The hardships of Biblical Scholar’dom (or, Beware the buzzwords, my son!)

Some good stuff here from my friend Kris over at Old School Script… check it out.

Old School Script

Biblical scholars have always been in a difficult place. Trying to interpret the message of ancient people through ancient writings. So many disciplines must be incorporated and roles played to accomplish this task.

Stack of hatsSociologist.



Literary critic.




Textual critic.

Fill in the blank…

Eclecticism is the name of the game. And what a difficult game it is. To grapple responsibly with so many different disciplines, all the while determining the appropriate level of expertise or detail with which it is necessary to interact with the field can be an incredibly daunting task. And honestly, I think a good many biblical scholars do a da[r]n good job juggling a handful of these roles at the same time.

If this wasn’t hard enough, a new role has come on the scene over the past several decades: the Linguist. Now biblical scholars are faced with several choices: to entertain…

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We’re Not Cold-blooded Thinking Machines

I’ve just started reading Louder Than Words: The New Science of How the Mind Makes Meaning. Since my husband Jimmy has absolutely devoured a ton of linguist books over the past year I asked him to suggest one for me to read. Louder Than Words by Benjamin K. Bergen was the book he chose so off I go.

Though my interests are not specifically linguistic at this point I am still very interested in how our brains work, how it is we learn and think, and especially how it is we make meaning. So far I’ve only read the epilogue but the following quotes from George Lakoff give you a hint of what the book is about:

They [Merleau-Ponty and Dewey] argued that—quite to the contrary of the traditional view—our bodies have absolutely everything to do with our minds. Our brains evolved to allow our bodies to function in the world, and it is that embodied engagement with the world, the physical, social, and intellectual world, that makes our concepts and language meaningful. (ix)

The Embodiment Revolution has shown that our essential humanness, our ability to think and use language, is wholly a product of our physical bodies and brains. The way our mind works, from the nature of our thoughts to the way we understand meaning in language, is inextricably tied to our bodies—how we perceive and feel and act in the world. We’re not cold-blooded thinking machines. Our physiology provides the concepts for our philosophy. (x)

Meaning is a slippery concept… how do we actually make meaning? And how does the making of meaning affect how we understand texts? Ancient texts?? Inspired texts???

And what does having bodies have to do with it all?

Frauen Friday: Adele Berlin

After a short hiatus I am very excited to dive back into the world of blogging and especially excited to pick up our Frauen Friday series! If you are new to the blog, Frauen Friday was started with the hopes of providing more exposure to the amazing female scholars, authors, academics, pastors, laypersons, and so on. Thus far I have featured Mercy Amba Oduyoye, Beverly Gaventa, and Elsa Tamez. I am hoping to pick up the pace a bit and have a Frauen Friday post every Friday this summer–I’ll try my best to do so!

Today’s Frauen Friday feature is biblical scholar Adele Berlin. If you are a student of Biblical Hebrew you are likely familiar with some of her work. Here is an abridged bio from her faculty page at University of Maryland:

“Adele Berlin, now professor emerita, was the Robert H. Smith Professor of Biblical Studies at the University of Maryland. She taught at Maryland since 1979 in the Jewish Studies Program, the Hebrew Program, and the English Department. Her main interests are biblical narrative and poetry, and the interpretation of the Bible. While at Maryland, Professor Berlin served as Director of the Joseph and Rebecca Meyerhoff Center for Jewish Studies (1988-91), held the position of Associate Provost for Faculty Affairs (1994-97), and was Chair of the University Senate for the 2005-2006 academic year.

Professor Berlin has received numerous awards and honors. She is a Fellow of the American Academy for Jewish Research. In 2000 she served as President of the Society of Biblical Literature. She has held fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation,  the American Council of Learned Societies, the Center for Advanced Judaic Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, and the Institute of Advanced Studies of the Hebrew University (Jerusalem).” (For the full bio go here)

I was first introduced to Berlin’s work during my undergraduate studies in Hebrew when we got to reading poetry. In The Dynamics of Biblical Parallelism, Berlin seeks to “provide a linguistic framework for the study of parallelism,” (xvii). The majority of the book focuses on a number of different linguistic categories (the grammatical aspect, the lexical and semantic aspects, and so on) and concludes with a look at parallelism within the biblical texts. This book is incredibly helpful and if you are a reader of Biblical Hebrew you should definitely own this book.

