Casson, Sarah H. Textual Signposts in the Argument of Romans: A Relevance-Theory Approach. Early Christianity and Its Literature. Atlanta: SBL Press, 2019.
This book is an admirable fusion of linguistic study and biblical scholarship. Sarah Casson, not satisfied with the traditional treatment of the connective γάρ in the original Greek New Testament, applies relevance theory from pragmatics in proposing a unified understanding of how the word functions in the biblical text. Casson is not the first scholar to apply relevance theory to Greek connectives in the New Testament. She cites Diane Blakemore (1987) as a pioneer in approaching connectives in languages as procedural markers that guide understanding. Regina Blass (1993) applied this notion to Paul’s writings in the New Testament to study the functions that various Greek connectives play in the guiding of inferential processes, although Blass’s work was unpublished and limited in its analysis. Casson draws on Blakemore’s hypothesis of procedural markers and Blass’s proposal and offers a fresh analysis of γάρ within this framework. Her thesis is that γάρ, rather than simply functioning as referential or explanatory, plays a critical role in guiding the reader to recognize the most salient points of the argument while triggering inferential sequences that strengthen the communicator’s intended point. In arriving at her analysis, Casson studied every instance of γάρ in Paul’s epistle to the Romans. Her findings are clearly and thoroughly presented.
Chapter 1 answers the question “Why study γάρ in Romans?”. Casson answers with the following reasons. First, the word (used a total of 1,041 times in the New Testament) occurs most frequently in Romans (144 occurrences). Her second reason is that “(γάρ) is by no means as unambiguous as the gloss for might suggest” (1). Casson argues that there is not a widely accepted and consistent way of understanding γάρ among scholars and exegetes that can be reconciled with the text. Third, some of the most critical and contested portions of Romans contain γάρ, and the way this word is treated can be the basis for very different understandings of the text. Finally, Casson notes that there has not been a rigorous linguistic analysis of the use of γάρ in the New Testament epistles. This book is intended to fill this gap in research while providing a path forward for further analysis of koine Greek discourse. This chapter convincingly demonstrates that Casson’s work offers fresh insight into an area of New Testament scholarship that stands to benefit greatly from linguistic study.
The second chapter provides a helpful overview of relevance theory. Casson does very well in explaining relevance theory in a way that a beginner student in the field of pragmatics can understand. Casson explains relevance theory in this way: “It holds that the interpretation of language involves subpersonal cognitive processes that are automatically geared toward the maximization of relevance and guided by the search for it” (28). She states that “Relevance theory conceives of relevance in terms of a trade-off between worth-while cognitive effects and the processing effort involved in acquiring them” (28). Communicators seek to convey their message with efficiency by guiding their audience to the intended meaning. This is accomplished by carefully using relevant information to trigger a sequence of inferences in the mind of the addressees. These inferential sequences can be used to strengthen a previously made claim while indicating which information is most relevant to the communicator’s message; this, Casson will later argue, is the primary application of relevance theory to Paul’s use of γάρ.
It is at this point that Casson highlights a significant difficulty with her application of relevance theory to Scripture. Using the framework of relevance theory, the context of the audience guides and determines the inferences that they will make in decoding the text. Casson explains that relevant contextual information may be general knowledge of culture, history, and society that was available to the original audience (referred to as encyclopedic knowledge) as well as the immediate context within the discourse itself. Therefore, correctly reconstructing the inferences that an author intended his readers to make requires recreating and retracing the cognitive processes that would have guided the first readers. Their encyclopedic knowledge as well as their understanding of the textual context would determine their inferences, and thus the meaning of the text itself. Casson acknowledges that “there is no guarantee of the validity of the proposed reconstructions of cognitive environments, contextual assumptions, and inferences drawn by the first addressees. We can aim for probability and plausibility in such reconstructive work, but not certainty” (44). This could lead to the conclusion that, without certainty about the guiding context for Paul and his readers, we can never be certain that we are understanding the text correctly. The result is that a modern reader’s ability to properly understand scripture will be shaky at best. That historical, social, and textual context is critical to biblical interpretation no serious exegete will deny; making that context the key to inferential sequences that guide interpretation presents a challenge to modern readers of the scripture. While she recognizes this difficulty, Casson argues that the effort and inherent risk in reconstructing the cognitive context of the author and his readers are worthwhile because of the value and authority of scripture. This uncertainty is a lingering question that is not fully resolved in the book.
