Tag Archives: Greek

I think I just became an eight-case believer…

…in terms of historic grammar, at least.

I was searching through Smyth for some information on the syntax of the dative case, and I stumbled across his discussion of adverbs. According to Smyth,

Adverbs, like prepositions and conjunctions, were originally case forms, made from the stems of nouns and pronouns. Some of these nominal and pronominal stems have gone out of common use, so that only petrified forms are left in the adverbs. Some of these words were still felt to be live cases; in others no consciousness of their origin survived. Many adverbs show old suffixes joined to the stem or to a case form (342). It is sometimes uncertain whether we should speak of adverbs or of nouns with local endings.

Smyth then gives a list of the different cases that have forms fossilized in adverbs. First, four of the five that everyone accepts (excepting the vocative):

Nominative (rare): πύξ with clenched fist, ἅπαξ once, ἀναμίξ pell-mell.

Genitive: ἕνης day after to-morrow, ἑξῆς next, ποῦ, οὗ where, αὐτοῦ in the very place, ἐκποδών out of the way (ἐκ ¨ ποδῶν); by analogy, ἐμποδών in one’s way.

Dative: δημοσίᾳ at public cost, λάθρᾳ in secret, κοινῇ in common, etc. (1527 b), ἄλλῃ otherwise, πῇ how.

Accusative: very common, especially such adverbs as have the form of the accusative of neuter adjectives, as πολύ much, μι_κρόν a little, πρῶτον at first, τήμερον to-day, πολλά often.

And then things get crazy. Three other case forms are preserved as adverbs:

Locative: οἴκο-ι at home (οἶκο-ς house), Ἰσθμο-ῖ at the Isthmus, ποῖ whither, and all adverbs in -οι. The -ι of the consonantal declension is properly the ending of the locative, as in Μαραθῶν-ι at Marathon; -οισι (234) in O stems, in contrast to -οις; -α_σι (-ησι) in Ā stems (215): θύρα_σι at the doors, Πλαταιᾶσι at Plataea, Ἀθήνησι at Athens; further in πάλαι long ago, ἐκεῖ there, πανδημεί in full force.

Instrumental: ἄνω above, κάτω below, οὔπω not yet, ὧ-δε thus (but the forms in -ω may be ablatives); κρυφῆ and λάθρα_ in secret.

Ablative: all adverbs in -ως, as ὡς as, οὕτως thus, ἑτέρως otherwise. Here, e.g. original ἑτερωδ (cp. Old Lat. altoōd, abl. of altus) became ἑτερω (133), which took on -ς from the analogy of such words as ἀμφίς parallel to ἀμφί.

Bam. Eight cases.

Not only does Smyth’s schema provide a very good explanation of why Greek adverbs have such wildly varying forms (for which I’m incredibly grateful, and wish I’d have found out before now), it also provides a strong argument that Greek originally had eight cases, three of which were lost: the locative and instrumental being absorbed into the dative, and the ablative being expressed by the genitive or dative with prepositions.

Now, I don’t think I’m ready to go all the way and say that ancient Greek had eight viable cases; that is, I think I’d still explain a Greek locative or instrumental as a locatival dative or instrumental dative. However, I’m not willing anymore to say that eight-casers are deluded, led astray by the seduction of Latin grammar.

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Persian Influence on Greek Myth

Alexander Nikolaev has an article coming out in Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Studies highlighting the influence Persian myth — specifically, Achaemenid Persian myth (!) — may have had on one facet of Greek myth. Here’s the abstract:

