Volume 37 - Issue 3

The Greek Imperative Mood in the New Testament: A Cognitive and Communicative Approach

by Joseph D. Fantin

The Studies in Biblical Greek series published by Peter Lang has been an invaluable resource for integrating current linguistic theories with our understanding of the Greek text of the NT. Most of the titles in this series focus on various facets of the grammar of the Greek verb system. Fantin's volume, a revision of his dissertation on the imperative mood, attempts to address the lack of attention given to imperative constructions in many contemporary Greek grammars. The goal of his study is to “discuss the possibility of identifying the semantic meaning of the imperative mood and will propose a theory which seems best to account for the data” (p. 65). As such, his work is a natural fit in this series.

The theoretical backbone of his work is drawn from neuro-cognitive stratificational linguistics (NCSL) as formulated in the work on Relevance Theory by Sydney Lamb (pp. 34-42) and Dan Sperber and Deirdre Wilson (pp. 43-60). NCSL provides the linguistic underpinnings to explain why a command can be formed with either the imperative or subjunctive moods (diversification) and, at the same time, a verb in the imperative mood can be realized as a command, request, or permission (syncretization). In order to determine what the primary meaning of the imperative mood brings to a particular construction, he considers how various contextual features shape how the meaning of an imperative is understood. This goes beyond the scope of NCSL and is why Relevance Theory is employed to explore the pragmatic usages of the various imperative verbs. Fantin does not follow a strong distinction between semantic and pragmatic meaning along the lines of Mari Olson (A Semantic and Pragmatic Model of Lexical Grammatical Aspect) or Stanley Porter ( Verbal Aspect in the Greek of the New Testament). Rather he prefers a more flexible conceptualization of inherent meaning (in place of semantic) and non-inherent contextual (pragmatic) meaning (p.346).

After setting forth his goal and defining his methodology (ch. 1), Fantin surveys current studies on the imperative mood in NT studies (ch. 2). Most of these studies agree that the imperative has a fairly wide range of meaning between a command or permission (p. 76). For the past 100 years, most grammarians have focused their attention on the contribution that tense (aorist or present in particular) contributes to how we understand an imperative verb, with an aorist imperative communicating a specific or urgent command and a present tense imperative being much more general in nature. Kenneth McKay's article on the imperatival mood initiated a paradigm shift to viewing the tense of the imperative from an aspectual perspective. For example, the present tense construes a perspective on the verbal action in which we are watching the action of the verb unfold (imperfective aspect) that lends itself to commands that are universal or more general in nature (pp. 97-98). The second half of the chapter considers the contributions made by Speech-Act theory and other linguistic models. This is one section of the book that could benefit from a revision. Fantin's indifference toward Speech-Act theory is disappointing, especially if one considers the potential for integrating concepts such as the locutionary, illocutionary, and perlocutionary force of an utterance into his appropriation of Relevance Theory.

Chapters 3 and 4 are the heart of Fantin's work both in terms of space (192 of 373 pages in the main body) and caliber of work. They also represent his appropriation of Lamb's NCSL semantic analysis and Relevance Theory's contribution to pragmatic considerations, respectively. The semantic analysis in ch. 3 focuses on two primary questions: “1. What is the meaning of the imperative mood? and 2. Why did the author use the imperative in a particular instance?” (p. 121). By examining various instances in which the imperative is found in the various NT texts, he attempts to determine the range of meaning of the imperative mood (pp. 135-56). Comparing and contrasting parallel passages in the Synoptic Gospel accounts (where the same verb is used in a similar conceptual clause) allows the reader to observe the differences between, for example, Matthew's (25:21-23) use of a future verb form in contrast to Luke's (19:17-19) use of an imperative (pp. 157-93, esp. pp. 173-74). Based on his analysis, Fantin demonstrates that the imperative functions primarily as the main verb of a sentence in contrast to the subjunctive, which often occurs in a dependent construction. Its exclusive use in direct speech allows one to see that it usually conveys an emphatic and directive/volitional force.

In chapter 4, his analysis turns to consider how contextual or pragmatic elements influence how an imperative verb is understood. These contextual elements include social hierarchy, politeness, event sequencing of the verb, and who benefits from the fulfillment of the verbal action. For example, when the imperative is used by a speaker of higher social rank, the imperative usually takes on the force of a command (pp. 206-16). Of particular note in this chapter is his analysis of third-person imperatives in relationship to politeness strategies, social rank (most are employed in situations where the lower-rank individual is addressing someone of higher rank), and indirect commands to a second person (Matt 5:6:”let your light shine before men”).

Fantin's overall conclusions are rather straightforward and level-headed. The imperative mood conveys a volitional/directive force, and we need to approach every instance of these verbs in the text in a multidimensional manner (pp. 309-12). The multilevel analysis that is evidenced in his consideration of the various texts is in many cases very insightful. I have had the opportunity to use examples from his text when teaching first- and second-year Greek classes to help them grasp the nuances between the various ways a command can be constructed in Koine Greek, and also as tool to help them perceive some of the sociological elements embedded in the grammatical and lexical elements in the text.

The third and fourth chapters are excellent examples of applying linguistic theories to biblical exegesis. As such, they are a good introduction for a biblical scholars interested in learning more about linguistic approaches to the biblical texts. A particular strength of the current volume are the five appendixes that provide a clear and concise introduction and evaluation of the contribution of modern linguistic approaches, linguistic issues concerning grammatical mood, and semantic-versus-pragmatic distinctions. The final two appendices contain tables that lists parallel passages in the Synoptic Gospels that contain imperatival constructions (e.g., where Mark may use the imperative mood and Luke the subjunctive), and a list of passages that contain the imperative, καί, and future indicative constructions.

One question I am left with is why the author chose Sydney Lamb's NCSL framework when a more extensive Cognitive Linguistic approach to linguistics is embodied in the works of Charles Fillmore, Ronald Langacker, John Taylor, Eve Sweetser, and Gilles Fauconnier, to name a few (see the Oxford Handbook of Cognitive Linguistics).Overall, Fantin's book makes a valuable contribution to the Studies in Biblical Greek series, advances our understanding of the Koine Greek imperative mood, and can be profitably employed in various teaching contexts.

David Parris

David Parris
Fuller Theological Seminary (Colorado campus)
Colorado Springs, Colorado, USA

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