James White’s Greek: Trip over your letters and destroy the world

First a little linguistics. The science of linguistics distinguishes between competence and performance. Competence refers to knowledge of a language, and performance to its use. Sometimes a competent language user may – aware or unaware – slip on his performance of sounds, spelling, grammar or vocabulary. The difference between a competent and incompetent language user is that the former, when becoming aware, can correct the mistake. The incompetent person. In contrast, cannot corect the mistake, which means that he doesn’t know the language (adequately). If, therefore, a person makes a mistake in writing or speaking, we should not conclude that the person is incompetent, namely, doesn’t know how the language works. The mistake might be a performance slip, and not an indication of incompetence.

On his “Dividing Line” yesterday, James White was in telephonic conversation with Ijaz Ahmed. One of the issues dealt with was the incident where White had slipped up in quoting from memory an excerpt of biblical Greek. Ijaz Ahmed had previously posted the following graphic and article on his blog

james white greek 1

The day after James White’s debate with Br. Zakir Hussain (details here, audio stream here, or right click ‘save as’ to download here), James released an article conceding to his clear ineptitude, inability to respond to well founded research and lack of basic comprehension skills. By basic I mean not being able to find a word and correctly identify its meaning, even after having used a computer to search for it (even though he’s a self claimed expert on the Greek language). I really must question not only his basic comprehension skills, but his lazy and hypocritical attitude as well. Ask a 3 year old Muslim to recite 7 ayat from Surah Fatihah and they would be able to do so with perfect pronunciation (tajweed), which I can demonstrate as being possible here and here, ask James White to repeat something he’s done several thousand times and he can’t.” 

Ijaz Ahmed’s understanding of how language works is parlous. “Reciting” sounds or letters by itself is not what is meant by knowing a language. And so, reciting them well does not mean the reciter knows the language well. Indeed the reciter might not have the foggiest idea. That little three-year  old Muslim hasn’t, of course, a clue what’s tripping off his tongue. This is true of the majority of Muslim adults as well because although they can recite Arabic, they don’t have a clue about Arabic grammar or what the words mean. Think parrots. The difference between a parrot and human “reciters” is that parrots don’t have minds; well, not human minds. But, says many Muslims, that doesn’t matter, because the sounds (phonemes) and the letters (graphemes) have a power in themselves to bring you closer, if not to Allah, to submission to Allah’s will.

As with Muslims, so with Jews, specifically non-Israeli Jews. ”When I was called to the bima (platform), relates Avram Yehoshua from the US,  to read the haftara portion (the portion of Scripture from the Prophets that the bar Mitzva boy reads), I chanted it melodically and without mistake. The only problem was that I had no idea what the Hebrew words meant or what I was doing, except that today I would ‘become a man.’ 

In passing, I wonder whether the Muslims didn’t get the idea from medieval rabbis that the Arabic letters and sounds in the Quran having divine properties. 

In his his “Handbook of Rabbinical Theology: Language, system, structure”(Brill Academic Publishers, 2002), Jacob Neusner says “The saying of the words [of the Mishnah], whether heard meaningfully by another or not, is the creation of the world?” Jacob Neusner and the grammar of rabbinical theology (5): the creativity of the rabbinical mind.” The explanation of such an unintelligible statement (to those outside traditional Judaism) is found in the Kabbalah, a core text of the Oral Torah. According to the Kabbalah, the very individual sounds (phonemes)/letters (graphemes) of the Torah contain deep meanings independent of the meanings of the words they spawn. Rabbi Glazerson, in his Philistine and Palestinian” (1995) says: The deeper significance of the letters and words is discussed extensively in the literature of Kabbalah. It is a subject as wide as all Creation. Every single letter points to a separate path by which the effluence of the divine creative force reaches the various sefirot (”spheres”) through which the Creator, Blessed be he, created His world,”

And Moshe CordoveroHalachah [Jewish law] obligates the reader to read the weekly portion, twice in the original Hebrew and once in the Aramaic translation, and this includes even seemingly meaningless place names (underlining added) such as Atarot and Divon (Bamidbar 32:3 Numbers” 32:3)…The spiritual concept of each and every letter contains a glorious light, derived from the essence of the sefirot [spheres]…each letter is like a splendid palace, containing and corresponding to its spiritual concept. When one of the letters is pronounced aloud, the corresponding spiritual force is necessarily evoked…these spiritual forces inhere not only in [the vocalized letters] but also in their written forms.” Moshe Cordovero’s Pardes Rimonim [Garden of Pomegranates] , Sha’ar Ha-Ottiot [Gate of Letters], Chapter 1).   (See my Letters of Hebrew fire – the depth and death of meaning). 

White, stumbled over his Greek letters, and that, says Jiad, I mean Ijad, makes him no NT scholar. We can be thankful though that he was speaking Greek, not Hebrew (or Quranic Arabic?), and so the world did not come to an end.

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