Review Part III: 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. A slight revised and edited pdf of the review will be available soon.

The final portion of the book covers a wide variety of topics. Thematically, these papers are tied together by their orientation around specific texts rather than particular linguistic topics. As such, part three constitutes case studies, some of which are more linguistically oriented than others. As above, I summarize each of the chapters in part three with more extended discussion of chapters of interest.

Chapter 13 gives the reader register analysis of Mark 13, a topic that Systemic Functional Linguistics is particularly useful for examining. Porter’s discussion focuses primarily on cohesion and lexical choice on the part of the author. Following, chapter 14 represents a fairly complex presentation of the interplay between theological issues and syntax using the New Testament treebank. Porter asserts that syntactic ordering of participles in relation to the matrix verb functions as a means of expressing the temporal reference of those participles. He takes Wallace (1997) to task for not attributing the temporal reference of the participles to their syntactic ordering relative to the main verb. It is a somewhat unusual situation. Porter outright admits that Wallace does not attribute the temporal reference to the “tense-forms” (i.e. the aspectual morphology) while still disparaging Wallace’s analysis as “time-base.” This seems like unnecessary posturing given that all contemporary grammatical research agree today that tense is not grammaticalize outside the indicative.* The goal of the chapter is to build on his earlier proposals regarding syntactic position and temporal reference using Matthew 28:19-20—these being Porter (1989, 1994, 2007). This seems a worthy goal, but the case-study model hinders it from being the home run argument that it could be. A sufficient quantity of anecdotal evidence can eventually become meaningful data, which is what we have been given thus far. In order to truly demonstrate the effectiveness of the model, a more comprehensive empirical analysis would be useful. I do not reject Porter’s proposal for participial syntax and temporal reference outright. I find it intriguing, but I would like to see a stronger empirical analysis that not only lays out the basic statistics, but also accounts for the outliers. Porter (1989, 381-85) gives some data from GRAMCORD, but a monograph length analysis seems necessary. As it stands, chapter 14 is a useful and striking addition to Porter’s argument, but as it stands, more analysis seems necessary in order to be convincing.

* Curtius (1873) was the first to explicitly assert this view as far as I know, but even before then the evidence seems clear that it was an accepted assumption that simply did not require comment.

Chapter 15 moves on to morphology/semantics (verb aspect). Despite our descriptive differences on the question of tense and aspect, I cannot help but be impressed by the creative analysis of Porter’s chapter 15 on aspect and synoptic relations. Chapter 16 provides a survey of current literature on John’s gospel with an eye toward stylistics, discourse analysis and sociolinguistics. Chapter 17 then moves to more exegetical and historical ones—who are Paul’s opponents across his letters?—with particular reference to methodology and psychology/ linguistics. Of course, even here, Porter’s discussion has a distinctly linguistic twist that deserves more discussion. Specifically, it is his application of the ideas of Karl Bühler. Porter rightly notes that Bühler is not widely cited in linguistics and yet many of his ideas reverberate throughout of field quietly, whether known or not Bühler’s work permeates all of cognitive-functional linguistic theory, from Construction Grammar to SFL. Porter summary here makes for an idea starting point for his thought. The application to the opponents in Paul’s letters is masterly in its execution. If there is one thing to disappoint is that the chapter ends too quickly—if this were a monograph length work, it would be a standard for the field.

After this very large topic, chapter 18 zooms in on a nearly microscopic one: the (apparent) grammatical ambiguity of τοὺς ἄνδρας ἐν παντὶ τόπῳ ἐπαίροντας ὁσίους χεῖρας in 1 Timothy 2.8. Chapter 19 is effectively a literature survey of Greek word order with comments on various challenges and issues that concludes with a call to action, “to pursue theoretical categories that provide us with genuine explanatory power.” The section is rounded out by a useful survey of proper nouns in Greek (chapter 20) and a brief proposal for using the concept of hyponymity for understanding the trinity in chapter 21. The breadth of topics covered here is slightly jarring. It might have been useful if they could be arranged more thematically, perhaps moving from narrow topics (morphosyntax and parts of speech systems in chapters 15 and 20), to syntax and word order (chapters 14, 18, and 19), discourse and sociolinguistic topics (chapters 13 and 16), larger theoretical issues (Bühler’s theory of language), and finally theology (chapter 21). Nevertheless, overall part three provides more of the thoughtful analysis we have come to expect from Porter, always somewhat controversial while still providing genuine insight into the text of the New Testament.


