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Book Notes: Linguistics for Students of New Testament Greek

Book Notes: Linguistics for Students of New Testament Greek

linguistics for greekI try not to call what I do here “reviewing” as I don’t really try to provide an academic review. In fact, I might do better to call these “Ramblings after Reading.” In the case of this book I need to provide an additional caveat. Dave Black is a friend, and I publish several books by him (The Jesus Paradigm, Christian Archy, Why Four Gospels?, Will You Join the Cause of Global Missions?, and The Authorship of Hebrews: The Case for Paul). Since I own the company and have named myself chief editor, the fact that I’ve published that many titles by one author should indicate that I like his work. So don’t get the idea that you’re about to read a scholarly review by an impartial reviewer.

Probably more important than that, however, is the reason I read this book in the first place. I have long believed that we might do the church a favor if, rather than one semester (or even quarter) of a biblical language, we gave them one quarter of introductory linguistics. This is not because I don’t believe in the value of biblical languages for biblical teaching and preaching. Quite the contrary!

The problem is that there are many people using Greek or Hebrew in the pulpit, their Sunday School classes, small groups, etc. who don’t actually know enough of the language to support the use their making of it. I have come to the place where I tell those I can to beware. If a pastor or teacher says something like “What the Greek really says here is …” you’re about to be misinformed.

There are teachers and preachers who do have a solid knowledge of the languages and use them in their study. They’re not that likely to say “what the Greek really says” when they introduce their discussion of a Greek word or phrase.

Generally those who do that read the answer in a commentary or other study resource, and often they lacked even the skill to correctly interpret the commentary. In addition, the commentary itself may well have been wrong. I know it’s shocking, but even PhD’s whose books go through a serious editorial process can make mistakes.

There has been a great deal of effort put into correcting some of the most common errors, and so we have lists of exegetical fallacies, such as D. A. Carson’s aptly named book Exegetical Fallacies. I’ve even published one (via my company Energion Publications) titled “In the Original Text It Says …” which provides examples of some fallacies and suggests how to avoid them.

These tools are useful, but they only deal with the problem partially. Exegetical fallacies are committed because they often appear to work. Etymology often does point one to meaning, and thus one may become convinced, or just lazily assume, that etymology determines meaning. From valid observation to fallacy may not take that many steps.

There is no real substitute for some understanding of how language works, and to get that understanding you need to do more than learn the vocabulary of a foreign language. I don’t teach Greek or Hebrew regularly, but from time to time I’ll have a few students in the church who want to learn. I try to introduce some linguistics right from the start. I tell them I hope that they’ll keep going with their study of the language until they can use it regularly, easily, and fruitfully in study. But if they don’t, I hope they will at least remember a bit of how languages are put together. If you’re wondering whether I’m qualified to comment, you can discover how I pat myself on the back via footnote 1.1

So having outlined my view of the problem(s), what about the book?

I wish every person who was going to study the Bible using the original languages would read this book. I’ll concede the possibility of getting the same knowledge elsewhere, but it would be difficult, I think, to find a book that both sticks with the basics with such rigor, and then applies them so well to the problems of translation and exegesis. Both of those issues were problems for me in my study. I recall being told that “Greek doesn’t have syntax,” an obviously silly statement, and having to discover the details of syntax as I went through those later courses. We didn’t have a good text. I did read other texts, such as Barr’s The Semantics of Biblical Language (a more recent and less widely accepted book in those days!) but getting down to what it meant for me was harder.

Even though I have read a number of the works Dave Black cites or suggests for further reading, I still found this book helpful, because it helps provide a framework and make sure one hasn’t missed niggling details that will catch up with one later. You can find more detailed information on every topic (Dave provides a suggested list at the end of each chapter), but you will do well to get some landmarks by reading the chapters first. I’m reminded of one of my professors who said he’d like to see an introductory style course in Old Testament and New Testament given at the end, rather than the beginning, of one’s Bible study, because of the value of tying things together and drawing connections. I fully agree! Many people know quite a number of details, but fail to understand how these details fit into a bigger picture.

So what does this book cover?

It starts by introducing linguistics. This is valuable again in setting the boundaries. There are those who think I am a linguist because I have learned a number of languages. Not so! Linguistics is a field of study with many subfields, some of which will become topics for later chapters. (One will get a helpful idea of what is to come if one reads the preface, but that may be too much to ask! In particular, “read not consulted”–this book is an introduction, not a reference.)

Following this are chapters on phonology, morphology, and then syntax. The latter is greatly neglected in biblical languages courses of which I am aware. If the teacher can force the students through enough vocabulary and basic morphology, perhaps that is all that can be expected with the limited time. A particular strength of this chapter is the presentation of the basics of immediate constituent analysis and later of transformations. Both of these concepts can look very difficult, but they are basic to being able to understand. We do some of this when we outline, but few people have the patience for that. Never fear! Dave will show you how.

