Review of Runge's "Discourse Grammar of the Greek New Testament" Pt 9

In this review I will cover two of the final three chapters (6-7) of Part 2 of Runge’s Discourse Grammar.  I will deal with each of these chapters in turn, beginning with the sixth chapter, which deals with the “Historical Present,” and then turn my attention to chapter seven, which reviews the notion of “Redundant Quotative Frames”.  I turn now to Runge’s discussion of the “Historical Present” (HP).

It is well-known by those who have studied languages that, while there are linguistic rules to be followed, there are almost always exceptions to the rules. In English, for example, it makes little sense that the singular word “goose” has the plural counterpart “geese,” while the singular word “moose” does not have the plural counterpart “meese”.  Irregular patterns like these often make languages difficult to work with!  When it comes to tense, there are also irregular patterns.  The HP might be thought of in this way!

The term “Historical Present” actually seems like somewhat of an oxymoron; how can a term be historical (past tense) but present (present tense) at the same time?  Unlike other grammarians, for example, those who have suggested that the HP is used for dramatic effect, tense reduction or the change of setting or character (125), Runge suggests the main function of a HP is to mark “some discourse feature” that is present (129).  Operating under the core assumption that choice implies meaning, Runge points out that the default verb form is not the HP and that other verbal options that might convey past-time action are available (e.g. the aorist or participles, the perfect, imperfect and pluperfect).  Runge says, “Based on the function of the verbal system that I am claiming here regarding past-time contexts, the imperfect marks the action as past-time and imperfective, whereas the function of HP is to highlight an even or speech that follows” (130).

It seems to me that Runge’s main contentions are as follows:  1) That it functions to break the discourse up into smaller, easier-to-understand chunks (because it is easier to process smaller chunks of data than longer lists), and 2) That it serves the purpose of highlighting discontinuity as well as events or speeches that are about to appear (133).  Here’s an example of my own, followed by an example from the Bible that Runge uses.  Notice the discontinuity that takes place when the switch from past-time to present-time occurs, and how it serves to highlight some form of speech that follows:

Last night (past-time), I had (past-time) dinner with my family.  We ate (past-time) pizza and we drank (past-time) soda.  We had (past-time) some very good conversation.  Suddenly (past-time), my son is (present-time) standing up in his chair saying (present-time), “I am (present-time) happy.”

Mt 14.34-15.1:  After they crossed over (past-time), they came (past-time) to Gennesaret.  When (past-time) the men of that place recognized (past-time) him, they sent (past-time) word into the surrounding region and they brought (past-time) him to all those who were (past-time) sick.  And they were (past-time) imploring him that they might only touch the edge of his cloak, and all those who touched (past-time) it were cured.  Then (past-time), Pharisees and scribes were coming (present-time) to Jesus from Jerusalem, saying (present-time)…”

In each of these instances, we see a discontinuity between past and present time.  We also see here, how the HP is functioning to prepare the way for some sort of speech or dialogue.  Even more, the HP is allowing us, in some way, to break the entire story up into two chunks (things that happened in past-time and things that happened in present-time).  Now, the tricky part to all of this is remembering that, even though the author has moved into present-time, the story is still rooted in the past.  It is almost as if by starting the story in the past, the author separates you from the events being narrated.  However, when the author switches into present-time mode, it is as if he is bringing you, his conversation partner at the present moment, back into the past with him!  He is taking you, the present discourse partner, back in time!  The HP makes me think of a time-traveling device, where I get to travel back in time but I myself do not change at all.  Such a concept may or may not be helpful to you; so, feel free to take it or leave it!

