The Evangelical Theological Society’s 2020 Annual Meeting is now in full swing—online, that is. Today I watched a fun presentation in which Jordash Kiffiak discussed teaching discourse analysis of NT Greek in Hellenistic Greek.[i]  It was an entertaining presentation. When I have some time to put together something in a similar vein, I’ll have to share some of his ideas.

Personally, I waffle back and forth about the value of communicative Greek teaching/learning. It certainly is cool, and fun; that much is certain. I don’t think it is an accident that Jordash, as well as many others who have spun off from the Biblical Language Center or from Polis are not actively teaching in a college or seminary setting (though there are some who do communicative Greek in those settings). With contact time in teaching the languages hugely constrained in most of these settings, and a high desire to engage with texts far beyond the level of language the readers actually have control over, this approach is too time consuming at the front end. That being said, it is hard to argue that it would not be a hugely helpful approach, even with its drawbacks. More engagement with the language is certainly a good thing: reading, writing, or speaking. It certainly forces the issue of considering what meaning certain constructions might actually have had and why one would choose any of the different ways to express purpose, for instance. I digress.

One thing that I don’t waffle back and forth about the value of is discourse analysis. Discourse analysis is definitely a here-to-stay discipline in Greek study. It even made it into the new Cambridge Grammar of Classical Greek (see chapters 58-61), which is essentially a school grammar, indicating that the Classics-world has also hugely embraced this approach as a valuable tool (seems to be a lot of work by Dutch scholars in this vein). The basic contribution of discourse analysis is to provide a language and tools for talking about the development of a discourse, or text, that pays attention to a level above the sentence. Traditional grammar’s usefulness is largely exhausted at the level of the sentence, and even there, it is largely constrained to accounting for the semantic results of various case relations to the main verb, for instance. In other words, it does a good job describing (usually in terms of translational equivalents) what different phrases mean and how different cases convey different nuances, and so forth. However, it really struggles with questions like, “why is this word here and not there?”, or “why does the particle δέ sometimes appear and other times not?” Since traditional grammar essentially is concerned with accounting for well-formed phrases and clauses, these questions are outside its scope to answer. These are questions which discourse analysis at least gives answers to. Of course, it is unlikely discourse analysis is always correct, but it does provide answers that are pushing the understanding of Greek forward.

My own Greek education did not involve any meaningful instruction in discourse analysis ,though I have been doing a lot of self-instruction and reading since then (it plays a pivotal role in my dissertation, for instance). I hope that work like Jordash’s at the conference, and the (relatively) accessible groundbreaking work of Runge in NT circles, or even the probably more accessible basic framework laid out in the Cambridge Grammar of Classical Greek will make it so that the next generation of readers of Greek, whether scholars, pastors, or dabblers, will be better equipped with this really helpful analytical tool.

[i] I prefer to think of conversational Greek as a “pidgin” of sorts, given that there exists no actual native speakers to guide the speaking community into what is or is not authentic. Given the amount of text we have available, there are a lot of things we can say with full assurance that they would have been fully understandable Greek in the time. But there is a lot up in the air in terms of what would have been natural Greek or not. I liken the distinction to my experience at my undergrad school. We had a lot of students from India and a lot of students from China. As a general rule, the Chinese students spoke an incredibly idiosyncratic version of English, while the Indian students spoke fairly “normal” English. The difference? English is widely used in India; not so much in China. Formal study of the language resulted, in many instances, in an ability to understand and read English, but a lack of ability to produce what a native speaker of English would call “normal” English. Learning in the context of an actual speaking community seems to me to be key. Perhaps we can create an artificial version of semi-revived Hellenistic Greek, borrowing elements from Latin and from Modern Greek when necessary. This is much the case with Latin today. However, the fact that Greek has moved on and is still a widely successful language in its modern form (some 14 million speakers), also weighs heavily on my mind in favor of just going with Modern Greek and keeping Hellenistic Greek as primarily a language for reading.