Conversing with Steve Runge

Steve Runge of NT Discourse & scholar in residence at Logos Bible Software “sat down” with me a few days ago and was willing to answer a few questions – 13 lucky questions, to be exact.

1. Where are you from? Where did you grow up?

I grew up in Fairfax County, Virginia, just north of D.C. I lived there until 10th grade when my dad got a posting overseas. After a year in Norway and two years in Austria, I headed to Bellingham for college. I graduated, got married, and never left town.

2. Why biblical studies? Does confession/faith have anything to do with it?

I became an earnest follower of Jesus midway through my freshman year in college. I had little Bible background, and vowed to take formal studies if the opportunity ever presented itself. My primary motivation for attending seminary was to become better equipped for serving in my church, not to be a pastor. My goal for all of my research is to have something preachable come out of it. This is why I have specialized in biblical languages as opposed to backgrounds or archeology. Worst case, if everything I did was a flop, I would at least know my Bible better. There are probably better motivations out there, but this was mine.

3. There might be, but it would be nice if more people in the pew had that kind of motivation – at least, that’s my opinion. But moving on, what led you into studying Linguistics?

I spend the summer after my junior year of college studying with the Summer Institute of Linguistics at the University of Oregon, trying to determine whether I was called to Bible translation or not. The answer was “no,” but it had a lasting impact on me. It set a benchmark for what was possible in language description. It helped me identify my gifting in problem solving and pattern recognition. Finally, it fostered a commitment to support Bible translation in some way; I just didn’t really know that it would be like this.

4. Can you tell us about your education? Where and under whom?

I made a very timid start at Trinity Western Seminary, in B.C., where you are currently studying. I was sorely afraid I did not have what it took to make it in grad school, so I opted for a regional school within commuting distance rather than jumping off a cliff and moving to a premier school. It turns out some key people happened to blow through TWU in those days. One of those was Stanley Porter. He taught my second year Greek course (using his newly published Idioms text), directed an independent study in papyri, and I TAed for his first-year undergrad course using his new grammar that is finally coming out. Porter was my first exposure to linguistics applied to biblical languages. I spent as much time with him as I could, picking his brain and asking questions. About a year later, he headed to Roe-Hampton as Department Chair, with three of my fellow students in tow for doctoral studies. I was attending TWU part-time, cramming a two year degree into seven. They returned with their PhDs about the same time I finally defended my thesis. I also should mention Dr. Larry Perkins of ACTS/NWBTS, the guy who taught me the value of attention to detail and the importance of presuppositions. His influence played a key role in shaping how I conduct research.

My doctoral program of study developed over a period of years. I finished my MTS in Biblical Languages in 1999, but was already doing background reading in linguistics in prep for further study. I left TWU disappointed with my understanding of the languages. Even having interacted with Porter, I found it difficult to make his methodology work in practical exegesis. There seemed to be a number of exceptions and variables that were never discussed. So, I began reading in linguistics, something like Forest Gump and his running. I just read and read, looking for someone that was working the same kinds of problems that had stumped me. I found three of them: Randall Buth, Stephen Levinsohn, and Christo Van der Merwe. Buth gave me a great reading list and hope that there was a solution. Levinsohn mentored me at a distance for several years, suggesting readings and answering questions. This culminated in attending a six-week discourse workshop that he taught for translators. My language of focus was Hebrew, but I read and interacted with him as much as possible regarding Greek during that time. My goal was to apply Levinsohn’s theoretical framework he had used for Greek and numerous minority languages around the world to a suitable linguistic description of participant reference in Biblical Hebrew. I wanted to be able to groc the framework enough to competently work in both languages.

Finally, Christo taught me the importance of mastering the literature in a discipline and actually interacting with it, not just providing fluffy citations to bulk up the footnotes. He and Levinsohn also diligently beat into my head the importance of attention to detail. I am a slow learner here. Christo had a significant impact on me regarding the idea of specialization. Excelling at something requires significant competence, and developing the competence demands focus. Christo made the choice to specialize in BH, not every Semitic language. So too with Levinsohn and Greek. Pick what you are going to do, and do it well. Do not worry about what others are doing, follow the calling that you have received. The annotated discourse database and accompanying grammar that I recently completed are exactly what my dissertation was intended to prepare me for. I have been conceptualizing these projects for years. Biblical Hebrew counterparts are currently in the works.

5. That’s quite a variety of different people who have influenced you in a number of ways. My wife will be taking exegesis with Dr. Perkins this coming fall semester, though I don’t think that she’ll be working with Porter, Buth, Levinsohn, or Van der Merwe any time soon – though both of us plan on working through Living Koine and/or Living Biblical Hebrew together this next year. Speaking of which, do you have any plans for the next year? What are you currently teaching and/or researching?

