Bible study becomes fascinating when it is found that an important fact is sometimes based upon a very small grammatical point. Occasionally a single letter or syllable is sufficient to settle a case in dispute. We cannot afford to ignore the minute points of Scripture. Famous is the long-continued and acrimonious controversy during the fourth century, between those who maintained that Christ was of the same being (homo ousios) with God, and those who maintained He was of like being (homoiousios) with Him. One letter "I" made a world of difference.
The following study will reveal a matter which all versions of the Scriptures do not appear to have observed. Or if translators have observed the usage, they have not been able to ex press it in English. Strictly, it is not good grammar to say, "These trees is tall." Yet there may be a historical reason for the singular verb.
In Greek it is well known that a plural noun is very often followed by a verb in the singular, provided the noun is of neuter gender. Out of about a hundred examples of neuter nouns in the nominative found in Geden's Concordance (there may be more), thirty-five are followed by a plural verb. The rest take a singular verb. But let us illustrate by a concrete and very important example. 1 Cor. 10:11 gives us some valuable information regarding the eons. All information about the eons is valuable. We are told this verse teaches that the eons have ends, or consummations. Certain things were written (in the O. T.) with a view to our admonition, unto whom the consummations of the eons have attained. It is not that we have attained to the consummations of the eons, but the consummations (ta telE; THE FINISHES) have reached unto us. It will be noticed, however, that what the Greek says is, that these finishes HAS attained to us. And, observing that the verb is in the singular and not the plural, we are obliged to give a rational explanation. Masculine and feminine nouns which are plural in Greek always take a plural verb. Why do neuter nouns frequently take a singular verb, yet in one-third of the cases take a plural verb?
Certain Greek Grammars have long given a very good explanation of this phenomenon. And here let it be stated that there is very little wrong with most Greek Grammars, which, on the whole, deal with known facts. The proved rules of grammar do not change. Those who condemn such works have had at some time or other, to resort to them for their paradigms and tables.
Jelf, in his very fine Grammar of 1200 pages (Oxford; 1861) says the construction expresses "a class as one individual thing, a whole (collective unity); the notion of the individuality of the several members of the whole being lost sight of." Green, in his Handbook to the Grammar of the Greek N. T., says that "as neuters generally express things without life, the plural is regarded as one collective mass." Clyde, in his most useful little book, "Greek Syntax," puts it this way: "Neuters commonly denote things; and in relation to things, plurality is apt to be confounded with quantity or mass, which is singular." In his very interesting book on the features of the Greek Language, "The New Cratylus," Dr. J. W. Donaldson makes some helpful suggestions. "In Latin, Greek and Sanskrit, the nominative and accusative of neuter nouns have the same termination. There can be little doubt that the true explanation of this phenomenon is that given by the late Mr. Coleridge, especially in its connection with the fact that in Greek the neuter plural is generally followed by a singular verb. 'The neuter plural governing, as they call it, a singular verb, is one of the many instances in Greek of the inward and metaphysic grammar resisting successfully the tyranny of formal grammar. In truth, there may be Multeity in things; but there can only be Plurality in persons. Observe also that, in fact, a neuter noun in Greek has no real nominative case, though it has a formal one, that is to say, the same word with the accusative. The reason is a thing has no subjectivity or nominative case: it exists only as an object in the accusative or oblique case." Table Talk.
We return, however, to 1 Cor. 10:11. Are we to understand that the consummations of future eons have somehow attained to us? Have they, as it were, drawn up alongside of us, in spirit? We would submit that Paul is alluding only to past eons. Had he meant that the finishes of the various eons, whether there be five or more (it is not Scripture which states there are five), with their peculiar lessons for us, have attained to us, the verb would not have been in the singular, but in the plural. But as the verb is in the singular, the only meaning can be, that these consummations or finishes, have collectively come upon us. This raises an enquiry into the meaning of the Greek words, ta telE. The C. V. Concordance has defined the verb, teleO, FINISH, as being "not in the sense of cessation, but of accomplishment." The word is used of settling up taxes, paying tribute. The noun is rendered "tribute" a few times, because it settled up obligations. The consummations of the eons are the outcome thereof. The outcome of past eons, their tribute, has come upon us collectively, with their lesson for us. Moulton may be correct in saying that it is the tolls of the ages that have come down to us, and the Greek terms are cognate with our word toll. The passage in I Cor. 10 is concerned with idolatry and lusting, and verse 11 should be understood in this connection. If the outcome or fruition of Law was to be righteousness, that could only be attained in Christ (Rom. 10:4). As Rutherford paraphrases, "The law contemplates the Christ as providing righteousness for everyone who has faith." Do I hear you retort that Christ is the end or terminator of the Law? The Law shall yet go forth out of Zion, in all its grandeur and glory, in that day when Yehweh judges among the Nations, when the art of war becomes forgotten (Isa. 2:3-4; Micah 4:1-3). God's Spirit never overturns or cancels unfulfilled prophecy.
