Ronald D. Peters Brill 2014-01-02

This monograph was originally a doctoral thesis done under Stanley Porter’s tutelage at McMaster Divinity College. The work makes a radical proposal which, if correct, would overturn much of grammatical scholarship done on the Greek article in the past two centuries.

The basic thesis of the book is that “the article [is to be viewed] as a reduced form of the relative pronoun, and that both parts of speech share certain defining functional characteristics that demonstrate and justify this co-classification” (p. 3). Rather than functioning as a determiner, Peters believes that the article—at least in Koine Greek—made nouns concrete, not definite. Without the article they are abstract (p. 70).

Linguists and grammarians have long since abandoned the idea that the Greek article’s main function is to definitize. But using the poles of concrete vs. abstract is new. And the notion that the article never definitizes is probably the most revolutionary aspect of Peters’s thesis, at least for exegesis: “Any indication of definiteness or indefiniteness is outside the scope of the article’s function” (p. 181). He suggests that first-year Greek students would do well to employ “the gloss the one who or that which from the beginning of their language education” when translating the article (p. 272).

The book has an introduction and conclusion with ten chapters. The end-matter includes a bibliography and three indices.

In chapter 1, “Historical Overview” (pp. 5–68), Peters makes a case that English-language grammars of ancient Greek have been uncritically indebted to German-language Greek grammars (pp. 11–13). This is so in both classical and New Testament grammars. One grammarian, however, stands out against this trend: Thomas Fanshaw Middleton, whose Doctrine of the Greek Article published over two hundred years ago, argues that the Greek article is the equivalent of the relative pronoun, according to Peters (p. 48). Nevertheless, Middleton could not break from the idea of definiteness for the article completely, a perspective faulted by Peters (p. 50). Middleton’s view also is different from Peters’s in one key respect: while Middleton saw the article as functioning like a relative pronoun from Homer on, Peters considers the article’s function to have morphed toward this, apparently sometime after the age of Attic Greek.

In spite of being the longest chapter, the historical overview has several lacunae. In a work of this sort, which purports to overturn centuries of scholarship regarding the origins and function of the Greek article, it is incumbent on the author to have a good grasp of the scholarship that he is challenging. Yet Peters seems to overlook several authors whose writings make significant contributions to classical and biblical studies. In his discussion of classical Greek grammars, he does not mention Gildersleeve’s Syntax of Classical Greek from Homer to Demosthenes, whose second volume has nearly one hundred pages of analysis on the article. In Peters’s treatment of New Testament grammars, there are a number of gaps. Not mentioned, for example, are Radermacher (Neutestamentliche Grammatik), Abel (Grammaire du grec biblique: Suive d’un choix de papyrus), Hoffmann and von Siebenthal (Griechische Grammatik zum Neuen Testament), Young (Intermediate New Testament Greek: A Linguistic and Exegetical Approach), and Rehkopf’s revision of Blass-Debrunner (Grammatik des neutestamentlichen Griechisch).

The largest lacuna, however, involves Greek literature outside of classical and New Testament Greek. In particular, Mayser’s Grammatik der griechischen Papyri aus der Ptolemäerzeit and Völker’s Syntax der griechischen Papyri, vol. 1: Der Artikel should have constituted part of the historical examination.

There are also important linguistic studies on the article that are not found in Peters’s bibliography, and these present a different view from his. For example, Walter de Mulder and Anne Carlier, “The Grammaticalization of Definite Articles,” in The Oxford Handbook of Grammaticalization, ed. Bernd Heine and Heiko Narrog (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 522–34; Brigitte L. M. Bauer, “The Definite Article in Indo-European: Emergence of a New Grammatical Category?” in Nominal Determination: Typology, Context Constraints, and Historical Emergence, ed. Elisabeth Stark, Elisabeth Leiss, and Werner Abraham (Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 2007), 103–40; Joseph Harold Greenberg, “How Does a Language Acquire Gender Markers?” In Universals of Human Language: Word Structure, ed. Joseph Harold Greenberg (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 1978), 47–82. (Thanks are due to Steven Runge for pointing out these sources.)

The second chapter (“The Common Function of the Article and Relative Pronouns: Methodology” [69–82]) puts forth Peters’s general approach. Two essential arguments are given for the association of the relative pronoun with the article in the Koine period: they are both used in similar constructions and they have a similar morphology. The first argument is explicated in subsequent chapters. The second argument seems to be against Peters’s overall thesis that the article’s functions have changed over time. He nowhere discusses the relative pronoun’s changing functions but uses morphology as an argument that the two have similar functions. Yet morphology is akin to etymology, and this argument looks suspiciously like what lexicologists call root fallacy or etymologizing. Syntactical studies could benefit from input from lexicology, reaching back to Barr’s Semantics of Biblical Language and, through that landmark volume, to Saussure’s Cours de linguistique générale. Throughout Peters’s treatment he is careful never to label the formal relationship of the relative pronoun and the article as etymological (though he comes close to this on p. 2), but by calling it morphological it seems to be little more than a rose with a different name.

