SR Oh, well, it’s about beauty and meaning in the Bible, and the nexus between beauty and meaning, which is something that comes up all the time in ancient literature. It certainly came up in Hippias Minor. All these words, basic words, are multivalent in literary languages. They mean a bunch of things and are used very playfully. People don’t really think about the Bible this way, but these modes do extend to the Bible and its early translations. In Hebrew, Greek, and Latin—in each language, that is—you have a single word that means spirit, breath, and wind, and means all three of these! So that word is played with—the meanings are intertwining. You have a really intricate literary language that looks to us like a plain, even legalistic language in many passages, but in the original Bible there is no such thing. Meanings are worked out through form, which is not the way that modern languages function, especially English. Last week I was at the University of Colorado lecturing and I got asked whether Augustine believed in infallibility. That is, did he believe that scripture text was infallible? And I had to say, “Well, no, an ancient language doesn’t do that.” The infallibility thesis comes from the modern era and is based on the way that our languages work, which is with extreme precision and using a huge array of words. Each word is assigned an exact meaning within an exact category so that descriptions and instructions—say, engineering specifications—can be conveyed between cultures that are very different.
EB There is an assumption that languages exist to be translatable, that there has to be a functionality built into language in a conscious way. This wasn’t the case with ancient languages. When you are translating from Latin, Greek, or Hebrew you are in a very different relationship to language.