I am taking a hiatus from teaching for this year, but mutual consent with my church. I burned the candle at too many ends for too long, so I am on something of a sabbatical. One of the coolest things about SIL training was working with “minimal pairs,” two similarly worded elements that differ in only one or two ways. They provide a great way for learning the meaningful difference between two linguistic choices. Minimal pairs are generally elicited from a language helper, which is not an option with biblical languages. As an alternative, I have been using the synoptic gospels and BHS/LXX variations for the same purpose. Such comparisons will be the main focus of my exegetical blogging the rest of this year at

You mention working in both the Gospels & LXX (Greek) as well as the BHS (Hebrew) Do you have any preference for either language in your studies/research?

Each one has its own personality, and thus a unique appeal. I had always thought that Hebrew was more fun, or playful. Then I learned that many of the same kinds of thematic devices I had known in Hebrew were also present in the Greek NT, but had received little attention. I find I learn more about both as I continue to spend consistent time in each. My preference varies with my mood, I guess.

6. What do you consider the biggest challenge for Greek studies today?

Passing the torch to the next generation, without question. I feel like about 30-40 years ago, profs stopped making the case for the value of learning Greek. Maybe they never did and just left it implicit. Back then many already arrived at seminary with a basic familiarity with Classical or Attic Greek. Not so any more. Most professors that are teaching Greek now are not language specialist, but either generalists or specialists in some related discipline. I feel like we have lost a bit more of the tribal knowledge about Greek with each passing generation. Guys like Carl Conrad have much to offer. If what he has acquired over the years is not passed on to others, another chunk of Knowledge will leave with him. This is why I am so committed to finding mentors and fostering ongoing development and intergenerational interaction. The grammarians and linguists that have poured into my life have saved me countless years (decades?) spent reinventing the wheel. Societies like SBL and ETS are supposed to support such efforts, but competition and nepotism often stifle such development. Forums like B-Greek are a great way to find mentors that have much to offer.

7. You’ve written a second year-ish grammar for teaching discourse analysis and NT Greek. How did the book come about?

When I studied with Levinsohn in 2003, we discussed the need for an analyzed Greek NT that was comprehensively annotated for the most significant discourse features. We had both determined that few people had either the competence or the patience to learn everything they would need to conduct their own analysis. Not everyone wants to specialize in discourse, nor is in a position to return to school. But we found that these same people could interact very productively with an analyzed text, say with information structuring and cataphoric highlighting devices annotated. I shaped my doctoral program to acquire the requisite background to prepare such an analysis for both Testaments.

As it turns out, Logos Bible Software moved to Bellingham in 2002. Recall that I came to Bellingham for college and never left. I like to think that they moved here to hire me, but there were probably other factors involved. I spoke with them at that time about the possibility of working for them, but their focus was elsewhere. I approached them again in 2006 as I was nearing completion of my dissertation. They saw my analysis of Genesis, heard about the potential for the Greek NT, and offered me a job starting the day after I submitted my dissertation for defense. The GNT analysis was completed in my first year with Logos, but it needed something to provide more background for professors that might be interested in adopting this approach to grammar as a complement to more traditional exegetical approaches. The grammar essentially describes what I annotated in the GNT project, and was written between Memorial Day and Labor Day last summer. You and Carl Conrad both offered valuable feedback and encouragement to me along the way.

8. Does your grammar have any particular linguistic bent to it? Do you?

I am something of a hunter/gatherer linguist, based on the fact that each linguistic methodology has a particular focus that guided its development. The diversity of purposes has lead to the development of diverse theories that essentially look at the problem from different angles with different objectives. Regarding the analysis of word-order variation I have used a combination of Simon Dik’s Functional Discourse Grammar and Knud Lambrect’s Cognitive/Functional model for information structure. Dik’s framework was developed with a typological focus, looking at how most of the world’s languages tend to operate. But word-order is driven by more than structural factors. A huge component is the cognitive processing of the discourse by both the speaker/writer and hearer. This is where Lambrecht’s cognitive focus complements Dik’s typological one, though Relevance Theory could probably serve the same purpose.

My understanding of cataphoric highlighting devices is a cross-breed of Levinsohn, Talmy Givόn, and the theoretical framework that I developed for my dissertation. I needed an explanation for some data I found in my study of participant reference in Genesis, and had to make something up to account for it. It turns out that the principle I described was far more pervasive than I had theorized at first. Both of my presentations at SBL this year will flesh out this principle in more detail.

