Book Review – Articular Infinitives in the Greek of the New Testament

Articular Infinitives in the Greek of the New Testament: On the Exegetical Benefit of Grammatical Precision (New Testament Monographs) by Denny Burk

This is a difficult book to review. That might sound strange to some since its not a long book, nor is its thesis particularly controversial. What makes it a difficult book to review is that I found Burk’s thesis to be quite acceptable and well argued. The parts of the book that gave me trouble were the preliminary discussions about case. But because it’s 1) such a complex issue and 2) rather peripheral, I decided that I wouldn’t spend too much time focusing on it.

Burk’s thesis is a good one and it’s well argued: When used with the infinitive, the Greek article is a syntactic marker that does not mark definiteness with the infinitive, but rather tends to clear up grammatical ambiguity in the interpretation of the infinitive. One might say that there isn’t to much revolutionary about it.  In fact, I would probably say that his thesis is rather banal. I am not entirely sure why Burke chose this subject. In terms of grammar, there’s little to no debate here, so I’m not entirely sure why this particular subject was chosen. It definitely doesn’t advance our knowledge of Ancient Greek. I’m not sure what is here that I haven’t already gotten out of reading Moulton and Robertson. But even still, it’s a helpful guide where plenty of commentators have given too much emphasis to the appearance of the article with the infinitive (or too little).

Chapter one introduces Burk’s thesis, history of research & methodology. The history of research is a particularly helpful survey of grammatical discussions of the infinitive generally, one that probably wouldn’t be found elsewhere. Burk generally steers a helpful course between placing too much emphasis on the use of the article and two little emphasis.

The methodology section, surprised me a bit. One the one hand, there are some very good things said about how he went about his study, but on the other hand, there are a variety of statements that left me wondering. For example, were Moulton here today and read this section, he would probably respond by saying that his own work on grammar was also scientific (Burke, 17) and descriptive (21). And indeed, I doubt that any of Burk’s own work would be difficult for a grammarian of the previous generation to understand. Fundamentally, despite Burke’s claims, this is definitely not a linguistic work. There’s actually very little connection between this book and contemporary linguistic research aside from the handful of linguistic monographs occasionally reference.

My other thought in reading this section was that his methodology appears to have a greater dependence upon scientific method than it does upon modern linguistic theory. And, to be honest, there isn’t anything necessarily wrong with that. What is clear from the section is that Burk has done him homework in terms of reading secondary literature & his use of linguistic monographs & resources is better than a number of other studies I’ve read – though I was slightly concerned that many of the linguistic proper books were somewhat dated, but this is generally true with most NT studies that dip into linguistics.

Chapter two of the book introduces a helpful discussion of the Greek article more generally. There’s not too much for me to say here. The discussion provides a good summary of the literature and concisely describes how the article is used in the NT.

But it’s chapters 3 & 4 that pull me in two directions. On the one hand, Burk’s discussions of the article and the infinitive in these chapters are great. I really, really enjoyed them. On the other hand, I consider Burk’s discussions of the Greek cases to be both frustrating and disappointing. This, I think, has more to do with Burk’s following of Stanley Porter’s discussion of case more than it does Burk. But that doesn’t let him off the hook. There is a significant bibliographic gap with reference to the cases as used both with and without cases: Silvia Luraghi’s On the Meaning of Prepositions and Cases: The Expression of Semantic Roles in Ancient Greek (Studies in Language Companion Series). This book was published three years before Burk’s was in 2006 and the Italians edition was published in the mid-90’s. Now, I’m not sure whether he completed his dissertation before 2003 or not, so I don’t want to push this one too hard and if this is the case, it would have requires a massive rewrite to deal with the claims & data from Luraghi and I’m guessing that he doens’t know Italian. I think it the end that would have been worth it, but at the same time, I can understand how unappealing that would be to someone who has already spent years working on the original thesis.  Anyway, I’ve blogged about this book before HERE. It’s cognitive, rigorous, and written by a highly qualified Indo-European/Greek scholar who definitely knows her stuff. It’s also expensive. But if you’re going to write a dissertation on a subject closely connected to cases & prepositions in Greek, you cannot avoid it. There’s more I could say specifically, but this review would grow way too long (& it already has once).