This paper shows that there is a discontinuity in the representation of Argus, the guardian of Io: while in the earliest literary source, the Aegimius ([Hes.] fr. 230 Most), and in the sixth century iconography (LIMC V 664.1, 667.31) we find the conception of Argus as a two-faced monster with four eyes (three according to Pherecydes fr. 66 Fowler), all fifth-century and later sources depict Argus as a giant with thousands of eyes dappling his entire body (Bacch. 18.19-25; Aesch. Suppl. 305; [Aesch.] Pr. 568, 677, etc.). The time period in which this sudden change is observed suggests the following hypothesis: the image of the myriad-eyed cowherd was imported from Achaemenid Iran. Around the turn of the fifth century Greek craftsmen of all kinds had access to the court of the Persian king and it is precisely at that time that a considerable Iranian influence on Greek philosophy and literature can be detected (as shown, above all, by W. Burkert and M. L. West). It is argued that the source for the many-eyed representation of Argus in the fifth century was the Iranian deity Miθra who had a cult in Persepolis: Mithra’s standing epithet is ʻhe who has ten thousand eyesʼ. In Avestan texts Miθra is said to be all-seeing and ever awake, just like Argus, and his vigilance is repeatedly emphasized. Another epithet of Miθra is ʻlord of wide pasturesʼ; he is the quintessential guardian. Miθra is associated with starry sky just like Argus. Given the prominence of the cow in Zoroastrianism, it becomes possible to propose a scenario in which a Greek in the sixth century could have acquired an incomplete picture of a Persian triad corresponding to Zeus, Argus and Io, where Argus matches Miθra, the myriad-eyed cowherd.

Alexander Nikolaev, “Ἄργος Μυριωπός,” Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Studies (In Press).

This article looks fascinating to me. The Achaemenid Empire was the Persian empire founded by — you guessed it — Cyrus the Great. Further, it provides evidence for the appeal of Persian religious thought: not only did it influence Judaism, it also apparently influenced Greek religious thought.

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More on Mark 7:24-30

The neuter gender of κυνάριον in Mark 7:27-28 does not stop it from applying to the Syro-Phoenician woman as an insult. Per Smyth (197 b):

Exceptions to the Rule of Natural Gender. — Diminutives in -ιον are neuter (199 d), as τὸ ἀνθρώπιον manikin (ὁ ἄνθρωπος man), τὸ παιδίον little child (ὁ or ἡ παῖς child), τὸ γύναιον little woman (ἡ γυνή woman). Also the words τέκνον, τέκος child (strictly ‘”thing born”), ἀνδράποδον captive.

So, even though κυνάριον is neuter and the woman is feminine, that shouldn’t throw us off. The word is still a very pointed insult, directed straight at the woman.

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Adversative καί, Emphatic ἀλλά, and Other Miscellanies (Mark 7:24-30)

Mark 7:24-30 (the story of Jesus’ interaction with the Syro-Phoenician woman) has some really interesting grammatical stuff going on, which we’ll look at after the jump. First, the text:

24 Ἐκεῖθεν δὲ ἀναστὰς ἀπῆλθεν εἰς τὰ ὅρια Τύρου. Καὶ εἰσελθὼν εἰς οἰκίαν οὐδένα ἤθελεν γνῶναι, καὶ οὐκ ἠδυνήθη λαθεῖν· 25 ἀλλ᾿ εὐθὺς ἀκούσασα γυνὴ περὶ αὐτοῦ, ἧς εἶχεν τὸ θυγάτριον αὐτῆς πνεῦμα ἀκάθαρτον, ἐλθοῦσα προσέπεσεν πρὸς τοὺς πόδας αὐτοῦ· 26 ἡ δὲ γυνὴ ἦν Ἑλληνίς, Συροφοινίκισσα τῷ γένει· καὶ ἠρώτα αὐτὸν ἵνα τὸ δαιμόνιον ἐκβάλῃ ἐκ τῆς θυγατρὸς αὐτῆς. 27 καὶ ἔλεγεν αὐτῇ· ἄφες πρῶτον χορτασθῆναι τὰ τέκνα, οὐ γάρ ἐστιν καλὸν λαβεῖν τὸν ἄρτον τῶν τέκνων καὶ τοῖς κυναρίοις βαλεῖν. 28 ἡ δὲ ἀπεκρίθη καὶ λέγει αὐτῷ· κύριε· καὶ τὰ κυνάρια ὑποκάτω τῆς τραπέζης ἐσθίουσιν ἀπὸ τῶν ψιχίων τῶν παιδίων. 29 καὶ εἶπεν αὐτῇ· διὰ τοῦτον τὸν λόγον ὕπαγε, ἐξελήλυθεν ἐκ τῆς θυγατρός σου τὸ δαιμόνιον. 30 καὶ ἀπελθοῦσα εἰς τὸν οἶκον αὐτῆς εὗρεν τὸ παιδίον βεβλημένον ἐπὶ τὴν κλίνην καὶ τὸ δαιμόνιον ἐξεληλυθός.

