Reviews of

Reframing Biblical Studies

In Cognition, Eisenbrauns, Ellen van WOLDE, HB/OT, Kurtis Peters, Linguistics on April 23, 2013 at 2:48 pm

2013.04.06 | Ellen van Wolde. Reframing Biblical Studies: When Language and Text Meet Culture, Cognition, and Context. Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2009. $49.50 pp. xiv + 402. ISBN: 978-1-57506-182-5.

Review by Kurtis Peters, University of Edinburgh.

Many thanks to Eisenbrauns for kindly providing us with a review copy.

Ellen van Wolde’s recent volume, Reframing Biblical Studies, is an ambitious attempt to change the course of the whole of biblical scholarship. Biblical scholarship, she maintains, has become too narrow, too specialized, and does not have much ability to incorporate insights from other disciplines. Those who do attempt a crossover or integration often find themselves fumbling in the dark. Van Wolde, however, suggests a way forward, a light in a dark place – the study of cognition. It is by appeal to the human mind that we can form meaningful bridges between normally separated disciplines.

This is the ambitious sentiment with which van Wolde opens her book in chapter 1. Chapter 2 and 3 then take the reader into the world of cognition and cognitive grammar. Van Wolde spends chapter 2 focusing primarily on the role of the mind in processing the world and how that affects the way people relate to their surroundings. This relating to one’s surroundings can be illustrated most effectively by means of Cognitive Linguistics and Cognitive Grammar, which she sketches briefly here. In chapter 3, she begins to introduce the particulars of Cognitive Linguistics with relation to words and their meanings (rather than clauses, sentences, etc.).

Chapters 4 through 7 demonstrate how Cognitive Linguistics, particularly the theory of Cognitive Grammar generated by Ronald Langacker, can be applied to various types of words. Chapter 4 is dedicated to nominal forms, primarily nouns themselves. The subject of Chapter 5 is prepositions, conjunctions, adverbs, particles, adjectives, participles and infinitives construct, all of which she classifies as ‘atemporal relations,’ i.e. relations not profiling a span of time. Verbs, on the other hand, are the subject of Chapter 6, and are classified as ‘temporal relations.’ Chapter 7 concludes this section with a brief summary of the material covered to that point, and a schematic outline for reference for the following chapters.

Chapters 8 and 9, then, constitute two significant case studies. The first, in chapter 8, looks at one word,טמא, in several texts considered to be representative of its use in the Hebrew Bible. Chapter 9, instead of examining one word throughout its various uses, looks at one passage, Genesis 34:1-31 – the ‘rape’ of Tamar – and the various words contained within it. Chapter 10 concludes the book as a whole and once again calls for biblical scholarship to appropriate this general approach, this integration of disciplines all centred upon the human mind.

As mentioned above, the book opens strongly. The appeal to incorporate insights from a variety of disciplines is well made and it would be difficult to find a biblical scholar who did not agree. It is the method for doing so that is up for debate. Is Cognitive Grammar the answer? Van Wolde is indeed convincing, at least to a point. It may have been overly ambitious to ‘reframe’ all of biblical studies, particularly seeing as the majority of the book is really the application of Cognitive Linguistics to Biblical Hebrew language. It is true that this method illuminates word meanings and word uses, and is a valuable resource for doing even that. It allows those studying Hebrew a methodology for incorporating extra-linguistic information, something that has been taboo ever since James Barr and the 1960’s. I am not so sure, though, that van Wolde has presented a methodology that can be applied to other sorts of biblical research. Perhaps it could be, but her argument for such application needs more thorough articulation.

Despite perhaps being misguided in the scope of her project, van Wolde still clearly delivers a success insofar as it applies to Hebrew semantics. She quickly dispels the notion that word meaning can be equated with dictionary-type definitions. On page 55 for example she dismisses the typical definition of war, which refers to an act that includes fighting between countries, with weapons, where many people die. Instead, she says,

War is warfare, weapons, troops, logistics; war is soldiers fighting each other and fighting tiredness and sleep. War is soldiers struggling on the battlefield with blood in their mouths and dust in their nostrils. War is friends dying before your eyes and fear of the next attack…. War is aggression and the diminishment of civil rights. War is rape and the children born from it. War is hatred and terror. War is reluctance and indifference….

With this visceral description, she potently demonstrates that to know the meaning of the word ‘war,’ one must have this broader knowledge and experience. What she then goes on to do is set out a methodology for employing this kind of encyclopaedic knowledge in the meaning of words.

One of the more effective ways of doing this is the relationship of what van Wolde (following John R. Taylor and Ronald Langacker) calls profiles, bases and domains. Profiles demonstrate the actual information that a word designates, whereas a base is the inherent and necessary information for comprehending that profile. For example, on page 56, she suggests that for the word ‘island’ the profile is a landmass and the base is the knowledge that it is surrounded by water. These profiles and bases, however, must be understood on the backdrop of a cognitive domain, a selection of a language user’s encyclopaedic knowledge. In this example, geology might serve as the appropriate cognitive domain.

In chapters 5 and 6, van Wolde goes on to discuss atemporal and temporal relations. At this point, the reader may have a more difficult time following the plot. Much of this has to do with the fact that Cognitive Grammar categorizes words differently than traditional grammar. However, van Wolde could have guided the reader through this maze more clearly than she did.

By chapters 8 and 9, the plot became even more difficult to follow, at least by comparison to where she started in her wide-ranging introduction. In both of these later chapters, it seems as though van Wolde was ‘showing her work.’ Every detail was analysed. Granted, she was trying to present a method that others could apply and therefore she wanted to show how to do it. However, by the end of nearly 90 pages of details in chapter 9, the plot was almost entirely lost. She certainly made a strong case for a multi-layered reading of the Dinah narrative, but need not have taken so long to do so, or even to demonstrate her method.

Despite the possibly misplaced ambition and the unnecessary detail, van Wolde clearly has made a significant contribution to the study of Hebrew semantics, especially for those of us still trying to discern how real-world knowledge relates to the words that describe it.

Kurtis Peters
University of Edinburgh

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