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and how it functions) on the basis of no determinable linguistic basis, or simply invoking grammatical works now long superseded.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?
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?