How Semantics Affects Exegesis

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January 12, 2021 // Kevin Grasso

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This post is about the importance of having a solid semantic theory and how that affects the way we read the Greek or Hebrew text. We will look at a passage in Wallace’s Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics as a test case to help us think through how to go about doing (and evaluating) semantic analyses. This is all the more important with the biblical languages for two reasons: 1) our text is God’s Word, so we want to get it right; and 2) we lack native speaker judgments by which to evaluate the claims about certain interpretations. This latter point is crucial because it means that people can end up saying something completely false about a particular text, but there is no authoritative source to say simply “That’s the wrong interpretation” and put the issue to rest. My proposal, however, is that semantic theory can help us both to evaluate such claims and come to better analyses ourselves.


The "Gentle" Genitive


A couple months ago, I was asked a question about genitives as “direct objects” after some verbs. I was then referred to Wallace’s Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics on this issue where we find the following:

 
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Previously, he said that one of the genitive functions is partitive, and when a verb can take either accusative or genitive case, the author may choose one or the other to express different ideas. This, according to Wallace, is one such example. Let’s map out the argument in more detail:

  1. Some verbs may take genitive or accusative objects
  2. These verbs may have a different meaning depending on the case of the object
  3. Κρατέω is one such verb
  4. Κρατέω + acc. means to grasp the whole object
  5. Κρατέω + gen. means to grasp part of the object
  6. Grasping part of an object is gentler than grasping the whole object
  7. The use of κρατήσας τῆς χειρὸς in Mark 5:41 expresses a gentle grasping because of the genitive

Now, how do we evaluate the exegetically significant claim being made here that the genitive has a “gentle” nuance to it? Wallace has certain theoretical positions that have led him to a particular interpretation of this passage. Good semanticists are always grounded in the data, so let’s start there.

Semantics and Context

The first question to ask is whether the interpretation of Mark 5:41 and the other references cited are plausible. Mark 5:41 is parallel to Matthew 9:25, both referring to the same story of Jesus raising up a girl from the dead. Interpreting Jesus’ grasping in such a context as gentle is certainly plausible. The other reference cited is Mark 1:31 where Jesus heals Peter’s mother-in-law and again we have κρατήσας τῆς χειρός ‘grasp the hand’ where a nuance of gentleness might be possible. At this point, we might be tempted to say, “Great, all of these contexts fit. Case closed.”

Yet, here we come to a crucial point about doing semantics: interpretation of a form is not equivalent to the meaning of a form. In other words, just because we have a certain understanding of a clause (even a correct one!) does not mean that the particular element in the clause under discussion is contributing that understanding. With our examples, we may very well have a “gentle” nuance, but this could be a coincidence of the context and not due to the semantics of the genitive. How do we check to see which is correct? If the “gentle” meaning is coming from the genitive, we should expect the meaning to hold in more neutral contexts that do not themselves support the “gentle” interpretation, since the hypothesis is that the genitive contributes the meaning and not the context. For this, we need to look at more contexts.

A quick search for this construction yields another hit from the LXX. Here is the example from Gen. 19:16:

καὶ ἐταράχθησαν, καὶ ἐκράτησαν οἱ ἄγγελοι τῆς χειρὸς αὐτοῦ καὶ τῆς χειρὸς τῆς γυναικὸς αὐτοῦ καὶ τῶν χειρῶν τῶν δύο θυγατέρων αὐτοῦ ἐν τῷ φείσασθαι κύριον αὐτοῦ (‘And they were troubled, and the angels grabbed his hand and the hand of his wife and the hands of his two daughters when the lord saved him’)

In this context, there is certainly no flavor of gentleness. In fact, if this was the only example we had to go off of, we might think that the genitive conveyed a sense of “roughness”. The context in this passage is when the angels took Lot and his family out of the city despite the family’s hesitations.

What should we conclude from this example? If the genitive was responsible for the “gentle” interpretation as Wallace suggested above, we should expect this interpretation to be present whenever the genitive is used, but this does not seem to be the case from Gen. 19:16. Thus, while we might interpret Jesus’ action in the previous contexts as gentle, this does not seem to be coming from the genitive, but is simply a matter of context. We would have to conclude from this that Wallace’s generalization about the meaning distinction between κρατέω + acc and κρατέω + gen is incorrect.

Semantics and Arguments

Is there a better explanation? The entry in BDAG gives us a hint. Here is what we find:

 
Image
 

Notice that, at least for this sense, the direct object is always with the accusative - except for with our noun χείρ. This should be a big red flag. If it is only a particular noun or class of nouns that is appearing in the genitive, it might not be that the genitive contributes a different meaning, but it may reflect a different meaning, namely the meaning of the argument of the verb. So the question becomes: is there anything special about the noun χείρ that might lend itself to be used in the genitive with this verb? In fact, I would say that there is.

