Interview: Stanley E. Porter

I am excited for this inaugural interview here on the blog. Dr. Stanley E. Porter is President, Dean, and Professor of New Testament at McMaster Divinity College in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. He is recognized as an expert in many areas of research, especially in linguistics and Greek grammar. His publishing record is second to none and more can be read about him on his faculty page here.

Dr. Porter is also now a blogger! I highly recommend following his blog which can be found here.

As a student of his it is an immense pleasure to get to interview him for this and continue to learn from him. Since the current thrust of the blog is to work through the Gospel of John, I have tailored a number of my questions to this topic. I trust you will find it as interesting and helpful as I have.

AR: You’ve spent a good deal of your career studying and writing on linguistics and Greek grammar. What does the discipline of linguistics and the study of Greek contribute to our interpreting the Bible?

SP: Study of the Bible is first and foremost a language-based discipline. I know that there are those who are heavily promoting the so-called theological interpretation of Scripture and other attempts to ground interpretation in social backgrounds and various types of other criticisms–and some of these are very important and helpful–but at its heart when we read the Bible we are at the least engaged in a linguistic interpretive exercise, or at least first we are doing so. As a result, it stands to reason that we need to bring to bear the most important and recent advances in linguistic thought. I firmly believe that most of our interpretive difficulties have been caused by language and can only be solved by the interpretation of language, so we need to invest our efforts in such linguistic matters. I often get frustrated to see how neglectful contemporary biblical scholarship is of matters linguistic, whether this means making linguistic judgments (i.e. statements about language and how it functions) on the basis of no determinable linguistic basis, or simply invoking grammatical works now long superseded. Many of these works may well have been excellent for their day, but we have made significant advances in our linguistic thinking, and appealing to traditional grammar or some earlier paradigm is no longer sufficient–especially as some of these earlier models are incommensurable with our current understandings. In other words, to offer a short answer, I think that linguistics is fundamental to interpreting the Bible, and a necessary starting point for everything else we do, including responsible theologizing.

AR: Does understanding the genre of the Gospels help us interpret them? What can we say is the genre of John’s Gospel?

That is a very difficult question, as there is, I think, a lot of misunderstanding regarding the notion of genre. Genres tend to be treated as static, fixed and absolute, when they are essentially social-linguistic constructs that are useful for labeling and categorizing works from various time periods. So, in the sense that there is a set number of genres to invoke, no I don’t think such a concept is that useful. There is a tendency in biblical studies–and this has been demonstrated in a number of basic interpretive works–to use generic categories as the starting point of interpretation, and then impose them upon various works as if this holds the key to interpretation. We see this in books that break the Bible down into such genres as Gospel, letter, apocalypse, etc., and say that you would not want to read a letter the same way you would read an apocalypse, etc. This begs numerous questions, not least how one knows that any given work fits within the category that is being imposed. In order to use the notion of genre, I think that we need to qualify it and use it cautiously, by recognizing at least the following factors–that genres vary from language to language, time to time, culture to culture, and that they are not fixed; genres need to be seen as the relative, culturally based constructs that they are; genres must be seen in comparison and contrast to other genres within that particular socio-linguistic milieu; and one must always take into account how given works of literature are complexes that encompass what most would identify as multiple genres.
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I prefer to use a bottom-up rather than a top-down approach in interpretation. Whereas a genre approach is top-down, I think that we should build our interpretive framework on the basis of strata of linguistic substance, and then formulate larger generalizations and patterns as we proceed. If we do this, then I think that we can generalize that there are some general literary or textual types grounded in the use of language. These would include narrative and non-narrative as a basis. Non-narrative would include expositional and perhaps poetic material. Beyond that, I am not sure how much you can say, without needing to move into a much more complex cultural specific analysis.
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As for John’s Gospel, it is clearly for the most part narrative, or at least it utilizes a narrative framework, but within it, there are non-narrative sections, and there is a movement among these. However, I think that at this point a much more fruitful avenue for exploration, rather than typical genre analysis, might be register analysis from systemic-functional linguistics. I believe that register analysis is a useful means of creating a linguistic profile of a discourse, or even of sub-discourses within a discourse. These may be typical registers, but I think we also need to be open to individualized registers based upon the linguistic evidence.
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This does not answer the question of the genre of John’s Gospel directly. However, let me give you a brief idea of how I would discuss that. Having done the kind of literary type and register analysis I indicate above, I would probably want to say that John’s narrative needs to be seen in relation to other types of narrative found in the Greco-Roman world. It clearly has many similarities to, as well as some differences from, the other Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), as well as a number of other narratives in the ancient world. Many of these are related to the “lives” category of writing. This is not the same as saying that John’s Gospel is simply an ancient biography, although that might be the best reductionistic answer.

