Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 11 (2011) - Review

Matthews, Victor H., More than Meets the Ear: Discovering the Hidden Contexts of Old Testament Conversations (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2008). Pp. xii+198. Softcover. US$25.00. ISBN 978-0-8028-0384-9.

In More than Meets the Ear, Victor Matthews provides an introduction to various linguistic and sociological methods and their potential applicability to biblical scholarship. His survey of methods includes sociolinguistics, discourse analysis, cognitive linguistics and mental space theory, conversation analysis, positioning theory, and critical geography, all used in concert with traditional historical-critical biblical scholarship. Though not without some difficulties, More than Meets the Ear is well written and accessible and helps to demonstrate the potential of interdisciplinary tools for the analysis of biblical texts.

Matthews freely admits that his combination of social-scientific and linguistic methods is “quite eclectic” (p. vi). There are always benefits and drawbacks to interdisciplinary projects, and here these are cast into rather sharp relief. While Matthews' textual analyses are generally excellent, and his application of the various methods he introduces tends to be helpful and illuminating, there remains a tension throughout the book between breadth and depth. Almost always the reader will find her/himself intrigued by both Matthews' short presentations of methodology and his textual analysis, yet also left wanting to explore further. I offer this not as a criticism. In a work such as this the breadth/depth tension is unavoidable. Indeed, one of the primary services that Matthews' book provides is that it provokes the reader to wonder about the possibilities of pressing one (or more than one) of these methods further. Clearly this very kind of provocation was a design feature of the book, as each chapter ends with a list of possible questions or problems for future exploration.

Chapters are organized around a particular method or set of methods, though as the book progresses these methods become incorporated into a growing repository of methodological possibilities. What we find, therefore, are the insights from chapter one's discussion of discourse analysis incorporated into chapter two's discussion of cognition theory, and those theories blended with chapter three's use of conversation analysis, and so on. The result is not so much a new systematic method of Matthews' own creation, but an interesting and eclectic blend of the insightful components of the various theories used in service of the analysis of a particular biblical text.

And Matthews' textual analyses are no less interesting and helpful than his presentations of theory. Whether in his presentation of conversation analysis and mental space theory in the story of Judah and Tamar (ch. 3), or his presentation of social space theory and Jeremiah's travelling scroll (pp. 151–162), Matthews demonstrates how the use of these various methods can help to shed light on the discursive worlds of the biblical texts. In all of this Matthews maintains his connection to both critical historical and literary biblical scholarship, thus strengthening the connections between his presentation of new methodological possibilities and what we might call more traditional methods of biblical scholarship.

Having said all of this, there are some points where the interdisciplinary nature of More than Meets the Ear raises some points of tension. Chapter one purports to be a presentation of sociolinguistics and discourse analysis, but (as even a cursory look at the footnotes demonstrates) the linguistic portion of this chapter is almost completely taken up with the work of cognitive linguists (Fauconnier, Lakoff, Evans and Green). Those components that do derive from the sociological end of the linguistics pool tend to be more closely connected to conversation analysis than to sociolinguistics proper. I have no particular complaint over the use of cognitive linguistics, and Matthews' puts it to very good use in the ensuing chapters, but a presentation of the theoretical underpinnings of various kinds of sociolinguistics would likely have added to his discussion regarding the relationship between certain kinds of linguistic features and the social world which they represent. Additionally, there is an open question among theoretical linguists as to the relationship between cognitive and socio linguistics. For example there are certain types of functional linguistics that are actively engaged with both social and cultural background issues, and with cognitive modelling, yet there are also socially oriented models of linguistics that have been traditionally agnostic about the value of a concept of the mind for linguistic description.[1] Though a book like this is clearly not the place to stage an in-depth analysis of these difficult theoretical questions, some notice should likely have been given to the potential difficulties of bringing some of these different theoretical approaches together.

Matthews also engages with conversations that remain somewhat controversial within the biblical studies guild itself. Examples include his decidedly synchronic focus, which consequently makes little if any mention of the development of various texts. Additionally, Matthews' work by its nature intersects with the oral-versus-written tension of the biblical text. The biblical texts were likely produced in and for a culture that was only minimally literate. What, then, are the consequences of this for the application of methods that have been developed to analyze live interactions (like conversation analysis)? Matthews does interact with these tensions (e.g., pp. 66–69), but they remain open questions to a degree.

At various points important concepts are placed in separate boxes where they are defined and briefly discussed. A case in point is the presentation of Mental Space theory (pp. 36–37), where a four paragraph presentation of this key theory is given even as the theory itself is employed in the analysis underway in the main text. Though this type of strategy can at times be distracting, in the case of More Than Meets the Ear it is extremely valuable. Matthews is introducing so many new concepts, frequently including unique or specialized jargon (which Matthews mercifully keeps to a minimum), that some kind of definition is needed. While a glossary of terms is also provided (pp. 165–168), these separated definition boxes provide much more than one or two sentence definitions, yet remain easy to find for later reference.

All in all, More than Meets the Ear is well-written, thought-provoking, and engaging, and would serve as an excellent introduction to any or all of these varied methods. I would recommend this for thoughtful undergraduates, graduate students, and any scholar interested in a straight-forward introduction to the use of cognitive linguistics and sociological tools for the analysis of biblical texts. Matthews has provided a strong example of the potential for interdisciplinary work to shed light on the meaning and background of the biblical texts.

Colin Toffelmire, McMaster Divinity College

[1] For an example of the former view see Simon Dik and Kees Hengeveld, The Theory of Functional Grammar (2nd, rev. ed. 2 vols. Functional Grammar Series 20–21; Berlin/New York: Mouton de Gruyter, 1997). For an example of the latter see Michael Halliday, Language as Social Semiotic: The Social Interpretation of Language and Meaning (London: Edward Arnold, 1978). For an introduction to sociolinguistics in relation to biblical studies see W. Schniedewind, “Prolegomena for the Sociolinguistics of Biblical Hebrew,” JHS 5.6 (2004), available online at and republished in hard copy under the same title in E. Ben Zvi (ed.), Perspectives on Hebrew Scriptures II: Comprising the Contents of the Journal of Hebrew Scriptures Vol. 5 (Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias Press, 2007) 117–41