Tuesday, October 08, 2013

Don't Tell Your Greek Class

I learned something fascinating about the Greek of Revelation that I had not expected, and certainly was never told. What everyone knows is that certain prepositions (such as δια, εις, υπο) take certain cases, with a number of prepositions being able to take two or three different cases, often with a semantic difference between these. The case of the substantive that follows the preposition is determined by the preposition.

But not (always) so in Revelation …

I was looking at Revelation 4:9 where the text reads τῷ καθημένῳ ἐπὶ τῷ θρόνῳ with the variant ἐπὶ τοῦ θρόνοῦ. The preposition ἐπί can take of course the genitive, dative, and accusative. But why the textual variant here? Is there part of the tradition that doesn't like the dative anymore (which is probably true)? When I started to look a little further I found something that has probably been known since John wrote Revelation (at least it is in Bousset's and Charles's commentaries on Revelation according to Josef Schmid, and they go a long way back), and that is this:

In the construction 'he who sits on the throne' the case of the prepositional phrase 'on the throne' (ἐπί + article + θρόνος) that follows the participle 'he who sits' is normally identical to the case of the participle.

So we have ἐπὶ τοὺς θρόνους ... καθημένους (4:4); τῷ καθημένῳ ἐπὶ τῷ θρόνῳ (4:9); τοῦ καθημένου ἐπὶ τοῦ θρόνου (4:10).

There are a number of exceptions. With the nominative (ὁ) καθήμενος we find both ἐπὶ τῷ θρόνῳ (21:5) and ἐπὶ τὸν θρόνον (4:2) and with other combinations of κάθημαι ἐπί (e.g. with αὐτός) it doesn't apply as much. It would be nice if someone could give a good linguistic explanation of this phenomenon.

Revelation does not contain the cleanest possible Greek grammar, but it is nice to discover that there is at least some reason behind the confusion. But how to teach this to an undergraduate class I don't know.


  1. Grammatical anomalies that call our attention to an OT allusion.

  2. I was looking at A.T Robertson's Grammar of the Greek New Testament in Light of Historical Research, Pages 600-601. Robertson notes how "epi" was used perhaps with more cases than any other. As the Koine Greek was experiencing a shift in its cases usages, with the accusative being sort of a "work horse" case and thus the appearance of the anomalies you cited. He even mentions Mt 13:29; Rev 3:20; 4:2 as examples.

  3. What confusion are you specifically concerned about--that the pattern itself occurs or that there are variants around the pattern? If ἐπί didn't have such a broad semantic range (it has the subtlety of blunt force trauma), I think there would be an even more interesting grammatical pattern taking place.

    Last week my second year class covered prepositions in Decker's reading from Revelation 19 and I was thinking about how using the dative with ἐπί was intriguing in καὶ προσεκύνησαν τῷ θεῷ τῷ καθημένῳ ἐπὶ τῷ θρόνῳ (v. 4). And, ta da!, there are variants that use the genitive instead.

  4. Maybe John was working without his amanuensis when he was on Patmos, and coming up with the sort of garbled grammar a lot of people have when they try to write in their second language.

  5. One brother earlier alluded to John's grammar calling attention to an O.T allusion. I'd like to hear him track that out. That might be a valid path worth considering in solving this exegetical mystery.

    Just some thoughts here. Lets say if John was thinking in Hebrew while he was writing Greek (which is likely), do we see such semantic flexibility with prepositions in the Hebrew? The preposition בְּ (bay, meaning "in") has the same type of semantic flexibility as ἐπί. It can also mean "on", "at", "by", "means of", and has similar functions of use as a dative of means, or genitive of relationship or accusative in its respective Hebrew usage.

    Whatever was going through John's mind as he wrote Revelation, the concept of material inerrancy (the idea that the original wording of the autographs being inerrant) would say that in the autographa of Revelation, the Spirit would had led John to pick the right case as was fitting in the semantic range of those words.

    The Spirit's choice of Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek was providential, since in the subsequent preservation of the copies, any variance of case in those copies would not violate what is termed formal inerrancy (God's preservation of the doctrines derived from the inerrant autographs).

  6. This is a typical feature of Revelation. Beale is adamant that all of what others might consider errors can be explained e.g. as semitisms, e.g. Rev 1:4 "χάρις ὑμῖν καὶ εἰρήνη ⸀ἀπὸ ὁ ὢν καὶ ὁ ἦν καὶ ὁ ἐρχόμενος" where the participles take the nominative case despite being part of a prepositional phrase. Clearly they form a title that is supposed to allude back to the OT. Similarly, where John uses the accusative υἱὸν instead of the dative in 1:13 or the mismatching genitive participle in V. 15, Beale assumes references to Daniel. This would fit John's very semitic writing style, e.g. using many elliptic sentences.

    However, not all commentators agree with him on this, as in some other cases those attempted explainations as OT references are straining plausibility. It is no wonder that later textual traditions have smoothed out these stylistic pecularities.

  7. The problem, Benjamin, with this one, that I couldn't see a possible Semitism behind the harmonisation of the case of the επι-phrase to that of the participle. It is almost as if the phrase is morphologically treated as an adjective.