went on to say, “But if he heard a modern Greek, he would not indeed be so loud in his censure, simply because he [would have] failed to observe that this is supposed to be his own language.”

Blass’s modesty aside, not everyone who enunciates Erasmian Greek butchers the language. For a demonstration of this, consider the Chalcedonian Creed sung with Erasmian pronunciation. The music and lyrics were produced by one of my first-year Greek students, Kit Bogan, who sang all four parts a capella. One of the students in the class, Trace Bailey, who had spent years as a disc jockey, exclaimed, “This may be the most beautiful piece of music I’ve ever heard!”

It takes a few minutes to hear the whole thing. So, grab a cup of joe, plug in your 200-watt speakers to the computer, and enjoy the sound of pure worship.

Symbolon ten Chalkedonas, lyrics, music, and song by Kit Bogan.

Update: This is now on Youtube!

The Demise of Codex 1799

A graduate of Princeton University in the early nineteenth century, Robert Garrett, acquired a medieval copy of Paul’s letters, Hebrews, Acts, and the Catholic letters from Mt. Athos in 1830. His estate later donated this manuscript to Princeton University. The manuscript was produced in the twelfth or thirteenth century on parchment. It was meant as something of a pocket Bible, measuring only 13.9 x 10.3 centimeters. The leaves are very fine vellum, extraordinarily thin. Housed in the Special Collections room of the Princeton University’s Firestone Library with the shelf number Garrett 8, it had only briefly been mentioned in works dealing with New Testament manuscripts.

According to J. K. Elliott’s Bibliography of New Testament Manuscripts, 2nd edition (Cambridge, 2005), the latest published discussions of this manuscript was in Kenneth W. Clark’s Eight American Praxapostoloi in 1941.

Kurt Aland’s Kurzgefasste Liste des griechischen Handschriften der Neuen Testaments, 2nd edition (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1994), the standard tool that indicates the location, contents, date, and other pertinent information of all known Greek New Testament manuscripts, put the location in parentheses and said that the manuscript was “verbrannt” or burnt. The Internet update to the Kurzgefasste Liste claims that the manuscript is now “zerstört”—destroyed. But just as when Mark Twain presumably proclaimed, after reading his obituary in a newspaper, “Reports of my demise have been greatly exaggerated,” so too the demise of codex 1799 is exaggerated. (Twain actually wrote, “This report of my death was an exaggeration.”)

I examined the manuscript on Thursday, 16 August 2012 for about an hour. It is true that the manuscript has been burned. It is also true that many of the leaves stick together, most likely from the heat melting the ink. But it is still completely intact. It needs to be restored, but it is not gone forever—not by a long shot. In fact, it is mentioned in some detail in Greek Manuscripts at Princeton: Sixth to Nineteenth Century, by Sofia Kotzabassi and Nancy Patterson Ševčenko, with the collaboration of Don Skemer (Princeton University Press, 2010). Mr. Skemer in fact wrote to me and said he had no idea why anyone would ever think the manuscript had been destroyed.

I am grateful to Mr. Skemer, the Curator of Manuscripts at the Firestone Library, and his assistant, Charles Greene, for granting us access to this and other manuscripts in the Special Collection. And I am thrilled that a presumably dead manuscript has come back to life!