[B-Greek] Definiteness

Sean Kasabuske alethinon61 at milwpc.com
Sat Oct 14 15:31:34 EDT 2006

Hi Brian,

Sorry for the belated reply, but I was going to offer a much more thorough
response than this.  However, the more complete response will have to wait a
little longer due to time constraints.  This may be a good thing, as I would
like to clarify my position a little more and ask you to clarify yours.

"By taking your point, I meant conceding, in case that wasn't clear...I
don't have time to look over all these examples. But let me say thatif they
are all anarthrous preverbal PN's (I checked a few and saw that they were),
I would take most of them to not be fully represented by the English
translation, though I would say that these may still be the best
translations possible."

They are all pre-verbal PN's, which I took from page 56 of Paul Dixon's
thesis, where he provides the list of verses that he believes contain
"Qualitative-Pre-copulative Anarthrous Predicate Nominatives".

Please, Brian, define precisely what you believe you see in the Greek that
you don't believe is present in the English translations I submitted.  I
find that those translations capture the contextual sense of the Geek
perfectly, and so I can't imagine what you think is missing.

"We can't always convey the full sense of the underlying Greek by a normal
type of English translation. I agree with Wallace and take such PN's to
empasize the characteristics of the class they belong to rather than their
membership in the class."

What specifically is it that causes you to believe that it is the
characteristics of the class that is stressed in the translations I
presented, and why don't you believe that the English indefinite can be used
to convey those characteristics?  I ask this because I'm pretty sure that I
can logically demonstrate that the English translations represent the sense
of the Greek very well, but I want to make sure that I take your view into
account when I present my analysis.

"I don't think the indefinite article communicates that in English as
clearly as the Greek. Wallace cites your first example (Jn 4:19) as the most
likely candidate of an indefinite preverbal PN in the NT, but eventually
concludes that it is best seen as indefinite-qualitative, stressing Jesus'
prophetic powers rather than his membership in the class of prophets. I
concur, though it certainly could be strictly indefinite, which would then
be well represented by the Englsih translation using "a". As for the basis?
I would say it is ultimately context."

Brian, set Wallace aside for a moment and just focus on how the English
indefinite is used.  Allow me to illustrate via 3 examples the semantic
range of the English indefinite:

ILLUSTRATION #1: Because of recent layoffs, the local employment office is
filled with people who are waiting to see if they will be sent to work that
day (this was not uncommon years ago at some employment offices).  The
manager walks into the room filled with people eager to work, and announces
that several positions have opened up in a variety of occupations.  He says,
"Please call out your name and state your occupation".  In order, the first
person said, "I'm a painter", the next said, "I'm a plumber", the next said,
"I'm an electrician", etc.

In the above examples, the indefinite "a painter", "a plumber", "an
electrician", is used for simple classification.  Given Dixon's list of
qualitative nouns, I wouldn't be surprised if he labeled these "qualitative"
as well, but they are simple indefinites of classification.  Since folks
like Wallace like to put things into distinct categories, for the sake of
this discussion, let's call these "categorical indefinites".

ILLUSTRATION #2: A man committed adultery and immediately regretted it.  He
approached his minister and confessed his sin.  In the throes of his shame
and despair over his horrible sin against both God and his loving, faithful
wife, he cried out, "I don't know how I could have done such a thing!"  His
minister, realizing the man's sincerity and inner turmoil, replied, "You
failed because you are a sinner, my son, just as I am".

Yes, you've seen this one before.  Again, in context, his minister was not
simply placing him in a generic category of sinners as an unnuanced factual
statement.  No, he was telling him that he failed because he, like the rest
of us, is sinful by nature as a result of being born from Adam.  The
minister could have used an adjective and said, "You failed because you are
sinful", but he chose instead to employ another tool: an indefinite noun.

There is an important nuance in this example that should not be overlooked,
and this has to do with the reason the minister choose to use "sinner"
instead of "sinful".  He did this because he is a very sensitive person, and
he has a great deal of empathy for the man he is attempting to both counsel
biblically and console emotionally.  As he was choosing his words, he
thought that saying the man was "sinful" had less potential to remind the
man that he's not alone, that he failed because he shares the sinful state
with all of mankind.  So he choose "sinner" instead, because it served the
two-fold purpose of conveying that the man was sinful by nature, and that
he's not alone in this, but shares this fallen nature with the rest of the
human race.  If you'd like, you can call this a "qualitative-indefinite".

ILLUSTRATION #3:  The quarterback of the local football team is really quite
a fellow.  He's a great leader, he endures pain and adversity well (once he
played an entire game with a broken collarbone), he is confident, extremely
intelligent, and has the physical appearance of Frank Zane (former Mr.
Olympia).  He is the reason his team is headed for the playoffs this year,
and so his coach and physical trainer both approach him and expresses how
grateful they are to have such an excellent quarterback.  The quarterback
offers a humble "thank you, sirs, I'm proud to be on your team", and heads
for the shower.  As he is leaving the coach turns to the trainer and says,
"He is such a man, I wish I had more like him."

