Review of Linguistics and New Testament Greek

Linguistics and New Testament Greek book cover

No longer is it the norm to study NT Greek independently from linguistics. However, the ever-changing nature of the literature around these fields presents an obstacle not only for those who study Greek but for those in the field of Biblical Studies. The sheer variety of approaches to New Testament Greek and the conclusions that result from these approaches are bewildering. Not only the student, but the teacher and established scholar need a guide to find their way. The state of scholarship at this time raises severe methodological and theological issues, but even after those are addressed, the need for a guide remains. Several years ago, Constantine Campbell released his Advances in the Study of Greek (2015), which was and remains a great help. This year, David Alan Black and Benjamin L. Merkle have released Linguistics and New Testament Greek, a similar volume focusing on the convergence of linguistics and NT Greek. I was grateful to receive a review copy from Baker Academic.

Summary of Linguistics and New Testament Greek

Linguistics and New Testament Greek is a fantastic resource for students of Greek and Biblical Studies (as well as us theologians). Given the variety of authors, each chapter of the 11 chapters hits a different register. Some chapters are more technical than an undergraduate will be comfortable with. Many others appear to be oriented towards the undergraduate student or teacher; these chapters remain useful for the scholar but are more widely accessible. Each chapter is written by an experienced scholar and offers that scholars perspective in interaction with the broader field.

After an introductory essay from Black on the need for linguistics in our study and survey of how we have come to be where we are, Stanley Porter offers a helpful survey of several important linguistics schools that are used for the study of NT Greek. Constantine Campbell provides a survey of the debate surrounding tense and aspect in Chapter 2. Michael Aubrey offers a discussion of the Greek Perfect in terms of transitivity and intransitivity in Chapter 3. This chapter is a highlight and will be quite helpful for many readers.

For those who have not read Campbell’s Advances or the literature surrounding the perfect voice, Jonathan Pennington’s chapter on the Greek Middle Voice will be an important discovery (Chapter 4). In Chapter 5, Stephen H. Levinsohn illustrates the value of discourse analysis in application to Galatians. Runge’s discussion of constituent order in Chapter 6 is highly illuminating, especially for those of us who learned early on that word order in NT Greek was a cypher yet to be cracked. In chapter 7, T. Michael W. Holcomb raises the critical issue of NT Greek pedagogy, specifically the viability of a living language approach. He identifies many administrative obstacles that such an approach faces, yet its potential is rightfully highlighted. However, for all the good this chapter does, it fails to address the most significant issues raised in the literature surrounding living language or second language learning, as I will pick up later in this review.

In Chapter 8, Randall Buth addresses the issue of pronunciation. He makes the important pedagogical points that pronunciation matters and that reading is related closely to spoken language. The chapter would have benefitted greatly from a table illustrating the pronunciation suggestions with common English examples (not IPA).  He makes a significant point at the end of the chapter, “The biggest and most compelling issue for Christian scholarship is to have the fluency in speech that enhances high-level textual processing and macro-comprehension in reading.” Thomas W. Hugdins was given the difficult task in chapter 9 of addressing electronic tools and NT Greek, a feat that will be quickly dated! However, this chapter should prove useful to those who learned Greek and NT Biblical studies before the digital age took hold. In Chapter 10, Robert L. Plummer addresses the concerns with producing the “Ideal Beginner Greek Grammar.” He makes several important observations, but reflecting on the issues raised in Chapter 7 and 8 would likely lead to an even more radical “ideal.”

In my opinion, Nicholas J. Ellis’s essay in Chapter 11, “Biblical Exegesis and Linguistics” was the strongest of the bunch. He employs the insights of cognitive linguistics and discusses the past and present influence of linguistics on Biblical exegesis. He is especially interested in lexical semantics, offering a mild rebuke of the structuralist insights that have been adopted within Biblical Studies through the pioneering work of James Barr in the 60s and 70s. Most significantly, Ellis is the only essayists to address the ontological issues lying behind several other approaches, particularly Porter’s favoured Systemic Functional Linguistics. His discussion of prototype theory and observations concerning the “dynamic and constantly evolving” nature of language and meaning are particularly important. Benjamin Merkle’s concluding essay may be a little heavy-handed in its critique of some contributors. However, his meditations on the importance of “immersion” style language learning echo the pedagogical concerns of several other essays, particularly Chapter 7 and 8. This underscores our need for better pedagogy. To conclude this review, I want to reflect on this issue and the theoretical/methodological matter that is raised both by the essays themselves and by a broader consideration of language pedagogy.

