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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.

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