09 June 2011

One Liturgy, Two Locations

One of the things I discovered recently, in the aftermath of being lectured on a not-particularly tricky point of ancient Greek grammar, is that I did more Greek in the course of my master's degree than most undergraduates do in three years' work on the subject. Over coffee some weeks back a new student of the language, apparently unaware that I do this stuff for a living, began lecturing me at some length on a fairly straightforward bit of grammar, and feeling a bit patronised -- not to mention bemused -- I started to look at course outlines, realised just how much Greek I've done, and began to wonder that my semi-formal study might well be worth adding to my CV.

Anyway, I occasionally keep the rust off my language skills by looking at Classical writers and also at the far simpler New Testament authors. I gave an example of this the other day, talking of how I've just in the last week or so realised how ambiguous 2 Timothy 3:16 is, in that it can be rendered into English in two diverse ways with surprisingly different meanings.

Well, as I've mentioned, I often listen to sermons from the local Evangelical church when I can't make it along to attend services there; I think sincere listening is necessary if we're to reach any kind of understanding, and that that's the least we can do. I also think we should do together what we can do together, but right now time presses so joining my friends at their services isn't all that easy to do, especially given that Mass comes first.

However, I'm not looking forward to listening to this Sunday's sermons. There've been a series of talks on the meaning of 'church' as a concept, and this Sunday's sermon is to be based upon Acts 2:1-13  and 42-47. That's fine, of course, as the first passage is about Pentecost, that being the day that'll be in it, and the latter passage in particular is very important for this general topic, but I'm uneasy about the fact that the translation they'll use is the New International Version, as I think the NIV translation distorts the text of this passage.

Acts 2:46-47 contains a sentence with several clauses, which the NIV renders as two distinct sentences, as follows:
'Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favour of all the people.'
What does this suggest to you? Doesn't it seem to say that the early Christians used to meet up at the temple on a daily basis, and that they broke bread and ate together in their own homes? Because that's how I'd read it. It's not, however, what the Greek says, and this is the kind of thing that makes me understand why one Evangelical friend of mine -- an Anglican curate now, as it happens -- has said that he's heard the NIV referred to as the New Inaccurate Version.

In the Greek original, this is one sentence, not two. What's more, it's a sentence which uses an extended 'te... kai...' construction, such constructions carrying the sense of 'not only... but also...'. It's a sentence with a series of distinct but related points, which are intended to be understood in conjunction with each other, not in isolation. There's no justification whatsoever for splitting this into two separate sentences, especially when the sentence can be eloquently rendered as a unity in English. The Revised Standard Version manages it admirably:
'And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they partook of food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favour with all the people. '
Obviously this flows well, but there's also quite a difference there, isn't there? In the RSV translation, the early Christians don't just rendezvous at the Temple, using it as a social venue, a convenient meeting point; on the contrary, they participate in worship there, before breaking bread in their homes. That's quite a shift, isn't it? Is that actually what it says, though?

Well, look at the Greek. The phrase the NIV renders as 'every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts' and which the RSV translates as 'and day by day, attending the temple together' is 'kat hēmeran te proskarteroūntes homothumadon en tōi hierōi'.
  • If we break this down, we'll see that the sentence's opening phrase, 'kat hēmeran', means 'daily'.
  • This is followed by our opening enclitic particle, 'te', which invites a 'kai' or another 'te' later on. The important thing is that it's setting up the idea of a series of related points. It's because of this that we know that the opening phrase governs the whole sentence, rather than just the clause immediate to it.
  • This is followed by the phrase 'proskarteroūntes homothumadon', where 'homothumadon' means 'same passion' or 'of one accord', and where 'proskarteroūntes' means something along the lines of 'to persevere' or 'to remain constant'; together the two words convey the idea of a shared and continued devotion. 
  • The final part of this clause, 'en tōi hierōi'' literally means 'in the holy', but given that it's referring to a location, and a singular rather than a plural location at that, it seems the best translation for this would be 'in the holy place', or, as it was in Jerusalem, 'in the Temple'.
Now, I happen to think the RSV translation for this is perhaps a little weak, but it's not wrong, which the NIV one certainly is. The NIV conjures up an image of the early Christians meeting up in the courts of the Temple, as though they're just using the Temple as a handy spot to get together, but the Greek text makes it clear that the Temple remained a place of worship for the early Church, something that's otherwise attested to at Luke 24:53 and Acts 3:1. How can this have been so, though? Hebrews, after all, makes clear that the Temple sacrifices are redundant, and the first Christians must have at least had some understanding of this! 

Well, that's where the next part of the sentence comes in -- and that's why it's important to pay attention when that little word 'te' appears in Greek, as it means there's going to be some kind of correlation between points. The earliest Christians regarded the Eucharistic breaking of bread as a sacrifice, following the pattern laid down by Melchizidek and given meaning by Jesus, and so it seems clear that they divided their daily worship into two acts, in two locations. They continued to regard the Temple as a divinely ordained place of prayer and proclamation, and so persevered in their worship there, but as they regarded the Temple's cultic activities as having been superseded by the Eucharist, they assembled for Communion in their own homes.

Broken into two distinct parts, contrary to the original text, and translated misleadingly, this passage tells us very little, other than that the early Christians used to meet up at the Temple, and that they broke bread in their homes, whatever that might mean! On the other hand, though, when viewed as one sentence this passage gives us a clear depiction of the pattern of daily worship in the Jerusalem Christian community in the earliest days of the Church.

In short: translations matter.

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