Learn Biblical Greek

Biblical Greek Syntax



Content
[go] General Notes
[go] Basic Structure of Greek Sentences
[go] Analysis of a Greek Sentence
[go] Syntax of the Greek article
[go] Syntax of Adjectives
[go] Use of Case
[go] Syntax of Verbs
[go] Mood
[go] The Infinitive
[go] Questions

General Notes
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The grammatical system of a language is made up of both a morphological system (the form that words can take, also called accidence) and a syntactic system (the way the forms can be arranged). Though it may seem overly obvious, it is important to note that the structure of every language is unique and we should not expect Greek structure to parallel that of our native language. This is easily grasped when considering the morphology of the language, but can be sometimes overlooked when considering the syntax. The student must therefore not think of the way his native language is put together as the natural way. Although there may be some similarities, the differences can be significant. (As I write these words I am in Brazil. Though Spanish and Portugues are very similar in many respects, there are also significant differences, and many pitfalls for the unwary. We can never assume that even if some form seems familiar to us that it actually has exactly the same meaning to a native speaker.) In this section I will try to explain some of the most common and important aspects of Greek syntax of which the student should be aware.

To determine the meaning of a statement in a language, it is necessary to understand both the meaning of each word as well as the significance of their role in the sentence. The meaning of the word is sometimes called the lexical meaning and basically refers to the definitions and explanations that can be found in a dictionary. More significant is the structural meaning of the sentence, which includes grammatical devices such as word order or position, morphology (or form) of the word, and the intonation of the sentence. Both the lexical meaning and the structural meaning must be understood in order to correctly understand the sentence. The structure of Greek is different from the structure of English.

Basic Structure of Greek Sentences
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Complete ideas are communicated by grouping words into a sentence. There are a variety of forms that sentences can take in Greek. For the most part the types of sentences are similar to those in English. However, there are significant differences in how the words are put together to form the sentences.

Types of Sentences

Word Order

Because the words themselves in Greek contain more information about their relationship to other words, greater flexibility is allowed in the order of the words. This does not mean that word order is unimportant. This greater flexibility allows the writer to place key words where they can communicate greater emphasis. For example, the words at the beginning or end of a phrase or sentence, or in some unusual location, are usually being emphasized.

Word order in Greek is not entirely free. For an example, the location of the article (in English the word 'the') can have a direct bearing on the meaning of the sentence.

Analysis of a Greek Sentence
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The following outline of how to analyze a sentence in Greek may be of help to beginning students:

Syntax of the Greek article
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Nouns that have an article associated with them are called articular nouns, while those that do not are called anarthrous nouns.

There are some significant differences between how the definite article "the" is used in English and how it's equivalent is used in Greek. To illustrate, in English there is considerable difference between the word "God" and the word "god", but in Biblical Greek there is none. You may recall from our earlier discussion that at the time the Bible was written everything was written in upper case or "unical" letters. To, in effect, 'capitalize' a proper name, the Greeks put the definite article ο, η, το in front of the word. Additionally, the Greeks had no indefinte article such as the English "a" or "an".

The late Ray Summers (former head of the department of New Testament Interpretation at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and also a student of H.E. Dana, coauthor of the highly respected A Manual Grammar of the Greek New Testament), in his book Essentials of New Testament Greek, 1950 edition, makes the following point regarding the significance of the article when determining the meaning of a Greek construction:

"The basic function of the Greek article is to identify. At this point an important differentiation should be observed. When the article is used with a construction, the thing emphasized is "identity"; when the article is not used, the thing emphasized is quality of character. ο νομος means "the law." It points out a particular law and gives specific identity. νομος means "law" in general. When Paul says in Romans 3:21, "But now apart from law a righteousness of God is revealed," he means "any law"; and the expression could be translated "apart from law-method." This difference is clearly seen in the use of ο θεος and θεος. ο θεος is used of the divine Person "God." θεος is used (generally) of the divine character or essence of God. Thus "in the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God (τον θεον) and the Word was divine (θεος)" gives the sense. In a similar way in Romans 1-3 such terms as οργη θεου and δικαιοσυνη θεου may well be translated "divine wrath" and "divine righteousness." An extensive discussion of this usage is found in Dana and Mantey, A Manual Grammar of the Greek New Testament."

There certainly is a range of opinions on how John 1:1 should be translated, and it is not the purpose of this page to weigh the pros and cons. However, you may find it of interest that Bible translators Moffatt (considered 'brilliant') and Goodspeed (regarded by some as the most outstanding Greek scholar of first half of the 20th century), in their respective translations, both made this differentiation in their handling of the text. Also, J.W.Wenham, in his The Elements of New Testament Greek, page 35 of his 1965 edition notes that the translation of John 1:1 depends largely on a translator's view as the grammar allows for it to be translated in more than one way.


The definite article is used in Greek in the following situations:

Additionally, there are some special cases where the Greek article can be found. They include:

Syntax of Adjectives
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The form an adjective takes is determined by the case, number, and gender of the noun that it is modifying.

The placement of an adjective in relation to the substantive and the article will determine whether it is attributive or predicative.

