A Criticism of Talbert

This is a small criticism of Charles Talbert’s commentary on Ephesians and Colossians that simply grew too large for the review itself, so I’m posting it separately for people to read. I am for the most part very impressed by this commentary. The fact that I disagree with Talbert regarding Ephesians 5.21 should not be very surprising, those of you who have read my blog for a while know that I’m quite picky about this verse.

The problem is Talbert’s conclusion that verse 21 of chapter 5 should not be read as part of the household code section. He believes that the ellipsis of a verb does at times introduce a new section.

The absence of a verb at the start of a new thought unit has parallels elsewhere in canonical Paul (e.g. Phil 2:5b; 2 Tim  3:16). The imperative copula, moreover, is missing in Rom 12:9a; 2 Cor 8:16; and Col 4:6 (131).

But there is a problem with his examples. Phil 2.5b and 2 Tim. 3.16 both lack the copula. More over Talbert notes that Rom. 12.9a; 2 Cor 8.16; lack the imperative copula (131). But this argument cannot stand. If Talbert cannot find a non-copula verbless clause that begins a new section, he argument fails. Ephesians 5.22 is an instance of an ellipsis where the verb is supplied by verse 21. A missing copula does not function in this manner.

[S]trictly speaking, the absence of the copula is not ellipsis, but a remnant of a primitive idiom, since some primitive tongues could do without the copula (Robertson, 1919, 395).

Robertson’s point is the two noun phrases together can function as a clause by themselves without the copula – a phenomena, though foreign to English, is pervasive in numerous languages, including Greek. Though he’s wrong in thinking that this is a primitive construction or idiom. Its occurs in modern langauges as well. The great author, Tolstoy, would probably have been offended by this statement, since Russian has nominal existential clauses as well- and his language is far from primitive.

This sort of construction is also described in introductory books on grammatical analysis (Kroeger 2005, 174):

The linking verb … does satisfy a basic requirement of English Grammar which sates that every sentence must contain a verb. This requirement does not hold for all language, however. In a number of languages, sentences … [can] be expressed without any verb at all.

And it is discussed in other Greek grammars as well. Porter (1994, 287) writes:

The clause in Greek does not necessarily consist of a subject and predicate, as students of other languages are often taught. For example, there is nothing un-Greek or unnatural about the following Greek clauses: Mt. 5.3: μακάριοι οἱ πτωχοὶ τῷ πνεύματι (the poor in spirit [are] blessed), a verbless clause with a subject (adjective) and a predicate complement, a fairly common sentence type; Rom. 7.16: καλός ([it is] good), with a simple adjective serving as the entire clause. . . .

It is often said that several of these constructions have elided items (e.g. omission of a form of the verb εἰμί), but this kind of analysis is not necessary. It is sufficient to say that what constitutes a ‘clause’ in Greek may be different from what constitutes a clause in other languages. For Greek, a subject word (noun, adjective) and a predicate word (verb) are not required to constitute a clause, no matter what elements may appear in English translation.

Porter is right, but he’s a bit imprecise with his words. The words subject and predicate are semantic terms. So while a nominal clause may not have a verb, that is not to say that it does not have a predicate, which is exactly why we talk about “attributive” and “predicative” positions in Greek grammar for adjectives, participles, and so forth.

All of this to say, Talbert’s examples are not examples of what he wants them to be. The reason that these verbless clauses begin new sections (which in of itself could be debated) is that they are typical, normal clauses. According to Opentext.org’s analysis, there are over 1000 occurrences of verbless clauses in Paul’s letters. The vast majority of these simply lack the copula. I’ve checked.

Talbert’s other objection to understanding 21 as being connected with verse 22 deals with the question of “mutual submission,” which he rejects because, “Submission is not reciprocated to husbands, parents, and masters” (131). The problem with this argument is that it ignores the structure of the passage. Talbert has already admitted that there is a possible inclusio involved with with verse 21 and verse 33 with the word φοβος (fear/respect). If this inclusio is followed then it makes sense that the mutual submission of verse 21 applies only to the husband and wife relationship. And as many have claimed before, surely the husband sacrificially loving his wife is an act of mutual submission. Paul has not removed the social order, but he has changed it, just as he did in 1 Corinthians 7.3-5. While Talbert believes Paul has only made a spiritual change (154), these two passages, Eph 5.21-33 (or better, Eph 5.15-33) and 1 Cor 7.3-5 suggest physical changes to the present order as well.