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“Relevant” Exegesis

June 30, 2016

In a recent book, Margaret Sim lays out an approach to exegesis of the Greek NT that draws upon the insights of linguistics, especially what is known as “relevance theory”:  A Relevant Way to Read:  A New Approach to Exegesis and Communication (Cambridge:  James Clarke, 2016).

Sim is herself an expert in linguistics and completed her PhD here with a fine work that likewise applied “relevance theory.”  The published form = Marking Thought and Talk in New Testament Greek:  New Light from Linguistics on the Particles ἱνα and  ὁτι (James Clark, 2011).  In her more recent book, Sim widens the scope to address verbal irony (and how to detect it), several “small words” such as those addressed in her earlier book, conditional sentences, and several other matters, one of them being “verbal aspect.”

The first couple of chapters lay out in simple terms what “relevance theory” is in linguistics, and how it offers insight into human communication in general and into reading and interpreting texts in particular.  These chapters lay a helpful foundation for all the following discussion.  But the key strength of her work is the provision of copious clear and helpful examples of sentences from the Greek NT and other Koine literature.  Personally, I find it necessary to have such “for instance” examples in grasping any theoretical proposal, and Sim understands that need well.

Essentially, “relevance theory” proceeds on the view that humans seek to make themselves understood, and that we also seek to understand others (which goes against some forms of much-touted “deconstructionist” theory).  So, on this view, Sim shows how speakers and authors kit out their speech and writing to achieve success in communication, and also shows how hearers and readers can improve their abilities in understanding things.

Having myself benefited from an introduction to linguistics back in the 1980s, through studying initially John Lyons, Language and Linguistics: An Introduction (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), which I still think is a good place to begin for those without linguistics training, I’ve lamented for many years how rare it is to find NT exegetes with any understanding of elementary principles of semantics.  For those without any introduction to linguistics, Sim’s book will open up whole new vistas on how to engage the Greek NT.

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  1. Donald Jacobs permalink

    I don’t think deconstruction denies that humans wish to be understood. Rather it acknowledges that language is slippery and therefore often frustrates such wishes, and also that texts are not constrained by the wishes of authors.

    • Donald: You characterize what some deconstructionists say, but not all. The hardcore versions/advocates in fact de-couple text and author entirely, and make the text simply the plaything of readers, and celebrate that (the “death of the author”). In any case, I’m not engaging here in a pissing contest over who knows more about deconstruction.

  2. rmcrob permalink

    This sounds like a similar approach to critical realism, as explained by Ben Meyer and espoused by NT Wright, among many others. Am I far wrong?

    • Hmmm, no, note the same thing. Critical realism is an approach to a philosophical question of epistemology. Relevance theory is linguistics and communication.

  3. Barry Matlock permalink

    Her earlier book, Marking Thought and Talk…, should be better known–hopefully this notice will bring her more readers!

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