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.