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Observations from a Linguistic Spectator: An Annual Report


Beginning this April, I will work as an assistant at the University of Basel at the chair of Prof. Moisés Mayordomo. Already on my second work day, I was going to give a presentation in the research seminar in Zurich—an event which now has of course been cancelled due to the Corona virus situation. Since I had already begun making some mental notes for this presentation, I thought it might be wise to instead make a series of articles about the subject that I was going to talk about. Here, I’ll make some introductory remarks and I hope I’ll be able to find the time over the coming weeks for the other installments.

First, I should note that the topic of this presentation was intentionally different from a usual paper that one often presents in research seminars. We’ve probably all been in the situation that a scholar gives a paper on details of his or her current research, almost no one has read the previously circulated draft, and during the presentation everybody is searching through BibleWorks in order to make a clever observation as a launch pad for the discussion. My intention this time was to do something totally different. I wanted to talk about issues to which I had not paid sufficient attention but which had become important to me during the time of the revision of my doctoral dissertation on Paul as narrator for publication with BZNW (and my subsequent postdoctoral research) had become important to me. More specifically, it was my plan to talk about linguistic insights that I had only recently acquired during this period. That’s why it’s (roughly) an “annual report.”

Of course, such a presentation has the potential of being embarrassing (or even discrediting for earlier research) by laying bare the previous ignorance of the presenter. This is a consideration that I had to take into account to an even greater extent for this more public venue. However, it was my hope – and is now – that listeners/readers would appreciate that I put my cards on the table. After all, I am confident that if some of these things had been new discoveries to me – even though they probably shouldn’t have been – they might also hold, in part at least, the potential of expanding someone else’s horizon. So I count on your graciousness…

Picture from times when presentations where still possible in Zurich

Also, I would like you to keep in mind the original setting of what follows. Please be tolerant concerning the style of these posts. They are not verbatim protocols of what I would have said, but they are certainly influenced by my mental simulations. Note also that I had planned at points to refer to the work of other people in the original audience to illustrate the relevance of the points I was making, to drive home the idea that these are not theoretical meanderings without any bearing on the work with actual biblical texts. I have not made the attempt to replace all these illustrations for the present purpose of this blog post. So please don’t take these references as major criticisms, but rather keep in mind that they were meant to induce lively discussion after the presentation (and perhaps we can have some of this here in the comments). In the published monograph, you will recognise many of the subjects I talk about here and in many cases the context there is a different one and the literature I interact with is more diverse. I will also point to some pieces of literature that I found especially helpful and that I recommend for others who are just as ignorant as I was about certain aspects of linguistic research, but this is by no means meant to offer an exhaustive bibliography. Again, in the published book on narratives in Paul you’ll find the references for the work I am most relying on.

On being a linguistic spectator

I’ve already explained the subtitle of the presentation/this series. I now need to address the actual substance as it is incapsulated by the title. Quite obviously, I plan to write about aspects of linguistic research. But I do so specifically as someone who has not received formal training in this area. I’ve got a BA in theology with an emphasis on biblical studies, an MLitt in Biblical Languages and Literature and I read a lot of linguistic literature for my dissertation (see above). But I don’t think I am a “linguist” – simply, because I haven’t received any formal training in this area. In online discussions, I’ve noticed that other scholars who work on aspects related to the language of the New Testament are sometimes less reluctant with that self-designation. But it seems important to me to be realistic about my limits. In fact, I do think that at certain points due to my familiarity with the NT texts I can actually contribute to linguistic discussions. But this is mostly by way of applying principles and clarifying distinctions. Only very rarely when reading the linguistic literature do I have the impression that I am actually in the position to correct something. This is of course not the place to judge whether other NT scholars might or might not be more qualified to call themselves linguists. To be sure, some of them have certainly read much more linguistic literature than I have. Still, I would at least like to observe here that when I am in conversation with trained linguists, they themselves often seem to be quite keen to emphasise their distinctiveness. Thus, I have the tendency to believe that one’s  actual training is indeed important in whether or not one  should call him or herself a linguist. In fact, I’ve noticed in many areas that there is something peculiar about “career jumpers” who discover a new subject of academic interest relatively late in their education. I am not entirely sure why this is, but I assume that the way you learn basic tools during your undergraduate studies has an important influence on the way you go about your work later – for better and for worse (on which see more below) – and that this helps create at least apparent boundaries between the disciplines.

