This is not a small matter to me because, as many of you know, I think we have fallen into a trap of reading theology into the text instead of letting the text speak to us directly. The question of the Holy Spirit seemed like a really good test case. Here’s what I found.
GEEK WARNING — what you are about to read is for serious Greek geeks. I will stay away from technical language as much as is possible, but this is a warning to fasten your linguistic seat belts and keep your hands inside the vehicle at all times.
GET OUT OF JAIL FREE CARD— if all the linguist’s detail isn’t your kettle of fish, I hereby give you permission to skip to the end and read the conclusion.
The various phrases that have been translated as Holy Spirit all contain two key words in Greek:
ἅγιος ‘holy’ (an adjective)
πνεῦμα ‘spirit’ (an noun)
They appear together either with the adjective first or with the adjective second:
This is typical of Koine adjectives. They can occur either before or after the noun they modify. Classical Greek grammars say the adjective normally comes first, but by the time of Roman era Koine the normal order is noun followed by adjective. (This was also recently noted by Mike at ἐν ἐφέσῳ.)
For example the phrase φωνὴ μεγάλη ‘(a) loud voice’ occurs 38 times in the NT, only three of which are in the order μεγάλη φωνή. And πνεῦμα ἅγιον occurs 78 times in the NT in that order. ἅγιον πνεῦμα only occurs 11 times. The order noun + adjective is the most frequent even in the LXX.
And if you have multiple modifiers then they all go after the noun. (Revelation is great for examples of this.) This is a very good indication of what the neutral order is.
δράκων μέγας πυρρός ‘a big, red dragon’ (lit. ‘dragon big red’)
βύσσινος λευκὸς καθαρός ‘clean, white linen cloth’ (lit. ‘linen-cloth white clean’
θρὶξ ξανθίζουσα λεπτή ‘a thin, yellow hair’ (lit. ‘hair yellow thin’)
Clearly the order noun + adjective is the normal case in Koine.
The question then arises, what is the difference between the neutral order (noun + adjective) and the other order (adjective + noun)? The standard answer seems always to be that the other order is “emphatic”, whatever that means.
But, at least in the case of ἅγιον πνεῦμα and πνεῦμα ἅγιον, there is a very interesting fact. There are eight instances in the NT with the order ἅγιον πνεῦμα and seven of them are possessive genitives and have the article.
There are 17 total instances of possessive genitives with ἅγιον and πνεῦμα in either order, 10 with the article and 7 without.
My considered opinion is that there is no meaning difference, or at least not what most people would think counts as meaning. I believe that it is simply that the fronted adjective sounds more “high-falutin’” because it harkens back to Classical Greek. The fact that it occurs almost exclusively in a single construction suggests that it’s not a matter of meaning difference at all, but just a marker of style.
Now let’s explore the second way factor we need to know about to interpret the phrases with ἅγιον and πνεῦμα. That is the presence (or absence) of the article, ὁ.
Combining the presence or absence of ὁ with the word order there are four possibilities, and it’s important to look at these features together because they interact as shown in the following table.
τὸ πνεῦμα τὸ ἅγιον
τὸ ἅγιον πνεῦμα
Either order of noun and adjective is possible with or without the article, but if the order is noun + adjective and the article is present, then the article must be repeated before the adjective.
There are many ways in which the Greek article ὁ functions like the English article the. In rough approximation it refers to an entity that the author believes the audience can uniquely identify.
One way that a referent is uniquely identifiable is because the entity was introduced earlier in the text. A clear example can be seen in the beginning of the parable of Lazarus and the rich man in Luke 16:
19 ἄνθρωπος δέ τις ἦν πλούσιος καὶ ἐνεδιδύσκετο πορφύραν καὶ βύσσον εὐφραινόμενος καθ’ ἡμέραν λαμπρῶς — (The rich man is introduced with no article (≈ a in English). ἄνθρωπος τις ‘a certain man’)
20 πτωχὸς δέ τις ὀνόματι Λάζαρος ἐβέβλητο πρὸς τὸν πυλῶνα αὐτοῦ εἱλκωμένος — (The poor man is introduced. πτωχὸς τις ‘a certain poor man’)
21 καὶ ἐπιθυμῶν χορτασθῆναι ἀπὸ τῶν πιπτόντων ἀπὸ τῆς τραπέζης τοῦ πλουσίου ἀλλὰ καὶ οἱ κύνες ἐρχόμενοι ἐπέλειχον τὰ ἕλκη αὐτοῦ — (The rich man is referred to with the definite article, here τοῦ.)
22 ἐγένετο δὲ ἀποθανεῖν τὸν πτωχὸν καὶ ἀπενεχθῆναι αὐτὸν ὑπὸ τῶν ἀγγέλων εἰς τὸν κόλπον Ἀβραάμ — (The poor man is referred to with the definite article, here τὸν.)