This point is not a mere quibbling over words. Peters seems to strongly link morphology to meaning for more than just the article. For example, on more than one occasion he enlists Porter’s definition of the semantics of the genitive as essentially that of restriction (see especially p. 213). Yet this definition of the genitive’s semantics might be adequate only for the eight-case system. The genitive in the five-case system (which Porter embraces; Peters does not tell us which approach he takes) involves the idea of separation as well. Regarding the article, Peters links morphology to semantics in such a way that he assumes the necessity of a unifying notion for the article’s meaning: “Nowhere is there a more urgent need for a uniform theory of the article’s function than in regard to nouns” (p. 226). This is precisely what Middleton did, yet Middleton was consistent in seeing the same force from Homer to the New Testament. Peters, however, sees the article’s functions as changing over time, yet he still maintains a singular unifying theory.

Chapter 3 (pp. 83–122) shows “how relative clauses and articular participial clauses are used interchangeably to perform similar functions” (p. 83). Specifically, “both function to define or provide further characterization of a head term” (ibid.). Peters provides several biblical examples showing the parallel functions of both constructions. However, what he does not do in this chapter is explain why it must be the article that parallels the relative pronoun. The standard understanding is that the article necessarily turns the participle into an adjective (and, like an adjective, it can be used substantivally). Why is it, for example, that this parallel is found only between relative clauses and participial clauses? Surely the verbal force of the participle is the key here, since there is a finite verb in relative clauses and a non-finite verb in participial clauses. This raises one of the fundamental problems in this monograph: the evidence seems to be highly selective; explanation about the lack of parallels between the relative pronoun and the article in other constructions is largely ignored.

Here Peters also makes an assertion that will be repeated dozens of times throughout the monograph in one form or another: “There is no indication that the recipients share this information with the writer or that the information is recoverable or obvious in the discourse, nor does he direct them to where the information may be found” (p. 89). A basic problem with this refrain is that it is often accompanied by nothing else; mere assertion is assumed to prove the point. Yet on numerous occasions it is demonstrably false (as in cases of anaphora), and in such instances the argument that the article functions like a relative pronoun is thereby weakened.

He tries to make this point in discussing Romans 9:5, for example, concerning the expression ὁ Χριστὸς τὸ κατὰ σάρκα, ὁ ὢν ἐπὶ πάντων θεός. With his view that the information about the referent is not recoverable or obvious in the discourse, Peters’s exegesis is, at best, a stretch: “Just as god was a class in the ancient world, so too there were many χριστοί, anointed ones, thus the class Christ. Jesus is the Christ who is defined by the fact that he is the one who is God over all things, as subset of the class Christ. Paul provides the information necessary for the readers to make this identification” (p. 97). Peters’s argument that the readers would not know which Christ was in view (when the context up to this point is inexorably leading to Jesus Christ, not to mention that for Paul no one else is ever the referent) is rather forced. Regarding James 2:14 he takes issue with my view, which is almost universally held as well, that ἡ πίστις is anaphoric, indicating which kind of faith cannot save (p. 228). Anaphoric articles are among the clearest proofs that the article in Greek provides information that is recoverable by the reader, yet Peters simply asserts that this way of reading the text is incorrect without giving an alternative.

Chapters 4 and 5 offer more parallels between the relative pronoun and the article. The fifth chapter looks at μέν . . . δέ constructions which use either the article or relative pronoun. The parallels serve the author’s purposes well, yet there are two problems for his view that he does not address. First, why is the article used like the relative pronoun in such structures, yet there are no examples of ὁ γάρ in which the article parallels ὅς γάρ? Second, why are all the New Testament examples of the article in μέν… δέ constructions nominative and either masculine or feminine when the relative pronoun construction is limited to neither case nor gender?

The sixth chapter focuses on the definition of the article’s function. Here the author articulates his view that the article does not “definitize” anything but instead turns that which is abstract into a concrete entity (p. 185). Yet his exegesis of several texts regarding concreteness, especially in chapter 9, seems to be both cumbersome and overly subtle.

The author’s treatment of the article with numerals (pp. 204–205) and infinitives (pp. 207–11), as well as with proper names (pp. 247–51), is particularly problematic for his view. The first two occur in his seventh chapter (“The Article with Individual Parts of Speech”). Peters does not explain why infinitives after prepositions are always articular, yet he asserts, “It is, in fact, demonstrable that the article does exert a semantic influence on infinitives” (p. 208). Most grammarians have argued that the article’s function with infinitives is primarily structural rather than semantic. As problematic as the articular infinitive is for Peters’s view, which he admits (p. 209), it is nevertheless dismissed with a five-page treatment. And his argument that without the article modifying a proper name readers would not be able to identify the referent or at least would not regard the character as in any way prominent (pp. 249–50) is difficult to swallow.

