Labyrinthine Linguistics

Theseus & the Minotaur, Attic black-figure lekythos, 500-475 BC, credit Wikipedia

 Labyrinthine Linguistics

Stanley E. Porter, The Pastoral Epistles: A Commentary on the Greek Text. Baker Academic. 2023. Pp.i-xxi, 1-969. $70.00, reviewed by Darrell Sutton

This important book is the result of close reading and scrupulous study. The approach is linguistic, guided by the rules of Formal Systemic Functional Grammar, which is ‘a system-based functional linguistic model that connects socially grounded meanings with instances of language usage… defining and examining various theoretical strata that connect context to expression’ (p.3). Stanley Porter (henceforth SP) maintains, however, that The Pastoral Epistles: A Commentary on the Greek Text is not a full-blown linguistic commentary. It is.

To begin with, readers may well struggle with SP’s language. He provides functional explanations, definitions, and classifications to aid the reader: monosemy ‘is the principle, or perhaps the orientation or predisposition, of seeing singular rather than multiple meanings for any linguistic element’ (p.4); grammatical monosemy posits that ‘grammatical features also have abstract semantics that are modulated or constrained by contextual features, including grammatical environments’ (p.5). He does find many common descriptions to be outmoded, saying ‘there are some who still use the terminology of VSO (verb, subject, object)… but this assumes a grammatically explicit subject… which many Greek clauses simply do not formally express (they have an implied subject with verbal morphology)’ (p.7). On the Greek verb, SP’s views are governed by his notions regarding ‘aspect’. As he maintains, ‘the Greek verb is aspectual, with the aspects realized by the so-called tense forms. The aspect system functions within the ideational metafunction. He sees three forms of aspects: (1) perfective, realized by aorist tense for a process seen to be complete, (2) imperfective: realized by represent and imperfect tenses for a process seen to be progressive, and (3) stative: realized by perfect and pluperfect tenses for a process seen to represent a state of affairs (p.9). He concludes this section professing ‘I do not believe that interlingual translation is a particularly reliable or even useful indicator of understanding of a language’ (p.17).

The author accepts Pauline authorship of the Pastoral epistles and does not find multiplicity in speech or in theological themes to be an impediment to reaching that conclusion. As he says, ‘diversity in language is not a necessary or sufficient indicator of difference in authorship but may instead reflect only a difference in what is often called register or genre’ (p.21). Some critical views provoke his derision. SP ridicules Raymond Brown’s assertion that few academics believe Paul wrote the Pastorals: ‘his estimate that 80-90 percent of scholars hold this skeptical view shows that Brown probably needed to extend his circle of scholarly friends’ (p.22,fn.2). Through thirty pages, beginning on page 44, SP outlines Authentic Pauline Authorship, looking into linguistic differences and statistical studies.

Numerous writers are mentioned by him. Some of this is monotonous, and one wonders why first-readers of the Pastorals would need to know everything these people said about these texts, or indeed why all that they said even matters? On the other hand, SP believes that along with Philemon, these Pastorals ‘are personal letters, however one wishes to categorize their designation’ (p.79). He includes comprehensive outlines of each book (pp.102-106). Proceeding to a systematic examination, SP devotes 392 pages to the scrutinizing of Paul’s wording in I Timothy, 200 to II Timothy and 150 to Titus. It took a mastermind to compile the many annotations provided. Not everyone will be attracted to them. But a good example of SP’s learning can be found in his remarks on 1:9-11. Much is to be gained from an inspection of his lines of reasoning. Several differences of opinion are noted below.

The Pastoral Epistles (PE) is distinguishable by three areas of concentration: translation, word-analyses and notes.  Specified parts of a large work like this one, i.e., the analyses of stated expressions, must be studied with care because they are essential to grasping the  special points that SP accentuates, particularly conversions of words from one language to another. They require extensive knowledge of the vocabulary of the receptor language and the source-texts. So whenever examining a critical piece of scholarship and encountering wording which says, ‘the translation of the Pastoral Epistles that I provide is included only as an attempt to show how my linguistic decisions might be turned into serviceable English’ (p.17), one should focus on ‘serviceable English.’ If a translated text is not logically expressed it needs revision. One should do his or her best to ensure it is intelligible. A translation, even if provisional, and the application of punctuation to it, are the hallmarks of one’s comprehension of textual matter.