24 He got up from there and went to the coasts of Tyre. And as he entered the house he did not want anyone to know he was there, but he could not be hidden. 25 In fact, right away, a woman whose daughter had an unclean spirit heard about him, came into the house, and fell at his feet. 26 Now the woman was a Greek, a Syro-Phoenician by birth, and she asked him to cast the demon out from her daughter. 27 He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, because it’s not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” 28 She answered him, “Sir — the dogs under the table also eat the children’s crumbs.” 29 He said to her, “On those grounds, go; the demon has gone out from your daughter.” 30 And when she went away to her house, she found her child lying on the couch and the demon gone.

The interesting stuff:

  • Verse 24 has an adversative καί (καὶ οὐκ ἠδυνήθη λαθεῖν, “but he could not be hidden”). The adversative καί is sort of like a tiger; you’ve read about them in books, you’ve seen pictures of them in their natural habitat, maybe even seen a few in a zoo, but when you come across one in your neighborhood, you’re very surprised (to say the least!).
  • Verse 25 has an emphatic ἀλλά (ἀλλ᾿ εὐθὺς ἀκούσασα γυνὴ περὶ αὐτοῦ, “In fact, right away, a woman heard about him”). It’s like the ἀλλά and the  καί here have switched roles — ἀλλά, normally an adversative conjunction, takes on the role of an emphatic connective, while καί, which is normally a connective, functions as an adversative in v. 24.
  • In verse 27, Jesus makes a pun on the woman’s request. The woman asks Jesus to “cast out” (ἐκβάλλω) the demon from her daughter, while Jesus remarks about how unseemly it is to take the children’s food and “throw” (βάλλω) it to the dogs.
  • Verses 27 and 28: κυνάριον. Louw and Nida have this entry for κυνάριον: “(diminutive of κύωνa ‘dog,’ 4.34, but in the NT the diminutive force may have become lost, though a component of emotive attachment or affection is no doubt retained and thus the reference is presumably to a house dog) — ‘house dog, little dog.’” I think they’re incorrect — the word does retain its diminutive force, but it doesn’t carry a sense of affection. Instead, the diminutive here is a diminutive of insult. Κύων can carry the sense of “a word of reproach, freq. in Hom. of women, to denote shamelessness or audacity” (LSJ s.v., II), and the woman in this passage is both shameless and audacious, (a dirty Gentile asking the Jewish messiah for help? Puh-leeze!), so this reading of κυνάριον makes a lot of sense.

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Isaiah 40:9-11: Septuagint, Masoretic Text, New Testament

Continuing on in my on-again-off-again series of text criticism/analysis of 2 Isaiah, here’s Isaiah 40:9-11, in the Septuagint and the Masoretic Text. Translations are my own.

The Texts

LXX:

9 ἐπ᾿ ὄρος ὑψηλὸν ἀνάβηθι, ὁ εὐαγγελιζόμενος Σιων·
ὕψωσον τῇ ἰσχύι τὴν φωνήν σου, ὁ εὐαγγελιζόμενος Ιερουσαλημ·
ὑψώσατε, μὴ φοβεῖσθε·
εἰπὸν ταῖς πόλεσιν Ιουδα
Ἰδοὺ ὁ θεὸς ὑμῶν.
10 ἰδοὺ κύριος μετὰ ἰσχύος ἔρχεται καὶ ὁ βραχίων μετὰ κυριείας,
ἰδοὺ ὁ μισθὸς αὐτοῦ μετ᾿ αὐτοῦ καὶ τὸ ἔργον ἐναντίον αὐτοῦ.
11 ὡς ποιμὴν ποιμανεῖ τὸ ποίμνιον αὐτοῦ
καὶ τῷ βραχίονι αὐτοῦ συνάξει ἄρνας
καὶ ἐν γαστρὶ ἐχούσας παρακαλέσει

9 Go up upon a high mountain,
 O Zion, who brings good news;
Lift up your voice with strength, 
O Jerusalem, who brings good news;
Lift it up; do not fear.
Say to the cities of Judah,
“Behold, your god.”
10 Behold, the Lord comes with strength and his arm with authority;
Behold, his reward is with him and his work is before him.
11 Like a shepherd he will herd his flock
And with his arm he will gather the lambs.
He will comfort those who have children in their womb.

