Greek Prepositions in the New Testament:
A Cognitive-Functional Description
by Rachel & Michael Aubrey
Previously, we noted that our approach to prepositions in the Greek New Testament was grounded in relationships. In that post, we looked at how the meaning of prepositions convey a relationship between a landmark (the object of a preposition) and some other entity or participant in the clause. But relationships are also important in another way. Despite how it might seem from a Greek grammar textbook or dictionary, where glosses and meanings of prepositions are presented almost as if they are discrete containers of meaning that exists entirely separate from each other, there are strong semantic relationships that motivate the varying usages of any one preposition.
Now, this tendency toward presenting prepositional usages as discrete, wholly-unrelated senses is not necessarily intentional, but its existence is not just theoretically dubious, but also pedagogically problematic. Helping students understand how (the process) and why (the motivation) a preposition that has a spatial sense extends that meaning to abstract domains TIME or CAUSE. These relationships ought to be emphasized in working with students. As an anecdote, I once encountered an individual with a few years of Greek under his belt that was convinced that because BDAG listed CAUSE as a meaning for the prepositions ἐν (sense #9 in BDAG’s entry) and also AGENCY (sense #6, that in turn it was perfectly acceptable to assume that ἐν could be the agent/cause in a passive construction, filling the role normally taken by ὑπό. This is not a good assumption.
Now, I am quite sure that this individual’s Greek teacher would also be distressed to find this was the take away from classes and lectures on prepositions, but it is also a natural consequence of teaching paradigm that emphases grammar-as-exegetical-categorization, where translation glosses are organized into discrete boxes to be applied to the Greek text.*
*This approach is, incidentally, a motivation for why formal/literal approaches to translation continue to have such a strong pull.
The preposition ἐν appears to only involve this function with a narrow set of event-types with lower transitivity.* One of those is verbs of offense. In both examples below, Jesus functions as the cause of offense.
* For an excellent discussion of how varying means of expressing agency and cause in Greek is motivated by factors of transitivity, see Luraghi’s (2000) Spatial metaphors and agenthood in Ancient Greek.
- καὶ μακάριός ἐστιν ὃς ἐὰν μὴ σκανδαλισθῇ ἐν ἐμοί.
And blessed is whoever is not offended by me” (Matt 11:6).
- καὶ ἐσκανδαλίζοντο ἐν αὐτῷ. ὁ δὲ Ἰησοῦς εἶπεν αὐτοῖς· Οὐκ ἔστιν προφήτης ἄτιμος εἰ μὴ ἐν τῇ πατρίδι καὶ ἐν τῇ οἰκίᾳ αὐτοῦ
And they were offended by him. Then Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor, except in his own town and household” (Matt 13:57).
Another, which we discuss in one of our papers at the Cambridge Prepositions Workshop back in 2017 (the slides are available online here), involves cause expressions with the verb δικαιόω. These usages likely developed separately with motivations related to the needs of each respective event-type, but one element of meaning they share in common is that the CAUSE in question is not tied volitionally to the agent of the clause. The LANDMARK (LM) of the prepositions did not agentively act for the purpose of cause offense, but still functions as the sphere of influence that produced the state of offense in the subjects of these two sentences, the TRAJECTOR (TR). For the verb above, σκανδαλίζω, the use of ἐν is the result of another extension from the physical to the abstract, where its basic physical sense is “cause to stumble/fall” (active), “stumble/fall”, or “be made to stumble” (middle/passive). The affected participant of σκανδαλίζω falls in a σκάνδαλον, “trap”. For the cognitive offense sense of the verb, the metaphorical trap is represented by the object of the preposition. Now, this does not mean that ἐν in offense contexts should be translated as “in”. σκανδαλίζω still means “cause offense” and the natural English rendering is still “by”. The verb σκανδαλίζω simply involves entirely different semantic structure for the concept of OFFENSE than that of English.
Greek allows this kind of extension with ἐν because the container schema activated by the event of stumbling also activates abstract concepts such as CONTROL and INFLUENCE which, in turn, also correlate with CAUSE expressions. As Heine, Claudi, and Hünnemeyer (1991, 149) observe: write: “Once tangible, visible entities receive a spatial interpretation, they may be employed for the expression of more abstract concepts.”
The grammaticalization of physical domains into abstract domains gives us insights to the conceptual systems of Ancient Greek speakers. In Greek Prepositions in the New Testament: A Cognitive-Functional Description, we attempt to help illuminate those relationships, especially the most common ones found in the New Testament. Thus, the spatial sense of παρά denotes a proximate location in space, as we note:
The TRAJECTOR is in a location near the landmark, with the implication that TRAJECTOR and landmark do not occupy the same location but are proximate to one another. The TRAJECTOR is located beside a LANDMARK. The object of the preposition (LANDMARK) is most often expressed in the dative case for animate entities or the accusative case for inanimate entities.
And we find examples such Luke 9:47 in example (3) below:
- ὁ δὲ Ἰησοῦς εἰδὼς τὸν διαλογισμὸν τῆς καρδίας αὐτῶν ἐπιλαβόμενος παιδίον ἔστησεν αὐτὸ [παρʼ ἑαυτῷ]
But Jesus, knowing the thoughts of their hearts, took hold of a child and had him stand [beside him] (Luke 9:47)
Here, the child (TR) is located proximate to Jesus (LM). This relative proximity usage, in turn, is precisely why παρά also is used for comparative expressions. When two entities are beside or near each other they are readily available for comparison or contrast, as in example (4).
- Ὃς μὲν κρίνει ἡμέραν [παρʼ ἡμέραν], ὃς δὲ κρίνει πᾶσαν ἡμέραν· ἕκαστος ἐν τῷ ἰδίῳ νοῒ πληροφορείσθω
One person prefers one day [over another day], and another person regards every day alike (Rom 14:5)
These two days are presented in the abstract as being beside each other for the purposes of comparison. One day (TR) is preferred to another (LM). Similarly, in example (5), the Jews of Corinth frame Jesus teaching as beside the Mosaic Law for point of comparison. The two are juxtaposed against one another. One teaching (TR) is seen as against, or in opposition to, the teachings of the law (LM).
[Παρὰ τὸν νόμον] ἀναπείθει οὗτος τοὺς ἀνθρώπους σέβεσθαι τὸν θεόν
This man is persuading people to worship God [contrary to the law] (Acts 18:13)
The comparison usage of παρά exists because of the nature of the physical and spatial use of παρά. One usage is a metaphoric extension of the other.
By emphasizing these types of relationships between different uses of prepositions, relationships that motivate the polysemic meaning of these prepositions, we hope that our work in Greek Prepositions in the New Testament: A Cognitive-Functional Description will be useful for a wide audience working to better understand Ancient Greek in the New Testament and perhaps also have a better sense of why their English translations provide the renderings that they do.
- Luraghi. Silvia. 2000. Spatial metaphors and agenthood in Ancient Greek. Pages 275-290. In 125 Jahre Indogermanistik in Graz. Festband anläßlich des 125 jährigen Bestehens der Forschungsrichtung “Indogermanistik” an der Karl-Franzens-Universität Graz.
- Heine, Bernd, Ulrike Claudi, and Friederike Hünnemeyer. 1991. Grammaticalization: A conceptual framework. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.