The Canadian Society of Biblical Studies held its annual meeting from June 1-3 at the University of British Columbia as part of the Canadian Congress of Humanities and Social Sciences. There were three days of papers by both faculty and students, and other meetings were also held, including the Presidential Address and the Craigie Lecture.
I was honored to be the President for this year, so I had more responsibilities than usual. I hosted the student paper presentations, which for this year only awarded a prize to a paper in Old Testament. I also hosted the Craigie Lecture, with Dr. Marvin Sweeney from Claremont School of Theology. He spoke on the Saul and David stories in Samuel. His literary and political reading of these stories was very compelling.
The main focus of my time and effort was upon my Presidential Address. The President of the CSBS is a yearly rotating position, with the holder of the office serving first as Vice President and then as President for a year each.
The title of my talk was “Where Have All the Greek Grammarians Gone? And Why Should Anyone Care?” I was originally scheduled to give a talk with a similar title when I lived in the UK, but moved to Canada before I could give it. I have been thinking about this topic ever since and this occasion gave me the opportunity to think out loud about the state of play of Greek grammatical discussion.
I enjoyed preparing my lecture, even though in many ways the subject is discouraging, with fewer and fewer students choosing to study biblical languages. I didn’t try to solve the larger cultural problem of students opting for pragmatism over knowledge. However, I did try to set our knowledge of Greek within the larger intellectual history of study of language since the Enlightenment. I discussed the three major periods in language study—the rationalist period, the comparative historical period, and the modern linguistic period.
I noted that the rationalist period is dominated by rationalism and empiricism, with Georg Winer’s being the major example. However, most currently-used elementary Greek grammars are also rationalistic in orientation, equating tense-form and time and positing a variety of other logically consistent ideas. Several intermediate grammars—including Wallace and Köstenberger et al.—are also rationalist products.
The second period is the comparative historical. This period was concerned to study languages diachronically and compare various individual features and the rules that they follow. The three major reference grammars of New Testament Greek—by Friedrich Blass, James Hope Moulton, and A. T. Robertson—are all comparative historical. These grammars continue to be widely used even though they follow a now outmoded approach to language.
The modern linguistic period revolves around an entirely different set of beliefs about language, such as synchrony over diachrony, langue vs. parole, and the social function of language. However, there are only a limited number of Greek grammatical works written from the modern linguistic perspective. These include a few elementary and intermediate grammars. We still lack a major reference grammar of New Testament Greek according to a recognized model of modern linguistics. We are content to use the products of the past rather than do the work of learning and utilizing linguistics in the present.
Rather than disputing over whether one uses modern or Erasmian pronunciation, the topic that seems to dominate contemporary discussion, we should be much more concerned to ensure that our students are exposed to the best thought regarding the biblical languages, and that we work toward creating such works. I described the five major approaches to language study, but also pointed out that many of these pre-date the modern linguistic era, and so they themselves are not responsible for the downturn in language students and neither are they the cure.
I concluded by recognizing the state of the situation but called upon my colleagues to take the time and effort necessary to learn some linguistics and, more importantly, to help insure that we have the best linguistic resources available not just for our students but for our scholarly writing and research.
Whereas there was a wide variety of papers presented at this year’s CSBS meeting, I was honored by having been elected President and being able to deliver this address. It seemed to arouse quite a bit of discussion afterwards. I hope that some of my colleagues were inspired to help ensure that Greek language study continues to develop in the field of New Testament scholarship.
— Stanley E. Porter