Mythology by Fry

Mythos

Title: Mythos
Author: Stephen Fry
Genre: Greek Mythology
Pages: 352 (audiobook 15h 26m)
Rating: 4 of 5

I enjoy Mythology, but I’ve always preferred Norse to Greek. For me, Ragnarok, heroic but slightly doofy Thor, scheming Loki, and the Volsung Saga are more entertaining than the antics of the rapey, skeezy Greek pantheon (not that the Aesir are paragons of virtue). This book didn’t change my preference, but it was a lot of fun!

Stephen Fry weaves the Greek myths into a coherent storyline and recounts them with enough wit and variety that they don’t feel overly repetitive. Listening to the author read his own work adds to the experience as you get both the clever turn of phrase and the humorous inflection.

While Fry makes occasional brief comments on alternate versions, parallels in other cultures, and underlying philosophy/symbolism, he maintains the focus on enjoying these stories as stories. I heartily approve of this approach as that is how I approach mythology (and allows the book to be enjoyed by those whose worldview differs significantly from the Ancient Greeks’ or Stephen Fry’s).

This book covers primarily the early eras of the Greek kosmos, so you won’t find more than a fleeting mention of heroes like Perseus, Jason, Heracles, Achilles, etc. Thankfully, he has written a second book (Heroes: The Greek Myths Reimagined) that covers at least some of those stories. I will definitely be purchasing it with one of my upcoming Audible credits. This is the most I have ever enjoyed Greek mythology, and it’s a must-read/listen for any fan of mythology!

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“Did God really say…”

Earlier this week, I said I would probably follow up on my post about reading through the Greek New Testament and looking at all the listed variants. Well, here you go!

If you listen to certain skeptics, they will tell you that there are thousands upon thousands of differences between ancient New Testament manuscripts and that this means we have little to no idea of what the original text actually says. While they might be technically right about the thousands of variant readings, the vast majority of those differences are simply variations in spelling that have no impact on how a given passage is understood or translated (think: honor vs. honour or night vs. nite). These and similarly insignificant variants do not appear in the apparatus of the edition I read, but the more significant ones that were listed (and there are still hundreds of them) are still not of a nature that calls into question the message of Scripture. As I read through them, almost all fell into one of these broad categories:

  • Which title(s) of Jesus or God are used in the passage and in which order do they occur? (e.g. Lord vs. God / Jesus Christ vs. Christ Jesus vs. Lord Jesus Christ)
  • Does the writer use the first person or second person plural? (i.e. we vs. you – which are one letter off and sound virtually identical in later dialects of Koine Greek)
  • Is the wording in parallel passages (e.g. in the synoptic Gospels) identical or merely similar (but virtually identical in meaning)?
  • Which conjunction or preposition (most of which are very flexible and heavily overlap in meaning) is used to connect clauses?
  • Is the subject or object implied or explicitly stated? (e.g. He said vs. Jesus said vs. Jesus said to him)
  • A little more rarely, but a bit more impactful: Which verb tense/voice/mood (or noun case/number/gender) is used? (e.g. we have peace with God vs. let us have peace with God)

In many instances, it is easy to determine which reading is original with a high degree of certainty (based on age, character, and geographic distribution of manuscripts as well as an understanding of scribal practices). However, even when this is not the case, the nature of these variants is not such that it radically alters or calls into question the meaning of the text.

There are a few variants that are a verse long, and two that are longer than a verse (the longer ending of Mark and the story of the woman caught in adultery). Most of these are easily resolved by looking at the textual evidence, and none of them contain a teaching whose presence or absence changes a teaching of the faith (unless you are “snake-handler,” but that practice is a gross misapplication of those verses anyway).

This is kind of “pet topic” of mine, so I’m trying to refrain from babbling on or going into a lot of technical jargon. Short version: personally looking at all the variants listed in the UBS5 Greek New Testament confirmed/increased my confidence that we do indeed have a highly reliable, absurdly well-preserved New Testament.

