Reviews of

New Testament Language and Exegesis: A Diachronic Approach

In Chrys C. CARAGOUNIS, Emanuel CONTAC, Mohr Siebeck, New Testament, NT Greek on November 19, 2014 at 11:48 am


2014.11.19 | Chrys C. Caragounis. New Testament Language and Exegesis: A Diachronic Approach (WUNT I/323). Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2014. pp. xiii + 409. Cloth. ISBN: 9783161527647

Reviewed by Emanuel Conțac, Theological Pentecostal Institute of Bucharest.

Many thanks to Mohr Siebeck for providing a review copy.

Readers familiar with Chrys Caragounis’ landmark book The Development of Greek and the New Testament will find new and engaging contributions in the latest volume published by the Lund-based NT scholar. Caragounis, arguably the most energetic advocate of diachrony applied to the study of what is conventionally called “NT Greek”, presents new evidence in defense of the basic tenet that the Greek of the NT should not be studied in isolation from the later Greek, because the history of the language is more organic and interconnected than is usually believed.

The book is divided into two large sections, the first of which (“The Scope and Importance of Diachrony”) contains five chapters, tackling various aspects of morphology and syntax. Given that this segment of the book is tightly packed with linguistic facts (many of which are supplied in dense footnotes) relevant for the issues discussed, only a general survey and interaction with the content is possible here. Caragounis builds his argument from the premise that the Greek used in the NT represents a transition phase between Attic and Neohellenic and explores various facets of this ample development in the first chapter (pp. 25-69), focusing especially on morphology and semantics and finding numerous words in the NT whose usage is closer to the Neohellenic one than to the Classical Greek one. From among the numerous examples offered by the author, I shall focus on the meaning of ἔκτρωμα in 1 Cor. 15:8. According to Caragounis, Paul does not use the term in line with its primary meaning (‘aborted fetus’), because this would go against logic (an abortion takes place too early, not too late), but in a self-deprecatory manner, emphasizing connotations such as ‘monstrous’, ‘repulsive’, ‘detestable’, which are well attested in Neohellenic (pp 3-31). Incidentally, we find the same process at play for the Romanian equivalents of ἔκτρωμα (lepădătură, stârpitură), which can be used both in a denotative sense (‘aborted fetus’, ‘stillborn’), and as a form of disparagement (‘detestable person’).

The same chapter presents ample evidence that a good deal of changes in Greek are caused by the tendency of speakers to prefer regular verbal or substantival paradigms over the irregular ones (pp. 32-36). This explains, for instance, why the regularly declined πλοῖον (65x in the NT) came to supersede the classical ναῦς (1x in the NT) or why in the NT we find κνήθειν (2 Tim. 4:3) rather than κνεῖν (the Atticist form). Part of the same trend is the introduction of diminutives (ὠτάριον, παιδάριον) which have lost their diminutival force (p. 36). The same could be said about νησίον (‘island’, Acts 27:16), προβάτιον (variant reading in John 21:17), ὀθόνιον (John 19:40 etc.) or πινακίδιον (Luke 1:63).

In the subchapter (“4. Phraseology”) dealing with certain phrases which have no antecedent in classical Greek and which have parallels in Neohellenic, the author zooms in on the idiomatic use of ἔχω in Mat. 14:5 (ὡς προφήτην αὐτὸν εἶχον) asserting that in all likelihood this idiom “is not clearly attested in B.C. times” (p. 39). However, such an example might be supplied from Job 30:9 (νυνὶ δὲ κιθάρα ἐγώ εἰμι αὐτῶν καὶ ἐμὲ θρύλημα ἔχουσιν). One wonders whether the text in Wisdom 5:4 (οὗτος ἦν ὃν ἔσχομέν ποτε εἰς γέλωτα) or the one in 2 Mac. 7:24 do not also come near to employing ἔχω as a synonym for λογίζομαι. Another notable issue discussed in this section is ἐγώ εἰμι, used absolutely (i.e. without other qualifications) only in the NT (John 18:5). According to Caragounis, “it is obvious that the NT has created a new structure”, which in the modernized form ἐγὼ εἶμαι is a regular feature of Neohellenic (p. 46).

