Are Grammar and Thought Inherently Related

6:45 AM Last night I was prepping for our LXX class in the spring semester (which I’m co-teaching with my esteemed Old Testament colleague, Chip Hardy), and I thought to myself, “Our once casual relationship with Greek and Hebrew is about to transition to ‘It’s complicated.'” I honestly don’t remember how I decided to offer this course years ago. I think I just sent an email to my dean saying, “I want to do one. Haha.” You know, like how Sir Edmund Hillary informed his friends he wanted to climb Mount Everest. “Summiting the world’s highest mountain. I may want to do that. Haha.” Well, we pushed the button, and the rest is history. This is now the fourth (or fifth) time we’ve done this. There are plenty of obstacles to keep us busy. The first fallacy we have to deal with is the supposed difference between Hebrew and Greek thought. Hebrew, we are told, is obviously good. Greek is irretrievably bad. Hebrew thought is better because it is holistic, concrete, and dynamic. We are told, furthermore, that the whole Bible, including the New Testament (written in Greek), is based on the Hebrew attitude and approach. We are reminded that the aim of the Hebrew system is da’ath Elohim (“Know God”), whereas the Greeks emphasized gnothi seauton (“Know thyself”). Thus in the Greek system, knowledge is emphasized; in the Hebrew system, the goal is to shape the character of the student. It’s Athens versus Jerusalem all over again. Listen, it’s all very simple. The Hebrew language was used by God to deliver His truth to Hebrew speakers. The Greek language was used by the same God to deliver His truth to Greek speakers. A “Christian” worldview bestrides them both.

I recall someone arguing that Hebrew is action-oriented because of its unmarked word order: verb, then subject. In English we say, “God created.” In Hebrew we say, “He created, God.” This is said to reveal ” … the dynamic variety of the Hebrew’s thinking” (Thorlief Boman, Hebrew Thought Compared with Greek, p. 28). Ergo, Hebrew thinking is dynamic; Greek thinking is static. What, then, do you do with languages like Korean, where the verb comes at the end of the sentence? Or German, which has a mish-mash of word order depending on whether the clause is a main clause or a subordinate clause: “I know that the student is good because he has studied” = “Ich weiss dass der Student gut ist weil er studiert hat” (lit., “I know that the student good is because he studied has”). Speak like Yoda I can! Woohoo!

And then there’s the question, “Which language is easier to learn: Hebrew or Greek?” Some say that Greek grammar is more complex than Hebrew. Others argue that Hebrew grammar is more complicated than Greek. After all, “Hebrew often lacks a verb in its sentence!” Huh? Of course there’s a verb there. It’s just implied, as in the Greek sentence Ho anthropos agathos, “The man is good.” This phenomenon even occurs in English: “KNX News Radio time, 10:30.” My opinion is that if you enjoy learning languages, you’ll find neither Greek nor Hebrew to be very difficult. You’ll probably have to work harder at your Hebrew vocabulary simply because Greek shares more cognates with English. But vocabulary acquisition is simply a matter of rote memory.

The bottom line: I think it’s a bit misleading to insist that grammar and thought are inherently related. There are just too many philosophical difficulties inherent in any theory of mental representations. Human language is an adequate vehicle to communicate divine truth. Every human language. Just ask Wycliffe Bible Translators.

(From Dave Black Online. Used by permission.)

Some Subtleties in 3 John

[12/27/2016] 7:34 AM This morning I read 3 John as part of my “daily devotionals.” (I don’t have daily devotions, as everyone knows. There’s nothing virtuous about that statement. If you have “devotions,” more power to you. But my relationship with Christ is such that I’ve never been able to schedule a time to meet with Him. Yes, I’m a crotchety grandpa about certain things.) Here are a few takeaways in no particular order:

1) The chiastic structure of the letter. Ah yes, another “chiasmus.” There is a certain attraction to assigning the name chiasmus to just about anything we find in the New Testament. Here is the trouble: It’s too easy to impose on the text something that isn’t there. That said, I’d outline 3 John as follows:

  1. Introduction
  2. Praise for Gaius
  3. Condemnation of Diotrephes
  4. Praise for Demetrius
  5. Conclusion

The bull’s-eye, the central matrix, is what John has to say about Mr. “Nourished-by-God,” who wanted to be the boss of the church. More on that later.

2) How to filter the kingdom. The Christian life is more than being faithful to the truth. Gaius was that, to be sure. But John commends him for “living out the truth” — living in a manner worthy of the calling he’s received. God makes us worthy as we desire to “imitate what is good” (v. 11): meeting needs, nurturing little souls, the daily labor of parenting, etc. What keeps you from doing the truth? What changes do you need to make in 2017? Bonhoeffer, writing in prison, was on target when he said that repentance is “not in the first place thinking about one’s own needs, problems, sins, and fears, but allowing oneself to be caught up into the way of Jesus Christ” (Letters and Papers from Prison, p. 361). Good advice, if you ask me. I need to take it to heart.

