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Book Reviews > New Testament > Diglossia and Other Topics in New Testament Linguistics:

Ray VanNeste

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

Diglossia and Other Topics in New Testament Linguistics:
Edited by Stanley E. Porter
Details: 2000, Sheffield Academic Press, Amazon.comISBN: 1841270911
Posted: August 14, 2002


(This book is part of the JSNT Supplement Series 193; Studies in New Testament Greek)

This monograph is a recent addition of the Studies in New Testament Greek series (see previous review of Discourse Analysis and the New Testament). This volume, like previous volumes 1, 2, and 5 in the series, is a compilation of papers delivered at the Biblical Greek Language and Linguistics Section of the Society of Biblical Literature, and, like those previous volumes, this book is divided into two parts. Part I contains papers delivered in Orlando, Florida in 1998 in a session dedicated to the topic of Diglossia. Part II accounts for the Other Topics from the title and is a compilation of other papers delivered at the Biblical Greek Language and Linguistics Section.

It may be no surprise if the title of this volume is not immediately clear. Porter, in the first sentence of his introduction to the volume, writes, ‘The technical dimensions of the topic of diglossia will not be familiar to many New Testament scholars, although they are probably more familiar to some scholars of the Hebrew Bible’ (13). If your primary scholarly interest or expertise lies elsewhere you may be doubly excused for lack of familiarity with this word! The real purpose of Part I, then, is to redress this lack of familiarity by presenting contributions to the debate over what diglossia is and how it is of relevance to the study of first-century Palestine.

Part I opens with an essay by Jonathan M. Watt, who has done considerable work on this topic previously. Watt gives a historical overview of the discussion, introducing key names, defining important terms and concluding with his own proposed synthesis. Watt notes that debate over the concept dates back to an inciting article in 1959. Since then there have been over 3000 items published on the subject, but it has received far less attention in New Testament studies. There is debate over exactly what ‘diglossia’ means, but basically it refers to a situation where there is more than one form of language in use by the same community (as in 1st century Palestine) with one form being used in public or formal settings and the other being used in informal and private speech. Precisely how to distinguish this from bilingualism is part of the debate. This impacts New Testament studies as we seek to understand how language was used in 1st century Palestine (particular the interplay between Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek) and what this might reveal about the social setting. This article was the most helpful of Part I to this reviewer.

Part I is completed by three other essays. Scobie Smith provides an analysis of the Hebrew of Second Temple period, focussing on biblical and mishnaic Hebrew. Porter, then follows with an examination of Koine Greek. After giving his own overview of the discussion on diglossia, Porter provides a sophisticated analysis of Romans, 1 Corinthians, Philippians, and the Pastoral Epistles (using the Hallidayan concept of register) to examine and compare the use of Greek in these letters. While the details are to complex to cover here, it is interesting to see the Pastoral Epistles analysed alongside some accepted Paulines and to find the results not entirely in step with usual higher critical findings. Following Porter, Christina Paulston, Professor of Linguistics, University of Pittsburgh gives a response as someone not directly involved in biblical studies but significantly involved in the area of historical sociolinguistics. While stating, ‘I find very little explanatory power in the concept of diglossia when applied to first-century Palestine and considerable- and unnecessary- conceptual confusion’ (88-89), she finds several things to commend and encourages scholars to move forward by establishing solid theoretical models and concepts.

Part II opens with an essay from Dirk Büchner on translation technique in Septuagint Leviticus, drawing on principles developed for the New English Translation of the Septuagint. Jonathan Watt follows with his second contribution to the volume, examining dialects, particularly Mt. 26:73 where Peter is apparently identified by the way he speaks. Jeffrey Reed then examines Paul’s linguistic varieties, noting changes Paul makes in the Hellenistic letter-form. Reed also closes with some provocative questions for future consideration in the field of Greek grammar. Porter & Matthew Brook O’Donnell follow with an analysis of semantics and argumentation in Romans with intensive use of computer assisted data compilation (e.g., the occurrence and distribution of words, semantic domains, verb aspects, etc.). This essay illustrates how much more can be done then simplistic word counts, though the shortcomings of Louw and Nida’s domains for application to specific letters becomes apparent. This is not to say that Louw and Nida’s domains are not useful but that the language use in particular letters is more nuanced than what can be displayed in their evaluation of the entire New Testament. Eddie Adams then applies a relatively new technique, critical linguistics, to the much discussed passage, Gal. 1-2. The volume concludes with a second contribution from O’Donnell dealing with the nuances needed in providing computer-searchable databases for NT study.

This volume presents front-line scholarship in the field of linguistics, and as such should be appreciated. This does mean as well that it will be less accessible and of less interest to non-specialists. It also means that much of the work is intended more to raise and probe questions rather than to give definitive answers. It is not intended for the pastor, but New Testament specialists can benefit from a familiarity with the issues discussed here and by noting where these essays impinge on passages of particular interest.

Ray Van Neste

University of Aberdeen

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