Exegetical Payoff in Grammatical Research

Here’s a question for you. It’s one that I’ve been pondering for some time.

Should placing a priority on exegetical payoff in linguistic & grammatical research be viewed as a strength or a weakness?

Thoughts, anyone?

It seems to me that there is a rather hefty group of NT scholars who would hold that linguistic & grammatical research that doesn’t aim for exegetical payoff is not useful.

Of course, to my mind, this stands over and against the basic aims of linguistic research more broadly.

I’m curious, though, whether there are any among my readers who would hold such a view and I would welcome any input or explanation as to why exegetical conclusions should be treated as an (the?) end goal.

22 thoughts on “Exegetical Payoff in Grammatical Research

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  1. Well, it’s like the age-old conundrum between pure and applied science (or math). My view is that both are necessary, and the applications of pure research are often not foreseeable at the outset. What a researcher ought to focus on, then, should depend on the researcher’s talents and interest.

    1. Of course, the irony here, Stephen, is that in the field of linguistics, the descriptive research is viewed as “applied.” Yet in biblical studies, that same descriptive research would very likely be viewed as “pure” or “theoretical” even when it technically isn’t.

  2. New applications are the right thing for science to aim for; but a paper that produces novel results from old data is more likely wrong than new.

      1. Okay. I’ll give a concrete application in science and in exegetical studies (although note that I don’t know enough linguistics to give an example in that). My examples will both be ambiguous in the sense that I’m not warning you against error in either one — simply showing that you can’t USE the results reliably.

        First, consider the highly volatile field of health and nutrition. It seems that every week you read a popular article drooling over a new study that utterly contradicts last week’s study. Are eggs bad for your heart — or good? Are antioxidant supplements crucial to healthy modern life — or irrelevant?

        Second, consider some Biblical archeological clarifying research like the Laodicean ‘spewing’ of lukewarm water (Rev 2). It’s certain that the text doesn’t work with our modern idea of temperature correlating to spiritual fervor; but what is an apologist to do when assured that we’ve discovered the real meaning of the passage by looking at the geographical positioning of Laodicea between hot springs and snowmelt? A responsible apologist will look to first sources, of course (which I’ve never found); failing that, the original research paper (again, I’ve never seen this cited) hopefully with concurring papers from other authors incorporating more textual evidence. But even if someone gave me the original research, I’d still have hesitations (although I’d certainly use it as a suggested possibility), since it’s a single source giving opinions about ancient people’s attitudes.

        More (with more specific application) to follow.

      2. Now, what does this MEAN to exegesis? To me, it means that for the exegete, there are two basic types of research: that which produces supporting results for a previously agreed (or suspected) conclusion; and that which produces novel results. A novel result should not be relied upon; a supporting result should. As more supporting research turns up, of course, the novel result will be… less novel.

        The problem with the word “pure” in “pure research” is that you have no idea what type of result you’re going to produce — a supporting result, or a novel one. Therefore, you should not enter into it with the intention of relying on the result or encouraging someone else to do so, since that will bias your desire against producing novel results — whereas as a pure researcher your vocation is to follow the data where it leads you.


        1. One problem with your proposal is the term “novel.” What is novel?

          Is a perspective that is thoroughly rejected by modern scholarship but carried significant weight for ancient commentators novel? This is a serious question-especially in terms of linguistic research (which is the focus here, not archaeology or even exegesis). If the native Greek speakers of the 2nd & 3rd centuries consistently held a view point that is grounded in the interpretation of the language itself, but stands against contemporary perspectives, which viewpoint is the novel one?

  3. I think that linguistic and grammatical researcher should have some goal in mind. After all, what is the purpose of the research if it cannot be applied?

    In the case of linguistic and grammatical research which touches on the biblical languages and corpus, you will likely find that your largest audience segment is looking for an exegetical payoff. I would say that is a strength, insofar as prioritizing such payoffs makes your work the most useful to others. So the relative strength or weakness is subjective.

    Now this of course does not account for the real possibility that such priorities may bias research.

    1. Let me rephrase the question. Which should be preferred: linguistic research that sets as its primary goal the better understanding the the structure of Greek or linguistic research that aims at determining which interpretive option is superior?

      1. I would say the former, insofar as a better structural understanding of the language will provide better information for interpretation. Having a primary goal of better understanding the structure is all well and good, but most people are going to want to apply that better understanding of the fundamentals of the language to some task (let’s call it an ultimate goal). Very few non-native speakers are going to be interested in the structure of Greek for its own sake. Like I said before, your audience is going to want to hear about exegesis, translation, etc. So yes, keep the first goal to better understand the language, but do not let it overtake the ultimate goal in terms of importance.

        I am just trying to stay off the “pragmatic ‘seminary Greek’ instruction is awful” bandwagon. I see it in the comments on this thread and on b-greek, and it is a well-worn rut.

  4. In my view, exegetical payoffs should not be the priority; handling text accurately should be the priority and exegetical ‘payoffs’ result from handling text accurately because we’re handling it rightly. I want to know what a text says; all the more in the case of the Bible. Therefore I engage in linguistics to refine my understanding of how language works.