The noun ‘hand’ (and its Greek equivalent) is known as an inalienable possession, that is, it is necessarily possessed by its possessor. These kinds of nouns, such as body parts, are known in general linguistics to behave in grammatically unique ways at times (you can check out how it is used in some different languages here).

 And this makes sense in our context as well. Grasping someone by the hand would be a very normal act, and if you grasped someone by the hand, you are necessarily grasping them. Thus, an expression like ἐγὼ κρατῶ τὸ τέκνον τῆς χειρός (‘I am grasping the child by the hand’) is redundant in some sense, since my grasping the child’s hand entails that I am also grasping the child. If it is known from the context who is being grasped, then we can drop the accusative altogether or add it back in with the genitive - which is exactly what we have in our examples above. In other words, the genitive is used because of the nature of the object and not to draw a meaning distinction with the accusative.

Semantics and Exegesis

What can we learn from this about exegesis? The explanation I have offered does not preach as well as Wallace. Saying from the pulpit that the Greek here has a genitive rather than an accusative because the object is an inalienable possession probably won’t have people feeling spiritually uplifted afterwards. But I do think it is correct. We have to be careful about putting the context of a passage into the Greek grammar.

At an analytical level, we have to pay careful attention to both the syntax and the nature of arguments, which might affect how the syntax is realized. From a methodological standpoint, we have to look at as many contexts as we can to see if patterns between meaning and syntax really hold in different environments. We found such a pattern between a particular type of object and the verb, but it wasn’t what Wallace initially suggested.

And this brings us to our last point - we have to be constantly looking over the data again and again and refining our semantic theories, so that we can ultimately have a better framework for understanding the text.

Notes

Image:

The raising of Jairus' daughter from Codex Egberti, c. 980-993, Reichenau Abbey (WikiimagesWGA)

Books:

Wallace, Daniel B. Greek grammar beyond the basics: An exegetical syntax of the New Testament. Harper Collins, 1996.

Bauer, Walter. A Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament and other early Christian literature. University of Chicago Press, 2010.



Image

January 12, 2021 // Kevin Grasso

Share this Post

This post is about the importance of having a solid semantic theory and how that affects the way we read the Greek or Hebrew text. We will look at a passage in Wallace’s Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics as a test case to help us think through how to go about doing (and evaluating) semantic analyses. This is all the more important with the biblical languages for two reasons: 1) our text is God’s Word, so we want to get it right; and 2) we lack native speaker judgments by which to evaluate the claims about certain interpretations. This latter point is crucial because it means that people can end up saying something completely false about a particular text, but there is no authoritative source to say simply “That’s the wrong interpretation” and put the issue to rest. My proposal, however, is that semantic theory can help us both to evaluate such claims and come to better analyses ourselves.


The "Gentle" Genitive

A couple months ago, I was asked a question about genitives as “direct objects” after some verbs. I was then referred to Wallace’s Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics on this issue where we find the following:

Image

A couple months ago, I was asked a question about genitives as “direct objects” after some verbs. I was then referred to Wallace’s Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics on this issue where we find the following:

Image

Previously, he said that one of the genitive functions is partitive, and when a verb can take either accusative or genitive case, the author may choose one or the other to express different ideas. This, according to Wallace, is one such example. Let’s map out the argument in more detail:

  1. Some verbs may take genitive or accusative objects
  2. These verbs may have a different meaning depending on the case of the object
  3. Κρατέω is one such verb
  4. Κρατέω + acc. means to grasp the whole object
  5. Κρατέω + gen. means to grasp part of the object
  6. Grasping part of an object is gentler than grasping the whole object
  7. The use of κρατήσας τῆς χειρὸς in Mark 5:41 expresses a gentle grasping because of the genitive

Now, how do we evaluate the exegetically significant claim being made here that the genitive has a “gentle” nuance to it? Wallace has certain theoretical positions that have led him to a particular interpretation of this passage. Good semanticists are always grounded in the data, so let’s start there.

Semantics and Context

The first question to ask is whether the interpretation of Mark 5:41 and the other references cited are plausible. Mark 5:41 is parallel to Matthew 9:25, both referring to the same story of Jesus raising up a girl from the dead. Interpreting Jesus’ grasping in such a context as gentle is certainly plausible. The other reference cited is Mark 1:31 where Jesus heals Peter’s mother-in-law and again we have κρατήσας τῆς χειρός ‘grasp the hand’ where a nuance of gentleness might be possible. At this point, we might be tempted to say, “Great, all of these contexts fit. Case closed.”

Yet, here we come to a crucial point about doing semantics: interpretation of a form is not equivalent to the meaning of a form. In other words, just because we have a certain understanding of a clause (even a correct one!) does not mean that the particular element in the clause under discussion is contributing that understanding. With our examples, we may very well have a “gentle” nuance, but this could be a coincidence of the context and not due to the semantics of the genitive. How do we check to see which is correct? If the “gentle” meaning is coming from the genitive, we should expect the meaning to hold in more neutral contexts that do not themselves support the “gentle” interpretation, since the hypothesis is that the genitive contributes the meaning and not the context. For this, we need to look at more contexts.

