How to Read the New Testament: An Introduction to Linguistic and Historical-Critical Methodology

Written by Wilhelm Egger Reviewed By Gustavo Martin-Asensio

Wilhelm Egger’s volume represents yet another call for biblical scholarship to integrate and complement the well-rehearsed methods of historical criticism with the best tools of modern linguistics. Utilizing the famous Saussurean dichotomy of synchronie/diachronie, Egger divides his book into two major sections covering various levels of linguistic analysis (synchronic study) and a summary but helpful review and application of the better known historical-critical methods (diachronic study). The emphasis, however, is placed squarely upon synchronic analysis, which takes up roughly the first one third of the book. The author’s rationale for this choice seems unquestionable, namely, that only after systematic linguistic analysis of a text has been carried out will apparent ‘gaps’ or ‘stitches’ be explainable by recourse to sources.

Having touched upon preliminary issues such as text and communication theory and translation (chs. 2–6), Egger launches into his survey of four levels of linguistic analysis, representing steps to be followed in order in the study of the biblical texts: linguistic-syntactic, semantic, pragmatic, and analysis of genres, each accompanied by an application in a specific NT text. At this point, the author’s refusal to ‘promote any one linguistic theory’ (see also the introduction by Boers) begins to detract from the overall coherence and clarity. Though the entire ‘synchronic reading’ section is helpful as an introductory survey of various linguistic methods and their possible application to NT texts, its four sub-sections appear insufficiently connected with each other, and their relation to the historical-critical methods introduced later is unclear. On one hand, Egger’s distribution of his material, together with his explicit statement as mentioned above, reveal the pre-eminent place he wishes to give to linguistic analysis; on the other hand, among his criteria for selecting linguistic methods is that they be ‘connected’ to the traditional historical-critical approaches (p. 11). The issue of the level of independence and priority of linguistic analysis is never clearly resolved in Egger’s volume. Further, the somewhat disjointed way in which the four levels of linguistic analysis are treated is difficult to accept in light of recent successful models of discourse analysis within which semantics, syntax and pragmatics are inseparable (see e.g. M.A.K. Halliday, Introduction to Functional Grammar (London: Edward Arnold, 1985)).

Scholars not acquainted with modern linguistic methods of the kind introduced in Egger’s book are bound to enquire regarding the pragmatic benefits of such new approaches. More specifically, the question will be raised: If linguistics can add to our understanding of the biblical texts, then linguistics scholars must be able to point out to us significant features we have missed because of our lack of understanding of the workings of the Greek language. From the standpoint of results, Chapter 9 of Egger’s volume (‘Semantic Analysis’) seems to have the most to offer. Thus, Egger shows that carrying out a complete inventory of the ‘meaning lines’ in a text reveals the presence of key points in the text, and keeps the reader from noticing only certain elements. The author’s discussion of transitivity and narrative analysis in the same chapter is no less fruitful. Much less productive, however, is Egger’s treatment of ‘Pragmatic Analysis’ (ch. 10) and ‘Analysis of Textual Genres’ (ch. 11). In the former chapter, Egger identifies as textual functions only those that are explicitly referred to by the biblical writer (e.g. distinguishing addressees in 1 Cor. 7, a request in Philemon 8–10, etc.). In Chapter 11, Egger’s findings in regard to the Sitz im Leben of Mark’s Gospel are not at all the result of linguistic analysis, but rather of redaction/tradition criticism.

The mentioned criticisms aside, How to Read the New Testament offers the reader a helpful introductory-level sampling of some of the better-known linguistic methods being successfully applied to the NT, as well as a useful summary of most of the traditional historical-critical approaches.

Gustavo Martin-Asensio

Roehampton Institute, London