Silva's "Greek Fathers Principle" revisited
The 'Greek fathers' (GF) Principle for modern exegesis (based on an essay in Interpreting Galatians, by M Silva, p. 29-31)
- The commentaries of the Greek fathers (e.g. Chrysostom) on the Greek NT can help in the task of exegesis given that they were native Greek speakers. This remains true given a number of qualifications:
a. The potential for 'semantic shifts' in the centuries that separate them from Paul
b. The fathers own brand of Greek through which they read the NT: "Chrysostom apparently sought to understand the NT on the assumption that it was written in 'good Greek'" – which it was not.
c. Just being a native speaker doesn't automatically mean that they are capable of giving an accurate syntactical or semantic account. "Educated speakers in particular are notoriously unreliable guides". In what way? The GF's reading of Greek, especially when we are aware of a textual ambiguity and they simply assume "that one of the possible meanings is the right one", is at this point "strong evidence for the way a native speaker would naturally understand the language". However, when a GF like Chrysostom "self-consciously analyses the language", then things can go pear-shaped. Native speakers are best when they use their language rather than reflect on it!
- And so the principle can be adjusted to read: The GF commentaries are useful aids in the task of exegesis as one voice among many, especially when we are aware of a textual ambiguity, and they simply assume "that one of the possible meanings is the right one".
- However, is it fair to suggest that native speakers get their own language muddled when they explain syntax and vocab, or is it simply that their explanation is not good, but their usage remains normative? As an Englishman living in Germany doing all kinds of English-language proof-reading for German speakers, I will certainly know the correct way of understanding and expressing the English text, even if my ability to find the correct grammatical terms is lacking (which it sadly is a lot of the time). My German wife (an English teacher), for example, has a far better grasp of English grammar's theoretical terminology. Yet I can still better discern what the correct English is, being a native speaker, without necessarily being able to explain it as well! Nevertheless, my grammatical or semantic decision will be (mostly!) correct. I submit that Silva has mixed poor explanation of language with its nevertheless correct understanding. Bang goes one of Silva's points above?
- Furthermore, an exegetical decision about the meaning of 'the righteousness of God' or 'pistiς Ihsou Xristou' in the GFs will be a result not just of their grasp of Greek, but the hermeneutical and conceptual frameworks they bring to the text. When this is understood, it is no surprise that they understand these important phrases the way they (arguably anachronistically) did!