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Review of Luke (Baylor Handbook on the Greek Text)

February 28, 2014

Luke Baylor

Luke: A Handbook on the Greek Text is part of an expanding series by Baylor University Press that walks a reader through each word, phrase, and verse of the Greek New Testament. Of the series Baylor writes:

What distinguishes this series from other available resources is the detailed and comprehensive attention paid to the Greek text of the New Testament. Each handbook provides a convenient reference tool that explains the syntax of the biblical text, offers guidance for deciding between competing semantic analyses, deals with text-critical questions that have a significant bearing on how the text is understood, and addresses questions relating to the Greek text that are frequently overlooked or ignored by standard commentaries, all in a succinct and accessible manner.

The Luke volume is some 800 pages of lexical, grammatical, and syntactical detail. Language nerds will love it. The Baylor Handbook on the Greek New Testament series (BHGNT) “is designed to guide new readers and seasoned scholars alike through the intricacies of the Greek text.”

The Approach

Luke begins with a 15-page Introduction, with the following section headings:

  • Luke’s Style: “a mix of styles” and “higher on the literary scale than Matthew, Mark, or John”
  • Verbal Aspect: aorist tense verbs encode perfective aspect, generally used for mainline narrative events; imperfect tense verbs encode imperfective aspect, generally used for background events; present tense (imperfective aspect) is for quoted speech… but these are “tendencies only, not hard and fast linguistic rules”
  • The Use of Conjunctions at the Discourse Level: the authors focus here particularly on καί and δέ, which “serve distinct functions that assist readers in tracking the flow and status of information through large blocks of text”
  • Participles: primarily context (not just syntax) “drives the analysis” throughout the handbook
  • Word Order: the Greek verb defaults to a position at the start of a sentence; anything preceding it is “fronted” (which does not, the authors note, always imply emphasis)

Additionally, the Series Introduction addresses deponency, a label often given to middle/passive verbs with “active” meanings, but considered now by a number of scholars (and by the BHGNT series) to be an unhelpful concept “leading to imprecise readings of the text.” As a result,

users of the BHGNT will discover that verbs that are typically labeled “deponent,” including some with -θη- morphology, tend to be listed as “middle.”

The body of the handbook offers an English translation of each section of biblical text. Next there is the full Greek text of a given verse. Then follows a word-by-word (and/or phrase-by-phrase) analysis of the Greek text. One advantage to this structure is that, without having to have recourse to any other books, the user of this handbook has the full Greek and English texts of Luke in front of them.

There is also useful material at the back of the handbook: a glossary of nearly 50 grammatical terms and concepts, a bibliography, a grammar index (with grammatical concepts listed in English and words listed in Greek), and an author index. If I wanted to trace Luke’s use of the double accusative, for example, I’d see a list of verse references in the grammar index for further study.

An Example Passage: Zacchaeus in Luke 19:1-10

Luke 19:1-10 tells the well-known story of Zacchaeus’s encounter with Jesus. This handbook volume does comment on what a Greek phrase might “literally” mean, yet not (thankfully) to the point of making its English translation overly wooden, at least not on a regular basis. The translation is generally smooth, with additional comments on meaning throughout the notes.

Luke 19:1, for example, reads, “After entering Jericho, Jesus was passing through the city.” The handbook entry on that verse is as follows:

19:1 Καὶ εἰσελθὼν διήρχετο τὴν Ἰεριχώ.

Καὶ. The conjunction closely links this pericope with the preceding one, while the rest of the verse marks a shift in scene.
εἰσελθὼν. Aor act ptc masc nom sg εἰσέρχομαι (temporal).
διήρχετο. Impf mid ind 3rd sg διέρχομαι. The first three verses supply background information for the narrative that follows using imperfect verbs and equative clauses (διήρχετο; ἦν, v. 2; ἐζήτει, ἠδύνατο, v. 3).
τὴν Ἰεριχώ. Accusative complement of διήρχετο. Lit. “entering, he was passing through Jericho.”

Sometimes the entries are not much more than parsing, with a brief description of function (as in εἰσελθὼν, above). Other times there is more detail, as in διήρχετο. This reflects a concern throughout the handbook with discourse analysis: the authors are regularly asking (and answering) the question, “Why did Luke choose these words here? Why this verb tense? Why this position? What does it do for the narrative and the reader-hearer’s experience of it?”

Though Luke is not meant to be a full-on commentary, the authors nonetheless interact with other literature (commentaries and grammars, especially). For example, on 19:3’s “he was short in stature” (Greek: τῇ ἡλικίᾳ μικρὸς ἦν), they have this note:

The meaning of the phrase is debated. It could refer to Zacchaeus’ age (Green, 669–70) or his physical stature (Fitzmyer, 2:1223). The phrase probably not only refers to Zacchaeus’ height, but also serves to characterize him in a negative fashion (see Parsons 2001, 50–57; 2006, 97–108).

Whether or not one agrees with the conclusion (that Luke is talking about height), Culy, Parsons, and Stigall present the options, give bibliographical information, and–most important–say what the function of this phrase is in Luke’s story. Similarly, the authors consider textual variants where they would impact the meaning of the text.

What Luke: A Handbook on the Greek Text Is Not

This is a specialized work and does not aim to situate each passage in its literary or historical context. For example, when I was preaching on the Parable of the “Good Samaritan”, I turned to that passage. There is no introductory comment that sets it up, neither there nor at the beginning of chapter 10. There is a note that ἰδοὺ “is sometimes used to introduce a major character in a narrative, as here,” but that’s it.

Since the commentary does not set out to provide literary context or structural outlines, it would be unfair to criticize it for not doing that. The reader should be aware that this book is really true to its series title: it’s a handbook (that at times feels like a collection of notes) on the Greek text. Given that even technical, Greek-oriented commentaries pass over some words and concepts in the Greek text, there is definitely a place for a book like this. Those who want to go in-depth with the Greek (word-by-word and phrase-by-phrase) will find many riches to appreciate here, as I have.

Even so, I was pleasantly surprised by some places (i.e., the difficult Luke 18:7) where Culy, Parsons, and Stigall did offer insight into how to understand a passage as a whole.

The handbook will not replace a good lexicon. Some words simply have parsing information given, with little to no elaboration on the word’s meaning. To be truly comprehensive in this regard would double the size of the book, so it’s an understandable decision. Just keep BDAG close by as you read. That said, in this handbook you will get detail even down to the level of Greek accents!

Concluding Evaluation

The series preface says:

Readers of traditional commentaries are sometimes dismayed by the fact that even those that are labeled “exegetical” or “critical” frequently have little to say about the mechanics of the Greek text, and all too often completely ignore the more perplexing grammatical issues.

I have definitely felt this way as a commentary reader and user (and wanna-be Greek nerd). To have a handbook (albeit one that requires large hands to hold!) devoted to the Greek and its grammar is a great aid to anyone wanting to maintain or deepen their use of biblical languages. The lexical analysis (with sensitivity to larger New Testament context), grammatical insights, and linguistic nuances make for a smart and challenging companion to the Greek text. I’m excited to see more coming from this series.

N.B.: I have also reviewed Malachi in the similar Baylor Handbook on the Hebrew Text series, in two parts: here and here.

Thanks to Baylor University Press for the review copy. You can find the book’s product page here. It is on Amazon (affiliate link) here, where you can also “look inside” the book.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. February 28, 2014 7:31 pm

    Thanks for a great review. Amazon wishlisting now…

    • February 28, 2014 8:31 pm

      You are welcome! Thanks–glad you found it helpful.

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