Learning from linguists – remaining exegetes

So again, I observe linguistic discussions only as a bystander. The wonderful German term Zaungast implies not only that the person doesn’t really belong. It also has a quite voyeuristic ring. And indeed, despite the fact that I want to be clear about the limitations of the authority with which I can speak on these issues, I nevertheless want to emphasise my interest in the linguistic research – and my conviction that as NT scholars we should at least try to incorporate linguistic insights to the best of our abilities into our exegetical work. Heinrich von Siebenthal often says that he is “a linguist with interests in biblical texts” and I would analogically say that I am “an exegete with interests in linguistic results.”

That linguistics is somehow relevant for biblical interpretation is probably not a controversial statement for most. It is quite obvious that the study of language per se might have important things to say regarding the study of texts written in a specific language. However, in my attempts to take into account the relevant research as well as I can, I’ve sometimes still encountered a certain kind of scepticism – which I think is directed specifically at the claims of superiority attached to the use of certain linguistic methods. Some scholars are very skeptical about the value of NT scholarship when it is presented as the discovery of the philosopher’s stone – and rightly so. Too often, NT scholars fixate on a specific aspect or school of linguistic research and use the question of whether or not it is applied in a certain piece of secondary literature as a test of whether or not it can be taken seriously at all. Again, some of this irritation might have to do with an unrealistic perception of one’s own place in relation to the linguistic community.

Therefore, what I want to say at the outset is that I totally understand, if you as a non-linguist are not very interested in learning from another non-linguist about why this or that concept is absolutely crucial for your work. In fact, I would go even further and confirm your suspicion that not only are linguistic amateurs just that – but that linguistics itself certainly has its blind spots. I just don’t think that we should use these blind spots as excuses for not immersing ourselves into the concepts and tools of this field that are actually valuable. Of course, we could use our specialisation in historical research in order to point out limitations within some discussions in the linguistic community. I actually think that’s totally fine if indeed our grasp of these discussions is sound enough. I just happen to think that my own personal set of qualifications and skills is better suited for taking the other route, i.e., looking into linguistic research to shed light on the aspects of the texts that remain dark to us due to the blind spots inherent in our historical-critical education.

Of course, behind all this stands the much more general debate between philologists and linguists about who is the worse reader of texts, i.e. whether ignorance of historical circumstances or the basic structures of language have a more detrimental effect on the task of interpretation. We don’t have to make a judgment about this question here, nor do we have to decide which discipline, if properly understood, actually incorporates the other. It suffices for this context to recognise our limitations as exegetes of the historical-critical tradition and to develop a genuine interest in learning from linguists, without claiming in self-chastisement that they don’t have limitations of their own. In doing so, I think we can have a very fruitful dialogue.

A perfect illustration

Let me close by recounting a short anecdote, that I think perfectly illustrates that point. As part of my analysis of narratives in Paul’s letters I was systematically going through all perfect indicative forms in his letters. Perfect verb forms had never posed any real problem for me as a student, when my main task was to translate Koine texts. (By the way, I think it’s one of the biggest problems in the current way we teach Greek that we train students to translate, and that not even properly, instead of to read – two totally different things.) From my Greek education with Heinrich von Siebenthal I had remembered that the indicative perfect was a tense referring to the time of speaking and that it communicated the “resultative” aspect (cf. AGG 200). But I don’t think I activated that knowledge a lot during translation. I think I didn’t experience many problems simply because I just managed to figure out which verb form was needed in the German. I don’t think I really thought a lot about aspect and temporality. The only confusion I remember is when I did my master’s degree in the English speaking world and N. T. Wright insisted in our Galatians class that Χριστῷ συνεσταύρωμαι should be translated “I have been crucified with Christ” (instead of “I was”) because of the “perfect.”

Now, at the time of  the revision of my doctoral dissertation, I had already learnt more about Greek aspect, but I have to admit that a lot of what I read in The Greek Verb Revisited was new to me and sensitised me to pay more attention to issues of verbal grammar.