Evaluation of Linguistics and New Testament Greek

Though three essays in Linguistics and New Testament Greek touch on issues of pedagogy, broadly recommending “living language” and “immersion” style learning, the primary evidence offered in these chapters for this approach is anecdotal. None of the authors addresses why these methods are so effective. Halcomb, for example, commends a “living language” approach. Yet, his approach requires “master teachers” (a near-impossibility for the foreseeable future) and its effectiveness is still related to “grammatical rules,” though these are acquired inductively not deductively. However, much of the literature around “living language” learning or second language acquisition addresses the problem in traditional methods as the very approach to language as “grammatical rules.” That is, when children and second language learners learn a “living language,” they often do not learn rules at all. Adults who are fluent in a language are often unable to articulate the so-called “rules” that supposedly govern that language. Some theorists argue that the brain has two tracks for learning a language. There is, on the one hand, intuitive acquisition related to fluency and, on the other, the more technical analysis of grammar and syntax. The latter, it is argued, only has a subsidiary effect on language use; it functions for language correction, not language generation or interpretation. This analysis suggests that rules play only an ancillary role in “living language” learning. The tacit ability to learn languages posited in this research aligns with many of the claims of cognitive linguistics concerning the nature of language and linguistic ontology (cf. Chapter 11 in this volume). It also corresponds to Michael Polanyi’s understanding of the process of knowing. Much learning happens at a “tacit” or “subsidiary” level. We can analyse the details of our everyday learning; however, unless this analysis is brought back to the subsidiary awareness, we run the risk of “destructive analysis,” that is, the fragmentation of the particulars of experience in the name of knowledge. Such a pursuit is usually detrimental to the pursuit of knowledge. If we really want to adopt a living language approach—and I think we should—we may not need master teachers after all. We may only need those who are a bit farther along and so can provide comprehensible language learning that advances the learners own understanding. Once the student can work their way through actual texts of Koine Greek, they could generate their own “comprehensible input” and be on track for life-long learning of the language.

The advantage of such an approach is that it abrogates the theological/methodological issue raised by the essays in this volume and the broader field. That is, if linguistic analysis is so necessary and has such value for exegesis, yet the field is relatively young and growing at a bewildering rate in contradictory directions (compare SFL and the Cognitive-Functional approaches), what happens to the Biblical teaching of clarity? If God wrote the Bible to be understood for over three millennia, yet only now do we understand the languages in which it was written, are we not in a privileged place to finally access its meaning? Furthermore, only select scholars have access to this knowledge, and they frankly admit that the field is ever-evolving—threatening their now sure consensuses. How, then, is the Bible clear in any meaningful sense? However, if “living language” learning is on the right track, we can affirm the value of linguistics AND retain our doctrine of clarity. In the latter case, we can learn Koine and Classical Hebrew as living languages; we have a sufficient corpus and the innate ability. Such learning is not dependent on any single linguistic theory and corresponds to our daily use of language. In the former case, we can maintain a role for linguistics. Linguistics paved the way for living languages approaches. Linguistic research is invaluable for overturning the false dogmas of a bygone age, as Barr did for lexical fallacies and later linguistics has for his structuralism. When linguistics confronts our theories with contradictory data, leading us to abandon those theories, it has sharpened our discipline. This volume is full of such examples. Finally, linguistics gives us a grammar for persuasion. That is, living language theory provides the reader with the tools to read well. However, it does not equip him or her to defend that reading or persuade another concerning their interpretation. Linguistics gives us tools to understand why we understood it the way we did and to defend it to others. Linguistics may, therefore, be an important tool in our tool belts. However, on this understanding, a lack of linguistic training or even participation in the wrong linguistic school does not impede the contemporary pastor or scholar, as it need not have for the original readers or those who have read and used Greek since then. I am currently working on a book that addresses this very issue; keep your eyes peeled for an announcement to this effect and its addition to our coming soon page.

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