Once and twice: The countability of events

For the past couple weeks, I’ve been working through David’s Armstrong’s (1981) article, “The Ancient Greek Aorist as the Aspect of Countable Action.” It’s an excellent piece of research and I’ve enjoyed comparing his analysis of Homeric and Classical Greek to the Koine. Spoiler: they’re the same. There’s nothing new here. Perfective verbs (aorist) use cardinal count adverbs to modify predicates. Imperfective verbs (present) use frequency count adverbs to modify predicates. It’s simple and satisfyingly consistent.

However in the process, I came across an interesting phrase that doesn’t play nice the way the rest of the data does. Armstrong notes that the phrase δὶς καὶ τρὶς is used with imperfective verbs. While there are cardinal numbers, taken together they idiomatically express the meaning “again and again” or repeatedly and thus function to convey frequency count rather than cardinal count (Armstrong notes this idiom appears in the 5th century and does not appear in Homer).

Things get more confusing in the Koine period, though, where we find the phrase ἅπαξ καὶ δίς used a number of times. In the texts I have available for searching, which include all of Perseus and then all the texts Logos has produced (Josephus, Philo, the LXX, Greek Pseudepigrapha, the NT, and the Apostolic Fathers), this new phrase only appears seven times: four times in the LXX, twice in the NT, and once in the 1 Clement.

For the most part, it appears to have roughly the same meaning as the Classical δὶς καὶ τρίς. Thus in Deut 9:13 (Quoted in 1 Clem 53.4), we find:

καὶ εἶπεν κύριος πρός με Λελάληκα πρὸς σὲ ἅπαξ καὶ δὶς λέγων Ἑώρακα τὸν λαὸν τοῦτον, καὶ ἰδοὺ λαὸς σκληροτράχηλός ἐστιν
And the Lord said to me, “I have spoken to you again and again, saying, “Look at this people and see that they are a stiff-necked people.”

Things get complicated fast, though. There’s an instance in 1 Thess 2:18, involving the ellipsis of the verb:

διότι ἠθελήσαμεν ἐλθεῖν πρὸς ὑμᾶς, ἐγὼ μὲν Παῦλος καὶ ἅπαξ καὶ δίς
For we wanted to come to you—I, Paul, again and again.

But here we have an aorist ἠθελήσαμεν, which shouldn’t happen with this kind of frequency count. This example is relatively easily explained able if we accept that θέλω isn’t the missing verb and translated the clause as:

διότι ἠθελήσαμεν ἐλθεῖν πρὸς ὑμᾶς, ἐγὼ μὲν Παῦλος καὶ ἅπαξ καὶ δίς
For we wanted to come to you—I, Paul, [tried] again and again.

This is acceptable since there’s really no rule that an elided verb needs to maintain the aspect of the previous clause.

But what about Philippians 4:16? Things aren’t so simple there.

ὅτι καὶ ἐν Θεσσαλονίκῃ καὶ ἅπαξ καὶ δὶς εἰς τὴν χρείαν μοι ἐπέμψατε.
Because even in Thessalonica you sent for my needs once and twice (again and again??).

Here we have the phrase appearing with an aorist, and thus perfective, verb. Armstrong says this shouldn’t happen. But then, perhaps this isn’t frequency count. Perhaps it’s cardinal count and is actually referring to a specific number of times that the Philippian church helped Paul. If this is true, then we have an idiom that isn’t an idiom here—something that no translation agrees with.

An instance of the phrase in 2 Esdras 23:20 might support that view:

καὶ ηὐλίσθησαν πάντες καὶ ἐποίησαν πρᾶσιν ἔξω Ιερουσαλημ ἅπαξ καὶ δίς.
And they all spent the night and did [their] selling outside Jerusalem once and twice.

This clause is directly followed by Nehemiah’s words:

And I [Nehemiah] warned them and said to them, “Why do you spend the night in front of the wall? If you do it again, I will stretch my hand against you.” From that time onward, they did not come on the Sabbath.

So here we see that at least in this instance, the example actually appears to refer to the countability of the event. Nehemiah is saying: You’ve done it twice already. Don’t do it again.

Sure. That makes sense. And the Hebrew supports the view (I think…).

פַּעַם וּשְׁתָּיִם
once or twice

And that’s precisely how Van der Merwe translates the phrase in his grammar (Van der Merwe, Naudé and Kroeze 1999, 269). And this got me thinking. The phrase only occurs seven times in the texts I have access to (which is probably close to 15 million words) and none before the Septuagint. Is this a Hebrew idiom?


Nehemiah 13:20 (the Hebrew equivalent of 2 Esdras 23:20) is the only time we see the words in the MT. Everywhere else, the LXX has no underlying texts.

I’m stumped. I’ve got a phrase that appears to be able to function to express the indefinite frequency (again and again) of a predication and also in other circumstances looks like cardinal count. It doesn’t look like an instance of translation Greek, but doesn’t seem to appear in Greek literature before the Septuagint. The closest we get is the similar phrase, “ἅπαξ ἢ δὶς” which is pretty clearly cardinal count, not frequency count and occurs once in Philo and also five times in Perseus:

Plato, Symposium 185e (talking about dealing with a hiccup):
ειʼ δʼ ἄρα πάνυ ἰσχυρά ἐστιν, ἀναλαβών τι τοιοῦτον οἵῳ κινήσαις ἂν τὴν ῥῖνα, πτάρε· καὶ ἐὰν τοῦτο ποιήσῃς ἅπαξ ἢ δίς, καὶ ειʼ πάνυ ἰσχυρά ἐστι, παύσεται.
If, however, it is a very stubborn one [hiccup], take something that will tickle your nostrils, and sneeze: do this once or twice, and though it be one of the most stubborn, it will stop.

If anyone has any suggestions, I’ll take them.

Is this a translation Greek that I’d recognize if I had more Hebrew texts? Or just a unique Koine development? Does Phil 4:16 disrupt Armstrong’s analysis of countability and aspect?


Armstrong, David. 1981. “The Ancient Greek Aorist as the Aspect of Countable Action.” Pages 1-12 in Syntax and semantics, vol. 14: Tense and aspect, ed. P. Tedeschi and A. Zaenen. New York: Academic.

Van der Merwe, Christo, Jackie Naudé, and Jan Kroeze. 1999. A Biblical Hebrew Reference Grammar. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press.

5 thoughts on “Once and twice: The countability of events

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  1. Interesting post. Thanks for sharing.

    A quick check on TLG indicates that the phrase ἅπαξ καὶ δίς is first attested in the LXX and then the NT. I doubt it’s translation Greek or Semitic-influenced Greek, however, because the great medical writer Galen uses it;

    Galen, De compositione medicamentorum secundum locos libri x. vol. 13 p. 283:
    ὅταν δὲ τὸ ὑγρὸν ἅπαξ καὶ δὶς ἀναβράσῃ, ἐπίβαλλε τὸ μέλι καὶ πάλιν ἕψε, ἔπειτα σακκίσας τὸ ὑγρὸν

    But when the liquid has boiled up “once and twice,” add the honey and boil again, then filter the liquid and set aside. (My translation)

    1. How convenient that it’s an aorist, too.

      That doesn’t look like indefinite repetition, but rather a specific number of times it has boiled. This instance cannot mean, “again and again,” but probably more like “once or twice” or “a couple times.”

      Perhaps, then, it’s the case that the phrase necessitates different interpretations depending on the aspect of the verb it modifies.

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