AR: Do you have an opinion on when the 4th Gospel was written?

SP: I don’t have a firm opinion on when it was written, although I hope to have a firmer idea once I have written a major commentary that I am wishing to write in the next few years or so. At this time, I am convinced of several things, however. One of these is that developmental or evolutionary models of interpretation have had far too important a role to play in determining the date of John’s Gospel and its relationship to the other Gospels. Hence, many say John must be late because it has a more developed Christology than the other Gospels, or it must be late because it seems to have developed further material found in the Synoptics, or whatever. I think these developmental models assume far too much. I also think that John’s Gospel is related to the Synoptics as probably availing itself of common tradition. Other issues that push for a late date of John’s Gospel (such as synagogue expulsion, John 9) are not necessarily indicative of this when one considers other evidence. Many dates typically used for New Testament documents are less about firm evidence than creating compromises regarding supposed extreme positions (the date of Acts is a classic in this regard), so I want to rethink these. As a result, John may be relatively late (e.g. around 90), but I am very much open to it being much earlier as well, even before AD 70 and the fall of Jerusalem.

AR: What advice would you have for a reader of John’s Gospel in the 21st century church?

SP: I would recommend that a reader of John’s Gospel pay attention to the text, worry less about how John’s Gospel may “sound different” than the Synoptics, and observe and listen closely to Jesus as he speaks and acts throughout the book. John’s Gospel is a phenomenal narrative and exposition of the life and ministry and teachings of Jesus. Though the author used a restricted number of vocabulary items–in my mind because he chose to limit his lexical repertoire, not because of any personal linguistic shortcoming–he has created an expansive and inspiring portrait of Jesus as God’s divine son, from beginning to end. In many ways, there is no other account of Jesus that can compare with John’s Gospel. I think if you approach the text from this angle, questions of meaning and significance, then and now, etc., tend to dissolve into the direct presence of Jesus.

AR: Are there any books (commentaries/monographs/light studies/etc.) that readers of John’s Gospel might find helpful as they read along?

SP: Most commentaries today, I believe, are generally unsatisfying. They are often highly neglectful of linguistic matters (such as Michaels), and too often are simply compendia of other previous commentators’ thoughts (there are too many to mention here). This is a real problem in commentary writing–the commentary writer has to say something about everything, but that is an impossibility, so they often say something about what others have said before them. I think most commentary writers would be better served by spending much more time with their text than they have, and not write until they believe they have something new and fresh and insightful to say. Of course, publishers would hate this, because they need to sell books. But I think that there would be much better (and perhaps fewer) commentaries. For which we could all be thankful.
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As for a book on John’s Gospel, I would recommend Ruth Edwards’ Discovering John (London: SPCK, 2003). I also have a forthcoming book, tentatively entitled John’s Gospel: A Public Gospel that should be coming out in the next year or so, and which covers many of the major issues in recent interpretation of John.
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2 comments

  1. Pingback: Interview: Ian Hugh Clary « a living sacrifice
  2. Pingback: Interesting interview with Stan Porter | NT Resources Blog

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