NT in Koiné

Title: The Greek New Testament (GNT)
Edition: United Bible Society, 5th Edition (UBS5)
Genre: Sacred Scripture
Pages: 886 (plus indices etc.)
Rating: 5 of 5

For my Bible reading this year, I decided to read the New Testament in the original Koiné Greek. Because it’s been 10+ years since my last seminary class, I used the electronic Logos software edition where tapping on an unfamiliar word provides its gloss & parsing (I used this feature a lot in Luke, Acts, Hebrews, & 2 Peter).

Reading Scripture in the original language doesn’t give it some sort of magical power boost, nor is each Greek word brimming with extra-deep insights unavailable to the uninitiated. However, as with reading any work in its original language, you do get a better feel for the flow of thought, vocabulary choices, and idiosyncrasies of the individual writers…and there is a certain thrill to reading the words as read by the original recipients unmediated by someone else’s translation.

But, how do we know that what we’re reading almost 2,000 years later hasn’t been corrupted (on purpose or accidentally) over generations of hand-copying? Well, we have thousands of hand-written manuscripts containing all or part of the New testament, with dates ranging from early 2nd century through about the 16th, and they overwhelmingly agree with each other. Obviously, some minor differences between manuscripts occur, but in scholarly editions of the Greek New Testament (like the UBS5 I read) there is an apparatus at the bottom of each page the notes significant variations between manuscripts and lists the evidence for each possible reading (the Nestle-Aland 28th Edition (NA28) lists more variants, but most of the additional ones are of little interest/importance for translating the text).

As I read, I looked at each of the variants recorded in the UBS5, often consulting Bruce Metzger’s A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament which provides a scholarly rationale for which reading is deemed most likely to be original (and the level of certainty). In college and seminary I was always taught that most variants have little to no effect on the meaning of the verse in which they occur, and none of them affect a major doctrine of the faith. After this read-through, I have to agree with that assessment…not that I really doubted it, but I wanted to see for myself. I’ll post more on this later in the week, but right now I’m too tired to go into it.

For now, I’ll end by saying that this was a great experience, and if you’ve had enough college/seminary classes to be comfortable with it, I highly recommend trying to read through the whole GNT (examining each variant not necessary…that’s just my own interest in textual criticism popping up).

It’s All Koiné to Me

Linguistics and New Testament Greek: Key Issues in the Current Debate by [David Alan Black, Benjamin L. Merkle]

Title: Linguistics and New Testament Greek:
Key Issues in the Current Debate
Editors: David Alan Black & Benjamin L. Merkle
Genre: Linguistics / Biblical Studies
Pages: 288
Rating: 4.5 of 5
Future Publication Date: 11/2/2020 – Thank you to the editors and publisher for a free eARC through NetGalley. This is no way affects the content of the review.

When I was in seminary (10+ years ago), my favorite professor/mentor was Dr. Rod Decker who taught most of the Koiné Greek classes. He kept us up to date on the latest goings on in the world of New Testament Greek linguistics, because getting the most out of learning the biblical languages takes more than memorizing vocabulary and verb conjugations. This collection of scholarly essays provides that kind of help for the intermediate Koiné Greek student (or pastor who is trying to keep current).

This book does require some knowledge of the subject matter and academic jargon. For example, expect sentences like, “This, Barber rightly argues, encapsulates the basic polarity between the active and middle voices, and it does so in categories that manifestly entail a difference in transitivity.” These essays come from presentations at a conference, so their overall tone is slightly more conversational that normal for an academic work, but they are still fairly dry overall.

Most of the chapters relate to one of three topics: linguistic theories, verbal tense/aspect, and the best way to teach/learn New Testament Greek. The authors are not all in agreement on some of the issues (e.g. the aspect of the perfect/pluperfect tense), so you get to see some scholarly interaction in those cases. I thoroughly enjoyed dipping back into the academic world, and picked up at least a few things that should prove helpful in my personal study. I would highly recommend this book to those with some knowledge of Koiné.

