Spatial Prepositions and Pedagogy

Creatively engaging students in language learning can be an ongoing challenge for teachers. The more creative and interactive we can make our teaching the more we can move our students away from rote memorization and into actual comprehensible input, where learning the language simply happens. Yet it can also be quite difficult for teachers trained in traditional grammar and methods to adjust to more communicative approaches to language learning.

One way of splitting this Gordian knot is by encouraging students to physically engage with the language using their own bodies. We (Rachel & Michael Aubrey) have been working on research projects involving Greek prepositions (see: Greek prepositions in the New Testament). The datasets we have compiled make it fairly simple to pull out prepositional phrases where the object of the preposition (the landmark) is a person’s body part. What if instructors were able to build lessons for Greek prepositions around physical actions that students could perform themselves? This method would tie the meaning of the prepositions not just to rote memorization, but to physical behavior. Below are some of the more salient uses of χείρ, ‘hand’ that lend themselves to this type of experiential learning. Examples below are taken from the New Testament, but the descriptions are based on larger patterns in Ancient Greek.

Human hands are commonly used for grasping objects. They function as containers for what they grasp. When someone hands you something, it is put into your hands. When prisoners are transferred from one group to another, they are ‘handed off’, ‘handed over’, or ‘put into their hands’.

We use the English preposition ‘into’ in contexts such as “He coughed into his hand”, “Dad slipped some money into his hand” or as below with less concrete expressions involving capture and imprisonment. Greek seems to consistently use εἰς whether we might use either ‘into’ or ‘in’.

  1. εἰς τὰς χεῖρας τῶν Ῥωμαίων
    into the hands of the Romans

    δέσμιος ἐξ Ἱεροσολύμων παρεδόθην εἰς τὰς χεῖρας τῶν Ῥωμαίων
    I was arrested in Jerusalem and handed over into the hands of the Romans (Acts 28:17).
  2. εἰς χεῖρας θεοῦ ζῶντος
    into the hands of the living God

    φοβερὸν τὸ ἐμπεσεῖν εἰς χεῖρας θεοῦ ζῶντος
    It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God (Heb 10:31)

This next one might seem unusual and unexpected from an English-speaking perspective. Greek conventionally construes the landmark χεῖρες as containers even when the trajector is not physically contained and held by the hands. With jewelry, clothing, and other objects that extend all the way around a body part like a hand (or also the foot in the example below).* It is a little difficult to understand what is going on here.

* Note also that χείρ, ‘hand’ functions metonymically for δάκτυλος, ‘finger’. We do this in English in the context of marital engagements and putting a ring on a hand.

  1. εἰς τὴν χεῖρα αὐτοῦ
    on his finger

    δότε δακτύλιον εἰς τὴν χεῖρα αὐτοῦ καὶ ὑποδήματα εἰς τοὺς πόδας
    Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet (Luke 15:22).

One interpretation of this grammatical pattern is that the container schema is metonymically shifting from the landmark (hand) to the trajector (ring) that goes around the finger. Another interpretation might be that one abstract element of the container schema is still active for the body part: when a ring is on a finger or a sandal is on a foot, the hand or foot still exerts control over that ring/sandal: one moves, the other moves. The hand is not merely a stable reference point for the ring, it effects and controls the ring even as the ring encompasses the finger. These two interpretations are not mutually exclusive. Both may be involved.*

* It’s worth nothing that Greek speakers seems to avoid ἐπί in contexts like this where the trajector (the ring) goes entirely around the object (cf. the English ‘ring on his finger’). The preposition ἐπί does convey contact in the relationship between the trajector (‘ring’) and the landmark (‘finger’), but it does not convey a sense of control in the same way that εἰς does.

Hands are for grasping objects and objects can escape or be taken from that grasp, which is why ἐκ is the common preposition with hands rather than ἀπό. We have English expressions similar to this for ἐκ, even though we more often use ‘in’ rather than ‘into’ where Greek nearly always prefers εἰς. The following still work, whether glossed in English as ‘out of’ or ‘from’.

