Tag Archives: Greek

The Demise of the Optative in Latin and Greek

I’ve been somewhat obsessed lately with the demise of the optative mood in both Italic (the parent language to Latin, among others) and in koine Greek. For some reason, it strikes me as very strange that both languages would lose the optative. Italic, of course, lost the optative completely, replacing it, to a certain extent, with the imperfect subjunctive (see my overview of that change here). Greek, however, didn’t technically lose the optative, but it replaced the optative with the subjunctive in most every case; in other words, it functionally, though not formally, lost the optative mood in terms of usual means of expression.

As I’ve reported, the old Proto-Indo-European subjunctive, along with the old desiderative, became the future tense in Latin, while the optative mood stepped in to fill the empty shoes that the old subjunctive left when it switched uses. Here’s the interesting part about this change: “The [Proto-Indo-European] subjunctive seems to have referred to a future event anticipated with some slight reservation on the part of the speaker — the equivalent of ‘I suppose’ or ‘in that case'” (Sihler 592), and in very old Sanskrit (a cousin to Latin), the subjunctive usually just acts as a simple future. In other words, it takes no great stretch of the imagination to see how the subjunctive could get watered down in Italic (and thus Latin) to the point where it is solely a future tense. That left only the optative for expressing counter-to-fact statements, and the optative form became, by default, the subjunctive.

Here’s where it gets interesting. In Greek, the subjunctive did not get watered down at all. In fact, by the time of the New Testament, the subjunctive had grown in strength to the point where it replaced the optative in most cases, except in prayers, strong affirmations or condemnations, stock phrases, and the like. So, while in Italic, the optative replaces a highly weakened subjunctive, Greek sees just the opposite: a strengthening subjunctive takes over the optative. However, both phenomena have the same effect, namely that, in both languages, the subjunctive is the primary mode for expressing something counter to fact.



Work cited: Andrew L. Sihler, New Comparative Grammar of Greek and Latin (new York; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), 592-600.

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Greek Wednesday: The Morphology of Tragedy, pt. 1: Peculiarities in Dialect

Adapted from Donald J. Mastronarde, Euripides: Medea (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 82-83. Unless otherwise noted, citations are from the Medea.

In dialogue, tragedy prefers a common Greek, Ionic, or old Attic coloring when everyday Attic is too provincial — that is, when normal, everyday Attic differs too much from common Greek or Ionic. Examples:

  1. Common Greek -σσ- for Attic -ττ-. For example: ἀπαλλάσσουσα for ἀπαλλάττουσα (27), θαλάσσιος for θαλάττιος (28), κρεῖσσον for κρεῖττον (123), πράσσοιτε for πράττοιτε (313).
  2. Common Greek -ρσ- for Attic -ρρ-. For example: ἀρσένων for ἀρρένων (428), θάρσει for θάρρει (926), Τυρσηνίδος for Τυρρηνίδος (1342).
  3. Attic replaces certain patterns of long vowel-short vowel in Common Greek (e.g. λᾱός) with similar vowels in the pattern short-long (e.g. λεώς). Tragedy either avoids these Attic forms (short-long; λεώς) completely, or these forms coexist with non-Attic (long-short; λᾱός) forms. For example: νᾱός replacing νεώς (Andr. 162), λᾱός/λεώς coexisting (Andr. 1089, 19). In proper names, both forms coexist: Ἀμφιάρᾱος/Ἀμφιάρεως, Μενέλᾱος/Μενέλεως. When both forms of a word are used, it is for metrical convenience. The Doric genitive singular and plural forms of ναῦς (νᾱός, νᾱῶν) appear in both dialogue and lyric (523, Tro. 122), while the Attic forms (νεώς, νεῶν) appear only in dialogue (Tro. 1049, 1047).
  4. Open, uncontracted forms of adjectives and nouns may be used, as well as their contracted forms. For example: χρύσεος (632) and χρυσοῦς (1160, 1186), τείχεα (Hel. 1162) and τείχη (Hec. 11), τείχεος (Phoen. 116) vs. λέχους (491) and ξίφους (1278).
  5. In verbs, εο or εου can contract to epic-Ionic ευ, rather than Attic ου; however, this is only found very rarely. For example: ὑμνεῦσαι from *ὑμνέουσαι (423).

