Discourse Analysis

Discourse analysis may sound like a phrase you’d prefer to bypass. It may rank up there with college Greek terms such as “syntactical analysis” or “periphrastic constructions.” If you’re ready to skip to the next article, hold on! Discourse analysis is an important concept that every exegete of Scripture should desire to incorporate into his study. What is discourse analysis, and why is it a helpful tool in the exegetical process?

Discourse analysis—a phrase that is working its way into the standard language of exegesis—is the study of a discourse, a self-contained spoken or written unit of communication, such as a poem, a magazine article, or a book of the Bible. When pastors work on sermon texts, they have traditionally defined words and tried to understand the syntax without giving much effort to the exegesis beyond the sentence. Perhaps this method of study is common because Greek grammar, syntax, and exegesis have focused attention on understanding the text only at the sentence level (the microstructure: word, phrase, clause). Discourse analysis is an attempt to understand not only the microstructure of language but also the macrostructure—going beyond the sentence itself to include the paragraph, discourse, and genre. Discourse analysis argues that you must understand the whole picture to be able to understand the pieces within the whole.

Richard Erickson’s A Beginner’s Guide to New Testament Exegesis: Taking the Fear out of Critical Method includes a chapter promoting the syntactical and discourse analysis of a text. He argues that the combination of both analyses in the exegetical process demonstrates that neither the microstructure, which is emphasized by syntactical analysis, nor the macrostructure, which is emphasized by discourse analysis, should be ignored.

Discourse analysis is typically the natural way to read a text. An example, which in no way is intended to compare Scripture with fiction, is a piece of literature called The Three Little Pigs. As one reads this story, the parts become understandable in light of the whole. For example, to correctly interpret the actions of the pig that built the brick house, you must also consider information about the other pigs and the wolf. In addition, you cannot just interpret the terms “straw,” “sticks,” or “bricks” without considering the context in which the words occur; giving a lengthy explanation of the term “straw” that includes etymology, synonyms, and other uses of the term is a bit overdone. Word studies can be helpful, but the words must be understood in the context of the discourse of which they are a part.

Finally, placing the narrative events in a different order also affects the structure of the story. Changing the order that the wolf attacks the pigs’ houses (e.g., the brick house before the straw one) detracts from, if not ruins, the intended meaning of the story. To correctly understand The Three Little Pigs, interpreters must understand characters, words, and events within the larger structure. This type of study is the task of discourse analysis—a tool that helps the interpreter to determine the cohesive form of communication within the macrostructure (the big picture) of a discourse, without getting lost in the microstructure (the words, verb tenses, etc.).

Now let’s apply discourse analysis to the study of Scripture. A discourse of a book of the Bible is not a random conglomeration of words, phrases, and clauses that may or may not have coherence. The author seeks to communicate a message to his audience. Understanding the overall structure and purpose of a discourse aids in understanding the smaller units that make up a discourse. Neither structure can be ignored in coming to a clear understanding of the purpose and structure of a letter. Coherence within a discourse brings the macro- and micro- levels together.

For a discourse to be unified, it must have a coherence of content and structure throughout the discourse. Interpreters should locate these points of cohesiveness because both content and structure are necessary to form the overall coherence of a text and involve the overall context of a text. One way a text may indicate content or structural coherence is through vocabulary—perhaps a word or semantically related words in a certain portion of the text. In a narrative, such as the Good Samaritan, the cast of characters and events often provides structural coherence to a text. Erickson provides many other markers of coherence (pp. 82-85).

By recognizing the structural units that make up a discourse, you will be able to recognize how these parts are interrelated. The vocative (direct address), for example, is a device used to indicate structural units. Notice how the vocative creates the following structural divisions in the epistle of James:

discourse chart

Recognizing the structural units allows you to interpret the information within the structure more accurately. In some texts coherency is more apparent than in others. Sometimes the genre aids in coherency. For example, in a narrative (e.g., the Gospels), coherency is gained through the plot. In a discourse where you describe a process (a procedural discourse), step one is followed by step two, and so on. In a hortatory discourse (e.g., James), the cohesive ties may be embedded in a discourse and not as apparent as in other genres (e.g., the use of the vocative “my brethren”).

How does this apply to Scripture when preparing your sermon? When studying a narrative, you must consider the plot in the context of the entire discourse. The key is to recognize that each Gospel (the entire book, not just each of the narratives within a Gospel) has an overall structure. For example, the call of the disciples to be fishers of men in Matthew 4:18-22 should be considered in light of the whole discourse of Matthew. For instance, this passage should be considered in light of the Great Commission (Matt. 28:18-20), which concludes the discourse. The coherence of an epistle may not be quite as clear. For example, the book of James is often referred to as “the Proverbs of the New Testament.” The implication is that the book has no coherent structure as a whole but is a collection of wisdom sayings. Discourse analysis, however, allows one to see the coherent structure within James, as noted in the chart above.

Discourse analysis is simply another tool to help the pastor understand the meaning of the text of Scripture. Erickson provides the following words of encouragement (p. 93):

Ideally, we do ourselves and our people a great service if we analyze the full discourse structure of any biblical book we wish to study, teach or preach. This is a long-range goal, however. Simply start where you are. Identify and analyze whatever paragraph you are currently working with. Use a commentary or dictionary article to get a sense of your paragraph’s place in the larger work. At the same time, keep track of your own observations and conclusions. Begin to build up a living understanding of Colossians, or of Genesis, or of Mark’s Gospel—whatever—as a whole. Make it your life’s work, and take your time. Let yourself enjoy it.

For further reading:

Black, David Alan. Linguistics for Students of New Testament Greek. Baker, 1995.

Erickson, Richard. A Beginner’s Guide to New Testament Exegesis. InterVarsity, 2005.

Example of D.A. in 1 John, see Longacre, Robert. “Towards an Exegesis of 1 John Based on the Discourse Analysis of the Greek Text” in Linguistics and New Testament Interpretation. Broadman, 1992.

Originally published Winter/Spring 2007