Monday, February 28, 2011

Level 2

A patient teacher would've gone back to the guy quoted in my last post and kept trying to reason with him. (As opposed to mocking him online or something like that.) Told him that translating the Bible into Languages A, B, C and and so forth was not like a game of Elephant, because in each case, if reputable people were at work, the translator would be working from the original Hebrew and Greek texts; that, if anything, the existence of more translations could help to improve one particular translation. For example, the translator translating the Bible into Language A might also happen to be fluent in Language B -- good translators tend to be multilingual -- and if he were stuck trying to find a good translation for a particular word or passage, the approach taken on the word or passage in the translation into Language B might give him an idea. Other translations are in no way a substitute for working with the source text, but they can now and then be a supplemental resource. For a competent translator, they certainly don't hurt a thing.

Sure, for all I know there might be many very sloppy Bible translations out there. For all I know there may be some translations in Language C made from other modern translations in Language B which were made from still other modern translations in Language A, ("Feel my skills, donkey donkey donkey donkey!") because the publishers were unscrupulous and the missionaries footing the bill didn't know any better. But the existence of those "monkey-strong" bad translations into Language C in no way prevent people from making good translations into Language C using the same resources used for any good translation, consulting the best ancient Hebrew and Greek texts and disregarding both the bad old manuscripts and the bad new translations.

I could've tried to explain those sorts of things to this guy who as of yesterday was convinced that there was no explaining gravity. But I am not a teacher, and as far as I know, I am not noted for my patience. I know that doing those sorts of educational tasks is very important, but I feel no vocation for it, no passion. What I want are discussion partners who are already up here on Level 2 with me. Commandos, not cannon fodder.

And anyway the whole subject of the textual transmission of the Bible is just a secondary interest of mine, one of the branches off of my more primary interest in ancient history and languages generally. It's just that problems of the text of the Bible come up in conversation much, much more often in conversation than problems of the text of Homer or Sallust. The latter are much more interesting to me personally, but whaddyagonnado. My autistic-spectrum condition led to an autodidactic education, and we autodidacts wander the non-specialized wilderness to some extent. And so I get caught up in these conversations about the Bible with theologians on the one hand, who tend to have a fairly good grasp of the history of the transmission of the Bible, but who often speak with fork-ed tongues, and clueless atheists and hateful sectarians on the other who say things like that the text of the Bible has gone through several thousand steps of re-translation before being given its final and thoroughly corrupt form at the Council of Nicea by Constantine the Great. In AD 400.

Because I am out here in the wilderness, although I have managed to gather, for example, that archaeology has all but ruled out any sort of large-scale Exodus of Israelites from Egypt into Canaan in the 13th century BC and largely contradicts the Biblical account of Joshua's battles, I do not know what experts might currently think of Freud's theorythat Pharaoh Amenhotep IV, who changed his name to Akhenaten -- or Ikhnaten in Freud's and others' transliterations from a few decades ago -- and began more and more to emphasize the worship of Aten, the disc of the sun, at the expense of other deities, and whose memory was partly effaced after his death in reaction to this religious unorthodoxy, may have been both the first monotheist and the basis of the legend of Moses. It seems possible to me that a small group of Akhenaten's followers could have moved from Egypt to Canaan, joined the larger group which were or would become the Israelites, and profoundly influenced their religion.

I mean -- monotheism had to come from somewhere. This is one possible route.

Then again, I am not nearly as prepared to declare Akhenaten a monotheist, the first one or not, as is my sensationalistic bete noir with no damn editorial standards, the History Channel. This is all highly speculative on my part.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

You Want an Example of a Stupid Atheist? Okay --

HIM: How can anyone seriously "study" a book that was written 3500 years ago, by unknown authors, that has undergone thousands of re-transla­tions by different religious sects to fit their own understand­ing or to justify their belief, and that has some many contradict­ions in it.

ME: Thousands of re-transla­tions. *sigh* What, do you think that when someone made a new translatio­n of the bible in 1980, they only consulted translatio­ns into the same language made after 1970? Is that how you think Bible translatio­n works? Oh, and btw: written 3,500 years ago? Where do you get this stuff?

HIM: The book of Exodus was dated as 1500 BC. Let's see....add our 2000 and that makes 3,500. Check it out.

ME: A fundamentalist might believe Exodus was written 3,500 years ago -- or 3,200 to 3,300 years ago, if they identify Ramses II as the Pharaoh in Exodus and have their Egyptian history straight. Maybe you thought I was another fundamenta­list. Nope. I'm an atheist, I'm anti-relig­ion. But I can still disagree with other atheists about some things. These days very few Biblical scholars or archaeolog­ists -- some of whom are (gasp!) atheists -- think any proof has been found that there was an Exodus anything like that described in the Bible, or that Moses existed. Very few would assert with anything approachin­g certainty that there was a Hebrew written language in 1,200 BC. As far as I know, the earliest evidence of a Hebrew or proto-Hebr­ew written language is an alphabet which was scratched onto a rock a little before 900 BC, and the oldest artifact with a Bible verse written on it is a tiny metal scroll made a little before 600 BC. Now what's the problem with the translations?

