Sunday, February 12, 2017

Augustine of Hippo on Greek Accents

At around 410 CE, Paulinus Bishop of Nola (near Mt. Vesuvius in Italy) wrote a lengthy letter to Augustine Bishop of Hippo asking if the great doctor would explain some obscure passages in the scriptures. Towards the end of this epistle, Paulinus asked if Augustine could explain a portion of Psalm 17:14 (16:14, LXX). Paulinus wrote;
In the following psalm I should like to have that passage explained to me where it says: "Their belly is filled from thy hidden stores. They are full of pork," or, as I hear it is written in another version of the psalms: "They are full of children, and they have left to their little ones the rest of their substance." (Aug. Ep. 121) 
The first reference Paulinus quotes appears to be taken from the Greek LXX and the second quotation seems to be taken from Jerome's Latin version. The Greek text of this Psalm reads, "ἐχορτάσθησαν υἱῶν" (Rahlfs') which can be translated "they are satisfied with sons (or children)" or, as the NETS translates the phrase "they were fed with sons."

Augustine did not respond to Paulinus' question until 414 CE. It may be because it took some time before he was able to study a Greek LXX (Latin was his native tongue), for he wrote "I had not been able to consult any Greek texts on certain words of Psalm 16, but afterward I secured some and consulted them" (Aug. Ep. 149). A few paragraphs later he wrote;
As to the following passage, "They are full of pork," I have explained what I think of it. What readings other texts have or are truthfully reported to have--because the more carefully written copies explain this same well-known ambiguity of the Greek word by the accent, according to the Greek method of writing--is a matter somewhat obscure, but it seems to fit in better with the more acceptable meaning. He had said: "Their belly is filled from thy hidden stores," by which words the hidden judgments of God are meant, and no doubt they are hidden from the wretched, who rejoice even in evil, whom "God gave up to the desires of their heart." (Aug. Ep. 149)
Augustine explains that Paulinus may have a corrupted text that had not been copied well and had not been transcribed with the proper Greek accents. In this case, it seems that Augustine is alluding to the similarity between the Greek word for son in the genitive  plural "υιων" and the Greek word for pig in the genitive plural "υων." To further confuse the situation, some forms/styles of the word for son also did not include the iota and were spelled the same as pig (υων).
The perplexing facet to Augustine's explanation is that it is difficult to understand whether he is mistakenly referring to a missing iota in the genitive plural for "of sons" in Paulinus' manuscript (thus it is a poorly copied manuscript); or that he is indicating that, in his understanding of the Greek of his day, these two words were differentiated in the placement of their accents.
It seems that the latter explanation makes the most sense of Augustine's comments. Paulinus probably had an LXX Psalter that had poorly copied (or missing) accents. This ambiguity over accents, coupled with the verb "ἐχορτάσθησαν" (an "eating" verb) led Paulinus to erroneously interpret the words as "pigs" rather than "sons."
Therefore Augustine reminds us of the importance of accents so that when we read Romans 8:19 we do not think that "creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the pigs of God."

Saint Augustine. (Circa 1645-1650) by Philippe de Champaigne


Augustine, Letters (Sister Wilfred Parsons, trans. The Fathers of the Church. Volumes II and III. New York: Fathers of the Church, Inc., 1953).

Karl Kelchner Hulley, "Principles of Textual Criticism Known to St. Jerome." Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 55 (1944): 87-109.

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