In the ninth chapter, which addresses the greatest number of articular instances, Peters repeats his assertion that without the article a noun “is an abstraction” (p. 227). The author is to be applauded for dealing with texts that seem to be difficult for his interpretation. But the way in which he handles them often lacks conviction. For example, concerning Mark 3:20 (19b in some versions), Jesus is said to “enter a house” (ἔρχεται εἰς οἶκον). Peters argues that “οἶκον is characterized as abstract, that is, it is not characterized as belonging to experience as an actual thing or a specific instance” (pp. 231–32). It would seem that the traditional view—namely, that this is an indefinite house—is a more straightforward understanding. He similarly speaks of the anarthrous ὄχλος in v. 32 as abstract (p. 232). Again, the more natural explanation is that it is indefinite.

Peters’s view has implications for the theology of the New Testament as well. His extensive treatment on John 1:1 (pp. 237–40) is a case in point. He rejects the idea of the anarthrous ἀρχῇ as definite (p. 238). But surely the par excellence sense of ἀρχή is sufficient to point to its definiteness, as the starting point of creation. Nouns may indeed be definite without the article in Greek (see my Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament, 245–54). More problematic is Peters’s treatment of θεός in the last clause of the verse, καὶ θεὸς ἦν ὁ λόγος. Although he is right to reject Colwell’s understanding of θεός as definite, he errs in treating the noun as abstract: “Without the article, θεός must be interpreted in the abstract sense: god, deity, pertaining to the divine” (239). Peters regards the anarthrous θεός as belonging to the background of the text. It is not salient; it is not the main point. The history of exegesis would suggest otherwise: that the Word was θεός is an astonishing proposal, and the rest of the prologue is intended to reinforce this point by showing that the Word, θεός, became incarnate and dwelt in the midst of mankind. The fronting of θεός in John 1:1c shows its prominence; the lack of the article dissociates it from exact identification with τὸν θεόν earlier in the verse.

Peters’s treatment of John 1:1 suggests that he is too myopic in his views of the article as marking salience. Predicate nominatives are usually anarthrous. And when so, this does not necessarily mean that they lack salience. Compare Mark 2:28; John 4:24; Philippians 2:13; 1 Timothy 4:12; and Hebrews 1:10, where the pre-verbal anarthrous predicate nominative is the main point in each instance. Furthermore, the larger issue of grammar as a whole is that the article is one way to mark salience, but there are often competing factors that would delimit its prominence.

Frequently throughout this monograph, the author chastises Greek grammarians for using English illustrations, as though they see a one-to-one correspondence. In one of his many critiques of my treatment of the article in Exegetical Syntax, Peters says, “Underlying these categories is the basic understanding that the Greek article functions in a manner consistent with English TH- items” (p. 182). And yet, Peters concedes, “I have struggled with the dilemma of, on the one hand, wanting to avoid associating the Greek article with English the, while on the other hand recognizing that English provides no other realistic option for a simple gloss. Having experienced this for myself, I have a degree of grace for textbooks that oversimplify” (p. 46 n. 164). In light of this concession, why does Peters assume that Robertson, Moulton, Turner, Funk, Wallace, and many other grammarians are reading the English the into the Greek article at every turn?

In sum, as bold as Peters’s thesis is, I do not think he has made a compelling case. He has not examined the secondary literature as thoroughly as he should have, nor has he challenged his own views with any degree of rigor. And although he does offer some legitimate insights on a number of particulars, his view simply cannot handle the majority of instances. And as such, it fails as an adequate explanation of the function of the article. In the end, although his goal seems to have been to write “a comprehensive grammar of the Greek article based exclusively on descriptions derived from observations of its usage in Koine Greek” (p. 1), his overarching prescriptive approach prevented him from truly observing the text.

About the Contributors

Daniel B. Wallace

Dr. Wallace, a fourth-generation Californian, is a member of the Society of New Testament Studies, the Institute for Biblical Research, the Society of Biblical Literature, the American Society of Papyrologists, and the Evangelical Theological Society (of which he was president in 2016). He has been a consultant for several Bible translations. He has written, edited, or contributed to more than three dozen books, and has published articles in New Testament Studies, Novum Testamentum, Biblica, Westminster Theological Journal, Bulletin of Biblical Review, the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, and several other peer-reviewed journals. His Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament is the standard intermediate Greek grammar and has been translated into more than a half-dozen languages. He is the executive director of the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts (, an institute whose initial purpose is to preserve Scripture by taking digital photographs of all known Greek New Testament manuscripts. In the process CSNTM staff have discovered over ninety New Testament manuscripts throughout the world. He and his wife, Pati, have four sons, three daughters-in-law, three granddaughters, one grandson, and one Labrador.