So when I now returned again to perfect verb forms in the Pauline letters, the things that had formerly seemed perhaps mildly odd to me now appeared to be outright strange. In particular, in Second Corinthians (and in John and Revelation) I found a lot of perfect forms that just seemed “wrong” to me. A famous example of such a problematic verb form is of course 2. Cor 1:9a: ἀλλὰ αὐτοὶ ἐν ἑαυτοῖς τὸ ἀπόκριμα τοῦ θανάτου ἐσχήκαμεν. Many reference grammars note that the perfect form seems to be used here either in place of the ind. aor. or the pluperfect (cf. AGG 200e). To be sure, the former requires a quite early dating of the merging between ind. aor. and ind. perf. and has to deal with the fact that Paul uses the aorist stem of ἔχω at several places. The latter option, which receives a lot of discussion in Robinson’s grammar (and is forcefully rejected by Caragounis), faces the problem that in John you also find many regular pluperfect forms. Also, while the “historic (indicative) present” is indeed used to refer to a situation in the past, Robinson’s own characterization of the “historic perfect” emphasizes the difference between this usage and the pluperfect: “The experience may have seemed too vivid to Paul for the past perfect.” In other words: the perfect is used quite regularly after all, namely because it talks about a situation that is indeed still in place at the time of speaking/writing.

Whether or not one of these two explanations is valid despite the mentioned problems or not, it seems clear that this is indeed a difficult verse – and as I said it’s far from being exceptional in the NT. What’s interesting to me is that discussions in NT commentaries usually don’t reflect this situation at all. There, the focus is usually primarily on the question of what the talk about a “death sentence” might mean: Imprisonment? Sickness? What happened in Asia (V. 8)? How does it relate to the – certainly also figurative – fight with wild animals in 1. Cor 15,32? What’s the relationship to Acts 19,23-40? We can see here that the historical matters and the way the figurative language of the death sentence is to be understood – i.e. how it relates to Paul’s biography – is usually central to the discussion. The verb form is usually simply said to be aoristic in a footnote. (Some commentators maintain that it’s a normal perfect and recognise correctly what this implies for the time of writing, thus concluding that the imagery of the death sentence must have to do with a sickness that is still not over – an interpretation that seems to be problematic in light of verse 10, where the end of the dangerous situation seems to be stated explicitly.)

The gate of persecution – built with stones of the stadion in which Paul would have had to have fought literal wild beasts

Now, here’s what happened when I talked to a linguist about the passage and the fact that it causes me trouble. He just commented: “It seems to me that it’s entirely possible that they are still living under a death sentence in 1.9. Perhaps there are cities that Paul cannot return to.” Of course, for an NT exegete trained in the historical-critical tradition, such a statement sets off whole fireworks of questions surrounding jurisprudence in Roman provinces and death penalties in antiquity. But that’s exactly what I meant, when I said we could have a fruitful dialogue if we remained aware of our own blind spots and became interested in the “macula” of our conversation partner (it works much better in German, where the designation for the area of the retina that provides high-quality focused vision is “gelber Fleck” as opposed to the “blinde Fleck”). We can have it both ways – we can insist that it’s perfectly legitimate to emphasize the importance of historical reconstructions of Paul’s experience of legal systems, while we at the same time recognize that we need indeed a very good explanation for Paul’s use of the ind. perf. in 2. Cor 1:9 (if we believe he meant what we always say he meant) in light of the fact that a linguistically trained person at first sight thinks it is perfectly regular.

Further reading

Part 2: Lexical Semantics and Lexicography
Part 3: Grammatical Aspect and “Aktionsartpotential”: Some Basic Observations
Part 4: Understanding Greek Verbs

Written by
Christoph Heilig

Christoph Heilig – currently postdoc in Basel – is the author of Hidden Criticism? (Fortress, 2017) and Paul’s Triumph (Peeters, 2017). This research has recently received the Mercator Award in the Humanities and Social Sciences. Additionally, he has co-edited (with J. Thomas Hewitt and Michael F. Bird) God and the Faithfulness of Paul: A Critical Examination of the Pauline Theology of N. T. Wright (Fortress, 2017). In his most recent – and voluminous – project, which has just been completed, he discusses the importance of “stories” and “narrative substructures” for understanding Paul’s letters. It is currently in press with de Gruyter.

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Written by Christoph Heilig