The New Testament is too small a corpus

Rachel Aubrey gave an excellent paper on ὑπέρ at SBL Denver 2022 (Slides and Notes available here: Exploring Perspective in Preposition Analysis). She demonstrates a variety of ways that our own participation in language, when we communicate, helps shape the linguistic expression of a scene. As such, the semantics of a given statement are influenced by the person who conceptualizes it. She explores this theme in preposition analysis, using ὑπέρ to illustrate how conceptual viewpoint changes:

A cognitive linguistic analysis of prepositions that takes seriously: (1) the role of the conceptualizer and (2) the conceptual viewpoint can weave together a set of schematic cognitive patterns, including functional implications and family resemblances, and ground them in shared human experience.

The notes in her slides are helpful if anyone wants to explore the topic more, but that is not the focus here.

Instead, I want to highlight another issue that came up as she was doing the work on writing her presentation, an issue that become all the more apparent at SBL2022 in Denver as I sat listening in the audience: The degree to which we understand ὑπέρ as a preposition is wholly dependent upon post-Classical Greek texts outside the New Testament. This is preposition with a wide and diverse collection of scenes and usages, both spatial and non-spatial. Significantly, the non-spatial scenes are explicitly secondary to the spatial ones. And yet: There is effectively zero spatial usage of ὑπέρ in the New Testament. This is not because of some significance of the New Testament and its status nor is it because of diachronic shifts in the 1st century CE. In fact, a sentence like Ephesians 1:22 only makes sense because the spatial usage is concurrent.

  1. καὶ πάντα ὑπέταξεν ὑπὸ τοὺς πόδας αὐτοῦ, καὶ αὐτὸν ἔδωκεν κεφαλὴν ὑπὲρ πάντα τῇ ἐκκλησίᾳ
    And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church (Eph 1:22, NRSV).

This example is abstract, but it relies on metaphorical extensions from the spatial domain: everything under his feet (πάντα … ὑπὸ τοὺς πόδας αὐτοῦ) and head over all (κεφαλὴν ὑπὲρ πάντα).

I want to highlight how this works out in her analysis (which you can peruse in slide/note form for yourself).

For example, ὑπὲρ specifies a relationship between a figure (trajector, TR) and a ground (landmark, LM), in this case, literal ground.

  1. τὸ δὲ ὑπὲρ γῆς ἔρνος οὐρανόµηκες ἀνατείνασα
    she extends the growth (TR) above the ground (LM) till it soars to heaven (Philo, Sacrifices 25).

Similarly, ὑπὲρ specifies a TR traversing a boundary LM:

  1. καὶ ἀπέστειλας πρέσβεις ὑπὲρ τὰ ὅριά σου
    you sent elders (TR) over your borders (LM) (LXX Isaiah 57:9).
  2. ἤλαυνεν ὑπὲρ τοὺς ἐρειποµένους τὸν ἵππον
    he rode his horse (TR) over his fallen foes (LM) (Josephus, Wars 5.62).
  3. οἱ λοιποὶ δʼ ὑπὲρ τὸν ποταµὸν ἐσκεδάσθησαν
    the rest (TR) fled over the river (LM) and dispersed (Wars 1.307).
  4. φεύξετʼ ἄφαντος…ὑπὲρ πόρον Εὐφρήταο
    (TR) shall flee unseen…over the passage of the Euphrates (LM) (Sib. Oracles 4.120).

She observes that the LM, as the base, functions as a barrier to forward motion. The TR has force-dynamic impetus parallel to the surface of the LM. The TR is on one side of the LM from the perspective of the conceptualizer. There is then a state that results: The TR is on the other side of the LM from its initial position. This usage, in turn, appears in the New Testament in the form of boundaries of degree. The motion is fictive, but the LM boundary is still traversed by the TR.

  1. ὁ λόγος τοῦ θεοῦ…τοµώτερος ὑπὲρ πᾶσαν µάχαιραν δίστοµον
    the word (TR) of God is…sharper than any two-edged sword (LM) (Heb 4:12).
  2. ὅτι καθʼ ὑπερβολὴν ὑπὲρ δύναµιν ἐβαρήθηµεν
    that we were burdened to an extraordinary degree (TR), beyond our strength (LM) (2 Cor 1:8).
  3. εἶδον…οὐρανόθεν ὑπὲρ τὴν λαµπρότητα τοῦ ἡλίου περιλάµψαν µε φῶς …
    I saw a light from heaven (TR), more than the brightness of the sun shining (LM) on me (Acts 26:13).