  1. ἐκ τῆς χειρὸς αὐτῶν
    out of their grasp

    ἐζήτουν οὖν πάλιν αὐτὸν πιάσαι καὶ ἐξῆλθεν ἐκ τῆς χειρὸς αὐτῶν
    Again they tried to seize him, but he escaped their grasp (John 10:39).
  2. ἐκ τῆς χειρὸς τοῦ ἀγγέλου
    from the angel’s hand

    καὶ ἔλαβον τὸ βιβλαρίδιον ἐκ τῆς χειρὸς τοῦ ἀγγέλου καὶ κατέφαγον αὐτό
    I took the little scroll from the angel’s hand and ate it (Rev 10:10).
  3. ἐκ τῆς χειρὸς αὐτοῦ
    from his hand

    ὡς δὲ εἶδον οἱ βάρβαροι κρεμάμενον τὸ θηρίον ἐκ τῆς χειρὸς αὐτοῦ πρὸς ἀλλήλους ἔλεγον…
    When the islanders saw the snake hanging from his hand, they said to each other… (Acts 28:4).

Finally, chains, which wrap around hands/wrists, function within the same grammatical convention as rings and fingers. When chains are the trajector of a hand landmark, Greek speakers prefer prepositions that activate the container schema, even though the hand is not a “literal” container for the chain. While chains do bind the hand, recall that the hand is still able to exert control over them. When a bound hand moves, the chain or rope that binds it moves with it.         

  1. ἐκ τῶν χειρῶν
    off his wrists

    λέγων Ἀνάστα ἐν τάχει καὶ ἐξέπεσαν αὐτοῦ αἱ ἁλύσεις ἐκ τῶν χειρῶν
    “Quick, get up!” he said, and the chains fell off his wrists (Acts 12:7).

Moving to ἐν, objects being held by a hand are conceived as being in the hand. This tracks comparatively with English usage of the preposition ‘in’ with ‘hand’. When an object is currently being grasped by a hand, Greek speakers use ἐν.

  1. ἐν ταῖς χερσὶν αὐτῶν
    in their hands

    περιβεβλημένους στολὰς λευκάς καὶ φοίνικες ἐν ταῖς χερσὶν αὐτῶν
    They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. (Rev 7:9).
  2. ἐν τῇ χειρὶ αὐτῆς
    in her hand

    ἔχουσα ποτήριον χρυσοῦν ἐν τῇ χειρὶ αὐτῆς γέμον βδελυγμάτων καὶ τὰ ἀκάθαρτα τῆς πορνείας αὐτῆς
    She held a golden cup in her hand, filled with abominable things and the filth of her adulteries (Rev 17:4).

Between εἰς, ἐν, and ἐκ, students can put things in their hands, hold things in their hands and take them out of their hands. But hands are not only for holding objects. They also function as the natural human instruments for manipulating objects in the world. This is where διά ‘through’ comes into play. Body parts are instruments or intermediaries for volitional action, as below.

We use our hands to mold, create, manipulate, and transform what’s around us. In English, it would be natural to say, “I typed this essay with my hands”. In Ancient Greek,  διὰ τῶν χειρῶν μου would be equally natural.

The last preposition we encounter with χείρ in the New Testament is ἐπὶ, which is the normal way of expressing that a trajector is on the surface of the hand (landmark), as in the examples below. To quell any suspicion about the naturalness of these, given their source, there are also examples from Classical and literary post-Classical texts (Cf. Plutarch, De Pythiae Oraculis 12). Note that both the genitive and accusative cases appear here with the same sense.

