The Face of New Testament Studies, part 4

Don’t forget to check out the rest of the series: part 1, part 2, and part 3.

This installment looks at Stanley Porter’s chapter on Greek grammar and syntax. He begins by talking about tools that are available for Greek study. These do not particularly concern us, but if you are interested in his suggestions and whatnot, feel free to comment below. He then discusses four recent innovations in linguistics that particularly pertain to understanding the New Testament.

First up is verbal aspect theory. To quote Porter, verbal aspect theory “states that verbal tense-forms are selected by language users not on the basis of the action in itself but on the basis of how they wish to conceive of and conceptualize an action.” (p. 89) What this means is that if one comes across a certain verb in Greek, the best way to understand it is not based upon the fact that the verb always means denotes a certain tense (for instance, past, present, future, etc.), but a particular way of thinking of the action (once-for-all, etc.).

He then points out that there is disagreement whether the tense-forms retain any sense of temporal reference. A second point of dispute is the meaning of the various aspects. For instance, does a certain tense-form always mean once-for-all or does it mean something else?

Let’s look at some examples to clarify matters. Porter points out that scholars usually view the aorist as “describ[ing] an action as complete or whole, viewing it in its integrity and from the outside.” (p. 92) Moreover, “the present-tense form is used to describe an action as in progress, evolving, developing, viewing the action from its internal constituency.” (ibid.)

Second is register studies. The main focus here is that differences in language are due to “a variety of factors, including personal choices, literary type, subject matter, and the like” (p.92) The goal of register studies is to hone in on these factors and try to classify them according to differing levels of usage. This section did not strike me as particularly relevant and so we can move to the third innovation.

Discourse analysis is the next innovation and the point here is that the discourse, rather than smaller units like sentences and words, provide the appropriate context for interpreting a text. To me, this strikes me as being in line with speech acts in philosophy of language because the focus is on the main goal of the speech acts instead of the individual words chosen. Clearly the words and how they fit together are important, but the main point is that the key is the discourse.

The fourth innovation is focused on other studies that have sprouted up. However, none of this looked particularly relevant and so it can be passed over. Porter then ends his essay with a conclusion.

Verbal aspect theory is the most important part of this chapter and it seems to be correct in the main. Among Greek linguists who focus on the New Testament and koine Greek (the language the New Testament was written in (excepting a few words from other languages)), verbal aspect theory seems well accepted. In fact, it has even trickled down to the teaching of Greek in seminaries as I have confirmed with a pastor of mine. While it is important to remember that there are still some debated points in verbal aspect theory, this should not be used as an excuse to overlook verbal aspect theory as a whole.

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