9. Who is the audience of your grammar and what goals, if any, do you set out for those who take up your grammar?

The intended audience is the person, whether new student or rusty pastor, who want a practical, holistic understanding of why certain “stylistic variations” are found. It is intended to provide an alternative to the atomistic tendency to divide things into tiny, precise syntactic categories. Plenty of grammarians have had this as there focus, too few have put all the pieces back together. I want to start a trend toward the latter, to restore balance to the Force, as it were.

10. What place do you think technology should occupy with biblical language students, particularly first year students? I’d ask about Bible software preferences, but I have this feeling already…

My answer to the question of technology is answered with a question: Why do they want to learn Greek? Not everyone is on a pre-doctoral track that is preparing them to teach Greek to others. Unfortunately there has essentially been a one-track method for many years. Before Mounce’s BBG came along, it was even more limited. For those that are wanting to do what I would call “light exegesis,” I would recommend a different track than for those that are wanting to do original research, whether it be formally published or just preparation for hard-core preaching and teaching. In either case, tools are not the answer to everything. The two components that receive the most time and attention in most Greek classes are the same two that are most quickly lost after graduation: vocabulary and morphology. At the same time, precious little attention was devoted (in my experience) to practically understanding the language. We translated a lot, and when we did we often ended up with NASB or NRSV. So we asked the question, “Why are we doing this?” The answer was, “Because it’s important.” My hope is to move away from learning to translate toward learning to understand. Tools like the Discourse Greek New Testament will play a key part in this. I did the project so that I can teach from it. The same holds for the Hebrew Bible.

11. Are you reading anything at SBL this year in New Orleans?

I am reading two papers, one on Greek and one Hebrew:

  • New Testament Greek Language and Linguistics Section: “The verbal aspect of the historical present”
    The recent treatments of the historical present have affirmed that this usage is better understood on the basis of aspect than on tense. However, in making this claim a number of issues have been left unresolved. This paper provides an overview of the traditional and aspectual claims to date, and will propose a cognitive processing framework that reconciles and unifies the apparently conflicting claims regarding the discourse function of this usage. This paper represents an overview of a larger treatment of the historical present in the Synoptic gospels.
  • Linguistics and Biblical Hebrew Section: “Beyond markedness: the effects of discontinuity and redundancy on the perception of emphasis”
    This paper provides a description of the traditional notion of emphasis by describing the cognitive process by which it is achieved or perceived. Treatments of emphasis in Biblical Hebrew have tended to focus on the role of markedness in assigning emphasis, most notably in discussions of information structure. This study considers the notion as a means of marking prominence within discourse besides the use of information structure.
    Tendency has been to assign prominence to a word or collocation, without regard for discourse context. Information structure has significantly clarified the notion of “emphatic pronouns” with the concepts of topicalization and marked focus, demonstrating that is it the status of the pronoun’s information in the context that brings about the various effect. In similar ways, this paper contends that the contextual factor of redundancy plays a comparable role in bringing about effects associated with emphasis.
    This paper describes the role that semantically redundant discourse elements can have upon the assignment or construal of a usage as “emphatic”. In many cases, the redundant element has the secondary effect of creating or drawing attention to a discontinuity. These two factors form the basis of a cognitive processing framework which describes the process by which readers construe the various pragmatic effects of redundancy and discontinuity as “emphatic”. This framework will be applied to the redundant use of the prophetic formula in Jeremiah, clause-medial vocatives of address, mid-speech quotative frames where there has been no change of speakers, to illustrate the heuristic value of this framework.

12. Any publications in the pipeline?

I have two or three papers that need some revision that I would like to submit to journals, but they will have to wait until the new year. I have a forthcoming article from the Greek Bible Section at SBL last year that will be coming out soon, so I am told:

“Joel 3:1-5 in Acts 2:17-21:  The Discourse and Text-Critical Implications of Quotation and Variation from the LXX.” Pages 103-113 in Early Christian Literature and Intertextuality (Library of Second Temple Studies and Scripture in Early Judaism and Christianity), eds. Craig A. Evans and H. Daniel Zacharias. New York: T & T Clark.

Beyond that, I am putting together a proposal for a longer-term project in the gospels, but nothing definite yet.

13. What do you do when you’re not working?

I have been trying to relearn how to have fun, a practice I stopped in 1992 when I began grad school. My analyst assures me that I am making fine progress. One thing taking my Sea-Doo out on various escapades, including chasing the wake of the Alaska State Ferry in Bellingham Bay. The water was dead calm, and wake jumping was intense. Some pictures are posted here on my Facebook page. We head out to Lake Chelan tomorrow, where there are two passenger ferries that pass by morning and evening. I plan on chasing them with my nephews, typically three missions per day. Besides that, I end up helping friends do home repairs that are over their head, helping them get over the worst of it to make the project enjoyable. Pretty tame by most standards, but I like it that way. There is enough excitement and drama in grammar to go around.