  1. ἐπὶ τῆς χειρὸς αὐτῶν τῆς δεξιᾶς
    on their right hands

    καὶ ποιεῖ πάντας, τοὺς μικροὺς καὶ τοὺς μεγάλους, καὶ τοὺς πλουσίους καὶ τοὺς πτωχούς, καὶ τοὺς ἐλευθέρους καὶ τοὺς δούλους, ἵνα δῶσιν αὐτοῖς χάραγμα ἐπὶ τῆς χειρὸς αὐτῶν τῆς δεξιᾶς ἢ ἐπὶ τὸ μέτωπον αὐτῶν
    It also forced all people, great and small, rich and poor, free and slave, to receive a mark on their right hands or on their foreheads (Rev 13:16).
  2. ἐπὶ τὴν χεῖρα αὐτοῦ
    on their hand

    Εἴ τις προσκυνεῖ τὸ θηρίον καὶ τὴν εἰκόνα αὐτοῦ καὶ λαμβάνει χάραγμα ἐπὶ τοῦ μετώπου αὐτοῦ ἢ ἐπὶ τὴν χεῖρα αὐτοῦ
    “If anyone worships the beast and its image and receives its mark on their forehead or on their hand (Rev 14:9).

At first glance, the following two examples seem a bit unusual. From the discussion above, we might hypothesize the use of ἐν rather than ἐπί. But translations do not necessarily reflect the construals present in the source language. The NIV adds “holding” to the English translation but the Greek text itself says: “having the key to the Abysss and a great ἐπὶ τὴν χεῖρα αὐτοῦ chain. The example above with a trajector (tattoo) in contact with the surface of the landmark (hand) ought to be our guiding influence for understanding what kind of mental representation is evoked in the minds of native speakers. In Revelation 20:1, we need to ask how the concept of ‘contact on a surface’ might be visualized by the audience. Rather than a grasping hand, we might see an open palm with a great chain lying across.

  1. ἐπὶ τὴν χεῖρα αὐτοῦ
    in his hand

    Καὶ εἶδον ἄγγελον καταβαίνοντα ἐκ τοῦ οὐρανοῦ ἔχοντα τὴν κλεῖν τῆς ἀβύσσου καὶ ἅλυσιν μεγάλην ἐπὶ τὴν χεῖρα αὐτοῦ
    And I saw an angel coming down out of heaven, having the key to the Abyss and [holding] in his hand a great chain (Rev 20:1).
  2. ἐπὶ χειρῶν
    in their hands

    Τοῖς ἀγγέλοις αὐτοῦ ἐντελεῖται περὶ σοῦ καὶ ἐπὶ χειρῶν ἀροῦσίν σε μήποτε προσκόψῃς πρὸς λίθον τὸν πόδα σου
    He will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands (Matt 4:6).

The same question applies to Matthew 4:6. Are the angels reaching down to grasp onto Jesus as he falls? Such an image would certainly be activated by εἰς or ἐν, but ἐπί? That doesn’t square with the semantics of the preposition. Instead, perhaps an image of angels below Jesus with their arms extended forward to catch him is more appropriate. This interpretation corresponds to the kind of surface contact relationships that we would expect from this preposition. But it may take more care in the prospect of allowing students to act this one out. Still, the preposition ἐπί provides students another way to think about how their hands can be used with prepositions. With ἐπί, it’s best to view the position of the hand as open and flat so that the trajector can rest on top of it.

Understanding how different languages construe relationships with prepositions is an important part of language learning. The goal here is to illustrate how body parts and embodied action can be employed in useful ways for the purpose of language learning, both in grammar and the lexicon. Instructors may be able to use information like this to find creative ways to help students think about Greek prepositions beyond the use of flash cards.

Understanding prepositions is an important part of the process of Bible translation. Prepositions and the relationships they specify are highly language specific. When reading texts, we often bring the expectations of our native language. But a better understanding can be reached if we first identify the patterns/conventions of prepositional usage in the source language, and then think carefully about the comparable patterns/conventions in the target language.

Our current work in Bible translation is an attempt to make explicit the nature and structure of these relationships so that minority language communities have the best Greek and Hebrew tools possible for getting Scripture into their languages. We want everyone to benefit from our work, whether part of the English-speaking world or part of the Global South. If you have benefited, consider helping to support our work with Wycliffe Bible Translators by clicking the link below.