A Case study

In Part III.b, I will finish this string of posts by looking at a specific instance in which the application of linguistic methodologies to study and describe the text directly butt up against these forces arrayed to norm the texts we use and read (I had initially intended to look at two; time and space constraints have changed things. I will probably refer the the other one at some point in the future as I find it rather interesting). We will consider the usage of the article with proper names in Greek as a specific example of how these theoretical issues may actually come into play when analyzing the texts.

This specific difficulty, along with many of the difficulties which I am aware of, arises from the very nature of the sorts of problems that people turn to specific linguistic methodologies to solve. Often times the so-called traditional approach to grammar does little more than catalogue the usages in Greek and explain how to translate a feature of Greek into English (or German, French, Italian, etc.). This is fine, if one’s goal is to translate the text. Anyone familiar with multiple languages is comfortable, at least on an experiential level, with the fact that languages simply do things differently. It does not, however, explain how the Greek works, but is rather an English-focused explanation of the Greek language. The in-breaking of modern linguistic methodologies into NT studies (and seemingly Greek studies in general) tends to focus on issues of describing how Greek works independent from how it should be translated into another language. This is a more difficult procedure as it must take into consideration more of the complexities of the language that can easily be glossed over in a translation. And, given that this approach can not comfortably rest on appealing to the extensive translation tradition in a European language, it has more explanatory work to do. Now, for an example.

The article with names in NT

This example is a subset of the many intractable problems which present themselves in describing the usage of the article in Greek.[1] The Greek article regularly is found with names, aka proper nouns. Modern English essentially never does this outside of set expressions like “The Big Apple,” though many older grammars will talk about “the Greek” and “the Latin,” testifying to a specific usage of the definite article which has essentially died out. From the English translator’s point of view, whether a Greek name has an article or not is a moot point. Since we don’t use our articles with names, we can simply translate the name and move happily along. While we have failed to explain what Greek is doing, whatever exactly is happening with its article does not disturb the way our English translations work as English texts.

It is unsurprising that explanations of the article with the name in Greek grammars are generally made up of descriptions of the sorts of ways Greek will use the article with the name without significant attempts to explain why it does that. This works for the purpose of translating, but it obviously is a failure at understanding Greek as Greek.[2] Of course, if you are trying to make a translation into a language without a robust translation tradition or which has different grammatical and syntactic resources at its disposal than the Indo-European languages tend to, descriptions of the article with names in traditional grammars will tend to be wildly inadequate.

Recognizing this issue, various attempts have been made to explain the usage of the article in recent decades, which posit explanations for the use of articles with names. Stanley Porter helpfully summarizes them in a chapter in his recent work. For my purposes, it is not necessary to do more than briefly dip into one of these explanations, as that will be enough familiarity to highlight the point driving these posts. Thus, I will briefly highlight the explanation given by Stephen H. Levinsohn, which is the one I am most familiar with, to highlight the methodological problem we have of how to relate to critical texts and manuscripts.

Levinsohn’s analysis (super-abridged)

Levinsohn’s analysis of the use of the article with names requires paying attention to many features which are not usually part of the discussion of traditional grammar. Most notably for now is that a key aspect of his analysis is tracking whether the person in reference is “activated” or not in the story. What this means, in essence, is as follows. A participant is “active” if (1) they have already been introduced into the story or (2) if they can be assumed to be recognized without any special introduction. In either of these cases, the person being referred to is active, or cognitively accessible to the reader/hearer.

And example of (1) is the following English construction:

  • “I have a friend named George. Yesterday, George and I went on a trip.”

In the first statement “George” is introduced as my friend. After that, we use his name with no further comment because, for the sake of this conversation, the hearer knows who George is. Once introduced, we will often use pronouns to refer to the person rather than their name.

An example of (2) is the following:

  • “I find many of George Washington’s character traits as a leader admirable.”

For an American, and for anyone educated in modern Western History, the name “George Washington” needs no introduction into a conversation. It is always considered cognitively accessible and it is part of the assumed background knowledge that everyone has, so any speaker can use this name at virtually any time without any special introduction.

As is obvious from the English examples, to signal we are introducing some requires some sort of sentence or phrase: “This is so and so…”, “I have a friend…”, “George’s friend…”, and so forth. There are lots of ways to do it, but none of them involve using an article or not. We don’t say, “the Samantha” as a way to introduce someone into a conversation or to refer to them after being introduced.

In short, part of Levinsohn’s proposal is that that is one of the functions of the article with Greek names: to signal whether or not a name has already been introduced into the conversation/story (called “activated”). The presence or absence of an article, he argues, communicates to the reader/hearer whether the person in question is already part of the cast of characters in the current story, or is someone new. His general rule about the use of the article with names is as follows:

To activate a participant by name: anarthrous reference

To refer by name to an activated participant: articular reference

Discourse Features of New Testament Greek, 2nd ed., 150.

In essence, the first time someone is mentioned the name will not have an article; subsequent references to that person within close proximity to their introduction will have the article.

