Why hasn’t discourse analysis caught on in New Testament studies?

This is the title of Stanley Porter’s blog post on April 24:

Why hasn’t discourse analysis caught on in New Testament studies?.

Porter has been very influential in New Testament studies for both of my M.A. thesis topics (related to inter-biblical allusions and discourse analysis, respectively). Both of these topics push the boundaries of exegetical interpretation because these research topics relate to the most complex modes of human communication. For that reason, these analyses are notorious for being used to support more or less subjective analyses of the text. They get at the heart of what is a possible interpretation and what is more probable interpretation.

Porter has started to answer his question in at least 5 different ways, which I quickly summarize here…

  1. D.A. compared to Old Testament studies.
  2. D.A. compared to other linguistically-informed exploration of the New Testament.
  3. D.A. is particularly difficult to get a handle on.
  4. D.A. does not have the same supportive structure (like commentary and monograph series and journals dedicated to the field).
  5. D.A. may have false expectations associated with its use (especially in relation to “objective” or “non-objective” readings.

Porter’s last paragraphs…

For whatever reason, discourse analysis has not garnered the recognition that other approaches have. However, that is not to say that it does not have much to offer. I believe that a robust and linguistically well-grounded discourse method—especially one that is grounded in functional language analysis—can potentially offer much for interpreters of the Bible—perhaps more than other, more traditional approaches. It can help the interpreter to focus upon the text as a text, and be able to speak more precisely about the features that make up such a text. It can provide a language to differentiate the various functions that parts of the language play in communication of meaning. It may be able to help to differentiate the ideas of a text from the means by which these ideas are communicated. The focus on units larger than the clause, while also realizing that clauses are made up of smaller units, brings an inherent balance to a discipline such as New Testament studies that runs the risk of being either too focused upon big ideas (often called theology) or too fixated on small units (such as an individual word).

Readers may be interested in knowing about the founding of BAGL—Biblical and Ancient Greek Linguistics—a peer-reviewed international journal dedicated to the linguistic study of ancient Greek. See www.macdiv.ca for details. The journal welcomes discourse analytical submissions as well.

This is all very good. I need to respond.

“the Lord, Jesus, the Christ” in James 1:1

Well, I see that Nick Norelli identified this blog here as having a focus on James, and it made me realize that although I have posted much on bibliographic resources for James, I haven’t posted much on James myself. So I thought I’d start making some short observations on James. I’ll start with verse 1.

Ἰάκωβος θεοῦ καὶ κυρίου Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ δοῦλος ταῖς δώδεκα φυλαῖς ταῖς ἐν τῇ διασπορᾷ χαίρειν.

James, a slave of God and of the Lord, Jesus, the Christ, to the twelve tribes in the diaspora: greetings!

Right away, you’ll notice an abundance of commas in my translation above. This is very intentional. Is “the Lord Jesus Christ” to be understood as one big proper name? I don’t think so. ‘Jesus’, of course, is a proper name, but what about ‘Lord’ and ‘Christ’? Certainly the authors of the New Testament wrote the name of Jesus in combination with ‘Lord’ and/or ‘Christ’ very frequently, and references to Jesus along with these titles became somewhat formulaic. However, even though the name of Jesus was commonly uttered along with ‘Lord’ and/or ‘Christ’, this in no way means that these titles lost their meaning, especially if there is evidence in the context that supports the possibility that the meaning of these titles is in view. So, in James 1:1, I see this as a statement by James that he is a slave of God and of the Lord. Who is the Lord? There’s only one Lord — Jesus. Jesus the Messiah (Christ).

I find myself being convinced of this by the argument that Julius Scott makes on this issue in his paper “Commas and the Christology of the Epistle of James.” This paper was presented in 1999 at the Evangelical Theological Society, National Meeting, in Danvers, MA. It used to be available on his webpage on the Wheaton College site, but that is no longer available since he is now retired. I can’t seem to find it elsewhere on the web. I reproduce the relevant portion here…

Punctuation, such as that which appears in our modern Greek texts and translations, is, of course, of recent vintage.  Hence, it is legitimate to ask if the authors, and much of early Christendom with them, may have assumed some relation between the terms other than that suggested by the lack of commas in our contemporary texts.  May they have intended “Lord, Jesus Christ,” “Lord Jesus, Christ (= [the] Messiah)”, or “Lord, Jesus, Christ (= [the] Messiah)”?

