Van Wolde, Ellen. “Reframing Biblical Studies: When Language and Text Meet Culture, Cognition, and Context.” Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2009.

With the growth of the knowledge base in Biblical Studies, it has become increasingly difficult to build a broad repertoire. Rather, as in academia in general, the tendency is for scholars to become more and more specialized, with the unfortunate result that knowledge within the general field has become fractured. Gone are the days of an Albright who could move equally well among archaeologists, palaeographers, philologists, and biblical scholars.

Van Wolde began this work as a brief introduction to Ronald Langacker’s Cognitive Grammar (CG), but as the project progressed she realized that the approach could form the basis for the integration of language and text study with, for instance, historical context and material remains. She terms this method a cognitive relational approach. Thus, after beginning with a summary of CG (Ch 2-6), she outlines her particular method (Ch 7), and then applies it in an extended example from Genesis 34 (Ch 8-9).

Langacker situates CG within the group of functional approaches to the description of language, which also include inter alia discourse-pragmatic, grammaticalization, and universal-typological methods, and which share the conviction that language is shaped and constrained by the function it serves. CG is “cognitive” in that language is viewed not as an isolated system, but as an integral part of cognition in general which draws on more basic systems such as memory, perception, and categorization. This is the integrative value of CG as a theory. To the extent that memory, perception, and categorization reflect the speakers’ experience, language use offers a glimpse below the surface into their cognitive world.

In regard to categorization, CG is heavily dependent on the prototype approach to categories typified by the work of Eleanor Rosch. This approach does not draw strict borders around categories based on some set of essential characteristics, but leaves them fuzzy. A category is defined by some prototypical member, and other members are judged by the extent of their similarity or dissimilarity with this member, thus allowing degrees of membership. Nouns can be considered instances of things grouped around a prototypical example, while verbs are similarly instances of events.

Among the other functional approaches, CG particularly emphasizes the symbolic nature of language. Langacker argues that all grammatical structures can be reduced to form-meaning pairs as in the classic Saussure-ian sense, such as [TREE]/[tree]. CG also differs from more conventional approaches by eliminating the strict distinction between syntax and semantics. In practice, this means that when flipping through Langacker’s work, instead of  nice trees diagraming example sentences, one encounters numerous squares and circles floating over top of each other.

The oddity of these diagrams illustrates one of the primary hurdles in introducing CG to Biblical Scholars. Even those with a sophisticated linguistic background will find CG unconventional and foreign at first. The most basic notions such as noun and verb remain, but instead of discussions of inflectional morphology or tense and aspect, one encounters terms such as profile, base, trajector and landmark. Van Wolde spends five chapters explaining the central ideas of Langacker’s approach, giving abundant examples, but I will be interested to hear how well the uninitiated were able to follow her introduction. As Langacker himself cautions, “It is quite easy to do CG badly, and not so hard to do it indifferently (Ronald Langacker, Cognitive Grammar: A Basic Introduction, New York: Oxford, 2008, 12).”

You may remember that the press clip announcing the book’s release singled out one of these examples—her treatment of the verb ברא. In short, van Wolde argues thatברא‭ ‬ does not mean ‘to create’ in the sense of making something from nothing, but rather it has to do with differentiating or classifying. In each case whereברא‭ ‬ is used, there seem to be two entities involved. If both are equally prominent, then ברא  means “to distinguish between them,” for example ‏אֵ֥ת‭ ‬הַשָּׁמַ֖יִם‭ ‬וְאֵ֥ת‭ ‬הָאָֽרֶץ‭ ‬ in Genesis 1:1. If one is more prominent than the second, thanברא‭ ‬ means “to distinguish one from the other,” as in ‏ אֶת־הָֽאָדָםfrom the‏צֶ֥לֶם‭ ‬אֱלֹהִ֖ים‭ ‬ in Genesis 1:27. If you will indulge me here, I would like to reserve more detailed interaction with this argument for a separate post. In short, I see some merit in van Wolde’s discussion, but I think there are some problems as well (how’s that for equivocation?).

Unfortunately, overall, I was disappointed in this book. I had great hope for the approach, but I think it suffers from trying to do too many things at once. On the one hand, I worry that CG is too complicated to have influence beyond those who are already linguistically inclined, and on the other I did not always see the value that the CG methodology added to the discussion.

For instance, one of the more interesting examples is the analysis of שער‭ ‬ on pages 72-103. From the archaeological record it seems that 9th-8th century city gates in the Cisjordan region were large four- or six-chambered complexes which served administrative functions for the city. With Assyrian domination of the North at the end of the 8th century, the complex city gates were destroyed, and the same fate befell the South when Sennacherib swept through in 701, with only Jerusalem being spared. Accordingly, analyzing the occurrences of שער‭ ‬ in the Hebrew Bible, van Wolde notes a distinct change in the conceptualization of a שער‭ ‬ as a complex city-gate which served an administrative function to merely an entrance way (She also suggests that the distribution of the two may provide a means to date the texts, but this is subject to the same limitations as all linguistic approaches to dating). In this case, however, the method primarily consisted of judging whether a given verse implied the existence of a complex structure or not, which it seems could have been done without the theoretical framework of CG and probably would have been clearer were it translated into more natural prose.

My largest disappointment with the book though is that the pinnacle example (which studies the verb טמא‭ ‬ within the Hebrew Bible as a whole and then specifically within Genesis 34 covering two chapters and 147 pages) is completely a text study and does not interact with any other sub-disciplines other than beginning with a brief mention of Mary Douglas’ views on purity. While many of van Wolde’s insights are helpful, especially the discussion of whether Shechem loved Dinah or raped her, the promise of the book is that this method will help integrate these other disciplines such as archaeology, anthropology, sociology, etc. Unfortunately, none of the problems of synthesizing these approaches are addressed. Instead, in the end it seems that what we have is primarily another method for reading the Hebrew text.

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4 Comments on “Van Wolde, Ellen. “Reframing Biblical Studies: When Language and Text Meet Culture, Cognition, and Context.” Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2009.”

  1. Peter Bekins Says:

    Thanks, John

  2. Angela Erisman Says:

    Pete, you might enjoy reading George Lakoff on categories and prototype. He discusses Rosch’s work in his “Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things” and provides some important perspective on it. Categories are not based on prototypes. Categories are constructed in the brain, and we use them to define prototypes – i.e., a prototype is an EFFECT of our category judgments, and it differs by culture and context. The description of prototype theory you have here is old; according to Lakoff, even Rosch long ago understood the problems with it.

    My upcoming book is also informed by a cognitive approach, but I focus on genre and use an entirely different set of folks as inspiration. I enjoyed van Wolde’s work for what it sets out to do. Lexicography is not my thing, so I am not the best judge of whether it does so successfully (as you also wonder, and you’re a far better judge of such things than I am). But if it gets people thinking in a different, more integrative direction, I think that’s a very good thing.

  3. Peter Bekins Says:

    Angie, thanks for the feedback. I was half over-simplifying and half trying to reflect van Wolde’s definition. I am familiar with Lakoff, who would be good for more up-to-date work on prototype theory?

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