Saturday, May 10, 2008

Name switching

A story, possibly apocryphal, stems from the Hollywood of yore, which carefully adhered to a code that banned any open discussion of homosexuality, and indeed any form of sex deemed improper. One day, so the story goes, a trusted aide approached the producer Sam Goldwyn with what he said was a wonderful script. “Let’s do it then,” Goldwyn impulsively interjected. “Well, there is one difficulty,” comes the reply. “The two women in the picture are lesbians.” “What’s the problem?” says Goldwyn. “We can always call them Bulgarians.”

By the standards of those days, of course, the script would still not be viable. It was the conduct, not the name, that made it radioactive.

So too with many other instances of name switching, Burma is a poor third-world country sandwiched between Bangla Desh and Thailand. Its desperate situation has been made worse by a tyrannical and corrupt government. When that government insists that we call it Myanmar none of these elements go away.

Such changes are familiar in the world of politics, so that Bombay has become Mumbai, Saigon is Ho Chi Minh City and so forth. However, the Congo, once Zaire, is now the Congo once more. None of these changes in nomenclature affects the actual situation of the place in question. We are cajoled into adopting the new term by various specious reasonings, such as the claim that the old names reflect imperialism or that the people themselves desire the change.

There are similar gambits in name switching where religion is concerned. Until the recent protests, it seemed fairly certain that the traditional greeting “Merry Christmas” would be replaced by “Happy Holidays.” Of course, people can say the latter if they wish. I sometimes do so myself. Yet the pivotal event of that season is the Christian festival of the Nativity, commemorated for many centuries on December 25. Relatively speaking, Hanukkah and Kwanza are Johnny-come-latelies that have attached themselves to the original core. The latter two observances are, as it were, calques that flourish at that time of year primarily as competition for Christmas. We say “Merry Christmas” because that commemoration is the essential feature of the season.

In recent years historians have tended to replace the chronological markers BC and AD with BCE and CE. The first are thought to be Christian (as they are), while the latter are considered more broadly acceptable. However, this switch obscures the fact that the BC/AD contrast was devised some 1500 years ago by a Scythian monk, Dionysius Exiguus, who based it on the pivot of the Incarnation of Jesus. It is a revolution in the conception of time because no previous chronology--Egyptian, Greek, Roman or whatever--had combined positive with minus numbers. All of the earlier chronologies consist of a single numerical sequence that starts from the earliest date ascertainable. In these schemes there is no equivalent of BC dates. BCE dates are simply a reflection of the innovative minus-number concept, and as such will always retain the evidence of their origin. Whatever the initials of choice may happen to be, the system itself still commemorates a Christian event. Name switching does not alter that fact.

Similarly, we are now asked to stop using the “Old Testament,” replacing that expression with “Hebrew Bible” or “Tanakh.” I prefer the latter terms myself, since they encourage looking at the documents concerned as autonomous creations, and not as the groundwork for some later faith. Still, I don’t see any reason why Christians who believe that the earlier writing are preparatory to their faith should not keep the term “Old Testament.” The traditional term accords with what they believe.

So far these religiously motivated subsitutions have some rationale. Yet name changing has come to take on a life of its own. For example, a Jewish friend suggested that I stop writing about the “Pentateuch.” Instead, I should prefer the Hebrew term “Chumash,” which is ostensibly more authentic. In fact, this neologism is not good Hebrew; it is a misnomer. The word Chumash seems to be a misreading of chomesh, meaning "one-fifth", alluding to any one of the five books and not to the whole set. Another term, the “Five Books of Moses,” has a genuine historical pedigree. However, since we know that Moses, a person who probably never existed, didn’t write the books, that substitution is also unwise.

As this last example shows, name changing for its own sake should be avoided. First, it impedes communication. Most educated people have a pretty good idea what “Pentateuch” means. In keeping with the etymology, it refers to the first five books of the Hebrew Bible. In all likelihood the word was invented by the Hellenized Jews of Alexandria. The term is widely used and should be kept. Second, by acceding to a name change of this kind one tacitly accepts that an advance in knowledge has been achieved--when in fact it has not. The object(s) described by the new term are the same as those designated by the old one. That is semantics 101.

Recently, in Jewish circles there has been a move to employ Hebrew as often as possible in relation to the Scriptures and religious practice. I have no problem with the terms that are preferred in the synagogue. If I did, it wouldn’t matter. Those choices are up to the members of the congregation. However, I do object to the obscurantist insistence that we all must adopt such terminology. It is an unarguable fact that the Bible--all of the books collected under that name--has had an immense, indeed momentous significance for Western civilization. It is hard enough to arrive at the truth about those ancient texts without having to adhere to a series of unnecessary changes in nomenclature. That amounts to kicking sand in the face of the investigator.

So let’s stop name switching and address the issues. So, I think, I have tried to do in my recent postings on religion.



Post a Comment

<< Home