Don and Neal were brothers and they were strong! On our church softball team, one would pitch and the other would
catch, because no one else could handle their fastballs. And Neal competed in telephone-book-tearing competitions.
I watched him rip one in half, then take the half and rip it in two. He could tear the ever-smaller fragments in half
five or six times. If you're not impressed, just try doing it yourself!
In the world of Greek
grammar, I have noticed that scholars can take a grammatical concept and analyze it down into smaller and smaller pieces --
ad infinitum, it would seem!
Take the genitive case, for instance. Greek nouns have changeable endings which allow
you to determine how the noun is being used in a sentence. As I mentioned in the last posting, a noun acting as the
subject of a sentence will have an ending that marks it as being in the nominative case. The genitive case is another one
of those basic cases.
Beginning Greek students all learn that the genitive is the case that shows possession, and we
normally translate it in English by adding the word "of" in front of it. For instance, you might read about
"the donkey of the farmer," or "the farmer's donkey." Possession is the concept
we usually learn first, because it's easy to understand. If you want to show it even more clearly, you can insert
the phrase, "which belongs to."
However, that explanation doesn't always work. Not all genitives
show possession. Take, for example, a phrase in John 2:21: Jesus, it says, "was speaking about the temple
of his body." The word "body" is in the genitive case, and we can follow the usual practice
of adding "of" in front of it. But it makes no sense to say "the temple which belongs to his body."
Jesus had just made the startling claim that the temple could be destroyed and he could raise it in three days. His
hearers scoffed at the ridiculous idea that anyone could reconstruct the Temple in only three days. Verse 21 explains
that Jesus was talking about His own body, not the Temple building. You could paraphrase his idea by saying, "He
was speaking of the temple which is His body." Grammarians call this construction a "genitive
You see, the genitive case can be used in a number of ways, and Greek scholars have been
happy to analyze the possibilities.
A.T. Robertson, a leading Greek expert in the early twentieth century, divided genitive
uses into two categories, which he called genitive and ablative.
Another standard grammar book by Dana
and Mantey lists 12 ways in which the genitive can be used.
Benjamin Chapman's Card-Guide to New
Testament Exegesis offers 14 possible uses.
Intermediate Greek by Philip Young explains 22
different types of genitive.
I have a set of notes produced by Phillip Williams and John Best containing 27
separate categories of genitive case usages.
Beyond that, I have a list of 83 Greek verbs in 11 categories
which are normally followed by the genitive case.
Is that complicated enough for you?
No matter how precisely
you analyze a feature of Greek grammar, someone can come along and divide into even finer detail.
Do I have to
master all these variations? Probably not. I think it's important to know that the initial explanation you
learned doesn't cover all the possibilities. And you should be willing to explore the options if that's
what it takes to understand a New Testament passage. But most of the time you can function just fine using a relatively
small number of concepts. You don't always have to tear the phone book in half!
Coming soon: a reference
list of the genitive usages that are likely to be useful in your study of the New Testament.
In English grammar, we seldom talk about the case of a word, but you can't avoid the subject in Greek.
Any time you try to translate a noun, adjective, pronoun or article, you have to ask, "What is the case of this
You might say that Greek nouns come in four flavors, but grammarians prefer to use the word case,
rather than flavor. It sounds so much more scholarly!
The case of a noun determines how it is used in the sentence.
The subject of a sentence, for instance, is a noun in the nominative case. The direct object, on the
other hand, will be in the accusative case.
How can you identify the case of a noun? Look at
the ending. A Greek noun normally has eight different endings, including singular and plural forms for each case.
Learning to recognize these endings is one of your main objectives when you take a course in beginning Greek.
a quick summary of the cases and their meanings:
1. Nominative - the subject of the sentence - appears
before the main verb (George saw Timothy.).
2. Genitive - possession - add
the word "of" before the noun (the word of God).
3. Dative - indirect
object - add "to, in, or with" before the noun (I gave him the ball OR I gave the ball to
4. Accusative - direct object - appears after the main verb (George saw Timothy).
Vocative (on a few nouns) - direct address (Sam! I'm glad to see you.).
This is the shorthand version
of the Greek cases and their meanings. But the Greek mind was subtle and sophisticated, and there were many shades of
meaning that a Greek might want to communicate, not just four or five. Inevitably, each case had to cover a number of
more precise meanings. There's more to the story than just the "one-liner" presented above. In the
next few postings, we are going to unwrap each case and explain some of those ideas.
Take the nominative case.
It is the simplest case, yet it was used for more than merely marking the subject of a sentence. The student of the
New Testament will find the following uses:
1. Subject Nominative -- This is by far the most common use.
Nouns in the nominative case usually serve as the subject of a sentence.
light shines in darkness" (1 John 1:5).
2. Predicate nominative -- Whenever a sentence uses
a form of the verb "to be," (Greek eimi or ginomai) you will find that the nominative case is
used both before and after the verb -- as the subject and as the predicate.
love" (1 John 4:8).
3. Nominative of Apposition -- A nominative noun may simply
be sitting beside another nominative noun, serving as a further description for that noun. The first noun might serve
as the subject of the sentence, but the second noun is another name for the same person or thing.
the evangelist" (Acts 21:8).
4. Nominative for proper names -- Some proper names
always occur in the nominative case, regardless of how they are used in the sentence. This is particularly common when
the name is borrowed from another language like Hebrew.
"saying to Aaron" (Acts
5. Nominative for Direct Address -- Most nouns do not have a separate ending for a vocative case,
which is used for direct address: speaking to someone and calling them by name. Nouns that do not have a vocative
form use the nominative case for direct address.
"Hail, king of the Jews!"
6. Nominative in Exclamations or Fragments -- The nominative is used for exclamations or other
phrases that are not integrated with the regular structure of a sentence.
"O the depth of
the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God!" (Romans 11:33).
Keep an eye on this page for the expanded explanation
of the other Greek noun cases, coming up soon!