The Temptations of Latin

One of the most penetrating book reviews I have ever read is James Kugel’s review of Michael Fishbane’s Biblical Interpretation in Ancient Israel. I could wax eloquent the virtues of this review, but let me for now draw attention to one particular item of interest.

In Biblical Interpretation, Fishbane uses terms borrowed from Douglas Knight’s Rediscovering the Traditions of Israel to describe the relationships between texts and their subsequent interpretations. In Knight’s work, tradition is composed of two aspects: the traditio signifies “the process (in its totality and in its details) whereby traditional material is passed from one generation to the next;” the traditum signifies “the traditional material itself that is being transmitted” (5). Fishbane conceives of innerbiblical exegesis as a literary continuation of a primarily oral understanding of the tradition-historical process. The traditium becomes the “(increasingly) authoritative teachings or traditions whose religious-cultural significance is vital (and increasingly fundamental)” while the the traditio focuses on “the concern to preserve, render contemporary, or otherwise reinterpret these teachings or traditions in explicit ways for new times and new circumstances” (8).

Kugel remarks, “Now this little bit of naming, although it might seem rather trivial at first, begins to loom a bit larger as Fishbane’s references to traditum and traditio, . . . pass from the dozens into the hundreds and (who knows?) perhaps the thousands as his study rolls on” (273). One can sense Kugel finds this “little bit of naming” somewhat taxing. This subjective dissatisfaction is followed by a more objective critique. Kugel draws attention to the fact that neither Knight nor Fishbane have used Latin terms that sufficiently distinguish themselves from one another—they do not exclusively signify the distinct concepts for which they are employed. If this were not enough, Kugel goes on to highlight how Fishbane uses the two terms in ways at odds with how he has already defined them. Essentially, traditum functions as the anterior text and the traditio functions as the posterior or interpreting text. Kugel suggests “Fishbane would have done better, I think (as future studies will do better), to forego the temptations of Latin and say a little more specifically what he means in each case” (274).

I think Kugel’s suggestion for future studies is sound. The temptations of Latin are too infrequently virtuous to be a reliable tool for academic writing, much less Stylish Academic Writing. I don’t mean to suggest that one cannot use Latin (German, French, etc.) responsibly, just that most do not. In his footnote to the previous quote, I think Kugel drives the observation home in a most poignant manner.

It is to be remarked that, quite apart from this particular issue, Fishbane does have a weakness for foreign words and phrases, and not only in Latin. Readers of scholarly books ought no doubt to be indulgent in this regard; yet one cannot but occasionally wonder if Fishbane’s saying indicia instead “clues,” au fond instead of “at bottom,” Wiederaufnahme instead of “resumption,” legenda instead of “legends” (sic), Rechtspraxis instead of “legal practice,” ab origine for “from the beginning” (i.e., ab initio?), responsum for “answer,” per definitionem for “by definition,” Umwelt for “environment,” animadversiones for “observations” etc. etc. does not more serve some obscure need in the author’s own psyche than the causes of clarity and precision.


4 thoughts on “The Temptations of Latin

  1. The tricky issue with animadversiones for “observations” is that the English cognate animadversions means something far more pejorative than “observations.” Everyone might not notice the slight difference in spelling.

    1. I certainly don’t want to dismiss the sophisticated use of foreign words or phrases. That said, I doubt one could find an equally compelling reason for Fishbane to use so many foreign terms.

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