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Book Reviews > New Testament > Discourse Analysis and the New Testament: Approaches and Results

Ray VanNeste

Ray VanNeste
Director of the RC Ryan Center for Biblical Studies and Assistant Professor of Christian Studies

Discourse Analysis and the New Testament: Approaches and Results
Edited by Stanley E. Porter and Jeffrey T. Reed
Details: 1999, Sheffield Academic Press, Amazon.comISBN: 1850759960
Posted: August 14, 2002


As noted above this book is part of two series, or a series within a series. Most readers will be familiar with the JSNT Supplement Series, but the Studies in New Testament Greek or sub-series may not be as familiar. Other volumes in this series have included compilations of papers from the Biblical Greek Language and Linguistics unit of SBL (Discourse Analysis and Other Topics in Biblical Greek, ed. Porter and D. A. Carson, 1995; and Linguistics and the New Testament: Critical Junctures, Porter and Carson, 1999) and Reed’s published version of his PhD thesis, Discourse Analysis of Philippians, 1997. Thus, this series is proving to be one of value and importance in disseminating the ongoing work of discourse analysis in the New Testament.

This collection of essays is not a compilation of papers from SBL, but, according to the dust jacket, is designed to be a ‘state-of-the-art’ volume for all scholars interested in discourse analysis in the New Testament. As such it contains contributions from many of the major proponents of this developing method with representatives of each of the four major schools of discourse analysis- the South African, the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL), the Continental (with its sub-areas), and the Hallidayan or functional approaches. After an initial introductory essay by Porter and Reed, the book is divided into four sections: part 1 consists of four essays on ‘Theory and Method in Discourse Analysis’; part 2 consists of seven essays on ‘Discourse Analysis and the Gospels and Acts’; part 3 provides four essays on ‘Discourse Analysis and the Pauline Corpus’; and part 4 presents three essays on ‘Discourse Analysis and the General Epistles.’

The introductory essay by Porter and Reed sets the scene of the book quite well by sketching the current state of the method and introducing each of the essays. It is almost commonplace in such introductory essays on discourse analysis to state that discourse analysis has yet to make significant impact on New Testament studies. It is very interesting, then, to find these scholars finally saying, ‘discourse analysis has now made sizable inroads into the study of the New Testament’ (16).

In Part I, theory and method, contains essays from Eugene Nida, Reed, Porter, and Matthew Brook O’Donnell. Nida’s short essay, ‘The Role of Context in the Understanding of Discourse,’ takes up the commonly accepted maxim that without context words have only potentiality for meaning and only in context actually have a certain meaning. Then he argues that a similar principle of contextual conditioning applies to discourse. Porter examines a new development in the area of discourse analysis, Critical Discourse Analysis, in what is to his knowledge the first article using this method for New Testament study. He critiques the method but suggests a number of ways it could be helpful in New Testament study particularly as it stresses the importance of social relations in discourse. Jeffrey T. Reed provides an essay on linguistic criteria for analyzing the cohesiveness of New Testament documents. The cohesiveness or incohesiveness of New Testament documents is often discussed and debated but without much clear discussion on what counts for evidence. This essay provides a good starting point. O’Donnell’s essay examines the use of annotated corpora (or tagged texts) like TLG and Gramcord and suggests possible advances in and uses of such in the future. Theoretical essays are often more difficult for non-specialists to follow, and this would probably be true of some of these as well. However, for those engaged in linguistic analysis of the NT Reed’s essay is well worth the time to read.

In Part II, on the Gospels and Acts, Stephanie Black has an essay on the use of the historic present in Matthew which examines the discourse function of this tense usage and has implications in the debate over theories of verb tenses. Robert Longacre provides two essays on the Gospel of Mark which are intended to go together. The first essay examines how the entire gospel fits together by looking at the gospel through the grid of a narrative template. The second essay complements the first by examining specific pericopae in Mark 5 and how the sentences and clauses relate. Longacre, like Black, gives much weight to shifts in verbal tenses. Wolfgang Schenk provides an analysis of Mark 13 in terms of levels of communication and rhetorical structures. Jonathan Watt demonstrates the concern of discourse analysis with the social dimensions of language by arguing that the use of an ambiguous pronoun rather than a proper name to refer to Jesus in Luke 22:63-64 was an intentional device revealing the contempt shown towards Jesus in the event. Gustavo Martín-Asensio examines the participant reference scheme in the Stephen episode of Acts 6-7 suggesting that the means used for referring to participants in the episode provide a basis for a more linguistic form of literary analysis. Todd Klutz examines linguistic features (such as repetition, parallelism, verbal aspect, and word order) in Acts 19:13-20 which could function to foreground (or emphasize) certain features of the text. Klutz then uses the results of his analysis of foregrounding to determine the situational context of the narrative.

In Part III, on the Pauline corpus, Richard Erickson’s essay is devoted to analyzing the semantic structure of Romans 5:12-21 according to the SIL method (Semantic Structure Analysis), and seeks to show the value of this method in clarifying some of the heavy theological issues raised in this passage such federal headship, predestination and human responsibility. J. P. Louw contributes a short essay on Ephesians 1:3-14 attempting to map the flow of thought in this complex sentence. Stephen Levinsohn’s essay examines the function of particles in constraining the development of discourse (in particular the Pastoral Epistles), guiding the reader in how to understand connections from one unit to the next. The essay builds on the recent work by Jakob K. Heckert, Discourse Function of Conjoiners in the Pastoral Epistles (Dallas: SIL, 1996), accepting Heckert’s thesis that the conjunctive Greek particles have a single basic function. The essay appears to be largely a summary of Heckert’s work. Ernst Wendland applies his helpfully simple method, focussing on ‘any and all types of verbal repetition’ (337), to the epistle of Titus, which as he notes is often neglected. Based on important repetitions in the text, Wendland argues that Titus is not haphazardly composed as is often suggested, but is instead ‘a very carefully constructed and cohesive text’ (336). His conclusion is convincing and welcome though the study may have benefited from interaction with James D. Miller’s The Pastoral Letters as Composite Documents (CUP, 1997), the most radical and recent argument for incoherence. Also, his argument that 2:15 forms the compositional center of the letter is less than convincing to this reviewer.

In Part IV, on the general epistles, Andries Snyman gives a brief history of the development of the South African model of Discourse Analysis and then applies it to Hebrews 6:4-6, a perennial problem passage. One could wonder how much light was eventually shed on the passage by the analysis. Birger Olsson provides a summary of previous analyses of the structure of 1 John including various forms of discourse analysis and rhetorical analysis. John Callow applies the SIL method to 1 John 1 to determine whether the discourse unit beginning at 1 John 1:5 ends at 1:10 or 2:2 since translations and commentators differ on this point.

The essays in this book differ significantly in approach and in texts analyzed, but this is part of the strength of the book since every major school of discourse analysis is represented and there are samples of work on each section of the New Testament. For this reason, this book could be useful to someone who desires to become acquainted with NT discourse analysis. For those already involved in this field, a number of these essays will be helpful. For this reviewer, the essay by Reed was one of the best and extremely helpful. A third group for whom this book may be helpful is those who are studying certain passages treated in these essays. Even if not involved in discourse analysis, the insights from these essays may be helpful. The value of the essays varies, depending, no doubt, on the interest of the reader.

Ray Van Neste

University of Aberdeen

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