Book Review: The Language of the New Testament: Context, History, and Development

languageofNTTitle: The Language of the New Testament: Context, History, and Development (Early Christianity in its Hellenistic Context, Vol. 3)

Series: Linguistic Biblical Studies, 6

Editors: Stanley E. Porter and Andrew W. Pitts

Bibliographic info: 467 + 56 (indices)

Publisher: Brill, 2013.

Buy the book at Amazon or Brill.

With thanks to Brill for the review copy!

This volume focuses in on two of my favorite areas of study: the New Testament and linguistics. The chapters within are divided into three sections: Context, History, and Development. The studies on Context discuss topics such as bilingualism and Atticism. Those on History look at things like the history of the Greek language and its dialects. And those on Development range from a very specific focus of the development of one Greek verb in the LXX and New Testament to the broader issue of Greek word order.

The first chapter is the standard introductory chapter from the editors and then there are seven chapters on the context of the language of the New Testament.

First up is Jonathan Watt’s contribution (pp. 9-27) on some implications of bilingualism for New Testament exegesis. The first two-thirds of this study looks at some key ideas in linguistic research on bilingualism (such as code-switching). The last part discusses the implications for New Testament exegesis with Matt. 5:22 as a case study.

The next study is from Stanley Porter (pp. 29-41) and zooms in on what we can learn about Greek grammar from a mosaic. He begins with a brief conspectus on what is generally known regarding tense and time from the ancient Greek grammarians, followed by a look at the mosaic from Antioch-on-the-Orontes. This mosaic depicts four seated figures that are personifications (and labeled as such) of four temporal conceptions: αιων (age; here meaning bounded time, human time, or gnomic time), μελλων (future), ενεστως (present), and παρωχεμενος (past), with the four falling underneath the label of χρονοι (time), which is the means of joining together all four of the temporal conceptions. In conclusion Porter says:

One must treat the ancient Greek grammarians carefully, since their discussion seems to be centered more on forms within the language rather than on semantic distinctions (and they seem to fail to differentiate form and function) … in interpreting the Greek tense-forms, there seems to be warrant for looking to the ancients themselves for seeing the variety of forms as indicating at the least past, present, future, and enduring time. (pp. 40-41)

The next study is from Rodney Decker (pp. 43-66) and looks at various grammatical features that may indicate a Markan idiolect. These features include the author’s use of parataxis, redundancies and dualities, multiple negatives, periphrasis, indefinite plural, diminutives, historical present, and the author’s frequent use of euthus. A couple of disputable characteristics of Markan idiolect –asyndeton and anacoluthon– are also examined.

Next, William Danker (pp. 67-90) tackles the alleged Pauline and Lukan Christological disparity with a linguistic-cultural approach. Danker contends that Luke-Acts depicts Jesus as the “Great Benefactor” and that Paul takes a similar approach by using a linguistic strategy to link together the divide between Jewish and Gentile audiences: “To interpret the significance of the Gospel for the Roman congregation, Paul uses as a basic hermeneutical framework the reciprocity system recognized throughout the Greco-Roman world.” (89)

Sean Adams (pp. 91-111) then provides a study on the relationship between Atticism, Classicism, and Luke-Acts. He begins with an analysis of the nature of Atticism and its influence on the literary world, particularly in the second century CE. He interacts with Albert Wifstrand and Loveday Alexander. After evaluating the arguments of the former, Adams concludes that it is best to discuss the influences on authors in the first century as classicism. Alexander then comes into play due to his taking Wifstrand’s assessment of Luke-Acts and pushing the envelope further by making it include the concepts of dialect and register. Adams himself then develops upon Alexander’s findings by developing the linguistic idea of register as it relates to dialect (i.e. one’s choice of register will influence the dialect one uses).

