Revisiting ἰσχύω+infinitive: The literary koine & documentary papyri

Image is from the excavation of the city of Oxyrhynchus.

Back in April, I took some time to examine the differences in usage between two verbs with similar meanings in Comparing Usage: δύναμαι vs. ἰσχύω. Today, for one final post for 2018, I’d like to revisit the topic with some more data. 


When we examined the New Testament data, it is noteworthy that the usage of ἰσχύω+infinitive is extended to non-physical domains only in Luke’s writings. This split across authors suggests that figurative use of this construction could be a signal of better writing style: creative language use and the introduction of more and more complex metaphorical construals is one sign of writing skill, that the degree to which one finds ἰσχύω+infinitive in a given text or author can be viewed as correlating with creative abilities of that author, or, in the context of bilingualism: the author respective comfortableness with their second language. How well does this play out in other texts and authors?

In the literary Koine, we find abstract construals such as the two below from Appian. In the first two examples below, Appian’s expression finds some parallel to that of Luke, where rhetorical ability to convince someone of an idea is framed in terms of physical strength, first with Hippocrates and Epicydes, two generals of the Syracusans who area unable to convince their people to go to war, and then secondly with Caesar attempting to convince Claudius to stop opposing him.

  • ἐπεὶ τὰς Συρακούσας οὐκ ἴσχυον ἐκπολεμῶσαι, κατέφυγον ἐς Λεοντίνους
    When they [=Hippocrates and Epicydes] were unable to rouse the Syracusans to war, they went over to the Leontines (Appian, Sicelica 1.3).
  • τούτων ὁ Καῖσαρ Κλαύδιον μὲν οὐκ ἴσχυσεν ὑπαγαγέσθαι χρήμασι, Παῦλον δὲ χιλίων καὶ πεντακοσίων ταλάντων ἐπρίατο μηδὲν αὑτῷ μήτε συμπράττειν μήτε ἐνοχλεῖν, Κουρίωνα δὲ καὶ συμπράττειν ἔτι πλειόνων, εἰδὼς ἐνοχλούμενον ὑπὸ χρεῶν πολλῶν.
    Of these, Caesar was not able to influence Claudius with money, but Paul’s neutrality he purchased for 1500 talents, and Curio’s help with an even larger amount, knowing that Curio was weighed down by debt (Appian, Bell. Civ. 2.26).

Appian’s usage corresponds well with the metaphorical construals in Luke and Acts in the of social conflict and argument. Caesars lack of ability is not a product of a lack of actual physical strength, but of the resolve of his opponent. Hippocrates and Epicydes, likewise, do not fail because they were not strong enough, but because their arguments for war were not sufficiently convincing. Here, the use of ἰσχύω+infinitive for metaphorical extensions to non-physical domains is a readily available choice in style relative to the more generic δύναμαι+infinitive.


In the documentary papyri, the writing is, as we would expect, more workmanlike. Expressions of ability to perform a task most commonly rely upon δύναμαι+infinitive as the standard expression. When writers make the choice to express such a meaning with ἰσχύω+infinitive, it is consistently and invariably done in physically-oriented contexts, more akin to Matthew and Mark’s usage. These first two excerpts from the documentary papyri involve texts where the physical ability in question is translational motion. These correspond with the semantics of Mt 8:28 or Heb 3:19 from my previous discussion from April.

  • οὐ̣κ ἴσχυσα ἐλθεῖν σήμερον.
    I was not able to come.
    P.Oxy 1345, late 2nd/3rd c.
  • 11    ἐπιθυμῶν οὖν πρὸς ὑμᾶς
    12    τῷ ἀναπλόῳ καταντῆσαι περιεκλείσθημεν ἀπὸ τοῦ
    13    δοθέντος[τῷ παι]δίῳ ὑπὸ τοῦ λαμπροτάτου ἡγεμόνος
    14    κομεάτ[ου,] κ[αὶ δ]ι[ὰ τ]αύτην τὴν αἰτὶαν οὐκ ἴσχυσα πρὸς
    15    ὑ[μ]ᾶς [κ]αταντῆσαι.
    Though desiring, then, to come you, when sailing up stream, we were limited from what was granted to the boy by the most illustrious praefect, and for this reason, I was not able to come to you
    P.Oxy 1666, Letter of Pausanias concerning a Recruit, 3rd c.

Situations involving physical labor readily lend themselves to usage with ἰσχύω+infinitive, as in the section of papyri below, where the author emphasizes the success of he and his compatriots in completing their work.