I later picked up a copy of Berlin’s Poetics and Interpretation of Biblical Narrative when I began studying participant reference in Susanna. In the preface Berlin writes,

“It is ironic that, although telling is so important in the biblical tradition, there is no word for story. There are words for songs and oracles, hymns and parables… other than a term like תולדות (‘genealogy, history’) applied to a few narrative sections, there is nothing to designate narrative per se. Yet the Bible abounds with narrative–vibrant and vivid narrative that has an ongoing power to affect those who hear or read it. Its power comes not only from the authority of scripture, but from the inner dynamics of the stories themselves. This book will explore some of those inner dynamics, some of the inner workings of biblical narrative,” (11).

I found chapter two, “Character and Characterization,” particularly interesting and extremely helpful. In it she suggests classifying character types in the biblical narratives into three main categories: the full-fledged character or round character; the type or flat character; and the agent or functionary character (23). Berlin does note that these are not clear cut categories but rather points along a spectrum within which a character might fall and to varying degrees throughout the narrative (32). To demonstrate how these categories work, Berlin looks at the stories about David and the women in his life, namely, Michal, Bathsheba, Abishag, and Abigail. From her analysis Berlin concludes that

“the result in all of these cases is an indirect presentation of David, in which various aspects of his character emerge naturally, outside of the glare of direct scrutiny. These episodes are then combined, in the mind of the reader, with the episodes in which David is the main character,” (33).

Further along, Berlin delves into the importance of description in characterization. For instance, she notes that the Bible does not often provide physical descriptions of its characters. When a biblical author does intentionally include a physical descriptor (e.g., that Esau was hairy) the reader is alerted to important information for the narrative’s plot (34).  Additionally, Berling argues,

“the purpose of character description in the BIble is not to enable to the reader to visualize the character, but to enable him to situate the character in terms of his place in society, his own particular situation, and his outstanding traits–in other words, to tell what kind of a person he is,” (36).

Descriptive terms help the reader see a character the way the author intends him or her to be seen and understood. The book also covers other topics such as point of view as well as how poetic interpretation relates to historical-critical methods of interpretation. Again, I highly recommend this book as I have found it very helpful in my own reading of scripture.

Update: A Festschrift in honor of Adele Berlin was published last year and is available here: Built by Wisdom, Established by Understanding: Essays on Biblical and Near Eastern Literature in Honor of Adele Berlin (2013)




For further reading…




The man who hunts ducks out on the weekends.

In my last post I introduced construction grammar with the help of Benjamin Bergen and his book Louder than Words. Bergen’s book, as a reminder, is an introduction to the way humans process language. In this post I want to jump to the next chapter in Bergen’s work (chapter 6) where he discusses the cause and effect of real time language processing.

Did you know that you and I can only take in language one piece of information (syllable, letter, word, etc.) at a time? I guess I knew this–it’s an observable fact. But, I never really thought about it until I started reading up on Information Structure.  Information Structure, or IS, is the interaction of pragmatics and syntax. Bergen’s work deals, not with IS, but with processes that our brains go through as we encounter language in real time.

The big idea is that there are limitations on our ability to process language due to our uptake capacity. Whenever we read or hear language we can only take it in as the string of words and sentences that it is. Our eyes have to pass over each word on down the line as we read, and our ears have to hear each syllable as it is spoken. There’s no way to mass download language. Say it ain’t so, Morpheus! This means we hear some words before others and that we can, potentially, read a bunch of words before we get the complete idea of a sentence.