The study I found the most interesting in this volume is provided by Frederick Long (pp. 113-54). He examines the political-religious context for the interpretation of “the ruler of the authority of the air” in Ephesians 2:2 (this phrase is typically thought to refer to Satan in commentaries). The context he examines is that of Jupiter-Zeus and the Roman Imperial cult. Long says:

I will argue that one should take into account the surface grammatical structure of 2:2 and consider what the unique lexical content would have meant to the original Gentile audience in its socio-political and imperial context. […] In Mediterranean society, this age was under the particular guidance and influence of the Roman Emperor who is described as “the ruler” (at the time of writing, Nero). Roman rulers were under the jurisdiction of the patron god of Rome, Jupiter-Zeus, a god identified with “air” and as having authority over that domain. Moreover, beginning with Augustus, emperors were at times publically characterized as Jupiter-Zeus as Triumphator…. (115)

Long examines the New Testament usage of αρχη, αρχων, and εχουσια, the grammatical and syntactical relations in Eph. 2:2, and connections between Jupiter-Zeus, the Roman Emperor, and the realm of the air. There was also an interesting section on the demonization of Rome as the Dominion of Satan in Jewish apocalyptic thought. This study has interesting implications for the study of the Roman imperial cult in the New Testament (e.g. 2 Cor. 4:4 and “the god of this age”).

Long concludes:

Jupiter-Zeus in the broader Mediterranean world was associated with supreme power and authority, especially over the events in the air, but also even identified as air/aether in various scholia. The Roman emperors were additionally associated, if not identified, with Jupiter starting with Augustus. Thus, an audience, which heard Paul’s statement in Eph 2:2 of “the age of this world” along with “the ruler of the authority of the air” and was acculturated with the Greco-Roman Pantheon and the currents of Roman imperial ideology and propaganda, would naturally equate these phrases to the emperor and Jupiter-Zeus. (153)

The final study in the Context section of this volume is Jan Nylund’s study (pp. 155-221) on the influence of the Prague school of linguistics on New Testament language studies (the Prague School goes back to the 1920s). Nylund says: “The instrumental role that the Prague School linguistics played for the development of structuralism and for integrating theoretical linguistics cannot be overrated” (155).

It is in this vein that Nylund then looks at how the structuralism and functionalism of the Prague School has been utilized within New Testament language studies. After a lengthy section on the history and influence of the Prague School in linguistics, Nylund takes of survey of over two-dozen books on New Testament linguistics (e.g. Stanley Porter’s well-known book on verbal aspect) to see what influence the Prague School had. Links to the Prague School are seen in concepts such as an emphasis on a synchronic perspective, the verbal aspect/differentiation of tense and aspect, valence, discourse analysis, translation-theory, literary criticism, structural semantics, and semiotic aspects.

The next four chapters take the approach of studying the history of the Greek language. First up is another study from Jonathan Watt, this one giving brief history of ancient Greek (pp. 225-41). His discussion focuses upon how varying historical and cultural factors led to the Greek language being used for the New Testament. Watt concludes:

An apostle who preferred “to speak five words with my mind, that I may instruct others” (1 Cor. 14:19, NASB), when considering Greek alongside other codes for conveying a cross-cultural kerygma, could hardly have chosen otherwise” (241)

Next is Christopher Land’s chapter on the varieties of the Greek language (pp. 243-60). This essay,

… presents a descriptive scheme that NT scholars can use to speak clearly about varieties of the Greek language…. The more clearly we can specify language varieties, the better we will be able to draw upon the language of the New Testament documents to address such longstanding issues as date, provenance, authorship, and occasion. (243)

Andrew Pitts then discusses the use of the Greek case of Hellenistic and Byzantine grammarians (pp. 261-81). The Hellenistic grammarians investigate here are the Stoics, Dionysius Thrax, and Apollonius Dyscolus. The Byzantine grammarians are Georgius Choeroboscus and Maximus Planudes. A conclusion that Pitts arrives at that I found interesting is that the Stoics “were not even concerned with grammatical case in their exposition of case theory and meaning” (280).

