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Do you know what "punctiliar" means?

Ever come across the word "punctiliar"? I certainly hadn't before last Saturday, when I met it while reading an interview with Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, in "The Daily Telegraph". I couldn't find it in "The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary" and thought it might be a misprint, but it does exist, as I've discovered from the Internet.

It is used in a grammatical context by New Testament scholars to refer to the Greek aorist tense and means "with reference to a point in time". From a lesson in New Testament Greek:

In Level I, Lesson 2, we made note of three kinds of action: linear, punctiliar, and ongoing result. The Perfect Tense indicates ongoing result.


OK, so the word exists, and now I can see why the Archbishop would know it. But what I find remarkable is his assumption that most of the readers of the interview would know it. But this is symptomatic of his more general failure to connect in any meaningful fashion with his audience.

The interviewer, Rupert Shortt, asks him about life after death, the reality of miracles, and the problem of suffering. Williams offers vague answers, most of which seem to come down to saying: "Well, God is there and He takes care of everything." But if you don't believe in God in the first place, none of this adds up to anything.

The Archbishop seems to be a nice man who is trying to do what is probably impossible - hold the Church of England together. He is supposed to be an intellectual, but on the evidence of this interview he doesn't seem to have a lot to contribute on the question of God's existence.

As for how he uses "punctiliar", it comes in his discussion of miracles.

But if what is sustaining every reality is the energy of God, then is it so difficult to believe that there are bits of the universal order where the fabric is thinner, where the coming together of certain conditions makes it possible for the act of God to be a little more transparent? And when we talk of miracle, it's that.

It's not God making a punctiliar intervention - "Oh, I think I'd better sort that out"- leaning down from heaven and adjusting a few nuts and bolts.



So now you know.

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Steffanie on :

funny. i took New Testament Greek back in college and was very familiar with the word "punctiliar" and have used in more than once in conversation or writing (and i'm no scholar)just thinking that it was at the least a "smarter than normal" word meaning something that happens in a particular moment in time. i was using it tonight in a paper and decided to do a dictionary.com check on it and was quite surprised to not find it there. thinking i may have mis-spelled it, i googled it and came across your article. anyway, after reading your article i just thought it was kind of funny that i have something in common with the Archbishop of Canterbury (besides being Anglican--Episcopalian specifically), and will boldly use "punctiliar" in my paper!!

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