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! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8dyZyYqESKk&feature=youtu.be