Within NT studies the notion that the Greek verb lacks tense/temporal reference has become fairly accepted. If we compare this tenseless view of Greek with what has been claimed by every linguist and grammarian Porter cites in his research, you might scratch your head a bit. Why? Not one of them argues that Greek lacks tense. The linguists like Lyons, Comrie, Wallace and Haspelmath treat Greek as a mixed system with tense, aspect and mood all present in the indicative.
If it is true that the broader field of linguistics has treated Greek as having both tense and aspect, where did the “tenseless” idea come from? Why did it come about? I do not really know the whole story, but it seems that Porter was seeking to account for the incorrect claims of mainly commentators–not grammarians1–some of whom treated Greek verbs as though they had absolute temporal reference. It also seems that he was seeking to set his work apart from what was becoming a crowded field, claiming something no one else had claimed before, viz. that the Greek indicative lacked any temporal semantics.
But again, why was there a need to claim a total lack of temporal reference? In my last post I highlighted the areas of significant consensus between Porter and myself. However, Porter added two significant claims to his dissertation, claims not found either in biblical studies or in linguistics: a tenseless view of the verb and a semantic weighting/prominence view of the verb. Both of these proposals lack support or motivation from the field of linguistics. They are essentially rhetorical inventions originating from Porter’s dissertation.
The basic premise of the timeless view is to not just argue against the presence of absolute time/tense in the verb in favor of aspect. Rather it completely rejects the notion that the Greek verb conveys any temporal semantics in the indicative. The most compelling data for this is the multivariate use of the Present, attested by the statistics gathered in Decker’s Temporal Deixis of the Greek Verb in the Gospel of Mark with Reference to Verbal Aspect. Note the almost equal distribution of the present tense-form in past, present and future temporal contexts, not to mention the timeless/atemporal uses, cited from my HP article (p. 215):
As you can see, the Present tense-form shows the most damning distribution when it comes to the traditional understanding of it referring to present time.
If you have read much of my work, you will have heard me harp on the importance of one’s theoretical framework. This lesson was thankfully beaten into my head by Larry Perkins, Stephen Levinsohn and Christo Van der Merwe; it has saved me from ruin on a number of occasions, and held the key to unlocking sticky problems. The strange distribution of the Present indicative is one of them.
There are two widely accepted principles that were ignored by Porter and those who have adopted his model. The first is the fact that most every Indo-European language–which would includes English, Greek, German, etc–has what linguists call a past/non-past distinction, rather than the past/present/future distinction presupposed by Porter. This means that the Present tense-form in these languages doesn’t exclusively refer to the present, but rather more broadly to the non-past.
For example, I could say “I am eating dinner with Bob [Monday]” and have either a present or a future meaning depending on the presence or absence of the adverb “Monday.” So too with Greek. This means that the “futuristic presents” are not anomalous, but are behaving like a good Indo-European language would be expected to behave. The failure to incorporate a past/non-past principle into his framework led Porter and those who have followed him to misconstrue the data.
The second principle missing from his framework was treating the historical present as a pragmatic usage rather than as prototypical. The numbers above treat the past use of the Present as though this is part of its basic semantic meaning, rather than as a pragmatic highlighting device based on the mismatch of tense and aspect to the narrative context.You’ll need to read the paper for the full argument.
Recognizing the past/non-past distinction, and treating the historical present as a pragmatic device–just as both traditional grammarians and linguists have done for decades–changes what originally seemed like a mess into something quite a bit tidier. Here is the updated table from my article.
- The HP usage is excluded, based on it not representing the basic semantics of the Present.
- The future reference is part of the core semantics, based on the non-past reference.
- The temporally undefined data tells us nothing about the temporal reference. It says the form was chosen based on the aspect that it conveyed in a timeless/atemporal context. It should thus either be included in the core usage, or excluded as not telling us anything about temporal reference.
In either case, the Present indicative forms in Mark render a 99% consistency in usage with what would be expected of an Indo-European tense form.
So had the widely-accepted linguistic notions of Greek having a past/non-past temporal distinction and of the historical present being a pragmatic usage been incorporated into Porter’s theoretical framework, there would have been no basis for making a tenseless/timeless argument in Greek. There likely would not have been much of a Porter/Fanning debate, and our field would not have squandered the last 20 years arguing about a linguistically unsound proposal.
One’s presuppositions play a huge role in determining outcomes. Beware.
A great point was raised on Facebook yesterday that deserves a bit more consideration. The comment came from a NT scholar looking in as an outsider to the debate about the Greek verb. There seems to be this notion that if one rejects the idea of a timeless verb in Greek, then one must also reject the idea that it conveys verbal aspect. Thus, to do so dooms one to become re-enslaved to viewing the verb as conveying absolute tense and Aktionsart, the very things Frank Stagg fought against. DOOM, DOOM!
Well folks, I am here to tell you that this is not really the case. Regardless of the hype, there is actually quite a bit more consensus on these issues than you might think. If you like Porter’s taxonomy then we have something in common; I like it too. Here is what I mean:
- Greek tense-forms convey perfective, imperfective, or a third kind of tense/aspect.
- The aspects are present in every mood, whereas tense (“spatial proximity/remoteness” for you timeless folks) is only found in the indicative mood.
- The aorist conveys perfective aspect, the present and imperfect convey imperfective aspect, and the perfect and pluperfect convey a third thing. Porter calls it stative aspect, which I can live with.1
On these issues I have sided with Porter’s taxonomy, both on the web and in print. Other than the quibbling over what to call the perfect, there is a high degree of consensus regarding perfective and imperfective aspect, and how the Greek tense-forms align with them.
So how did people get the impression that if you reject some portion of Porter’s framework that you are rejecting it all? Well, he has framed it as an all-or-nothing proposition. He cast things as though standing in opposition to his ideas is to argue in favor of a “once for all time” aorist and so on. This is rhetorical scare tactic, but it has proven surprisingly effective. There does not seem to be another viable option available.
