On the Use of Linguistics In New Testament Studies

Obviously this is a subject that I continually come back to because it is of supreme interest to me. I have observed on occasion the tendency and temptation for those who are doing linguistic research on New Testament Greek to dump past work completely and proceed afresh.

Now there is always benefit from a fresh look at the data and texts, but that doesn’t mean you ignore centuries of work in Greek grammar as if its completely unhelpful. Robert Funk’s Beginning Intermediate Grammar of Hellenistic Greek is  a very good example of balance. Depressingly enough, Porter’s work regularly comes to my mind as a poor example in this regard. Likewise, Fanning’s monograph does the opposite by retaining many of the categories grammarians have used for classifying Greek verb usage, though many of these categories have more to do with English than they do with Greek. But each of the books both have their own strength in a way.

Porter did well in seeking to consistently use a theoretical framework for his research. That was his strength – though it should be questioned whether he uses the best framework and whether his analysis itself is accurate.

Fanning’s strength was his fantastic historical survey that rightly and accurately recognized that development of aspect studies of past years, something that Porter, in my opinion, failed miserably at. Even still, in his actually analysis, many of Fanning categories are unnecessary for understanding Greek as Greek.

And that’s what I’ve been thinking about lately – the temptation and desire to be groundbreaking to the point of being convinced that everyone before you was wrong. When applying lingusitics to the language of the New Tetsament, our “new” linguistic method becomes revolutionary in our minds as if none have dealt with these problems before. Denny Burk’s monograph, Articular Infinitives in the Greek of the New Testament: On the Exegetical Benefit of Grammatical Precision is a case in point according to this review: HERE.

Here are the relevant quotes from the review:

I find Burk’s thesis uncontroversial, even bordering on banal, though it is perhaps novel to students of New Testament Greek since Burk manages to collect a range of opinions about the construction from scholars in this field. At the very least, then, the book will serve as a firm warning against over-interpreting the role of the article in the articular infinitive construction. . . .

[T]here is a linguistic disconnect. On the one hand, Burk paints an exaggerated picture of the dire straits New Testament studies is in because scholars everywhere supposedly rely on “prescientific” linguistic analysis. On the other hand, this book is touted as a cutting-edge application of modern linguistics. But anyone who is familiar with current treatments of syntax or semantics will know they look nothing like this book. To mention just the most salient example: the notion of “function word” is not exactly cutting edge, traceable as it is to at least Henry Sweet’s A New English Grammar (1891). The reader cannot fail to see the irony in Burk’s list of seven criteria of traditional grammar (2, with n. 4), all of which clearly describe what happens in his own book! (my emphasis).

When I read descriptions like this and books that have a similar perspective on the state of NT studies, I only become frustrated. The irony is that scholars who specialize specifically in linguistics place much more weight on old Greek grammars than the New Testament scholars who seek to employ linguistics in their own research. Pulling a random book off my linguistics bookshelf, I find in the language index a good fifteen references to Greek: Homeric, Classical, and Ancient. Considering most of the couple hundred languages reference in the book are only mentioned once or twice, that’s not bad at all. And a quick perusal through the bibliography show references at least to Goodwin’s grammar and I’m sure there are others, I stopped at the G’s.

So why is there a temptation for NT linguists to flat out reject the work of the past? Can’t we build on it instead? Surely they got some things right.

7 thoughts on “On the Use of Linguistics In New Testament Studies

  1. Interesting post. I imagine that many NT scholars only really dabble in linguistics and probably are only familiar with it through the filter of other NT scholars who also only dabble in it. Then because they know a little more than the next NT scholar who doesn’t pay attention to linguistics at all they can seem like they’re much more knowledgeable to those who can’t tell the difference. What is the saying? “In the land of the blind, the one eyed man is king”.

    I’m having to learn that if I want to see how a particular field impacts the study of the NT I have to go outside of Biblical studies and straight to the source to read what they’re saying myself because often Biblical scholars only have a limited understanding of those fields themselves.

    Bryan L

  2. I think you’re right on that Bryan. I’ve had thoughts going in a similar direction, especially with the subjective/objective genitive debate. I’ve been meaning to write on that one some a while now, but haven’t gotten around to it.

    I’m still interested in Burk’s book though. Even if his study isn’t revolutionary, it is still the most recently done work on the article and infinitives, which has value in of itself.

  3. In my background reading for the paper on αλλα, I found time and again that the dead grammarians had more insight to offer than a lot of the new stuff. Blass-Thackeray was more helpful to me than BDF. Funk’s BIGHG gave the stuff and had no fluff getting in the way. Robertson, when you could find the twelve places he mentioned something, was good. But most newer (published in the last 20 years, let’s say) had survey-itis and classification-itis. It was like listening to a player piano. All the notes were right, but the tune had no soul. The dead grammarians, for all their warts, have soul.

    My undergrad degree is in economics. One book I had to read for a senior seminar had the best title ever: “New Ideas from Dead Economists”. I’ve been hoping against hope that someone would write a similar book for Hellenistic Greek, something like “New Ideas from Dead Greek Grammarians” or something like that.

  4. Rick: You’re exactly right. I remember reading on one of the IVP blogs that there’s similar phenomenon going on in Publishing as well.

    When I wrote my review of Moulton, Howard, and Turner, I considered giving it the title, “Why we should Listen to Dead People” for exactly that reason. Over the past couple months, I’ve had one reoccurring thought: I wonder what Greek grammar would look like today had Moulton lived to complete all the volumes of his grammar. I’m convinced that we’d be in better shape today than we are.

    Do you have the first (1898) or second edition (1905) edition of Blass-Thackeray? I’ve been looking for a copy, but have only found the first edition. Do you have any idea how different they are?

  5. I think there is a vast difference between fluency in ancient Greek (I mean reading, but even more if we seriously take into consideration the ability to communicate orally or in writing in the language) and ability to analyze how it works. Most of those who engage in the effort to analyze how ancient Greek works are not fluent even in Biblical Greek and more of the linguists who have focused on ancient Greek have focused rather narrowly on NT Greek without even paying much attention to the LXX. The fact is that we who read and deal intimately with ancient Greek stand on the shoulders of countless nameless generations of teachers and scholars who παραδεδώκασιν ἡμῖν ὅσα αὐτοὶ παρεδέξαντο παρὰ τῶν προτέρων. As a reference work in ancient Greek, far and away the best is Smyth: although focused on 5th and 4th-century Attic, Smyth took Homeric and earlier dialect forms of Greek into account and was cognizant of Hellenistic developments. Nothing in Biblical Greek is nearly so valuable, although BDF is a good supplement. Funk’s BIGHG is the most intelligible yet exposition of a more usefully-descriptive way of understanding Hellenistic Greek. Wallace focuses fundamentally on how to put NT Koine into English rather than understanding the way Greek works.

  6. Carl: I hope that in time I will be able to attain the sort of reading fluency you describe and I hope to do with with a dependency upon the past grammars and grammarians.

    I find it striking that NT grammarians like Moulton (both father and son), Thackeray, Winer and others were highly experienced in an extremely broad range of Greek well beyond the NT. Hopefully in time we’ll be able to return to that same level.

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