Reviewing Decker’s “Reading Koine Greek”, part 3

It’s not my intention to give you an exacting series of comments on every chapter, so I’ll move a little quicker now and spend more time discussing points of interest.

I was interested to see that in chapter 11, p200, Decker includes in his definition of χάρις “A disposition marked by generosity, frequently unmotivated by the worth of the recipient”; just the other day I was discussing with someone the view that Paul’s novel view of χάρις in the NT is precisely that God shows χάρις to the unworthy, not the worthy, in contravention of Graeco-Roman norms. The question then becomes, “does one include this in a definition of χάρις in Koine Greek, in NT Greek, in broader Greek?” For if we enter it into our definition, we would perhaps miss what Paul is doing and perhaps misread what non-Christians authors were doing with the word, but if we do not we are left perhaps to define all Koine words deliberately disregarding, say, NT usage. Thus the conundrum of lexicography.

Chapter 13 deals with “Verbal Semantics” in which we get to see the outcome of more contemporary approaches to Greek linguistics played out in an introductory grammar. As in several grammars (Mounce springs to mind), Decker illustrates concepts such as person, number, voice, mood, with English examples first. On p219 he does say that “imperatives do not have subjects” whereas I think they do, but that is neither here nor there. When he comes to discussing tense and aspect we see what we’ve longed for – a clear introduction in an introductory grammar to

  1. tense forms encoding aspect primarily, time secondarily
  2. an explanation of aspect for learners

Although Decker retains the term “verbal aspect” which is only really a phrase used in Koine circles. Decker adopts the mainstream and uncontroversial aspect scheme of Perfective (Aorist tense-form), Imperfective (Present and Imperfect), and Stative (Perfect and Pluperfect). He does not include the future since there is no consensus on it! Instead deferring discussion to chapter 19. Decker also includes a brief paragraph explaining Aktionsart and referring the student to a more advanced Grammar for that.

We also see a re-casting of the issue of Voice. Decker, in part drawing on Conrad, contrasts situation-focused verbs with subject-focused verbs and then subdivides the second category into middle and passive. He does not bother at this point to explain how this newer view overturns traditional categories or do away with deponency, either from a desire not to confuse learners by introducing a concept that is not accurate, or else seeing no need to accommodate the fiction any longer.

Chapter 13 is central, not for learners, but for those with an interest in Greek text books. To see come on the market an introductory text that incorporates contemporary debate and findings in a clear and accessible way, not deferred to intermediate texts, and not requiring teachers to ‘unteach’ what their students learnt in first-year Greek, is most welcome.

Chapter 14 returns to the Present tense-form, with the information covered in 13 now in view again. Decker makes a strong effort to demystify the idea of the middle, though in a sidebar on p236 he does this by pointing to other languages with a middle voice. His aim is to make it ‘less weird’, but when he says that Classical Mongolian has 5 voices, this is not the best corollary, in my view, since Mongolian ‘voices’ are simply agglutinative suffixes that are not exclusive. One can stack 2 or 3 of them onto a verb.

In chapter 15 he discusses middle only verbs, (p252) which replaces the category of deponents with no comment on that terminology. Decker writes, “This is a set of verbs that typically has an inherent middle meaning in the very lexis of the word itself.” This is a much more helpful approach to middle-only verbs than the traditional one.

When introducing the Imperfect tense-form, Decker focuses on it differs from the present tense in terms of “remoteness” (p263), and “often has a discourse function in narrative: it supplies background information or sometimes introduces dialogue or summary statements” (p263). He then goes on to illustrate this. It’s, again, very pleasing to see this kind of material in an introductory Koine text. It also showcases Decker’s goal of teaching students how Greek conveys meaning. Similarly in chapter 17 Decker gets rid of the idea that the Aorist is ‘punctiliar’ in and of itself, or that the Aorist has any sense of “once for all” that yields exegetical ‘gold’.

When we reach chapter 19 we reach the unsettled waters of the Future. In the introduction to this chapter, p309, Decker remarks that “The Greek future tense-form is actually more closely related to the category of mood than of tense”, followed by a footnote that the same might be true of English. Likewise, Decker takes its aspect as “vague” (p310, following Porter. A footnote details some of the debate, with a nod to Fanning and Campbell).

As an aside, I appreciate that Decker notes at many points either “You need to memorise this”, “You don’t need to memorise this”, and “Your teacher may tell you otherwise”. He highlights what is essential for this approach, includes explanatory information while releasing the average student from overwhelming memory work, and defers to the reality of classrooms where instructors have preferences of their own. Related to this, Decker chooses to relegate the Pluperfect to ‘Advanced Information’ at the back of chapter 20, on the basis of it occurring only 86 times in the NT, and similarly few occurrences in LXX, OT Pseudepigrapha, and Apostolic Fathers. The very low frequency does indeed mean that mastering the pluperfect is less essential than other items.

3 responses

  1. Pingback: The Biblical Studies Carnival – December 2014 | Daniel N. Gullotta

  2. As one taught Greek verbs by traditional grammar approaches e.g. tenses, deponents, aorist=punctiliar/once and for fall and very vague understandings of middle voice (Mastronarde, Hansen and Quinn, Mounce), and also one without the spare cash at the moment to acquire any more Greek textbooks, could you possibly point me in the direction of some resources I could use to familiarize myself with more contemporary approaches to aspect, tense, aktionsart, middle voice, so-called deponents, etc.? I would be most grateful! I’ve found myself thinking lately that there has to be a more organic way to understand middle voice rather than just having two separate, unrelated glosses for words that appear in active vs. middle voice that must be memorized by rote all the time

    • There’s a few resources that you can access freely and easily on the web to get you started:
      Here’s a 2003 SBL paper on deponency by Jonathan Pennington.
      Here’s a 2011 summary document on it from Carl Conrad; as well as a longer 2002 write-up from him here.

      Miller is an important read if you can get a copy: Miller, Neva F. , “A Theory of Deponent Verbs,” Appendix 2 of Friberg, Timothy and Barbara, and Miller,
      Neva F., Analytical Lexicon of the Greek New Testament, Baker Books: 2000, pp. 423-430)

      Finally, Rutger Allan’s 2002 doctoral dissertation can be accessed online here. It treats Classical and Homeric Greek, but with important implications for Koine.