Esoteric Scholarship: Linguistics and the New Testament

There are dozens of thoughts that popped into my head as I read Steve’s followup post on scholarship. His main point is simply that it is the specialist’s responsibility to make their work understandable to the masses.

This divide between those who write incomprehensible monographs to those who write accessible ones is one we seen in the linguistic world as well. When it comes to syntax, Paul Kroeger’s books Analyzing Grammar & Analyzing Syntax (in that order) are incredibly helpful for the brand new student*. This is syntactic analysis in its most basic form. And those two books, which are geared toward the beginning student to prepare them for field linguistics with SIL/Wycliffe field, are going to have a greater impact than any book on linguistic theory. Books on theoretical linguistics are often impenetrable and extremely challenging to read.

On the other hand, the field linguist’s goal is clarity. It was regularly driven into my head as a student last year that when I write grammatical analysis I make sure that following my analysis and formalisms my prose is clear. Formal systems and frameworks come and go, so if you want your work to be understandable to the next generation studying this language, you had better write clearly. Any analysis you give, and this applies to Porter’s Systemic work as well, must be beneficial beyond that framework. Otherwise, what’s the point? Nobody will understand it otherwise.

But either way all linguists whether on the field or in the class room know that if they want their work to be accepted, they need to, at the very least, make it accessible to other linguists, even those who don’t know the languages directly.

And here’s the problem. When I look at the past 20 years of linguistics work in Hellenistic Greek and the New Testament, I see more obscurity than clarity. All over the place you will find scholars who talk about “wanting to get into this aspect discussion” and so they pick up Porter’s tome and find it incomprehensible and inaccessible. So even if Campbell’s book, which I disagree with (and I hope my criticisms are accessible) gives these people some hooks to hang more advanced discussions on, I’ll be happy. Its my experience that learning the vocabulary of any particular field is the biggest stop (e.g. I passed my CLEP text for Sociology in college by studying the glossary in the back rather than reading the chapters).

But this goes beyond aspect. What has linguistics give us in the past twenty years? For the most part, the vast majority of linguistic work & the New Testament has been more frustrating than anything else (Louw & Nida and Cotterell & Turner are the exception here). Its been twenty years and only now with Steve’s work is discourse analysis moving forward in a way that will make it helpful. There have been a number of books that have claimed the title “introduction,” and then turned out to be a collection of technical articles on a variety of topics that do very little to introduce anything.

Here are comments by Dr. Gerald Peterman on Jeffrey T. Reed’s A Discourse Analysis of Philippians from JETS 42, starting at 514ff.

I must admit I found parts of Reed’s first section to be quite tedious, as he delved into the obvious, such as that NT writers “are not readily available to be questioned regarding their assumptions and intentions” (pp. 39- 40) and that context limits word choice so that we cannot complete the statement I gulped down with the phrase a dog running through the park. At times hermeneutical guidelines are wrapped with different words and presented as fresh insights, even though a careful reader can find some of the same hermeneutical instruction being given in Plutarch’s How a Young man Should Study Poetry (ca. AD 50–120). I do not imply that discourse analysis is without value, only that its insights are sometimes presented as new when in fact they are actually sharpening of old insights. . . . For the scholar interested in Philippians studies, Reed is worth reading. Nevertheless, I anticipate his work having a minimal impact on Philippian scholarship, for two reasons: (1) He reaches no firm conclusions regarding integrity. Firm conclusions spark response and controversy. Controversy brings more readers and thus wider impact. (2) For the reader unfamiliar with linguistics, his work is hard reading. (my emphasis and you can read the full review HERE)

But the amazing thing is that Reed himself has recognized the difficult of reading his own work 3 years earlier (and one year before his book was published), but apparently did very little to make it more accessible. He published an article in JETS 39 on DA & Phillippians, writing these words,

To date, discourse analysis is a peripheral hermeneutic of NT studies, perhaps eventually doomed to the wastebasket. I have been personally told by a respected senior NT scholar that discourse analysis is nothing more than exegesis disguised in the garb of linguistic terminology. So goes the argument: Why read a discourse analysis of Philippians when I can read a master like J. B. Lightfoot who speaks in my own hermeneutical language? (‘Discourse Analysis as New Testament Hermeneutic: A Retrospective and Prospective Appraisal.’ JETS 39 (1996) 223-40)

Unfortunately, Reed left the task of responding to this problem to others rather than responding to it himself. Why did it take ten years for someone to actually do this? I’m still trying to figure that one out, though I do find it interesting that it was someone who doesn’t accept Porter’s linguistic framework.

This is getting long. I’ll pick up Aspect again in the next post.

*Unfortunately, the more introductory one is also the most expensive one…I don’t know why.

One thought on “Esoteric Scholarship: Linguistics and the New Testament

  1. There’s what I consider a fully justified harangue by Timothy Egan against the notion that writing clearly and meaningful does not require effort and industry in this morning’s NYTimes:
    http://www.nytimes.com/2008/12/07/opinion/07egan.html?ref=opinion = http://tinyurl.com/6376p8
    Throughout my academic teaching career I’ve always thought that English composition was given short shrift in undergraduate curricular requirements and that Ph.D.’s have been granted for dissertations that might as well have been written in gobbledygook. Social scientists are prime offenders here; far too common is the notion that one need address one’s arguments only to those few who share one’s own assumptions. That is how the Tower of Babel got constructed in the first place, with the same result recurring over and over: the confounding of languages.

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