Stanley Porter Revisited

[Out of respect, I want to point readers to this post from Steven Runge as a preface to the following]

Steven Runge, in Novum Testamentum 56 (2014) 154-173, establishes a fascinating case that Stanley Porter has misappropriated the linguistic evidence for his timeless view of the Greek verb. Perhaps even worse, this misappropriation has been treated as primary literature by many within NT studies. Runge writes:

Insufficient background from the secondary field of linguistics has resulted in the propagation of deeply flawed notions by Porter and those interdisciplinary scholars building on his work. The methodological and evidentiary problems described above have also survived 20 years of scrutiny from the field of NT studies. This suggests Porter’s writings have been treated as primary literature, not as secondary literature that is to be critically tested against that primary literature on which it is based. The excitement about a new linguistic claim being made must give way to a sober critique of how it reconciles with the broader field of linguistics. If it claims something not attested in any other language, it deserves thorough review. Two issues need to be addressed.

First, the subsequent work which was based on the false premise of a timeless Greek verb needs to be reevaluated by properly qualified specialists from the field of linguistics, providing linguistic peer-review comparable to that found in Classical Studies, Hebrew Bible and modern language study. Had this kind of qualified critical review been conducted 20 years ago when the ideas were initially formulated, they would not have been perpetuated.

Second, there are two other parts of Porter’s linguistic model of verbal aspect that deserve the same level of scrutiny as his use of contrastive substitution: his claims about the inherent semantic prominence of the tense-forms (i.e., background, foreground and frontground) and his correlation of markedness with semantic weight. Preliminary research suggests a similar incongruity between these claims and the primary literature he cites as support for them. Porter claims that his “planes of discourse” prominence model (i.e., aorist as background, present as foreground, perfect as frontground) applies unilaterally regardless of genre; his primary sources make only limited, genre-specific claims, and in no genre is the perfect treated as the most prominent. His misapplication of linguistic principles may thus not be isolated to contrastive substitution.

It seems fitting to close with what should have served as a warning: Buist Fanning’s response to Porter at the 1992 SBL panel discussion on verbal aspect:

I disagree with Porter’s strict insistence that the Greek verbal forms carry no temporal value at all, and I do not think that his view of this offers the kind of ground-breaking contribution to the field that he has claimed for it. I believe Porter has made the best case for this view that anyone can make, but it is not persuasive. It is true that time is not as important for Greek tenses as for English ones and that the aspect values of viewpoint or conception of the process are of central importance in all the forms of the Greek verb (except the future). But the linguistic evidence is overwhelming that in the indicative forms the tenses carry a double sense of time and aspect together.

Twenty years later we are back at the same crossroads, facing the same overwhelming linguistic evidence against Porter’s model of a timeless Greek verb. It is hoped that this time there will be a willingness to respond appropriately to this evidence by rejecting his assertions.

While I deeply appreciate the work of Stanley Porter, I do wonder how he intends to recover from what appears to be quite a devastating critique of his methodology. As I’m told, he and Runge have a number of exchanges forthcoming (one in BBR that I’m aware of). I’m sure this paper will not settle the debate. On another note, I’ve had an opportunity to read a pre-publication copy of Chris Fresch’s paper on the problem of the non-past aorist in The Greek Verb Revisited. Contra Porter, Fresch argues on the basis of cross-linguistic evidence that the Greek perfective not only signals cancelable past temporal reference, but it is also polysemous. Definitely buy the book.

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