Syntax and Exegesis of the Greek New Testament

Syntax and Exegesis of the Greek New Testament

Dave Black has some interesting thoughts on syntax in the Greek New Testament and its importance for exegesis. I’ve extracted them to so as to have a permanent link (by permission).

I became a convert to the importance of linguistics in understanding biblical languages when I read James Barr’s The Semantics of Biblical Language in graduate school, and I took up the topic with all the fervor of a convert. I recall hearing more than one person comment that New Testament Greek doesn’t really have syntax, by which they meant that the relationship between words, phrases, clauses, etc. is indicated in Greek by word forms rather than by word order as it is in English.

In reality, however, word order has a more subtle impact on the meaning than it does in English. As is usual with such binary distinctions, one can get in trouble with this one.

When I have taught Greek, which is only on rare occasions, I start immediately talking about Greek word order, and such linguistic concepts as semantic range. With classes of lay people, I usually have the equivalent of a single term or perhaps a year with each student. In that time, I think it is more important that they come to understand some concepts of how language works and improve their ability to read material on the language in commentaries.

My suggestion to those who want to go further is to make sure that they read lots of Greek text. This is why I like reader’s lexicons (listing words by chapter/verse), and the even more accessible tools available in good Bible software. It is quite possible for someone to use these tools to avoid actually studying and understanding, but a person who will do that will likely do the same thing with whatever resources are available.

If your interest in biblical languages is aimed at going a grabbing a Greek word that you can emphasize, then that’s as far as you’ll get. And you will often be wrong. Your “wrongness” may sound important, but it will still be wrong.

The excellent tools available now give you the opportunity to both cover large amounts of text by letting you look up the meaning of forgotten (or never learned) words quickly, and also to dig deeper. As the material Dave links to indicates, however, you need to think about more than word studies if you want to dig deeper into the meaning of the text.


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