MT:‎‎

עַ֣ל הַר־גָּבֹ֤הַ עֲלִי־לָךְ֙ מְבַשֶּׂ֣רֶת צִיּ֔וֹן
הָרִ֤ימִי בַכֹּ֨חַ֙ קוֹלֵ֔ךְ מְבַשֶּׂ֖רֶת יְרוּשָׁלִָ֑ם
הָרִ֙ימִי֙ אַל־תִּירָ֔אִי
אִמְרִי֙ לְעָרֵ֣י יְהוּדָ֔ה
הִנֵּ֖ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶֽם׃
‎‫הִנֵּ֨ה אֲדֹנָ֤י יְהוִה֙ בְּחָזָ֣ק יָב֔וֹא וּזְרֹע֖וֹ מֹ֣שְׁלָה ל֑וֹ
הִנֵּ֤ה שְׂכָרוֹ֙ אִתּ֔וֹ וּפְעֻלָּת֖וֹ לְפָנָֽיו׃
כְּרֹעֶה֙ עֶדְר֣וֹ יִרְעֶ֔ה
בִּזְרֹעוֹ֙ יְקַבֵּ֣ץ טְלָאִ֔ים
וּבְחֵיק֖וֹ יִשָּׂ֑א עָל֖וֹת יְנַהֵֽל׃

9 Go up upon a high mountain, O Zion, who brings news;
Lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, who brings news.
Lift it up; do not fear.
Say to the cities of Judah,
“Behold, your god.”
10 Behold, the Lord YHWH comes with strength and his arm rules for him;
Behold, his wages are with him and his work is before him.
11 Like a shepherd he will herd his flock
And with his arm he will gather the lambs.
He will carry them at his bosom and will guide those who are giving suck.‎‎

Analysis

O Zion . . . O Jerusalem (LXX) Technically, these two terms are in the nominative, but they are pretty clearly nominative-for-vocatives, which is common enough in biblical Greek and colloquial Attic Greek. See Conybeare, Grammar of Septuagint Greek, §51 and Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics, pp. 56-59. Cf. Smyth, Greek Grammar for Colleges, §202.

Who brings good news . . . who brings good news (LXX) Greek εὐαγγελιζόμενος in both cases. This participle differs from that of the MT (מְבַשֶּׂ֣רֶת) by making it explicit that the news that has been delivered is good. In context, however, it is unmistakeable that the news is good: YHWH is returning the Judean exiles back to their homeland.

Isaiah 40:1-11, I think, is a pretty effective piece of pro-Cyrus propaganda. Morton Smith (Studies in the Cult of Yahweh, I.76-79) makes it abundantly clear that 2 Isaiah is writing about Cyrus’ eventual sack of Babylon before the sack actually happened, and postulates that 2 Isaiah is actually Persian propaganda — that is, subversive, Yahwistic, pro-Cyrus propaganda that was “inspired” by Persian agents looking to drum up support for Cyrus among the Judean exiles. (You can see the same basic style in the first half of the Cyrus inscription [ANET 315b-316], where Cyrus’ success in Babylon is attributed to “Marduk, the great lord,” the patron god of Babylon, who legitimated Cyrus’ success in that city. Cyrus, being a Persian, of course, would not have been a devotee of either Marduk or YHWH, but probably of Ahura Mazda.) So, you have 2 Isaiah promising not only that YHWH would soon “come with power” and return the exiles home from Babylon, but also that life in Judah would be better than it ever had been — the land would be smoothed out and made suitable for real agriculture.

