The Dongola Times

(Anachronistic) Dispatches from the Kingdom of Makuria.
02nd of August, 2014

“The Grace of our Boss Jesus Christ”: The Bible and the Street Language

One rarely-discussed set of ironies is the one about languages and the nature of Biblical controversy. When Latin was the liturgical language of the Europe, only that particular version of the Bible that was translated by Jerome into the Latin Vulgate had authority. This Bible had been used for 1,100 unbroken years as an authoritative manuscript. But the “Vulgate” there is descended from the same word our “vulgar [word]” is. This word meant “common”, as opposed to some other higher forms, like the Old Latin that was spoken by Julius Cæsar and Pontius Pilate. Jerome translated into this language with the express goal of making Scripture available to the common masses. At the time of its defence, however, a whole 1,100 years later, this lower form of Latin, the “vulgar” form, the Latin Vulgate, was the liturgical ideal. And William Tyndale was burned at the stake for translating into the common language, Middle English, directly from the Hebrew and Koine Greek sources.

The “Koine” in Koine Greek itself means “Common”. When you go to Eaton or to a University, they will not bother very much with Koine Greek. The only ones that bother are those with a focus on New Testament and/or Septuagintal studies. The Greek of the ancient poets and philosophers and disputers, of the canon of the pagans, the liturgical language of secular Reformation-era Europe, is the “higher” Greeks: Attic, Homeric, Eleatic, Ionic. Rich, deep, and beautiful, “like the waters off Corfu,” or something. However, the Septuagint was translated into the “common” Greek that was spoken by the pious and elect Egyptian proto-Coptic-Christian people and their Jewish neighbours—to whom the Hebrew in the scriptures was an unprofitably-distant language. This common language Old Testament is the Septuagint. The rest is in The Letter of Aristeas. The Old Testament itself was written in the common language, because it had to be read. In other latter prophets, written during or after the Babylonian Exile, there is use of Aramaic, rather than Hebrew, because it was now a more-common language.

In every case where a successful translation of the Bible is done, it has massive impacts on language. Modern Hebrew, of course, is directly influenced by Biblical Hebrew. New Testament Greek is a meld of Koine Greek proper and Septuagintal Greek. NT Greek influenced latter stages of Greek, which led to modern Greek. When Jerome translated to the common Latin, he was influenced by the Masoretic and proto-Textus Receptus sources he had. The resultant Latin would have been otherwise idiosyncratic, had it not become the spine of what we call Vulgate Latin. When William Tyndale opposed the dominance of the now-incomprehensible Vulgate Latin, and translated to his form of English, he was influenced by Hebrew and Greek. He influenced the King James Version (over 80% in parts, and at least 70% in all others) and also influenced Shakespeare.

This story can be repeated for any multiplicity of languages and central cultural canons. But what is our situation, now? What word triggers in modern man, proficient in Internet English, the same impression as the word “the Lord” would trigger in a man like William Tyndale? He wrote The Obedience of a Christian Man, which argues for the absolute power of the Medieval English lord. It is essentially the document that founded the concept of the “Divine Right of Kings” in the English language. Now, if he gave such authority and glory to the office of the “lord”, how much more that One whom he meant when he wrote “the LORD God Almighty”? —And that man is the reason your orthodox Bible reads “the Lord Jesus Christ,” rather than the equally-fitting “The Master Jesus Christ.” Today, I see that the biggest, biggest problem with The 20th Century New Testament, is that it used “Master” instead of “Lord.” (I can’t stand the puniness of modern man!) Except for that, and a few other equally-minor things, that translation is the best possible in modern English. In fact, it is a sound foundation for any translation into Internet English. But the Internet has no “lord” or “master”. There is nothing to even begin capitalising—leave alone upper-casing!—to indicate the Ultimate Lord and Master.

“May the Grace of our Lord Jesus Christ …” No wonder they Christians in the West don’t jump when they read of news from the Middle East. Because for the those who truly understand that “the Community is the body of the Boss, Jesus Christ,” there would be some concern, at the very least, of what the Boss had said concerning this or that. On the Internet, where the news about the assualts committed against Christians all over the World, there is only an “admin” on the website, a “leader” or “president” in the story, and a “boss” in the next office, but never a “lord”, or “master” anywhere except in the Bible. Of course, none of those is suited to replacing “Lord”, but perhaps the idea should be more of a tacit understanding that a successful translation influences language, such that one of those words could be rehabilitated to serve. “President” is too pseudo-democratic, these days, and “leader” is too democratic. On the modern Internet, “admin” is often a privilege that can be revoked, unlike “boss” which carries sufficient undertones of simply being what William Tyndale called “the powers that be.” Modern bosses are people who actually own (wage-) slaves. They get their way or someone is in deep, multi-generational trouble. Think “yakuza boss”. Think “capo di tutti capi”. In Luganda, the word used in all Bibles for “Lord” is the same word used everywhere in normal life for where the word “boss” is used in English.

In what context could Mary’s “I am the Lord’s maidservant; be it unto me …” actually communicate the total submissiveness of such a sentence in a time like that? —A time of the LXX’s translation or Mary’s utterance in the Aramaic or Luke’s writing or Tyndale’s translation? (And submission to so incomprehensible a thing as being the one who will carry the Son of God.) It is a tricky part, isn’t it? And unless people are thinking about it very carefully—because, I mean, the commonest cases of “I am the Boss’ personal assistant; let it happen to me …” is generally one we all agree to be, well, vulgar—but it does reveal the true force that the word “Lord” should have in our lives today. Who is the lord to whom the modern young woman is made to submit in such a personal and present way? Who denies them sleep, or even privacy? When you search, you find that “boss” can be safely capitalised and considered a translation of « κυριος ». But it would be decried as heretical by those who go around calling Him “Boss, Boss,” but neither do what the Boss commanded, nor read the Bibles they so keep static.

“May the Grace of our Boss Jesus Christ … be with you all.”