    And to those NT scholars who see this research as useless unless aiming for exegetical payoff, I would have to start questioning what linguistic approach they are using. They are using ‘linguistics’ in the broad sense (if we may broadly speak of it as the study of language) but are they using it competently? Why use it incompetently and then seek the ‘payoffs’? Seems we need to get our foundations straight first.

    Open to refinement.

  5. It is actually difficult to know how much exegetical payoff there will be until after the research is completed. Most advances in knowledge are relatively insignificant in and of themselves. Yet, the cumulative weight of enough minor advances produces a paradigm shift.

    Researchers should pursue questions which interest them with the intent of making a genuine contribution to knowledge regarding those questions. They shouldn’t let their guild hinder that research because many of their peers think their research isn’t likely to have a significant exegetical payoff.

  6. Mike,

    A weakness, certainly. What “Wild Bill from Ashville” used to call “seminary greek” driven be the worst species of pragmatism. Exegetical benefit should flow naturally out of an increased comprehension of how the language functions. In the best SIL monographs, the theory is developed within the context of solving translation problems but the they don’t let the tail wag the dog.

      1. Thanks Mike,

        I am a grumpy old man, right now spaced out from some sort virus which has hanging on for about two weeks. Blogging is a big effort.

        Wild Bill was really Bearded Bill from Ashville, a former b-greek poster who was into classics and intolerant of the sort of nonsense that goes on in greek exegesis courses. Never took any greek exegesis courses but I am familiar with disease, somewhat incurable.

  7. Christians can of course have secular careers – even Christian linguists can! And Christian linguists can study many languages as part of their secular careers, including the Bible languages. But most people who do that probably do so for the benefit of other Christians, and so are in some way blurring their secular career with a ministry career. Any when they get blurred they get messy. Even if the linguist can sort it out themselves I’m sure there’d be many others who don’t understand the fine distinctions.

    However if the linguist is in some way church-sponsored then I think it is fair to expect exegetical potential. Just as industry-sponsored research expects it to pay out as well!

    This is a situation I’ll be facing in the future – I’m planning to start a government sponsored PhD next year, and would be keen to try to fit the Biblical languages into it somewhere. I’m personally thinking of it as a purely secular project, but one which will give me useful skills for the future. Which might be a good way for others to think about it – that linguist whose project seems to have no exegetical potential will one day be a much better exegete because of it.

    But I also think that generally it is pretty short sighted to think that any linguistic work on Biblical languages will be completely exegetically useless!

    1. But I also think that generally it is pretty short sighted to think that any linguistic work on Biblical languages will be completely exegetically useless!

      Don’t worry, that is far, far from what I meant.

    2. Very exciting — God bless your career!

      I think this entire question turns on an understanding of the concept of “vocation”. A researcher who’s studying (say) dirt as a vocation, doing his work as unto Christ, is doing a work that’s as holy and God-pleasing as a minister under whose preaching thousands are saved. This is as true of linguistics as it is of dirt.

      Consider what you enjoy and are talented at; consider what people want your help doing; then use that to earn a living, supporting your own and making the world a better place using that vocation. Don’t feel pressured to make your vocation something it’s not — if you’re doing foundational linguistics work, don’t be pressured into exegetical work (OH, but don’t shy from it if it comes up as part of your vocation, and don’t feel shy if you’ve got something to add).

      Think of the Body of Christ — all distinct members, each with their own job; some more modest than others, but all crucial, and all having a job to be done for Christ and the rest of His Body.


  8. What if linguists and grammarians start from the other end? You examine the text, and then maybe you notice an exegesis-bonus.

    I’m thinking of one example, but I don’t know how credible it actually was: Somebody noticed the different words for “love” in John 21, and read into that Peter’s humbling admission (philos vs agape).

    I was reading over the Prodigal Son in Greek the other day and noticed something bizarre in it: there are three different words for “servant/slave” in the story. I’m wondering if this was really accidental, or if I should have got a hint from that. Unfortunately, my Koine vocabulary isn’t strong enough to know what the point might have been that Luke was emphasizing…any takers?


  9. Mike, placing too great a priority on exegetical payoff can become a problem for a number of reasons. Much of the exegetical payoff in my research arises en route to or at the end of a rigorous study of what initially appears to be an interesting grammatical pattern or phenomenon with no apparent connection to a specific exegetical conclusion. In fact, in most cases, I would not have known how to set up a direct study to lead to the exegetical conclusions. Following one’s interests maintains the enthusiasm for frequently prolonged and labor-intensive projects. In my experience, any project pursued with sufficient rigor will produce some exegetical pertinent information and, more frequently than you might expect, a significant payoff.

  10. I have just been thinking of this issue. Here is an example of how the word “payoff” is used,

    “But if, as Burk argues, the article is not anaphoric but appears as a grammatical necessity, marking the components of the double accusative construction, “equality with God” is not connected to “the form of God.” Rather, the articular infinitive designates “the being equal with God” as the object, whose complement is “a thing to be grasped” in the double accusative construction. Burk thus renders the sense of the verse as, “Although Jesus existed in the form of God, he did not consider equality with God as something he should go after also” (139). The payoff, then, of Burk’s careful grammatical investigation is that Philippians 2:6 affirms the ontological equality of Father and Son while maintaining the functional subordination of the Son, even in his pre-existent state (cf. 139–40 n. 46).”


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