Paul assigned Timothy to lead the church(es) at Ephesus. This letter to him addresses various issues that Timothy will need to deal with as minister;

1.1 Παῦλος ἀπόστολος Χριστοῦ Ἰησοῦ κατ’ ἐπιταγὴν Θεοῦ. SP’s translation: Paul, apostle of Christ Jesus on the basis of command of God [sic]. But it also could be construed to say, ‘Paul, Christ Jesus’ apostle by God’s decree…’. Literary merits were not his goal; nevertheless a translator should give definite reproductions of a writer’s ideas. SP highlights what he perceives to be ‘command’s’ indefiniteness in its Greek syntactical construction; but his English gloss is cumbrous. κατ’ ἐπιταγὴν Θεοῦ, as a predetermined act of God is not limited to indeterminacy in the language.

6.20-21 Ὦ Τιμόθεε, τὴν παραθήκην φύλαξον, ἐκτρεπόμενος τὰς βεβήλους κενοφωνίας καὶ ἀντιθέσεις τῆς ψευδωνύμου γνώσεως, ἥν τινες ἐπαγγελλόμενοι περὶ τὴν πίστιν ἠστόχησαν. Ἡ χάρις μεθ’ ὑμῶν./O Timothy, guard that entrusted to you, avoiding religious empty talk and oppositions of falsely named knowledge, which professing, certain ones have departed from the faith. Grace be with you.

SP’s comments are difficult to follow at times. Below I supply an exemplary extract.

‘The clause complex that constitutes 1 Tim. 6:20-21a consists of a primary clause, an adjunctive participle clause, and a relative clause with its own embedded participle clause. The primary clause consists of the simple command “Guard that entrusted to you” (τὴν παραθήκην φύλαξον, tēn parathēkēn phylaxon), with complement + predicator clausal order. The complement may be fronted to show the importance of the tradition with which Timothy is being entrusted by Paul, but the clausal ordering is one of the most frequent in the NT, and so more likely it simply thematizes the topic of the clause… . The second-person singular aorist active imperative φύλαξον (phylaxon; see 1 Tim. 5:21) as predicator directs Timothy to watch over or safeguard his charge (the noun and verb are collocated in all three occurrences in the Pastoral Epistles),’ p.495.

No less abstruse and even lengthier comments follow on page 497:

‘The participle clause is an adjunct of the primary clause of the dependent unit, “certain ones have departed from the faith” (τινες… περὶ τὴν πίστιν ἠστόχησαν, tines… peri tēn pistin ēstochēsan), with a similar clause being found in 2 Tim. 2:18. The subject of this clause is the indefinite pronoun τινες. This indefinite pronoun may be translated in different ways, such as, “some” or “anyone,” but here it has the sense of those among any greater number who, having professed false knowledge, have departed from the faith. The subject + adjunct + predicator + ordering has the verb ἠστόχησαν as predicator, used similarly in 1 Tim. 1:6 to speak of those who have missed the mark (note the use of the alpha privative) and hence departed from the standard, which is the faith. The standard “concerns” (περí) the faith, with the preposition of the adjunct indicating being located around something (S. Porter 1994:168-69) and with the entire phrase here translated as “from the faith” (περὶτὴν πίστιν). The faith, with specifier, indicates here the body of Christian teaching on which Paul has been focused throughout 1 Timothy; he is concerned that Timothy faithfully upholds it in the Ephesian church’.

Below are SP’s English Translations of 2:1-13, 14-18, 23-24

You yourself, therefore, my child, be yourself empowered in the grace that is in Christ Jesus, and what you heard from me through many witnesses, entrust these things to faithful people, who will be adequate also to teach others.

Suffer evil together as a good soldier of Christ Jesus. No one, while soldiering, is entwined with the practicalities of life, so that he may please the one who enlisted him. But if indeed someone competes athletically, that one is not crowned unless one competes according to the rules. It is necessary for the working farmer to receive first from the fruits. Consider what I say. For the Lord will give to you understanding in all things.

Remember Jesus Christ raised from the dead, from the seed of David, on the basis of my good news, in which I suffer evil to the point of restraints as a criminal, but the word of God is not bound. On account of this I endure all things on account of the elect, so that indeed they themselves may obtain salvation that is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory. Faithful is the statement:

            For if we die together, we also will live together;

            if we endure, we also will reign together;

            if we will deny, he also will deny us;

            if we do not believe, he remains faithful,

            for he is not able to deny himself. (pp.556-557).


