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“Most of the authors of the New Testament did not write particularly well, even by the forgiving standards of the koiné—that is, ‘common’—Greek in which they worked. The unknown author of the Letter to the Hebrews commanded a fairly distinguished and erudite style, and was obviously an accomplished native speaker of the tongue; and Luke, the author of both the third Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles, wrote in an urbane, unspectacular, but mostly graceful prose; the author of the first letter attributed to Peter was clearly an educated person whose primary language was a fairly refined form of Greek, while the author of the second letter wrote in a somewhat bombastic style, of the kind classically called Asiatic Greek; but the language of most of the canon is anything but extraordinary. Paul’s letters possess an elemental power born out of the passion of his faith and the marvel of what he believes has been revealed to him, and his prose occasionally flowers into a plain but startling lyricism; but his Greek is generally rough, sometimes inept, and occasionally incoherent. The Gospel of Mark contains obvious solecisms and is awkwardly written throughout. The prose of the Gospel of Matthew is rarely better than ponderous. Even the Gospel of John, perhaps the most structurally and symbolically sophisticated religious text to have come down to us from late antiquity, is written in a Greek that is grammatically correct but syntactically almost childish (or perhaps I should say, ‘remarkably limpid’), and—unless its author was some late first-century precursor of Gertrude Stein—its stylistic limitations suggest an author whose command of the language did not exceed mere functional competence. Then, of course, the book of Revelation, the last New Testament text to be accepted into the canon—it was not firmly established there throughout the Christian world until the early fifth century—is, if judged purely by the normal standards of literary style and good taste, almost unremittingly atrocious. And, in the most refined pagan critics of the new faith in late antiquity, the stylistic coarseness of Christian literature often provoked the purest kind of patrician contempt. This is all evidence, however, of a deeper truth about these texts: They are not beguiling exercises in suasive rhetoric or feats of literary virtuosity; rather, they are chiefly the devout and urgent attempts of often rather ordinary persons to communicate something ‘seen’ and ‘heard’ that transcends any language, but that nevertheless demands to be spoken, now, here, in whatever words one can marshal. This is the special amphibology of Christian scripture. Whereas the Jewish Bible represents the concentrated literary genius of an ancient and amazingly rich culture—mythic, epic, lyric, historical, and visionary, in texts assembled over many centuries and then judiciously synthesized, redacted, and polished—the Christian New Testament is a somewhat unsystematically compiled and pragmatically edited compendium of ‘important documentation’: writings from the first generation of witnesses to the new faith, the oldest ambassadors to us from the apostolic and early postapostolic ages, consisting in quickly limned stories, theological discourses, and even a bit of historically impenetrable occasional writing. As such it draws one in by the intensity, purity, and perhaps frequent naiveté of its language, not by the exquisite sheen of its belletristic graces.” – David Bentley Hart, “Introduction,” The New Testament: A Translation (emphasis in original)

Published inLit & CritThe Ancients

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