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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.


Can Scripture Be Its Own Interpreter?

Can Scripture Be Its Own Interpreter?

Open Bible
Click for photo credit

I’ve been thinking a bit about this common statement, and I think the answer is both “yes” and “no.” And therein lies a significant problem, if not several!

I recall an online discussion some years ago with a gentleman who maintained that one should always take what he called the plain meaning of the text. I asked him how one would identify the plain meaning. He told me that we should take what the passage would mean to an average American high school student.

This approach worked reasonably well, though perhaps not correctly, in providing a meaning of Matthew 5:33-37, which, according to him, commands us not to take an oath to speak the truth in court. At a minimum this does make sense of the passage.

Then we came up against Matthew 5:27-30 (clearly not doing the chapter in order), which he told me should not be taken literally. The obvious interpretation, he said, was that one should stand up for Jesus even in the face of martyrdom.

Whether this is a correct interpretation or not, I would suggest that it would be unlikely that an average American high school student would come up with that interpretation without a great deal of coaching.

The problem is that when we read we will read in one context or another, and if we are not conscious of the context, we will supply one.

Where does it come from? If we’re church people, it’s likely to come from the traditions of our denomination or church group. If we’re not, we may supply a completely modern context for statements in an ancient document.

Thus the first difficulty with having scripture interpret itself is that nothing is interpreted without external input. the person I am, what I know, and what I think all will impact the way I will read a passage. If I am to hear the passage as other than a reflection of my own mind, I must be open to the external factors that have shaped it.

Shaped it, because it did not come into existence in a vacuum, nor was it transmitted in a vacuum, nor does it exist in a vacuum. Words have meaning in context, and that context is a part of the society in which the language is spoken. God’s expression comes to us in human words that have meaning to human minds in a human context.

Take a word like “heaven.” We may debate whether the Bible teaches an ancient cosmology or not. I would argue that it doesn’t teach any cosmology at all. Rather, it communicates about other topics using words and ideas shaped by that ancient cosmology. It doesn’t correct it either. That’s part of the context.

Here indeed scripture may help us interpret scripture, as we learn more about the words and concepts used by the writers of scripture to express their ideas and thus come to understand them better. Scripture, after all, contains ancient literature. But in the same way we can learn about scriptural concepts by reading other ancient literature that may share the same, similar, or even distantly related concepts. I recall the excitement of reading Ugaritic literature for the first time and expanding my ideas of various concepts in the ancient world.

What most people mean by scripture interpreting scripture, however, is that you can come to understand a concept that is unclear in one place by finding texts about it elsewhere. If there are intertextual relationships, this can be very helpful, but just as it’s important to avoid parallelomania in the way we interpret relationships between literatures of different cultures we also need to avoid seeing intertextual relationships where they do not exist.

While I am quite convinced that all scripture is inspired and useful, I am quite convinced that it is not all useful in the same way. Words and concepts can differ in meaning in different places.

Thus while scripture can help us interpret scripture, it does not stand alone, and the gathering of texts from various places is hardly a guarantee of correct understanding. We need to be consistently aware of all the various relationships: between the text and its historical and cultural context, between ourselves and the text, between ourselves and our own cultural environment, and between ourselves and God’s Holy Spirit.

In the end, people interpret scripture, hopefully under the guidance of the Spirit. They may be aided in this process by many things.


Christianity and Panentheism (YouTube Video)

Christianity and Panentheism (YouTube Video)

My sister sent me a link to a video that I thought was helpful in some ways on this topic. Probably the most important thing here is that panentheism, process theology, and open theism are separate theological positions. Often two of these (panentheism + process & panentheism + open theism [less commonly]) may be held together, but they are not essential to one another. In the video, you’ll hear a discussion of panentheism that does not embrace process or open theism. Unfortunately, in my opinion, he refers to them as heresies. I prefer to keep the word “heresy” for a particular discussion of church canon law. I admit it can be a valid term in discussing orthodox Christianity, but it is also pejorative by nature, and even when quite correctly applied, is a discussion stopper rather than encourager.

