“It’s Greek to Me”: Illuminating Exchange w Eric Svendsen

“It’s Greek to Me”: Illuminating Exchange w Eric Svendsen August 13, 2022

[originally posted on 10 January 2005, incorporating material from 5 June 2003]

A lamentable incident on a discussion board (one of many) revealed certain shortcomings in Dr. Eric Svendsen’s dialogical tactics. One anti-Catholic slanderer wrote on a large Catholic Discussion Board, in early October 2003:

It is true that I have taken Dave to task in the past for attempting, in his self-admitted near-total ignorance of the Greek language, to correct men who have studied Greek professionally for years as to their analysis of grammatical conventions and figures of speech and so forth, . . .

This is another falsehood that this person has been stating about me for about two years now. I have explained myself more than once, but to no avail. He keeps repeating this incident and putting his cynical slant on it. To hear him describe it, I do sound truly ridiculous and like some sort of arrogant know-it-all.

This is based on an actual dispute and ugly Internet exchange, but when one learns all of the facts, they gain an entirely different impression than the one left above. The last time he brought this up I was determined to retrieve the exchange to show people what had happened, but it was too old, and no longer online. The facts are these:

1. I was in a discussion (in January 2002) on this board with Dr. Eric Svendsen about Luke 1:28 and the meaning of kecharitomene (“full of grace” or “highly favored”). It was an argument about Mary’s Immaculate Conception (specifically, whether she was sinless). I cited Greek scholars in favor of the meaning of this phrase here as “completely, perfectly, enduringly endowed with grace.”

The scholars were Blass and DeBrunner (Greek Grammar of the New Testament), and H. W. Smyth (Greek Grammar — Harvard Univ. Press, 1968). They are cited in footnote number 188 in my book, A Biblical Defense of Catholicism (2003, Sophia Institute Press, page 178).

Svendsen said that he had heard of Blass and DeBrunner, but not Smyth. He proceeded to minimize Smyth’s importance and severely criticized me for trying to argue a point of Greek grammar with him (since he knows Greek).

2. I quickly proved (from extensive Internet searches) that Smyth was a very well-known Greek scholar, whose work is used in many important colleges for Greek courses. Now, the point was that Svendsen had hardly even heard of the guy (if at all) and wanted to pretend he was a nobody. That was shown to be clearly false. But what does that show about Svendsen’s attitude and competence in the field of Greek linguistics? When one acts like they know something that they don’t know (in this case, concerning the importance of Smyth), isn’t that at least pretentious?

3. Svendsen later found out (from James White, I think) that Smyth’s Grammar was for classical, not koine NT Greek. This he thought to be a knockout punch and proof of my ignorance and arrogance, in trying to delve into matters of Greek, where I knew nothing.

4. I publicly apologized to him on the board at that time, for some of my words and attitudes, and for questioning his abilities in Greek.

5. On the other hand, I also pointed out that the whole incident reflected much more badly on him, since (despite claiming to be an expert on Greek) he had mocked this important, well-known, prominent scholar and hadn’t even heard of him, and didn’t know that his widely-used work (which is even available online now) was for classical Greek in the first place. He was supposed to know this stuff, whereas I (as a non-scholar) had simply made an innocent mistake. And I apologized, whereas he did not.

6. The most amusing thing in all this was that Eric’s own research associate, Mike Taylor, was utilizing Smyth in some in-depth exegetical research he was doing concerning the Eucharist. So at the very same time I was being blasted as an ignoramus and pretender for merely citing Smyth, Eric’s own comrade was citing him! When I pointed out the incongruity and irony of this to both of them, needless to say I didn’t receive the warmest reception in world history.

Proof of Mike Taylor’s heavy use of H.W. Smyth, whom he used to support his contentions, can be found in a densely argued paper about the Eucharist and aspects of Greek grammar, entitled, “Sungenis and Taylor: An Exchange.” I have compiled below Mike Taylor’s citations of Smyth (with added bolding). Nowhere does he argue that Smyth is 1) unimportant as a Greek grammarian, or, 2) that he is absolutely irrelevant because his grammar is for classical rather than koine Greek.

It’s true that he does mention the classical vs. koine Greek distinction (#12, 14-15), and the implications of that with regard to using Smyth as an authority on the New Testament, but nowhere does he imply that Smyth has no bearing on New Testament grammar at all (let alone that he is a “nobody”). If he believed that, then he would have simply refused to engage the argument (classical Greek being irrelevant to it).