So far, this is likely the most technical and difficult chapter of the grammar to work through.  There are many intricate sentences (and paragraphs) and in my opinion, the great majority of pastors out there would have a very difficult time grasping the deep contents of this chapter.  Here is a sample sentence to illustrate my point, a sentence I found myself reading and re-reading more than several times:  “The processing task of hierarchy refers to the segmentation of the discourse into smaller chunks for purpose of easier processing by the reader or hearer” (132).  Is the word “the” missing in this sentence as well, between the terms “for” and “purpose”?  Here is another sentence which begins the following paragraph:  “In the case of HP, I contend that the usage associated with discourse boundaries or paragraphing is best explained as the next step in the cognitive processing of discourse devices:  segmentation for easier processing” (132).  Regardless, while there is value to what Runge is saying, this is nonetheless, a very difficult section of the book and since this grammar is geared towards pastors, I might suggest a rewriting of this chapter.

Chapter 7, as mentioned above, deals with what Runge calls “Redundant Quotative Frames” (RQFs).  A Quotative Frame (QF) itself is fairly easy to recognize.  For example, think of a speech or lecture where the speaker says, “And John Kennedy once said…” or “Albert Einstein once remarked”.  In the Bible, we see this quite often, for example, “Jesus said to them” or “He began saying…”  These are QFs and they “signal a transition from narrative proper to a speech or dialogue embedded within the narrative” (145).   If these are QFs, then RQFs, as defined by Runge, are those types of transition signals that “are not needed to determine who is speaking to whom” (145). 

Basically, there are two different uses of RQFs:  1) To use more than one verb of speaking to introduce a speech, and 2) To reintroduce the same speaker within a single speech.  Both of these have the “pragmatic effect of highlighting a discontinuity in the text, specifically within the context of the speech” (145).  In short, they simply draw or attract more attention to the speech itself!  Part of Runge’s main beef is with those who have widely misunderstood and misused the verb avpokri,nomai.  Whereas most have seen a term like this from the perspective of its origins, none have focused on “why the device is used in some cases and not in others” (147).  “Furthermore, any claim of Semitic influence must account for the attestation of redundant quotative frames in Greek that is not viewed as Semitically influenced” (148).

Having said this, Runge contends that it can be shown in a variety of languages, apart from those of Semitic orientation, that RQFs exist (149).  Though he provides no specific examples, his claim seems true enough; this is a cross-linguistic phenomenon!  There are two specific occasions which merit attention:  1) When changes in a speaker/hearer are made, and 2) Within the same speaker’s speech.  One example of each will suffice.

In English, if we were to say, “He said” this would express some type of continuity between the speaker himself and the content of what he said.  However, if we were to say, “He defended himself saying…” we would not only sense a discontinuity between the speaker and the content in view, but also discontinuity between the speaker and another speaker—thus, signaling a change in speakers.  Notice also that in the first example, you have one verb of speech and in the second you have two verbs linked together; this is sign of a RQF.  In the Gospels, RQFs “typically consist of a participial form of avpokri,nomai with a fine verb of speak, such as le,gw.  While RQFs can signal the change in speakers, they can also mark instances where, within the same speech, the speaker uses multiple verbs of speaking but there is no change in speaker.  This is to either “mark the introduction of a new point within the same reported speech” or “to slow down the discourse immediately preceding a key assertion” (151).  Thus, they can function as topic-changers and help segment or “chunk” the speech into smaller, more logical parts.  Of course, they also draw emphasis to the speech’s points of significance!  Runge draws on Lk 6.5 to illustrate this, a speech where Jesus shifts topics from David to himself.  Several other, excellent examples are provided as well.

While I found value in but still questioned the approach offered in chapter six, chapter seven, in my view, would be much more manageable for the average pastor.  Still, as I continue to read through this grammar and study my GNT alongside it, I must say that the text is opening up in ways that I’ve never seen it open up before.  I am grateful to Runge for this!  There’s still a lot of reading to be done within this grammar and the work of applying my findings, on my own, to the GNT, can be difficult work.  However, I’m excited about continuing my reading and implementing my findings.  If you haven’t done so you, head over toLogos and pick up a copy.  In the mean time, if you want to catch up on my other reviews of the Discourse Grammar, check out the links below:

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