Book Review: Douglas Estes, Questions and Rhetoric in the Greek New Testament

Estes, Douglas. Questions and Rhetoric in the Greek New Testament. An Essential Reference Resource for Exegesis. Grand Rapids, Mich. Zondervan, 2017. 400 pp. Hb; $49.99. Link to Zondervan

For most students of the New Testament Greek, the syntax of questions is often mysterious and difficult since most introductory grammars do not devote a chapter on how Greek forms questions, let alone the rhetorical nuances of questions. Usually how questions are formed is covered under punctuation or when the first interrogative pronouns are introduced. But rarely does a first-year New Testament grammar have the space to unpack any of the subtle rhetorical features of questions.

Douglas Estes has filled this lacuna with a lengthy monograph on the syntax and rhetoric of questions in the New Testament. Estes previously published his dissertation on The Questions of Jesus in John: Logic, Rhetoric, and Persuasive Discourse (Biblical Interpretation Series 115; Leiden: Brill, 2013). This handbook on Greek questions joins Murray Harris’s 2012 monograph on prepositions in Zondervan’s Essential Reference Resource for Exegesis series.

Estes describes twenty-eight linguistic features of questions (related to syntax, semantics, and pragmatics) in the first main section of the book. With respect to syntax Estes examines sentence formation and function, including word order, punctuation, mood of verbs and many other ways a Greek sentence can ask a question. This will be the most familiar to beginning Greek students. With respect to semantics, Estes examines such things as illocutionary force (pushing something forward toward the audience) or predicaments (asking a question in a way that affects how the question is heard by and responded to by the hearers). In the third section of the book Estes looks at four types of questions driven by syntax, rather than semantics. In this section he examines polar questions, variable questions, alternative questions and set questions. The fourth section lists a staggering twenty four types of questions which are driven by semantics (open questions, dilemma questions, counterfactual questions, etc.)

For each of the syntactical categories, Estes offers a brief definition followed by illustrations from the Greek New Testament but also in English. This will help a student understand the category. For example, under the heading of “Dilemma Questions,” Estes defines this category as a question asking the hearer to choose between two difficult situations. He then gives three examples in English and distinguishes the dilemma from a dilemmaton, which is a trick question designed as a verbal ambush for an enemy. He then briefly discusses the formation of this kind of question and its rhetorical effects. After this technical detail, he examines one New Testament text in detail as a “case study” (Luke 20:4 to illustrate a dilemmaton).

Estes provides copious examples from the Greek New Testament (a Scripture index is provided) as well as references to Greek rhetorical handbooks where appropriate. These include Quintilian (Institutio oratoria) and the works of Aristotle. After describing the syntactical or rhetorical feature and a case study, Estes provides several New Testament examples and a “key bibliography” to both ancient and modern writers.

Conclusion. Douglas Estes has done students of the Greek New Testament a great service by writing a remarkably accessible introduction to a potentially arcane sub-discipline.

Zondervan posted a book trailer for Questions and Rhetoric on YouTube.

NB: Thanks to Zondervan for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

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