In lyric passages, the language receives a superficial Doric coloring by substituting Doric ᾱ for η, when the η represents an original ᾱ of early Greek. For example, in one lyric section in Medea, we find δύστανος for δύστηνος (96b), ὀλοίμαν for ὀλοίμην (98), τλάμων for τλήμων (111), ματρός for μητρός (113), φωνάν for φωνήν (131), βοάν for βοήν (131), κεφαλᾶς for κεφαλῆς (144), καταλυσαίμαν for καταλυσαίμην (146), βιοτάν for βιοτήν (162), and ἐνδησαμένα for ἐνδησαμένη (162).

Words that are not native to Attic may appear solely in their Doric form, even in dialogue. For example: ὀπᾱδός (53), ἕκᾱτι (281), κυνᾱγός (Hipp. 1397), λοχᾱγός (Tro. 1260).

For metrical convenience, an epicism may be used for the common form of a word. For example: πτόλις for πόλις (Andr. 699), ἀπτολέμους for ἀπολέμους (643).

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Belated Greek Wednesday: Didache 9: Is Jesus God’s “Child” or His “Servant”?

Here’s the Eucharist liturgy from the Didache, an early Jewish-Christian text, composed somewhere in Syria or Palestine, between 60-110 CE. It was highly regarded early on, and was considered Scripture by many early Christian groups. (As a sidebar, I’m of the opinion that it was composed relatively early, maybe 60-80 CE, in Palestine.)

Περὶ δὲ τῆς εὐχαριστίας, οὕτω εὐχαριστήσατε.

Πρῶτον περὶ τοῦ ποτηρίου· Εὐχαριστοῦμέν σοι, πάτερ ἡμῶν, ὑπὲρ τῆς ἁγίας ἀμπέλου Δαυὶδ τοῦ παιδός σου, ἧς ἐγνώρισας ἡμῖν διὰ Ἰησοῦ τοῦ παιδός σου· σοὶ ἡ δόξα εἰς τοὺς αἰῶνας.

Περὶ δὲ τοῦ κλάσματος· Εὐχαριστοῦμέν σοι, πάτερ ἡμῶν, ὑπὲρ τῆς ζωῆς καὶ γνώσεως, ἧς ἐγνώρισας ἡμῖν διὰ Ἰησοῦ τοῦ παιδός σου· σοὶ ἡ δόξα εἰς τοὺς αἰῶνας.

Ὥσπερ ἦν τοῦτο τὸ κλάσμα διεσκορπισμένον ἐπάνω τῶν ὀρέων καὶ συναχθὲν ἐγένετο ἕν, οὕτω συναχθήτω σου ἡ ἐκκλησία ἀπὸ τῶν περάτων τῆς γῆς εἰς τὴν σὴν βασιλείαν· ὅτι σοῦ ἐστιν ἡ δόξα καὶ ἡ δύναμις διὰ Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ εἰς τοὺς αἰῶνας.


Concerning the Eucharist, give thanks like this.

First, concerning the cup:

“We give thanks to you, our Father, for the holy grapevine of your pais David, which you made known to us through your pais Jesus. May you be glorified forever.”

And concerning the piece of bread:

“We give thanks to you, our Father, for the life and knowledge that you made known to us through your pais Jesus. May you be glorified forever. Just as this broken bread was scattered on the mountainsides, but was gathered together and made one loaf, so let your church be gathered together from the ends of the earth into your kingdom. For the glory and the power are yours through Jesus Christ forever.”

The problem in this text rests on two points: 1) Pais can mean both “child” and “servant” [why? they come from similar roots that merged into one form]; 2) The author uses pais to describe both David and Jesus. In the LXX, whenever David is explicitly described as God’s pais, it always translates the Hebrew ebed (“servant,” “slave”); in the NT, David is servant-pais twice (Lk 1:69; Acts 4:25), but never a child-pais. In the NT, Jesus is a child-pais once (Lk 2:43) and a servant-pais five times (Mt 12:18; Acts 3:13, 26; 4:27, 30). So, the biblical evidence weighs heavily in favor of reading pais here in Didache 9 as “servant.”

At two other places in the Didache (7:3; 16:4)  Jesus is called God’s huiosa term that unambiguously means “son”; of course, he is called God’s huios all throughout the NT, he is called David’s huios three times in the NT (Mt 1:1; Mk 10:47; Lk 18:38), and he is called Joseph’s huios twice (Jn 1:45; 6:42). However, David is nowhere in the LXX or the NT called God’s huios. In other words, for the authors of the Bible, David’s paternity is strictly human, while for the NT authors, Jesus has both human and divine paternity.

