Review Part II: Porter (2015) Linguistic analysis of the Greek New Testament

Porter, Stanley. 2015. Linguistic analysis of the Greek New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.

This review is a long time coming. I owe it to my readers for their generosity in helping my wife and I get to Cambridge for the Greek Verb Conference (The Greek Verb Revisited) in 2015. It’s also a long time coming since I posted the first part way back in January. The good news is that the final part (III) is already written. It just needs some cleaning up and it’s ready to go. A full pdf of the review will be available when part III is posted.

I apologize for the length. The first part was 2,500 words. This second part is 3,500 words. I have always believed that technical books deserve technical reviews.

The first portion of this review, covering Porter’s (2015) Introduction and Part 1: Texts and Tools for Analysis can be found here.

Part two: Approaching analysis

The second part of Linguistic analysis constitutes Porter’s discussions analysis proper. This chunk of the book is substantially larger than the previous, dealing with a wide variety of topics. It’s also arguably the most useful section in terms of relevance for learning about linguistic analysis. Chapters 5 and 6, in particular, are quite helpful in terms of basic introductory material. Chapter 5 gives an overview of basic concepts from morphology, up through the layers of linguistics, all the way to discourse. There was one paragraph early on in chapter 5 that stood out and it is worth repeating in full here.

A conscious effort—it is as much a frame of mind as it is a set of procedures—is required to successfully apply modern linguistics in the field of biblical studies. One is the fact that many of the standard critical tools for studying the biblical languages predate the development of modern linguistics. (And some of those that are more recent continue to be prelinguistic, methodologically speaking.) The study of the biblical languages is thus hindered by the lack of availability of modern resources. A second reason is that much of the work of modern linguistics has been oriented toward modern languages, especially English. Transference from the modern context of scientific discovery to contexts of ancient literature has been left to those within the classical disciplines, and this has clearly retarded the pace of development.

Both these reasons are important, but especially the first. So much has changed methodologically over the past century and yet biblical studies has more or less stayed in the same place. The field is so far behind in linguistic methodology that James Barr (1961) continues to be treated as if it were still cutting edge. There’s still some validity to that, since many of the same problems that Barr was frustrated about continue to be problems today and that’s an even greater indictment.

I would also add a third reason, albeit one that is closely tied to the first. When students start out in biblical studies, they receive entire classes dedicated to method and methodology. Beyond an introductory semester on hermeneutics, they will likely receive training specialized for methodologies ranging from form criticism, source criticism to narrative Criticism, and socio-scientific Criticism, Rhetorical Criticism, and even some cultural anthropology. In all these instances, methodology is taught and practiced. How do students learn synoptic criticism? Often times, it simply their professor having them take out their copy of Aland’s (1993) Synopsis and methodically working through the text highlighting similarities and differences.

But when the student moves to the languages, the normal situation is that they are only ever taught the languages. They are never taught a methodology for studying the languages. Now, I hear the cries of protest. Yes, you encounter a language problem and you are told to go to BDAG or Robertson (1923) or BDF (Blass, Debrunner, and Funk 1961) or Wallace (1997). And those volumes often provide an answer or a couple of answers that then need to be weighed and evaluated. But few and far between are the students who are taught how to start from scratch using descriptive linguistic methods of the kind that would be taught in a grammatical analysis class or a field methods class in a linguistics department.

The natural result of this situation is that those interested in linguistics and biblical languages, as Porter states so well: “A conscious effort—it is as much a frame of mind as it is a set of procedures—is required to successfully apply modern linguistics in the field of biblical studies.”

The chapter continues with a basic overview of the levels of grammar: morphology, syntax, semantics, lexicography, and discourse. Here, Porter provides in footnotes some citation of some current work for particular topics. Given the chapters length, it’s a solid summary and a useful read for students. The brief discussion of the history of research on the Greek verb is well done within its small space.The definitions of particular subfields and their current state in biblical studies are useful and effective. Some of the material in the section on semantics and lexicography is redundant from part one of the book and betrays the fact that these chapters original existed independent of each other as papers or articles. Despite that little quirk, chapter 5 present an judicious and well-laid out summary of linguistics and its relationship to current biblical studies. Porter’s bird’s eye view of the state of the field is accurate and genuinely useful.

Chapter 6 is an exegesis of Philippians 2:6-11 that seeks to apply linguistic concepts that would make for an interesting case study for an advanced Greek class discussing exegetical methodology, though for the more traditional classroom (which is probably most classrooms) Porter’s terminology might be intimidating.

