Recently we highlighted a new exegetical tool called Linguistics and Biblical Exegesis, which introduces the Bible student to linguistics and its relevance for biblical exegesis (hence the name). I caught up with Mike Aubrey, one of the contributors to the book who is a professional linguist and biblical studies enthusiast, to chat further about the project and about the future of Koine Greek and linguistics.
Linguistics and Biblical Exegesis demonstrates quite a few ways in which linguistics knowledge can help us be more careful exegetes. What got you interested in linguistics in the first place, and how has it affected your own study of the Bible?
My initial interest in linguistics came out of my time in college at Moody Bible Institute. MBI has a undergraduate degree in linguistics. I wasn’t apart of it, but a solid third of the other guys on my dorm floor were linguistics majors and I got to interact with them a lot. Eventually, I got hooked, but it was too late to switch to a linguistics major. I ended up with a degree in biblical languages and headed to the Graduate Institute of Applied Linguistics in Dallas, TX where my wife Rachel and I started graduate studies in linguistics. After that, we moved to Canada to finish our masters degrees in linguistics in Trinity Western University’s linguistics department. She’s contributed a ground-breaking study on middle voice to The Greek Verb Revisited.
Much of this linguistics training has been applied linguistics. That is, focused on more practical tasks of linguistics, such as language documentation and description. One of the things that I’ve taken a way from that background for biblical study is a strong sense of just how small the New Testament is as a corpus for grammar. Sometimes, there are rare grammatical patterns in the New Testament that end up being more common when we look beyond to a larger set of texts. As a result, whenever I’m working on something new, I try to cast as wide a net as I can to bring language data together. This invariably means bringing in the LXX, Apostolic Fathers, Josephus, etc. We need more papyri data though. The big challenge is that tagging schemes that we have for the NT or LXX don’t often extend to papyri corpuses, particularly.
In the context of personal bible study, linguistics can also be a bit distracting since I’m always finding rabbit trails from things that pop out at me. And all of the sudden I’m taking notes on intransitive passive constructions in Josephus’ Antiquities or trying to figure out whether future infinitives are actually semantically future or something else. Why is there a class of quantifiers and pronouns that can appear outside the scope of the Greek article in noun phrases? These things keep me up at night.
What’s the background of this book? How did it come about, and what did you all hope to accomplish?
That’s a good question. I’m not entirely sure. If I remember correctly the project was proposed five or six year ago. I think they might have asked Steve Runge to contribute the Greek chapter, but then he didn’t have time and suggested asking me. But the goal was to provide an overview book. We weren’t suppose to break new ground to put forward new ideas. I confess that was difficult for me. The ground is fertile for new and creative linguistic work in a number of areas, if only people would start looking beyond tense and aspect. I think I walked a fine line on semantics and lexicons by framing the larger discussion in the context of contemporary linguistics literature rather than just discussing the current state of semantics in Greek, which is a good 30 years out of date.
The chapter that I contributed with Daniel Wilson was primarily written by Daniel. He did an excellent job and then I came in added a few Greek examples and made it a bit more accessible. I think my biggest hope is that people walk away from the book curious to learn more with a slightly different view of things than what’s in, say, David Black’s excellent little volume Linguistics for Students of New Testament Greek. I *hope* we give a little more than the basic concepts that he introduced (what is morphology? what is phonology?) and provide material for going a little deeper down the linguistics rabbit hole.
I know you cover a lot of this in the book, but for those who don’t own it yet, what are some of the most pressing linguistic issues that need to be researched further for us to better understand Koine Greek?
The opportunities are wide open! Noun phrase structure and ordering is understudied. There is also compounding and derivational word-formation. I think there’s a lot of potential for a comprehensive study of the underlying semantics of gender from the perspective that perhaps the lexical assignment of gender is perhaps not as arbitrary as we imagine it is. Is it an accident that fruit bearing trees tend to grammatically feminine? Probably not. But there’s no systematic study. Of course, that sort of topic isn’t going to produce exegetical fruit, so for most people it wouldn’t get priority. And that’s the problem: most of what I’m most curious about doesn’t produce substantial exegetical payoff; it’s simply an undescribed part of the language.
Let’s say several people are already thinking, “ok ok, I need to start learning some linguistics!” After they read Linguistics and Biblical Exegesis, what would you recommend as some further resources to lay the foundation for a lifetime of studying linguistics?
Ah, that’s where things can get complicated. Linguistics has something in common with physics, pedagogically, in that in physics, everyone learns Newtonian physics in secondary school/high school. And then if you study physics in college, you then learn about how Newtonian physics is wrong and you learn all the ways we have moved on or corrected Newtonian physics. But Newtonian physics is still an important pedagogical building block to get to quantum mechanics or relativity. The trouble is that linguistics doesn’t have the advantage of learning that initial pedagogically helpful piece…which would be something like pre-Chomsky phrase structure grammar, probably.
My own personal experience was learning practical (i.e. applied) grammatical analysis methodology first and foremost. That’s what’s taught at both GIAL and also at TWU. And there’s a logic to that. Both departments are connected to Wycliffe Bible Translators so learning the tools and methods for being able to analyze languages from scratch is part and parcel to their work. In that context, Emma Pavey’s The Structure of Language: An Introduction to Grammatical Analysis is a favorite of mine. R. M. W. Dixon’s Basic Linguistic Theory 3 vols. is another. I like Pavey’s book because the framework she uses takes syntax and semantics relationship seriously. From there, you ideally have the foundation to go out on your own looking at more specific topics. I think everyone should also read Joan Bybee’s Language, Usage and Cognition and Eve Sweetser’s From Etymology to Pragmatics, too.
After that, the answer to the question of “recommended resources” is invariably: “It depends. What do you what to learn about?” And actually, making an annotated bibliography for this sort of thing is on my to-do list. I get asked the question relatively often.
Now that this project is behind you, what do you hope to get finished in the next 5, 10, or 15 years?
Good question. My wife and I are writing a large reference grammar–the current TOC draft is over at https://koine-greek.com/the-
Thanks, Mike, for chatting with us, and we look forward to that reference grammar. We’re long overdue for one that will integrate linguistics well.
Preview or buy Linguistics and Biblical Exegesis here on Amazon.