The way our brains deal with this limitation is to try and figure out the whole sentence as soon as we start getting the pieces. We don’t wait to get all the words of a sentence and then process it. We process “incrementally,” making best guesses, and updating as we get more information. The process is like informed guess work where we start off with very little, but continually update as we take in–that is, read or hear–the string of language.

Since we put together sentences incrementally by making informed guesses, we have the ability to make mistakes and have to reevaluate language as we get more input. Bergen provides a few example sentences, designed to be unpredictable, called “garden path sentences” which prove this point.

(1) Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like a banana.
(2) The lawyer cross-examined by the prosecutor confessed.
(3) The horse raced past the barn fell.
(4) The old man the boat.

These examples trip us up because there are pieces that we analyze one way (‘raced’ in (3) as a verb) which end up needing to be reanalyzed (the verb in (3) is ‘fell’… ‘raced’ is a passive participle modifying the noun ‘horse’). Because we guess at what a sentence will be as we encounter each word, we build expectations of what the entire sentence will be as we process it. When we run into something that doesn’t match what we expect to come next, if it doesn’t fit the guessed pattern, we have to go back and reevaluate everything that we have taken in.

This phenomena is not limited to English, or to modern languages. It even happens in scripture.  I would like to look at an example from the book of James which uses this very phenomena on purpose.

James 1:2
Πᾶσαν χαρὰν ἡγήσασθε, ἀδελφοί μου, ὅταν πειρασμοῖς περιπέσητε ποικίλοις,

Consider it all joy, my siblings, when you encounter various trials

The word order of the original greek is extremely important here (as if it’s not important everywhere!). In fact, the word order is actually what creates the effect that I want to look at. Now, I am not talking about information structure. I only want to look at the expectations that are created by incremental processing. The very first words that we encounter are πᾶσαν χαρὰν (all/complete joy) which is followed by the verb ἡγήσασθε (BDAG sense 2: to think/consider). Next is a phrase directed directly to the audience (ἀδελφοί μου my siblings). Last of all is the subordinate clause ὅταν πειρασμοῖς περιπέσητε ποικίλοις (whenever you fall among various trials).

The noun phrase πᾶσαν χαρὰν (all/complete joy) is first in the sentence, and that doesn’t provide a whole lot to go off of for a reader or hearer. Being a Greek reader–I am assuming the intended readers of James held fluency in Koine and could read Greek in the same manner that you and I can read English–the reader’s mind is constrained to start filling in some of the empty information. The reader knows that this is probably the object of a verb since it is in the accusative case. So, somebody or something is doing some action where complete joy is the direct object.

Next comes ἡγήσασθε. Now the reader knows who is doing the action (s/he is), and what is being done (s/he is being commanded to ‘consider’ something). ἡγέομαι is a verb that takes two accusative nouns. In my last post I used English examples of the ditransitive construction. That construction can be divided into two patterns. The first indicates that one object noun is changing possession from the subject to the second object noun.

(5) John sent his landlord the check.

The second indicates that there is a predication between the two object nouns.

(6a) I found the guard sleeping
(6b) The guard is sleeping, and I found him.

(7a) We painted the room red.
(7b) The room is red because we painted it.

ἡγέομαι follows this second pattern. It takes two accusative nouns, and indicates that there is a predication between them. Phillipians provides several examples of this pattern and ἡγέομαι.

Phil 3:7
[Ἀλλὰ] ἅτινα ἦν μοι κέρδη, ταῦτα ἥγημαι διὰ τὸν Χριστὸν ζημίαν.
Yet, whatever gains I had, I consider these things loss because of Christ.

Here there is a a predication between ταῦτα and ζημίαν. “I consider these things to be loss.”

What we have so far in James 1:2 is, “Consider ____ complete joy.” There is only one noun phrase mentioned. We learned from Bergen that a reader will fill in these sorts of gaps with something that s/he thinks fits this space while reading. We don’t wait until we have all the information to put things together. We build with what we have and fill in the gaps with what we expect to fit until we come to that information.

