Using Underscores in Translation–πλὴν

S. Taman asks on our share page:

I was looking up an interlinear bible and what each word may mean in the concordance and wondered if it is possible that the end of Ephesians 5 v 33 could also be translated “let each of one of you in particular so love his own wife as himself IN ORDER THAT the wife reverence her husband” because of the word “hina” (Strongs G2443)in the greek instead of the common translation of “and the wife SEE TO IT that she reverence her husband”?

Let’s get the Greek in front of us:

πλὴν καὶ ὑμεῖς οἱ καθ’ ἕνα, ἕκαστος τὴν ἑαυτοῦ γυναῖκα οὕτως ἀγαπάτω ὡς ἑαυτόν, ἡ δὲ γυνὴ ἵνα φοβῆται τὸν ἄνδρα.

Rather literally: “And note this, you(pl) also, one by one, each his own wife thusly love as himself, and the wife that she respect the husband.

Don’t let your cognitive underwear get into a knot, the nonEnglish is not meant to be understandable.

First, let me answer the question directly. “In order that” is not a possibility, but for the reasons why we must look beyond just the ἵνα.

At the time of the writing of the NT, clauses constructed with a ἵνα plus subjunctive were replacing infinitives. So here it works pretty much like an infinitive (English or Greek). A somewhat literal translation could be, “the wife [is] to respect her husband.” Also, given that ἵνα generally introduces a purpose or result, or even a purposed result, it’s an easy step for it to take on some imperatival force. And this is also not unusual. That “lite” imperatival force is captured in the translation with the use of English ‘is’ plus an infinitive.

Now, where this sentence gets interesting is how it fits into the larger discourse. It’s interesting because it appears to me that Paul explicitly turns off a misunderstanding by underscoring something. This misunderstanding is the one that an “in order that” would lead to. To show this explicitness we need to look at πλὴν and the idiom οἱ καθ’ ἕνα.

First what function does πλὴν do?

It occurs 31 times in the GNT, predominantly in the Lukan writings with 19 times. After looking at these 31 occurrences, it seems to me that πλὴν performs the following:

Πλὴν reinforces the already established topic and emphasizes the comment. The Pragmatic effect is the comment stands in bas relief to the topic. The topic and comment can be semantically conjunctive or adversative. If it’s conjunctive, the comment is an emphasized restatement of the topic. If it is adversative, then the comment stands as an emphasized contrast to the topic.[1]

Phil. 1:18 provides an excellent example—“the important thing [NIV].” Matthew 11:22,24 also provide good examples where a translation such as “but, note this:” might be better than many of the translations’ choices. Translations tend to use a simple ‘but’. But, I think that loses the focusing force of πλὴν.

So, πλὴν does not introduce new information. It’s intent is to direct the mind to focus on the specific point which follows.

Notice I did not say, “the word means…” and then use an English gloss or two to complete that sentence. Such so-called definitions are not helpful and at worst, quite confusing. What I asked was, “What function does the word perform?” Answering the function question helps us, who hear and speak our own native tongue, to get closer to the Greek idiomatic understanding of the original text.

Here in Ephesians 5, Paul has been instructing husbands and wives how best to build their relationship. At the end of this instruction, Paul sums it up with a single sentence starting with the word πλὴν. So, the effect is for Paul to say, “concerning all that I’ve just said, here’s the important point” or “here’s the thing on which to focus.”

So, if Paul had already developed the idea that a wife’s respect is somehow dependent on her husband’s love, then he can restate that here. If he didn’t state it previously, then emphasis triggered by πλὴν in the mind would have sounded very odd.

The important point is Paul speaks with a French idiom.

See what I mean. 🙂

Now, the idiom οἱ καθ’ ἕνα underscores this even further; however, I’m less confident how to interpret the idiom. I’d love to have some references and other examples of its use.

Basically, from what I can glean, it’s very similar to the English, “one by one.” Its use here I take to mean “each of you considered individually but not uniquely.” So, it encompasses the group in its entirety—both men and women in this case— but considers each member of the group as single agents in the actions.