The following two chapters (7-8) are probably Porter’s strongest in Part 2 where he is discussing sociolinguistics and discourse analysis. This is also a place where traditional students likely have a little more of a shared knowledge basis with the study of 1st century culture becoming more and more popular in New Testament studies–especially as things like metaphor theory gain more and more attention among researchers (e.g. Heim 2017). Chapter 9 follows in a similar vein, though it is going to be a much more difficult read for the New Testament student. It’s a full on Systemic Functional account of register. For those who are familiar with the framework or willing to make the effort, there is plenty of great value in his discussion.[1]

Chapter 10 brings on the topic where I have the greatest amount of disagreement with Dr. Porter: time and aspect—tense also, though not included in the title. Time is a notional category rather than a grammatical category. Like Thomson (2016), I am quite suspicious of any attempt to separate temporality from aspectuality.[2] To summarize our differences, Dr. Porter and I differ on the interpretation of the old grammarian’s discussions, the interpretation of the linguistic evidence (especially the morphology), his use of contrastive substitution, and a number of smaller points. Still, at this point, most of this is water under the bridge.[3] Dr. Porter is an essential and established voice in this discussion and chapter 10 presents a very useful and concise summary of his perspective. Again, an advanced grammar class studying the various views would find chapter 10 to be a solid introduction to Porter’s thought in the context of this issue.

In a similar vein, Chapters 11 and 12 present Porter’s responses to critiques and discussions put forward from two other voices in the discussion, Fanning (1990) and Campbell (2007), providing a valuable supplement to Porter’s views on the status quaestionis. His discussion of the perfect was of particular interest to me, give my own research (Aubrey 2014). Porter’s comments about Fanning and Campbell in his list of agreements and disagreements functioned as an efficient means of laying out the state of research on the perfect. The agreements are fairly broad and basic. That is a good thing, in my view. Agreeing on the fundamentals makes it easier to discuss more difficult issues. The disagreements were more varied, with some high level questions and some specific questions. Significantly–and to Porter’s credit–the disagreements are laid out quite fairly as more or less a statement of facts. Of course, there is still a clear sense of priority for his own views, but given the nature of this debate over the past nearly three decades, Porter maintains an appreciably reasoned tone.

The first four disagreements are big theoretical questions. Do you use a particular theory? was the first point of contention, where Porter critiques Fanning and Campbell for not having one or not sufficiently having one. One the one hand, there’s good reason for his argument that, “Without a linguistic theory as the basis of examination  of the language, it is very difficult to determine what counts as evidence and how any such evidence should be interpreted” (200-201). Within biblical studies little is said about methodology for grammatical analysis, as I noted above. On the other hand, there are a number of linguists who would reject the idea. Fanning’s analysis, in particular, certainly falls under the rubric of Matthew Dryer “Basic Linguistic Theory” and perhaps this could also be said of Campbell.

The second and third disagreements seem to go hand in hand in as much as both are closely related to how these three scholars define aspect. Both Fanning (1990) and Campbell (2007) stick with only two aspects in their discussions–each defining the perfect as one or the other. This Porter describes as, applying binary oppositions “in a narrow sense, to the point of claiming that there is one fundamental binary opposition in Greek” (Porter 2015, 201). Porter says for the third that he defines the aspects “systemically” while Fanning and Campbell “rely heavily upon Bernard Comrie’s definitions.” For Porter, defining individual aspects on the basis of oppositions rather than content is a virtue. And there is great truth to the idea that grammatical categories need to be understood within the larger verbal system. The degree to which the system is emphasized over against the content is, nevertheless, concerning to me. The difficulty at this point is how to interpret Porter’s words. It is not clear from his discussion whether he simply wants the verbal system to be brought more into the discussion than it actually is or whether he believes that meaning is derived only from the system. Most of the time, it feels like the latter. And that is concerning to me. Still, the fact that Porter has so clearly laid out the points of debate is helpful. It helps point us toward which questions in this discussion need to be asked next if we are going to come to a consensus. The question of the nature of grammatical meaning is not one that has received attention in the discussion thus far.

Similarly, the fourth point of disagreement: the role/relationship between semantics and pragmatics also deserves more attention in the discussion. It is encouraging to see that Porter does not accept the hard and far division followed by Campbell (particularly following Frecsh’s [2016] discussion of its problems).

