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.)

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