There is widespread consensus on these issues, save what to do with the perfect.2 Had Porter stopped here, there quite likely never would have been a Porter-Fanning Debate. Rather, it would have been something more like a Porter-Fanning Report on Aspect, and the field would have quietly continued working out the remaining issues of the next twenty years. However, this was not the case.
Instead of the field being able to move forward with a basic consensus about the Greek verb conveying a combination of tense and aspect in the indicative, and aspect-only in the non-indicative, we have had twenty-plus years of arguments based on two proposals put forward by Porter: a tenseless view of the verb and a semantic weighting/prominence view of the verb. These will be covered future posts.
- Campbell considers the perfect another kind of imperfective aspect, which is half right. Fanning calls it a combination of things, which is understandable. No worries, the linguistic field itself does not yet have a consensus about the perfect, but it is getting closer. ↩
- And I think that we will find consensus in November that Campbell’s “imperfective Perfect” is wrong. ↩
I have received several comments regarding my post yesterday that almost read like condolences. I understand the seriousness of the implications of my paper. This is precisely why I took the steps over the past few years to see if there was another way forward for generating engagement than publishing a deconstruction.
But there is another step that I took that I do not want to be overlooked: pre-peer review. Researching the issues surrounding the verbal aspect debate has been an exercise in anger management at times. The failure to engage counter arguments or to acknowledge widely accepted principles (e.g. the past/non-past distinction in most Indo-European langauges) is intensely frustrating to me. Why? These missteps did not need to happen; all were preventable based on the literature that is cited. All that was needed was a willingness to fully engage it. Frustrating.
Unfortunately, this frustration found its way into early drafts of my paper. I tried to keep it civil, but unnecessarily “emotive” language came through. So what do you do? You ask for help from people who are smarter than you.
In my case, John Barry did a developmental edit of the paper to make it more concise. Stephen Carlson, Rick Brannan, Mike Aubrey, Josh Westbury, Mike Heiser, Dirk Jongkind, Chris Fresch and several others critiqued the paper before submission. Each scholar ended up commenting on different aspects of the paper, making the final product much stronger than the initial draft. Most importantly, each one called me out when I used unnecessarily inflammatory language that would distract from the main argument.
Not every paper warrants this level of preliminary critique. From what I have know of peer review for journals, making such comments is beyond the scope of standard peer review. Mostly the veracity and coherence of the argument is weighed, not necessarily the language used.
I am very thankful that these folks were willing to invest the time and effort to critique my work. To be honest, it was painful reading when it came back (“Is it really necessary to…?”), but they noted things I most certainly had missed. It is quite easy to let anger and frustration get the better of you. In fact, it seems the Academy gravitates toward fostering cage-match panels as a means of attracting audiences.
But one overarching question remains to be answered. Why? Why all the posturing and belittling? Why the use of condescending language?
At what point did we set aside the pursuit of greater understanding for kingdom building? Why the fortresses encircled with trenches and barbed wire? I thought we had learned from WWI that even though there is a technical winner, everyone loses in the end. Perhaps the Cold War doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction is the more accurate analogy, where people use fear as a deterrent.
I’d like to think that a formal discussion could be convened at some point where the issues raised could be considered by those without a dog in the fight. It would be great to have someone other than an interdisciplinary NT scholar–a bonafide PhD specialist in Systemic Functional Linguistics from outside our field like Mick O’Donnell, for instance–to come and weigh in on the matter. Cage matches have some measure of entertainment, but they most often end up being a distraction from the real issues. It sure worked for Commodus in Gladiator, at least for a little while.
I am not so naive as to think that scholarship is an intrinsically pure enterprise. I accept posturing, marketing, showmanship and gamesmanship will play inevitable roles. But I am NOT willing to concede that vitriol and ad hominem attacks should just be accepted as part of the process. Is this really what biblical scholarship is all about? Really? The comments I received yesterday made it sound like a foregone conclusion, and maybe it is.
Call me a naive idealist, but I am more interested in getting things right than in being right. I don’t like being wrong any more than the next guy. But if research is done properly and reviewed properly, one can usually end up with both. It will be interesting to see what happens.
At the 2010 ETS meeting I presented an overview of some foundational errors in Stan Porter’s theoretical framework that significantly undermine the validity of his claims regarding the Greek verb. These issues initially came to light in research for my 2009 paper on the historical present.What I read left me with a knot in my stomach. Why? Well, Stan taught me second year Greek while I served as a TA for his first year Greek class at TWU. He was one of the folks who got me interested in linguistics in the first place, and he published my first article on Greek in one of his journals. I owe him a lot.
What was the big deal? The nature of the problems suggested a failure to adequately engage the linguistics literature. Significant counter arguments were ignored, as were warnings which should have led him to reach opposite conclusions about the presence of temporal reference in the Greek indicative tense-forms. One of the most significant pieces of evidence is the work of Stephen C. Wallace. I have posted his article, which is quoted at length in my critique. I would strongly encourage you to read it in its entirety.These problems were not just in his dissertation, but also in his recent writings on the prominence of the Greek tense-forms.
I tried to begin a dialogue within the Biblical Greek Language and Linguistics community by presenting these papers. The research leading up to each became a series of blog posts outlining the problems. Finally in 2011 I met with Stan personally to present my concerns during the SBL meeting in San Francisco. My hope was that some sort of dialogue could be arranged, whether a panel discussion or something more private. He made clear that he only engaged such things after they appeared in print. This explained the lack of engagement to my papers or blog posts.
Print is a rather permanent medium, hence my reluctance to write a critical review. My hope had been that a way forward could be found that would allow Porter to retain his prestige as the promoter of verbal aspect in NT studies, but which would also allow needed corrections to be made. We ended things in 2011 with me facing the challenge of getting a paper published. For various reasons I did not pursue the issue any further.