In chapter 3, Casson outlines her application of relevance theory to Romans. Here she expounds on her thesis: Paul used γάρ as a procedural marker, indicating that the information following the connective is secondary in relevance and is intended to trigger inferential sequences in the minds of his readers. These sequences will lead to a conclusion based on contextual factors, and the resulting conclusions serve to reinforce or strengthen Paul’s primary message. Casson constructed the following frame for applying this thesis to the text; much of the book shows how instances of γάρ can be understood within this construction, referred to as procedure G (69).
P: the propositional form of the information needing strengthening
Q: the propositional form of the premise introduced by γάρ
IA(s): the contextual assumption(s) made accessible in the cotext
C: the conclusion, a reiteration of P, confirmed by backward strengthening, which thus represents a more firmly held version of P.
For her analysis Casson identified every instance of γάρ in Romans, classifying them into one of three categories. The first group she refers to as straightforward; these are instances where the strengthening use of γάρ is intuitive and is widely accepted by scholars. They account for 49% of uses in Casson’s analysis. The second category she labels as somewhat complex. Included here are sequences where strengthening is more difficult to establish and relies upon contextual information less accessible to the modern reader, making them more difficult to trace with certainty. Casson places 33% of the uses of γάρ in Romans within this category. The final group, referred to as highly problematic, constitutes the remaining 18% of occurrences. Naturally, it is to the latter two categories that Casson devotes the bulk of her attention in the remainder of the book. Categorizing over half of the uses of γάρ as less than straightforward does place a significant burden on Casson to demonstrate that her thesis is valid. In most cases, however, she does very well with providing a satisfactory and plausible explanation. There are a few highly problematic examples where Casson’s thesis does not provide a coherent and reasonable accounting of the text. We will illustrate the application of Casson’s procedural approach with a straightforward example, before highlighting some of the more difficult cases from chapter 4.
For each demonstration of procedure G, Casson gives the passage in Greek and explains the relevant contextual factors that can be reasonably constructed. She then shows the strengthening and guiding process that γάρ initializes. An example in chapter 3 from the “straightforward” category comes from Romans 8:2 and is mapped in this way (72-73).
Explicit claim P (v. 1): There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.
Premise Q introduced by γάρ (v. 2): The law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set those in Christ Jesus free from the law of sin and death.
Implicit premise IA: If a person is set free from the law of sin and death, there is no condemnation for that person.
Conclusion C deduced from Q and IA (reiterating, independently confirming, and thus strengthening P in v. 1): There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.
With this framework as a template, Casson argues that γάρ is a key guide to understanding the text. It indicates that the statements that follow it (premise Q) are less salient than the preceding claim (P), and it initiates a sequence of inferences (implicit premises) that strengthen the author’s point.
In the above example, such an interpretation seems quite clear. In chapter 4, however, Casson demonstrates how this approach relates to more difficult passages. One of these is Romans 2:23-25, which requires a series of no less than seven inferences (IA1-IA7) to establish a strengthening and procedural process initiated by γάρ (128-129). These inferences are an interpreter’s best efforts to recreate the original cognitive processes of the readers; this becomes quite a tenuous exercise when so many inferences must be supplied.
