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Thursday, July 16, 2015

"Linguistic Analysis of the Greek New Testament" (Stanley E. Porter)

TITLE: Linguistic Analysis of the Greek New Testament: Studies in Tools, Methods, and Practice
AUTHOR: Stanley E. Porter
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2015, (448 pages).

[Note: This review is more technical and is intended for those who have some knowledge of Greek and linguistics]

There are many people who try to exegete the Greek text but lack the knowledge of the interpretive and linguistic issues behind the ancient language. While they cannot be faulted with the intent, many unfortunately err on the side of ignorance about basic linguistic issues. This is what the Professor of New Testament at McMaster University, a well-known proponent for the SFL (Systemic Functional Linguistic) approach toward linguistic analysis is concerned wit. Simply put, this SFL method affirms that the lexicon is part of the grammar and semantics are selected on the basis not only the morphological, the lexical, or the syntactical aspect, but also the discourse of the language and contexts concerned. In other words, many works focus on the technical aspect of the language but few look, or does not do enough onlooking at the overall bigger picture flow and contexts. Such a method is focused not only at the micro-details of the language but the macro picture of the linguistics used.

Stanley uses five strands of thought to guide the reading of this book. The first is a focus on the Tense-Mood-Aspect (TMA) and the relationships to one another. Many students of Greek know about the tense, the mood, the aspect, the persons, and the voice, but not about the relationship among them. The second strand is the belief that understanding ancient Greek helps us better understand modern Greek. Many contemporary Greek students have undermined the importance of Hellenistic Greek. By studying this ancient Greek well, and the historical developments, we will better understand how modern Greek has come about. Third, as part of the SFL approach, sociolinguistics are emphasized. This means that not only the language is studied, the social contexts on how the language is used is equally important, if not more. Closely related to this is the fourth strand, on the language of Jesus, within the context of multilingualism. The fifth is "discourse analysis" in which Greek studies are always within a larger context of "discourse concerns." In this book, Stanley compiles his work, his conference papers, as well as fresh scholarly research, and conveniently arranges it in three parts:
  1. Texts and Tools for Analysis
  2. Approaching Analysis
  3. Doing Analysis 
In Part One, he looks at issues that promote and hinder the study of the Greek New Testament. For reasons of copyright and ownership, the study of the ancient texts can become unwittingly restricted. Where is the balance between protecting the copyright holders versus the pursuit of knowledge and truth? While the critical apparatus can be copyrighted, what about the text? While heralding the advances of computer technology in the study of the Bible, he has several criticisms too. There are limitations on search lemma, where complex searches are difficult. He raises three questions. Firstly, why can't users enhance on the database in their own copies, especially when they have legitimate evidence that can improve on the textual understanding? Secondly, why can't computer databases go beyond word-based research? What about instances and the many different levels of word use? What about "word groups?" Thirdly, why not expand the concordance approach studies of the texts to a larger "corpus linguistics?" He comments on the use of the Louw-Nida Lexicon and suggests that its full impact has not been fully realized. He notes the double-edged sword of producing a lexicon, that it cuts both ways, the blessings and the curses.

Part Two is about how we can approach analysis of the Greek text. Stanley insists that biblical studies and interpretation need a "significant linguistic component." He laments that biblical interpretation approaches have not kept up with advances in linguistics. For example; in the area of morphology and syntax, we need to advance from tense-forms study toward how the original writers have intended to communicate. In the area of semantics and lexicography, we need to progress from old deeply rooted "preconceptions" and generalizations of theology toward a fresh understanding of how the grammar and lexicons are related to one another. In terms of discourse analysis, we need to progress from small units to larger and more complex units. Exegesis is more than mining authorial intent. It needs to be multidisciplinary. In interpretive matters, sociolinguistics need to be included.

Part Three essentially puts the theory discussed so far into practice. Due to its size, Stanley selects Mark 13 using "register analysis" to "indicate its context of situation." He looks at how the language transitions the scenes, the meaning of the text, the subject matter, and the overall information flow. He uses Matthew 28:19-20 to discuss how the text teachers obedience on the virtue of grammar alone. He studies John's gospel from a discourse analysis standpoint after pointing out the limitations of literary analysis and narrative criticism. The Pauline epistles are also studied, and Stanley leaves the best to the end, with the final chapter that uses "hyponymy" as a way to understand the Trinity. This is a fascinating use of linguistics to understand theology.

Wow! This book gives me a fresh appreciation of the multiple ways in which linguistics can impact the many areas of biblical studies. It is useful for interpretation, for hermeneutics, for homiletics, for biblical studies, for theology, and many more. As a caution, reading this volume is hard work and patience. Those unfamiliar with linguistics terms will do well to have a supplementary reference to understand the meaning and definition of technical terms.

This is a textbook for students of linguistics and biblical languages. It is not meant for the layperson. Knowing that some readers may be lost in the technicality of the book, Stanley provides helpful keys, summaries, and pointers to show us the way. The applications and illustrations toward the end of the book really clarifies things. While this book is essentially about the SFL approach to studying the Greek New Testament, readers will be enriched to see the reasons why it is being used. Those who do not favour the SFL approach can learn quite a few pointers with regards to the weaknesses of conventional approaches. As a computer person, I especially appreciate Stanley's observations of the state of computer advances in biblical language programs. It is true that the search methods can be improved. Granted that the Greek language has many uniquenesses, developers walk a fine balance between searching for the exact lemma in Greek and thinking of search terms in English. For those of us in the English-speaking world, we often try to understand Greek using English as a reference point. This could very well be part of the limitations of truly understanding the Greek linguistics. This book is a humble reminder that many of us still have a lot to learn, especially students who had studied Greek in the past.

Rating: 4.5 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me courtesy of Baker Academic and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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