Another year passed. I saw and read Porter chiding scholars for lacking what he considers to be sufficient linguistic training for undertaking interdisciplinary research. The latest example of this is found on the pages of JETS 56 (1): 94-95 in Porter’s response to Wallace’s response to Porter’s book review.
Stan is correct to point out that interdisciplinary work bridging from biblical studies into linguistics always carries with it the risk that one’s background in the secondary field is insufficient to support the level of research undertaken, but that cuts both ways. He and I are also interdisciplinary scholars, susceptible to the same kinds of problems stemming from overreaching our background.
My critique has been accepted for publication, but will not be available until next year. It was submitted only after allowing three years for more productive (and more discrete) engagement to come about. It is a strict deconstruction (which you’ll know is not what I do), but felt I had little choice. Yet another panel discussion on verbal aspect looms at SBL 2013, with little indication that any progress will be made.
Here is the introduction:
Interdisciplinary approaches to NT issues have become increasingly popular, utilizing insights from other fields to tackle nagging problems within our field. One of the more popular approaches in Koiné Greek is the application of linguistics to problems not adequately addressed by grammarians and philologists within the guild. However, interdisciplinary work is a double-edged sword: it can have (and has had) great benefits, but only as it is employed in methodologically sound ways. The split focus demands that the scholar be a specialist in multiple disciplines, and that there is rigorous peer-review from both fields. Inadequate engagement with the secondary field can have grave consequences.
Such appears to be the case in Stanley Porter’s application of Systemic Functional Linguistics in his Verbal Aspect in the Greek of the New Testament, with Reference to Tense and Mood and his continuing work on verbal aspect and discourse prominence. Despite the fifty page bibliography, Porter’s seminal volume offers scant theoretical or methodological substantiation for the claims that are most crucial to his argument that the Greek verb does not encode temporal information. Porter introduces concepts like contrastive substitution, semantic weight, and frontground without providing the requisite theoretical grounding or discussion of methodological constraints governing their legitimate usage. This article is limited to contrastive substitution, but the comments that follow may be applied more broadly to his use of markedness and grounding.
Research conducted for a separate project identified a significant counterargument from one of Porter’s frequently cited articles that he fails to engage or even acknowledge. Skepticism about his claims leveled by Silva and others suggested that a thorough comparison of Porter’s claims with the linguistic literature cited as support was called for. This comparison revealed his use of contrastive substitution to be nothing more than a straw-man argument against temporal reference in the Greek verb. In order to avoid anachronism, this critique weighs Porter’s claims only against his cited literature to demonstrate his failure to develop a linguistically sound methodological framework. Reference to more recent linguistic work is reserved for demonstrating that knowledge of these issues has not fundamentally changed to lend any new credence to his claims. Thus the numerous warnings from Porter’s primary literature against the veracity of his thesis that Greek verbs lack temporal reference are ignored rather than engaged. (read more)
Note: If you want to link from your blog or other media source back here, please do NOT just link to the article. Rather, link to the post so there is at least opportunity for folks to understand the history behind this paper.
Making a clear distinction in meaning between function words like ἀλλά and εἰ μή can be difficult. They are function words providing instructions about how to relate two textual elements. Our tendency is to link them to the closest counterpart in English, but this means we are understanding them through a perhaps inaccurate filter. This is why I have found the idea of cognitive constraints to be so useful; it removes the need for assigning a gloss and focuses on what the word signals. In the last post, I summarized:
Both exceptive and restrictive constructions have something in common. Both constructions signal that what follows the ἀλλά and εἰ μή (or English rather and except) is to correct or replace some comparable element in the preceding context. It qualifies the preceding statements by adding some other piece of information. This piece of information either corrects some overstatement or replaces one option for another, in the case of ἀλλά.
The last post focused on the function of ἀλλά to correct or replace. So what exactly is the difference between these two connectives if they both do this replacing thing? The key distinction between them is whether the correction/replacement was part of the preceding set or not. Here’s what I mean.
In the case of ἀλλά, the following statement introduces information that was not present in the original statement. The original statement had one or more elements that were incorrect or incomplete, and ἀλλά introduces a new element that was not under consideration. This new element can be added to the preceding set to make it complete or correct (i.e. correcting) or it may stand in the place of some incorrect element(s) (i.e. replacing). Here is what it looks like graphically.
Let’s take another look at an example from the last post
1 Peter 3:13–16 (SBLGNT)
13 Καὶ τίς ὁ κακώσων ὑμᾶς ἐὰν τοῦ ἀγαθοῦ ζηλωταὶ γένησθε; 14 ἀλλʼ εἰ καὶ πάσχοιτε διὰ δικαιοσύνην, μακάριοι. τὸν δὲ φόβον αὐτῶν μὴ φοβηθῆτε μηδὲ ταραχθῆτε,
15 κύριον δὲ τὸν Χριστὸν ἁγιάσατε ἐν ταῖς καρδίαις ὑμῶν, ἕτοιμοι ἀεὶ πρὸς ἀπολογίαν παντὶ τῷ αἰτοῦντι ὑμᾶς λόγον περὶ τῆς ἐν ὑμῖν ἐλπίδος, 16 ἀλλὰ μετὰ πραΰτητος καὶ φόβου, συνείδησιν ἔχοντες ἀγαθήν, ἵνα ἐν ᾧ καταλαλεῖσθε καταισχυνθῶσιν οἱ ἐπηρεάζοντες ὑμῶν τὴν ἀγαθὴν ἐν Χριστῷ ἀναστροφήν.
Verse 13 asks who there is who’d harm you for being zealous, with the implied answer being “no one.” Verse 14 now introduces a new element, the idea that such a person really does exist. The ascensive καί casts this hypothetical person as though it were a “least likely possibility” comparable to our use of “even” in English. So in terms of the diagram above, the Xs stand for the people who’d harm you for being zealous. Are there any? No, well, maybe. The Y is adding a caveat that even if they do exist and this does happen, you shouldn’t let them affect your behavior.
