googlef87758e9b6df9bec.html A Sure Word: The Greek Use of Position for Emphasis

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Greek Use of Position for Emphasis

λέγουσιν αὐτῷ· διδάσκαλε, αὕτη γυνὴ κατείληπται ἐπ' αὐτοφώρῳ μοιχευομένη· ἐν δὲ τῷ νόμῳ ἡμῖν Μωϋσῆς ἐνετείλατο τὰς τοιαύτας λιθάζειν. σὺ οὖν τί λέγεις; τοῦτο δὲ ἔλεγον πειράζοντες αὐτόν, ἵνα ἔχωσιν κατηγορεῖν αὐτοῦ.

“they said to Him, "Teacher, this woman has been caught in adultery, in the very act. "Now in the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women; what then do You say?" They were saying this, testing Him, so that they might have grounds for accusing Him.” (John 8:4-6, NASB)

In Greek grammar, the function of a word in a sentence is determined by its inflection. Words in the nominative case, for example, are the subject no matter where they appear in the sentence. This is quite a departure from English where function is largely determined by word order. In English, for example, the subject usually appears before the verb. In the sentence, “John gave the book to Jane,” “John” is the subject, “the book” is the object, and “Jane” is the indirect object. It would be extremely awkward to say, “To Jane gave John the book.”

The use of inflection by the Greeks gave them much more liberty in arranging word order. They could choose, for instance, to arrange the words in a way that sounded more pleasing. One important reason for choosing word order, though, was to stress emphasis. Words are occasionally brought to the front of a sentence in order to stress that word.

One forceful example of this comes from John 8:4-6. In this account of the woman caught in adultery, the intent of the Pharisees is to catch Jesus in a dilemma so they might accuse Him before the people. They begin by reminding Him that the Law commands adulterers to be stoned. But note what they ask Him:

σὺ οὖν τί λέγεις;

Literally this reads, “You, therefore, what do you say?” Note the position of the pronoun σὺ at the beginning of the sentence whereas in most English translations, "you" appears toward the end of the sentence. Furthermore, the use of a pronoun is redundant since it is already implied in the verb λέγεις (“you say”). The redundant use of pronouns adds additional emphasis to the Pharisees’ question. The Pharisees could have simply asked τί λέγεις; (“what do you say?), which is a simple interrogative. This way the question would have been much more benign.

The intent of the Pharisees was overt. They were trying to provoke Jesus into speaking against the Law of Moses: The Law says this – but what do YOU say?

As you study the original language, be aware that there is more to understanding another language than learning the vocabulary. You need to be on the look out for things like idioms and the use of emphatic expressions. It’s in seeing the subtleties that really makes the original Greek meaning come alive.

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