ἀπέθανεν δὲ καὶ ὁ πλούσιος καὶ ἐτάφη — (The rich man is referred to with the definite article again, here ὁ.)
Often, however, the way an entity is identifiable is because the entity in question is a readily identifiable part of the world around us, like the sun, the clouds, the streets, the city. There are several such examples in this passage.
21 καὶ ἐπιθυμῶν χορτασθῆναι ἀπὸ τῶν πιπτόντων ἀπὸ τῆς τραπέζης τοῦ πλουσίου ἀλλὰ καὶ οἱ κύνες ἐρχόμενοι ἐπέλειχον τὰ ἕλκη αὐτοῦ (the dogs, which presumably roamed the streets of the city, not unlike many Third World cities today.)
22 ἐγένετο δὲ ἀποθανεῖν τὸν πτωχὸν καὶ ἀπενεχθῆναι αὐτὸν ὑπὸ τῶν ἀγγέλων εἰς τὸν κόλπον Ἀβραάμ ἀπέθανεν δὲ καὶ ὁ πλούσιος καὶ ἐτάφη (the angels and the bosom of Abraham)
Note, however, that not all languages make the same choices regarding which of the things that are “around” get definite articles and which don’t. Hence, we say God, without an article but in Greek one says ὁ θεός. A related choice of this sort that is different between English and Greek is that many abstract nouns take definite articles in Greek, but not English
τὸ αγαθόν ‘good’
ὁ πονηρός ‘evil’
The last way that an entity can be treated as uniquely identifiable is if it is in a frame that is activated by some other word or phrase in the preceding context. If so, you can refer to it with a definite article, both in Greek and in English.
For those who don’t know what a frame is, a simple example should suffice.
A man walked into a restaurant. The maitre d’ seated him and handed him the menu. The waiter took his order and brought a plate of bread to the table.
In this example, you get to say the maitre d’, the menu, the waiter, the table, because once you mention restaurants, the frame of a restaurant is brought to mind, including all the things you find in the prototypical restaurant, like maitre d’s, menus and tables, waiters, and so on. In fact frames also include the kinds of things you expect to happen and in what order, but that’s too far afield for the purposes of this post.
In the Luke passage there are frame related definite articles.
20 πτωχὸς δέ τις ὀνόματι Λάζαρος ἐβέβλητο πρὸς τὸν πυλῶνα αὐτοῦ εἱλκωμένος (Well, it’s really the gate of his house. Rich men live in houses nice enough to have gates.)
21 καὶ ἐπιθυμῶν χορτασθῆναι ἀπὸ τῶν πιπτόντων ἀπὸ τῆς τραπέζης τοῦ πλουσίου ἀλλὰ καὶ οἱ κύνες ἐρχόμενοι ἐπέλειχον τὰ ἕλκη αὐτοῦ (Those who eat sumptuously, eat at tables, and there is so much food that scraps fall to the ground, and beggars are dirty and have sores.)
There is much more to the use of the article in Greek, but this is the outline, and it provides all we need to know to tell from the text itself what the writers of the NT thought regarding the Holy Spirit.
For the folks who are skipping to the end, here’s the conclusion:
The writers of the NT must have been referring to an entity that they believed to be “around” when they used the definite article in passages like Acts 15:8
καὶ ὁ καρδιογνώστης θεὸς ἐμαρτύρησεν αὐτοῖς δοὺς τὸ πνεῦμα τὸ ἅγιον καθὼς καὶ ἡμῖν
And God, who knows the heart, has testified to them by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us. (NET)
because it has no antecedant — no prior mention — to set up the use of the definite article, unless it (He) was a known entity in their conceptual world. Hence it is perfectly appropriate to think from the wording of passages such as this, that the Holy Spirit is a known entity in the mind of the author (here Luke), which he expects his audience will be able to identify.
• There is one quirk in the use of definite noun phrases in Greek which I haven’t seen discussed in the Koine grammar books. Many instances of noun + adjective as the object of a preposition or as a complement of an adjective lack the article even if they are understood definitely. This post has been technical enough. A full discussion of that issue will have to wait for some other time.
• If you look in the grammar books for word order help with nouns and adjectives, they don’t tell you much. For example the Oxford Grammar of Classical Greek just mentions it in passing (pg. 125). David Allen Black in It’s Still Greek to Me (quite a good book in spite of it being a little glib in presentation) only says:
The attributive adjective can usually be recognized by the article that precedes it: τὸ ζῶν ὕδωρ, “the living water.” Frequently the adjective follows the noun: τὸ ὕδωρ τὸ ζῶν, “the living water” [literally, “the water, the living”] (John 4:11). The meaning is the same, but the later position is emphatic. Occasionally the attributive adjective is used without an article ὕδωρ ζῶν, “living water” (John 4:10). In such constructions the noun also does not have the article. (pp. 59-60)
and he’s got it backwards, noun – adjective is the normal (unmarked) order. Adjective – noun is the special order, as we showed above.