In what is probably the most engaging section of the first chapter, the author considers the shifts in the meanings of words such as γεννάω (pp. 47-50), used in the NT both in the classical sense (‘beget’, reserved stricto sensu for a male agent), as well as the equivalent of τίκτω (‘give birth’). Another term subjected to a close investigation, χάρις (pp. 50-57), is shown to be utilized sometimes not with its traditional “Hebrew” meaning, but rather with its classical import (‘beauty’, ‘charm’, ‘elegance’, ‘loveliness’ etc.) in at least six NT passages (Lk 2:40; 2.52; 4:22; Eph. 4:29; Col. 4:6; 3:16). Since the last three examples occur in epistles whose Pauline authorship is debated, one wonders whether the results of this analysis could be brought to bear on the issue of authorship. The last section of the first chapter surveys “New formations”, words created in the Hellenistic period, used in the NT and transmitted over into Neohellenic (mainly Katharevousa). A case in point is ἐπιούσιος, whom Caragounis, taking his cue from Origen, John Chrysostom and other Patristic writers, construes as having the meaning “necessary” or “indispensable” (p. 69).

Chapter 2 (“Case System in Development: The Triumph of the Genitive and Accusative over the Dative”) documents abundantly, with examples from the whole history of Greek, the inroads of the Accusative (and, to a lesser extent, of the Genitive) into the province of the Dative, a process which began during the Attic period and continued into Neohellenic, ending with the complete demise of the Dative in Demotic, in everyday speech. Section 4 of this chapter (“Accusative instead of Dative”, pp. 83-87) confirms this trend with examples from the LXX and from post-NT Greek, supplying only one example from the NT (1 Cor. 7:31). It is here that Rev. 1:13 and 14:14 (ὅμοιον υἱὸν ἀνθρώπου) could perhaps be adduced as further evidence. Incidentally, the waning of the Dative (whose role is occasionally taken over by the Accusative)is a trend also witnessed in vernacular Romanian, showing that the same linguistic phenomena can be at work in inflected languages.

Chapter 3 (“Pronouns: The Redundant Use of Personal and Possessive Pronouns”, pp. 96-112) examines the frequency of personal and possessive pronouns in various books of the NT and concludes that, compared to classical writers such as Plato, Thucydides, or Aristides, the NT writers’ use of such pronouns increases up to tenfold, with Matthew having the most redundant style of all. More economical in the use of pronouns seems to be John, whereas the Book of Revelation contains many cases of redundancies. Although it does not modify the overall results of our author’s analysis, it should be pointed out that the figures given for the length of Matthew (20,614), Luke (24,963), John (20,546), Acts (20,598), Romans (8,028) and Revelation (10,747) on page 97 are incorrect, as can easily be confirmed by referring to Anthony Kenny’s classic book (A Stylometric Study of the New Testament) or the computer-generated statistics based on the Nestle-Aland critical text.

The gradual misuse of the active voice and of the middle voice is documented in Chapter 4 (“Voice in Disorder: The Confusion of Active and Middle and the Pleonastic Use of Reflexive Pronouns”, pp. 113-133). As these voices became increasingly misused and substituted for one another, more reflexive pronouns came to be used in order to express actions which previously had simply been conveyed by using the middle. Another consequence of this disarray was the emergence of the active in places where earlier one would have used the middle (p. 122). According to Caragounis, the distinction between the active and middle-passive forms began fading when the active form of most verbs could be used both transitively and intransitively, as the use of μαθητεύω demonstrates. However, to assert that in Mat. 28:19 the evangelist means “make all nations disciples”, but actually says “become disciples to all nations” (p. 123) is an overstatement, since Matthew uses the Accusative (τὰ ἔθνη), rather than the Dative (τοῖς ἔθνεσιν). The second part of this chapter is especially relevant for the scholar of the NT, because it offers numerous examples of the misuse of active for middle and of middle for active. Biblical scholars who lack a solid knowledge of classical Greek and who are typically oblivious to the place of NT Greek in relation to the other stages of the Greek language will benefit significantly, especially since most commentaries fail to take note of these aspects.

