Exegetical Gems from Biblical Greek: A Refresher Guide to Grammar and Interpretation, by Benjamin L. Merkle. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2019. Pp. xv + 171. $19.99 (softcover and ebook.) ISBN-13: 978-0801098772. [Reviewed by Douglas Kuiper.]
This book reviews basic points of Greek grammar and syntax, and provides exegetical illustrations of those points from biblical texts. It is intended primarily for pastors, students, and teachers of Greek—to whom I heartily recommend the book as a brief refresher of Greek usage. The author is qualified to write it; he is professor of New Testament and Greek at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, NC.
The Book’s Value for Those Who Know Greek
Each of the book’s thirty-five chapters treats one specific point of Greek syntax or exegesis. Merkle devotes one chapter to each of the five Greek noun cases (3-7). Five more chapters (13-17) cover the Greek verb tenses in the indicative mood, and subsequent chapters (18-24) are devoted to the other verb moods or to participles and infinitives. Comparatives and superlatives, articles, adjectives, pronouns, prepositions, adverbs, particles, conditional sentences, each get their own chapter. Some chapters (2, 30-35) do not treat points of Greek syntax; rather, they are devoted to other necessary aspects of exegesis, including textual criticism, figures of speech, context, word studies, exegetical fallacies, discourse analysis, and sentence diagraming. On average, each chapter is just under five pages. Consequently, the overview of the points of syntax is brief, consisting of approximately one-half of each chapter.
Reading this book is no substitute for learning Greek by using a grammar textbook. Yet for those who know Greek, the overviews are beneficial in two ways. First, they provide a good review by stating the grammatical points succinctly. Second, many chapters include a review of the various uses of the particular point of syntax that is being treated—of the various cases, tenses, moods, participles, infinitives, etc. The chapter on figures of speech includes a review of seventeen different figures of speech. Such pages are a handy reference for the student or pastor. He should carefully compare them with his grammar textbook to see if they vary in any way. Generally, I found them reliable.
Let me illustrate the benefit of a refresher. Pastors, do you remember the Granville Sharp Rule (chapter 9)? It “states that when a single article governs two nouns (substantives) of the same case that are connected by kaiv, they refer to the same person” (39-40). In Titus 2:13, for instance, the Holy Spirit teaches that we look for the appearing of one person (Jesus Christ, who is at the same time both God and Savior), rather than for two people (God, and Jesus Christ).
And, fellow exegetes, do you properly apply Colwell’s Canon (chapter 10)? It “states that a definite predicate nominative does not usually take the article when preceding a copulative (linking) verb” (44). Merkle’s case in point is 1 Timothy 6:10, which the KJV translates: “for the love of money is the root of all evil.” The Greek New Testament includes the definite article before “love of money,” but not before “root of all evil.” Consequently, some translations (including the NIV and ESV) translate the verse using the indefinite article rather than the definite article: “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.” Applying Colwell’s Canon favors the KJV reading.
The Book’s Value for One Who Does Not Know Greek
One who has no knowledge of Greek would likely not be interested in buying this book. However, such a person would still find some benefit from reading it.
One area of benefit regards those chapters that focus on exegetical methods. Every student of Scripture can appreciate the need to ask whether a figure of speech is used in a particular verse and, if so, which one (Chap. 30). All can appreciate the reminder to study the context of a passage in order to understand the passage better (Chap. 31). One who knows Greek will be better equipped to apply the warning regarding exegetical fallacies (Chap. 33) and the reminder to do word studies, (Chap. 32) but to a limited degree one who does not know Greek could benefit from such instruction as well.
The second area of benefit regards that portion of every chapter in which Merkle explains a passage to illustrate the grammatical point that he is treating. Every chapter begins with an introduction in which Merkle notes an exegetical question regarding a certain passage. Next he gives the overview of the particular point of Greek syntax. Then he returns to the passage to which he referred in the introduction, and gives an explanation of the passage. Often he considers several possible interpretations, giving his reason for preferring one and rejecting the others. Consequently, this book contains brief explanatory comments on thirty-five different New Testament verses or short passages.
The Value of the Exegetical Sections
As has been noted, the exegetical sections are valuable in that they illustrate the point of syntax which that chapter treats. At the same time, the discerning reader must decide for himself whether Merkle properly applied the syntactical point to the passage that he uses to illustrate that point. In chapter 33, for instance, Merkle warns against four exegetical fallacies, including the fallacy of supposing that when a verse uses two or more synonymous terms, the exegete must always find some deep significance for the use of the synonym(s). Applying this to John 21:15-17, Merkle suggest that the different verbs for “love” and that the interchange of the words “sheep” and “lambs” are merely stylistic. Both in giving this warning, and in applying it to John 21:15-17, Merkle follows the lead of D. A. Carson.1 I agree with Carson and Merkle that it is a fallacy to suppose that the use of a synonym always has exegetical significance. However, I do not agree that John 21:15-17 is a fair case in point. For one thing, the Greek verbs ajgapavw and filevw are different in meaning not by just a shade; they have significantly different ranges of meaning. For another, while every lamb is a sheep, not every sheep is a lamb; to refer to an animal’s young is to underscore something particular about those young, in distinction from the animal itself.
My disagreement on that particular point illustrates that believers have freedom of exegesis in understanding Scripture. But one is not free to ignore Greek syntax when interpreting a verse. All can appreciate the emphasis of Merkle’s book that proper exegesis must be rooted in a proper understanding and use of Greek syntax.
In chapter two, this book attempts the impossible: in five pages, it gives an overview of textual criticism, and shows how textual criticism makes a difference in understanding Romans 5:1. Granted, Merkle assumes that his reader has already learned about textual criticism at length. However, textual criticism is too complex a matter to be summarized, and its principles applied to a particular passage, in five pages. Also, while Merkle reminds us to weigh (evaluate) manuscripts, five pages is not enough to remind us of all the criteria that must be considered when weighing. This reviewer remains of the opinion, expressed in an earlier review2 , that brief chapters on this subject are not helpful and should not be included in books of this nature.
One statement is ambiguous. That believers must persevere in faith, and that any professing believer who does not persevere to the end will not be saved, as Merckle states in his explanation of Colossians 1:23 is all true. But what does this statement mean? “A believer’s perseverance in the faith is conditioned on, but not the basis for, Christ’s presentation of the believer to God” (133; the italics are Merkle’s). Not “the basis for,” certainly; that is clear enough. But “conditioned on” is not the same as “a condition to”; is Merkle saying that our perseverance is a condition to our final salvation, or that Christ’s presentation of us to God is a condition of our perseverance? In fact, neither of these is correct, and perhaps Merkle meant something different yet. The statement is ambiguous.
The book is indeed a guide to grammar and interpretation, as its sub-title claims. Whether it is a “refreshing” guide is for each reader to judge. Certainly, it was “fresh.”
1 D. A. Carson, Exegetical Fallacies, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996), 52-53.
2 See my review of Andrew David Naselli, How to Understand and Apply the New Testament: Twelve Steps from Exegesis to Theology (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2017) in the April 2018 issue of PRTJ.