Anything new under the sun?

From: Carl W. Conrad (
Date: Sun Oct 26 1997 - 09:53:46 EST

At 6:53 PM -0600 10/25/97, Don Wilkins wrote:
>I hate to bother everyone with this, but in hindsight I'm afraid that my
>final remarks in my last message were inappropriate. If one does not limit
>oneself to the NT, there is a vast body of Greek available for further
>research on word order or anything else via the TLG and PHI discs that I'm
>sure hasn't been adequately studied yet; and even within the NT, there
>remains the possibility, however unlikely, that someone could come up with a
>novel and yet valid approach to an old subject. I was mainly thinking of the
>latter possibility when I made my remarks.

Well, in this instance, Don, I'm glad you saw fit to "bother everyone." I'm
also glad that you saw fit to qualify the last statement in your previous

At 6:03 PM -0600 10/25/97, Don Wilkins wrote:
> [SNIP] My thought was just
>that word order is such an old and basic concept that it should have already
>been covered, and if someone has discovered something new and interesting, I
>would be most surprised. Somewhat like discovering a new procedure for tying
>a shoe. What new material would/could such conclusions be based on? On the
>other hand, there are plenty of other things that could be studied in
>language, so we need not give up the study. Moveover, the ultimate point I
>see to studying language is to come to a more accurate understanding of
>someone is saying or writing, so if we should ever reach the point where we
>are all agreed on syntax etc. (not likely), that would be a very good thing.

I'd like to qualify it still more and I hope I can do so without getting
into a theological debate. The statement reminded me of an old proverb that
my High School geometry teacher liked to quote often about textbooks in
plane geometry (he seems to have thought highly of Euclid, which is
commendable!): "There are old books and there are good books; the good
books are not new and the new books are not good." Now, although I do think
highly of Euclid myself, I'm not sure that the last good presentation of
plane geometry has already been written.

More to the point, I have had to ponder and respond for over three decades
now to the question: what on earth is possible in the way of new and
interesting scholarship on Homer or Vergil or on the slender volume of
Catullus or even the vast volumes of Aristotle? And my response is that I
find a lot of truth in the seeming paradox that all human beings of every
time and place are enough like each other to enjoy a real classic composed
at any time and place and to talk meaningfully to each other about it--all
human beings are in a certain sense contemporaneous--, while on the other
hand, every generation of human beings in every time and place are
sufficiently different from each other that they bring a different
perspective to bear upon that particular classic and therefore can talk
meaningfully to each other and learn from each other's distinctively
different experience of reading the same classic. And the fact is that
scholars ARE continuing to develop new scholarship on Homer and Vergil and
Catullus and Aristotle in each generation and in each place in the world
where the classics are still being read and appreciated. The principle is
simple: truly great literature, so long as it continues to be read,
continues to evoke significant and fresh scholarship. And whatever else may
be said (and there is very much indeed that may be said) about the Bible,
it is certainly true that it is a great literary classic. There ARE new
things to be learned about the gospels and the Pauline letters, and this is
true, I think, even if one believes (as I personally do not really believe)
that "we" understand more or less accurately exactly what the Greek texts
of the gospels and the Pauline letters "means." If that were so, this
internet discussion list would be nothing more than an amusing game played
by some 450 subscribers. It may be said, and not wholly wrongly, that most
of what is being discussed here is mostly old questions and mostly old
answers. Nevertheless, the discussion is lively enough to demonstrate that
the old questions have not ceased to be important and that many of the old
answers have not yet been found to satisfy everyone who asks the same

But is the same true of LANGUAGE of the New Testament? Is there really
anything new to be learned about the morphology and syntax and
lexicography--and word-order? For my part I definitely do think so; while
much of what is being done by linguists, grammarians, and lexicologists is
a refinement and perfection of work that's been going on for centuries, I
really do not believe that we are moving to some "omega point" a decade or
two ahead of us when we shall find that all our questions have been
answered and our problems resolved with respect to the Greek of the New
Testament. If ever there is going to be a perfect understanding of NT Greek
grammar, I don't expect to arrive at it in this life. Here too I think that
there is something to be said that is parallel to what I said earlier about
the NT literature and other classics of human literature: our generation's
understanding of the Greek of the NT owes more than we can ever measure to
the labors of centuries of scholars who have accumulated and transmitted
the lore of grammar, and I DO think we ought to be mindful of that debt we
owe previous scholars and students of Greek; yet in that heritage of lore
about NT Greek there is nevertheless some error and there are models of
understanding and representation of the morphological paradigms and the
syntactic logic of Greek words, sentences, and paragraphs. And I rather
expect that the ESCATON will arrive before the questions and problems of
Greek grammar have all been answered and resolved.

And by that assertion NOTHING at all has been answered and resolved! This
was just an opinion on the matter of which Don was speaking.

Carl W. Conrad
Department of Classics/Washington University
One Brookings Drive/St. Louis, MO, USA 63130/(314) 935-4018
Home: 7222 Colgate Ave./St. Louis, MO 63130/(314) 726-5649 OR

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