HIM: If you would be open minded to accept the possibilit­y that you might be ignorant of the facts, and did some research (type into google "how many translatio­ns of the bible are there?" ) you will find the following: The Bible continues to be the most translated book in the world. As of 2005 at least one book of the Bible has been translated into 2,400 of the 6,900 languages including 680 languages in Africa, 590 in Asia, 420 in Oceania, 420 in Latin America and the Caribbean, 210 in Europe, and 75 in North America. The United Bible Societies are assisting in over 600 Bible translatio­­n projects. The Bible is available in whole or in part to some 98 percent of the world's population in a language in which they are fluent. The United Bible Society announced that as of 2007 the Bible was available in 438 languages, 123 of which included the deuterocan­­onical material as well as the Tanakh and New Testament. Either the Tanakh or the New Testament alone was available in an additional 1168 languages, and portions of the Bible were available in another 848 languages, for a total of 2,454 languages.

ME: I am aware that the Bible has been translated into thousands of languages. So what? What does the number of translatio­ns have to do with the quality of any one translatio­n? Every Bible translatio­n I know has been working from the original languages, consulting the best manuscript­s available.

HIM: Did you ever hear about the experiment wherein on person tells another a statement who in turn tells another and they tell another, on and on. By the time it gets to the last person the statement has no commonalit­y to the original statement. So the point is, there is lost in translatio­ns, the original word. And who was it exactly that penned the original word? Being human, it is plausible that he even lost something in the translatio­n from whoever it was that told him. The real question is how can any one take the bible literally, as the word? What is reality? For every choice, there is a renunciati­on. If you choose to believe the bible as the unalterabl­e word, than you must renounce facts. Of science. Of other opinions. Of other people's beliefs. Just because a person has a passionate belief in an idea, that does not make it true, even if many people believe it. I choose to believe in gravity even though no one can explain it.

ME: *ahem* Einstein... *ahem*

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Yes, Dear, You're Smart. Of Course You Are

Robert McAlmon's memoir Being Geniuses Together,about the community of artsy folk in Paris in the 1920's which included Gertrude Steinand Alic B Toklas, Picasso, Pound, Joyce,Hemingway and, yes, Robert McAlmon, never gave me any indication that McAlmon was actually a genius, and it did give me several strong hints that he was not. Then suddenly this morning, it became clear to me how the interaction between McAlmon and the geniuses worked: those of the geniuses who, like for instance Joyce, were not wealthy, got lots of free meals and drinks and "loans" and no doubt many other assorted handouts from rich boy McAlmon, who in turn got to feel like a genius, when in fact he was plainly a bonehead. Much the way writers and painters in ages past, as recently and with as much spine as Kant,flattered princes for a living. (Have you read the dedications to Prussian royalty in Kant's books? Disgusting!)

Stein was the center of this community, and most certainly a genius, and wealthy, and formidable in every which way -- say it with a French accent, please -- but presumably not even she could do everything all by herself. Enter the well-married and deluded McAlmon: ah, how convenient. I don't know why it took me so long to figure that out.

Who need to be constantly reassured that they are smart? Stupid people, of course. Don't you ever -- EVER! -- call me stupid! Who need to be reassured that they are wondrously virile studs? Impotent men.

Although it seems to be the opposite when it comes to looks: supermodels and other stunningly-beautiful people seem so often chronically insecure about their looks -- some actually say things like, My earlobes are hideous. Or, My navel. Honey, put the mirror down, sit down and listen to me: if you have to search yourself all over until you get to your earlobes or your navel before you find something you don't like, you're gorgeous. Just trust me, you are. Try to enjoy it. You're gorgeous, and you probably haven't spent a lot of time carefully looking at average-looking people. People probably generally tend to like you a lot, because, well, c'mon. But if you could stop whining about your tiny, barely-perceptible, probably mostly imaginary appearance problems around the rest of us, who have never looked nearly as good as you and never will, that'd be swell, that'd make you much more likable still. If in addition to realizing that you're beautiful, you could also realize that sometimes you're not as intelligent or witty as people tell you you are, because, well, c'mon -- (McAlmon was once a nude model) -- then you'd be way ahead of the curve. The world would pretty much be yours.

