Stanley Porter’s new Greek textbook

Several years in the making, in 2010 Eerdmans published Fundamentals of New Testament Greek by Stanley Porter, Jeffrey Reed, and Matthew Brook O’Donnell. The best word to describe this textbook + workbook is “rigorous.” It is not a “primer” nor an “idoit’s guide.” It is an introduction to what you need to learn, at the first-year level, to study the Greek of the New Testament responsibly.

It is a nice hardcover textbook of about 450 pages. It is broken down into 30 chapters and contains discussions and teachings on all declensions, tenses, moods, and also offers a hefty amount of vocabulary.

In process, Porter (et al) introduces nouns (2nd declension) and the article first (chs 1-3) and then verbs (ch 4). Porter errs on the side of providing more information rather than less. The advantage is that the book lays it all out there and curious students can continue to re-read previous chapters to gain a fuller picture of what is going on. The downside is that the first few chapters in particular can be daunting.

What I like about Mounce is that he really eases the reader into the study of Greek. He makes the first couple of chapters a bit “lite” so as to warm over and welcome the learner. Porter gives the learner a good taste of the task by prescribing a hearty dose of information right away! I can see the advantages of both sides, but on the balance, I like Mounce’s approach.

What will distinguish Porter’s text clearly from others is his take on verbal aspect. Personally, I lean towards viewing Greek verbal aspect  (VA) in the way that he explains it. He breaks VA into three types: perfective, imperfective, and stative. For the perfective (like aorist), the action is viewed as complete (though not always as a past event). For imperfective (such as present), the action is in progress. As for the stative (perfect), he sees it as “representing a complex state of affairs” (see 319). For this last one, I think Porter could have spent more time explaining this, as I found his description too brief and vague.

Perhaps more helpful are two illustrations he gives regarding the use of certain VAs.

One way to think of how the aspects function in relation to each other is to think of a bookcase full of books, in which one shelf is featured, and a single book is selected. The aorist tense-form is the background tense, or the entire bookcase, in which no particular book stands out. The present tense-form is the foreground tense, or the one shelf that becomes prominent. The perfect tense-form is the frontground tense, or the single book that commands significant attention. We could also think of the three aspects in terms of a picture, with the aorist tense-form used to paint the background, the present tense-form used to depict events in the foreground, and the perfect tense-form for events standing closest to the front (p. 39-40).

What about the future tense? Porter calls this an “enigma” and says that it seems to convey a sense of “expectation” (see ch 8).

What about the workbook? It is also lengthy, at over 200 pages. The assignments seem well-crafted. The back of the book contains a small Greek-English dictionary for exercises and also a set of paradigms for reference. I think that is a very useful idea.

Conclusion: the biggest strength of this book is the wisdom of Porter (and his co-authors), especially in the care given to verbal aspect. As far as the pedagogical quality of the book, I fear that too many colleges and seminaries are not cut out for the rigor of this book – I would have struggled with it myself as a student! I don’t want to coddle students, but I think this book might just scare some of them off. I think Porter knows this, and I respect his standards. It is left to you and your institution to decide whether this book works for you. I would encourage you to read Porter’s work on VA, whether in this book or others by him.

5 thoughts on “Stanley Porter’s new Greek textbook

  1. It’s a difficult thing to explain verbal aspect to a group of first year Greek students, but I think that Porter’s approach is as easy as one can get while being true to what verbal aspect really is (contra Wallace and his Basics of Biblical Greek definition of aspect and Black’s primer’s use of aspect). Porter defines aspect in a very approachable, easy way that allows the student to understand what it means, while also allowing for future research into it.

    In regard to Porter’s use of the future, it is definitely in need of further research and there is actually a student at MacDiv who is writing that dissertation right now. It is a minimal explanation of it because he has only done the research that was provided in his (Porter’s) dissertation, which is minimal with respect to the current level of verbal aspect studies.

    In regard to the daunting nature of Porter, would you not say that Mounce’s primer and his entire discussion of connecting vowels from the present indicative on is daunting and a bit of overkill in the study of koine Greek? Most GCTS first years hate Mounce because of the depth he goes into when he discusses the connecting vowel and how the indicative tense-forms are formed (not to be redundant!)?

    These are just things that I have been mulling over for the past year or so and just wonder what your thoughts are concerning these issues….

    Great post though, as I have read through Porter, Reed, and O’Donnell’s primer and LOVED it!

    I’m a Porterian greek student by nature anyways, so I’m not being as objective as I would want to be in this discussion as well…that’s something I’m working on! haha

  2. I’m curious how you (Nijay) felt that the grammar would read for a student that is learning Greek for the first time in light of Porter’s understanding that the tenses don’t semantically encode time. I was in a class with mfightmaster this past semester where we read Porter’s “Idioms of the Greek New Testament”, and I found many of his arguments compelling. However, I’m curious how he actually goes about teaching students about the tenses without bringing time into the discussion (especially since “first-years” often need something concrete and familiar to anchor them with each new concept they learn).

  3. According to Runge in a six part discussion of Porter’s views on Prominence and Aspect ( / ), Porter and his disciples use the terms “foreground,” “background,” and “frontground” in a highly unusual way–just the opposite of how most linguists use the terms. (Well, frontground is unique to Porter.) I suspect this reversal of terminology would confuse students who learn from Porter and then use other books.

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