Monday, January 2, 2012

Reading the Greek New Testament in 2012

Today I began reading through the Greek NT as part of a 2012 reading plan. It's a light load, leisurely completed in a year. I’m using Zondervan’s A Reader’s Greek New Testament 2nd edition alongside my wide-margin NA27. My reading is focused in three ways. First, I’m reading the Greek text aloud. The oral culture of the ancient world used texts as vehicles for verbal performances, so I want to see how reading the text aloud will help me experience it more similarly to the earliest Christians. Second, I’m paying attention to textual variants as interpretive clues. Variant readings provide some of the earliest interpretations of texts as well as potentially superior alternatives. My explorations of textual variants will sometimes relate to better readings and other times to early interpretation. Third, I am avoiding all commentaries. I want allow my imagination be shaped solely by closely reading the text. Lastly, and this is how I want to process my reading, I will blog short observations with the commitment to keep posts under five-hundred words.

Today I read the first chapter of Matthew. Admittedly, the genealogy (1.2-16) was lackluster, but it allowed me to concentrate on the pronunciation and rhythm of the text. I was struck by the repetition of sounds with only occasional variation (1.3, 5, 6, 11, 16). One quickly notices that changes from the repetitious "X begat Y . . ."  draw attention to the women included in the genealogy (1.3, 5, 6) as well as David as a king (1.6), Babylonian exile (1.11) and the passive verb used to describe Jesus who “was born” (ἐγεννήθη) from Mary and is called “Messiah” (1.16). These variations suggest that an ancient reader, like many modern ones, would have taken notice of these conspicuous women, David’s kingship and Babylonian exile coming together in the Christ son of God. Additionally, the summary counting of generations in 1.17 draws a line from Abraham to David to exile to “the Messiah” suggesting that Jesus is the fulfillment of promises to Abraham, David and post-exilic longings for redemption. Thus, the genealogy provides the expectation to read Matthew looking for Abraham, David and Exile.

A particular textual variant also caught my eye. Matthew 1.21 reads, “And she will bear a son, and you will call his name Jesus, for he will save his people [λαὸν αὐτοῦ] from their sins.” The Curetonian Syriac text reads “He will save the world [κοσμον] from their sins.” Obviously, this lone Syriac witness does not represent a better reading, but it does suggest an interesting interpretive move. Among early Syriac Christians Jesus was understood as the savior of the world from his infancy. This is somewhat different from Matthew’s emphasis on Jesus as Israel’s Messiah in the genealogy, but I thought it worthy of note nonetheless. It will be helpful to take not of other differences in Syriac manuscripts to see if universalizing the mission of Jesus is a Syriac tendency or an anomaly.

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