No one knows what the first readers of James would fill in here, but if I was filling in the gap, I may think something like, “consider waffles complete joy”, “consider knowing Jesus complete joy”, “consider the love of God complete joy”, and so on. The presence of πᾶσαν χαρὰν constrains the reader to consider something, well, joyful! The reader will naturally fill in this space with something that they consider joyful. This builds an expectation for what is coming, and when it comes the reader is going to be befuddled.

But the reader has to wait to fill in the missing piece. James doesn’t fill in the gap immediately. What comes next in this string of words is a phrase addressing the audience directly, ἀδελφοί μου. Because this is the next set of words in the sentence, the reader has no choice but to continue to guess at what s/he is to consider total joy. The vocative phrase adds nothing new to the sentence, it only serves to delay the reader.

What fills the space in James 1:2 is the subordinate clause ὅταν πειρασμοῖς περιπέσητε ποικίλοις (whenever you  meet trials of various kinds). Wow! I wasn’t expecting that. And I’m willing to bet that the first readers weren’t expecting that either. Who would? To consider all kinds of trials to be total joy is counter intuitive. Trials and joy don’t go together…usually. But that is what James wants the readers to think. And as if the thought itself wasn’t dramatic enough, he uses the readers own expectations of what is joyful to add more effect to the command.

Had you ever thought about the limitations of language uptake and the way it affected meaning? It is something that I find fascinating, and hopefully I have demonstrated that it is useful in the study of scripture as well. I would love to go through other passages where this sort of devise is being used. If you have come across one please let me know.

Introducing Construction Grammar

Recently I’ve been reading “Louder Than Words” by Benjamin Bergen. It is a well written introductory work about how our brains create meaning. Bergen introduces several complex concepts concerning language and the brain in a way that is engaging and fun to read. I encourage you to go to a library and check it out. His initial chapter on language (chapter 5) will provide the ‘jumping off’ point for this post. The concept that I want to focus on is the basic idea of construction grammar.

Meaning is not only produced by the individual words of a language. Although words do contribute a large portion of meaning to a sentence, phrase, or passage, they are not the only meaning carrying instruments. The grammar of a sentence also contributes to the meaning. Grammar is not limited to the aspect of the verb (kind of action) or the connectors used to link clauses (and, also, but, etc.). Bergen provides some fun examples showing how argument structure constructions provide meaning to language.

Now the most common way to talk about argument structure is using the language of transitivity. A transitive clause contains two arguments (an argument is a noun that the verb requires to be complete), the subject and the object. Intransitive clauses only contain one argument, a subject. Examples used by Bergen belong to the ‘ditransitive construction’ which contain a subject and two objects.

The ditransitive
(1) John sent his landlord the check.
(2) The goalie kicked his defender the ball.

Bergen argues that there is a meaning associated with this construction. There is a form-meaning pairing where the individual parts (the words in the sentence) do not produce the meaning. In most cases the first noun transfers the third noun to the second noun, so that the basic semantic value is a transfer of possession. Some may argue that it is not the construction that conveys this meaning, but Bergen offers some fun examples to prove that this is the case, and that it is the construction which produces this meaning of [transfer of possession].

(3) The delivery boy motorcycled his clients some blueprints.
(4) Venus tennis racketed her sister the hair clip.
(5) Lyn crutched Tom her apple.

In these examples the meaning cannot be contributed by the verb alone because the verbs themselves (motorcycled, tennis racketed, and crutched) are unique to these sentences. These examples match the regular patterns found in (1) & (2), so Bergen assumes that the meaning [transfer of possession] is contributed by the construction itself. The form of the sentence is paired with the meaning much like words have a certain form that is paired with a meaning.

Ancient Greek scholars have used the theoretical framework of construction grammar to show that Greek also possesses constructions which are non-compositional or idioms. This means that the individual parts do not account for the semantic value of the whole.  Jóhanna Barðdal & Serena Danesi cover two example constructions which are idiomatic, the “dative of agent” and the “infinitive with accusative subject” constructions. 1


Luke 23:15 (dative of agent)
οὐδὲν ἄξιον θανάτου ἐστὶν πεπραγμένον αὐτῷ·
Nothing deserving death has been done by him

Mark 1:14 (infinitive with accusative subject)
Μετὰ δὲ τὸ παραδοθῆναι τὸν Ἰωάννην ἦλθεν ὁ Ἰησοῦς εἰς τὴν Γαλιλαίαν
Now after John was arrested Jesus came into Galilee.