Remember these things, bearing witness before God, not to fight over words for nothing beneficial, for the ruin of the hearers. Fervently undertake to establish yourself approved to God, a worker without shame, rightly distinguishing the word of truth.

And avoid irreligious empty talk, for they will advance godlessness more and more, and their word will have a spreading as gangrene, of whom are Hymenaeus and Philetus, who have departed from the truth, saying resurrection has already come about, and have overturned the faith of some (p.582).

  1. 23-24

And reject foolish and uneducated disputes, knowing they beget fights. But it is not necessary for a slave of the Lord to fight, but to be gentle to all… (p.583)

For verse 1, Σὺ, SP says ‘it is not reflexive’ (p.557). Then why interpret it as ‘you yourself’? Again, for ἐνδυναμοῦ, he takes as second person imperative: but ‘be yourself empowered’ lacks lucidity. In verse 2 ἱκανοὶ ‘adequate’ is hardly better than able or qualified, the former which he mentions in his comments (p.560). But his evident desire to distance his renderings from the language of The Authorized Version of 1611 results in sacrificing clarity for less satisfying terms. Verse 4: what of the word ‘soldiering’? στρατευόμενος in Greek parlance here definitely takes in the notion of fighting and conflict. However, the English term ‘soldiering’ may imply non-combatant duties too: i.e. marching in rank, repairing sandals etc., and is as misleading as the Revised Standard Version’s construal, ‘no soldier on service…’, which is derived from the Revised Version (1881). Verse 9: ἀλλὰ ὁ λόγος τοῦ Θεοῦ οὐ δέδεται/but the word of God is not bound. Also SP says, ‘to translate the semantics more expressively, Paul says that the word of God “does not stand bound,” with any hostile forces constituting the implied agency.’  But what does ‘stand bound’ have to do with δέδεται? I suggest that readers interpret it as ‘unfettered’. Again: his phrase ‘I suffer evil to the point of restraints as a criminal’ stultifies English and dulls whatever Greek nuance SP wants to convey, as does his comment ‘’in the realm or domain of the gospel, he suffers evil’ (p.571). At 14, he translates μὴ λογομαχεῖν, ἐπ’ οὐδὲν χρήσιμον, ἐπὶ καταστροφῇ τῶν ἀκουόντων/not to fight over words for nothing beneficial, for the ruin of the hearers. SP struggles to find the right way to express dative and prepositional clauses in coherent English. As a result, rather muddled meanings and awkward verbal constructions are furnished.

At verse 24 we read δοῦλον δὲ Κυρίου οὐ δεῖ μάχεσθαι/but it is not necessary for a slave of the Lord to fight. The chattel slave of ancient times lacked liberty: his master could have him flogged, treated shamefully or crucified. However, there were several servile statuses and experiences connected to characterizations of δοῦλος. And in the technical sense of the word bondservant alone is correct, for as P.A. Brunt observes, ‘In the early Republic the poor would enter into a contract (nexum) which somehow made them the debt-bondsmen of their creditors’, (‘Libertas in the Republic’ (p.285), in The Fall of the Roman Republic and Related Essays (1988, rep.2004)).  Paul’s specific indebtedness to God for redemption from sin and for forgiveness of sin is articulated fully by him in the Greek wording he employed.

Modern connotations of the word ‘slave’ in the west are linked to a master’s malice. SP believes that the word servant softens or distorts the meaning of the term’ δοῦλος (viz.p.710). SP suggests that it refers to spiritual slavery and thinks that ‘Paul is modulating the term from actual physical slavery…  without necessarily minimizing its implications, including physical ones’ (p.710). It is true that Paul’s use of δοῦλος is figurative, as in Sophocles Oedipus Tyrannus 410 where Tiresias, a blind seer of Thebes with prophetic gifts, says ‘I live as a slave to Loxias [Apollo]/ζῶ δοῦλος… Λοξίᾳ. His oracles were legendary in ancient Greek tragedies. Therefore δοῦλος in Pauline salutations refers to a [consecrated] servant or attendant of a deity, i.e. servus Dei, whose love for the controlling figure in their life is great. He readily desires to fulfill his god’s wishes; but the envisioning of an Apostle who is suffering from an abused slave-mindset, united symbolically with God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ, should not be inferred from either the English or Greek passages.

