Thursday, February 11, 2010

Bible etymologies: So what?

If you've been here reading at my blog much, then you know generally what I post favors uses of language that open up meanings.

Aristotle, as I read him (both in Greek and in English translations), tends to favor just the opposite.  He is interested in logic, in language that has a closed conclusion.  And many, many of us in the West tend to do the same.  We tend to think of a word as having some inherent (if assigned, and if somewhat arbitrary) meaning.  We tend to think of that meaning as stable, or in the context(s) where we find it, as specific and fairly singular.  We tend to view translation as information, as carrying the load of the meaning from the original language text over to the new language to convey that meaning.  We tend to see poetry meanings as not very representative of communication, as not relevant in the way relevance theory is.  We tend to give the author the exclusive rights on his word's meaning.  We tend to favor the intention of the author.  We tend to discount etymologies.  We tend to discount them because they go back before or extend beyond the author's intention in his use of his word in his text.

But to be like Aristotle is to ignore many others and their language and language uses and language theories.  Aristotle's practice ignores the wordplay of the writers of the Bible, both the ones who used Hebrew (and spoken Aramaic) and those who translated and wrote much of it in Greek.  Aristotelian linguists today tend to think of the bible as mostly information, mostly communication, mostly a communique, mostly a message, with a particular relevance, determined exclusively by the "author."  So let me say this again:  the authors of the Bible are not like Aristotelian linguists today construct them to be.  Or when the linguists are honest, then we all agree that the Bible writers and first translators (i.e., the LXX translators and the writers of the gospels) are not like the Aristotelian linguists.  Western linguists do not do what the bible writers did with language.  Western linguists mostly do what father Aristotle does with language.

The problem for many in the West today, in re-conceiving of the bible writers and its first translators as different from Aristotle, is this.  The bible writers re-conceived come across like women, like translinguals, like sophists, like Plato's "so-called rhetoricians."

Here's an example, then, from someone's website that says some startling, non-western things.  I've said similar things before, but am always curious what you think about this:

Isn’t it ironic, then, that the greatest Hebrew prophet and lawgiver, the man who single-handedly organized the Israelites and led them out of Egypt, has an Egyptian name? And his name is not just any Egyptian name, it’s a religious Egyptian name. Moses’ name reflects basic Egyptian religious beliefs.....

In any case, let us assume that whoever named Moses knew Hebrew. How valid, then, does the Hebrew etymology seem? As an Egyptologist, I must here rely on the arguments of Hebrew scholars, who generally agree that it simply doesn’t make sense.2 The biblical etymology—which says the baby’s name is based on his having been drawn out of water—would lead one to expect a name that means "the one drawn out" or "he who was drawn"; that is, a passive form. But Moshe has an active participle behind it;3 the name means "the one who draws." (That’s why Isaiah calls him "the drawer" of his people [Isaiah 6:3].) The passive form would result in a name like Mashuy, not Moshe.

The Egyptian language provides a far more plausible etymology.4 The name Moses is related to common Egyptian names like Amenmose, Ramose and Thutmose,* which are formed of a god’s name followed by mose.5 These compound names mean something like "Amen is born" or "Born of Amen" or "The offspring of Ra" or "The child of Thoth." When the name Mose appears by itself, as it occasionally does in Egyptian, it simply means "the Child" or "the Offspring."6 But in Egyptian, Mose most frequently appears along with the name of a god as part of a compound name.

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