So, the nitty-gritty aside: how should we translate pais in Didache 9? Should David’s role as God’s pais take precedence, meaning that both David and Jesus are called “servant” here (a meaning that seems strange, to say the least, in a Eucharistic liturgy)? Or should Jesus’ sonship take precedence, giving David the strange and somewhat awkward title of child-pais? Or, even less likely, is the author making a pun here, between David as servant-pais and Jesus as child-pais?

Personally, I think the best interpretation is to read pais here as “servant.” Thus, the emphasis in the Didache‘s Eucharist liturgy is primarily on God the Father, with the role of Jesus the Son placed decidedly in the background. This emphasis is profoundly different than that of Paul’s Eucharist liturgy (1 Cor 11:23-32), which focuses solely on Jesus. I’d hesitate to make a full-blown Christology from this one section of the Didache, but I certainly find it telling that, in the celebration of Jesus’ death, Jesus is put in the background and is called God’s servant, not God’s son. In fact, in this prayer before the meal that celebrates Jesus’ death, Jesus’ death is not even mentioned! In his death, then, Jesus is only carrying out God’s commands, and has no choice of his own. Very interesting stuff!


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Fascinating Article on Latin Imperfect Subjunctive

Jay H. Jasonoff, “The Origin of the Italic Imperfect Subjunctive,” Historische Sprachforschung / Historical Linguistics 104 (1991): 84-105.

If you’re into the history of languages or morphological development, this article is a great resource. It’s quite dense, and is thus a slow read, but it’s well worth the effort to unpack it. Some highlights:

Italic languages originally had two ways of placing the action of a verb in the future. One was based on the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) subjunctive, which was formed with a vowel between the verb’s stem and the personal ending (like the Greek subjunctive λύῃς, which came from λύ + ε + εις) and the other was based on the PIE present desiderative, which was formed with an between the verb’s stem and personal ending (like the Greek future tense, λύσω). Ultimately, the PIE subjunctive form won out and became the primary way of forming the future tense in Italic languages.

Similarly, Italic languages expressed the pastness of an action in two ways. One came from the PIE perfect tense, which reduplicates the first syllable in a verb (Greek λέλυκα; seen in Latin perfect forms like tetigi). The other came from the PIE aorist, which adds an s between the verb’s stem and personal endings (Greek ἔλυσα; reflected in Latin perfect forms like dixi). Ultimately, the old PIE perfect and aorist were combined into a single verb form, the perfect, which explains why in Latin, the perfect tense carries both a perfective/resultative sense (“I have run three miles”) and an aoristic/undefined sense (“I ran three miles”).

When Italic lost the subjunctive form, which went to form the future tense, the only non-indicative mood it had left was the optative. The optative form, then, was co-opted for duty as the subjunctive. Ultimately, though, because the old optative became the subjunctive mood, Italic needed to fill in the gap left by the optative. Thus, it kept the non-past subjunctive (that is, the present and the perfect subjunctive forms) as true subjunctives (one degree separated from reality; “I would go running if it weren’t raining”), and it made the past subjunctives (the imperfect and the pluperfect subjunctives) into wanna-be optatives (two degrees separated from reality; “I might have gone running if it weren’t raining”).

Or, for those who are more visually-minded, here’s the same information, but as a picture:

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Greek Wednesday: Non-Past-Referring Aorist Indicatives

Note: This post is adapted from F. Beetham, “The Aorist Indicative,” Greece & Rome 42 (2002): 227-236, Frank Stagg, “The Abused Aorist,” JBL 91 (1972): 222-231, Herbert Weir Smyth, Greek Grammar (rev. Gordon M. Messing; Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1956), 429-434, and Daniel Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 

A good many aorist indicative verbs should not be read as a past tense; in fact, D. A. Carson has estimated that perhaps 15% of the finite aorists in the New Testament do not refer to the past.[1] On the face of it, this number might not seem significant, but it means that, to take Carson literally, somewhere around 900 aorist indicatives in the NT do not refer to the past. So, obviously, understanding this phenomenon is very important for understanding the text of the NT. I’ll use examples from Classical Greek to illustrate the phenomenon, which can then be applied back to the NT.

1) Substituting for the future tense, in order to intensify the action of the verb.

Classical examples:

εἴ περ γάρ τε καὶ αὐτίκ’ Ὀλύμπιος οὐκ ἐτέλεσσεν,
ἔκ τε καὶ ὀψὲ τελεῖ, σύν τε μεγάλῳ ἀπέτισαν
σὺν σφῇσιν κεφαλῇσι γυναιξί τε καὶ τεκέεσσιν.

