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Significant Linguistic Theories for Aiding Greek Studies

Categories New Testament

Screen Shot 2015-07-06 at 10.58.45 PMLuther was right: “Insofar as we love the gospel, to that same extent let us study the ancient tongues.”

So also contends in Constantine Campbell in his new book Advances in the Study of Greek. Yet studying the “ancient tongues” can be a daunting task, particularly keeping abreast of cutting-edge shifts that impact how we think about and teach the text. Campbell’s book ameliorates such a task.

Blending academic acumen with practical resourcement, Campbell’s book offers an introduction to modern advances in the study of New Testament Greek with intelligible accessibility.

In particular, his work sheds significant light on linguistics and its bearing on modern Greek studies, a vital vein of study for any exegete.

From Philology to Linguistics

Campbell argues we must understand the trajectory of Greek studies to grasp current Greek scholarship, especially how linguistics has influenced it.

We begin with the great philological advancements of the nineteenth century: “the analysis of Greek through comparative philology and breakthroughs in understanding the Greek verbal system.” (30) Comparative philology was an especially important movement forward. As was Blass’ Grammatik, which “remains the most potent injection of nineteenth-century Greek scholarship into modern times.” (32)

Twentieth-century advancements were marked by two legacies: papyrological evidence, and Moulton’s and Robertson’s Greek grammars. Deissmann and Thumb seized on papyri discoveries to set new groundwork for a new era in Greek grammar studies. Drawing on papyri and comparative philology, Robertson “produced the greatest of all New Testament grammars.” (34)

While the nineteenth century was dominated by philology, a new era favored “synchronic linguistics… ‘the analysis of languages as communicative systems as they exist at a given point of time…’” (35) Several modern linguists forever changed Greek studies:

  • Ferdinand de Saussure distinguished between “language as it exists at a certain point in time” (synchronic linguistics) from “the evolution of language over time” (diachronic linguistics). (37)
  • The so-called “Prague School” was characterized by Saussure’s concern for synchronic linguistics, viewing language in terms of function. Such a concern “went beyond description to explanation, ‘saying not just what languages were like but why they were the way they were.’” (38)
  • Noam Chomsky, the “Einstein of linguistics,” revealed “linguistic universals in syntax,” pointing to universal biological factors in language.
  • Other contributions include: Barr, who exposed the problem of constructing theology through word studies; Systematic Functional Linguistics, which approached language as “a tool for communication within the variety of contexts of human interaction;” (42) and Louw’s and Nida’s ground-breaking lexicon.
  • Modern advancements, fostered by such voices as Stanley Porter and Moisés Silva, include: discourse analysis, lexicography, voice, corpus linguistics, imperative mood, the article, and prepositions.

Campbell emphasizes, “It is important to recognize the ways in which modern linguistics has influenced the study of the Greek of the New Testament.” (49)

Systemic Functional Linguistics and NT Exegesis

The history of Greek studies is helpful insofar as it gives context to current debates. Campbell believes advances in linguistics is a boon for the modern exegete, especially the school within functional linguistics: Systemic Functional Linguistics.

“A functional approach is ultimately most suited to the study of Biblical Greek,” says Campbell. He quotes Halliday and Matthiessen to explain:

We use language to make sense of our experience, and to carry out our interactions with other people. This means that the grammar has to interface with what goes on outside language: with the happenings and conditions of the world, and with the social processes we engage in. But at the same time it has to organize the construal of experience, and the enactment of social processes, so that they can be transformed into wording. (62)

Language, therefore, is functional in nature, rather than merely formal.

It’s also systemic: “Meaning is created through meaningful choices within a system of options. When a language user chooses a certain word, she is also ‘unchoosing’ other options that might have been chosen.” (63)

A number of other dynamics are in play, but perhaps an example will help. Campbell offers the debate surrounding the Greek verbal system, and whether temporal reference is encoded in the indicative verb form. Porter and others insist it isn’t, believing “temporal expression must be a pragmatic category—it is a function of the verb in context, rather than a constant, permanent feature of the verb.” (70) Whereas Fanning believes temporal reference is a semantic feature of the form of indicative verbs.

Campbell concludes, “the debate about ‘tense’ in the Greek indicative system depends on methodological, presuppositional distinctions. These are linguistic distinctions.” (70)


Better understanding Greek linguistics can lead to new textual insights, deeper understanding, and more precise conclusions. It can also correct long-held errors regarding method and wrong textual readings.

Campbell’s invaluable Greek resource will equip you with the cutting-edge insights you need to correctly handle God’s Word. It will also rekindle your love for the study of the ancient tongues, for the sake of the gospel.

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