There is one other set of “highly problematic” occurrences of γάρ that merits mention. In some contexts, an inferential sequence cannot be constructed, and the connective does not fit the usual pattern that procedure G describes. Casson references Romans 15:24 as one such example. Here, Paul states his intentions to visit the church in Rome. His use of γάρ in this passage does not follow the usual pattern of triggering a strengthening inferential sequence. Romans 6:19 is another instance where γάρ does not fit the expected pattern. Casson argues that in such cases the connective serves a rhetorical function. It is already associated with strengthening in the readers’ minds, therefore “(e)xpectations of relevance are satisfied with the impression of strengthening created by γάρ, and effort is not expended in the search for a logical strengthening series that rationally confirms a preceding claim” (160). Such an explanation displays some of the flaws of traditional translations of γάρ as variable by context. The argument that γάρ serves a strengthening function apart from the inferential sequences of relevance theory is not all that different from the widely accepted understanding of the word as a “marker of cause, clarification, or reason” (BDAG, 189). Such rhetorical uses of γάρ are a challenge to Casson’s proposal of Procedure G as the key to understanding the connective’s function.
In chapter 5, Casson demonstrates that a procedural reading of γάρ can provide significant guidance in interpreting theologically difficult passages. She examines two key passages, presenting two diverging interpretations for each and showing that a relevance theory approach eliminates one of these. By indicating which information is most salient and providing structure to the author’s argument, γάρ as a procedural marker can bring clarity to the exegetical task. It will be helpful to summarize the discussion of Romans 10:4 to illustrate this process, where Paul makes the following statement: τέλος γὰρ νόμου Χριστὸς. Casson points out that the Greek word τέλος has a range of semantic meanings. It has traditionally been understood as either fulfillment, goal, or termination (190). Thus, the passage can be read as saying that Christ (Χριστὸς) has either fulfilled the law (νόμου), terminated the law, or is the goal or completion of the law. There are major theological implications for each of these understandings. Casson convincingly demonstrates that Paul’s use of γὰρ within this verse and the surrounding context eliminates the “terminated” reading of the passage. With this analysis, Casson convincingly demonstrates that relevance theory has the potential to clarify historically difficult passages of Romans.
Chapter 6 explores some of the contesting arguments for the overall purpose and theme of Romans. Casson argues that γάρ can be understood as a communicative signpost, and that “this allows us at various points to trace more clearly the thrust of Paul’s argument, seeing the argumentative woods for the trees, thus avoiding the pitfall of being sidetracked by theological questions that are not Paul’s primary focus” (203). She makes the case Romans 1:16, Paul’s famous “I am not ashamed” statement, is not a thesis for the book as many theologians have claimed. Rather, it is secondary material that is used to strengthen or support Paul’s claim in verse 15, that he was eager to preach the gospel in Rome. This eliminates verse 16 as an isolated thesis statement and places it within the broader context of Paul’s introductory remarks. Casson’s analysis here provides strong support for the value of a relevance theory approach to γάρ. If the connective can correctly be understood as a procedural marker, it gives clear direction to the reader as to the author’s intent and leaves little doubt about the primary and secondary themes of the text.
The book concludes with a brief discussion regarding the application of relevance theory to the broader treatment of the New Testament. Casson posits that other words in koine Greek that are traditionally seen as simple connectives may be understood better within a relevance theory framework. She discusses the approach that translators should take to γάρ, cautioning that a simple gloss such as for is likely insufficient to capture the notion intended in the original. She also provides an appendix with a listing of every use of γάρ, indicating what category each use falls under in terms of difficulty.
Although Casson’s thesis has a few significant and unresolved difficulties, her work makes a great contribution to exegesis and biblical study. Linguistic study has much to offer to the understanding of the biblical text. The rigorous analysis of Romans that is presented in this book is not just useful in its own right; it also provides a clear template for the intersection of contemporary linguistics and biblical study.
Blakemore, Diane. Semantic Constraints on Relevance. Oxford: Blackwell, 1987.
Blass, Regina. “Constraints on Relevance in Koine Greek in the Pauline Letters.” Paper presented at a SIL International seminar in Nairobi, Kenya, May 1993.
Danker, Fredrick W., Walter Bauer, William F. Arndt, and F. Wilbur Gingrich. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (BDAG). 3rd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.