If he that rules Olympus fulfill it not here and now,
he will yet fulfill it hereafter, and they shall pay dearly
with their lives and with their wives and children.

(Homer, Iliad 4.160-162)

εἰ μέν κ’ αὖθι μένων Τρώων πόλιν ἀμφιμάχωμαι,
ὤλετο μέν μοι νόστος, ἀτὰρ κλέος ἄφθιτον ἔσται·
εἰ δέ κεν οἴκαδ’ ἵκωμι φίλην ἐς πατρίδα γαῖαν,
ὤλετό μοι κλέος ἐσθλόν, ἐπὶ δηρὸν δέ μοι αἰὼν
ἔσσεται, οὐδέ κέ μ’ ὦκα τέλος θανάτοιο κιχείη.

If I stay here and fight, I shall lose my safe homecoming but I will have a glory that is unwilting: whereas if I go home my glory will die, but it will be a long time before the outcome of death shall take me.

(Homer, Iliad 9.412-416)

ἀπωλόμην ἄρ’, εἴ με δὴ λείψεις, γύναι.

I am lost, then, if you are going to leave me.

(Euripides, Alcestis 386)

NT examples:

πάντα ὅσα προσεύχεσθε καὶ αἰτεῖσθε, πιστεύετε ὅτι ἐλάβετε, καὶ ἔσται ὑμῖν.

Whatever you pray and ask for, believe that you have received [it], and it will be yours.

(Mk 11:24)

λέγει Ἰησοῦς· νῦν ἐδοξάσθη ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ ἀνθρώπου καὶ ὁ θεὸς ἐδοξάσθη ἐν αὐτῷ.

Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man is glorified and God is glorified in him.”

(Jn 13:31)

2) Using the aorist to express a general truth (like a proverb or a maxim) or to make a general description.

Classical examples:

παθὼν δέ τε νήπιος ἔγνω.

A fool learns by experience.

(Hesiod, Works and Days 218)

οἱ τύραννοι καὶ οἱ τὰς ὀλιγαρχίας ἔχοντες μάλιστα δύνανται τιμᾶν· πλούσιον γὰρ ὃν ἂν βούλωνται παραχρῆμ’ ἐποίησαν.

Tyrants and oligarchs have an immense advantage in that they can make anyone they choose instantaneously rich.

(Demosthenes, Speeches 20.15)

φᾶρος δὲ αὐτημερὸν ἐξυφήναντες οἱ ἱρέες κατ’ ὦν ἔδησαν ἑνὸς ἑωυτῶν μίτρῃ τοὺς ὀφθαλμούς

On the day of the festival, the priests weave a cloth and bind it as a headband on the eyes of one of their number.

(Herodotus, Histories 2.122)

This aorist is also often equivalent to a conditional statement.

ἀλλὰ γὰρ ἀθυμοῦντες ἄνδρες οὔπω τρόπαιον ἔστησαν, ὦ Κριτία

But men of faint heart never yet set up a trophy, Critias.
(= If there is a disheartened man, he has never yet set up a trophy.)

(Plato, Critias 108c)

And it also occurs in similes pretty frequently in Homer.

ὡς δ’ ὅτε τίς τε δράκοντα ἰδὼν παλίνορσος ἀπέστη
οὔρεος ἐν βήσσῃς, ὑπό τε τρόμος ἔλλαβε γυῖα,
ἂψ δ’ ἀνεχώρησεν, ὦχρός τέ μιν εἷλε παρειάς,
ὣς αὖτις καθ’ ὅμιλον ἔδυ Τρώων ἀγερώχων
δείσας Ἀτρέος υἱὸν Ἀλέξανδρος θεοειδής.

As one who starts back affrighted, trembling and pale, when he comes suddenly upon a serpent in some mountain glade, even so did Alexander plunge into the throng of Trojan warriors, terror-stricken at the sight of the son Atreus.

(Homer, Iliad 3.33-37)

NT examples:

ἑπὶ τῆς Μωϋσέως καθέδρας ἐκάθισαν οἱ γραμματεῖς καὶ οἱ Φαρισαῖοι.

The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat.

(Matt 23:3)

ἐξηράνθη ὁ χόρτος, καὶ τὸ ἄνθος ἐξέπεσεν.

The grass withers and the flower falls off.

