Particles and Authorship


William Berg
DRAFT: Comments welcome

bill berg photo crop 1Lately I’ve been obsessed with connective Greek particles in John, or the lack thereof. I decided to do a comprehensive search on the particle oun  (οὖν), which the composer of John uses by and large as an equivalent of normal Greek δὲ, with the result that δὲ is replaced at least half the time with οὖν, and sometimes disappears for long stretches of text featuring καὶ and οὖν as the only connectives. Oun seems to have lost its conclusive force (“therefore”) in John’s text, and can be translated, if at all, with a casual introductory “so” or “then.”  Just to give one early example, when Baptizer John is interrogated by the priests and Levites as to his identity (1:19 Σὺ τίς εἶ;), and he responds that he is not the Messiah, the question then becomes Τί οὖν σύ; (21), “Then what are you?”

Kai  and oun  are the weak connectives preferred, by and large, by John.  In Lightfoot’s analysis, these would tally with the weak connective waw  in Hebrew and Aramaic. Lightfoot [Biblical Essays (London: Macmillan, 1893), pp. 144-46] describes John’s style thus:

It is not ungrammatical Greek, but it is distinctly Greek of one long accustomed to think and speak through the medium of another language … (In John’s native Semitic language) there is comparative poverty of inflections, and there is an extreme paucity of connecting and relative particles. Hence in Hebrew and Aramaic there is little or no syntax, properly so called … Tested by his style, then, the writer was a Jew. Of all the New Testament writings the Fourth Gospel is the most distinctly Hebraic in this respect. The Hebrew simplicity of diction will at once strike the reader. There is an entire absence of periods, for which the Greek language affords such facility. The sentences are coordinated, not subordinated. The clauses are strung together, like beads on a string. The very monotony of the arrangement, though singularly impressive, is wholly unlike the Greek style of the age. More especially does the influence of the Hebrew appear in the connecting particles. In (Hebrew and Aramaic) the single connecting particle waw is used equally, whether co-ordination or opposition is implied; in other words, it represents “but” as well as “and.”

O.K., that’s what to look for, and that’s what we find in John for the most part. An extreme, decidedly non-Hellenized example would be the exordium, where kai, tediously repeated, is the only connective employed.  (Would this help to confirm that the exordium conforms to a traditional Hebrew hymnic pattern?)  As soon as the narrative starts (1:19), however, the οὖν s appear and proliferate, and by verse 38 even the δὲ s are making their modest appearance. Chapter 2 (the wedding feast) is a somewhat different story.  De  appears occasionally (8 times in all), but oun only comes up in verses 18-32 (the exchange about rebuilding the temple in 3 days). Except for the introductory verse, chapter three is free of both particles throughout the discourse with Nicodemus.  They resume in vs. 25ff. (the committee interrogates John about baptism). In ch. 4 (the woman at the well), oun  outnumbers de 2 to 1, while in 5 (the cripple cured at the pool), de  outnumbers oun  3 to 1.The two particles run more or less neck-and-neck from there through chapter 13.

It may, however, be worth noting that in ch. 11-12 (the Lazarus episode and its aftermath), the frequency of both particles increases dramatically over that in the surrounding chapters.  But in 14 and 15 (the Last Supper discourse, parts 1 & 2), oun  is completely absent.  It returns briefly late in chapter 16 (vs. 17-22, the disciples’ question about the “short while”), but then disappears again for the rest of ch. 16 and for the entirety of ch. 17 (discourse finale), not to reappear until the next chapter, where oun  resumes its normal frequency to the end — ch. 20 (resurrection and first ending) being the only exception:  there the frequency of both particles is greatly reduced, and oun is twice as frequent as de.

What can we  make of all this? Of course, we can’t infer that different dates are implied by the behavior of the particles, but it seems safe to say that different hands are at work here — something we’ve already intuited when comparing the narratives with the diatribes. By looking at the particles — their presence, absence, or co-existence — I think we can distinguish, say, the more “Palestinian” hand from the more “Hellenized” hand. On the rare occasions when the connective particles oun and de are both entirely absent (the exordium and the Nicodemus-dialogue), we may be able to distinguish a “more” Palestinian hand from a “less” Palestinian hand.

Thanks to Bob for the following exchange … Please join the fray in the Reply box! WB

Thanks for all the hard work, learned one. This will help me read better. It strikes me, though, that the Hebraic style fits with a mindset that likes juxtaposition and avoids not just hypotaxis but sequential reading in general. Hence the jumbled narrative, crucial details omitted or postponed (“It was night” 13:30). Maybe too an affection for prefiguration — that is, if the significance of an episode is that it is a pre- or post- version of another, then you don’t need to establish causal connection. It’s the juxtaposition that counts.

That may be  why I keep feeling WHACKED when I bring sequential expectations to this text. But it is a coherent mind-set, I think: style mirrors narrative technique (or lack thereof).  So I don’t feel the need of a more or less inept Bearbeiter. Couldn’t someone immersed deeply enough in Hebraic thought do it all by himself?

So, Bob, you feel that a writer with a heavy oun habit could have been so carried away by his subject-matter, through four chapters, that he completely forgot to use his oun?  And for those four chapters only? Alas, then, all my chalkenteric labors were in vain!

Evil one, you have made me pay attention to those slimy little particles and even worse to their absence. Really screws up my reading. Two thoughts. First, oun seems to come up in contexts where Jesus is in effect saying, “Use your head…”, “Isn’t it likely that…”  Hence often in conditions. Do we get in 14-17 Jesus calling for that kind of “use your head” thinking? Aren’t we beyond that as the Passion approaches? Test: Does John 14-17 have “if” clauses without oun? Second, if the John composer had a “Sayings” text before him, would he scissors and paste it, or phrase it in his own words, connecting passages using his style? Wouldn’t we expect the text we have to limit the stylistic features of the source? But I want to keep reading through the section, see how the connectives (or lack thereof)  sound in the flow of things. Nil desperandum, I may yet come around!

Regarding your first thought, Bob, since 14-17 is mostly all Jesus-speak, it may be useful to check other passages where Jesus himself uses οὖν (6:62, 8:36, 8:38, 12:50, 13:14, 18:8). For the most part, those involve conditional sentences (εἰ/ἐάν οὖν). Ιf that’s all it takes to make Jesus utter an οὖν, then I’d say the author of 14-17 missed quite a few opportunities to do so.

As to the second thought, it looks to me as if there’s been little or no attempt to “limit the stylistic features of the source.” Just to name one glaring instance, look at the false conclusion at 14:31, followed by a newly “pasted” passage that seems to ignore that conclusion. And my oun/de searches throughout the gospel often indicate sections inserted verbatim amid passages of radically different style. Trust your initial reactions, Bob:  much of the fourth gospel really is out of kilter, often defying sequential logic, and it can’t all be explained away or excused by reference to “John’s” alien mind-set. The suggestion of multiple sources, with rough edges only minimally smoothed, seems strong.   Sometimes we really are being whacked!

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