Linguistics and New Testament Greek

by | Nov 7, 2020 | Book Review

Last year, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary hosted a conference dubbed “Linguistics and New Testament Greek: Key Issues in the Current Debate.” I was there. It was fun. And I was happy to see Baker has released a book with the same name—Linguistics and New Testament Greek: Key Issues in the Current Debate. The presenters packaged their papers into readable chapters into what’s actually a really good book. The atmosphere of the conference was kind of fun, but I got more out of reading the proceeds in print than listening to the speakers in person. This is an edited volume with eleven chapters and contributors. Linguistics is the scientific study of language, and the contributors tackle different facets of the study of the language of Koine Greek. I’ve commented briefly on each chapter below and offered my concluding remarks at the end.

Linguistic Schools 
Stanley E. Porter

Porter surveys the major linguistic schools at work in the study of NT Greek. He qualifies what he means by school before describing traditional grammar, formalists, cognitivists, and functionalists. Here’s the current linguistic landscape. There are different approaches so it’s important to know who is who and what separates the linguists from the linguists. Obviously, Porter would have us all embrace Systemic Functional Linguistics, but he makes the good points that there is plenty of variety in the field and plenty of uncharted territory to plow. And, I would like to add, it’s always nice to see Paul Danove’s often ignored “case frame analysis” receive some attention. (Danove’s work is something I’ve even written on myself.)  

Aspect and Tense in New Testament Greek
Constantine R. Campbell

Aspect is viewpoint. There is scholarly disagreement in some areas. There is scholarly disagreement in others. Campbell wrote a book called Basics of Verbal Aspect in Biblical Greek. If you’ve read it before, you can probably skip this chapter. 

The Greek Perfect Tense-Form: Understanding Its Usage and Meaning
Michael G. Aubrey

This is probably the chapter of greatest significance as far as cutting-edge developments go. Explaining the perfect is notoriously difficult. Doing so is like gathering the winds in your fist or wrapping up the waters in a garment. But if every word of Aubrey proves true, then we need to concern ourselves with event structure and transitivity. There are lots of examples. Rachel does a lot of stuff. 1Rachel, Aubrey’s wife, appears in several of the examples. And what should really get our attention is that not all verbs, notably many with stative senses, have the option of forming a perfect. This seems to support Aubrey’s argument on the significance of transitivity. You will probably need to read this chapter through a couple of times, but it’s worth it.  

The Greek Middle Voice: An Important Rediscovery and Implications for Teaching and Exegesis
Jonathan T. Pennington

Pennington rehashes the history of abolishing the deponent. He played a major role in this reversal. His thesis is that the middle is marked for subject-affectedness. From there we determine if the subject is the agent of the action (and therefore translated as an English active) and, if not the agent, we translate it as an English passive. 

Discourse Analysis: Galatians as a Case Study
Stephen H. Levinsohn

Levinsohn performs his version of discourse analysis on Galatians. His methodology comes from years of study and experience. Here are his recommended steps:

  1. Determine the Nature of the Discourse
  2. Determine the Broad Genre of the Letter
  3. Determine the Major Division of the Discourse
  4. Find Surface Features That Support Different Boundaries
  5. Consider the Implications of Each Inter-sentential Conjunction
  6. Look for Prominence-Giving Devices at Various Levels

These are helpful steps we would all do well to incorporate into our exegetical workflow. 

Interpreting Constituent Order in Koine Greek
Steven E. Runge

Can we determine the meaning behind the ordering of phrases and clauses? Runge agrees that Verb—Object or Verb—Subject are the most neutral orderings. We expect a certain order. Pragmatic motivation explains violations of that expected order. If you’ve read Runge’s Discourse Grammar of the Greek New Testament, you are already familiar with Dik’s “(P1) (P2) X” template. It’s the most convincing explanation for constituent order I’ve found. Runge sells it well.

Living Language Approaches
T. Michael W. Halcomb

If you’re looking for a historical survey of dead language pedagogy, this chapter is what you’ve been searching for. But there are lessons to learn. And treating Koine Greek as a living language would revolutionize the seminary classroom. Even taking a few cues from a living language approach would, according to Halcomb. There are challenges to improving our language education culture, but there are some compelling reasons to consider some changes. 

The Role of Pronunciation in New Testament Greek Studies
Randall Buth

Buth calls for another revolution in the classroom: ditch your Erasmian pronunciation and speak a historically reconstructed pronunciation. There is pedagogical payoff. There is exegetical payoff. It makes sense. If we want to process and interpret a text the way the original audience did, we would do well to speak it the way they did.

Electronic Tools and New Testament Greek
Thomas W. Hudgins

I feel like Hudgins drew the short straw here. Surveying electronic tools might have been a better topic for a blog post than a chapter in this book. I felt like this one was a little out of place. I would add that this was one presentation that I actually preferred to the printed chapter. Hudgins style was unique to say the least. (You can watch it here along with the other sessions here.) My favourite quote was: “I think if we’re still using paper then we’re probably not living in the world God wants us to be living in.” 

An Ideal Beginning Greek Grammar?
Robert L. Plummer

Plummer (of Daily Dose of Greek fame) reminds us to love God, trust His sovereignty, and not allow ourselves to get too “locked in.” He then gives us the boxes a solid Greek grammar needs to check. Every NT Greek instructor needs to read this chapter. My only critique is Plummer never tells us if he actually uses a Dvorak keyboard. 

Biblical Exegesis and Linguistics: A Prodigal History
Nicholas J. Ellis

Perhaps this chapter was intended to serve alongside Porter’s as a bookend. He discusses the history of linguistics in biblical studies. He contends we’re deficient in linguistics. Porter and his tribe are the only ones doing linguistics and everyone else (who presumably disagrees with Porter) is doing nothing. Linguistics is relevant to our field. It’s a necessary component of exegesis. We should use it as we fulfill the Great Commission. Amen. 

Conclusion

If you have not explored any of these areas before, this is an excellent point of entry into the world of linguistics. I would recommend this book to anyone who has a year of Greek under their belt and is serious about exegesis. Mike Aubrey’s chapter on the perfect is essential reading. Porter’s chapter on linguistic schools is good history. Plummer’s chapter is good for the soul. Contributions from Campbell, Runge, Levinsohn, and Pennington are good, but I’ve already read their stuff elsewhere. Drawing the net even tighter, those who teach stand to benefit the most as they make decisions on pronunciation, the middle voice, and a living language approach. This book makes a substantive step towards improving our understanding of the Greek language while challenging us to do better. 

For Further Reading:

Special thanks to Baker Academic for providing me with a free digital copy of this book through NetGalley. This did not influence my thoughts regarding this work. Quotations could change in the finished book. Pages for quotations are not provided due to reading a digital copy.

Brent Niedergall

Pastor, Grammarian, Runner

Brent Niedergall, MDiv, is Associate Pastor at Victory Baptist Church in Port Coquitlam, British Columbia. He’s gone to war in Afghanistan, felled towering trees, and parsed Greek verbs.

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