With those caveats, the video:

One of the things I like, though I’m not sure I embrace, is the distinction between essence and energy. God is in the universe via his energy, but not his essence. Note, however, that one of the key elements of process theology, if combined with panentheism, is that God is impacted by what goes on in the world. This is one reason an orthodox theologian would call it heresy. A God who is impacted by things outside his control is hardly omnipotent.

Follow-Up on According to John – The Word Became Flesh

Follow-Up on According to John – The Word Became Flesh

I’m embedding the YouTube of the session below. There were a couple of points on which I didn’t quite say everything I wanted to, or left things a bit unclear. I’m going to post on two topics, and link to them below:

1. Theological Development and Determining Date and Authorship

2. Extreme Basics of Textual Criticism

Here’s the YouTube:

Advent-Christmas Sale from Energion Publications

Advent-Christmas Sale from Energion Publications

Christmas 2014 angel smallI want to let all my readers know that my company, Energion Publications, including all our imprints (Enzar Empire Press, EnerPower Press, eucatastrophe press, as well as our main Energion Publications) have all books on sale for 25% off with the coupon code Advent2014 at Energion Direct. Just enter the code at checkout and get 25% off your entire order.

We now have more than 125 books in our catalog by more than 50 different authors. We have come quite a long way in the last ten years. So look for gifts for pastors, theologians, and even some light reading!


Through Sacrifice, Not Domination

Through Sacrifice, Not Domination

Author Chris Surber shared some good material in his column for the Suffolk News-Herald today. It’s unfortunate that Chris can’t be at our Hangout this Tuesday. I’m going to be his replacement, and I don’t think I have quite these words:

If the King of Kings came into this world to die on a cross and we are His followers, what makes us think our interaction with the world should be any less sacrificial? We are servants, not masters. Our war is fought through sacrifice, not domination.

Read it all!

Happy 60th Birthday, Jody!

Happy 60th Birthday, Jody!

jody at disneyToday is my wife Jody’s 60th birthday. She’s 60 years young today. I know that’s a cliche, but in her case it’s also very true. At heart she is quite flexible. Attaining the big six oh has not cost her sense of humor, her flexibility, or her ability to relate to young people. I’ve always been amazed at the way young people just collect around her.

I got married late. I had a hard time imagining shaping my life to the needs of someone else.Now I can’t imagine living without her. We have become one.

Marriage, whether you’re young or old, is an exercise in mutual submission. Before I was married I thought this was a matter of big issues. But in reality it’s a constant thing as you work with little things. For example, a birthday party. Jody likes lots of people and thrives on activity and noise. I think three is a crowd and four is in danger of becoming a mob. I’ve forgotten my own birthday, and even done so when I was a teenager. I forgot my 13th birthday, in fact, and was quite shocked when my mother said Happy Birthday that morning.

Jody wanted a great birthday party for her 60th. I thought she deserved it and was determined to make it happen. Fortunately for me, fate, in the form of daughters, both heart and blood, who took over, planned, and executed everything. So this afternoon Jody will be gathered with friends from 2 pm to 5 pm. She demonstrated her sensitivity to my personality by telling me I didn’t have to be there the whole time. That was nice, but I rather think I should be there the whole time.

I can’t help drawing serious lessons, so here goes. I recall preaching at a church once where we had just become members. Few people knew me, but the pastor knew my background, so when he was out of town he invited me to take the pulpit. I did so. The practice at the end of the service was for the preacher to walk down the center aisle to the back door first, at which time the congregation was dismissed. Thus the preacher could shake everyone’s hand as they left. As I reached the second pew going down the aisle, an elderly lady grabbed me by the arm and said, “Young man, you don’t know what sort of things are going on in this church! There are four generations of my ancestors in that cemetery [she waved at the windows to where it was located], and none of them would approve of the goings on in this church!” I extricated myself without starting a fight, but I remember thinking that the first place I’d go for advice on how to run a church would be the people in the cemetery!

That woman represents how so many of us get old and crotchety and spend our time criticizing those who are young and still have energy, hope, and ideas. Jody is precisely the opposite. She believes that one of the great things about being old is that you have the opportunity to encourage young people. You can give advice, but you let them be who they are. They haven’t yet been broken into cynicism by the world around them. Being with her is refreshing.

