Bias in scholarship: Greek grammar edition

In a previous post I gave some excerpts of Jason BeDuhn’s excellent book Truth in Translation. I’ve continued to think about one of the sections. In his discussion of why John 1:1c is usually translated incorrectly (e.g. in every example here) BeDuhn refers to a common defense of the traditional rendering, an appeal to “Colwell’s Rule” about article use and definiteness. He writes:

Yet another argument made in defense of the traditional English translation of John 1:1 is based on something called “Colwell’s Rule.” This is a supposed rule of Greek grammar discovered by the great biblical scholar E.C. Colwell. Colwell introduced his rule in the article “A Definite Rule of the Use of the Article in the Greek New Testament.” Based on a sampling of New Testament passages, Colwell formulated his rule as follows: “A definite predicate nominative has the article when it follows the verb; it does not have the article when it precedes the verb” (Colwell, page 13). There are two problems with using “Colwell’s Rule” to argue for the traditional translation of John 1:1. The first problem is that the rule does nothing to establish the definiteness of a noun. The second problem is that the rule is wrong.

. . .

Colwell’s mistake, as so often is the case in research, is rooted in a misguided method. He began by collecting all of the predicate nouns in the New Testament that he considered to be definite in meaning, and then, when some of them turned out to look indefinite in Greek, he refused to reconsider his view that they were definite, but instead made up a rule to explain why his subjective understanding of them remained true, even though the known rules of Greek grammar suggested otherwise. Notice that he had already decided that the predicate nouns he was looking at were definite, based on his interpretation of their meaning rather than on the presence or absence of the one sure marker of definiteness in Greek: the article. His predetermination of definiteness made his whole study circular from the start.

Colwell decided that the nouns he was looking at were definite before he even started his research. He was not prepared to change his mind about that. So when nouns he thought were definite showed up without the definite article, he assumed some rule of grammar must case the article to be dropped. He never even considered the possibility that the article wasn’t there because the noun was not definite. It seems that Colwell was misled by how we might say something in English. If a certain expression is definite in English, he assumed it was definite in Greek, regardless of what the grammer suggested. Of course, Colwell know perfectly well that Greek communicates meaning in different ways than English does. It was an unconscious habit of mind that interfered with this usual capable scholarship in this instance. It was a bias derived from his everyday use of English.

As flawed as the original “Colwell’s Rule” is, it has been made worse by misrepresentation down through the years. Notice that, according to Colwell, his “rule” allows him to explain why a noun that you already know (somehow) to be definite turns up sometimes without the definite article. The “rule” does nothing to allow you to determine that a noun is, or is not, definite. Even if “Colwell’s Rule” were true, it would at most allow the possibility that an article-less predicate nominative before a verb is definite. It could never prove that the word is definite. But since the rule leaves no way to distinguish between a definite and indefinite predicate nominative before a verb, many have mistaken it as making all pre-verb predicate nominatives definite.

Most people couldn’t be less interested in the minutiae of Greek grammar and its implications for Christian theology, and frankly I’m not terribly enthused about it either. But if BeDuhn and others are correct—which I don’t know for certain, not being expert in Koine Greek, though he continues after the excerpt to make a good case—it illustrates a point about scholarship: many intelligent, conscientious scholars in a field can be wrong because of bias. If they all share the same perspective, they don’t check each other. In this example, at least several hundred thousand people have read the original Greek passage countless numbers of times, and most have failed to see it correctly.

I think about this a lot when I see articles from Heterodox Academy. I think this is less of a problem in economics than in other social science fields, although that too could be bias. But it ought to be keeping scholars awake at night, at least for a little while.