On a side note, I can’t help but wonder if this verse is a source of the NT authors’ referring to their messages about Jesus as “good news” (εὐαγγέλιον) and the spread of it as “delivering good news” (εὐαγγελίζω), given that Isaiah 40:3-6 is such an important text for the Gospel authors. And, if this verse is a source for calling the Jesus-message a εὐαγγέλιον, it would be interesting to compare how 2 Isaiah and the NT authors use the term, especially considering that 2 Isaiah considers Cyrus to be the messiah, and the NT considers Jesus to be the messiah.

Go up . . . Lift up . . . Lift it up; do not fear In the LXX, the first two imperatives of v. 9 are singular (ἀνάβηθι . . . ὕψωσον) while the third and fourth are plural (ὑψώσατε, μὴ φοβεῖσθε), while in the MT, all four imperatives are feminine singular (עֲלִי . . . הָרִ֤ימִי . . .הָרִ֙ימִי֙ אַל־תִּירָ֔אִי). That is, the MT relates all four imperatives to the city of Jerusalem; the LXX, on the other hand, relates its first two imperatives to the city, while its third and fourth imperatives relate to the inhabitants of the city. The difference is subtle, but still worth a remark.

The Lord/The Lord YHWH Based on the meter (I’ll expand on this in a future post), it would seem that the MT’s “Lord” (אֲדֹנָ֤י) is a later addition to the text. The LXX offers no clue as to whether the original reading was “Lord YHWH” or simply “YHWH,” as it consistently translates 2 Isaiah’s “Lord YHWH” as “Lord.” (Elsewhere in Isaiah, the LXX renders “Lord YHWH” variously as δεσπότης κύριος and simple κύριος.) Given that in the pro-Cyrus section of 2 Isaiah (ch. 40-48) the title אֲדֹנָ֤י יְהוִה֙ appears only here and in 48:16 (where it is in the mouth of Cyrus), I’m willing to bet that it’s either a later addition or a corruption that was incorporated into the text of the MT.

And his arm with authority/And his arm rules for him The LXX (“And his arm with authority”) smoothes out the idea in the MT (“And his arm rules for him”), making a nice, tight parallelism. Given that the two texts are almost perfectly identical in this passage — even, in most places, down to word order — it makes most sense to see the two texts as standing in the same tradition, with the LXX translator smoothing out the wording ever so slightly, to make it have a little bit better poetic structure.

Like a shepherd he will herd his flock Woodenly, “Like a shepherd he will shepherd his sheep-herd.” I actually like this rendering better than the one I have included in my translation above, because it preserves the similarity of the terms in both the Greek (ὡς ποιμὴν ποιμανεῖ τὸ ποίμνιον αὐτοῦ) and the Hebrew (כְּרֹעֶה֙ עֶדְר֣וֹ יִרְעֶ֔ה), but, unfortunately, it is pretty terrible English, so I ultimately abandoned it.

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More on the Hebrew and Greek Texts of Ezekiel 2

I did some more digging after I posted about Ezekiel 2 in the Septuagint a couple of weeks ago. I found a couple articles dealing with the problem of the differences between the Hebrew text (the Masoretic text; hereafter, MT) of Ezekiel 2 and the same text in the Septuagint (hereafter, LXX):

E. Tov, “Recensional Differences between the MT and LXX of Ezekiel,” Ephemerides Theologicae Lovanienses 62 (1986): 89-101.

Jake Stromberg, “Observations on Inner-Scriptural Scribal Expansion in MT Ezekiel,” Vetus Testamentum 58 (2008): 68-86.

Tov argues (as does Stromberg after him) that the LXX text of Ezekiel is older than that of the MT. Tov sees two reasons for this argument. First, the text of LXX Ezekiel is roughly 4-5% shorter than that of MT Ezekiel. This means that either the translator was loose with his translation and felt free to leave things out as he saw fit, or, if he was strict in his translation, his Hebrew text must have been shorter than what is recorded in the MT (Tov 91-92).

Tov’s second reason, however, narrows the options down to a quite comfortable and manageable level. Analyses of the vocabulary of LXX Ezekiel (see Tov 92, n. 11) have shown that the LXX translator was strict and consistent in his translation, which can only mean that his Hebrew text was shorter than that of the MT. Thus, this means that the MT is an expanded version of original Ezekiel, rather than the LXX being a shortened version thereof.

