Second Review: Prepositions and Theology in the Greek New Testament
Denver Journal Book Review by Denver Seminary Professor David Mathewson
Murray J. Harris, Prepositions and Theology in the Greek New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012). $42.99. 293 pp. ISBN: 978-0-310-49392.
This book is an extensive revision and expansion of a work that Murray Harris is already well-known for, his appendix on prepositions in Colin Brown’s New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology (Zondervan). In this more recent book Harris treats all of the 17 “proper” and 42 “improper” prepositions in alphabetical order. Harris does not claim to provide an extensive treatment of prepositions, but to provide a treatment of the usages of prepositions in theologically significant contexts in the NT. In the first three chapters Harris establishes his methodology for exegeting prepositions, including a discussion of their origins, their basic meaning, possible Semitic influence, and pitfalls to avoid. Here Harris rightly eschews the distinction between so-called “proper” (pre-fixed to verbs) and “improper” (not pre-fixed to verbs) prepositions for the purposes of exegesis. He also demonstrates the link between prepositions and adverbs. He further draws attention to the pitfall of reading all the nuances of prepositions found in Classical Greek into Koine Greek. For the most part Harris seems to avoid finding Semitic influence in prepositional usage in the NT (correctly in my opinion). Harris seems to confuse double entendre with semantic ambiguity and the need to use more than one English translation (41-43).
There is much in Harris’ work that is laudable. The chart on p. 32 is a helpful index of the comparative frequency of usage of NT prepositions. The book also contains numerous valuable exegetical insights, though often unrelated to the meanings of prepositions. Harris’ treatment of many prepositions outlines and helpfully illustrates all the major and some less obvious meanings of the prepositions in the NT. Harris helpfully demonstrates that the preposition διÎ¬ does not always suggest “intermediate means,” but based on the context can indicate the ultimate cause or sole agency (70). Harris is also correct in denying a causal meaning to εá¼°ς (90-92). Furthermore, Harris demonstrates the diversity of usage of the preposition á¼ν and particularly the phrase “in Christ” in Pauline usage. He also shows that the preposition πρÏŒς in John 1:1 suggests a close fellowship and communion between the Word and God (190-92). The reason Paul is fond of the preposition σÏν to express the believer’s union with Christ is that it may express closer relationship and fellowship than μετÎ¬ (200). Harris also argues for a substitutionary meaning of á½‘πÎρ (211-15). There are two helpful appendices on prepositions with “baptize” and “believe.”
However, there are a number of features of this work that render it less useful for exegesis than it could be. For a start, I was confused by the title of the book: Prepositions and Theology. The title is vague with regard to the relationship between the two, and masks a number of linguistic and exegetical assumptions. Perhaps this is the reason that Harris moves inconsistently between “prepositions” and “theology” throughout his work. At times the prepositions in his analysis seem to carry important theological nuances; at other times they seem to only lend support to important theological concepts; more often there seems to be no relationship between the preposition and the theological concepts that he discusses in a given text. The most curious feature of this book was that over and over again I failed to see the relationship between the semantics of a given preposition and the detailed theological and exegetical analysis of texts. Often his discussions ranged far beyond the meaning of prepositions into grammatical and other interpretive issues unrelated to the preposition. For example, his discussion of λογÎ¯ζεσθαι εá¼°ς has little to do with the meaning of εá¼°ς (98-99), and his treatment of the construction εá¼°ς αá½τá½¸ τοá¿¦το is a grammatical discussion regarding the antecedent of τοá¿¦το, not an analysis of the meaning and function of εá¼°ς (99). Or his treatment of 1 Thess. 4:13 (180) does not even mention the preposition περÎ¯. Or his treatment of the phrase μÎνειν á¼ν takes us far beyond the meaning of á¼ν (134-36), as does his treatment of σá½ºν Χριστá¿· which is arranged along temporal lines rather than the meaning of σÏν (200-4). Examples could be multiplied (see his treatment of á¼κ), suggesting that rather than a comprehensive treatment of prepositions, the second part of Harris’ title (Prepositions and Theology) is the dominant and driving concern in this work. Furthermore, there were times when I felt that at the level of prepositions Harris’ work could be subject to the same criticisms that James Barr (The Semantics of Biblical Language) issued at the lexical level against works such as TDNT (e.g. the fallacy of confusing Word and Concept). Much of this is because Harris does not implement insights from modern linguistics into his work, as can be seen by the fact that all the grammatical tools he utilizes are largely outdated. Nowhere does he interact with the most recent grammars, such as Wallace and Porter. At other times it appeared that his treatment of prepositions was overly influenced by English translation, rather than the semantics of the Greek preposition. Thus, it is questionable whether “against” is a nuance of μετÎ¬, (164) even if it is a valid translation based on implications from the context.
Just a few other areas of potential disagreement may be mentioned. It is not clear to me that “accompanying circumstance” is better than “means” for διÎ¬ in 2 Cor. 5:7. And is “purpose” a legitimate meaning for κατÎ¬, (159-60)? Many will also dispute the meaning of “equivalence” suggested for á¼€ντÎ¯, in 1 Cor. 11:15 (49) rather than substitution. It is not clear that a temporal meaning for εá¼°ς best explains Acts 2:38 as opposed to a telic sense. Two minor points: On the top of p. 109 either Harris is mistaken by giving á¼κ the meaning “result” or “effect,” or more likely this is a misprint, and should read εá¼°ς. There are not two usages of á¼πÎ¯, with θρÏŒνου in Rev 4:10 as Harris indicates (137).
Despite the methodological difficulties with Harris’ work, the importance of this book is that there is not a comparable treatment of all the prepositions in the Greek of the NT. Often apart from its treatment of prepositions, there is much valuable exegetical and theological insight on specific NT texts scattered throughout this work that one can access by using the appendix. Furthermore, there are some valuable discussions of the meaning and usage of various prepositions if one takes the time to sort them out. However, as a study of prepositions and their exegetical significance Harris’ work is of limited value. The user of this book should understand what it does and does not do, use it carefully, and also rely upon more linguistically informed approaches to Greek grammar (e.g. Stanley E. Porter, Idioms of the Greek New Testament [Sheffield, 1994]).
David Mathewson, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of New Testament