He even cites Smyth in support of the interpretation of NT passages (see #3 below). His comrade, Dr. Eric Svendsen, on the other hand, argued both points as proof of my gross incompetence as an apologist, since I had dared to cite Smyth in support of my exegesis of Luke 1:28:

1) I tracked down one of those grammarians (Smyth) who says no such thing, . . .

2) I looked in Smyth to see if I could find any evidence for your “special case” and simply found no such thing. So if it turns out that you were wrong about Smyth (and you are) then would I be wrong to wonder if you might be wrong about the other grammarians?

3) . . . this really isn’t the section of Smyth that is most relevant to the point in question. In the quote above, Smyth himself refers us to section 1872 (p. 419) wherein we read the following: 1872. “Participle (not in indirect discourse).–The participle, as a verbal adjective, is timeless. The tenses of the participle express only continuance, simple occurrence, and completion with permanent result. Whether the action expressed by the participle is antecedent, coincident, or subsequent to that of the leading verb (in any tense) depends on the context.” The key words here are the following: “not in indirect discourse,” (which would cover both Matthew 26:28 and Luke 22:19f); “in any tense” (which would cover the present indicative main verbs in both Matthew and Luke) and “depends on the context” . . .

4) Here is what Smyth says of the present participle in 1872a . . .

5) We’ve already seen Sungenis’ mishandling of Smyth. Why, then, should we simply take his word for it that Shanz is on his side?

6) But the rule you stated didn’t register for me, so I got out Smyth (which was my textbook at Harvard) and Wallace (the current “Bible” of NT grammars) and did some reading.

7) With that in mind, I went back to Smyth a second time to see if I could find any evidence for such a distinction. So far, no luck. Then I went to Zerwick to see what he says.

8) Essentially, Wallace is saying that the time reference for participles is usually determined by the main verb. This accords with what I learned in Greek class and with what I have read in Smyth and Zerwick.

9) Rather than admit that his Smyth quote really does not support his claims, he instead attempts to play off Smyth against Zerwick.

10) I would respectfully suggest that Mr. Sungenis is in no position to judge between the Zerwick and Smyth.

11) Mr. Sungenis’ attempt to pit Smyth against Zerwick is misguided. Mr. Sungenis rightly notes that Smyth claims that participles not in indirect discourse are “timeless.” Unfortunately, Mr. Sungenis neglects to mention the following: “Whether the action expressed by the participle is antecedent, coincident, or subsequent to that of the leading verb (in any tense) depends on the context” (Smyth: 1872, my emphasis). This is a crucial qualification. Would Zerwick disagree with Smyth on this point?

12) Right away, then, we see that a direct comparison of Smyth to Zerwick is invalid. Smyth’s grammar only deals with classical Greek, whereas Zerwick’s Biblical Greek concerns—you guessed it—Biblical Greek.

13) Second, in full agreement with Smyth, Zerwick states that the context shows the sense to be future.

14) Mr. Sungenis’ case is weakened somewhat by two factors: First, to the extent that he is basing his case on a Smyth, he weakens his case in that Smyth’s scope is classical Greek, not Koine. Second, the rules he had originally quoted from Smyth govern participles in indirect discourse, whereas the participles in question are in direct discourse.

15) There is therefore no fundamental disagreement here with Smyth, who in any case is dealing with classical Greek, not the Biblical Koine and its underlying Semitisms.

16) Does this not suggest that Sungenis was unaware of the fact that the present participle can be future no matter what the tense of the main verb (cf. Smyth 1872, p. 419)?

17) I went back to Smyth a second time to see if I could find any evidence for such a distinction.

Svendsen and I have never interacted in any substantive way since then. My calumnious detractor keeps bringing up this incident in order to “prove” something about me that is untrue. He never mentions, of course, my apology (because that would ruin the effectiveness of the slander; apart from showing that it is highly unethical), and he never gets into the gist of what actually occurred (because that would make Eric Svendsen look really bad, just as he did at the time).

I’ve repeatedly urged him to drop it and decided not to post the argument at the time (as an act of charity), but since he won’t let it drop, and keeps talking about this publicly, I must record the incident now, so it will be a matter of record.

It may seem to be a minor point, but when the incident is fully explained, people can see what I was getting at, and that I was perfectly justified in my observation; it wasn’t a case at all of trying to talk about something (on my own, without the aid of scholars) that I knew nothing about (Greek). If anything, Dr. Svendsen was the one who made statements he knew little or nothing about (about Smyth’s credentials and importance).


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Summary: Anti-Catholic apologist Eric Svendsen & his buddies claimed that I pretended to know Greek grammar. The incident in question provides a very different picture.

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