A quick search for this construction yields another hit from the LXX. Here is the example from Gen. 19:16:

καὶ ἐταράχθησαν, καὶ ἐκράτησαν οἱ ἄγγελοι τῆς χειρὸς αὐτοῦ καὶ τῆς χειρὸς τῆς γυναικὸς αὐτοῦ καὶ τῶν χειρῶν τῶν δύο θυγατέρων αὐτοῦ ἐν τῷ φείσασθαι κύριον αὐτοῦ (‘And they were troubled, and the angels grabbed his hand and the hand of his wife and the hands of his two daughters when the lord saved him’)

In this context, there is certainly no flavor of gentleness. In fact, if this was the only example we had to go off of, we might think that the genitive conveyed a sense of “roughness”. The context in this passage is when the angels took Lot and his family out of the city despite the family’s hesitations.

What should we conclude from this example? If the genitive was responsible for the “gentle” interpretation as Wallace suggested above, we should expect this interpretation to be present whenever the genitive is used, but this does not seem to be the case from Gen. 19:16. Thus, while we might interpret Jesus’ action in the previous contexts as gentle, this does not seem to be coming from the genitive, but is simply a matter of context. We would have to conclude from this that Wallace’s generalization about the meaning distinction between κρατέω + acc and κρατέω + gen is incorrect.

Semantics and Arguments

Is there a better explanation? The entry in BDAG gives us a hint. Here is what we find:

Image

Notice that, at least for this sense, the direct object is always with the accusative - except for with our noun χείρ. This should be a big red flag. If it is only a particular noun or class of nouns that is appearing in the genitive, it might not be that the genitive contributes a different meaning, but it may reflect a different meaning, namely the meaning of the argument of the verb. So the question becomes: is there anything special about the noun χείρ that might lend itself to be used in the genitive with this verb? In fact, I would say that there is.

The noun ‘hand’ (and its Greek equivalent) is known as an inalienable possession, that is, it is necessarily possessed by its possessor. These kinds of nouns, such as body parts, are known in general linguistics to behave in grammatically unique ways at times (you can check out how it is used in some different languages here).

 And this makes sense in our context as well. Grasping someone by the hand would be a very normal act, and if you grasped someone by the hand, you are necessarily grasping them. Thus, an expression like ἐγὼ κρατῶ τὸ τέκνον τῆς χειρός (‘I am grasping the child by the hand’) is redundant in some sense, since my grasping the child’s hand entails that I am also grasping the child. If it is known from the context who is being grasped, then we can drop the accusative altogether or add it back in with the genitive - which is exactly what we have in our examples above. In other words, the genitive is used because of the nature of the object and not to draw a meaning distinction with the accusative.

Semantics and Exegesis

What can we learn from this about exegesis? The explanation I have offered does not preach as well as Wallace. Saying from the pulpit that the Greek here has a genitive rather than an accusative because the object is an inalienable possession probably won’t have people feeling spiritually uplifted afterwards. But I do think it is correct. We have to be careful about putting the context of a passage into the Greek grammar.

At an analytical level, we have to pay careful attention to both the syntax and the nature of arguments, which might affect how the syntax is realized. From a methodological standpoint, we have to look at as many contexts as we can to see if patterns between meaning and syntax really hold in different environments. We found such a pattern between a particular type of object and the verb, but it wasn’t what Wallace initially suggested.

And this brings us to our last point - we have to be constantly looking over the data again and again and refining our semantic theories, so that we can ultimately have a better framework for understanding the text.

Notes

Image:

The raising of Jairus' daughter from Codex Egberti, c. 980-993, Reichenau Abbey (WikiimagesWGA)

Books:

Wallace, Daniel B. Greek grammar beyond the basics: An exegetical syntax of the New Testament. Harper Collins, 1996.

Bauer, Walter. A Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament and other early Christian literature. University of Chicago Press, 2010.


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Kevin Grasso received his M.A. in Linguistics with a concentration in Bible Translation from Dallas International University. He is currently writing his dissertation on the semantics of Biblical Hebrew to receive his PhD in Hebrew Language from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He has taught Biblical Greek for the University of the Holy Land and is on the Executive Committee for the Biblical Hebrew Linguistics and Philology Network.

Kevin is also the Founder & CEO of Biblingo, an app that makes the biblical langauges more accessible and easier to learn.

 

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Image

Kevin Grasso received his M.A. in Linguistics with a concentration in Bible Translation from Dallas International University. He is currently writing his dissertation on the semantics of Biblical Hebrew to receive his PhD in Hebrew Language from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He has taught Biblical Greek for the University of the Holy Land and is on the Executive Committee for the Biblical Hebrew Linguistics and Philology Network.

Kevin is also the Co-founder & CEO of Biblingo, an app that makes the biblical langauges more accessible and easier to learn.

Share this Post