Not Jewish Greek: Possession in Coordinated NP’s

How does the language of the Septuagint as a translation affect the syntax of the New Testament? And when it does, how do we interpret the significance of such things when we encounter them? One interesting pattern here is the use of possessive pronouns in coordinated noun phrases, as in the example below:

  1. Ἰδοὺ ἡ μήτηρ σου καὶ οἱ ἀδελφοί σου ἔξω ἑστήκασιν
    Here are your mother and your brothers standing outside (Mt 12:47).

We will call this the coordinated possessive construction. This repetition of the possessive pronoun for both NP’s rather than simply using a single pronoun that has scope over both is fairly clearly of Hebrew or Aramaic origin. It is extremely common in the Greek Old Testament, for example.

  1. καὶ δῶρα ἔδωκεν τῷ ἀδελφῷ αὐτῆς καὶ τῇ μητρὶ αὐτῆς.

He gave gifts to her brother and to her mother (Gen 24:53).

וַיִּתֵּ֖ן לְרִבְקָ֑ה וּמִ֨גְדָּנֹ֔ת נָתַ֥ן לְאָחִ֖יהָ וּלְאִמָּֽהּ׃

In Hebrew, the possessive is a suffix rather than a separate word as in Greek. Its expression in Greek constrains the possessive scope of the form to a single NP: hence its repetition in coordinated noun phrases.

There are close to 1000 instances of the construction in the Greek Old Testament, though that number is an approximation.*

* A proximity search, which was necessary here, inevitably introduces false positives and can also miss examples outside the parameters.

But the coordinated possessive construction is effectively unheard of in non-translation Greek. Even a Jewish writer like Josephus, who has a written corpus of roughly half a million words, never uses the construction at all. That’s fairly striking given that, at times, Josephus is paraphrasing OT historical material in his Antiquities of the Jews. There are examples in Philo, but the construction only occurs in quotations of the Old Testament, as in the example below. Philo never uses the construction for expressing himself.

  1. λέγεται γὰρ ὅτι εἶπε πρὸς αὐτόν· “οὐ πορεύσομαι ἀλλʼ εἰς τὴν γῆν μου καὶ τὴν γενεάν μου”, τουτέστι τὴν συγγενῆ ψευδοδοξοῦσαν ἀπιστίαν, ἐπειδὴ τὴν ἀληθεύουσαν ἀνδράσι φίλην πίστιν οὐκ ἔμαθε For we read that he [Jethro] said to him [Moses], “I will not go, but I will go to my land and my generation” (Num. 10:30) (Philo. On Drunkenness 40).

These patterns are significant. They signal that this construction is not a marker of a distinct dialect spoken by Jewish Greek speakers. Philo is from Alexandria and he does not use it. Josephus is from Jerusalem and he did not use it. This should not be a surprise to anyone.

This coordinated possessive construction is also perfectly comprehensible to native Greek speakers.

Before we move to looking at the appearances of this coordinated possessive construction in the New Testament, it might be instructive to consider two additional (small) corpuses: the Apostolic Fathers and the New Testament Apocrypha. In the former, like Philo, there is a consistent pattern of only finding the construction in quotations from the Old Testament with a single exception in the Shepherd of Hermas.

  1. μόνον παράμεινον ταπεινοφρονῶν καὶ λειτουργῶν τῷ κυρίῳ ἐν καθαρᾷ καρδίᾳ, καὶ τὰ τέκνα σου καὶ ὁ οἶκός σου, καὶ πορεύου ταῖς ἐντολαῖς μου ἅς σοι ἐντέλλομαι Only continue to be humble and to serve the Lord with a clean heart, with your children and your household, and walk in my commandments which I give you (Hermas, Parable 7, 6, Holmes 1999, 450).

If the AF functions as an exception to Philo (quotations+one), then the NT Apocrypha (using the apocryphal texts collected in Brannan 2013) is an exception to Josephus: no OT quotations, but one otherwise exceptional occurrence.

  1. καὶ μὴ ἀπολέσῃ ἡμᾶς τοῦ κλῖναι καρδίαν ἡμῶν πρὸς αὐτόν, τοῦ πορευθῆναι ἡμᾶς ἐν πάσαις ταῖς ὁδοῖς αὐτοῦ, τοῦ φυλάσσειν τὰς ἐντολὰς αὐτοῦ καὶ τὰ κρίματα αὐτοῦ ἃ ἐνετείλατο τοῖς πατράσιν ἡμῶν And let him not destroy us from turning our heart unto him, from walking in all his ways and keeping his statutes and his judgments that he commanded our fathers (The Acts of Pilate 16:8, Brannan 2013, 118).

Both these commands seem to lean into the style of the Greek Old Testament. Perhaps this gives an air of authority to the commands. If that is correct, then what we have is certainly not a dialect of Jewish Greek, but a clear choice is linguistic register, along the lines of a person today borrowing elements of KJV translation in order to elevate the style of their prayer to a more formal and more religious sounding register.

In the next post, we will consider the New Testament data for this construction and consider how this might be applied as a possible hypothesis for the appearance of these coordinated possessive noun phrases. And we will find that religious register likely does not fill in the entire picture for its usage.