[B-Greek] PRIN before the birth of Abraham/the Muses.

Carl Conrad cwconrad2 at mac.com
Wed Oct 14 08:21:14 EDT 2009

On Oct 14, 2009, at 4:15 AM, Steven Cox wrote:

> Hello folks,
> please don't jump all over me, this is probably a very basic  
> question, but wasn't one I could see addressed in the Bgreek archive.
> I started with John 8:58 PRIN ABRAAM GENESQAI (aor. inf. mid.)
> and TWN PRIN MOUSAS GEGONENAI (perf. inf. act.)

Prefaced Unscientific Peevish PreScript: To be perfectly honest and  
straightforward, Steven, I don't understand how you can expect anyone  
to respond to a message like this. While it seems clear enough that  
you'd like to understand the difference between usage of PRIN with an  
aorist infinitive and PRIN with a perfect infinitive of the same verb  
GINOMAI, you illustrate your question with more than half a dozen  
truncated and semi-digested citations from Platonic dialogues and  
later from Herodotus and Xenophon -- evidently the fruits of a Perseus  
search. Your citation style is haphazard, almost never providing  
sufficient context to grasp how the PRIN + infinitive construction is  
being used, and you cite these texts using a transliteration scheme  
(probably the Perseus scheme) that is not unintelligible but awkward  
to list-members more familiar with or more comfortable with the  
standard B-Greek transliteration scheme. I found that I had to go to  
the Greek text of the Phaedo and read through the whole section from  
which you've drawn your illustrations in order to observe the usage  
you're trying to raise questions about. After doing that I rather  
think the question could have been posed much more simply without your  
sending us the contents of your note pad in that undigested format.  
Enough then of that.

> before the birth of the muses, Plato, Phaidros. Socrates 259b
> And had the question, why not PRIN ABRAAM GEGONENAI?

Aye, verily, why not? While there's a nuance of difference, I don't  
think it would have altered the substance of the dialogue or the  
import of Jesus' response to his questioners in the passage under  

My take on this is as follows: PRIN ABRAAM GENESQAI points to a moment  
of time when Abraham was born, while PRIN ABRAAM GEGONENAI points to a  
time span prior to Abraham's existence. I tend to think that the  
aspectual difference between the aorist and the perfect tense --  
especially in contexts where the discourse is about events in time as  
here -- is not observed with any regularity in Koine Greek. I am  
inclined to think that the perfect tense is less commonly used (it's  
my belief that it is less commonly used, but I haven't done a search  
to test that) in the Koine than it was in Classical Attic and that one  
reason is that it (the perfect) is quite commonly used not in a  
stative sense but rather as an eventive verb indicating perfective  
action in the past. However, the perfect tense-forms may also  
represent a state, as it does in the two most commonly-used perfect- 
tense forms in Koine, OIDA and its compounds and hESTHKA and its  
compounds. GEGONENAI, on the other hand, when used as a stative, means  
"exist" or "have existence.," whereas GENESQAI means "come into  
existence" or "come to birth/get born."

For practical purposes, I'd English PRIN ABRAAM GEGONENAI as "before  
Abraham's existence" and PRIN ABRAAM GENESQAI as "before Abraham's  

It's instructive in this context to compare the Johannine prologue,  
1:3, particularly if we read it the traditional way, with hO GEGONEN  
understood as belonging with what precedes rather than with what  

  3 πάντα δι᾿ αὐτοῦ ἐγένετο, καὶ  
χωρὶς αὐτοῦ ἐγένετο οὐδὲ ἕν ὃ  

Here EGENETO points to 'coming into existence' while GEGONEN points to  
existence as a state.
I would English this as "Everything has come into existence through  
his agency and apart from him not a single thing that has existence  
has come into existence." -- or " ... and apart from him not a single  
existing thing has come into existence."

> Then I've been looking through the "before [the soul] is born"  
> constructions in Plato's Phaedo 75-77, where PRIN GENESQAI and PRIN  
> GEGONENAI occur in contrast (?)
> 75c prin genesthai ara
> 75c kai prin genesthai kai euthus
> 75e labontes prin genesthai
> 76e prin gegonenai
> 77a prin genesthai
> 77b hoti prin genesthai
> 77c hoti prin genesthai hêmas ên hêmôn hê psuchê
> 77c prin genesthai ei mellei
> It makes reasonable sense to me why 76e is PRIN + perf.inf.act.
> [76e] huparchousan proteron aneuriskontes hêmeteran ousan, kai tauta  
> ekeinêi apeikazomen, anankaion, houtôs hôsper kai tauta estin,  
> houtôs kai tên hêmeteran psuchên einai kai prin gegonenai hêmas:  
> ei de mê esti tauta, allôs an ho logos houtos eirêmenos eiê; ar'  
> houtôs echei, kai isê anankê tauta te einai kai tas hêmeteras  
> psuchas prin kai hêmas gegonenai, kai ei mê tauta, oude tade;
> [76e] which we find existed previously and are now ours, and
> compare our sensations with these, is it not a necessary inference  
> that
> just as these abstractions exist, so our souls existed before we were
> born; and if these abstractions do not exist, our argument is of no
> force? Is this the case, and is it equally certain that provided these
> things exist our souls also existed before we were born, and that if
> these do not exist, neither did our souls?”
> but that still doesn't really help me grasp why not PRIN ABRAAM  
> GEGONENAI. Can anyone provide any helpful comments. Is it related to  
> the following being EGW EIMI not EGW HN?

I don't think so. I think that EGW HN would have raised both eyebrows  
and hackles as much as did EGW EIMI. Well, perhaps it's easier to  
understand PRIN ABRAAM GENESQAI than it is to understand EGW  
EIMI.  ;-)  Obviously there are many who are convinced that EGW EIMI  
harks back to Exodus 3 and there are others who rather doubt that.  
There are some who think that what EGW EIMI must ordinarily mean in  
Greek is "It's me" or "I'm the one." Perhaps the sense is "I continue  
to be the one you have to deal with." No doubt the formulation of John  
8:56 was intended to be provocative and perhaps a little bit arcane.  
It still is, isn't it? I personally think that almost everything in  
our archives about John 8:56 is, at best, inconclusive.

> PS - there was a secondary question of why not PRIN ABRAAM  
> GENNASQAI, but I think I'm okay on that one. Just noting in case  
> anyone has comments on that too.
> nb. gennaw, prin .... gennasthai. - not found. except in Suda.

Well, it's perfectly conceivable, but a discussion focused upon the  
exact pinpointing in time of begetting tends toward the direction of  
"when you were a sparkle in your father's eye" or the like. As I  
recall, the lengthy beginning of the length novel, Tristram Shandy, is  
a digression to end all digressions on pinpointing the moment of the  
protagonist's begetting.

Carl W. Conrad
Department of Classics, Washington University (Retired)

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