Talking about What I Am Talking About

Today’s guest post is from Dr. Steve Runge, a scholar-in-residence at Logos Bible Software, whose work focuses on the discourse grammar of Hebrew and Greek.

We do not often take much time to think about how and why we say things the way we do. We tend to just do ‘what seems right’ in the context. Studying how and why we use language has helped me not only be a better English speaker, but has opened doors into studying the Bible in ways that I never thought possible. Two of the latest Pre-Pubs, the Lexham High Definition New Testament and the Lexham Discourse Greek New Testament, allow you to have access to these insights that have so changed how I read and study Scripture. I want to introduce another concept that is included in both resources, and let you see the practical difference it can make in your Bible study.

If you have read many blogs, you may have noticed that sometimes the comments about the blog ending up shifting to comments about the comments. This has come to be known as a ‘meta-comment’. We use meta-comments all the time in our speech, too. Each time we stop saying what we want to say, and start talking about what we are going to say, we are making meta-comments. Take a look at the following examples and see what a difference the added meta-comments make.

  1. Your opinion is very important to me.

    versus

  2. I really want you to know that your opinion is very important to me.

    or
  3. Don’t you know that your opinion is very important to me?

    or
  4. I am going to speak slowly and use small words: your opinion is very important to me.

    or
  5. Now you listen here, your opinion is very important to me.

    or
  6. I want you to get it though your thick skull that your opinion is very important to me.

    or
  7. You may never have guessed this, but your opinion is very important to me.

    or
  8. I cannot emphasize enough that your opinion is very important to me.

Do any of the meta-comments added in options 2-8 ring a bell for you? Think about the contexts that you might hear them in. When we stop saying what we want to say and start talking about what we are going to say, it is because what follows is either surprising or important. But English is not the only language that uses meta-comments. Even ancient Greek and Hebrew show the use of meta-comments, and they are found in very similar contexts as in our spoken English. There are literally hundreds of instances of meta-comments in the New Testament, but few commentators draw our attention to them and what they are doing. The primary purpose of the Lexham High Definition New Testament and the Lexham Discourse Greek New Testament is to help you find important devices like meta-comments that the NT writers used to draw our attention to something that they felt was important. Here are just a few examples.

One of the most common meta-comments used by Jesus in Matthew’s gospel is ‘I say to you’. Not every instance is a meta-comment, only the ones where Jesus has stopped saying what he is saying and is talking about what he is about to say. Here are the instances from the Sermon on the Mount:

“For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass away from the Law, until all is accomplished." —Matt 5:18

“For I say to you, that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven." —Matt 5:20

“Truly I say to you, you shall not come out of there, until you have paid up the last cent." —Matt 5:26

“But I say to you, do not resist him who is evil; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn to him the other also." —Matt 5:39

“When therefore you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be honored by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full." —Matt 6:2

“And when you pray, you are not to be as the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on the street corners, in order to be seen by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full." —Matt 6:5

“And whenever you fast, do not put on a gloomy face as the hypocrites do, for they neglect their appearance in order to be seen fasting by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full." —Matt 6:16

“For this reason I say to you, do not be anxious for your life, as to what you shall eat, or what you shall drink; nor for your body, as to what you shall put on. Is not life more than food, and the body than clothing?" —Matt 6:25

“Yet I say to you that even Solomon in all his glory did not clothe himself like one of these." —Matt 6:29

If you look at the ideas and statements that immediately follow the meta-comments, you will see that these are Jesus’ key principles or conclusions. They communicate the point that he is trying to make in that section of his teaching. In 5:18, he has just stated that he did not come to abolish the law or the Prophets, but to fulfill them. Verse 18 reinforces this by the declaration that not even the smallest jot or tittle of the law will pass away until it is all accomplished. Notice also that some of the examples include ‘truly’, which functions as another attention-getting device to draw the reader’s attention to something important that follows.

In 5:26, Jesus is drawing his conclusion about the need to be reconciled with your neighbor or opponent. In 5:29, he focuses on the need not to seek revenge, giving the surprising command not to resist him who is evil but to turn to him the other cheek. In both cases, Jesus includes a meta-comment for the same kinds of reasons we do in English today: to draw people’s attention to something surprising or important that follows.

Meta-comments represent the writer’s or speaker’s choice to add an optional device to help direct the reader’s attention to something surprising or important. Jesus could have just as easily made the same statements without the meta-comment, just as I did in option 1 above.

“For until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter . . . ” —Matt 5:18

“For unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees . . . ” —Matt 5:20

“You shall not come out of there, until you have paid up the last cent.” —Matt 5:26

“Do not resist him who is evil . . . ” —Matt 5:39

“They have their reward in full.” —Matt 6:2, 5, 16

“Do not be anxious for your life, as to what you shall eat . . .” —Matt 6:25

“Even Solomon in all his glory did not clothe himself like one of these.” —Matt 6:29

Now before you go out and try this at home, you need to know that not every instance of ‘I say to you’ plays the role of a meta-comment. If you were to do a speed search for ‘I say to you’, you would have found three other occurrences in the Sermon that I did not include in my list which are not meta-comments: Matt 5:22, 28, and 34. In these verses ‘I say to you’ is required, and does not function as an optional attention-getting device. The phrase is required to indicate that Jesus is switching from what the ancients said to what he says. A meta-comment, by definition, is where someone stops saying what they are saying, and starts talking about what they are going to say. Don’t worry, all of the meta-comments in the entire New Testament are identified for you using symbols in the text, like this in Matt 5:26.

Lexham High Definition New Testament

Lexham Discourse Greek New Testament

The symbol that looks like a speech balloon denotes the beginning and ending of meta-comments, while the explanation point identifies attention-getting devices.

If you are interested in learning more about other devices that are included in these new Lexham resources, read the previous blog posts listed below.

If you haven’t yet placed your order, don’t miss out while it’s still available at the discounted Pre-Pub pricing.

Comments

  1. For those of you academic-types, I am working on a more formal description of meta-comments for the national ETS meeting in Boston in November. If you want more detailed descriptions of these devices, I have posted some conference papers at http://www.logos.com/academic/bio/runge. When the meta-comment paper is finished, I will post a link there.

  2. Brandon Vaughn says:

    You know what would be REALLY cool? Shoot a video of all these things! With someone “acting” out the various sayings. I think that would have a dramatic effect in really HEARING this. I know it would help me. Like, have someone act out those saying at the beginning. Then, have a short tutorial involving the same ideas in Greek! Just a thought…

  3. Steve, I’m looking forward to these works! Thanks for pointing me to your papers, I’m going to read them this weekend.
    Mike

  4. John Murphy says:

    Hi Steve: I have to hand it to you, after reading one of your conference papers, you obviously have a gift both for the academic side and for making the academics understandable for the non-expert grammarian (in your blog posts). For that I am grateful!