The last two chapters provide some extra evidence from the LXX (chapter 5) for Burk’s claims and draw some conclusions with exegetical comments (chapter 6). Both these chapters were quite enjoyable.

All in all the book is a nice discussion of the infinitive and it would be a beneficial read for Greek students. It’s a good summary description that doesn’t do much else–again, I’m not entirely sure what the point of the study was; what its end goal was.

9 thoughts on “Book Review – Articular Infinitives in the Greek of the New Testament

  1. Good review.
    I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts on the exegetical applications of Burk’s theory, specifically with reference to Philippians 2:6 (I think this is a verse I saw Burk talk about in relation to his book).

    Bryan L

    1. Yes, Burk is critical of N.T. Wright’s discussion of this verse on the basis of the articular infinitive. How convincing Burk’s claimed interpretation of the verse here isn’t really dependent on his thesis about the articular infinitive at all, at least as far as I can tell.

      The issue is whether it is acceptable for Wright to claim an anaphoric relationship between the article in τὸ εἶναι ἴσα θεῷ and μορφῇ θεοῦ. Burk says no, arguing that with articular infinitives, the article is always only syntactic. And this may very well be true. And it does indeed take down one argument that Wright has made for his view of the pre-existent Trinity as equal, but Burk does little beyond that to argue against that equality (he’s also written an article that I haven’t seen, perhaps he does more there).

      But here are the key sentences from Burk after tearing down Wright’s argument for an anaphoric reading of the article.:

      The exegetical result is that it is grammatically possible to regard ‘form of God’ and ‘equality with God’ not as synonymous phrases, but as phrases with distinct meanings. In the absence of an explicit link between τὸ εἶναι ἴσα θεῷ and μορφῇ θεοῦ, it may very well be that the phrases refer to separate realities.” (page 139).

      Personally, I don’t find Burk’s language, particularly “grammatically possible” and “it may very well be” as imbibing me with confidence. These sentences also suggest that our only options are “synonymous phrases” and “distinct meanings” / “separate realities.” That’s hardly the case. I don’t view them as synonyms, but I do view they as describing *one* reality & *related* or *interconnected* meanings.

      The fact is that after Burk reject’s Wright’s anaphora argument on the basis of grammar, he does very little else with grammar to argue for his own view. It’s just something that “may very well be.” But I am willing to give Burk the benefit of the doubt (especially since he might see this comment and I’d be interested in his own thoughts) that his article specifically on this view is a little more fleshed out.

      Again, as I said in the review, the thesis of the book is good and it’s a sound analysis for the thesis. It’s just that this particular exegetical discussion isn’t terribly dependent upon that previous thesis & analysis.

      1. How about you, Mike? I’m not asking this to corner you, as the equality in the Trinity is not something I have a great deal of theological stake in.
        But, I just preached through Philippians and I thought that when Jesus ‘did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped,’ that was an explicit quality relating to being his ‘in the form of God.’ It just seems to be evident in the context, whereas Christians are supposed to treat others more significant than themselves…and Jesus who was more significant than everybody (having the form of God…hence equality with God) lived like a servant to all, particularly to the Father.

        I suppose that’s based on context and intuition, I do not have a precise linguistic name for it, which is a problem, but even so, do you think that reading holds or no?

        1. the technical term is “semantic chaining” I think. And yes, I do consider equality to have been pre-existent. And the very fact that this is poetry, in my opinion, requires us to understand the phrases are being semantically linked and understood together – even if they don’t mean the exact same thing.

          So, yes I would agree with Wright’s interpretation of these verses, even if his grammatical argument doesn’t necessarily hold as much weight as he would like.

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