Disagreements five through seven involve much more specific issues that are well trodden: the status of temporal reference (i.e. tense), the status of spatiality in the verbal system (i.e. remoteness and proximity), and the relevance of Aktionsart for the discussion of aspect. Of course, the first, temporal reference, has probably been beaten to death, but it’s interesting to see that Porter wants to avoid tying remoteness to any morpheme (e.g. the ἐ- prefix) and holds that it’s only relevant to the imperfect and pluperfect verb-forms. This was not entirely clear to many readers of his original monograph, but it is interesting. It seems probable that Porter felt the need to state this outright because of Campbell’s proposals about the imperfect as +remote/-proximate and the present as -remote/+proximate on the basis of the ἐ- prefix. Still, with the ἐ- prefix not in play for Porter, one wonders what substance motivates remoteness within the system.

The question of Aktionsart and its relevance is a striking one. I am sympathetic to Porter’s view that it’s “unimportant for defining aspectual semantics.” Aspect and Aktionsart are certainly distinct categories. One can indeed discuss the meaning of aspect (whether individually or as a system) without reference to them. But the moment that you’re dealing with actual examples: texts, predications, and propositions, you cannot avoid telicity, dynamicity, event duration, or causation. This is simply the nature of event structure, the facts on the ground, as it were. To discuss the meaning of a clause cannot be done without them..[4] Surely, if lexicogrammar truly is both lexical (Aktionsart) and grammatical (aspect), it is not unreasonable to discuss both, even if you do not do it at the same time. Yet, Porter do not seem interested in discussing Aktionsart at all anywhere.

But again, this is the clearest description of how Porter, Fanning, and Campbell diverge on their views that I have seen from Dr. Porter. It is concise, factual, and useful.

He goes on to critique Fanning and Campbell’s proposals for the perfect in detail before laying out his own view in more detail. For myself, I found Porter’s critiques quite on target: Fanning’s description of the perfect is, indeed, too tied to traditional accounts. Likewise, Campbell’s description does rely too heavily on translation for drawing semantic conclusions in his analysis, all the while proposing new labels and concepts without providing much in the way of little theoretical justification.

For his own part, Porter defines the perfect as, “reflecting a complex state of affairs of the subject.  This may involve a previous action (although this may be true for the action encoded by any of the aspects), but the emphasis is upon this subject-related state of affairs” (211). This is a definition that I have always struggled with as I’ve worked through Porter’s research. While I am sure that Porter does not intend it as such, the definition comes across as vague. There are two points that are clear to me for his definition and one that is not. I understand that he holds that (1) the perfect expresses stative meaning and  (2) the state refers to the subject. It is the adjective “complex” that leaves me unsure. What is the nature of this complexity? A careful reading suggests that Porter’s views the perfect’s position in his systemic feature cline as self-apparently revealing the forms meaning. Thus, he writes at one point:

“The perfect tense-form is the realization of (at least) two meaningful semantic choices” (211).

And then at another:

“Semantic markedness forms a cline, from the semantics of the aorist to the present to the perfect. This is the movement from the undifferentiated whole or complete action, grammaticalized by the aorist; to the contoured (whether internally or not) or progressive action of the present; to the most highly defined, complex, and contoured of the perfect, what I have labeled as the stative” (212).

Again, Porter say nothing about what the complexity is. But this time he adds that the perfect is the “most highly defined.” I think the point here in Porter’s definition discussion is that the choice of -perfective and not +perfective and then the choice of +stative and not +imperfective are the meaning of the Greek perfect.[5] Even here though, I would expect some discussion of the semantic significance of these choices for the perfect. It is not explicitly stated what the effect of each choice has on the perfects meaning. How does stativity arise from the cline? My best guess is that the cline of semantic markedness that Porter describes here is predicated on entailments of each choice building on the next one. This would make the most sense of his later statement that “the stative aspect in some ways subsumes either aspect or both the perfective and imperfective aspects” (212). If this is his meaning, then there is a logic to it that explains the usage parallels between the imperfective and the perfect that is akin to what I and my co-authors attempt in Ellis, Dubis, & Aubrey (2016). But this is a difficult way for Porter to explain a definition to an audience.

He is actually more transparent in his discussion of the perfect’s meaning when he leaves his cline and discusses language data. For example, he glosses ἤλπικα as, ‘I am in a hopeful state’, which is beneficial for understanding his meaning. He emphasizes that the subject is the focus the expressed state. This parallels what I think he is trying to say above and certainly clarifies the question.