In Chapter 5 (“Tense System in Disarray: The Interchange of Aorist and Perfect”, pp. 135-168) Caragounis devotes more time to the verb, exploring two tenses which are sometimes used interchangeably and subjecting to close scrutiny the “esoteric interpretations” (p. 164) offered by many grammarians who postulate a “vivid historic perfect” (p. 138) in order to explain the use of perfect where one would have normally expected the aorist. After a detailed evaluation of the perfect and its uses, in relation to the aorist (pp. 140-146), the author explains the process which led to the confusion of the two tenses (pp. 147-152), up to the point where the perfect coincided with the aorist, came to be considered superfluous and the perfect monolectic forms became extinct (p. 159). The last section of the chapter provides numerous examples of perfects which are used instead of aorists, thus dispensing with “the dogma that the perfect and aorist are kept apart during Hellenistic and hence NT times, and that their coincidence is a very late phenomenon” (p. 164).

In Chapter 6, investigating “The Nominative Used as Vocative” (pp. 171-188), Caragounis focuses on the use of θεός and finds that the LXX is the first work in Greek to use the vocative Θεέ (11 times; p. 177). At the same time, he notes that ὁ θεός is used as Vocative (at least in 60 cases), because the articular form “has a more exalted, a more distanced nuanced tone belonging to a more formal, solemn and elevated diction” (p. 180), findings which obtain equally for the NT (p. 181-184) and for Neohellenic (pp. 187-188).

Chapter 7 (“Interrogative, Confirmatory, and Asseverative Particles”, pp. 189-208) surveys various particles used to introduce questions, confirmations and solemn declarations, making a compelling case that the particle εἰ (never used in classical literature to introduce direct questions; p. 201) came to be used in the LXX contrary to its classical usage, not by analogy with the Hebrew אִם ,but because it replaced an original ἦ, with which it shared the same pronunciation (p. 208). However, the influence of the Heb. אִם should not be discounted completely, since, in addition to the examples considered by the author (p. 202-204), there are other counterexamples in which אִם (introducing direct questions) was rendered in Greek by εἰ: 1 Kg 1:27; Amos 3:6; 6:12; Micah 2:7; Jer. 48:27 (=31:27 LXX).

Chapter 8 is a reassessment of the crux in 1 Thess. 2:7, a verse for which the textual witnesses are divided between νήπιοι (“infants”, “foolish”) and ἤπιοι (“gentle”). Caragounis considers that the former term “does not in itself convey positive qualities, and could not have been used by the Apostle Paul of himself in order to emphasize his supposed humility and child-mindedness” (p. 226). Equally important for establishing the meaning of the passage are two other key phrases: ἐν βάρει εἶναι (“to be a burden”; pp. 226-229) and ἀπορφανίζω (“be bereaved of one’s children”; pp. 230-233).

In the last chapter of the book (“Sublimity and the New Testament”, pp. 240-295), Caragounis applies the stylistic insights of Pseudo-Longinos’ On the Sublime to the text of the NT and comes to the conclusion that authors of the NT not only were endowed with the ability to form grand conceptions, but also had a sense of divine mission which enabled them to write “beautiful, transcendent, and sublime utterances” (p. 296). Consequently, the author has no patience with the “uncouth, barbarous papyrical documents from Egypt” (p. 297) emphasized by Moulton and Deissmann as the most congenial linguistic background of the NT.

The variety of topics investigated by Caragounis, the wide range of linguistic facts adduced in support of the diachronic approach, the meticulous exposition of examples culled from sources across the whole history of Greek and the clear manner of presentation make his book an invaluable resource for the diligent student of the NT.

Emanuel Conțac
Theological Pentecostal Institute of Bucharest
emanuelcontac [ at ]


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