The final chapter in this section is John Lee on the Atticist grammarians (pp. 283-308). He looks at three three Atticist grammarians –Phyrnichus, Moeris and the Antiatticista– with the aim being to demonstrate how they can be employed as support for the linguistic character of the New Testament. I found his definition of Atticism to be interesting (I had never seen it described this way before). While noting that Atticism is a “complex phenomenon” and has been defined in various ways, Lee says that the

essential element [of Atticism] was the tendency to look back to the language and literature of a former era as the model to follow, from a later time when the spoken language had changed and original composition of that literature was in the past. (283)

The final six chapters are on the development of Greek. Andrew Pitts contributes another study (pp. 311-46), this one being on Greek word order and clause structure in the New Testament, with the analysis being used to determine how affects Greek grammar, syntax, discourse analysis, and exegesis.

Rodney Decker likewise contributes another chapter on Mark’s Gospel (pp. 347-64), this time examining the function of the inceptive imperfect tense in the Gospel. There have been thirty-four proposed inceptive imperfects in Mark, with the ESV only containing one, the ISV having fifteen, and a mere three instances in which at least half of the English translations agree (edidasken in1:21; diēkovei in 1:31; and periepatei in 5:42). Here is one interesting snippet from the study on learning and teaching Greek for biblical studies:

We have traditionally taught our students to translate imperfect verbs as past progressives in English: “ἔλυον, I was loosing.” I am not so sure that is helpful. Although there is pedagogical advantage of simplicity, it may well start the student off on the wrong foot, assuming that this is what the imperfect means. What ought to be asked, however, is if the imperfect functions the same way in Greek as the past progressive does in English. Is the primary significance of a Greek imperfect tense-form past time with progressive Aktionsart? […] One example will suffice to illustrate my point. In 5:8, ἔλεγεν would be more suitable represented in English as “he had said to him” (e.g. NRSV). The more commonly used, “For he was saying to him, ‘Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!” (ESV, cf. NASB), suggests to some that Jesus has made this demand repeatedly, but thus far unsuccessfully, showing (at least to one commentator) “how difficult a case he is dealing with.” (362)

Paul Danove (pp. 365-99) then presents a study on the usages of δίδωμι and thirteen δίδωμι compounds in the LXX (over 3,000 occurrences) and the New Testament (over 600 occurrences). Francis Gignae (pp. 401-19) then looks at the grammatical developments of Greek in Roman Egypt, specifically in regards to phonology, morphology, and syntax. Stanley Porter and Andrew Pitts (pp. 421-38) then contribute a study on the disclosure formula in the epistolary papyri and the New Testament, where a “disclosure formula” is simply “an epistolary convention expressing the author’s desire that the audience know something” (pp. 421).

Lastly, Beth Stovell (pp. 439-67) examines John 3:1-15 and apocryphal gospels (particularly the Gospel of Thomas) for cohesion and prominence through the use of metaphor (e.g. the metaphors of “kingdom” and “life” that are found in the Gospel of John). While the average pew-sitting Bible reader notices the difference between the use of “eternal life” in John and “kingdom of heaven/God” in the Synoptic Gospels, that same pew-sitting Bible reader probably doesn’t think anything of the difference. Yet Stovell contends that, “the use of cohesion and prominence does not suggest a simple equation of the metaphors of ‘Kingdom of God’ and ‘eternal life.’ The ‘Kingdom of God’ cannot accurately be said to equal ‘eternal life’” (454). Stovell maintains that the difference in metaphorical emphases between the gospels is reflected not only thematically, but also linguistically.

All in all, this volume contains a very interesting collection of essays on the language of the New Testament. There are a multitude of angles one could take when approaching the relationship between early Christianity and the language of the New Testament and this volume offers up a very nice medley of topics, with the studies ranging from very broad to very narrow focuses, and with some of the studies, such as Frederick Long on Ephesians 2:2, offering up fresh and fascinating perspectives.

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