ἀφίημι ὑμῖν — I forgive you?

Yesterday in church, a friend leaned over and pointed to the verb ἄφετε in Luke 18:16 with a puzzled look on his face. (Yes. He and I both read the Greek text in church while the English translation is being read. We’re incurable geeks.) In introductory Greek classes, students often learn to associate ἀφίημι with the act of forgiving someone for something, but that’s clearly not its meaning in this text. Any decent Hellenistic Greek dictionary will present a range of different options for translating this verb into English, including, forgive, release, permit/allow, etc, but they do little to help you understand the implications of the verb in Greek.

This brief interchange in church began a thought process that did not interfere too much with the sermon, which was an awesome excursion through the Jacob cycle of stories in Genesis, but led me to want to write something about ἀφίημι. It’s a great example of how shifting worldviews can make ancient texts seem strange to us. How is it that a single verb can be used with such divergent senses in the biblical texts?

In today’s world we think of forgiving as something that has to do with emotions. “You did something thoughtless (hurtful, etc.),” we might think, “but I’m going to forgive you.” That is, “I’m going to overlook what you did and feel okay about you in spite of it.” This way of thinking about forgiveness is a very long way from the ancient Greek notion of ἄφεσις (the noun associated with the verb ἀφίημι).

In the ancient world these words were associated with release (release from obligation, release from imprisonment, release from ownership, release from impeded movement, release from limits imposed by someone else). Emotion might be associated with these things—and almost certainly was—but it’s not part of the meaning of these words. Both the verb ἀφίημι and the noun ἄφεσις had much more practical import.

In John 14:27 we are told that Jesus said to his disciples, Εἰρήνην ἀφίημι ὑμῖν. In this scene Jesus is not forgiving his disciples for anything they have done. He is handing over peace to them. Peace (εἰρήνη) is his to give, and he is releasing it to them. In Luke 18:16, Jesus is not asking his disciples to forgive the children for anything, he is demanding that they release them to come to him (ἄφετε τὰ παιδία ἔρχεσθαι πρός με).

In Hebrews 10:18 we find the aphorism, ὅπου δὲ ἄφεσις τούτων, οὐκέτι προσφορὰ περὶ ἁμαρτίας. The pronoun τούτων refers to sins and “lawless deeds” mentioned in the previous verse. Where there is ἄφεσις of these, the offenders are released from their obligation to bring offerings.

None of this implied anything about God’s feelings or the feelings of the disciples toward the children in Luke, or the feelings between Jesus and his disciples. But in our modern world this is precisely what we associate with forgiveness. I think we miss something fundamentally important when we make this mistake. Forgiveness (ἄφεσις) is not about present emotions. It’s about the advent of freedom.

Today, may you be released from whatever is holding you down!

Monosemy and Polysemy in Biblical Studies: A Minimalist Basis for Empirical Analysis of the Biblical Languages

Ryder Wishart has completed a masters thesis that fits very well into the category of works applying concepts from the field of Linguistics to the study of Ancient Greek. His theses has a broader focus on the biblical languages more generally, but the application to Greek is of direct relevance for the community here at Greek-Language.com.

I have added Wishart’s thesis to the bibliography where you will find a link to download a copy from Academia.edu if you would like.

Congratulations to Ryder for completing this work!

A Linguistic Analysis of the Articular Infinitive in New Testament Greek

Burk, Articular InfinitiveI have added Dennis Ray Burk’s doctoral dissertation “A linguistic analysis of the articular infinitive in New Testament Greek” to the bibliography.

Dr. Burk wrote this dissertation in 2004, and the data he compiled has contributed positively to the ongoing development of open data resources.

If you have other works that you would like to see included in A Comprehensive Bibliography of Hellenistic Greek Linguistics, you can check the criteria for inclusion and make a suggestion by clicking the bibliography link at the top of any page on this blog.

Improving the Online Grammar

Alphabet StoneI would like to thank those of you who, over the last several years, have submitted suggestions for improving the online grammar here at Greek-Language.com.

I have added a link to a new report page at the top of every lesson and at the top of the table of contents to make doing this easier. Keep the suggestions coming, and it will make the grammar more useful for everyone.


A colleague recently ask me about Biraud’s treatment of determiners in Ancient Greek and its implications for the DP hypothesis (Determiner Phrase hypothesis). I had not seen the book in over a decade, so I put my colleague off until I could find a copy. I found one in a nearby library and it seems to confirm my vague recollection that Biraud (despite the sound of the title to English speakers) was not really discussing the issue that falls under the term “determiner” in English Linguistics.

Here’s the description of the book from its back cover along with my feeble translation. I am not fluent in French. In fact, I’ve never had a French class. What I can read in French is entirely self-taught, so the translation I provide after the French text is certainly open to debate! If you see any mistakes, please point them out, and I’ll make the necessary changes.

