Syntax Searching and Epistolary Form Criticism: Introduction

During the SBL national meeting in Washington DC, we’ll be doing a session on Syntactically Annotated editions of the Greek New Testament. Here’s the info:

Session: 20-101 — Syntactically-Tagged Databases of the Greek NT: Overview & Training Seminar Date: Monday — November 20 Time: 4:00 – 6:30 PM Room: Bulfinch – GH Description: Exegesis in the Greek New Testament concerns far more than semantics and parsing. Take the quantum leap with software that allows you to search for grammatical/syntactical structures and usage in the Greek New Testament.

During that session, I hope to run through a few examples of things I’ve been working on with syntax searching in the area of epistolary form criticism. That sounds a bit high-falutin’, I know, but it has direct import on exegesis of New Testament epistles.

Think about it. Even today, we have certain “forms” that we use in particular types of communication. When we write a letter, we have a “Dear ______” salutation, we have a signature (e.g., “Sincerely, Rick” or something like that). Those are what could be called “forms”. If you write a memo in your office, chances are you do it a particular way.

The same thing happens with ancient letters. There are particular “forms” for opening a letter. There are also forms closing a letter. And there are, some think, forms for other things in between.
If you’re working through an epistle, wouldn’t it be important to know if there are potential examples of these “forms”, and to also be able to find where other instances of them are in the epistles? Might that not have an effect on exegesis?

This post introduces the idea in a little more detail. Subsequent posts in the series (I believe there will be five, though some may be broken up depending on size of post) will work through the structure of some proposed forms (see bibliography below) and examples of syntax searches designed to locate those forms. I hope to post once a week, but I may get off that schedule since we’ll be in the holidays.

A book I’m currently reading by Craig A. Smith called Timothy’s Task, Paul’s Prospect gets into this sort of thing (epistolary form criticism) in its analysis of Second Timothy, particularly 2Ti 4.1-8:

4 In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I solemnly urge you: 2 proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching. 3 For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, 4 and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths. 5 As for you, always be sober, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, carry out your ministry fully.6 As for me, I am already being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come. 7 I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. 8 From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing. (2Ti 4.1-8, NRSV)

Smith’s thesis is that instead of being a “last will and testament” of Paul as is commonly assumed, this text instead fits the “charge form”. The implication of this reading is the conclusion that Paul is not passing along his ministry to Timothy and bowing out. Instead, according to Smith, Paul is asserting his authority and charging Timothy to continue—just as Paul himself plans on continuing his work.

Smith discusses the concept of forms in the epistles and convincingly argues that valid types of forms have a structural rigidity apart from content issues. In other words, the content of the form is not its defining criteria. Instead, the structure (read: syntax and, to some lesser degree, vocabulary) of the form is what allows a form to be isolated and considered. Smith writes:

Therefore the first important factor in defining the basis by which a literary form is determined is to identify structure as the primary criterion. To do this is not to neglect content, style and function; it is only to subordinate them to structure. In practical terms this means the criterion of structure should be applied first in order to determine the literary form, and then the criteria of content, style and function should be used to confirm the results.

Smith’s method for isolating literary forms through structural identification as a first step lends itself to using a syntactically analyzed Greek New Testament as basis for isolating potential examples of such forms in the New Testament. Those items which can be isolated by structure can then be further examined on the criteria of “content, style and function” to confirm the results.

The blog posts in this series work through examples of proposed epistolary forms, searching for suggested form structure using the Syntactically Analyzed Greek New Testament as primary corpus. The following forms will be examined:

  • Disclosure Form
  • Greeting Form
  • Request/Petition Form
  • Joy Expression
  • Charge Form

Will a syntactically analyzed Greek New Testament such as the Syntactically Analyzed Greek New Testament provide assistance in defining and isolating potential instances of forms in the New Testament?

If you’re interested in doing some background reading, here are some articles you may be able to retrieve depending on what sort of library you’re able to access. Note that if you’re an SBL member, you can download the JBL articles from JSTOR. More details are on the SBL’s web site.

Mullins, T. Y., “Disclosure: a Literary Form in the New Testament”, NovT 7 (1964), pp. 44-50.

———, “Formulas in the New Testament Epistles”, JBL 91 (1972), pp. 380-390.

———, “Greeting as a New Testament Form”, JBL 87 (1968), pp. 418-426.

———, “Petition as a Literary Form”, NovT 5 (1962), pp. 46-52.

Smith, Craig A. Timothy’s Task, Paul’s Prospect: A New Reading of 2 Timothy (Sheffield: The Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2006).

White, J.L., “Introductory Formulae in the Body of the Pauline Letter”, JBL 90 (1971), pp. 91-97.


  1. Tom Reynolds says:

    It sure would be nice to be able to read those JBL articles in Logos ;)

  2. Keith McFaul says:

    Are you sure that form (structure) should be elevated over content in exegetical study (as quoted above)? Is not the structure/form simply a result of the content of what is being said? We say certain things in certain ways and thus a structure or form results. Stucture/form is important, but not primary in our exegesis.

  3. Hi Keith.
    I agree that structure/form are not primary in exegesis. I meant to refer to the process of identifying/isolating forms when I referred to elevation of structure. That is, if I am examining a range of text for occurrence of possible forms, I should first look for particular structures and then see if the content fits the form.
    Hope it helps,
    - Rick