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Aug 15 / Steve Runge

Porter’s Use of Contrastive Substitution

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.