Also, it seems to me Paul could have simply said, πλὴν ἕκαστος τὴν ἑαυτοῦ…, dropping the additional phrase. This would have restated what was previously said. Why the “extra” words? I think Paul builds emphasis regarding the individuality. He strengthens it even more with the use of the plural pronoun ὑμεῖς and even further by the adverbial use of καὶ. I think it is strengthened even more in the husband’s case by the use of the adjective ἕκαστος as well as the reflexive pronoun ἑαυτοῦ. This is not additional information since in the sentences before he spoke to the woman and then the man in turn. He didn’t mix them.

In other words, Paul is very strongly emphasizing that the respective roles should individually remain in force no matter what. So, considering all these things, translating ἵνα with “in order that” would be quite inaccurate.

I think I would translate as:

And now every single one of you should note this: each husband is to love his wife the same as he does himself, and the wife is to respect her husband.

Lastly, on a practical note, I’ve been married for almost 30 years. I believe I can safely say that having my responsibility in our marriage be level set by whether or not I think my wife meets her responsibility would have never worked. Also, the same downward, spiraling disaster would have been created if she would have limited her responsibility by my lack of meeting mine. Neither respect or love is ever to be earned. And the free gift of the one enables the other.
[1] Topic and Comment are linguistic technical terms sometimes described as theme and rheme. Basically, Topic is what you’re talking about and Comment is what you’re saying about the Topic.

8 thoughts on “Using Underscores in Translation–πλὴν

  1. Bob MacDonald says:

    I love it – what beauty of suggestion you have put in this post. As I read it, I have this image of the Hebrew body, the OT, dressed in a Greek hat, the NT. If you want to live in faith, then read the TNK in Hebrew. If you want a head for intellect and argument, then read the NT in Greek. (Perhaps this comment comes from reading Christianity, the first 3000 years (sic), by Dairmaid MacCulloch. But as I say – I think your argument has grace and love – bravo!

  2. Mike Sangrey says:

    Thank you Bob!

    Wayne, [chuckle] you remind me of another friend of mine who laughs at the oddest times. When this happens he has seen (or heard) a cross-language pun, usually between Hebrew and English. A friend of his knew 7 languages. This man was a teacher and couldn’t get through a class without laughing to himself. The real downside was he learned early on that explaining it to his students didn’t make it funny.

  3. Wayne Leman says:


    My father’s first language was Russian. He told many funny stories and jokes which combined Russian and his second language, English. I’m a chip off the old block. My mother was an excellent grammarian. How could I not be a linguist and help with Bible translation?!

  4. Iver Larsen says:

    The small connective words in Greek are often difficult to pin down, and πλήν is no exception.

    BDAG starts off with this description:
    ① adv. used as conj. (Trag.+), coming at the beginning of a sentence or clause: marker of something that is contrastingly added for consideration.

    Notwithstanding that, they say further down:

    only, in any case, on the other hand, but, breaking off a discussion and emphasizing what is important (JosAs 14:9; Mel., P. 95, 729; UPZ 110, 207 [164 B.C.]; Sb 6994, 28; B-D-F §449, 2; Rob. 1187; s. L-S-J-M s.v. B III 2), so in Paul 1 Cor 11:11; Eph 5:33; Phil 3:16; 4:14. Perh. 1:18 τί γάρ; πλὴν ὅτι … what then? In any case … (but the text is not certain; s. also d); Rv 2:25.

    It is curious that they list every occurrence in Paul’s letters under this dubious heading. I am suggesting that this subsection in the dictionary needs further research and revision. As noted at the top there is a contrastive idea with something in the previous sentence. I do not accept that the new information added after πλήν is necessarily more important than what has just been said. It may be more specific and it is in some way contrastive.

    Although I agree that we cannot match the Greek word with one particular English word, it is possible to give a range of meanings by giving several possibilities. In this respect, KJV did better than all modern versions. For the 5 places in Paul’s letters, they use: nevertheless (1 Cor 11:11; Eph 5:33; Php 3:16) and notwithstanding (Php 1:18; 4:14).

