Skip to content
Aug 8 / Steve Runge

Continuity and Discontinuity as a Continuum

In my last post, I looked at the use of the imperfect verb tense with what amounts to redundant verbs of speaking in Mark 4:9-30. These speaking verbs are considered redundant since there has been no change of speakers, and thus no semantic need for reintroducing the speech. They serve the discourse function of segmenting a longer speech into smaller chunks. I claimed that this chunking is typically done in contexts of natural discontinuity. This needs a bit more explanation to avoid misconceptions. After reading the historical present literature, it is clear that misconceptions abound.

Generally speaking, there are contexts of relative continuity (e.g. a speech or dialogue, a narrative scene) and contexts of relative discontinuity (e.g. rapid switches of participants, locations, or kinds of action, like some of the travelogue portions of Acts). When scholars talk about discontinuity, they tend to envision this latter kind, where there is a significant break of some kind, typiclly a paragraph or pericope boundary. Remember, paragraphing varies from edition to edition, and was not originally present any more than the versification. Both were added much later by editors making judgments about–say it with me–discontinuity.

It is critical to understand that continuity and discontinuity are not absolutes, but relative based on other factors. Even in a context of relative continuity, like a single speech by a single speaker, there are natural transition points. A book can be broken into chapters, chapters into sections, sections into paragraphs, paragraphs to sentences, sentences to clauses, clauses to phrases, phrases to words, words to morphemes, and so on. Things like spaces between words and paragraphs, punctuation and conjunctions help guide readers in making these judgements. Such judgements are partly based on grammatical factors, e.g. there are very few verses that begin mid-sentence in the NT. But they are also based on content and discourse-level factors and devices. Most languages will have devices for indicating such things, things which native speakers utilize but often cannot verbalize. They just do it.

I was having a conversation yesterday with an esteemed biblioblogger and colleague who shall remain nameless. After going into some background information on an issue, he signaled that he was returning to the main line of the conversation with the little marker “so anyhow.” I doubt he stopped to think about what he was doing or why he did it, it just was the right thing to do. In the UK, I think that “right” is sometimes used as a means of signaling a transition to the next thing. Levinsohn used it frequenty after a question had been asked and answered, and he was resuming the lecture. I would love to hear a better explanation from a native, and to hear what the Aussie version is. At any rate, back to it.

One of the problems with the description of the historical present (HP) in Greek is the early claim that it was a paragraph marker. The problem is that sometimes that works, but oftentimes the HP is found within a paragraph, as Porter and Campbell point out. Remember that paragraphs are editorial judgments, and differ to one extent or another from version to version. The claim that the HP marks paragraph could probably have been more specifically stated as a “discontinuity,” but this would presuppose an understanding that continuity and discontinuity are relative.

In a discourse context of relative continuity, like Mark 4, writers walk a fine line. On the one hand, they need to have the whole make sense, to maintain continuity of the overall flow. One aspect of the reader making sense of the whole is being able to break the whole into smaller chunks, hence the need for a finer grained marking of discontinuity.

I will be presenting a paper at SBL on the HP. I want it to be a unified, coherent presentation (as do the attendees). But the presentation will necessitate covering a number of potentially discontinuous elements (history of the problem, lit review, theoretical framework, illustrative examples, compelling conclusions and implications for further research). I need to build the whole into a unified presentation, but not so unified that the hearers cannot track the transition from one element to the next. Nor can I make each element stand out in such a discontinuous way that the unity of the whole is impossible to see. It is a fine line that separates continuity and discontinuity. Both are necessary, both play significant roles.

Continuity and discontinuity are not absolutes, but relative points on a continuum. So when I talk about “discontinuity” in a context of relative continuity, it may sound like something of an oxymoronic statement. These elements are not black and white. What stands out as a major discontinuity in a context of relative continuity might blend in a lot more within a series of discontinuities. Consider the context, consider the level of the discourse that you are looking at. And remember, continuity and discontinuity are relative.


  1. Peter Kirk / Aug 8 2009

    As a British English speaker I would suggest that Levinsohn’s use of “right” is perhaps a little idiosyncratic but not completely out of the ordinary. I would think it started off as a questioning “Right?” at the end of the response to a question, inviting the questioner’s agreement. But if the lecturer wants to get back to the main topic without giving time for further discussion, “Right” loses its question intonation and is followed with no pause by the resumption of the lecture. An interesting case indeed.

  2. Steve Runge / Aug 8 2009

    I have heard John Cleese with the same kind of usage in Faulty Towers, typically when he wanted to change the subject. What you describes sounds correct, but I had not realized it was anomalous usage. What would be a more normal expression in the UK?

  3. Peter Kirk / Aug 8 2009

    I’m not really saying it is anomalous, just not very common. Thanks for reminding me of the Fawlty Towers usage which would suggest it is actually a bit rude. I think I would say something like “OK, let’s get back to the subject”, but I might shorten that to just “OK” or “Right” if I was in a hurry or getting impatient.

  4. Paul O'Rear / Oct 6 2010

    I believe the Aussies might use “Fair dinkum” in a similar sort of way, though I’ve also heard “Right” from one of my mates from Oz.

    Here in the Seattle area, you might hear “So” used in a similar sort of transitional manner.

Trackbacks and Pingbacks

  1. Even the Masoretes are into it « NT Discourse
  2. Where does contrast come from? | NT Discourse

Comments are closed.