In both of these constructions there is a break in the normal grammatical patterns of the Greek language. The dative case does not normally indicate the agent of an action, even with the passive voice. And the accusative case does not normally indicate the subject of a verbal action. Both of these constructions can only be accounted for by assuming that the constructions themselves indicate some semantic value.

I would like to look at two verses that I ran across in my daily reading which are very normal grammatically. The reason I want to look at these sentences is to show that even ‘normal’ sentences, while being compositional, follow patterns.

LXX Isaiah 7:18

καὶ ἔσται ἐν τῇ ἡμέρᾳ ἐκείνῃ συριεῖ κύριος μυίαις, ὃ κυριεύει μέρους ποταμοῦ Αἰγύπτου, καὶ τῇ μελίσσῃ, ἥ ἐστιν ἐν χώρᾳ Ἀσσυρίων,

And It will be on that day, The Lord will whistle for the flies that rule part of the river of Egypt and for the bee that is in the land of Assyria. (NETS)

Ignoring the relative clauses, there is a simple sentence with one verb (συριζω) and three noun phrases (κύριος, μυίαις, τῇ μελίσσῃ).

(6) The Lord will whistle for the flies and bees.

The verb (συριζω) can be translated ‘to whistle or hiss like a snake’ and while the subject will be producing a whistling sound, the meaning of this sentence is more than production of a noise. The point of the sentence (what it means) is the purpose of the action, the reason the sound will be produced. The Lord κύριος is not going to whistle the bugs a tune. He is going to call them into the lands of Israel. The two noun phrases, μυίαις and τῇ μελίσσῃ, will be the recipients of the Lord’s whistle, and they will not just hear the call, but be affected by it. A translation which makes this idea more explicit would be something like; “the Lord will call the flies and bees over with a whistle.”

Isa 5:26
τοιγαροῦν ἀρεῖ σύσσημον ἐν τοῖς ἔθνεσιν τοῖς μακρὰν καὶ συριεῖ αὐτοῖς ἀπ᾿ ἄκρου τῆς γῆς, καὶ ἰδοὺ ταχὺ κούφως ἔρχονται·

Therefore he will raise a signal among the nations that are far off, and whistle for them from the high place end of the earth. And behold, they are coming quickly, swiftly! (NETS)

Verse 5:26 follows the same pattern as 7:18; a subject noun, verb (συριζω), and the recipients of the whistle in the dative case. The context makes it clear that the recipients of the whistle are responding to it like it was a call to action and not just a noise or song. This is a common usage for the dative case. Smyth says that the dative is commonly used to denote “the person who is interested in or affected by the action.” 2

Again, grammatically these two examples are normal, but the use of συριζω is uncommon as far as I can tell. But it makes sense. I didn’t have to figure out what the text was trying to get at when I read these passages. Because I, like you, have seen westerns where the rough and tumble cowboy got out of a jam by using a sharp whistle to call his horse, and I have pets who I call by whistling. The performative sense of whistle makes sense to me. I assume that this is true of the ancient audience as well, but I don’t yet have any evidence to support that claim.

Could it be that this is a type of sentence pattern? I’m not really sure. It will take more searching on my part. If this were a kind of patten it should be productive. It should be used with different subjects and different recipients and maybe even different verbs. Remember the English construction Bergen used? The ditransitive construction is so productive that he could make up verbs to use in the construction. I’ll be on the look-out for more sentences that could fit this pattern. If you know of any please pass them along in the comments.

1. Construction Grammar and Greek Jóhanna Barðdal & Serena Danesi University of Bergen Encyclopedia of Ancient Greek Language and Linguistics (EAGLL), Brill
2. Smyth §1459