So, revisiting the two texts:

1 And he said to me, “Son of man, stand on your feet, and I will speak with you.” 2 And as he spoke to me, the Spirit entered into me and set me on my feet, and I heard him speaking to me. 3 And he said to me, “Son of man, I send you to the people of Israel, to nations of rebels, who have rebelled against me. They and their fathers have transgressed against me to this very day. 4 The descendants also are impudent and stubborn: I send you to them, and you shall say to them, ‘Thus says the Lord GOD.’” (ESV, from Hebrew)

1 This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord, and I looked and fell upon my face, and I heard the voice of one speaking. And he said to me: Son of man, stand upon your feet, and I will speak to you. 2 And a spirit came upon me and took me up and raised me and set me upon my feet, and I heard him speaking to me, 3 and he said to me, Son of Man, I am sending you out to the house of Israel, those who are embittering me — who embittered me, they and their fathers, to this very day, 4 and you shall say to them, “This is what the Lord says.” (NETS, from LXX)

Verse 1: Same as my last post; nothing big here, except that the two texts divide the chapters differently.

Verse 2: It’s not that the LXX turns the story into an otherworld journey, as I previously thought, but that the MT removes the signals that Ezekiel is on an otherworld journey. Both the LXX and MT mention Ezekiel being:

  • possessed by a spirit/the Spirit
  • lifted to his feet (he had fallen to the ground in his trance, 1:1-3, 28)
  • spoken to by God.

However, the MT leaves out Ezekiel being:

  • taken up (ἀνέλαβέν; i.e. into heaven)
  • raised (ἐξῆρέν; more at “taken away,” but again, into heaven)

So, while the MT has Ezekiel’s commission from God takes place while Ezekiel’s still standing by the Chebar canal (1:1-3), the LXX implies quite strongly that Ezekiel’s commission takes place in heaven.

Therefore, I still say that the LXX provides relatively early evidence of a mystical tradition surrounding Ezekiel’s merkabah vision, but I change my opinion at two points: 1) it is likely that original Ezekiel represented this mystical tradition, including a (shamanic) trance, spirit-possession, and journey to heaven; 2) at some point and for whatever reason, the text represented in the MT was edited down to remove Ezekiel’s journey to heaven, leaving him with his feet planted firmly on earth during his commission.

Verse 3: The LXX doesn’t skip goyim (“peoples,” sometimes derogatory, in the sense of “Gentiles”) here; the MT adds it. Tov (93) thinks that the MT includes goyim in order to soften the blow of  the next word, hammordim (“rebellious”), but I’m not sure; this phrase, goyim hammordim, is found mostly in rabbinic Hebrew (Tov 93, n. 16), so I think it likely that this addition was made by a later scribe or rabbi who added this more-or-less stock phrase into the text, whether thoughtlessly or intentionally, without intending to change the meaning.

I’m not so sure now, though, whether goyim carries its own pejorative force here, or whether the pejorative sense rests more on hammordim. I’d need to read more about the sense of goyim hammordim in rabbinic literature, to see what the range of meaning — and range of insult — the phrase carries there. Suffice it to say, for now, that both the LXX and MT here cast Israel in a negative light.

Verse 4: The addition to the MT here (“The descendants also are impudent and stubborn: I send you to them”) is, as Tov points out, totally redundant, and derives its content not only from the surrounding context, but also 3:&, 33:3-5; 34:9; and Deut 9:6-13 (Tov 93). These sort of expansions — that is, expansions based not only on the immediate context, but also on other biblical texts — are pretty prevalent in MT Ezekiel (Stromberg 70-83; cf. Tov 93-99).

Conclusion:
In sum, between the time the LXX was translated (2nd-1st centuries BCE, give or take) and the time the MT was canonized, a scribe changed the text of Ezekiel. In some cases, he added to and expanded the text, such as in 2:3 and 2:4, in order to make the text easier to understand or to fit the idioms of his day. In other cases, he deleted things from the text, as in 2:2, where he sanitized the text and removed Ezekiel’s otherworld journey.