She has arthritis and significant amounts of pain, but she’s keeping active and moving forward. I look forward to her encouragement in the years to come and hope I can be a true companion to her as God intended.

Some Notes and Links

Some Notes and Links

Yesterday I ranted about the church. Dave Black pulled some of the better material out of it and commented, so I posted it to The Jesus Paradigm so we’d have a link.

I also posted some notes on recent releases and some not-so-recent ones regarding the church on the Energion Publications news blog.

I blogged about publishing The River of Life a few days ago. Now Energion author and series editor Bob Cornwall has published a review of that book. I want to mention that when I talk about new releases on Monday on the Energion Publications news blog, I’ll be announcing another book, Reframing a Relevant Faith by Dr. Drew Smith, that will make a nice companion. At that time I will tell you who said of  this new book: “One of the best presentations of the progressive Christian vision I have read.

My own work this weekend involves working on the release of a new novel, Molecricket, for our Eucatastrophe Press imprint. I’ll provide links and images on Monday.



Introductions to Bible Books: How Detailed Can We Get?

Introductions to Bible Books: How Detailed Can We Get?

hebrews_nacI’m reading David L. Allen’s volume on Hebrews in the New American Commentary. I’m really enjoying his treatment so far, and this note is not a criticism of Dr. Allen particularly, but rather a concern about claims we make regarding the background of Bible books. By “introductory matters” I’m referring here to all those pesky little details: authorship, audience, destination, where was it written, what’s the main point, what’s the structure, and so forth.

Dr. Allen concludes that the probability is that Hebrews was written from Rome by Luke to a group of converted Jewish priests who lived in Antioch. Now note that he doesn’t skimp on letting us know the alternatives or the potential weaknesses in each of these positions. This is absolutely not a complaint about him in particular. But considering how little evidence we have to work with, how probable is it that he’s right on all those points? For that matter, how probable is it that any of the other folks who have written introductions to the book of Hebrews are right on all of their points?

So everyone who writes an introduction has a series of conclusions on points for which we have extremely little evidence, and then they make specific points about how to read the book based on those conclusions. For example, one might (and I think Dr. Allen does) form conclusions about the meaning of Hebrews 6 based on the idea that the main recipients were priests who converted to Judaism and fled persecution in Jerusalem and Judea, so now reside in Antioch. At this point, based on building probability on probability, what’s the probability that the conclusion is correct?

I would address just one of these points. I have read Hebrews many, many times. I have written a study guide, which awaits completion of a revision and release of its second edition. I do not find any argument in the book that could not be made by someone who had done a reasonably thorough study of the Pentateuch in the LXX (and other passages, but the Pentateuch is most important for this argument), and could not be understood by an audience basically familiar with the material. I don’t see anything there that would suggest that either author or reader would need to be a priest. Yes, there are concerns about priesthood, but people are concerned about priests as well. Further, if one concludes that Luke is the author, as Dr. Allen does, then it seems that he doesn’t see the need for a priest as the writer of the book. What indication is there that this is particularly intended for priests? I just don’t see it. Yes, I can see a non-priestly writer using arguments particularly adapted to priests if writing to priests, though I think the thorough knowledge necessary to such a task might be better attributed to the apostle Paul than to Luke.

My point again is not to attack Dr. Allen, who has written an excellent commentary. I particularly enjoyed his discussion of structure. But I do think that we all need to hold some of these conclusions that are based on speculations very loosely, and try to look for interpretations of the text that are not dependent on such detailed conclusions. I simply don’t see that we have enough text to work with.

Of course, in the case of the book of Hebrews, Luke stands out in the “other than Paul” category for at least having a significant body of literature to which one can compare the style of the book. So many proposals for the authorship of the book are based on such thin evidence that if one doesn’t look carefully, one might mistake it for none at all.

For non-thinness (though I’m not fully convinced), I’d like to recommend David Alan Black’s discussion The Authorship of Hebrews, which I publish.