Re: review Palmer 1995

From: Rod Decker (
Date: Sun Nov 26 1995 - 23:33:52 EST

In light of the recent discussion of Micheal's book, I thought that a
review of it that I wrote last spring might be of interest. It was
originally written for a seminary audience, so it does address the question
of exegetical relevance that was raised here (by Phil, I think). It will be
obvious that I do not write from the same level of technical linguistic
specialty that Vincent manifests.


_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

Review of:

Palmer, Micheal W. Levels of Constituent Structure in New Testament Greek.
Studies in Biblical Greek 4. New York: Lang, 1995. 145 pages.

Rodney J. Decker, Calvary Theological Seminary, Kansas City

Levels of Constituent Structure (hereafter LCS) is the published revision
of Palmer's dissertation at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary
(Louisville) in 1990. Dr. Palmer is assistant professor of religion and
philosophy at Bluefield College. During the 1994-95 academic year he was on
leave at the Univ. of North Carolina at Chapel Hill as a Mellon Research
Fellow in Greek Linguistics. This reflects one of his areas of specialty:
linguistics. Also to be noted is the fact that he is a member of the
revision committee of BDF's grammar.

Due to the specialized nature of the book (it is not a standard grammar),
it will be helpful first to survey the contents briefly. The purpose of the
book is clearly stated: to demonstrate that there must be a linguistic
level in the constituent structure of Hellenistic Greek that lies between
the level of the individual word and the phrase. Apart from the brief
introduction and conclusion, the book consists of four chapters (= chs.
2-5) that systematically develop this thesis. (The dissertation structure
is evident in this development.)

The first chapter contains the survey of literature: a summary of the
traditional methods of handling the structure of Greek as reflected in the
grammars. This shows clearly the predominance of word-level analysis in
most of the published works. With the advent of structural linguistics in
the mid-twentieth century this analysis was expanded to a two-level
structure by including the phrase.{1}

The third chapter presents the methodology that Palmer will use. This draws
heavily from generative grammar and phrase-structure grammar, particularly
the 1977 work of Jackendoff in X' syntax (pronounced "x-bar syntax" [it is
normally written as an X with an overbar, but ASCII format doesn't allow
that--sorry! I've used Vincent's convention here]). The test corpus to
which the proposal is applied is Luke-Acts and the "least-disputed Pauline
epistles" (Rom., 1 & 2 Cor., Gal., 1 Thess.). Validity tests used in this
material are the standard ones in structural linguistics, including
distribution, pronominalization, etc.

The fourth chapter is foundational for the fifth in that it employs the
methodology established to word and phrase level constituents. This is not
new material but has been known (word level) or assumed (phrase level) in
previous work. The contribution of the chapter is to place earlier
discussion into a linguistic context (in the case of word level analysis)
and to provide an empirical justification for the phrase structures that
have been assumed in previous work, but never demonstrated on a rigorous
linguistic level. The chapter also serves to introduce the technical
terminology needed for the subsequent chapter.

The final major chapter argues that the two levels discussed in chapter 4
are not adequate to account for all the linguistic phenomena observable in
the NT. This is the crux of LCS: demonstrating the need for a constituent
structure level between that of the word and the full phrase. The aspects
of syntax that Palmer uses to demonstrate this need are "The placement of
complements and adjuncts in Noun Phrases and word order restrictions on the
article and on the demonstratives OUTOS and EKEINOS (57). The name proposed
for this intermediate level is N' (pronounced "n-bar"), which is a "reduced
noun phrase."

Upon completing a careful reading of the main chapters I tried to determine
the exegetical value of Palmer's thesis. How does this intermediate
constituent level known as N' affect the understanding or exegesis of the
NT? I finally concluded that although LCS provided a nice dissertation
topic in abstract linguistic theory, there was no particular connection
between N' and real world exegesis. Having promised Micheal my observations
on the book after reading it, I decided that my first comment should be the
question of relevance. Before doing so, however, I read the conclusion and
found this statement: "The conclusion of this work that at least three
levels of syntactic categories are necessary for an adequate description of
New Testament Greek has little immediate application to problems of
exegesis" (82).

What then is the value of LCS? At the theoretical level the value lies in
the more explicit and objective description of structural relationships in
the language. Although the exegete will not likely be concerned to master
these principles, the matter is quite different for the technical
grammarian and linguist--particularly (as Palmer points out), for those
writing or revising a major reference grammar (a project with which he is

Is there value for the seminary classroom or the pastor's study? There is,
but not at the level of the book's primary thesis. There are two other
areas which are well served by LCS: an introduction to the interface
between linguistics and NT studies and as a helpful discussion of
phrase-level items. Since the book does not assume any familiarity with
linguistic theory, the deliberate progression of each cumulative linguistic
step is explained in such a way that the Greek student can understand and
follow the discussion. (The writing style of LCS is to be commended; it is
clearly written and for the most part manages to put technical discussion
into non-technical dress.) Although by itself it would not justify the cost
of the book, the discussion of the various NT grammars in chapter two is
very helpful in placing each in its appropriate theoretical framework and
showing how various theories of language have impacted subsequent
generations of grammars.

The second area of value is to be found in the discussion of word-level and
phrase-level constituents in chapter four. Although only foundational to
the main thesis of the book, this discussion nevertheless provides a very
helpful explanation as to how various constituents function together in a
structural relationship (i.e., in a sentence). This is especially true at
the phrase level. Palmer's introduction to tree diagrams allows a visual
representation of structural relationships that is clearer than traditional
grammatical diagrams (although unusual word order may reverse that judgment
in some instances).

Only two negatives will be noted. First, a glossary would have been very
helpful in light of the linguistic terminology involved. Second, I would
have expected more examples from the test corpus. There are only about a
half dozen references cited from each of the five NT books included, but
they are not all discussed. Given that the text is only 80 pages and that
this was originally a dissertation, one might expect more in that regard.
True, the primary thrust is theoretical and not exegetical. At that point
perhaps these few examples are considered adequate to substantiate the
proposed theory. It would, however, have considerably strengthened the
argument if additional data had been cited. (There is an enormous contrast
at this point with the first volume in the series: Porter's dissertation
[_Verbal Aspect..._] cites thousands of references [I estimate about 3,500]
and discusses hundreds in some detail.)

{1} Structural linguistics actually began with Saussure in the early 20th
century; his _Cours de linguistic gnral--the fundamental text of
structuralism--was published in 1916.

Rodney J. Decker Calvary Theological Seminary
Asst. Prof./NT 15800 Calvary Rd. Kansas City, Missouri 64147

This archive was generated by hypermail 2.1.4 : Sat Apr 20 2002 - 15:37:32 EDT