Titus was assigned to the island of Crete to set up a fellowship that needed guidance on its organization and Christian lifestyles.

[Tit. 1:1-4]. 1 Παῦλος δοῦλος Θεοῦ, ἀπόστολος δὲ Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ κατὰ πίστιν ἐκλεκτῶν Θεοῦ καὶ ἐπίγνωσιν ἀληθείας τῆς κατ’ εὐσέβειαν 2 ἐπ’ ἐλπίδι ζωῆς αἰωνίου, ἣν ἐπηγγείλατο ὁ ἀψευδὴς Θεὸς πρὸ χρόνων αἰωνίων, 3 ἐφανέρωσεν δὲκαιροῖς ἰδίοις τὸν λόγον αὐτοῦ ἐν κηρύγματι ὃ ἐπιστεύθην ἐγὼ κατ’ ἐπιταγὴν τοῦ Σωτῆρος ἡμῶν Θεοῦ, 4 Τίτῳ γνησίῳτέκνῳ κατὰ κοινὴν πίστιν· χάρις καὶ εἰρήνη ἀπὸ Θεοῦ Πατρὸς καὶ Χριστοῦ Ἰησοῦ τοῦ Σωτῆρος ἡμῶν.

¹Paul, slave of God and apostle of Jesus Christ on the basis of faith of the elect of God and knowledge of truth that is on the basis of godliness ² upon hope of eternal life, which the unlying God promised before time eternal, ³ and manifested in his own times respecting his word in proclamation, with which I myself was entrusted on the basis of the command of our Savior God; to Titus, genuine child on the basis of common faith. Grace and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Savior.

Notes. For SP, the breadth of meaning for κατὰ in Pauline greetings means little more than ‘on the basis of’.  In verse 1, would not ‘through the belief of God’s elect’ be better than on the basis of…? He translated so on page 714. SP assumes that his system of linguistic exegesis rules out any theological bias on his part. His footnote on M. Harris’ book, Prepositions and Theology in the Greek New Testament (2012), asserts that Harris ‘reads too much theological nuance into prepositions’ (p.713fn.13). Maybe. In another place, he argues that I. Allen, ‘emphasizes the significance of the conjunction because of the important theological section that follows’ (p.818,fn.30). But an argument easily can be made that SP diminishes theological shades of distinctions, passim, and attributes to grammatical units a meaning or significance of Formal Systemic Functional Grammar that they do not possess. All of the above is a fair illustration of how SP understands Greek and English in the commentary.

Grammatical notes in PE  are distributed profusely. Beyond question, some Formal Systemic Grammar labels do not help readers penetrate to the core meanings of Greek speech, nor do they always bring them to credible conclusions about Greek words and their relations to one another. For one who is so particular about linguistic descriptions, it is clear from the proposed English glosses that SP values linguistic reports of Greek terms more highly than fluent renderings of Greek locutions. And his translation theory is not equal to the exacting theory of linguistics he applies to the Greek scriptures. The reviewer selected a set of passages that are representative of his translation technique. Sometimes literal, at other times paraphrastic, rarely idiomatic. The alpha privative –– is rendered attentively by compound words in English prefixed with un. Still, here and there he even struggles to deal with genitive constructions in Greek or to put adjectives in a place that make for sensible English.

There is much that is redundant and cryptic in SP’s linguistic descriptions of phrases. In SP’s hands, Greek terms usually have broader or narrower semantic domains than are normally detected by grammarians, depending on the type of clause or word he is considering. His linguistic schemes do not supply constant assurances. E.g., repeatedly readers meet with ‘probably’ locative (p.602), ‘probably emphatic’ (p.603), ‘probably here to draw attention to the complement either by fronting or by expansion’ (p.605), ‘seems to indicate that this prepositional unit is better understood as…’ (p.606), and ‘probably middle, indicating internal agency within the medium process-core’ (p.610). More than 200 similar propositions can be documented. His aspectual theories cannot firmly or fully account for the verbal phenomena he explicates. The commentary suffers from an excessive amount of intuition; although an intense struggle toward a deeper understanding of the text is obvious.

