Friday, June 22, 2007

A medresh and a sedra and a rebbe II

Updated and continued from this post:

Commenter Nachum Lamm says the following:

“For a real laugh, see what the author of Surpassing Wonder says on this. He says Jews owe Christians a lot, because without the NT, we wouldn't know that it's Rabbi.

“ a) It's that important that we knew that?

“ b) It isn't
Rabbi in Hebrew.

“ c) We would have known anyway.

“ Eh. It's part and parcel of his whole book.”

The book he refers to is Surpassing Wonder: The Invention of the Bible and the Talmuds by Donald Harman Akenson. The book is described thus:

Elegant and inventive, "Surpassing Wonder" uncovers how the ancient Hebrew scriptures, the Christian New Testament, and the Talmuds of the Rabbis are related and how, collectively, they make up the core of Western consciousness. Donald Harman Akenson provides an incisive critique of how religious scholars have distorted the holy books and argues that it was actually the inventor of the Hebrew scriptures who shaped our concept of narrative history--thereby founding Western culture.

I skimmed this book years ago (the publishing date is 1998, and that sounds about right). I didn't take much, but I remember being impressed that a Christian was according a fair shake to Rabbinic Judaism (I have since learned that this is not altogether rare).

In any event, on to the substance of what Nachum is talking about. He is actually quoting Judah Goldin. Here is the quote:

“Judah Goldin, long an opponent of needless esotericism once gently rebuked some of his more parochial colleagues by noting, “by the way, the Hebrew alphabet has only consonants, and quite often it is hard to decide how a word is pronounced; it is from the New Testament, which is written in Greek, that we learn that the Hebrew consonants r, b, y should be pronounced 'Rabbi.'”

(The author, by the way, is a student of Goldin and thinks very highly of him, as attested by a number of comments scattered throughout the book.)

In any event, my gentle rebuke must be directed at Goldin more so than the talmid who merely quotes his rby.

While logic (or rather, grammar) would seem to dictate that historically rby was pronounced 'rabbi' there is more Greek evidence besides for the New Testament. There are numerous ancient inscriptions in Greek and Latin with the title 'rabbi' given to the men that slumber beneath the epigraphs.

Here is a sampler (although I am only using Latin letters all that are italicized are Greek [except for one Latin example):

Latin (from Italy, uncertain date): Benus filia rebbitis Abundanti.

Greek (from Cyprus, 3rd c.): Rabbé Attikos.

Here's a good one:

Greek (from Bet Shearim): Hebrew יוסף בן יצחק followed by Greek Ribbi Iose the pious, son of Isakios.

Another Hebrew/ Greek one from Bet Shearim:

Hebrew יהוסף followed by Greek Rib Yoaas[ph] (this means that the Greek letter Phi is missing from the end due to the ravage of time, but it surely was there).

Also in Bet Shearim רבי גמליאל followed by Greek Rabi Gamaliel.

There's a Greek Rabbi Anianos the dwarf.

There's a Rib Samuel who arranges, and of Iudah who puts to sleep.

There's a Rab Iudah son of Ionatha.

A Samuel of Gallus Berebi.

These are all interesting and I could go on, but let's wrap it up:

Inscriptions come as Latin Rebbi, Greek Rabbé (Ραββη), Rabbi (Ραββi), Rabi (Ραβi), Ribbi (Ριββι), Rab (Ραβ), Rib (Ριβ), Bérebi (Βηρεβι) and even R (Ρ).

In any event, I concede that there really isn't hard evidence for how it was pronounced in the 1st century. (Indeed, there is even a scholarly debate if the title rby was even used before the destruction of the Temple, meaning that its use in the NT could be anachronistic in the sense that the disciples didn't call Jesus Ραββi. However, I personally distinguish between its use as a title and as a word. As I pointed out yesterday, it is not only a title. It is also a word meaning my master. I see absolutely no reason why the word need not have been used informally before taking on the meaning of rabbi, which is to say, losing it's original definition, in which case it probably was used before 70 CE regardless of whether it's use as rabbi per se is an anachronism in the NT.)

However, the point is clear: it is naive to suggest that there is an actual correct pronunciation for a term which obviously was in flux by the very people who were part and parcel of rabbinic culture itself; the rabbis and their students. The New Testament may have captured one particular pronunciation, which later Hebrew grammarians (in the 19th century) concurred with. But the evidence shows that it is ridiculous to speak of how the word was pronounced based on grammatical rules or one line of evidence, just as it would be ridiculous in 1500 years for a linguist to decree that George W. Bush did not say nucular.

All the inscription information is taken from Shaye J. D. Cohen, Epigraphical Rabbis, JQR New Ser., Vol. 72, No. 1. (Jul., 1981), pp. 1-17, which you can download.

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