Octogenarian Tongues

I minored in Greek at Baylor (1954–58). Dr. Henry Tranham, the only professor in the Classics Department, was a Rhodes Scholar and held Baylor’s tennis championship until his fifties or so. In his 80s when I took his classes, he clearly grieved that few would take any courses beside koine, hardly a “Classic” but the form of Greek diluted by bits and pieces of other languages used by folks at the margins of Greek civilization, like those who wrote some of our earliest versions of the Christian Scriptures. At Baylor in 1954, almost 2,000 years later, koine had utility but not Respectability.

Greek was the only course in which I witnessed flagrant cheating at Baylor, and Greek was the only course in which I was the only student not training to be a Baptist preacher. Perhaps the preachers thought Dr.Tranham’s cataracts would prevent him from seeing them cheat.

“Jesus said to share,” an impatient importuner said under his breath as he pulled my sleeve trying to get me to stop covering my answers during an exam.

Dr. Tranham called on this man to read his translation the day we were assigned the story at Cana. The student had been a preacher for about 20 years and was at least 40, glad at last to get a chance of earning formal credentials. Dutifully he read, and when he came to ‘oinos,’ he translated it as ‘grape justice.’

Dr. Tranham cleared his throat rather forcefully and asked him to translate the verse again.

Again the student said ‘grape juice’ for ‘oinos,’ but with some measure of confusion, followed by a very long pause.

At length, Dr. Tranham said, “Son, tell me if I understand your hesitation. You believe that the Lord of the Universe would never ask anyone to serve fermented drink?”

The student nodded assent, but Tranham was already continuing, “and would certainly never turn the water into wine stronger even than the wine they had been drinking for several days at this point?” The student nodded his assent even more vigorously.

“I appreciate your point of view but find something wrong with it,” Tranham said.

You could have heard an ant spit, so electric was the quiet in the room.

“What, sir?” the student asked timidly.

“You are putting yourself into the position of telling the Lord of the Universe what he could or could not do. Class dismissed.”

On another day Tranham commented that when he was young, Baptists too had used real wine when they partook of the “Lord’s Supper,” that the Women’s Christian Temperance Union was far more responsible for prohibition than was Scriptural evidence…..

How often I have come up short the way my classmate did. It gives me no joy to discover that I have sometimes told the Lord of the Universe what She or He can or cannot do.

Thank you, Professor. Thank you, classmate. I am near the brink of 80 myself, and still trying to learn. It’s hard work.

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