The second one is a bit more tricky, since the ground rules for how you make your defense are not explicitly mentioned in v. 15. Nevertheless, v. 16 introduces a new element that (most likely) was not under consideration by the hearer. If Peter was merely adding another thing to do (“Oh, and be sure to do it with gentleness and reverence”), whatever negative thing that he was trying to prevent would still have been admitted. The use of ἀλλά constrains what follows to replace whatever negative behavior the preceding may have conjured up, defined as the opposite of gentle and reverent.
So although ἀλλά and εἰ μή both do the same sort of thing, and both can quite often be translated using a generic “but,” they nevertheless have a meaningful distinction which differentiates them from one another. The distinction is present in Greek regardless of how it might be translated. I feel like this point is dismissed by some using a sense-based explanation: “It’s the A sense of the word in this context, not the B sense.” Regardless of the translation used, the same distinction between them will be present.
This means that Paul’s use of εἰ μή in Gal 2:16 rather than ἀλλά was meaningful and intended. The lack of textual variants for this reading also points toward Paul intending to communicate something with εἰ μή that would not have been conveyed with ἀλλά. I’ll move on to εἰ μή in the next post.
Understanding grammar is a double-edged sword. It can improve the precision of our exegesis and understanding of the text. But it also makes it much harder to hide from what appear to be unpleasant things. If Paul had intended for “works of the law” to have been replaced by “through faith in Jesus Christ,” he surely could have done so using ἀλλά. To be blunt, I think a lot of reformed folks would have preferred Paul has used ἀλλά, but he didn’t. An unpleasant thing this, but not the end of the world that some have made it out to be.
Instead Paul used εἰ μή in order to bring about some constraint that ἀλλά would not have achieved. Translating with the generic “but” in English–which can convey either constraint–only masks what is going on. I am not arguing here for the proper gloss, but for a recognition of what is going on in Greek.
Next post will spell out the constraint of εἰ μή and pave the way for heading back to Gal 2:15-16.
I’ve talked a lot about choice and meaning in language, but it is important to cover this ground again. In clauses that create an exception or restriction of some kind (e.g. “John didn’t do anything except sit there”), we need to recognize that the same assertion could have been phrased differently so as to avoid using such a construction. The choice to use an exception or restriction inevitably involves creating a more complex assertion than a simple “John just sat there” statement. So as we talk about the meaningful distinction between ἀλλά and εἰ μή, keep in mind that both of these constructions represent the writer’s choice to use a rhetorically more complex construction compared to using a simple assertion. I am not sure I made this point as clearly as I could have in §4.2-§4.3 of the Discourse Grammar.
Both exceptive and restrictive constructions have something in common. Both constructions signal that what follows the ἀλλά and εἰ μή (or English rather and except) is to correct or replace some comparable element in the preceding context. It qualifies the preceding statements by adding some other piece of information. This piece of information either corrects some overstatement or replaces one option for another, in the case of ἀλλά. Focus on what each one does instead of worrying about how to translate it.
The problem with a translation-based understanding of the words comes to the fore when we note but is used to translate both ἀλλά and εἰ μή. But has a much broader range of meaning than rather or except. But merely joins two things of equal status (e.g. phrases, sentences) and indicates the presence of semantic discontinuity between between the two. Except and rather add further constraints, and are thus more precise. To paraphrase the Hallmark slogan, but is the conjunction you use when you don’t care enough to send the very best. When precision is not needed and you just need to indicate discontinuity, but is the conjunction you reach for. But do not be fooled: the less-restricted meaning of but is no basis for claiming that ἀλλά and εἰ μή mean the same thing. Each conjunction brings its own unique constraint to bear on what follows.
Function of ἀλλά
Now ἀλλά is used to correct or replace some aspect of what precedes. The need for correction or replacement presupposes that something is wrong with what precedes. This makes good sense in a dialogue, where one person got it wrong and the other person is fixing it. The latter is most likely a first-born child. However, if we look at the distribution of ἀλλά, most of the uses are in a monologue situation, where the speaker is correcting themselves. In most cases, this means an intentional misstatement (e.g. telling you what didn’t happen) in order to manufacture (yes, manufacture!) an opportunity to correct it.
So why would someone purposefully get it wrong? Isn’t that risky? Couldn’t that lead to miscommunication? Absolutely! However, the rhetorical payoff is worth the risk. Why? Because using the misstatement/correction method draws extra attention to the corrected element that it would not have received just using a simple, positive assertion.
Let’s begin with a look at some uses of ἀλλά found in Rom 3:27-31, a classic use of rhetorical questions. Rhetorical questions can either expect positive or negative answers; we see both below. The element replaced and its replacement are both underlined.
Romans 3:27–31 (SBLGNT)
27 Ποῦ οὖν ἡ καύχησις; ἐξεκλείσθη. διὰ ποίου νόμου; τῶν ἔργων; οὐχί, ἀλλὰ διὰ νόμου πίστεως. 28 λογιζόμεθα γὰρ δικαιοῦσθαι πίστει ἄνθρωπον χωρὶς ἔργων νόμου. 29 ἢ Ἰουδαίων ὁ θεὸς μόνον; οὐχὶ καὶ ἐθνῶν; ναὶ καὶ ἐθνῶν, 30 εἴπερ εἷς ὁ θεός, ὃς δικαιώσει περιτομὴν ἐκ πίστεως καὶ ἀκροβυστίαν διὰ τῆς πίστεως. 31 νόμον οὖν καταργοῦμεν διὰ τῆς πίστεως; μὴ γένοιτο, ἀλλὰ νόμον ἱστάνομεν.
