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The Scribes and the Book of Revelation: How Do You Copy a Book Full of Bad Grammar?

Page 2 of 4

2. Barbarisms and Solecisms

We bring these two Greek words right into English. The adjective barbarikos means not spoken like a true Greek but spoken like a foreigner trying to speak Greek. The poor foreigners were not brought up speaking the beautiful, supple Greek language as the Greeks were. They were brought up speaking ugly, common languages that sounded like bar bar bar. So when Dionysius said that there were barbarisms in the Book of Revelation, he meant that the author expressed things like no true Greek would express them.

The other day I was in a Mediterranean restaurant in New York and ordered a Turkish coffee. The waitress asked, “Do you want sugar inside it?” I thought this really nice and wanted to hear more. But it is what Dionysius would call a barbarism.

Dionysius was too polite to give examples of Revelation’s barbarisms, but they are easy to find. Here is one from the letter to the church in Philadelphia: Behold, I have set before you an open door, ἣν οὐδεὶς δύναται κλεῖσαι αὐτήν—which no one is able to close it” (3:8). The word “it” is the barbarism, for a Greek would say, “which no one is able to close.”

Here is another, in the vision about the woman, the child, and the dragon: And the woman fled into the wilderness, ὅπου ἔχει ἐκεῖ τόπον—where she has there a place (12:6).” The word “there” is the barbarism: a Greek would leave it out.

These two examples show that the author spoke Greek as a second language. They are actually perfect Hebrew, except for the Greek words. So whoever the author was, it is pretty clear that he was Jewish.

Solecisms are different from barbarisms, and they are a little harder to explain. Here goes.

English depends on word order to get a meaning across. Consider the following sentence:

Titus pushed Timothy into the lake.

Which of the boys got wet? Timothy. How do we know? Word order. The word “Titus” comes first, so we know he is the one who did something. “Pushed” comes next, to tell us what Titus did. Then “Timothy” comes next to tell us who got pushed.

But Greek doesn’t depend on word order to tell us who ended up in the lake. It depends on a system of inflections (shown by endings on the words), and these, not word order, show how the words function within a sentence. Greek puts “Titus” into the nominative case to show that he is the one who pushed, and it puts “Timothy” into the accusative case to show that he is the one who got pushed. After you have done that, you can arrange the words in any order you like: Titus pushed Timothy, Titus Timothy pushed, pushed Titus Timothy, pushed Timothy Titus, Timothy Titus pushed, Timothy pushed Titus. When these sentences are said in Greek, Timothy is always the one who went into the lake, and Titus is always the one who pushed him, because the cases tell us that, not the word order.

Well, we haven’t got to solecisms yet, but we are getting closer.

Suppose we say this:

Playful, happy, fun-loving Titus pushed serious, studious, book-loving Timothy into the lake.

In Greek the words playful, happy, and fun-loving have to be in the nominative case, too, because they tell us about Titus, and if they are not, they are wrong. The words serious, studious, and book-loving have to be in the accusative case, because they tell us about Timothy, and if they are not, they are wrong. To state this as a rule, good grammar requires that modifiers agree with their nouns in gender, number, and case, and if they do not, they are wrong.

Here is the point. A solecism is a violation of these rules of agreement, and the author of Revelation violates them abundantly. I will not give examples right now, because it would slow us down. I only urge you to believe Dionysius—as well as any first-year Greek student—that they are there.

(By the way, the barbarisms and solecisms are invisible in our English translations. Translators want to convey the meaning, and the bad grammar doesn’t affect that. Anyway, they want to end up with good English, so when the Greek and Hebrew scholars have done their job, the whole business is siphoned through a panel of English teachers to make sure everything is splendidly said.)


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