Verbs, Semantic Roles, and Exegesis

A few posts ago, I suggested that it would be more helpful for students to learn case usage based on the lexical semantics of verbs rather than on cases and functions. I was probably rightly criticized for being so broad sweeping in my words, but I continue to hold that there would be great benefit in teaching semantic roles to students in some form – not necessarily what Danove or Wong have done (by the way, I just picked up Danove’s book for a great price).

I’d like to approach the issue from the different angle. Instead of simply glossing over the vast complications of how cases work, I’ll like to give you a case study that results from the many commentaries on Ephesians that I have read.

By basing our study on semantic roles rather than on case categories, we can teach students to focus more on the clause than on individual words – i.e. What’s happening semantically in this clause? Not – How is this word in the dative functioning?

I’d like to give an extended example from a commentary – actually my third favorite commentary on Ephesians. Its the longest commentary on Ephesians every written in English and is more comprehensive than anything else out there. If you want to know the literature on a particular pericope, verse or sentence in Ephesians, you’ll want to go to Harold Hoehner’s Ephesians: An Exegetical Commentary. But as great as this commentary is, there are a number of times where Hoehner could have saved significant page space by focusing on how a given verb impacts the semantics and usages of the phrasal constituents within the clause. Specifically, by focusing on case categories and case usage instead of verbal semantic requirements, Hoehner at times conflated his exegesis and the number of exegetical options or meanings that are available or possible.

The clause in question here is Ephesians 1:22

καὶ αὐτὸν ἔδωκεν κεφαλὴν ὑπὲρ πάντα τῇ ἐκκλησίᾳ

Now this is one of the more difficult instances of δίδωμι in the New Testament already, but in what follows, you’ll see that by focusing on individual words and their cases rather than on the semantic role requirements of the verb, one’s discussion of even a single clause can become quite unnecessarily complicated.

Beginning on page 285, Hoehner gives the following discussion (highly summarized here):

First he delineates the proposed meanings of ἔδωκεν. It could either mean “he gave” or it could mean, “he appointed.” Hoehner chooses the former meaning on the basis of it being the primary one for the verb and since it makes “good sense in this context” (285).

From there he moves on to the meaning of κεφαλήν and ἐκκλησίᾳ. Hoehner rightly follows Richard Cervin and Andrew Perriman, who hold that κεφαλήν does not mean “authority,” but rather denotes preeminence or prominence (see Hoehner, 286 for references). As for ἐκκλησίᾳ, he holds that it refers to the universal church.

From there we move onto a discussion of the relationship between αὐτόν and κεφαλὴν ὑπὲρ πάντα. First, κεφαλὴν ὑπὲρ πάντα could be in apposition to αὐτόν: “he gave him, the head over everything…” Or, κεφαλὴν could be a double accusative: “he gave him as head over everything…” Hoehner’s third view sees ὑπὲρ πάντα as further defining κεφαλὴν so that it would mean that the apostles and prophets were heads of the church, but Christ is appointed head over all of them. Finally, the prepositional phrase could be viewed as  attributive to the noun. It would then mean, according to Hoehner, that Christ has been given by God to the church as the head over everything. This section of on the accusatives here is amazingly convoluted and redundant – particularly since, for the most part, all four views are virtually identical, which is extremely frustrating.

But this is what gets me.

From here Hoenher discusses the dative: τῇ ἐκκλησίᾳ. What does it mean? He writes,

There are three interpretations: first, it could be taken as a dative of reference or respect, that is, God appointed Christ as head over everything with respect to the the Church; second, it could be taken as [a, sic] dative of advantage, in which as god appointed or made Christ the head over everything for the church (RSV, NIV, NRSV); or third, it could be taken as a dative of indirect object, in which case God gave Christ to the church (AV, RV, ASV, NASB, NEB). The third option is preferred because it allows ἔδωκεν to be translated normally  as “he gave,” while the first two interpretations would make it necessary to translate the verb “he appointed” or “he made” (289).

I could go on from there, he gives a couple other reasons for why it should be an indirect object.

But this is the thing:

Had Hoehner simply stated at the very beginning of this 5 page discussion that δίδωμι with the sense “to give,” by definition, requires an Agent, Patient, and a Recipient, he would have saved a whole lot of ink and paper. He only needed to argue against the meaning, “to appoint” or “to make” once, but because he did his exegesis word by word, case by case, he had to do it multiple times – I think three total.

Worse still, in his five pages he lost the forest in looking at the trees and at times seemed to have made up a few exegetical options in his narrow word by word analysis.

Now I’m not arguing whether he’s correct or not about the meaning of δίδωμι here.

But either way, time and space could and should have been saved here by dealing with the semantic role requirements of the verb itself rather than dealing with each individual grammatical case in seclusion.

11 thoughts on “Verbs, Semantic Roles, and Exegesis

  1. The sense of διδωμι continues to be confusing. I don’t think any real illumination has been brought to this text by any of the approaches.

    1. It is confusing, I agree. And I’m not sure what the sense is (though I have in the past argued for “to give”).

      But the bigger point I was after was that its a huge waste of effort to look at each individual word and case when their meaning is completely dependent upon what one concludes for the meaning of δίδωμι.

      1. I realize what you were after, but it does strike me that this is another instance where the author (need I say that I don’t think it’s Paul) did not know how or did not take the trouble to express himself clearly in Greek.

        1. It does seem dubious to me that the problems in Ephesians (or any other letter of Paul) should be blamed upon an incompetent amanuensis. My impression is that these guys were pretty well-trained for secretarial work.

        2. fair enough. My struggle with the authorship question is seeking a balance between what I see in the Greek of the letter in relation to what the earliest church fathers said about authorship of the letter. I continue to be unsure of how to break the impasse between those two.

    1. Careful there. Dan Wallace has on occasion stopped by my blog, so I’d appreciate you being a little more respectful – as much as you might disagree with him on case categories (though right now, he’s in Greece).

      As for the statement itself, Hoehner actually taught Wallace exegesis, so at a minimum, you’d want to turn the statement around. And his passing a couple months ago was a huge loss. Instances of what I summarized above are not common in the commentary. Its generally excellent.

      1. I agree that it is an excellent commentary. And with regard to Dan Wallace, no disrespect was intended. The background for my joke was not Wallace’s grammar itself (which occupies a prized position on my bookshelf) but how it has been applied in certain Greek classes I have taken.

  2. With all due respect to Wallace, I’m with N.Dan Smith. My beef with Wallace was not so much the grammar itself, but the manner in which seminarians and pastors seem to assume that the GNT was written under the guidance of Wallace’s grammar (i.e. – everything must fit into one of Wallace’s categories).

    I haven’t experienced this as much with Williams or Arnold/Choi for Hebrew, but as Pratico and Van Pelt have picked up enormous popularity, I can pessimistically see a Zondervan syntax book having the same effect. 😦

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