Paul gives us a glimpse into his world when he says,

For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth — as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords” — yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist (1 Cor 8:5-6).

It is interesting that in this context the RSV editors (but not those of the Nestle-Aland 26th edition of the Greek NT) insert a comma between “Lord” and “Jesus Christ,” thus placing “Jesus Christ” in apposition to “Lord” and defining which of the many lords is the intended reference.  Why, I ask, is specificity needed only here?  The situation to which Paul refers was rampant throughout the world of the NT.  There is, I suggest, evidence of just such an attempt for preciseness in the NT text itself.  Again, working from statistics gleaned from the RSV, six (17%) of the occurrences of “Lord Jesus” are prefaced with the  pronoun “our,” “our” precedes one of the two occurrences of “Lord Christ,” and the possessive pronoun is found forty-one times (or 65%) of the sixty three appearances of “Lord Jesus Christ”; the writers want to make clear that they refer solely to the Christian’s lord, “our Lord, [comma!] Jesus Christ.” Note that our statistical survey did not include such phrases with built-in specificity as “Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 8:39; Eph 3:11; 2 Tim 1:2), “Jesus Christ our Lord” (Rom 1:3), “Jesus our Lord” (Rom 4:24), “Christ Jesus my Lord” (Phil 3:8), or “Christ Jesus the Lord” (Col 2:6).

Virtually all of the occurrences of “our Lord” are evidences of early, pre-punctuation precision in the Christian affirmation of belief that, in a world claiming “many lords,” it is none other than Jesus who is Lord.  Hence, I believe, the comma should follow kurios/lord in most cases where that title is followed by Jesus, Christ, or Jesus Christ; for the NT writers there was only one Lord (cf. Eph 4:5)!  A more accurate modern English translation would usually be “our Lord, [comma] Jesus Christ.”

Against this background we return to the Epistle of James. In the first verse we are confronted with the statement, “James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ” (1:1, RSV). Is it not legitimate, indeed mandatory, that we consider translating these words, “James, slave[1] of God and of the Lord, Jesus, the Messiah”? Such a rendering immediately transports us into a very different world than that often assumed for the epistle. It is a world of slaves and lords. And, for Christians, there is no Lord other than Jesus. In this Semitic world the Greek Christos is not merely part of a proper name but a reverential title, “The Anointed One.” Hence, James conveys the same affirmation as did Peter at Pentecost, “Jesus himself is both the Lord and Messiah” (Acts 2:36).

Although we have preferred to translate “servant” (doulos) “slave,” it is noteworthy that Ralph Martin, rejecting a sociological sense, insists on “servant.” This, he notes, was a designation of honor and authority for such leaders as Moses, David, and the prophets. It may carry overtones of Phil 2:11 where the humiliated one received honor and glory.[2]

This introduction in 1:1 sets the stage for the epistle with phrases which, in a Jewish Christian setting, assume a high Christology. It erects the framework within which the epistle is to be understood.

[1] If the author was “James, the Lord’s brother,” a member of Jesus’ boyhood home, who during his public ministry did not “believe in him” (John 7:5), the self-designation “slave” (doulos) is all the more surprising.  It gives such terms as “Lord” and “Messiah” even more force.[2] James, 4-8.


So if the rest of the Letter of James is read in light of James having identified himself as “a slave of God and of the Lord, Jesus, the Christ [=Messiah], what happens?

This issue comes up again in James 2:1. We’ll look at that next time.

Jabez or Jesus?

Several years ago, I wrote a review on Bruce Wilkinson’s The Prayer of Jabez at Amazon.com (under the nickname ‘the-book-man’). I was surprised to come across that review again recently (here) and see that 6 years later it is still “the most helpful critical review” of 546 customer reviews. 354 out of 422 people have found the review helpful. In comparison, 29 of 32 people have found “the most helpful favorable review” helpful (see them presented side by side here)…


I noticed a few years ago that Richard Schultz, my M.A. thesis advisor at Wheaton College Graduate School, also wrote a review of The Prayer of Jabez…

Richard Schultz, “Praying Jabez’s Prayer: Turning an Obscure Biblical Narrative into an Miracle-Working Mantra,” Trinity Journal, 24.1 (2003): 113-19.