Linguistic analysis is not, for the most part, a book to be read cover to cover. Instead, the reader ought to process it in chunks. Part one on texts and tools is certainly worth reading all at once. In particular. Various other chapters, then, can be read as time or interest guides. Even though the text does not give itself readily to functioning as a textbook, teachers and professors will likely find something here for students to read and discussion in a variety of class setting with plenty of food for thought, whether studying Greek grammar, synoptics, historiography, lexicography, exegesis, or discourse analysis. The variety of topics and discussions here results in an equal variety of insights and creative ideas. Porter is to be thanks for making these essays more available.

Works Cited

Aland, Kurt. 1993. Synopsis of the four Gospels: Greek–English Edition. 10th Ed. New York: United Bible Society.
Aubrey, Michael. 2017. “Linguistic problems in Biblical Greek.” In Linguistics and biblical exegesis. Edited by Douglas Mangum and Josh Westbury. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.
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.
Barr, James. 1962. The semantics of biblical language. 2nd Edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Birch, Barbara M. 1990. “On monosemy: A study in linguistic semantics by Charles Ruhl.” Language 66:4, 881-2.
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.
Curtius, Georg. 1846. Die Bildung der Tempora und Modi im Griechischen und Lateinischen sprachvergleichend dargestellt. Berlin: Wilhelm Besser.
Danker, Frederick W; et al. 2000. A Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament and other early Christian literature. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Danove, Paul. 2001. Linguistics and exegesis in the Gospel of Mark. Edinburg: T & T Clark.
Danove, Paul. 2009. A grammatical and exegetical study of New Testament verbs of transference: A case frame guide to interpretation and translation. Edinburg: T & T Clark.
Danove, Paul. 2015. New Testament verbs of communication: A case frame and exegetical study. Edinburg: T & T Clark.
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.
Klein, Wolfgang. 1994. Time in language. New York: Routledge.
Lakoff, George. 1987. Women, fire, and dangerous things: What categories reveal about the mind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Lakoff, George and Mark Johnson. 1980. Metaphors we live by. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Langacker, Ronald. 1987. Foundations of cognitive grammar volume 1: Theoretical prerequisites. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
Louw, J. P. and Eugene A. Nida. 1989. Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament: based on semantic domains. 2nd Ed. New York: United Bible Societies.
Mari Broman Olsen. 1997. A semantic and pragmatic model of lexical and grammatical aspect. New York: Garland Publishing.
Porter, Stanley. 1989. Verbal aspect in the Greek of the New Testament, with reference to tense and mood. New York: Peter Lang.
Porter, Stanley. 1994. Idioms of the Greek New Testament. 2nd ed. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press.
Porter, Stanley. 2007. “Time and order in participles in Mark and Luke: A response to Robert Picirilli,” Bulletin for biblical research 17: 261–67.
Robertson, A. T. 1923. Grammar of the Greek New Testament in light of historical research. 4th Ed. London: Hodder & Stoughton.
Ruhl, Charles. 1989. On monosemy: A study in linguistic semantics. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.
Taylor, John. 2003. Linguistic categorization. 3rd Ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Thompson, Christopher J. 2016. “What is aspect? Contrasting definitions in genreal 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.
Van Valin, Robert D. Jr. and Randy LaPolla. 1997. Syntax: Structure, meaning, and function. Cambridge: Cambridge University 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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