Book Review: Jesus and Gospel Traditions in Bilingual Context

jesusgospeltraditionsTitle: Jesus and Gospel Traditions in Bilingual Context: A Study in the Interdirectionality of Language

Series: BZNW 186.

Author: Sang-Il Lee

Bibliographic info: 418 pp. + 103 pp. (biblio + indices)

Publisher: Walter de Gruyter, 2012.

Buy the book at Amazon or at Walter de Gruyter’s.

With thanks to Walter de Gruyter for the digital review copy.

 This volume is a revised version of the author’s Ph.D thesis, originally submitted at Durham University, 2008, under the supervision of Professor James D.G. Dunn and Professor Loren T. Stuckenbruck.

In this study Lee aims to examine the transmission of Jesus traditions by employing a model of the linguistic state of affairs of first-century Palestine. A classic view regarding gospel and Jesus traditions has been that of unidirectionality. Jesus traditions were transmitted unidirectionally in the following three ways (see pp. 1-2):

  • oral —–> written (i.e. modal unidirectionality)
  • Judaeo-Palestinian —–> Hellenistic (i.e. geographical unidirectionality)
  • Aramaic —–> Greek (i.e. linguistic unidirectionality)

The author seeks to expose the fatal flaws in the unidirectionality paradigm, specifically in regards to the linguistic unidirectionality (which would then undercut the other two unidirectional hypotheses listed above). This, of course, has implications for historical Jesus studies because the oral, Judaeo-Palestinian, and Aramaic attributes are reckoned to be earlier and thus contain more authentic Jesus traditions. But Lee argues that these three attributes do not necessarily indicate earlier traditions, nor that earlier traditions are necessarily more original than later traditions. If Lee is correct then the usefulness of the criteria of authenticity related to these attributes (e.g. the criterion of underlying Aramaic) are severely undercut.

Lee’s hypothesis is that from early on, even during the time of Jesus’ ministry, there could very well have been Aramaic and Greek traditions floating around, as well as oral and written. He says:

When the bilingualism of first-century Palestine and the Roman Near East is considered seriously, it must be granted that the Jesus and gospel traditions were interdirectionally transmitted. In other words, there was a complex and interactive relationship between Judaeo-Palestinian and Hellenistic tradition, between oral and written tradition, and between Aramaic and Greek tradition. (pg. 2)

Lee begins with the obligatory examination of the history of scholarship which is done by taking a look at specific scholars, their views, and how they impacted the field of research on the topic at hand. The three unidirectional methods are tackled independently:

  • Sitz im Leben unidirectionality from Judaeo-Palestinian into Hellenistic tradition (pp. 6-20)
  • Modal unidirectionality from Oral into Written tradition (pp. 20-36)
  • Linguistic unidirectionality from Aramaic into Greek tradition (pp. 36-58) [I was surprised not to see Maurice Casey discussed here considering he has been a notable proponent of the criterion of Aramaic in historical Jesus studies]

In the concluding sections Lee reinforces his thesis, saying that both the “transmission of Jesus and gospel traditions” and “the linguistic transmission” are “not unilinear, teleological, or unidirectional but hybrid, circular, and interdirectional” (pp. 36, 50-51).

Lee then looks at scholars who have shown flaws in the unidirectionality tendencies prevalent in scholarship (pp. 58-73). An obvious example of this is Martin Hengel whose work weakened the supposed boundary between Palestinian and Hellenistic Judaisms.

Part I (chapters 2-5) is on the bilingualism of first-century Palestine and the Roman Near East. In chapter 2, Lee argues that the linguistic milieu of first-century Palestine is best characterized with bilingualism rather than diglossia. A lot of various aspects of bilingualism are discussed here, such as sociolinguistic models for the analysis of a diglossic situation, primary bilingualism vs. acquired bilingualism, oral bilingualism vs. literate bilingualism, and so forth. Lee’s working definition of “bilingualism” follows the work of W.F. Mackey who sees it simply as the alternate use of two or more languages (80). This is then followed by examinations of the regional bilingualism of first-century Palestine (chapter 3), the Diaspora (chapter 4), and the earliest Christian communities (chapter 5).

Part II (chapters 6-8) discuss the interdirectional transmission of Jesus traditions in the bilingual contexts at the levels of syntax (chapter 6), phonology (chapter 7), and semantics (chapter 8). In regards to syntax, this includes examining alleged examples of Semitisms and Septuagintalisms to be found in the Gospels (from three different types of speech: verbs, conjunctions, and adverbs), with Lee considering them instead from the angle of grammaticalization theory, his argument being that they are due to internal-induced syntactic changes (i.e. the interdirectionality hypothesis), rather than as Semitisms or Septuagintalisms due to contact-induced syntactic changes (i.e. the unidirectionality hypothesis).  In regards to phonology, phonologically variant spellings of certain words in the Gospels are examined (e.g. Nazareth), with the idea being that the original spelling is not the correct spelling but only one of many conventional correct spellings (which is different to how most NT scholars look at these variant spellings from orthographical and monolinguist perspectives, naturally entailing that the more Semitic spellings are earlier and thus have temporal priority over Greek spellings). And, finally, in regards in semantics, the author looks at the Aramaic words embedded in the NT text (e.g. amen, maranatha), with a view to showing that they are instances of code-switching by the NT authors (with the purpose being to create vividness, emphasis, solidarity, etc), rather than the typical view which sees them as borrowings (or interferences) from the Aramaic-speaking church in Jerusalem. Furthermore, since they are deliberate instances of code-switching, they must be seen on the level of pragmatics rather than that of syntactics, morphology, or phonology.

The book finishes off with a summary of the author’s findings (chapter 9), as well as a bibliography and four indices (ancient sources, language and place names, modern authors, and subjects).

The only shortcoming I can see is that there seems to be an underlying assumption that the existence of Aramaic and Greek in first-century Palestine indicates that it was a largely bilingual society (even if one is –like the author– working with a pretty minimalistic definition of what constitutes bilingualism). After all, the data found in the NT that can be used to speak on the linguistic situation of first-century Palestine is rather thin and thus not able to give any really meaningful conclusions concerning the level of bilingualism, so maybe the study should have delved more into the concrete sociolinguistic condition of first-century Palestine.

All in all, this is undoubtedly one of the most interesting doctoral dissertations in the field of early Christianity I have had the pleasure of reading. Not only does it mesh together two fields of study I thoroughly enjoy –linguistics and New Testament studies– it also argues a thesis that, if accurate, has unavoidable implications for not only historical Jesus studies, but also for the synoptic problem, textual criticism, and much more.


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