3) Minimizing human leadership. Our human pedestals are such nightmares. They always backfire. Diotrephes had to be “number one.” I don’t mean to minimize the importance of pastoral leadership. But folks, our priorities are backwards. All the wrong things become too big (hierarchy, professionalism, success, size of membership) and all the right things become too small (Jesus first, humility, simplicity, everyone pulling their weight). This issue is no longer trite. It is destroying churches. When our Christian superstars fail, the church loses influence in our culture. It’s high time we humbled ourselves as Christian leaders. Ultimately, the claim of being Top Dawg predicates the rejection of Jesus’ sole lordship (Col. 1:18). It’s just that serious.

4) The passive voice. Say what? Take a look at verse 12. The idea here is “Everyone speaks well of Demetrius.” Many translations actually render the verse this way. But John actually wrote, “Demetrius is well-spoken of by everyone.” That’s the passive voice. And there’s a difference between the active and passive voices. The passive voice usually calls attention to the grammatical subject. Compare these two sentences:

  • “Today, Japanese Prime Minster Abe will visit the Arizona Memorial.”
  • “Today, the Arizona Memorial will be visited by Japanese Prime Minister Abe.”

See the difference? The second sentences carries a meaning like, “Today, the Arizona Memorial [of all places!] will be visited by Japanese Prime Minister Abe.” This is part and parcel of grammar. We study language, and we reap the benefits.

5) The importance of your physical health to God. Note John’s greeting in verse 2: “I hope all is well with you and that you are as healthy in body as you are strong in spirit.” Why isn’t this a reality for so many? We live with such a ridiculous “the spirit matters” but “I don’t have to care for the temple” mentality. What an insane approach to the body God has given us. I mean, we Baptists are the worst offenders. Of course, you can be a skinny person and still be a glutton. But if the number of self-deprecating potluck jokes from our pulpits means anything, we’ve got a problem, Houston. If you need to exercise, then exercise. Wrestle whatever is holding you back. You are too important to the body of Christ to lose years to heart disease and obesity. (Talk about pressure. I have to be fit to preach about presenting our bodies to God as living sacrifices?)

Well, I need to be off and running with today’s chores. Yet who can deny the importance of lying back in our lounge chair and listening to Him? Then, and only then, can we make a hard and fast connection between the brute facts of life and the reality of God. Perhaps if you and I read John’s third letter now and then, we’d find more ways to love God and people.

(From Dave Black Online. Used by permission.)

The Importance of Syntax in the Greek New Testament

7:55 AM “Christ died.” That’s in the aorist tense in Greek. So it must mean “once and for all action.” I was actually taught this in seminary back in the Dark Ages. Nobody would agree with that assessment today. The aorist tense says nothing about the kind of action of the verb. To get “kind of action” you have to go outside the tense to 1) the meaning of the verb and 2) the context. When you do that with “Christ died,” I suppose you could argue that the verb is referring to “once and for all action.” After all, how many times does a person die? And yet when the author of Hebrews wants to make the point that Christ died “once and for all” for our sins, he actually uses the adverb hapax — “once and for all.” Likewise, when the author of 1 Thessalonians commands us to “pray without ceasing,” not only does he use the present imperative, he adds the adverb adaileiptos — “without ceasing.”

Mois├ęs Silva once reminded us not to place too much semantic weight on tense or aspect. He argues that it is the context that is determinative. Which means: Somehow we Greek teachers need to get our students to move beyond word-bound exegesis. Lexical analysis is important, but it is the “handmaiden and not the queen,” as the author of Using New Testament Greek in Ministry puts it. We’ve got to move beyond individual words to study the ways in which words work together to convey meaning. This is why I no longer postpone “exegesis” to third semester Greek. Students need to get this straight, and get this in their first year of Greek instruction.

To my Greek 2 students: The spring semester will be upon us before you know it. For me, morphology — how words are constructed — is vitally important. Yet I also believe that a language’s syntax is important, and getting the syntax right will help us to avoid the exegetical fallacies that many still commit. Furthermore, the study of syntax is where the fun is. Nuggets of truth often jump off the page instead of being buried under a wealth of morphemes. Yes, there is controversy over whether students can even be taught to read New Testament Greek. But I hope that one day we can put aside our methodological biases and equip our students with the tools they need to do accurate exegetical study. This includes the study of discourse analysis as an essential part of exegesis. It also means that we can no longer ignore the rhetorical level of language as a meaningful level for readers. To anyone who says style and rhetoric isn’t important, I would simply point them to the scale of the cosmetics industry, which is predicted to reach 265 billion dollars in 2017.

Don’t be discouraged from doing syntax. There is plenty of help for us out there in the cyber world. My friend Harold Greenlee is now with the Lord, but his essay The Importance of Syntax for the Proper Understanding of the Sacred Text of Scripture is still worth reading. Syntax has been one of the most enjoyable and fun things I’ve done in my 40 years of teaching, and I hope you will enjoy it as much as I have.

(From Dave Black Online. Used by permission.)