In this example, the qualities of the man are more important than whether "a
man" is indefinite.  This might be called the "descriptive indefinite", for
those who like to separate things into categories.

So, Brian, as you can see, the English indefinite is used to categorize, to
highlight category and nature together, and to stress what is referred to as
qualitativeness.  In light of this, you really can't say that the English
indefinite does not reflect the underlying Greek just because you perceive
that qualitativeness is more important than a noun's indefiniteness.

"But when so many are judged to be qualitative, then that becomes the
standard expectation of such constructions, and one finds this stated in a
grammar like Wallace, though one always needs to be open to other
possibilities on a case by case basis."

You may have noticed that members of this group have no problem rejecting
something offered by Wallace that is not supported by compelling evidence.
We can only deduce that qualitativeness is the "standard expectation" if
those who judge them so have offer a compelling case for doing so.  What
specific arguments of Wallace do you find compelling?

"I think we both agree with Harner (as you cited him) that anarthrous
preverbal PN's are generally primarily qualitative. When they are, I don't
think the English indefinite article usually gives the same impression in
English, though it can, and though including "a" is often still the best we
can do translation-wise because of the awkwardness that often results in
English when there is no sort of article attached to a PN."

First, it is questionable whether all of the examples Harner provides are in
fact "qualitative".  Second, even if they are, the illustrations above
demonstrate that "qualitativeness" is well within the semantic range of the
English indefinite.  They are, therefore, the right tool for the job.  As
you admit, not using the indefinite article is awkward in these cases.  The
reason it's awkward is because it is part of the English idiom to use the
indefinite article in constructions like this to convey the very sense that
the underlying Greek contains.  If you deny this, then please define very
precisely what nuance you believe is present in the Greek that is not
present in the English translation.

"It isn't always the case though. Using a few of your examples, it would be
awkward in English to say, "Sir, I see that you are prophet" (4:19) to
emphasize the prophetic character of the person addressed."

Jesus was called a prophet because he had prophetic ability.  He knew
something about the woman at the well that only one who was a prophet would
know.  If my power went out while entertaining a guest whose occupation I
didn't know, and he demonstrated great skill in fixing the electrical
problem, I might say, "I perceive that you must be an electrician".  If I
visited a neighbor who just built a new garage on his lot, and, after
examining the building, noted the highly professional nature of the job, I
might say, "I perceive that you are a builder by trade".  If I visited
someone and noticed that they had books on display on which they were named
as the author, I might say, "I perceive that you are a writer".  This is
standard English usage of the indefinite, Brian.  The English indefinite is
the perfect tool to bring out the sense of the Greek in this example.

"But it would not be overly awkward, and so I think these would be better
translations to represent the underlying Greek to say, "everyone who commits
sin is slave to sin" (8:34), and even better in English idiom, "you are
Samaritan" (8:48) [though admittedly, this last one plays on the English
coincidence of the same form for adjective and noun]."

To the English speaking mind, to say "everyone who commits sin is slave to
sin" means the same thing as "everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin".
Those who are fluent in English so that they actually think in English will
simply add the missing article in their minds.  Not that they necessarily
have to consciously think of the article, but our minds conceptualize "slave
to sin" to be the same as "a slave to sin".

As for 8:48, you probably hit on the issue when you noted that "Samaritan"
functions as both a noun and an adjective.  Such words can sometimes confuse
people.  I've seen people confuse the adjectival vs. the substantival use of
"human" many times as well.  But it seems very clear to me that Samaritan is
an indefinite noun at John 8:48, and so the English indefinite is the right
tool to convey the sense of the Greek.  Perhaps you perceive that Christ's
opposers said it with a bit of a sneer, and believe that this makes the noun
qualitative?  If so, then please be aware that this is a common usage in
English.  Years ago I dated a woman from Puerto Rico, and, one night over
dinner with friends, we got into a discussion about the differences between
Puerto Rican's and Mexican's (language, culture, appearance, etc).  At one
point in the conversation someone must have compared her to a Mexican, and
she became offended and said something like, "I don't have the face of a
Mexican".  She said this with such a sneer that I was shocked by her

Well, I've got to head to the Post Office, so I'll sign off for now.  I
think that I've demonstrated that the English indefinite has a semantic
range sufficient to accommodate all of the PN-V's I presented.  In light of
this, I think that Dixon's theory that there is one solitary indefinite noun
in all of John's Gospel is absurd.  In reality, about 50% of the count
PN-V's are satisfactorily represented by the English indefinite, and the
others are demonstrably definite.

Sean Kasabuske

More information about the B-Greek mailing list