I reproduce my review here. There’s a bit of original exegesis in this that I’ve never received any feedback on, so please send your comments.

Jabez or Jesus?   July 16, 2001 — customer review on Amazon.com

by “the-book-man”

When Jesus prayed to God, he said, “Not my will but yours be done.” But Bruce Wilkinson turns the good prayer of Jabez into a selfish prayer (“Not your will but mine be done”) that is just the opposite of the example Jesus left us.

This book proposes to give us a simple prayer from an obscure part of the Bible that we can repeat every day. It is suggested that we will experience great blessing from God in response to that prayer. (As if God could be manipulated by our prayers!)

The prayer of Jabez is short, so maybe that is why the book is so popular: “Oh, that you would bless me and enlarge my territory! Let your hand be with me, and keep me from harm so that I will be free from pain.” Most people don’t have any more time for God than what can be uttered in two quick pleas as they brush their teeth. Or, maybe it has become such a top seller because Wilkinson makes such a big deal about the fact that God will grant our prayers just like he granted the request of Jabez. I guess the prayer of Jesus doesn’t make such a good pattern for daily prayer because God didn’t grant his request (please note my sarcasm, since a careful understanding of the Bible shows that God really did answer Jesus’ prayer and I really do think Jesus’ prayer is a much better model to follow).

For a man who has tried to teach the church the unity and storyline of the Bible (Wilkinson is founder of Walk Thru the Bible Ministries and co-author of Talk Thru the Bible: A Survey of the Setting and Content of Scripture) I am surprised to see how Wilkinson takes this prayer so out of the context of the Old Testament, and uses it to tell the masses just what they want to hear. My only hope is that he will now use all his popularity and money to tell the secular world what I trust he still really believes is most important.

Wilkinson fails to show that Jabez was an Israelite who, when he prayed, asked God for something he knew God had already promised in his covenant with Abraham in Genesis 12:2-3 – “I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you . . . and you will be a blessing . . . and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” Jabez knew that God blesses people in order that they be a blessing to others. Ultimately, God blessed all peoples through Abraham’s descendant, Jesus. It’s too bad that Wilkinson’s book isn’t about how we can bless others with the blessings we have received from Jesus.

The real prayer of Jabez should also be understood in light of Exodus 34:23-24 – “Three times a year all your men are to appear before the Sovereign LORD, the God of Israel. I will drive out nations before you and enlarge your territory, and no one will covet your land when you go up three times each year to appear before the LORD your God.” When Jabez asked God to enlarge his territory, he was basically asking God to give him the freedom to leave his land in order to worship God without having to worry about those who might covet and steal his land, crops, and possessions. I don’t think most of us in America have to worry about our land when we go to church on Sunday. It’s too bad Wilkinson’s book isn’t about asking God to give us the grace to worship him freely and without the hindrance of all our worries. Rather than teaching us to trust God amidst our worries, Wilkinson’s book teaches people to do what we already do too easily – to trust in ourselves and in the “blessings” that we think we need.

If you want a prayer to live by, why not pray the prayer that Jesus instructed his followers to pray: “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us today our daily bread. Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.” We would learn and grow and experience so much more of God’s blessings if we prayed this every day.

For dealing with pain, why not pray the prayer that Jesus prayed before he went to the cross: “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me. But not my will but yours be done.” God knows so much better than we do what blessings we really need. When we pray to be free from financial hardship or physical suffering, perhaps God wants to use those things to lead us to a much more lasting blessing. It’s true that God promises to grant believers in Jesus whatever they ask in Jesus’ name. But note the requirement that we pray according to God’s will. Thank God that he doesn’t grant our every request!

If you want a book on prayer, particularly the Lord’s prayer, I would rather recommend C. S. Lewis’s Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer.

If you want a book on dealing with pain, I recommend Tim Hansel’s You Gotta Keep Dancin’, or C. S. Lewis’s The Problem of Pain, or C. S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed.

If you want a book on God’s desire to bless us, you have got to read John Piper’s Desiring God.