(1 Pet 1:24)

3) The aorist with τί οὖν οὐ and τί οὐ takes the place of the present tense to express surprise that something hasn’t been done.

Classical examples:

εἴ τινα ἔχεις τῶν ῥητόρων τοιοῦτον εἰπεῖν, τί οὐχὶ καὶ ἐμοὶ αὐτὸν ἔφρασας τίς ἐστιν;

If you have any orator of this kind that you can mention, without more ado tell me who he is!

(Plato, Gorgias 503b)

Τί οὖν, ἔφη ὁ Ἱέρων, οὐχὶ καὶ σύ, ἐπεὶ νῦν γε ἔτι ἰδιώτης εἶ, ὑπέμνησάς με τὰ ἐν τῷ ἰδιωτικῷ βίῳ;

Why, then,” said the Priest, “don’t you, since you are still your own person, remind me about what happens in private life?”

(Xenophon, Hiero 1.3)

NT examples:

καὶ διελογίζοντο πρὸς ἑαυτοὺς λέγοντες· ἐὰν εἴπωμεν· ἐξ οὐρανοῦ, ἐρεῖ· διὰ τί [οὖν] οὐκ ἐπιστεύσατε αὐτῷ;

And they discussed it among themselves: “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say, ‘Why don’t you believe him?'”

(Mk 11:31; par. Matt 21:25; Lk 20:5)

Τότε προσελθόντες οἱ μαθηταὶ τῷ Ἰησοῦ κατ᾿ ἰδίαν εἶπον· διὰ τί ἡμεῖς οὐκ ἠδυνήθημεν ἐκβαλεῖν αὐτό;

Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, “Why can’t we cast it out?”

(Matt 17:19)


1. D. A. Carson, “An Introduction to the Porter/Fanning Debate,” in Biblical Greek Language and Linguistics. JSNTSS 80 (1993), 25.

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Greek Wednesday: Conjunctions in the NT

Here’s a guide I made a couple of years ago to help translate the conjunctions of the Greek NT. I based it off of the discussion of conjunctions in Dan Wallace’s Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics, though I expanded on Wallace’s treatment to include all the conjunctions in the NT, not just the more common ones. I hope you find it useful.


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Greek Wednesday: A Question

Didache 2:7 is an interesting sentence, and it’s puzzling me quite a bit. Here’s the Greek, followed by a published translation and then my own:

οὐ μισήσεις πάντα ἄνθρωπον, ἀλλὰ οὓς μὲν ἐλέγξεις, περὶ δὲ ὧν προσεύξῃ, οὓς δὲ ἀγαπήσεις ὑπὲρ τὴν ψυχήν σου

You shall not hate any one; instead you shall reprove some, and pray for some, and some you shall love more than your own life.

Do not hate any person. Instead: on the one hand, reprove them, and on the other hand, pray for them and love them more than you love your own soul.

I’m pretty sure that the translator, in talking about three different groups, is trying to convey the force of the μὲν . . .  δὲ . . . δὲ (“on the one hand . . . on the other hand . . . and on the other hand”) with the plural pronouns, with the plural pronouns being distinct from the singular ἄνθρωπον (anthrōpon; “man,” “person”). I think it might make better sense to take the plural relative pronouns as depending on the plural πάντα (panta; “all”); in that case, the three pronouns would be referring to the same group, which is “all people.”

Jude 22-23 has a nearly identical construction. Here’s the Greek, followed by the ESV, then my translation:

22 Καὶ οὓς μὲν ἐλεᾶτε διακρινομένους,  23 οὓς δὲ σῴζετε ἐκ πυρὸς ἁρπάζοντες, οὓς δὲ ἐλεᾶτε ἐν φόβῳ μισοῦντες καὶ τὸν ἀπὸ τῆς σαρκὸς ἐσπιλωμένον χιτῶνα.

22 And have mercy on those who doubt;  23 save others by snatching them out of the fire; to others show mercy with fear, hating even the garment stained by the flesh.

22 On the one hand, have mercy on those who are in doubt, 23 and on the other hand, deliver them by snatching them from the fire, and have mercy on them with fear, by hating even the garment that has been stained by the flesh.

I looked around this afternoon, and I couldn’t find anything in any grammars (Wallace, Robertson, BDF, Funk, or Smyth) about this construction referring to different groups. I suppose it could be one of those things that’s just generally known, but that’s not a very satisfying category.

What do you think? Do you have an insight into this sort of construction? Do you know where I could read more about it, if someone has written about it?

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