It would have been much easier for Paul to make simple positive assertions instead of using interrogatives, but doing so would have significantly reduced the rhetorical impact. Here are my comments about the use of interrogative pronouns as “forward-pointing references” to draw extra attention to a target: the answer to the question.
“Paul could have made the same point more plainly by stating, ἡ καύχησις οὖν ἐξεκλείσθη διὰ νόμου πίστεως (“Therefore boasting is excluded by the law of faith”), but this would significantly reduce the rhetorical impact compared to using the forward-pointing references. Unpacking this principle in two parts allows each one to sink in. Allowing the reader to think about the questions adds significantly to the power of these statements. It also allows Paul to draw extra attention to exactly what kind of law it is that excludes boasting.1
Note that the rhetorical answers introduced in vv. 27 and 31 use ἀλλά. It constrains the reader to correct or replace some aspect of what precedes. The English conjunctions rather and instead convey the same kind of constraint. I might be able to use but as a gloss here, but its less-constrained meaning leaves it open to a wider range of interpretation than is present in Greek. The Greek ἀλλά constrains us to take “law of faith” and the correct answer instead of “law of works.” The same holds in v. 31; the law is not nullified, rather it is upheld.
Here is another example, where James uses ἀλλά to recharacterize an unbridled tongue.
James 1:26 (SBLGNT) Εἴ τις δοκεῖ θρησκὸς εἶναι μὴ χαλιναγωγῶν γλῶσσαν αὐτοῦ ἀλλὰ ἀπατῶν καρδίαν αὐτοῦ, τούτου μάταιος ἡ θρησκεία.
The more expected counterpart would have been a bridled tongue, right? But James wants the bridling/not bridling to be understood as something else: as a pure versus a deceived heart. It creates a rather unnatural pairing, one we’re unlikely to have inferred had it not been explicitly stated. But consider the alternative. Stating the person who deceives their heart (or alternatively doesn’t bridle their tongue) and claims to be religious has a worthless religion. Choosing either option omits the connection to the other, since bridling the tongue and purity of heart are not a commonly paired opposition. The writer would have needed to make this connection is some other way–likely a separate clause–which would have been clunky and lacked the same rhetorical punch.
So ἀλλά is used to signal that something in the preceding context is to be corrected or replaced by the element that follows it. In the negative examples above, the element introduced by ἀλλά replaced rather than corrected. The following example is a positive statement, where ἀλλά introduces a caveat that corrects what precedes. The implication is that it is somehow incomplete. Some great examples are found in 1 Peter 3:
1 Peter 3:13–16 (SBLGNT)
13 Καὶ τίς ὁ κακώσων ὑμᾶς ἐὰν τοῦ ἀγαθοῦ ζηλωταὶ γένησθε; 14 ἀλλʼ εἰ καὶ πάσχοιτε διὰ δικαιοσύνην, μακάριοι. τὸν δὲ φόβον αὐτῶν μὴ φοβηθῆτε μηδὲ ταραχθῆτε,
15 κύριον δὲ τὸν Χριστὸν ἁγιάσατε ἐν ταῖς καρδίαις ὑμῶν, ἕτοιμοι ἀεὶ πρὸς ἀπολογίαν παντὶ τῷ αἰτοῦντι ὑμᾶς λόγον περὶ τῆς ἐν ὑμῖν ἐλπίδος, 16 ἀλλὰ μετὰ πραΰτητος καὶ φόβου, συνείδησιν ἔχοντες ἀγαθήν, ἵνα ἐν ᾧ καταλαλεῖσθε καταισχυνθῶσιν οἱ ἐπηρεάζοντες ὑμῶν τὴν ἀγαθὴν ἐν Χριστῷ ἀναστροφήν.
It is reasonable to expect not to be hassled for doing good, that’s the way things out to work. The expected answer to the rhetorical question of v. 13 is “no one.” But v. 14 deals with a different reality: the unlikely scenario where you do suffer. In either you are still blessed. Verse 13 technically involves negation, but v. 14 adds another element rather than replaces what precedes.
Verses 15-16 highlight the wonder of language. The exhortation to set apart Christ as Lord in our hearts, followed by a verbless clause elaborating on what this practically looks like. There are no guidelines provided about the manner in which this defense is to be made; the sky’s the limit … until we reach v. 16. Introducing gentleness and reverence using ἀλλά constrains us to read these qualities as somehow correcting what precedes, setting a boundary that was only implicit before. We are not to make the defense at all costs, or “in such a way as to win,” but gently and reverently. Notice that I could not underline discrete words preceding ἀλλά in these examples since what is corrected concerns unstated assumptions. The writer would not have added the caveats in vv. 14 and 16 had there not been a need for them. The only way we can process these caveats is by addressing the implicatures inherently present in the initial statements.
This explanation if ἀλλά is meant as a thumbnail, something that covers the prototypical usage. There are indeed quirky instances, and we’ll survey this in the coming weeks. Do a concordance search for ἀλλά in your favorite corpus and think through how what follows corrects or replaces what precedes. See if the explanation works; see what insight it adds. Forget about translating it and focus on what it does.
- Steven E. Runge, Discourse Grammar of the Greek New Testament: A Practical Introduction for Teaching and Exegesis (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 66. ↩
This is part 2 of a series begun here.
Diane Blakemore, working in the area of cognitive linguistics, has claimed that particles like conjunctions each have their own unique cognitive constraint, i.e. a set of instructions regarding how to relate what precedes with what follows.1 So from a functional standpoint, choosing to use one conjunction over another represents the choice to bring this cognitive constraint to bear over that one.
Although the work of Blakemore and others represents an advance in terms of its application of cognitive linguistics, the underlying assumption of a unique function or meaning is not new. Well over a hundred years ago Georg Winer made much the same point regarding conjunctions each having a distinct contribution to the context. He made this claim in the course of critiquing commentators who were quite comfortable with obscuring the uniqueness by claiming that conjunctions were regularly substituted for one another. This appeal to semantic overlap via substitution allowed them to avoid engaging unpleasant exegetical implications associated with the core constraint of the conjunction.