Attributive: The adjective is attributive when it is placed between the article and the substantive, or for emphasis, after the substantive in which case it must also have the article repeated before it. However, if the substantive does not have the article, then the adjective can either precede or follow it. If an adjective follows a substantive that has no article and the adjective has the article before it, the substantive is indefinite and general, while the adjective describes a specific attribute of the substantive. The most common case is where the adjective is between the article and the substantive.

Predicative: When the adjective is not between the article and substantive, but either comes before or after and does not have an article of its own, it is predicative.

Use of Case
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Hellenic Greek, according to some scholars, has eight cases, while other say it has only five. However, it has only four (sometimes five) inflected forms.

Nominative

The principal use of the nominative case is to indicate the subject of a sentence or clause. It is also used to identify the predicate nominative, serve in place of the vocative case, and for names and titles.

Genitive

Nouns in the genitive case are often used in syntactic positions like adjectives and have a meaning of dependence or belonging. When a noun is modified by a noun in the genitive case, the noun in the genitive is anarthrous (without the article) if the noun it modifies is anarthrous, and articular (with the article) if the noun it modifies is articular. When the noun is anarthrous, the genitive noun may precede or follow it. When the modified noun is articular, the genitive noun may be in any of the positions that an adjective may have.

Ablative

(Same inflected form as the Genitive.) Used to express separation, or motion from.

Dative

Nouns in the dative case usually identify the indirect object, expressing "to" or "for" which anything is done.

Locative

(Same inflected form as the Dative.) Used to express the place at which anything happens.

Instrumental

(Same inflected form as the Dative.) Used to express the instrument with which anything is done.

Accusative

Nouns in the accusative case express the direct object of a transitive verb, and when used after certain prepositions, expresses motion toward something. The substantive in the accusative case is the object towards which the action of the verb is directed. Additionally, the subject of an infinitive will be in the accusative case. The accusative may also denote extent of time or space.

Vocative

(Same inflected form as the Nominative plural, but singular can vary.) The vocative form exists only for a limited number of nouns. It is used to identify the person (or a personified thing) addressed by the speaker.

Syntax of Verbs
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Hellenic Greek verbs are similar to verbs in English in some ways, but there are substantial differences. Probably the most significant difference is that Greek verbs focus on the type or kind of action and then on its scope and point of view. If the characteristics of Greek verbs are not clearly understood, much can be lost when trying to understand a biblical text.

Important Points

Following are some important points that must be understood in order to get the full flavor of Greek verbs:

Voice - There are 3 voices in Greek: active, middle, and passive. Voice indicates the relationship of the subject to the action.

  • Active Voice: This voice is used when the verb describes the action of the subject.

  • Middle Voice: In this voice, the subject is in some sense involved in the results of the action. The subject rather than the action is the focal point. English has no direct equivalent to this voice, but it is similar to the reflexive in Spanish, where the subject of the verb acts upon itself.

  • Passive Voice: This voice is used when the subject of the verb is being acted upon by an outside entity.
  • Mood - Mood indicates the relation of a verb's action to reality. The moods in Greek are: indicative, subjunctive, optative, and imperative.

  • Indicative: This mood confirms the reality of the action from the viewpoint of the speaker.

  • Subjunctive: This mood expresses desire or asserts a supposition or condition.

  • Optative: This mood expresses something that is optional. This mood does not really exist in English or Spanish. It is also very rare in the Greek Scriptures.

  • Imperative: This is the command mood. It tells the subject of the verb what to do.

  • Infinitive: Expresses an act or state. In English, the infinitive is usually made up of "to" plus the base form of the verb (such as "to loose", "to run", etc.). It can perform the role of either a noun or a verb. Unlike other verbs, the subject of the infinitive is in the accusative case. (Some authorities do not feel that the infinitive is a mood, as it acts like a verbal noun and isolates the action from reality.)
  • Tense - In English, "tense" has to do with the verb's location in time. In otherwords, it tells us whether the verb's action or state of being is in the past, present, or future. Greek is not like that. In Greek, what is referred to as "tense" is actually a set of verb forms or conjugations that share the same viewpoint of the verb's action or state of being, as percieved by the speaker/writer. (In this context the words "Aspect" and "Aktionsart" are often used in current grammars.) Greek verbs generally have one of the following three types of action:

    Continuous or 'Progressive' type of action.

    Completed or 'Accomplished' type of action, with continuing results.

    Simple, momentary or 'Punctiliar' type of action.

    The following chart summarizes the type of action for each verb and the time of the action when it is in the Indicative Mood:

    Kind and Time of Action for Each Verb Conjugation

    Tense

    Type of Action

    Time Element
    (In Indicative Mood)

    Present

    Progressive or 'Continuous'

    happening now

    Aorist

    Simple or ‘Punctiliar’

    past

    Perfect

    Completed, with results

    past, with present results

    Imperfect

    Progressive or 'Continuous'

    past

    Future

    Simple or 'Punctiliar'

    future

    Past Perfect

    Completed, with results

    past

    Future Perfect

    Completed, with results

    future

    An overview of the main considerations for each of the various verb tenses follows:

    Present Tense

    The Present Tense shows action in progress. As the chart above shows, it is the only tense in Greek to show present action in the Indicative Mood. Therefore, when it is used in the Indicative Mood, it is necessary to consider the context and determine whether the emphasis is on the continuous aspect of the action or on the present time element. In all other moods, the emphasis will be on the continuous action.