  • 7      καὶ Πα<νά>ρες οἶδε ὅσα πεπο<ιή>κα-
    8      μεν ἵνα ἰσχύσωμεν ὅλως μετενέγκαι τὰ ἄλλα
    9      σὺν θεοῖς.
    Panaris knows how much we worked [winnowing barley] such that we were able to transfer the entirety of what remained with the help of the gods.
    P.Oxy 1482, Letter of Morus to a Friend, 2nd c.

Then there is P.Oxy 1490, a letter to an official regarding a grain allotment (ἀννώνα) and includes both δύναμαι+infinitive and ἰσχύω+infinitive involving the same, or nearly the same referent.

  • 1      Ἡρακλε[ίδης Σαρ]απίωνι τῶι ἀξιολογωτάτῳ χαίρειν.
    2      Δημήτριος ὁ γνωστὴρ ἠξίωσέν με λέ̣γ̣ιν σοι
    3      ὥστε αὐτὸν ἄ̣λυπον γενέσθαι ὑπὲρ τ̣ῶ̣ν̣ πρ̣ο̣τ̣έ̣ρ̣ων
    4      ἐτῶν. λέγει γὰρ ὅ̣τ̣ι̣ ὠφέλησα αὐτὸν μεγάλως καὶ
    5      ἐν τῇ ἀννώνῃ. λέγει δὲ ὅτι ἀννώ̣να̣ ν̣ῦ̣ν ζ̣η̣τ̣ε̣ῖ̣τ̣αι.
    6      εἰ οὖν πάλιν δύνῃ ἐκπλέξαι παρὰ σεαυτ̣ῷ̣, τύχῃ
    7      τῇ ἀγαθῇ. εἰ δὲ μή γε, ἐπίστειλον τί θέλεις ἑτοι-
    8      μασθῆναι. ἀλλὰ μὴ ἀμελήσῃς, οὔπω γὰρ ἐξῆλθαν.
    9      ἐὰν ἰσχύσῃς ⟦ἄλ̣λ̣ῳ̣⟧ ἐκπλέξαι, μέγα ἔργον ποιεῖς,
    10    διότι κτήνη οὐκ ἔχομεν οὐδὲ χοίρους.
    11     ἐρρῶσθαί σε ὁλοκλη[ρ]οῦντα
    12    [ε]ὔχομαι.
    Heraclides to the most notable Sarapion, greetings. The notary Demetrius asked me to speak to you, so that he may be freed from anxiety regarding the previous years. He says, “I helped [Sarapion] substantially in the matter of the year’s grain lot.” He says that the grain lot is now being claimed. So if you can again settle it by yourself, good luck. Otherwise, send word for what you want prepared. But don’t be negligent; they have not yet left. If you are capable of such resolution with respect to another, you’d be doing a great thing, since I have no cattle or pigs. I pray you have excellent health.
    P.Oxy 1490, Letter of Heraclides to an Official, late 3rd c.

This pair aptly illustrates the clear overlap in usage between the two. There’s certainly labor involved in dealing with a years worth of grain, which then is doubled when an additional ἀννώνα is brought into the equation. That shift from δύναμαι to ἰσχύω takes place relative to the increase of work needed to be performed. This functions, at least circumstantially, as evidence that ἰσχύω+infinitive signals a strengthened assertion of the relevant participant’s ability, capability, or strength.

Finally, P.Oxy 533 is interesting as a sort of borderline case. This is a translational motion event, like the two above. However, this instance involves cause motion, rather than self-propelled motion. Apion is not instructing his son to travel if he is able, but to send others.

  • 16 …ὁμοίως καὶ Ἀπολλωνίῳ καὶ Διονοσίῳ ἐὰν ἰσχύσητε πέμψαι
    17     εἰς Πα[βέ]ρκη ἀπηλιώτου πρὸς Παυσῖριν τὸν ὀνηλάτην ὅτι καθὼς
    συνετάξασθέ
    18    μοι δοῦναι κεράμια οἴνου καὶ ἵνα τηρήσωσι αὐτῶν τὴν δεξιάν.
    …likewise, also tell Apollonius and Dionysius if you are able to send them to East Paberke to Pausiris the donkey-driver, because, as arranged, they are supposed to give me the wine jars and must keep their pledge.
    P.Oxy 533, Letter of Apion to his son, late 2nd/3rd c.

Unlike other physical action usages, this one diverges. Normally, the subject of the matrix verb ἰσχύω and the subject of the infinitive are the same. Here, however, they diverge, with the subject of the matrix verb causing the action of the subject of the infinitive. Still, the event is still oriented within the physical domain.

There is, then, a consistency with the New Testament usage. Metaphorical extensions of ἰσχύω+infinitve tend to only occur in amongst writers with a higher degree of creative ability, whereas more workmanlike registers, like those of Mark and the papyri tend to prefer the ἰσχύω+infinitve construction only in the domain of actual physical ability.

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