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Greek Wednesday: The Subjunctive & Optative in early Christian Greek, Μὴ γένοιτο in Paul

Continuing in my current obsession with the optative mood, here are some statistics to support the notion that the optative was on the decline in first-century CE koine Greek, followed by a discussion of the optative in Luke and Paul, and the phrase μὴ γένοιτο in Paul and Epictetus.

The New Testament has 17,543 finite verbs. Of these, 1868 are subjunctives and 68 are optatives. In terms of percentages, 10.6% of the finite verbs in the NT are subjunctive, while only 0.388% are optatives. The Apostolic Fathers (not including the Latin sections of both Ignatius’ letter to the Philippians and the Shepherd of Hermas) has 7842 finite verbs, of which 1111 (14.2%) are subjunctive and 50 (0.638%) are optative. I don’t have access to word counts of the classical Greek corpus, but optatives certainly show up more more frequently than 1% of the time there. Thus, it’s very clear that the optative was on the decline in first-century CE Greek.

Within the NT, two authors — Luke and Paul — use the majority of the optatives. Luke has 29 optatives, while Paul has 24. Luke, owing to his more literary style, uses the optative more or less properly; in other words, his usage of the optative accords with its use in classical Greek. (Though he, idiosyncratically, uses εἴη quite frequently). Here are some examples (English is the NRSV):

Luke 1:38 εἶπεν δὲ Μαριάμ· ἰδοὺ ἡ δούλη κυρίου· γένοιτό μοι κατὰ τὸ ῥῆμά σου. καὶ ἀπῆλθεν ἀπ᾿ αὐτῆς ὁ ἄγγελος.

Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.

Luke 6:11 αὐτοὶ δὲ ἐπλήσθησαν ἀνοίας καὶ διελάλουν πρὸς ἀλλήλους τί ἂν ποιήσαιεν τῷ Ἰησοῦ.

But they were filled with fury and discussed with one another what they might do to Jesus.

Acts 17:27 ζητεῖν τὸν θεόν, εἰ ἄρα γε ψηλαφήσειαν αὐτὸν καὶ εὕροιεν, καί γε οὐ μακρὰν ἀπὸ ἑνὸς ἑκάστου ἡμῶν ὑπάρχοντα.

so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us.

In Paul, on the other hand, fully half (12) of his optatives are in Romans alone, and 10 of those are the phrase μὴ γένοιτο (“may it never be,” “by no means,” “God forbid”). Here’s a sampling (again, English is NRSV):

Romans 3:3 τί γάρ; εἰ ἠπίστησάν τινες, μὴ ἡ ἀπιστία αὐτῶν τὴν πίστιν τοῦ θεοῦ καταργήσει; 4 μὴ γένοιτο· γινέσθω δὲ ὁ θεὸς ἀληθής, πᾶς δὲ ἄνθρωπος ψεύστης, καθὼς γέγραπται· ὅπως ἂν δικαιωθῇς ἐν τοῖς λόγοις σου καὶ νικήσεις ἐν τῷ κρίνεσθαί σε.

What if some were unfaithful? Will their faithlessness nullify the faithfulness of God? By no means! Although everyone is a liar, let God be proved true, as it is written, “So that you may be justified in your words, and prevail in your judging.”

Romans 6:15 Τί οὖν; ἁμαρτήσωμεν, ὅτι οὐκ ἐσμὲν ὑπὸ νόμον ἀλλὰ ὑπὸ χάριν; μὴ γένοιτο.

What then? Should we sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means!

Romans 11:11 Λέγω οὖν, μὴ ἔπταισαν ἵνα πέσωσιν; μὴ γένοιτο· ἀλλὰ τῷ αὐτῶν παραπτώματι ἡ σωτηρία τοῖς ἔθνεσιν εἰς τὸ παραζηλῶσαι αὐτούς.

So I ask, have they stumbled so as to fall? By no means! But through their stumbling salvation has come to the Gentiles, so as to make Israel jealous.

In fact, all told, Paul uses the phrase μὴ γένοιτο a whopping 14 times throughout his letters. One other author has a similar high concentration of “μὴ γένοιτο”: Epictetus, and a comparison between him and Paul will be useful.

