Exegetical Implications of NP Focus

A couple days ago, I wrote a post on focus in continuous Noun Phrases, testing whether the claims that Devine and Stephen’s Discontinuous Syntax: Hyperbaton in Greek make are also valid for Koine Greek in general and the New Testament in particular. Thus far, their claims have proved true.

In writing the post, I was reminded by a discussion that occurred at the Better Bibles Blog (HERE) and then later on my own blog (HERE) about the Holy Spirit.

I decided to do a search looking at the orderings of πνεῦμα and ἅγιος the New Testament. Now this technically doesn’t answer the questions posed by the Better Bibles Blog about whether Holy Spirit should always be capitalized or not, but even still, the results were rather interesting.

These are the basic claims made by Devine and Stephens (for chapter one):

  • Descriptive adjectives (i.e. predictable adjectives: green grass, tall tower, etc.) occur prenominally(= 1st attributive position) when unmarked.
  • Restrictive adjectives (adjectives that restrict the referent: black cat; fat man, etc.) occur postnominally(=2nd attributive position) when unmarked.
  • Marked restrictive adjectives either occur prenominally directly in front of the noun or even more marked in front of the preceding word creating a discontinuous Noun Phrase.

What does this mean for the Holy Spirit? Of the 84 occurrences πνεῦμα being modified by ἅγιος in the NT, 69 of them occurred with ἅγιος in the postnominal/2nd attributive position.

This suggests that the majority of occurrences of Holy Spirit are restrictive. The authors are using ἅγιος to refer to a specific Spirit – the Holy one. The implication for the discussion of whether to capitalize “holy spirit” would be to dig through those 69 occurrences.

But probably more interesting are the other 15 instances.

In 12 of the occurrences, ἅγιος appear prenominally/1st attributive. I only have time to examine one at length right now:

Matthew 28:19:
πορευθέντες οὖν μαθητεύσατε πάντα τὰ ἔθνη, βαπτίζοντες αὐτοὺς εἰς τὸ ὄνομα τοῦ πατρὸς καὶ τοῦ υἱοῦ καὶ τοῦ ἁγίου πνεύματος

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,

The first example at Matthew 28:19 is interesting. Contextually, there’s not reason to conclude that the adjective ἅγιος is both restrictive and focused. For one, if it is focused, typically there would be a contrast drawn between this holy spirit and another less than holy spirit or something similar. There is none. It cannot be restrictive and not focused because the adjective is prenominal. Thus, a descriptive understanding of it is best here.

The implication of this is that the Holy Spirit is a well known entity in the early Church by the time the Gospel of Matthew was written. Descriptive adjectives express known information that is relevant

So if ἅγιος is descriptive here, then the holiness of the spirit is something that everyone knows and recognizes. So then, the holiness of the Spirit is a well known trait and that its a trait that Matthew considers important in the context. The adjective’s importance makes sense in light of the other nouns in the clause: the Father and the Son.

Perhaps a trinitarian understanding of God was in the works at the time of, if not before Matthew was written. And if this particular saying of Jesus is authentic – and I think it is – we have a Trinity being described by Jesus.

5 thoughts on “Exegetical Implications of NP Focus

  1. Nice read on Matt 28! There are so many different factors to take into account with information structure. I think it is more complex than textual criticism, where you also have mutually conflicting principles to apply. There was an expression from the counter-intelligence community during the Cold War: ‘the hall of mirrors’. The expression describes the debilitating confusion that results from rerunning the same issue through different, contradictory scenarios. I have found myself in a hall of mirrors at times in studying information structure in the GNT.

  2. Honestly, I understand. DS also had several pages of discussion about the orderings of scalar adjectives and intersective adjectives in NPs. I had to read the entire section three or four times before I began to follow it easily.

    They state, “There has been a tendency to underestimate the multivariate nature of the problem of adjective-noun order…. It is not likely that the variability of order preferences can be reduced to the direct effect of a single parameter, whether it be semantic category, syntactic structure or pragmatic salience” (21).

  3. Your final sentence has to be qualified by the point that Jesus did not speak the words in Greek, at least according to most scholars. So it was whoever translated his words into Greek who chose the word order. They would have done that according to their own understanding of the phrase, which might have been more theologically developed than Jesus’. So, basically, it is the author of Matthew rather than Jesus who, arguably, described a Trinity.

  4. Peter, that’s a good point.

    Although, if we assume the author a) was an eyewitness and b) he was bilingual, then it would be reasonable to assume that he’s accurately translating Jesus’ words.

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