Chapter 5, “Semantics: Determining Meaning,” however, is the core of this presentation. Don’t imagine you can just jump to it, but a great deal centers on the concepts presented here. You’ll learn about etymology (what it’s good for and what it’s not), the difference between word and concept, semantic range, polysemy, synonymy (and many others) and why those terms are important. I find myself over-using the term “semantic range” and several paragraphs in this chapter helped me come up with some better ways of expressing the necessary concepts in less time and less technical language.

Chapter 6 is a very nice introduction to the history of the Greek language. You’ll find such an introduction in most grammars, but those chapters won’t be this detailed, and they won’t give you the practical applications. After you read this chapter you should know why understanding how language develops is important to both language student and exegete.

I’m glad that the final chapter, “Discourse Analysis” was added to the second edition. I was fortunate to have teachers who got me started in this areas, though the field has developed some since I was a student. My personal observation is that the thing that prevents people from doing more discourse analysis is that it seems to be too much work. Unfortunately, you can’t reap the benefits until you have done all that work, so you don’t realize what the rewards are.

Well, follow Dave through Philippians. See how discourse analysis can shed light on many pesky questions regarding that letter. You can agree or disagree on details, but you will be much better prepared to understand any particular verse.

May I also appeal to students at this point to learn how to do this for yourself. Don’t just depend on someone else who has done the work. It is absolutely helpful and a good idea to look at what others have done. But too many people get the meaning of the Bible from the outlines, headings, and notes provided in their study Bibles. You may come to the conclusion that the book is structured precisely as it was in the outline provided. But once you’ve done the work to determine that, I think you’ll feel that the time spent was truly worth it.

This book requires some knowledge of Greek. Dave mentions advanced students. To some extent he is right. I’d suggest it after you have a good facility with the language. I would also recommend that teachers study it so as to get an idea of how to present this material to students. Many of these concepts can be presented earlier in class, preparing the ground for more serious study later.

In other words, I think this is an excellent book. I would rate it 5 stars, and I believe it can be useful to a broader audience than the one intended by the author, because there is always value in a book that applies important concepts to actual problems.

1. Do I have any business making these kinds of criticisms? After all, I’m a publisher with just an MA degree. Quite true. Yet I’d say one should question my knowledge more when I set out to talk about theology than about languages. My undergraduate degree was in biblical languages, including four years of Greek and three of Hebrew (actually I bypassed first year Hebrew through personal study). I also took a class in textual criticism at the undergraduate level, along with a minor in French. That minor language, along with growing up overseas (four years in Mexico as a child) gave me a different perspective on language as well. We sometimes get a distorted view of Greek and Hebrew because we’re trying to make them fit a preconceived agenda. Studying a language without that religious baggage can be a big help. I often refer to Max Knight’s translation of Christian Morgenstern’s Galgenlieder as an excellent example of the difficulties of translation, expertly overcome. Incidentally, I received a copy of those poems from my undergraduate German teacher, who knew my interest in translation and wanted me to learn from them. I am eternally grateful to him.

I followed this with an MA in religion, again concentrating in biblical and cognate languages. So unlike many seminarians, I came to my MA ready to make use of the expertise of professors rather than needing to work on the basics, and I also spent all my time on the languages. At the same time, I spent hardly any time on issues of theology, and none at all on things like church administration, church history (I completed a church history requirement by taking patristic Latin!), counseling, homiletics, and so forth.

Then I took one quarter in another master’s program in linguistics one I did not complete for a number of reasons. Since then I have continued my reading in this area.

Greek and Ministry

Greek and Ministry

Thomas Hudgins is teaching Greek, and he thinks students should study with the intention of actually using their Greek in ministry (HT: Dave Black).

I’m delighted to see more and more effort put into this type of teaching. I was very frustrated as a graduate student when I saw how students in the MDiv program were merely trying to get by in their Greek course. The structure of their course work helped foster this particular attitude, because basic Greek was largely an effort to get enough knowledge of the basic vocabulary and grammar to slip through the test so Greek could be ignored from there on. The same applied to Hebrew.

Since my undergraduate degree was in Biblical Languages, and I was in the academic MA program rather than the MDiv program, I got tapped to help tutor Greek students. (My undergraduate program involved the equivalent of five years of Greek, with two year-long courses taken simultaneously, as well as textual criticism.) These students would try to catch me a few hours before their tests so I could drill them on the things they would have to regurgitate on a test paper. They had no patience for any of my efforts to help them understand the material.

Starting with a mastery of grammar actually works well for me. I learn languages fairly easily, but more importantly, I was already convinced of the value before I started my first Greek class, and I was willing to put in the effort necessary to learn the language well enough so I could use it. But for someone who is not planning to specialize, the focus needs to be a bit different.

One of the major differences is simply attitude, both on the part of teacher and of student. Are we acquiring data in order to check off a box on our list of requirements, or are we acquiring a tool?

I think linguistic concepts should be introduced right at the beginning. How does language work? Why do you have a hard time with pronouncing certain sounds? How does etymology help you learn vocabulary, and how can that in turn lead you astray? How can you study deeply, yet share with the people in the pews or in Sunday School classes in a way that is accessible?

I like Dr. Hudgins’ approach and his brochure. I’m sure his students will be blessed. As Dave said, may his tribe increase!

Is that Idiom Right?