    Commands and prohibitions in the present tense are not just statements to do something. They carry with them the idea of keep on doing or stop doing a current on-going action. Therefore, when Jesus spoke to those selling doves in the temple, he told them to "stop making My Father's house a house of merchandise" (John 2:16 [NAS]).

    Aorist Tense

    The term 'aorist' means 'unspecified' or 'unlimited'. It is used to specify a 'simple occurrence'. The amount of time to accomplish the action is not a factor so much as is the fact that it only takes place once. In the indicative mood the aorist is used to signify a past event.

    Commands and prohibitions in the aorist tense do not refer to past actions, but present one, or ones at any time. For example, at Matthew 6:34 [NAS] Jesus used the aorist and said: "do not be anxious for tomorrow". Here the aorist is used to tell his disciples not to be anxious at any time.

    Perfect Tense

    The Perfect Tense is used for perfected action; something which was completed in the past and the results of which presently exist. This is different from the Perfect Tense in English which simply indicates a past completed action.

    Imperfect Tense

    The Imperfect Tense is used for continuous or repeated action that continued at some time in the past. The following ideas are frequently conveyed by the imperfect tense: descriptive imperfect describes the movement of an event in past time; repeated or iterative imperfect describes an continuous or repeated action in past time; inceptive imperfect emphasizes the beginning of a continous action in the past.

    The idea of continual action in the past does not apply to the verb "to be" in the imperfect tense, rather to simple action happening in past time with no reference to being on-going or repeated.

    Future Tense

    The Future Tense refers to punctiliar or linear action in the future, depending on the context.

    Past Perfect (Pluperfect) Tense

    The Past Perfect Tense is similar to the Perfect Tense, but indicates that the event and its effects are past experiences. It is the same as the English Past Perfect Tense, and is only used in the indicative mood. Its use in the Greek Scriptures is rare.

    Future Perfect Tense

    The Future Perfect Tense is similar to the Past Perfect Tense, only it refers to a completed state that will exist as some time in the future. Its use is very rare in the Greek Scriptures.

    Final Thought on Verbs

    "No element of Greek language is of more importance to the student of the New Testament than the matter of tense. A variation in meaning exhibited by the use of a particular tense will often dissolve what appears to be an embarrassing difficulty, or reveal a gleam of truth which will thrill the heart with delight and inspiration. Though it is an intricate and difficult subject, no phase of Greek grammar offers a fuller reward. The benefits are to be reaped only when one has invested sufficient time and diligence to obtain an insight into the idiomatic use of tense in the Greek language and an appreciation of the finer distinctions in force." (Dana & Mantey, section 166)

    Mood
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    Mood has to do with the verb forms which indicate the mental attitude of the subject speaking with respect to the process indicated by the verb. The different mood forms indicate whether we consider an action to be real, unreal, desired, or possible.

    Indicative

    Used to make statements or assertions, regardless of whether or not they are true.

    Imperative

    Used to express an action according to someone's will such as a command or a prohibition.

    Subjunctive

    Asserts a supposition or condition. In prohibitions the subjunctive aorist is used with μη as an alternative to the imperative. Strong denials take the aorist subjunctive with the double negative ου μη.

    Optative

    Expresses a wish (whether or not it can actually occur). Very rarely used in the Bible.

    The Infinitive
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    The infinitive ("to" + verb in English) in Greek can act as either a verb or a noun and has aspects of both. For example, it has tense and voice the same as a verb, but it does not have person or mood. It appears in only four of the tenses: present, future, aorist, and perfect. The infinitive is not declined and therefore has very few forms. (Not as good as English, which has only one form!)

    Tense in the infinitive basically has to do with the kind of action rather than the time of the action. There are three kinds of action that can be expressed: Progressive (present and future tenses); Undefined (aorist tense); and Perfected (perfect tense).

    The following are basic points regarding the use of the infinitive:

  • When acting as a verb, the infinitive may itself have a subject or an object.

  • When the subject of the infinitive is expressed, it is always in the accusative case. This is usually rendered in English with a clause beginning with the word "that".

  • When the subject of the infinitive is the same as the preceding verb, it is not omitted (except for emphasis), and any words in agreement with it are put in the nominative case.

  • When preceded by the definite article, the infinitive is acting like a noun. The article will always be neuter singular, and its case will match the function of the infinitive in the sentence.
  • Questions
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    The question mark was not introduced into Greek until about the 9th century. The symbol used is not the common question mark (?) used in Latin based scripts, but rather the semicolon (;). Of course, in Biblical times there existed no such device. Therefore, to recognize questions, it is necessary to look for indicators in the word structure. Because of its inflected nature, word order is not an indicator of whether a sentence is a question. The following are the most common indicators:


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