Using Koine Responsibly

Title: Exegetical Gems from Biblical Greek –
A Refreshing Guide to Grammar and Interpretation
Author: Benjamin L. Merkle
Genre: Biblical Studies / Translation Theory
Pages: 192
Rating: 4.5 of 5
Future Publication Date: 6/16/19 (Thank you to the author and publisher for a free eARC via NetGalley. This in no way affects the content of this review)

This book targets a specific audience: people who have already studied at least a semester or two (or equivalent) of koine Greek. If that’s you and you’re looking to enhance your understanding and/or brush up on your long-neglected biblical Greek, I highly recommend this book (also this youtube video). If you don’t fit into that category (which might be almost everyone who regularly reads this blog…sorry to bore you!), this probably isn’t worth your time. It might give you a basic overview of the kinds of things that knowing koine Greek can (and can’t) help you with in New Testament exegesis, but the frequent Greek text and technical jargon will probably make it an exercise in frustration.

The book is divided into many short chapters that cover grammatical issues related to case, tense, voice, mood, etc. Each chapter describes the concept under discussion and provides an example of how understanding it can help in accurate interpretation in a sample passage. There were a few times where I would have liked to see a little bit more thorough argumentation in the interpretation section, but that is the price of brevity I suppose. I appreciate that the author carefully avoids reading more information into a grammatical construction or vocabulary choice than is actually warranted. The whole book illustrates how a knowledge of biblical Greek should be used in ministry, avoiding the pitfalls of common exegetical fallacies.

Overall, this is an excellent resource for sharpening your understanding and use of Koine. If I were a professor of biblical Greek this would be at the top of the collateral reading list for second year (or maybe even second semester) students.

Diotima Takes the Lead

Title: Death on Delos
(Athenian Mysteries – Book 7)
Author: Gary Corby
Genre: Historical Fiction Mystery
Pages: 330
Rating: 4 of 5

Nicolaos (Socrates’ fictional older brother and slightly bumbling agent / investigator / fixer for Pericles) and his wife Diotima (historically, one of Socrates’ teachers) are back for another case. I love how the author always centers the action around a major historical event in Athenian history. This time it’s the seizure of the Delian League’s treasury by the Athenians…for safekeeping, of course!

The murder mystery is well-constructed as usual with plenty of red herrings and a convoluted but believable solution. This time Diotima, ten months pregnant by the Athenian calendar, gets to take the lead. This isn’t isn’t too different than usual as she’s generally the smarter of the two, but this time it’s official.

I don’t read much historical fiction or mysteries (other than vintage noir), but I love this series, and this book was no exception.

Nothing New Under the Sun

Title: The Landmark Thucydides:
A Comprehensive Guide to the Peloponnesian War
Author: Thucydides
Editor: Robert B. Strassler
Pages: 669
Rating: 4 of 5

A powerful democracy that takes credit for saving the civilized world from tyranny and now dominates an empire of “allies” versus a brutal military oligarchy where most of the people are slaves or second class citizens…it’s Athens vs. Sparta (What? Who did you think I was talking about?). But, seriously, this is an intriguing (if long) ancient history book. One of Thucydides’ points is that history repeats itself with some variations in magnitude/brutality. The realpolitik that drives this conflict shows that human nature hasn’t really changed in the last 2,300+ years.

This particular edition of Thucydides is from the same series as The Landmark Herodotus which I reviewed here. Like its predecessor, this book is stuffed with helpful background information in the form of footnotes, maps, appendices, section summaries, etc. The maps were by far the most helpful feature. They come in a variety of scales, every few pages and show only the sites that are relevant to the section in which they occur.

The one slightly disappointing aspect of this book was the translation. I don’t know how much this would bother the average person, but I studied quite a bit of Greek translation theory in college and seminary so it bugs me (i.e. I’m a translation snob). Rather than a new (or even recent) translation, this book used a Victorian era (1874) translation with modern language “pasted over” any phrasing that sounded too awkward or archaic. It read smoothly enough for the most part, but that is just not great translation methodology for a scholarly publication. It ignores the last 140+ years of scholarship in Greek translation theory, produces a hybrid Victorian-Modern English that was never actually spoken by anyone, and may introduce unnecessarily interpretive paraphrasing when decisions are made based purely on English style. To be fair, I haven’t compared it to the original Greek myself (I studied Koine rather than Classical Greek) so I can’t speak to accuracy…I just question the methodology.