It is strange indeed to see how the commentators (up to a recent period) take the apostles to task again and again, and almost always supply them with a different conjunction from that which actually stands in the text. If a calculation were made, we should certainly find that in Paul’s Epistles, for instance, there are not more than six or eight passages in which the apostle has hit upon the right particle, and does not need the commentator to help him out. This has introduced great arbitrariness into N. T. exegesis. Are we to suppose that Paul and Luke knew Greek no better than many of their censors? The Hebrew usage cannot be appealed to here by any who do not take a wholly irrational view of the Hebrew language: indeed such an arbitrary use of quid pro quo is not possible in any human speech. The arbitrariness of the N. T. interpreters was rendered the more obvious by the fact that different commentators often assigned entirely different meanings to a conjunction in the same passage. … The translators of the N. T. books (not excepting even the excellent Schulz in the Epistle to the Hebrews) are also deserving of censure, since they render the conjunctions in the most arbitrary manner.[2.Winer, Georg B. A Treatise on the Grammar of New Testament Greek Regarded as a Sure Basis for New Testament Exegesis. Translated by William F. Moulton (3d ed. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1882), 564, n. 2.]
Ouch! If we changed to a more vernacular wording, I can picture Mr. T saying making the same point: “I pity the commentator…” (Georg ‘Clubber’ Winer).
Winer’s warning about appealing to Hebrew (or Aramaic) will prove relevant when we finally get back to Gal 2:16. Why? Most commentators who appeal for an exceptional sense of ει μη in Gal 2:16 do so by appealing to grammarians, most of whom appeal to a comment by Wellhausen that ει μη and αλλα are used interchangeably for אִלָּא, an Aramaic conjunction.2
So does this mean that the two Greek connectives share significant semantic overlap? No! Nor is this a case of an “Aramaism” that has crept into Paul’s writing.3 This turns out not to be a case of an Aramaism, but one of the many instances of mismatches between languages.
What do I mean by a mismatch between the languages? The mismatch involves Greek having two options available whereas Aramaic has only one. This means that the LXX translator is constrained to make a choice because of the two options available in Greek that are not present in Aramaic. In other words it’s a Greek problem rather an an Aramaic one. We find the same thing in Greek with translating και : a single word plays triple duty compared to English (and, also, even) and double duty compared to Hebrew (ו and גַמ). Put differently, there is a dilemma in English to choose between and or but for Greek’s conjunctive και. Why? Because English makes a semantic distinction between +semantic continuity (and) and -semantic continuity (but).4 This is an English problem, not a Greek problem.
“Boy, those French! They have a different word for everything. … They don’t have the decency to speak English.”
― Steve Martin
Because the Greeks didn’t have the common decency to only have one meaning for each of their conjunctions like we do in English! Because our language forces us to make a choice which is not present in Greek by virtue of having English having a finer distinction available than Greek does in this particular context. The opposite would hold true as well.
Nevertheless, we find something of a language-centric snobbery at times, a grumbling that Greek conjunctions don’t have the “common courtesy” of having only one meaning like English conjunctions do. I am not making this up. Dana and Mantey seem to regard English as something of an anomaly in that its conjunctions only have one meaning when compared to other languages. They state, “In Greek, as in Hebrew and Latin, but unlike the English use, a conjunction may have several meanings, each requiring separate and careful study.”5, 240).] This, however, is not really the case. Each conjunction in each language has a unique function. If it did not it would eventually drop out of the language. Instead what we find is that the mismatch between the languages is treated from an English- or German-centric standpoint. The assumption is made that English words have a single meaning, whereas the Greek, Hebrew or Latin words have more than one meaning, based on how many different options there are for translating the latter into English. This assumption is just plain wrong. Despite the wrongness, we find the same presupposition undergirding claims of commentators and exegetes.
The different senses of conjunctions are not evidence of their having really broad or multiple meanings. Rather, these different senses highlight the mismatches between Greek and English. English conjunctions have a unique cognitive constraint that they bring to bear just as Greek or Hebrew ones have.
Claiming semantic overlap or substitution of the Greek conjunctions highlights one of the problems with a sense-based or translation-value understanding of a conjunction. Rick Brannan, in his killer treatment of αλλα, cited Funk’s treatment of conjunctions as function words which are semantically empty.6 Here is the quote:
Negatives, conjunctions, sentence connectors, and subordinators may be termed function words or structure signaling words. The point of these labels is that such words are nearly lexically empty, i.e. they have little or no dictionary meaning of their own. However, they are grammatically significant in indicating the structure of sentences and parts of sentences. Some of them are so common as to require acquaintance at the grossest level of the language. This simply means that one must learn how they function early in the process. One may guess at the meaning of lexically full words, or leave them blank when reading, but one must know the grammatical “meaning” of function words to be able to proceed at all.7
To be sure, cognitive linguistics has greatly advanced our understanding of conjunctions. The notion of each one providing a unique cognitive constraint proves far more useful in bridging the mismatches between languages than a sense-based approach based on the different glosses. But the call for a more unified, functional understanding of these words is not new. Even though the older grammarians may have had a clunky way of describing things, Winer, Funk and others seem to be in fundamental agreement with the functional direction advocated by Blakemore using cognitive linguistics.
Now in claiming that each conjunction has a unique constraint, I am not saying that there aren’t any diachronic or extra-linguistic issues that need to be taken into account. There are. But there is little hope of being able to adequately handle these extra complexities if we can’t even clearly describe the core meaning/function from a synchronic, monolingual environment. The latter is where I am headed in my discussion of exceptive clauses; the former I’ll leave to more qualified folks like Randall Buth.