L’attique classique est riche en déterminants et la variéte des structures des groupes nominaux appelle une étude précise. A l’aide de quelques principes simples de description, empruntés pour la syntaxe à l’analyse distributionnelle, et pour la sémantique plus librement inspirés par diverses théories, l’auteur montre que cette diversité se laisse réduire à un système de quelques règles aux implications multiples, dont les écrivains anciens ont exploité toutes les possibilités expressives. Sont abordés en cours d’étude plusieurs problèmes de linguistique générale, pour certains desquels sont esquissées des solutions originales (le statut des déterminants d’identité es d’altérité, une possible hiérarchisation de la structure du syntagme nominal en fonction des apports déterminatifs…).

Ainsi non seulement cet ouvrage peut-il donner aux hellénistes une vision plus claire d’une question sacrifiée dans les grammaires alors qu’un mot sur six dans les textes est un déterminant, mais il peut aussi présenter quelque intérêt pour des linguistes curieux des résultats d’une approche systématique de la détermination en grec ancien et des probèmes qu’elle soulève.

Classical attic is rich in modifiers and the variety of the structures of noun phrases calls for a precise study. Using a few simple principles of description, borrowed from syntax for distributional analysis, and more freely inspired by various theories for semantics, the author shows that this diversity can be reduced to a system of a few rules with several implications, of which the ancient writers have exploited all the expressive possibilities. Several problems of general linguistics are addressed in the course of the study, for some of which original solutions are outlined (the status of modifiers of identity and otherness, a possible hierarchy of the structure of the noun phrase according to the contributions of modifiers…).

Thus not only can this work give Hellenists a clearer view of a question ignored in grammars although one word out of six in the texts is a modifier, but it may also be of interest to linguists curious about the results of a systematic approach to modification in ancient Greek and the problems it raises.

[Any mistakes in the translation are entirely my fault! Don’t blame Biraud!]

Second-position clitics and the syntax-phonology interface

David M. Goldstein (UC Los Angeles) has uploaded a paper on second-position clitics in Classical Greek to Academia.edu. He wrote the paper with Dag T. T. Haug (University of Oslo) using Lexical Functional Grammar as their framework and proposing some revision to the theory on the basis on their findings.

The paper was presented at the Joint 2016 Conference on Head-driven Phrase Structure Grammar and Lexical Functional Grammar in Warsaw, Poland. Here is the abstract:

In this paper we discuss second position clitics in ancient Greek, which show a remarkable ability to break up syntactic constituents. We argue against attempts to capture such data in terms of a mismatch between c-structure yield and surface string and instead propose to enrich c-structure by using a multiple context free grammar with explicit yield functions rather than an ordinary CFG.
Thanks to Mike Aubrey for pointing this out on twitter!

Καλὰ Χριστούγεννα 2016

Again this year the flow of traffic that came in to this blog on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day was wonderful to see. I appreciate your visit, whether you come to learn about Greek or Greek Linguistics, or even if this time of year is the only time you visit.

Peace and joy to you all.

Nativity, by Jeff Weese, Creative Commons
Nativity, by Jeff Weese, Attribution 2.0 Generic Liscense

Sound of 1st Century Greek: Mark 1-9

mark1-1imageLouis Sorenson has produced a nice reading of the first nine chapters of Mark’s Gospel following Westcott and Hort’s 1881 text using the Restored Koine pronunciation. His Let’s Read Greek website has numerous helpful resources for reading Greek texts. This is one among many.

Text and audio of Mark 1-9


Alan Bunning’s Textual Criticism Resources

cntriconforhamepageI’ve updated the homepage to give more prominent placement to Alan Bunning’s Center for New Testament Restoration (CNTR). The transcriptions of New Testament manuscripts he has provided are amazing. Having these available in machine-actionable form is an incredible boon to the work of textual criticism!

I linked the image on the homepage directly to the manuscripts page at CNTR rather than the project homepage to give quick access to the carefully aligned transcriptions. Once you get there, though, the menu at the top of the page gives you quick access to the project’s homepage and other resources to help you understand the transcriptions and the process used to produce them.

We all owe sincere thanks to Alan for his careful and thorough work.

A fresh approach to Greek accents

James Tauber has published a short video explaining the accentuation of Ancient Greek words in a way that is more precise than what is found in beginning grammars that deal with the issue. If you don’t follow the argument fully, just watch a second time.

If you have never studied Greek accents before, here are some terms that may help you understand the video:

Syllable Positions

ultima = the last syllable in a Greek word
penult = second to last syllable
antepenult = third to last syllable

Accentuation Patterns:

oxytone = an acute accent (´) on the ultima
paroxytone = an acute accent on the penult
proparoxytone = an acute accent on the antepenult

perispomenone = a circumflex accent (῀) on the ultima
properispomenone = a circumflex accent on the penult

Thank you, James.