Overall, an excellent book for those who enjoy ancient history and/or the study of human nature in politics and war.

More Mini-Reviews

This week is Vacation Bible School at my church so between publicity and preparation last week and keeping control of a swarm of kids this week it’s been insanely busy.  Also, I’ve had kind of a run of “meh” books that I didn’t feel particularly motivated to review. However, I’m trying to give at least a short review of everything I read this year, so here are a few mini-reviews.

Title: The Maltese Falcon
Author: Dashiell Hammett
Genre: Hard-boiled Detective/Noir
Pages: 189
Rating: 4 of 5

This is probably the best known of Hammett’s novels thanks to the excellent Humphrey Bogart movie adaptation. Rather than the usual Continental Op, it features shady-but-not-quite-as-dishonest-as-he-seems private eye Sam Spade. Murder, greed, and lies (so many lies) surround the quest for “the black bird,” but Spade sees through the murk enough to come to a satisfactory ending for himself. Personally, I prefer the Continental Op to the more womanizing Sam Spade, but this is still a great book in the morally ambiguous world of Dashiell Hammett.

Title: The Crucible
Author: Arthur Miller
Genre: Play/Historical Fiction
Pages: 147
Rating: 3 of 5

This classic play about the Salem witch trials is really an exploration of the attitudes/actions during the McCarthy era Red Scare. Sadly, most of those attitudes rear their heads now and then to this day (I hate church politics so much!). Even though the author is insightful at times, I’m not a fan of authors of historical fiction altering solid historical facts to make the narrative fit the point they are trying to make, and Miller does this quite a bit. Between that and the overall bleakness, I didn’t really care for the play.

Title: Lysistrata
Author: Aristophanes
Translator: Douglas Parker
Genre: Play
Pages: 123
Rating: 2 of 5

I read this mostly because I needed something short to blast through for my library’s reading contest (and I was already at the plays shelf to pick up The Crucible). The premise of this raunchy comedy is that the women of Greece refuse all sexual favors to their men until they agree to end the ongoing war. The translator’s introduction described it as Aristophanes’ “most phallic” play…it was disturbingly so. Proof that crass humor has always been with us. Blech.

Title: The Stranger
Author: Max Brand
Genre: Western
Pages: 206
Rating: 2.5 of 5

About once per year I read a Western and then decide I’ve had my fill of the genre for at least another year. This one was combination of Western and Mystery as two cowpunchers try to figure out who killed the man they were supposed to be protecting for ten days at $1,000 per day. Between the insta-love, fairly obvious whodunnit, and a plot hole or two I wasn’t terribly impressed.

Title: Woman in the Dark
Author: Dashiell Hammett
Genre: Crime/Noir
Pages: 87
Rating: 3

This short novel, originally serialized in Black Mask, isn’t Hammett’s best, but it’s still a decent pulp story. Rather than Hammett’s usual detective, the protagonist is a convict recently released from prison. When his landlord’s mistress puts him in the middle of a messy domestic situation his newly regained freedom is threatened. Overall, a pretty typical Black Mask story worth reading if you’re into noir.

Title: The Captain’s Daughter and Other Stories
Author: Alexander Pushkin
Translator: Natalie Duddington
Genre: Classic/Short Story Anthology
Pages: 288
Rating: 3.5

I have never read anything by Pushkin before and was curious how he compared to other Russian authors, so I picked up this collection. There was quite a bit of variety from outlaw and soldier stories (reminiscent of Gogol’s Taras Bulba or Tolstoy’s Hadji Murad) to a slightly supernatural tale (The Queen of Spades – probably my favorite in the collection) to one with a nice twist at the end worthy of O Henry. Pushkin has a lot of the bleakness that I associate with Russian authors, but to a lesser degree. I’ll probably pick up more by him in the future.