(Of course, though the two authors use the phrase in similar ways, it is unlikely that either is dependent on the other. Paul couldn’t have read Epictetus, because Epictetus was born in 55 CE, and wasn’t active as a philosopher until near the end of the first century and into the second century, well after Paul had died. However, the similarities between the two are pretty eerie. For instance, Epictetus was a Stoic, and Paul showed sympathies to Stoicism. Epictetus learned philosophy in and originally taught in Rome; the majority of Paul’s μὴ γένοιτο phrases are in his letters to the Romans. Moreover, read these samples from Epictetus’ Discourses and tell me they don’t sound a little bit Pauline in usage (though not necessarily in content).)

1.2.35-36 τί οὖν; ἐπειδὴ ἀφυής εἰμι, ἀποστῶτῆς ἐπιμελείας τούτου ἕνεκα; μὴ γένοιτο. Ἐπίκτητος κρείσσων Σωκράτους οὐκ ἔσται: εἰ δὲ μή, οὐ χείρων, τοῦτό μοι ἱκανόν ἐστιν.

What then, since I am naturally dull, shall I, for this reason, take no pains? I hope not. Epictetus is not superior to Socrates; but if he is not inferior, this is enough for me.

1.8.14-15 τί οὖν; αἴρω τὰς δυνάμεις ταύτας; μὴ γένοιτο: οὐδὲ γὰρ τὴν ὁρατικήν.

What then? Do I take away these faculties which you possess? By no means; for neither do I take away the faculty of seeing.

2.8.1-3 Ὁ θεὸς ὠφέλιμος: ἀλλὰ καὶ τἀγαθὸν ὠφέλιμον. εἰκὸς οὖν, ὅπου ἡ οὐσία τοῦθεοῦ, ἐκεῖ εἶναι καὶ τὴν τοῦ ἀγαθοῦ. τίς οὖν οὐσία θεοῦ; σάρξ; μὴ γένοιτο. ἀγρός; μὴ γένοιτο. φήμη; μὴ γένοιτο. νοῦς, ἐπιστήμη, λόγος ὀρθός. ἐνταῦθα τοίνυν ἁπλῶς ζήτει τὴν οὐσίαν τοῦ ἀγαθοῦ.

God is beneficial. Good is also beneficial. It should seem, then, that where the essence of God is, there too is the essence of good. What then is the essence of God, – flesh? By no means. An estate? By no means. Fame? By no means. Intelligence? Knowledge? Right reason? Certainly. Here, then, without more ado, seek the essence of good.

Okay, so I lapsed into a little bit of a conspiracy theory there. Sorry. However, two similarities really stick out between Epictetus’ and Paul’s uses of the phrase. First, they ask a rhetorical question, which is often introduced by τίς, οὖν, or both. Second, they do not use the phrase with a verbal force (as seen in Classical Greek, e.g. Euripides, Medea 598-599: μή μοι γένοιτο λυπρὸς εὐδαίμων βίος
 / μηδ᾽ ὄλβος ὅστις τὴν ἐμὴν κνίζοι φρένα [“May such a wretched prosperous life never come about for me, / nor wealth of a sort that torments my heart”]), but instead use it simply as a strong means of denial; in other words, they use it as a very strong synonym for the word “no.”

Look, for example, at Romans 3:3-4 and Discourses 2.8.1-3 above. In both cases, μὴ γένοιτο clearly means “by no means!” or “no way!” or “God forbid!” Epictetus counters μὴ γένοιτο with ὀρθός, “certainly.” Thus, it is far more natural for μὴ γένοιτο here to mean “no way!” than for it to mean “may it never be!” Likewise, in Romans 3:3-4, it makes far better sense to read μὴ γένοιτο as “certainly not!” or “God forbid!” Thus, it seems, by the time of late koine Greek in the first and second centuries CE, μὴ γένοιτο had become a set phrase for a strong denial, lacking any verbal content.

So, in sum, the optative was clearly in decline in non-literary Greek by the time of the first and second centuries CE. However, it was preserved in a set phrase of strong denial, μὴ γένοιτο, that served only as a strong synonym for the word “no” but did not actually carry any verbal force.

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