Linguistics & Conservative Theology

Over at his new page, Wanna be a Bible Scholar, Patrick McCullough asked a question in the comments after I wrote up a little note about the benefits of studying linguistics as a related field for Biblical studies:

I’d be interested to hear whether you feel many people taking a linguistics angle on biblical studies lean more conservative… i.e., are they pursuing linguistics because they believe in the inerrant and plenary inspiration of the Bible in which every single word comes directly from God?

Since its such a large question, I thought I’d devote a post to the question.

No, I don’t think its a theological issue – at least not entirely. Part of it, I think, is an accident of history I think its because most schools – whether conservative or not – over the course of the past 50-60 years have not been interested in literary, historical and theological questions over those of languages on the assumption that Greek had essentially been figured out – this is easily seen in this RBL Review.

The result has been that much of the linguistics work that has been done in the past two or three decades began with those involved in Bible translation which, as missions work, tends to be populated by theologically conservative Christians – so in that sense there is a connect, albeit indirect. The situation for Hebrew studies has been slightly different since its had much, much more non-Christian work.

So really, its no surprise that the most influential books that have interfaced linguistics and Biblical studies have either come out of those involved with Bible translation or Hebrew scholars:

James Barr – Semantics of Biblical Language (Hebrew Scholar)

Louw, Nida, & Smith – Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament Based on Semantic Domains (Translators/Translation consultants)

[Tangent] (Rondal Smith left the project rather about 3/4’s of the way through – and should really be on the title page as Micheal Palmer lists him). His is another dissertation that has tragically been ignored by Koine Greek studies:

Smith, Rondal Bruce. "Empirical Evidence and Theoretical Interpretations of Greek Phonology: Prolegomena to a Theory of Sound Patterns in the Hellenistic Greek ‘Koine’." Ph.D. dissertation, Indiana University, 1972.

He’s also a friend of my wife. [/Tangent]

Cotterell & Turner – Linguistics And Biblical Interpretation (connected with missions and translation work)

Stephen Levinsohn – Discourse Features of New Testament Greek (SIL & translation).

Now, this is not to say that there haven’t been others who have done linguistics without “conservative” theology. Robert Funk did some great work with his grammar, as did , Daryl Schmidt with Hellenistic Greek Grammar and Noam Chomsky: Nominalizing Transformations (though transformational grammar hasn’t really taken hold in NT Studies. And in terms of Classical Greek, the framework of Functional Grammar (not Systemic Functional Grammar, they’re different) has had a big impact with classical grammarians/linguists like Bakker, Rijksbaron, Dik, Allan, and others. And beyond Greek, the world of linguistics as a whole is definitely not dominated by Christians at all.

Anyway, some thoughts. Others might have some other thoughts. And they are welcome to add them.

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