I recently acquired the new book Discourse Analysis of the New Testament Writings, edited by Todd A. Scacewater. Being interested personally in discourse analysis, NT writings, and Greek driven exegesis, I was excited to hear about the project.

*Disclaimer* I have not read the whole book yet (of course, that is fairly normal for book reviews 🙂 ). At 747 pages it is not a quick read and given that it is designed like a reference work, it is not the sort of book I sit down with in a comfy chair and plow through. I have read Scacewater’s introduction and have skimmed through the methodology descriptions of most of the contributions, as well as poked around looking to get a feel for the varied approaches represented in the volume. And they are varied. Very varied. One impression this volume gives the reader is how variegated the umbrella approach of “Discourse Analysis” (DA) actually is.

The Introduction

Scacewater’s introduction is well done. He nicely and succinctly lays out the aims and tools commonly grouped together under the umbrella of DA. There is no agreed upon definition of DA (no surprise there!), but he points to three common elements of study animating the approach which taken together allow DA to be described, even if not adequately defined:[i]

  • language beyond the level of the sentence
  • language use
  • the social and interpersonal aspects of communication

These concerns are applied to texts as discourse. A distinction between “text” and “discourse” pervades the field: a text is an artifact of language use; a discourse can be defined as “the entirety of a language producer’s communicative purpose intended to be achieved through a text or utterance” (2). DA is, broadly speaking, a method of analyzing texts to better understand their structure, meaning, and function. Said differently, it is a method to (attempt to) recover the communicative purpose of a text (remember, a text is a specific artifact of language use). That this discipline grew out of linguistic concerns is evident in the proliferation of technical linguistic terms throughout the theories and analysis involved in DA, though the technical jargon is mercifully limited and explained in this volume.

Scacewater outlines the two major ways that DA has already been applied to NT studies: 1) analysis of texts and 2) analysis of discourse features of Greek (8-12). Of these two, my specific interests lie mainly with studying the discourse features of Greek, though the obvious future direction in my own studies is moving up from this level of micro-analysis into analysis of texts more broadly. I look forward to engaging with the essays in this volume to see how other people have worked through this process.

The lion’s share of the introduction is taken up with introducing and defining key technical terms: context, semantics, pragmatics, cohesion, coherence, global patterns, coherence relations, pragmatic features of coherence, macrostructures, prominence and peak. These terms, as well as many others discussed under these headings, are central in any approach to DA. Scacewater’s introduction is the best short description and collection of these terms that I am aware of, tailored specifically to the concerns of NT studies.

A note on the book and what to expect

Most of the book is  concerned with the analyses of the books of the NT. Each chapter begins with brief introductory remarks, an overview of the contributor’s method, then there is a macro-structure proposed for the book and a discussion of the discourse features evidenced in the microstructures. There are plenty of figures throughout (the list of figures at the beginning of the book is four pages long). The contributors adopt a variety of different ways of interacting with and presenting the text. One noteworthy feature of the presentations across the volume is that they highlight Greek structural cues in the text. While commentators often deal with these sorts of issues, they are notorious for how difficult it is to find what they have to say about the Greek text. These essays are far from a robust commentary on the Greek text, but they do an admirable job pointing to key signs in the text at the linguistic level that can help the interpreter navigate the terrain.

A glance of the table of contents gives a clear impression of what to expect from the book. Matthew gets 32 pages; 2 Peter gets 30 pages (30-40 pages is the normal length of each chapter; most books have their own chapter, but the Pastoral and the Johnannie Epistles are each combined into one chapter). Naturally, this leads to widely uneven treatment from book to book in terms of the level of detail. While the charting of propositions in an epistle often is more complicated than in the Gospels, this is not to say that discourse analysis of the Gospels is not complex. With their multiple embedded genres and complex, multi-chapter thematic units, the Gospels have a beautiful complexity in their own right. Little of this complexity can be dealt with in so short a space, so the larger units dominate. For those whose major impression of DA has been gleaned from the excellent works of Levinsohn and Runge, the approaches in this book may be jarring in that they focus not on minute grammatical explanation (though these concerns pop up here and there) but on applying the same sorts of concerns on larger units of text.

Concerning the physical volume, it is a decent quality book at a great price. I have the hardcover version. Since this book is designed to serve as a reference book going with the hardcover is a wise choice (check the publisher’s website; when I got the book the hardcover version was markedly better priced there than at Amazon). It is a simple glue binding, which is a drawback. But, you get what you pay for and the price for the book is worth it.

Final impression

I’m generally excited about the book, based on what I have read. As I mentioned, my primary interests and contact with DA to date has been as a tool for describing Greek grammar, largely in terms of information structure, prominence, and cohesion. I am looking forward to seeing different patterns out there for moving up from this level to broader levels of analysis. For those with little to no prior knowledge of DA, this book seems like the new obvious place to start.

[i] Todd A. Scacewater, ed., Discourse Analysis of the New Testament Writings (Dallas: Fontes Press, 2020), 2–3.