Book Review: Douglas Mangum and Josh Westbury, eds. Linguistics & Biblical Exegesis

Mangum, Douglas and Josh Westbury, eds. Linguistics & Biblical Exegesis. Lexham Methods Series 2; Lexham Press, 2016. 262 pp. $24.99   Link to Lexham Press

The second volume of the Lexham Methods series surveys the often difficult field of linguistics. Since the essays in this volume are all aimed at students who are doing exegesis of the whole Bible, examples are given for both the Old and New Testaments. For this review I read the electronic version of the book on an iPad using the Logos app and occasionally referred to the full desktop version of Logos.

Wendy Widder begins her introduction to this volume with the observation “Language is remarkably simple and extraordinarily complex at the same time.” A short handbook like this volume cannot possibly cover all aspects of linguistics. This book is not a guide teaching the methods of linguistic analysis. Rather, Widder says the book will introduce readers to the “aspects of linguistics that most apply to biblical study” in assist students who are using modern commentaries and other resources which do linguistic analysis of the text of the Bible.

In chapter 2 Widder introduces four fundamental aspects of linguistic study: phonology (study of sounds and their organization in language), morphology (the study of how languages form their words), semantics (how a language creates meaning), and syntax (how a language arranges its words into phrases, clauses, and sentences).

Jeremy Thompson and Wendy Widder survey several areas of linguistics focused on language use (chapter 3). The focus of the chapter is studying how language is used in context, or language as it is “actually used in literary and social contexts.” This includes pragmatics (meaning in context, including relevance theory and speech-act theory), discourse analysis (study that focuses on analyzing strings of sentences connected in a discourse). Discourse grammar is used to describe “grammatical conventions based upon the discourse functions they accomplish” citing Runge. The chapter includes a short discussion of sociolinguistics (the interaction between language and society, or social context).

In chapter 4 Daniel Wilson and Michael Aubrey offer a concise overview of the more complicated linguistic topics relevant for analyzing the biblical languages, such as language universals (grammatical, syntactic and semantic patterns that extend across languages).   The chapter also introduces linguistic typology (the attempt to establish universals across languages based on the presence or absence of forms) and markedness (how linguistic elements relate to each other).  Although arcane, Wilson and Aubrey argue the syntactic application of markedness is “one of the most beneficial for biblical exegesis” because it emphasizes prominence of a particular word or phrase in a sentence. If an author “marked” a structure in a sentence, the exegete ought to explore why it was so marked.

Jeremy Thompson and Wendy Widder provide a brief introduction to the field of linguistics and the main schools of thought in linguistics (chapter 5). They begin with a short section on comparative philology, which studies historical written sources to identify relationships among languages. This includes diachronic methods illustrated the Brown-Driver-Briggs (BDB) lexicon. This section interacts with James Barr, Comparative Philology and the Text of the Old Testament (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1987). Barr is well-known for his challenge to the diachronic method (and although this chapter does not mention it, he savaged TDNT). The chapter also includes sections on:

  • According to this chapter, the value of structuralism is seen at the lexical level. The authors cite several lexicons, including the valuable Louw and Nida.
  • Functionalism takes as its starting point that the end function of language is communication, and it works backward toward understanding language as a whole. With respect to biblical Greek, the influence of functionalism can be seen in approaches like Runge’s discourse grammar.
  • Generative grammar, following Noam Chomsky that posits a set of grammatical rules which generate surface structure sentences from deep structure sentences
  • Discourse analysis, a method which “approaches language at higher levels than the sentence.” The definition is more problematic since biblical studies has adopted some of the terminology and methods, but they do not always deploy them the way they were originally defined.
  • Cognitive linguistics applies cognitive science to language as a cognitive process continually affected by one’s experiences

Chapters six and seven focus on how linguistic methods are applied to the Bible. Both chapters cover the same four topics (Problems with the Data (in both cases, they are dead languages, although Greek has more Dara to work with); Verbal System, Semantics and Lexicography, and Word Order). Wendy Widder deals with linguistic issues in Biblical Hebrew (chapter 6). Widder observes that “establishing a chronology of the language in the Old Testament is infamously difficult because we lack firm dates for the composition of the biblical books” although some evidence from inscriptions and cognate languages “allows scholars to hypothesize patterns of development and thus the chronology of biblical Hebrew.” With respect to the New Testament, Michael Aubrey laments the fact papyri has not yet been sufficiently integrated into lexicons. “Moulton and Milligan’s Vocabulary of the Greek Testament was a grand attempt at the integration of the papyri into the lexicographical work of the era, but it never went beyond being a supplement to other lexicons.”

Finally, Michael Aubrey contributes an essay on the value of “linguistically informed Exegesis.” He argues a linguistically informed exegesis will enhance the “precision and explanatory power” of exegesis.

Each essay concludes with a short “Importance for Biblical Languages.”  These will be most useful to biblical studies students brushing up on linguistic. Following each essay is a brief, annotated “Resources for Further Study.” These often cite chapters in textbooks on linguistics. The annotations briefly point out the connections to the present topic. Some of these resources are substantive, but others less so. This should not surprise readers, but this guide is on the conservative side of the theological spectrum. Many of the linguistic resources recommended are conservative (for example, David Alan Black; Robert D. Bergen 1987 JETS article, “Text as a Guide to Authorial Intention: An Introduction to Discourse Criticism”.

For the Logos Library version, there are inks to the glossary for key terms and scholars and movements. Float over the name Ferdinand de Saussure or the Prague School and Logos will show the entry for the glossary for the term. This is extremely helpful when reading the book on an iPad or desktop installation of Logos. As with other contributions to this series, Lexham could convert this glossary in a flash card format Study Blue, Quizlet, Cerego) or create a test-bank for professors. This would make the book more useful to students, especially of the book is adopted as a textbook.

I noticed a few typos (Rung for Runge, page 60), some malformed Greek, and a few formatting problems which may only appear in the electronic format for example. More critical is a citation of Stanley Porter on page 82. The quote has a footnote indicating it is from the second edition of Idioms of the Greek New Testament, (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic, 1999), 55–56. This is actually from Porter’s essay “Prominence: An Overview” in The Linguist as Pedagogue, pages 55-56 (the book does not appear in this volume).

I assume all these will be reported, corrected, and updated copies will be pushed out to Logos users. I find the lack of page numbers in the iPad annoying, but the book has a detailed numbering system 5.4.1, and this numbering system appears in the upper right hand of the iPad version.

This brings me to a slight criticism. In the section on discourse analysis several works are recommended which are other Lexham products. Are these really the best resources? In this particular example it may be the case since there is nothing quite like The Lexham High Definition Old and New Testament. As for the influence of structuralism on lexicons, they cite A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains, The Dictionary of Classical Hebrew, the Semantic Dictionary of Biblical Hebrew, and the Bible Sense Lexicon. The last is a Faithlife production. There is nothing wrong with the Bible Sense Lexicon, but would it be cited along with Louw and Nida in another introduction to linguistics?

 

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

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