One exception to this rule is indeclinable names (names of non-Greek origin). On these he says:

Typically, such names are articular if they are not in the nominative, even when the referent is being activated for the first time… the article is used with indeclinable nouns to show the case of the noun.

Discourse Features of New Testament Greek, 2nd ed., 151.

This sounds rather straight-forward, once you have clear what “activated” means with regard to participants. This is the sort of observation you could come up with by searching a tagged database of the NT for all the proper names, look at when they are used with an article, and analyze the instances in light of discourse analysis considerations. Levinsohn’s analysis is far more complicated than just this little snapshot, but even here, we can illustrate the methodological difficulties.

The catch

The problem which exists, that Levinsohn even notes, is that the data we have in the manuscripts is far more complicated than the final results that can so easily be searched in a critical text. In an important footnote he writes:

Heimerdinger (personal communication) also considers it possible that “it is not case which affects the article with O.T. names” and that my conclusions, as they involve such names, “will only work with certain M[anuscripts]“.

Discourse Features of New Testament Greek, 2nd ed., 151, footnote 5, emphasis added.

This can easily be illustrated for one text: Acts 7.8. Two modern critical texts set side by side demonstrate the issue:

NA 28: καὶ οὕτως ἐγέννησεν τὸν Ἰσαὰκ καὶ περιέτεμεν αὐτὸν τῇ ἡμέρᾳ τῇ ὀγδόῃ, καὶ Ἰσαὰκ τὸν Ἰακώβ, καὶ Ἰακὼβ τοὺς δώδεκα πατριάρχας.

R-P: καὶ οὕτως ἐγέννησεν τὸν Ἰσαάκ, καὶ περιέτεμεν αὐτὸν τῇ ἡμέρᾳ τῇ ὀγδόῃ· καὶ Ἰσαὰκ τὸν Ἰακώβ, καὶ ὁ Ἰακὼβ τοὺς δώδεκα πατριάρχας.

At least one of the pre-AD 500 manuscripts contains the article before Ισαάκ as it is appears in R[obinson]-P[ierpont] (and presumably the majority of Byzantine manuscripts contain it as well, explaining its presence in this reading). Whether expecting to follow the rule or the exception listed above, in either case we are faced with textual evidence that does not easily conform to the rule. But, more importantly, we are faced with textual evidence that plays on both sides.

This is one simple observation about one simple usage and far from an exhaustive examination of the evidence (there is no simple or good way to undertake such an analysis, though more resources which enable looking at actual manuscript readings are popping up here and there). I am not here concerned with how good Levinsohn’s explanations of the article with names are–nor anyone else’s, for that matter. What concerns me here is more theoretical.

Linguistic methodologies and the difficult evidence

At some point, a theory needs to account for the evidence that actually exists. If it is going to have adequate explanatory power, it needs to actually deal with what evidence there is. One of the problems I see with various linguistic studies is not that they don’t give good results, but that they don’t seem to consider the ideological bias built into the whole enterprise which they are doing. Let me unpack that.

Insofar as an analysis makes use of a critical text, it is constrained entirely by the choices of the editor of that text. It can reasonably be assumed that the editor of that text had very different theoretical assumptions than the practitioner who is using the linguistic methodology to study it. So, in a very real sense, the methodology is limited by assumptions and work that is foreign to its own assumptions.

Why exactly do the modern critical texts either have an article before the second Ἰσαάκ in Acts 7.8 or not? It likely has little to do with notions of participant activation, and more to do with the famous “weighing” or “counting” of manuscripts. What would a critical text look like if one of the factors used in deciding whether a name should be articular or not was how well it conformed to Levinsohn’s theory for articular names (or anyone elses)? Of course, the editors are not just amassing evidence, but are also reading it from within their own perception of how Koine Greek ought to function (this is especially relevant for the many Koine Greek literary texts whose textual record dates almost exclusively from medieval manuscripts, as opposed to picking up a couple hundred years after they were first written). With regard to Acts 7.8, it may be the case that what we have are two different, authentic Greek representations of how you could have said this idea in Koine Greek. It may be, though, that one or the other readings is the result of an error in a scribe copying the text. When our aim is to describe how Greek works, though, how can we decide which case is which? If the scribes give us our native-speaker texts, in what ways do we need to respect these texts in our attempts to understand Koine Greek, and is the making of critical texts which then serve as the actual basis of description of the language the best way to do this? It seems to be akin to studying modern language through only analyzing texts edited for grammar and spelling, rather than authentic texts recording actual conversation or the actual writing habits of real language users.

There is no easy answer to this issue. I’m inclined to think it is an issue which requires much greater attention, or at least explicit acknowledgement, than it often gets.

[1]Unlike in English, there is only one article in Greek. Given that there is no indefinite article (a, an), it is a best a misnomer to call the Greek article a definite article. More significantly, indicating whether an element is definite or not does not seem to be the main function of the Greek article at all, thus the name “definite article” is not only superfluous, but rather misleading as well.

[2]This description also seems fair for the German grammatical tradition, as far as I am familiar with it. German often uses their definite article with names, but not in the same ways or for the same reasons as Greek. Grammars traditionally set out to explain how Greek usage differs from German.