Sunday, February 3, 2008

Egg on my face

Ignore the Greek (in green), faithful English-only reader, and read on for one of my most embarrassing blunders in recent memory...

In Advanced Greek Exegesis last week we stumbled over Psalm 68:32 in the Septuagint (69:31 in English):
καὶ ἀρέσει τῷ θεῷ ὑπὲρ μόσχον νέον κέρατα ἐκφέροντα καὶ ὁπλάς
And it will please God more than a new calf bearing horns and hoofs.
I made no notes on this verse, which means--I'd like to think--that I construed it correctly the first time: The masculine singular accusative participle ἐκφέροντα ('bearing') obviously modifies the masculine singular accusative noun, μόσχον ('calf'). But the participle ἐκφέροντα ('bearing') could also be parsed as a neuter plural nominative or accusative participle, and the appearance of the neuter plural direct object, κέρατα ('horns'), before its verb invites confusion.

As I tried to explain the syntax in front of the class, my hamster fell off its wheel with a thud. I must have assumed μόσχον was neuter at that point, since I tried to parse ἐκφέροντα as a neuter singular participle. This got corrected to a neuter plural participle, the correction was confirmed by a student who had a copy of Bibleworks running in the classroom, and away we went on a non-existent syntactical conundrum: ἐκφέροντα ('bearing') must modify μόσχον ('calf'), but μόσχον ('calf') is singular and ἐκφέροντα ('bearing') is plural. How can this be? I made a note to look into the question and we moved on to the next verse.

Last night I looked at the verse again in Bibleworks. Sure enough, the computer program parsed ἐκφέροντα as a neuter plural participle, so I typed up a clever little query and sent it off to the venerable B-Greek discussion list. A few minutes later I had my reply from the list moderator: "Why do you say EKFERONTA is plural? The fact is that this is the regular form of the accusative 3d sg. masculine participle..."

In short, there is no grammatical problem in the text. My problem was that I failed to slow down and read carefully, and that I relied on a computer program to decide a parsing question.
(For the record, the morphologically tagged LXX in the Logos Scholar's Library has the same mistake.)

In class I can take advantage of the opportunity to join my students as a fellow learner. Making mistakes is a normal part of the language learning process. See, I make mistakes too, etc., etc. On a discussion list the lesson is applied for you. A couple hours later another list member commented:
While Bible Works and other software programs may be truly helpful tools, this little issue highlights that there is no substitute for actually knowing the languages.
Thank you.

The real lesson for me is to give everyone else a break. I've noticed how quick I am to dismiss scholars based on an initial encounter with them or, more often, their work:
  • He's written many books, but the one I happened to read was a dud. Away with him and all his verbiage!
  • He's a big shot, and he sure acts like it too--walking out of the session immediately after giving his paper without staying to listen to mine. How rude!
  • How could the authors not know that Joshua ben Ananias was killed by a Roman projectile instead of by being flogged to death?? It is one of the most fascinating stories in all of Josephus! (See War 6.300-309 for details.)
You get the idea. Of course, people can't be blamed for drawing preliminary conclusions from first encounters, but I hope the lingering sting of my embarrassment will help me remember not to be so harsh when I notice others who should know better making stupid mistakes, and to give the benefit of the doubt when an initial impression leaves me wondering.

1 comment:

Karen said...

Oops! That's the kind of situation that keeps us humble, right?--or should, anyway.

Haven't talked to you in ages! I know you are exceedingly busy, but how are you all doing?