In Revelation, the four living creatures or animals are seen to honor God on four occasions (4:9; 5:8, 14; 19:4). In each case this neuter plural (ta zOa) has the verb in the plural. This is natural, as there are only four of them, and their actions stand out as being very individualistic. We should therefore understand ch. 4:9 thus, "And whenever the animals should (individually) be giving glory and honour and thanks to Him sitting on the throne. . . " In ch. 5 :14, the "amen" is not merely a chorus, it is the individual utterance of each of the four beings. Had the verbs in these verses been in the singular, the sense would have been that the animals only ascribed honour to God in general, en masse.
The case is quite different when we read of "the works" of God, or of Christ, of evil or of the flesh. These are always viewed in general, not individually. Human beings love the darkness because their works or acts are, in general, as a whole, wicked (John 3:19). The works which Christ did testified in general concerning Him (John 5: 36). Taken in the mass, they ought to have been altogether convincing. Similarly in ch. 10:25. Gal. 5:19 informs us that "Now apparent are the works of the flesh (in general)." This might look as though our rule was broken here, as some of the individual works are then enumerated. But the next word, hatina, meaning "which indeed (are)", particularizes what was general. Happy indeed are the dead who in the Lord are dying henceforth (Rev. 14: 13), for their acts (in general, as a whole) are following with them. That is to say, their acts have been consistent; as a whole they have been good. They have endured in good action. It is not that single good deeds are being acclaimed, but the general level of their actions has honoured God. In all cases where ta erga (the works or acts) is found (ten times) the verb is in the singular.
Ail important example is to be found at Rev. 20:12. "And scrollets were opened." Here the verb is plural, which indicates that scrollets were deliberately and individually opened. This may be an indication that there are few of them present to be opened. Had they been numerous, the likelihood is that the verb would have been in the singular. Then another scrollet is opened, which is of life. Most significant it is that after the judging, that scrollet of life is seen no longer as a scrollet, but as "the scroll (biblO) of life." It is not our business to question why it has apparently grown larger as a result of the judging. In every occurrence in the N. T., biblos (scroll or book) is always comparatively larger than biblion (scrollet or smaller book). God is not seeking to bamboozle us with the terms He so carefully chooses and uses. Let us believe God and honour His expressions.
In five cases, all in Luke, demons are mentioned as entering or going out from people, or being subject. In each case the verb is in the singular, so that the demons are viewed collectively, not individually (4:41; 8:30, 35, 38; 10:17). But at James 2:19 we observe a marked contrast. "The demons are (individually) also believing and (individually) shuddering." It is not en masse that they believe God is One person, and it is not as a herd that they shudder. Here the verb must be plural. Strictly, daimonion is an inferior or lesser demon, being the diminutive of another word, daimOn, found only three times in the N. T. of which two occurrences are in Codex Alexandrinus only, and not in Codices Vaticanus or Sinaiticus. Translators, however, do not yet appear to have attained to the point of distinguishing between these two words, although God has.
The commonest neuter plural word found in the nominative is the nations or Gentiles (ta ethnE). This occurs thirteen times. In every place but one the verb is plural, indicating that the actions of the Gentiles are viewed as individual, not collective. The nations are seeking for certain material things (Matt. 6:32); all the nations will be gathered in front of Messiah (Matt. 25 :32); Gentiles rejoiced, glorified the word of the Lord, and believed (Acts 13:48), not in the mass, but individually; in Abraham aU the Gentiles will be emblessed, (Gal. 3:8); there will come a time when the nations are made angry (Rev. 11:18), each of them and all of them; but all the Nations are to arrive and worship in Yehweh's sight (Rev. 15:4); all of the Nations individually fall as a result of the deception of Babylon (Rev. 18:3) and they were deceived because they had been drugged by that great city (v. 23); on the mountain city the nations shall walk through means of its light (ch. 21:24).
But at Eph. 4:17 there is a difference. We are not to be walking as the (rest of the) Gentiles are walking. Some MSS insert the word rest, and the singular verb might justify it, as the Gentiles here are viewed as a whole, en masse. There can be no individualism in darkness of mind, or in being alienate from the life of God, or in the other dismal features of verses 18 and 19. The nations are led by the nose in the vanity of their mind, by a powerful invisible foe.
