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Understanding Those Strange Relatives (the Koine Greek kind)

Logos Bible Software Helps You Recognize Grammatical Dependence in Biblical Discourse

Relative pronouns are one of those unglamorous grammatical concepts you likely learned about and filed away into long-term memory. Greek pronouns like ὅς (hos; which, who) introduce a phrase or clause that modifies another phrase or clause. These pronouns tend to restrict the potential scope of meaning, clarifying whatever the speaker or writer is talking about. But paying attention to these basic details can pay huge exegetical dividends when it comes to interpreting the strange roles they can play in discourse.

Strange in what way? Instead of the basic restrictive use, relative pronouns sometimes introduce whole paragraphs that expand on an idea—leading to the name “continuative relative” pronouns.1 This continuative relative usage exhibits the same prototypical features of a relative pronoun—a grammatically dependent modifying clause—but it exploits these expectations to embed a chunk of important, descriptive information within the dependent clause.

If the information is so important, why would the New Testament writers embed it in a grammatically dependent construction? To prevent the audience from mistaking it as a new direction for the discourse. The grammatical dependency allows the writer to clearly indicate that what follows is actually supporting what precedes, despite its importance.

Filling in the details

Sometimes when we are telling a story or teaching something, important background information needs to be filled in for the audience to track with you. In English we naturally mark the beginning and end of such digressions with adverbs like “so” or “now.” For example: 

There was an accident at work and an old friend of mine was injured. Now he used to work in a different department, that’s where we met. So anyhow, he was trying to move something by himself when…

The big idea of this discourse is to tell you about the accident, not about where the friend used to work or how we met. The adverbs help signal a digression, filling in important details. In Koine Greek the continuative relative construction is commonly used to accomplish this same kind of infilling. Let’s take a look at two examples. 

Illustrating a point

Philippians 2 begins with several exhortations. The first—“Be like-minded” (v. 2)—follows a series of rhetorical “if” statements that remove any possible excuses to avoid doing what Paul commands. This idea is elaborated in vv. 3–4 by several dependent, adverbial clauses. Verse 5 features the next main command, repeating the big idea to be like-­minded from v. 2, but now linking it to the attitude that Christ Jesus exhibited. This exhortation is immediately followed by a relative clause in v. 6 that begins what is typically called the “Christ hymn,” celebrating Jesus’ humbling of himself.

The entirety of vv. 6–11 are actually a single continuative relative construction that’s embedded in the main point of Paul’s discourse. In these verses, Paul is expanding on vv. 2 and 5, illustrating what he envisions like-mindedness to look like. Note: You can’t really be like-minded by yourself; it takes at least two people, and the embedded passage recounts the reciprocal “putting others first” if only we read the passage in context.

Paul’s letters bear the linguistic characteristics of “hortatory discourse,”  a fancy way of saying they’re more focused on changing behavior than teaching doctrine. The point of the doctrine is to change our thinking, to give us examples (and sometimes counterexamples) that would move us to action. That is precisely what we find here in Philippians 2. Paul’s big idea in this passage is not to teach Christology, but to foster like-mindedness among the Philippian believers. He illustrates this by using the Christ hymn to highlight how both the Son and the Father gave something up in order to put the other’s interests before their own. Jesus gave up his position in heaven and even his human dignity to suffer and die on the cross in obedience to the Father’s plan to redeem humanity (vv. 6–8). In response we see the Father bestowing on the Son the name that is above every name and having all creation bow the knee to the Son instead of ostensibly to the Father.

In Logos Bible Software, a feature called “propositional outlines” can help us see the dependency relationship of 2:6–11. To turn on this visual filter, go to your preferred Bible version and open the Visual Filters menu.  Then simply check the box for “propositional outlines.”

The “propositional outlines” filter uses indentations to represent grammatical dependency. In Philippians 2, you can see the indentation that begins at v. 6a and extends all the way through v. 11b. Most English translations render this section as a new paragraph—which is correct, only it serves as embedded support for v. 5. The blue labels in the left column describe the function of each line of discourse. 

Despite all the high Christology gleaned from 2:6–11, within the larger context this hymn serves as motivation for Paul’s audience to set aside whatever may seem too important to let go of in order to achieve God’s intention for like-mindedness among believers. The Christology is simply a means to that end. This in no way diminishes the significance of these verses; it simply respects Paul’s unambiguous choice to make these verses grammatically dependent on his big idea, found in the commands of vv. 2 and 5.

In whom … in whom … in whom

Another overlooked example of continuative relative pronouns is found in Ephesians 1, in the famous run-on sentence covering vv. 3–14 that many of us struggled through as we were learning Greek. As in the previous example, we have a main clause (vv. 3–6) that is extended, but instead of one continuative relative clause there are actually three (beginning in vv. 7, 11, and 13). The big idea governing this whole section is provided in v. 3: “Blessed is the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,” followed by an appositional noun phrase that characterizes God as the source of all spiritual blessings in Christ. This is followed by dependent adverbial clauses in vv. 4–6 that conclude with an artful shift to “the beloved” in whom the Father has freely bestowed his grace upon believers.

The Father has been the center of attention in vv. 3–6, the one working all things together in Christ. A shift to Jesus in v. 7 could create the ­impression that the discourse is now focused on him instead of blessing the Father. The grammatical dependency constrained by the three relative clauses counters such a reading, unambiguously indicating that vv. 7–14 bolster and expand on the big idea in v. 3 instead of signaling a switch to Jesus as the ­higher-level ­center of attention. 

The repetition of ἐν ᾧ (en hō; in whom) at the beginning of vv. 7, 11, and 13 accomplishes several things. Each signals a shift from some other topic to Jesus as the key participant, along with marking the beginning of a new unit about him. The use of adverbial καί (kai; also) in vv. 11 and 13 instructs readers to add these statements to some parallel item in the preceding discourse (v. 7). The result is three parallel statements about Jesus that are marked as support for the big idea of v. 3, lest readers think Paul has shifted his higher-level focus from the Father.

So next time you see a strange relative that looks too big to be true, keep in mind this continuative syntactic strategy for signaling that the information that follows is actually supporting material, rather than a higher-level shift to a new topic.

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This article was first published in Didaktikos: Journal of Theological Education. Teaching faculty can sign up for a free subscription here.

  1. Georg Winer termed this usage a continuative ­relative, “where ὅς is continuative, and can be resolved into καὶ οὗτος”; the relative clause expands on what it modifies in a new paragraph that is grammatically dependent (G. B. Winer, A Treatise on the Grammar of New Testament Greek, trans. W. F. Moulton [Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1882], 680).
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Didaktikos is a vocational journal for professors who teach in biblical studies, theology, and related disciplines—particularly at the graduate level and in service to the church. Didaktikos is published four times a year.

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