    These two English words give a good approximation to the meaning of the Greek word. We might also use: “In any case” (NIV in Luk 13:33), or “That may be so, but”.

    It will take too long to discuss every case of πλήν, but I suggest that one has to look at the previous sentence and consider the contrast that is implied by the word. For Php 1:18 the two previous verses told us that Christ was being preached by some with pure motives of love, by others with impure motives of jealousy or rivalry. Then Paul adds: So what? That’s OK, because whatever the motive may be, Christ is being preached. (The Greek hOTI here is textually disputed and semantically ambiguous. I took it here as “because” for the sake of English, but it is usually a “that” after πλήν.)

    In Eph 5:33, I suggest that we need to focus on the preceding sentence as well. Paul has been speaking about the unity and love between husband and wife which corresponds to the unity and love between Christ and his church/body. Paul exploited this comparison several times in section 21-33. V. 32 mentiones this powerful unity and love between Christ and the church and he then continues: That’s OK, but (or: Notwithstanding that, or: Nevertheless), you(plural) also, each and every one of you, must love his wife just as he loves himself, and the wife must fear/respect her husband. What comes after πλήν is not more inportant, but granted the previous statement it builds on it and introduces a certain contrast. It is not enough that Christ loved the church. Each husband must show a similar sacrificial love towards his wife.

  5. Mike Sangrey says:

    I don’t think ‘nevertheless‘ ever works well. That word has the effect of reducing the importance of what was said previously, and of establishing the relative importance of what follows as “normal”. An expansion which captures the meaning of nevertheless quite well is, “in spite of what I said. Also, the clause that follows turns into a simple declarative sentence when nevertheless is used.

    If the connective πλήν is only connecting verse 32 to verse 33, then nevertheless is quite odd, since the text ends up saying, I’m talking about X, but you can basically set that aside and simply understand that Y is what I’m saying.

    Something like “in point of fact”, I think, captures the intent of πλήν well, but there are other considerations to review if that phrase were used. “In point of fact” is a bit poignant or sharp-pointed. And I think that might work well in some Lukan passages, it doesn’t work well here in Eph. 5.

    I think the contrast which BAGD senses is a Pragmatic contrast. It’s not so much a semantic one. For example, the case here in Ephesians works pretty much like drawing an underscore beneath “each husband is to love his wife the same as he does himself, and the wife is to respect her husband.” Paul is focusing the reader’s attention on the point he made from Eph. 5:22-32. There’s no semantic contrast. The Pragmatic contrast points the reader to not missing the forest for the trees. That is, “Dear reader, Don’t get lost in the supporting details for the main point I’ve been talking about. Focus on it.”

  6. Iver Larsen says:


    It seems to me that your main thesis is that πλήν underscores what follows. This appears to be based on or at least supported by the NIV translation of Php 1:18. πλήν I am saying that this is not supported by the way πλήν is used in general in the NT. That addition of importance was a pragmatic addition by NIV in this particular context. Note that this is the only instance out of the 31 occurrences of πλήν where NIV has done that and no other translation has done it anywhere at all. It was an NIV idiosyncracy here.

    If you look at all the occurrences of πλήν, in every instance it relates to the immediately preceding sentence. I do not see adequate reason for Eph 5:33 to be an exception.

    There may not be much of a contrast, but the preceding sentence always gives the background scenario for the new information that is introduced by πλήν. I suppose that is what you meant by topic and comment. I don’t use those terms, because I do not think they are helpful. I totally agree with the definition in BDAG which says that it indicates a contrastive addition. Maybe the focus is more on addition that contrastive, depending on context.

    It is of particular relevance to study those instances where πλήν introduces a command or wish, such as Mat 26:39 (Luk 22:42); Luk 6:35; 10:11,20; 11:41; 12:31; 19:27; 23:28; Eph 5:33; Rev 2:25.

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