Is that Idiom Right?

We all use idioms, mostly unconsciously. There are a number that bother me that are in common usage, such as “I could care less” which developed from the more logical “I couldn’t care less.” But idioms often aren’t about logic. They’re about what people actually say, and what other people understand by what they say.

There’s a great article on this from a few weeks ago on Lingua Franca. Enjoy!

Some Basic Linguistics

Some Basic Linguistics

One of the great problems I find in teaching biblical languages, or in explaining Bible translation to lay audiences, is that people don’t understand meaning very well. They assume that words have fixed, narrow ranges of meaning, and that if you search carefully, you can find a word or phrase to precisely represent that word in the target language.

Most of them have some idea that this might not be right, but that hasn’t seeped through to their practice. A few questions usually suffices to get the process started.

I’m embedding a video from Wycliffe Bible Translators (UK), or rather audio with a slide show, that does a good job with the basic concepts. This one doesn’t go in depth. What it does is clear a lot of the ground and get some basic structures in place. (HT: Kouya Chronicle.)



Linguistics and Exegesis – a Link

Linguistics and Exegesis – a Link

A Living Sacrifice provides a link to some material on linguistics and exegesis, particularly word studies.  The articles are by Benjamin Baxter and are in the McMaster Journal of Theology and Ministry.  One is The Meaning of Biblical Words, and the other is Hebrew and Greek Word-Study Fallacies. I highly commend both.

The key element in the Fallacies article is that the author provides substantial examples in Hebrew, Greek, and English for each fallacy.  I was already acquainted with these types of fallacies, yet I am certain I will find myself using the examples in this article frequently.  It’s the sort of thing you keep on file for ready reference.

Dave Black: Ten Best Books for Studying New Testament Greek

Dave Black: Ten Best Books for Studying New Testament Greek

David Alan Black has posted a new essay, Ten Best Books for Studying New Testament Greek.  The majority are books I have read and/or are on my shelves, but there are a couple that are just on my “need to read this list” and a couple more I’m going to add.

I note that when I teach Greek classes locally, usually to a couple of people at a time, I use the #1 and #2 books on his list.  I know that as one of his publishers I should perhaps use one of his books as my text, but I will plead historical reasons–I picked the textbooks before I was his publisher!

If I might underline a couple of books on his list:  #5. Peter Cotterell and Max Turner, Linguistics and Biblical Interpretation, and Dave’s related book, Linguistics for Students of New Testament Greek: A Survey of Basic Concepts and Applications. I take a small risk in recommending books I haven’t personally read. My introduction to linguistics started with my graduate advisor, Dr. Leona Running at Andrews University, and continued with some graduate work in linguistics at the University of Illinois Chicago Circle. Those linguistics classes did more for my understanding of translation and exegesis than did many of my exegesis classes.

I always spend time talking about linguistics with my Greek or Hebrew students.  It makes a great deal of difference to how valuable one’s technical language knowledge will be.  When I studied Greek, I found that even syntax was neglected to some extent.

Finally, #10. Rodney Decker, Koine Greek Reader: Selections from the New Testament, Septuagint, and Early Christian Writers.  In particular note the “Septuagint” and “Early Christian Writers.”  In my opinion, if your reading is limited to the New Testament, you cannot claim to really understand New Testament Greek.  I include the LXX in my regular reading, and I’m including more and more literature from the early church.  It will be well worth your while to do so.

The Biblical Basis for Mission

The Biblical Basis for Mission

Eddie Arthur has a fascinating post on language development and mission, particularly relating this question to the language development work of Wycliffe Bible Translators.

I was particularly struck by this paragraph:

An alternative way to view mission is to start with the character and activity of God as revealed across the whole of the Scriptural narrative. The whole story of Scripture pictures a God who reaches out to humanity in creation, through his relationship with the people of Israel, through the incarnation of the Son, His death and resurrection, the sending of the Spirit and the eventual winding up of all things at the end of time. Our mission is a response to God reaching out to us: … [a quote follows in the source post]

I think this is a wonderful way to think of the Biblical basis for any activity.  We can certainly use specific texts and commands, but we will get a much better idea of what God calls us to do if we set such commands in the full story of the Bible, i.e. of God’s interaction with humanity.

Read the full post.  It’s really worthwhile.

Word Order and Thinking Order

Word Order and Thinking Order

There’s a new study out dealing with word order that’s fairly interesting. I’m just going to link to a post on this, other than to note that there are a number of serious questions in interpretation. The post is at Not Exactly Rocket Science, which I will add to my blogroll.

Here’s the conclusion:

Goldin-Meadow’s fascinating work challenges the idea that the language we speak affects they way we think and see the world, even when our lips are sealed. This idea – the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis – has been supported by some studies and decried by others, but this new research suggests that at the very least, order that words are represented in the brain remains resolute in the face of linguistic influences. If anything, the influence goes the other way, with the fundamental word order shaping the properties of emerging languages.

I actually agree that the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is flawed, but I think this study on its own would leave considerable questions, while nonetheless being quite suggestive. After more thinking and hopefully some more reading I may write some more on this.