Still, it would be useful for Porter to take more time to discuss and explain examples. For the perfect κέκραγα, he says,

“The verb κράζω, in the perfect κέκραγα (and κέκραγεν in John 1:15), indicates “I shout” (or in John 1:15, “he shouts”), which in no way can be explained as indicating a state of the subject or object as the result of a completed action”

This is certainly true—to say it tautologically, dynamic verbs are not static. Shouting is very dynamic. But then that leaves us with a state, much less a complex state. The challenge here, from my perspective, is one of prose more than analysis. As far as I can tell, Porter and myself might actually have significant agreement in terms of the definition of the perfect. It is simply difficult to understand in this particular chapter. And that is unfortunate in the context of the purpose of this volume.[6] 

Despite these issues of clarity in chapter 12, for the most part, there seems to be plenty of space for common ground. We will be finding more and more more agreement and consensus in these areas in the coming years.


[1] SFL over the years has broken a lot of ground in its development. However, I am usually hesitant about it’s use in New Testament studies simply because of the framework’s tendency to use standard linguistic terminology in novel ways without explanation or even (seemingly) awareness. The gap between biblical studies and linguistics is big enough as it is. I am not sure why we would want to make it even larger. With that said, Porter often does a very good job playing to the framework’s strengths: sociolinguistics, register, and discourse.
[2] I was saying it before it was cool: https://koine-greek.com/2012/05/31/4058/ I also differ from Thomson (2016) on a number of points, such as his use of the model for tense and aspect laid out by Klein (1994), which is problematic at a methodological level.
[3] I have mused on occasion about ow many of our differences could be solved over the course an evening or weekend—we both make use of Carl Bache’s work on example sentence types, for example (Bache 1985 and 1995).
[4] In a footnote, Porter (2015, 202n19) goes on to say, “Aktionsart studies cannot decide whether Aktionsart functions at the rank of word, word group, clause, or even larger unit.” Such an assertion deserves a citation.
[5] These binaries are taken from Porter’s published dissertation (1989; 90, 109). They are not explicitly laid out in Porter (2015).
[6] In all fairness to the author, Porter’s discussion in his intermediate grammar is more easily understood with reference to the perfect.

Works Cited

Aland, Kurt. 1993. Synopsis of the four Gospels: Greek–English Edition. 10th Ed. New York: United Bible Society.

Aubrey, Michael G. 2014. The Greek perfect and the categorization of tense and aspect: Toward a descriptive apparatus for operators in Role and Reference Grammar. Thesis. Trinity Western University.

Bache, Carl. 1985. The semantics of grammatical categories. Journal of Linguistics 21. 51-77.

Bache, Carl. 1997. The study of aspect, tense and action: Towards a theory of the semantics of grammatical categories. New York: Peter Lang.

Blass, Friedrich, Albert Debrunner, and Robert W. Funk. 1961. A Greek grammar of the New Testament and other early Christian literature. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Campbell, Constantine. 2007. Verbal aspect, the indicative mood, and narrative: Soundings in the Greek of the New Testament. New York: Peter Lang.

Danker, Frederick W; et al. 2000. A Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament and other early Christian literature. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Dryer, Matthew. 2001. What is basic linguistic theory? Accessed 3/20/ 2017. Available Online: http://linguistics.buffalo.edu/people/faculty/dryer/dryer/blt

Ellis, Nicholas, Michael Aubrey, and Mark Dubis. 2016. “The Greek Verbal System and Aspect Prominence: Revising our Taxonomy and Nomenclature.” JETS 59/1: 33–62.

Fanning, Buist. 1990. Verbal aspect in New Testament Greek. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Fresch, Christopher J. 2016. “Typology, polysemy, and prototypes: Situating nonpast aorist indicatives.” Pages 379-415. In The Greek verb revisited: A fresh approach to biblical exegesis. Edited by Steven E. Runge and Christopher J. Fresch. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.

Heim, Erin M. 2017. Adoption in Galatians and Romans: Contemporary metaphor theories and the Pauline huiothesia metaphors. Amsterdam: Brill.

Klein, Wolfgang. 1994. Time in language. New York: Routledge.

Porter, Stanley E. 1989. Verbal aspect in the Greek of the New Testament, with Reference to Tense and Mood.New York. Peter Lang.

Robertson, A. T. 1923. Grammar of the Greek New Testament in light of historical research. 4th Ed. London: Hodder & Stoughton.

Thomson, Christopher J. 2016. “What is aspect? Contrasting definitions in general linguistics and New Testament studies.” Pages 13-80. In The Greek verb revisited: A fresh approach to biblical exegesis. Edited by Steven E. Runge and Christopher J. Fresch. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.

Wallace, Daniel B. 1997. Greek grammar beyond the basics: An exegetical syntax of the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

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