Happy new year, I hope you stick around for this ongoing series. Depending on the level of interest, it may turn into an SBL paper proposal.
Isn’t grammar wonderful?
- See Diane Blakemore, Relevance and Linguistic Meaning: The Semantics and Pragmatics of Discourse Markers (CSL 99; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 90. See also Runge, Discourse Grammar of the Greek New Testament: A Practical Introduction for Teaching and Exegesis (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 17-19. ↩
- See BDF §448(8); cf. James Hope Moulton, A Grammar of New Testament Greek: Prolegomena. Vol. 1. (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1906), 241-242. ↩
- For a great treatment of how such influences really manifest themselves, see Randall Buth, “Evaluating Luke’s Unnatural Greek: A Look at His Connectives.” In Discourse Studies and Biblical Interpretation: A Festschrift in Honor of Stephen H. Levinsohn, edited by Steven E. Runge, 335–370. Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2011. Available in print from Amazon. ↩
- See Runge, Discourse Grammar, 23. ↩
- H. E. Dana and Julius R. Mantey, A Manual Grammar of the Greek New Testament [New York: Macmillan, 1968 ↩
- Brannan, Rick. “The Discourse Function of Ἀλλά in Non-Negative Contexts.” In Discourse Studies and Biblical Interpretation: A Festschrift in Honor of Stephen H. Levinsohn, edited by Steven E. Runge (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2011), 263. ↩
- Robert W. Funk, Beginning-Intermediate Grammar of Hellenistic Greek (Missoula, Mont.: Scholar’s Press, 1973), 475. ↩
I have been slowly reading my way into the New Perspective on Paul (NPP) literature for the last few months as part of my current work in Romans. James Dunn’s keen observations about commonly overlooked–but important–words has been a bright spot in wading through the rat’s nest of detail. The next time I hear someone whine about how complex and detailed discourse grammar is, they’ll get a dope slap. Lots of fields and discussions within them are complex; I am 9re)learning that with the NPP literature. It is just a matter of gaining the needed background to understand all of the information that is assumed by those participating in the discussion.
A great example of that is ποτε in Gal 2:6; I had never noticed it there before, and few translations make note of it. The other big surprise was the presence of ἐὰν μὴ in Gal 2:16. I have not read closely through Galatians since writing the discourse grammar, and so had not been as keenly aware of the importance of conjunctions as I am now.
In doing some checking of how the major translations handle Gal 2:15-16, I was unpleasantly surprised at how consistently some clearly marked grammatical feature was translated as though it were something else. Here is the text from the SBLGNT:
15 Ἡμεῖς φύσει Ἰουδαῖοι καὶ οὐκ ἐξ ἐθνῶν ἁμαρτωλοί,
16 εἰδότες ⸀δὲ ὅτι οὐ δικαιοῦται ἄνθρωπος ἐξ ἔργων νόμου ἐὰν μὴ διὰ πίστεως ⸂Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ⸃, καὶ ἡμεῖς εἰς Χριστὸν Ἰησοῦν ἐπιστεύσαμεν,
ἵνα δικαιωθῶμεν ἐκ πίστεως Χριστοῦ καὶ οὐκ ἐξ ἔργων νόμου,
⸂ὅτι ἐξ ἔργων νόμου οὐ δικαιωθήσεται⸃ πᾶσα σάρξ.
The only content-bearing textual variant is the presence or absence of δὲ at the beginning of v. 16; it is bracketed in both NA 27 and 28, but unbracketed in the SBLGNT. The rest concern the ordering within noun phrases or clauses, i.e. the content of these verses is not disputed. Most translations take v. 15 as a separate clause as opposed to a topical frame of reference for v. 16, which I would agree with. This means that the choice is between δέ versus asyndeton, not reading v. 15 as a complex subject for v. 16.
The more surprising issues I found had nothing to do with variant readings. Most translations render εἰδότες as a finite verb, either as though it were an indicative or an imperative. This decision then impacts the understanding of καί later in the same line. If the participle is rendered as a finite verb, then καί wants to be conjunctive instead of ascensive.
But the most surprising (and disturbing) thing was to see how many scholars I deeply respect argued that the exceptive construction ἐὰν μὴ is somehow exceptional and thus NOT exceptive. I had no idea how much ink had been spilled on this issue. Many trees gave their lives so we could have another contentious issue in the field!
Please save your vitriol and piling up of scholars in favor of your view on the matter. At least for now, this is not the time or place for that.
What I intend to do in preparation for a more thorough treatment of this verse is to start looking at exceptive clause in the GNT. I’ll begin with the prototypical ones and offer an expansion of the description I offer in the discourse grammar. 1 Then I’ll tackle the claims in the dead grammarians regarding the apparent substitution of ἀλλά for ἐὰν/ἐι μὴ. This is the basis for treating Gal 2:16 as an exceptional exceptive; well, that and the apparent horror over the theological implications of treating it as a true exceptive.
I’ll insert a preview here: if we are all happy to allow Paul to state a for-sake-of-argument position with which he likely disagrees in v. 15, then why can’t that same explanation extend into 16a? Especially since he resoundingly dispels this supposed “common ground” in 16c and 16d?? Just a thought, but I’ll leave that (and addressing any comments) for later. This would mean that I disagree with Dunn’s claim that 2:16 somehow represents a development in Paul’s own understanding of justification. I would also disagree with most disagreeing with Dunn by claiming this is not an exceptive clause. Be patient, we’ll get there, but not today.
The crux of the matter is understanding what exception clauses do, regardless of how they might be translated into English. If we can understand this, then we’ll be in a much better position to understand why cases like this one in Gal 2:16 have proven troublesome. There are several other similar cases, none of which carry the same theological freight.
Part 2 continues here.