In what is purportedly a diagnostic study of PE’s Greek wording, SP offers no emendations. He adheres closely to UBS⁵/NA²⁸. But MSS show variances in haphazard ways. In some places help is needed. Without listing the textual reasons why these MS readings recommend themselves to this reviewer, at I Tim. 1:1, ἐπιταγὴν survives in the text, επαγγελιαν from codex  א. It is enhancive, intensifying the force of God’s command which fixed Paul’s apostleship in eternity. In addition: I Tim. 1:17, for ‘immortal’ (ἀφθάρτῳ), replace it with αθανατῳ from MS D. The perfections of God enumerated by Paul in this verse are superlative and need continuity. II Tim. 2:16 has κενοφωνίας, καινοφώνίας (MS G) is more nuanced. An escalation of impiety is due to ‘heretical words’ of a new and unusual sort. In reference to female domestics, in Tit. 2:5, οἰκουργούς lacks a literary tradition and is improbable. Replace with οἰκουρός (א², D², H), which easily is inferred from the former reading.

Some statements made by SP simply are frankly naïve. For instance, on any definite article preceding faith/πίστις, he states that might imply an ‘objective sense of institutionalized faith’, he writes, ‘The assertion seems to be based on the idea that the article indicates definiteness, which it often does in English. Greek, however, does not have a definite or indefinite article per se but merely an article that is used as a modifying specifier’ (p.75, as well:p.113,fn.9,p.151,615). That claim is unequivocally wrong. Also, he does not believe that the ‘specifying function’ is ‘grounded in the demonstrative pronoun, as was previously thought, but possibly in the relative pronoun’ (p.75). Over time this new line of thought has led dedicated scholars fall again for the views of the editors who issued the 1881 English Revised Version. B. Gildersleeve’s (1831-1924) treatment in his Syntax of Classical Greek: Part One: section 514, is not superseded by Formal Systemic Functional theory. Better still, see The Cambridge Grammar of Classical Greek (2019), which states: ‘Greek has a definite article… because it refers to someone/something that is identifiable’ (p.328). It is in the front ranks of Greek grammars despite all the advanced depictions of ancient Greek composition made by modern linguists.

Appraising the value of this commentary is difficult. It may have some specialized uses, maybe in a Proseminar. Notwithstanding its merits, its value to New Testament studies will be much more important if viewed as a tertiary text to I.H. Marshall’s The Pastoral Epistles (2004,ICC) and G.W. Knight III’s The Pastoral Epistles (1999,NIGTC). Substantial revisions of the translation, expansion of textual notes, the reduction of redundant descriptions and an index of Greek words will increase its overall usefulness. All the categories and subcategories used by SP produce taxonomies that burden ancient words with modernistic verbal echoes, through which it is doubtful ancient authors intended readers to listen to them. The time spent learning them all, however, could be better spent reading long extracts of Greek, whence comes one’s proficiency in Greek grammar. In what other way would one learn of Polybius’ use of the imperfect when depicting individual incidents in battle or of his use of the aorist chiefly for narrating on wartime events? Besides, Plutarch’s liking for the participle could be learned second-hand, but direct inspection of his texts extends one’s knowledge and experience.

SP’s embrace of Formal Systemic Functional Linguistics harkens back to attempts to utilize the new philology of Francis Bopp (1791-1867) in the 19th century. For a time his philological ideas controlled how scholars perceived the origins of Greek and Latin or how those origins were understood, building on the researches of British Orientalist Sir William Jones (1746-1794) who pioneered comparative linguistics. He proposed the common ancestry of Sanskrit, Greek and Latin. And so, enthusiasm for Sanskrit language and literature prevailed, the mastery of which was thought to resolve most Indo-European philological problems. This proved to be untrue. Likewise, if the form of linguistic studies transmitted in this commentary is any indication of new trends, then, aside from biblical students who will be compelled by Professors to use it as a textbook, the form of it all will need to be reconsidered because the truths of the Greek text do not appear clearly in English translation when Formal Systemic Functional Grammar techniques are the basis of New Testament scholars’ exegetical strategies.

[Endnote: Several pages have blurred typefaces: e.g., 814,815,839. The editors of Baker Academic should have directed SP toward a more serviceable goal and arranged this commentary in a more functional way].

Darrell Sutton is a Classicist

This entry was posted in QR Home and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.