An interesting case is found in connection with the woman of Canaan who sought mercy from David's Son. In Matt. 15:27 her statement is, "Oh yes, Lord (it is ideal), for even the insignificant puppies (or whelps, as various old versions read) are eating from the scraps which are falling from their masters' table." Here the verb eating is singular, so that the mean little dogs are seen as one whole. But in Mark 7:28 it seems she repeated herself, in somewhat different terms, as many people do, "Oh yes, Lord (it is ideal), even the puppies underneath the table are eating from the little children's scraps." Here the verb is plural (although Codex A has it singular), which means that she has viewed the dogs this time as individually busy with the scraps. If, indeed, she made both statements, she was wonderfully bold and clever, and how she must have rejoiced the Lord. For she was there to get her own individual share of blessing. She indeed knew the art of persevering prayer.
Signs (sEmeia) are seen as happening merely in general in Acts 2:43; 5:12 and 2 Cor. 12:12. But in Luke 21 :25 the verb is in the plural. "And there shall be signs in sun, and moon, and constellations." That is to say, these signs will be very distinctive, each one different.
From the fact that in Rev. 11:13 the verb "killed" is in the plural, we might assume that the seven thousand names of human beings who are killed as a result of the great earthquake, represent individual people of name or of note. Many other lesser people may be killed also.
At Acts 1:18, we might improve on the translation, "all his intestines were poured out," by suggesting, "his whole intestines were poured out," because the verb is in the singular. The various viscera are not individually under view. Where, of course, this word is used of the compassions (splagchna; 2 Cor. 7:15; Phm. 7) the verb must be in the singular, as affections cannot be split up into fragments.
There are still far too many small points in the New Testament which require being cleared up. Most of these could be cleared up were much greater attention given to the Greek text, and simple rules such as that explained above. For example, the important term "inspired by God" or "given by inspiration of God" (2 Tim. 3:16; theopneustos) never meant that, but signifies God-inspirable or what can be God-breathed. God can breathe through His declarations, and we can be inspired by them. All the Greek verbal adjectives which terminate in the letters—tos signify—able. What a commentary upon all human versions, that not one so far has distinguished betwixt agapEtos, loveable, and EgapEmenos, beloved, both from the common word agapE, love.
Not a single version yet has troubled to distinguish adequately betwixt the Greek possessive pronouns, sos (thine own personal; thy very own), humeteros (your own personal; your very own), and the very common pronouns such as sou (of thee; thine), humOn (of you; yours). And yet this is one of the richest fields of study in the Scriptures. The whole meaning of the Lord's Supper is transformed by the pronoun used, as at 1 Cor. 11:24.
One usage in Greek which looks very strange to us is that of a passive verb, or a middle verb used in a passive sense, which is followed by a noun in the accusative case. We cannot say in English, "I have been filled the realization of God's will." We must insert "with" after filled. At Phil. 1:11 it is not regular to render by "having been filled (with the) fruit of righteousness." The true sense is, "having had fruit of righteousness, which (fruit) is through Jesus Christ, filled full or completed." In Col. 1 :9, similarly, we ought to understand it thus, "requesting that you may have (your) realization of His will filled full or completed." Likewise at Eph. 1:18, why not read, "having the eyes of your heart enlightened" as Cunnington's very helpful versions render? This will bring out both the sense of the perfect tense and the accusative nouns.
The following is an illustration of the power of very close adherence to the extreme accuracy of Scripture. A good number of years ago a strong protagonist of the theory that Joseph was the human father of Jesus brought forward such specious arguments from the Scriptures themselves, as found in English versions, that no one in a Concordant Meeting in a large city could prove him to be in the wrong, and much mischief was done. His arguments were so plausible and clever that it was recognized that the only artillery that could silence him was the original Scriptures, His claim was that Acts 13:33 and Heb. 1:5, referring to the resurrection, meant that "Thou art My son, TODAY have I begotten Thee," that is, Jesus only became Son of God upon His resurrection. But it was pointed out to him that the emphasis falls elsewhere, "My Son art THOU; (it is) I today have begotten Thee." Both Mary and Holy Spirit were involved in His birth. Only God was involved in His begettal from the dead. (See Rom. 1:3-4). This and many other fine points proved decisive. The opposition broke down. God's Book is the only one that is alive in mighty power.
ALEXANDER THOMSON. Last updated 24.10.2005