Why a Discourse Handbook? (from the Introduction)
This project is intended to fill a very noticeable gap in exegetical resources, whether for preaching/teaching or academic projects. The missing piece is a sustained discussion about the structuring and flow of the biblical text. There are numerous studies on cultural backgrounds, historical backgrounds, theological or ethical implications, and even lexicographical or morphological issues relating to the Greek text and its translation. But what about the text itself? What difference does it make that he said it this way as opposed to that way? Regardless of how I might translate this conjunction or what sense I might assign it, how did the writer intend to relate what precedes with what follows? What does this portion contribute to the overall flow and structure of the discourse?
Occasionally one finds a discussion of such matters, but it tends to be serendipitous rather than systematic. The goal for this series is to offer a sustained discussion of the overall flow of the discourse based on the writer’s choice of discourse devices and structuring decisions. It will also describe the exegetical consequences of these decisions.
This undertaking is the culmination of many years of research. Foundational materials needed to be developed. How can one talk about discourse devices unless the devices are transparently accessible to the reader? The better part of two years of research was devoted to developing the Lexham Discourse Greek New Testament, an electronic database which identifies the most exegetically significant discourse devices in a way that specialists and non-specialists alike can benefit. It helps identify exegetical issues that need to be addressed in an analysis of the text. It was a necessary first step, but there was a problem; it was up to the reader to connect the dots and synthesize the data into a unified reading of the discourse. More explanation was needed.
The next step was the Discourse Grammar of the Greek New Testament, a resource to help readers with a traditional background in Greek grammar acquire a foundational understanding of discourse studies. Each chapter begins with how some matter was traditionally treated, and then provides linguistic principles that give insight into how and why discourse devices achieve the effects they do. The discourse grammar was an important second step, as it has opened the door for students and professors to reshape their understanding of Greek exegesis into something other than a translation exercise. But there was still a lingering problem. The book intentionally investigated only one device at a time. It was beyond the scope of an introductory volume to attempt to describe all of the interrelated machinations. Discourse can be messy at times, but understanding the unique contribution of each device will better enable us to unpack the whole. Something more was needed.
The Lexham Discourse Handbook series provides this final piece: a sustained, unifying analysis of how the various discourse devices function collectively; it describes the contribution of each piece to the whole. The Handbook selectively engages significant exegetical issues raised by commentators, but is not intended to provide a full conversation with Pauline scholarship. What do I mean by selective? Issues directly impacted by discourse grammar, especially discussions about the structuring and organization of Romans. As will be shown in the discussion of Rom 1:1-15, most of the debates regarding the purpose and structure of Romans revolve on factors like what is signaled by a particular conjunction, or the function of expressions like οὐ θέλω δὲ ὑμᾶς ἀγνοεῖν, ἀδελφοί in Rom 1:13. This is where the foundational investment in understanding discourse grammar can pay huge dividends.
Connectives—those small particles used to signal relationships between phrases and clauses—provide some of the most significant information about how the writer intended his work to be read. C.E.B. Cranfield states:
It will perhaps not be out of place to mention here something which, while it is very obvious, is sometimes overlooked by students of the epistle—the importance of watching carefully the connectives linking the sentences. Whereas in English it is not at all unusual for sentences to be set down one after the other without connexion, in ancient Greek it was normal to link each sentence with the preceding one by means of a connective of one sort or another. The Greek custom has two great advantages: it helps the writer to think clearly and logically and it enables the reader to know what was the connexion of thought in the writer’s mind between his sentences. … But, where there is continuous argument, they are a most important clue to the author’s meaning, of which full use should be made. In the exegesis of Romans one is well advised to watch the connectives with the utmost attentiveness, wherever they are present—and in the first eight chapters they nearly always are. Paul uses them competently enough.1
Chapter 2 of DGGNT provides a functional description of the nine most frequently occurring connectives. Regardless of how each might be translated into English in any given context, each brings to bear a unique cognitive constraint on the relationship of what follows the connective with what precedes. As Cranfield states, “it enables the reader to know what was the connexion of thought in the writer’s mind between his sentences.” Carefully and consistently attending to these constraints enables us to much more confidently navigate the maze of competing proposals regarding purpose and structure.
My analysis is based upon the Greek text of the SBLGNT.2 Consideration will be given only to textual variants which significantly impact the flow of the discourse. I recognize that this is an eclectic text, not an original autograph. However, I will treat the text as intentionally worded and intentionally structured to best accomplish Paul’s purpose for writing the epistle. This means you will not find me claiming anacoluthon or some irregular emphatic usage of some kind. Instead, the Handbook will describe the implications of this wording of this text as it stands since this is what we have to work with. The principles I utilize could just as easily be applied to alternative readings, but my scope is intentionally limited to the eclectic text.
An overarching principle governing my work is that “choice implies meaning.” This is not a claim that Paul sat and consciously thought about every single word before it was written. Think about the last heated discussion you had with someone. Chances are there were points where you slowed down to carefully choose your wording. You knew in your brain what you wanted to convey, and the desired impact it would have on the other person. Somewhere between your brain and the words coming out of your mouth, you did something. This something is captured by metaphors like, “what fit best” or “treading carefully.” These images describe the kind of choice I am talking about. Paul wrote the letter to accomplish certain things. The choice to word things one way versus another were calculated based on what he felt would best accomplish his goals and objectives. Since we do not have an original letter, the eclectic SBLGNT will be analyzed on this same basis, as though Paul really intended to say what he did in this particular way.
I am very much looking forward to returning to writing next week, too much of my attention has been spent finalizing details for the Lexham Discourse Hebrew Bible project, which is set to be released next week.
There is a special discount being offered for the Lexham Discourse Greek New Testament until Oct. 11. If you use coupon code WEEKLYNTDISCOURSE when you check out, you can get the Greek bundle on sale for $109.95—that’s $40 off the regular price.
I hope to get back to blogging in the next week or two in preparation for my ETS paper.