Plainer people, on the other hand, often have the attitude of, I know, I'm ugly. Can we move on? Not like with other things. Impotence must be widespread, judging from the sales of medications for it, but you don't often see a guy come into a bar and say to everyone, Man, I just can't do it at all! I am one limp-dicked loser! Give everybody a round on me! You don't often hear the stupid say, Yes, I'm stupid. Perhaps it's partly that Socratic I-know-that-I-know-nothing paradox. Perhaps it's mostly or entirely that.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Holier Than Me

In the Cambridge Medieval History; Vol. VIII: The Close of the Middle Ages,published in 1936, ch II, "John Hus," pp 45-64, Dr Kamil Krofta, then Professor of Bohemian History in Prague and Minister of Foreign Affairs in Czechoslovakia, laments (p 45) some conditions in the later 14th century in Catholic Europe generally and in Bohemia specifically: "the almost limitless wealth and power of the Church of Rome, two factors which resulted in extravagance and immorality among the priesthood," as well as a "general relaxation of morals." Throughout the chapter, Dr Krofta gets no more specific than "extravagance," "immorality," "relaxation of morals" or "moral degeneration," leading the reader to wonder just exactly what he could be talking about -- sexual promiscuity? pagan folk festivals? athletic competitions, with gambling? or without ganbling? or gambling without athletic competitions? mass murder and rape? drunkenness? theatre? the study of ancient literature? Your guess, gentle reader, is at least as good as mine.

But perhaps Dr Krofta himself doesn't know very specifically just what sort of sin it is which he is deploring here. He reminds me more than a bit of Hazel Motes, the protagonist of Flannery O'Conner's novel Wise Blood,and I feel sort of like the man who tells Hazel that talking about sin is best left to those who have some experience with it.

But I'm jumping to conclusions here. Whatever it actually was which, five and a half centuries later, aroused Krofta's indignation so, it bothered some people at the time, too, and aroused "the zealous and extraordinary activity of a few chosen spirits," (p 45) including the Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV -- the same Charles who appears as a figure of fun in Burckhardt's Kultur der Renaissance in Italien,being led around by the nose by Italian noblemen -- extravagant and degenerate Italian noblemen, presumably, with relaxed morals -- and selling off Imperial privileges to them at bargain-basement prices. (pp 25-26 in Burckhardt, Frankfurt aM: Insel, 1997) The same Charles whose Autobiography,even by medieval literary standards, so drips with wince-making piety.

To be sure, this is also the same Charles IV who founded the first university in Central Europe, in Prague in 1348. But if we judge this university by Charles, and by Hus, its most famous alumnus, and by Krofta, its Professor of Bohemian History in 1936, how stimulating a place could it ever have been? No. Until we know more, we must not judge it so.

To return to Krofta's narrative -- besides the Emperor Charles IV, another "chosen spirit" who fought the rigorously unspecified bad morals of the time was, of course, John Hus. Krofta gets no more specific about moral things than his mention (p 46) of three "vanities" Hus gave up upon entering the priesthood: fine clothing, fine food and chess. Krofta remarks that although Hus had earlier indulged in all of these, "he was certainly at all times far removed from any debauchery or immorality." So it could have been worse: Krofta seems to be implying that playing chess, getting proper nutrition and not wearing hair shirts won't necessarily send you to Hell, and praising Hus, if I'm reading between the lines properly, for never having had a girlfriend and/or gotten drunk and/or used a cussword.

P 47: Early on in Hus' career -- he was ordained in 1400 or 1401 -- "Queen Sophia herself was so attracted by him that she made him her chaplain or perhaps even her confessor." I've heard of several instances, in bygone Christian centuries, from St Jerome to Franz von Dietrichstein in Bohemia two centuries after Hus, of noble ladies being powerfully drawn to passionate young priests. And I have wondered whether their relationships might have been like those between ancient Roman ladies and leading gladiators -- with the difference of secrecy of course, because of Christianity generally frowning upon sex. But perhaps these suspicions of mine are merely projections of my own preferences and fantasies. Maybe what Jerome and Hus and Dietrichstein and their many lady friends were doing was much more like "Girls Who Like Boys Who Like Boys." Or maybe Andy Warhol captured the essence of such relstionships with his opinion, "The most exciting thing is not doing it." Actual ascetic ecstasy? Okay, Andy, whatever you say.

P 48: "It is possible[...]that Hus[...]found a divergence between the teaching of Christ and that of the oldest Fathers of the Church on the one hand and doctrines which the Church of his day asked its adherents to believe on the other, that he was dissatisfied with the manner in which the scholasticism of his day settled the fundamental questions of the Christian faith." Quelle horreur! Over the course of a thousand years, some things had diverged! Holier than thou, more Christian than thou, just like Luther -- assuming Krofta is correct.

Krofta sums up his laudatio, (p 63) "Hus assumed for himself and thus for every believer the right to be his own judge in matters of faith. Although he himself placed limits to the freedom of this right of judgment, desiring that the Holy Writ should be acknowledged as a law from which there should be no departure soever[...]"

If Krofta is at all aware of the monstrous irony here, he gives no sign of it: Hus fought and died for the "freedom" of every person to decide just exactly how the Bible was the absolute authority.

Hus, Savonarola, Luther: every now and then a wild-eyed fanatic with a heart full of fear comes along, dreaming of vengeance, taking all of this stuff seriously.