Consider also LOCATION OVER and LOCATION ABOVE expressions. Rachel highlights spatial examples from a diverse set of post-Classical texts.


  1. καὶ ἀνέβη ὑπὲρ κεφαλῆς τοῦ Ἰωνᾶ τοῦ εἶναι σκιὰν ὑπεράνω…
    [the leaves of a gourd] (TR) rose over Jonah’s head (LM) to provide shade (Jonah 4:6).
  2. δεδόµητο δὲ ὑπὲρ πέτρας πεντηκονταπήχους µὲν ὕψος
    [the tower of Antonia] (TR) was built over a rock (LM) fifty cubits high (Josephus, Wars 5.238).
  3. ὡς ὅτε ηὔγει ὁ λύχνος αὐτοῦ ὑπὲρ κεφαλῆς µου
    like when his lamp (TR) shone over my head (LM) (Job 29:3)
  4. οἱ καὶ τῇ µὲν ἀριστερᾷ χειρὶ τὸν θυρεὸν ὑπὲρ τῆς κεφαλῆς ἀνατείνας
    with his left hand he extended his shield (TR) over his head (LM) (Wars 6.58).


  1. ἀγόµενος εἰςὄρος, ὅπερ ὑπὲρ κεφαλῆς αὐτῶν ἔκειτο τοῦ στρατοπέδου σταδίους ἀπέχον ἑξήκοντα leading [them] to a mountain (TR) that was situated above their heads (LM), sixty stadia distant from the camp (Ant. 4.112).
  2. καὶ τὸ ὑπὲρ Ἱεριχοῦντος φρούριονὀχυρότητι
    Above Jericho (LM) he built the walls (TR) of a fortress (Wars 1.417).
  3. αὶ πολὺ πλῆθοςὁπλιτῶν ὑπὲρ τὴν Ἱεριχοῦντα συνηθροίσθη· διεκαθέζοντο δὲἐπὶ τῶνὀρῶν παραφυλάσσοντες τοὺς τὰ ἐπιτήδεια ἐκκοµίζοντας
    large bodies of men in arms (TR) assembled above Jericho (LM) and took up positions on the hills, on the look-out for the conveyors of the supplies (Wars1.301).

These extend from space to the abstract domain of TOPIC/COMMENT in the New Testament.

  1. πολλή µοι καύχησις ὑπὲρ ὑµῶν
    I take great pride (TR) over you (LM) (2 Cor 7:4).
  2. καθώςἐστιν δίκαιονἐµοὶ τοῦτο φρονεῖν ὑπὲρ πάντων ὑµῶν
    It is right for me to think this way (TR) about you (LM) (Phil 1:7).
  3. Οὐ γὰρ θέλοµεν ὑµᾶς ἀγνοεῖν, ἀδελφοί, ὑπὲρ τῆςθλίψεως ἡµῶν
    For we do not want you to be ignorant (TR), brothers, about our affliction (LM) (2 Cor 1:8).

Rachel notes the shift in viewpoint:

In the visual scenes we have considered, the conceptualizer gazes at a scene from the front or side viewpoint. The conceptualizer sees the TR and its relationship to the LM. Now we consider, a shift in perspective. The conceptualizer is the TR so that the viewpoint on the scene is from the TR’s perspective. The TR focuses attention downward toward the LM. This is an extension of ὑπέρ from a basic spatial scene to a more abstract domain: Topic/Content with verbs of cognition and emotion. The TR/viewpoint is above the LM and the LM defines the bounded domain for the TR’s focus of attention.

I could go on, but I hope the point here is clear: the New Testament is a small corpus of data and is not enough by itself for accurately describing and motivating its own grammar. Quality grammar and lexicography require us to be able to examine a wide variety of contemporary and historically adjacent texts if we want to understand how the language of the New Testament functions. Tools and software that sequester off biblical texts from the linguistic context limit the effectiveness of our ability to study this language.