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Bad Moods and the Oblique Optative

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More often than not, the governing element for accurate exegesis of the New Testament is the verb. When writing the words of the New Testament, each verb is assigned a mood according to the narrative at hand or the author’s/speaker’s desired affect upon his audience. The moods in the Greek language from which to choose are the indicative (presentation as certain), the subjunctive (presentation as uncertain but often, if not usually, probable), the imperative (presentation as intended), and the optative (presentation as possible). Out of 28,121 verbs or verbal elements in the New Testament, only 68—less than one-quarter of one percent—fall into this last category.1 One semantic subcategory of the optative, the oblique, has received cursory treatment in most grammars and journals (which never fully agree as to its significance), while not finding its way into others at all. This tendency to avoid the oblique optative (or disagree about it) likely arises from a fundamental misunderstanding of its usage and limitations.2

The Optative3

The number 68 used to designate optatives in the New Testament lacks certainty, for a sizeable number of optatives involve text-critical difficulties.4 However, given the best internal and external evidence, the Accordance numbers appear accurate.5 The relative infrequency of the optative is a bit surprising, however, when compared with the LXX. According to Wallace, since the LXX has 516 optatives, “proportionately, if the optative’s frequency had remained stable, we might have expected about twice as many optatives (c. 125) in the NT.”6 The best explanation for this linguistic anomaly is a gradual shift in preference from the optative mood to the subjunctive in Koine Greek.7 When a New Testament writer/speaker chooses to employ the optative rather than the subjunctive, then, his reason for doing so is likely significant.

Optative Subcategories

One of the trademark difficulties of this mood is the lack of agreement among grammars as to its natural syntactical subcategories. A number of grammarians subdivide the optative into categories of “wishing” and “potential.” The majority divide the mood based on the presence or absence of αν.8 A number of works, however, lump the “oblique” category under “potential,” or deny its presence in the New Testament altogether.9 For the current study, Wallace’s fourfold subcategorization of the optative will be employed: Voluntative, potential, oblique, and conditional.10

The Oblique

The oblique category of the optative mood appears exclusively in Luke’s writings, and always “in subordinate clauses (after introductory verbs of saying, etc., in past tenses) in indirect discourse, representing an original indicative or subjunctive in direct discourse.”11 This last quality, whether the oblique of indirect discourse substitutes for an original indicative or subjunctive, furnishes the primary cause for misunderstanding and the possible reason for the variety of categories. If an indirect discourse oblique replaces a hypothetical direct discourse indicative, the sense of the expression is factitive. On the other hand, if an indirect discourse oblique takes the place of a hypothetical direct discourse subjunctive, the sense is deliberative.12

The difficulty for the exegete, then, is reconstructing from the context a direct statement that does not exist. The key for accurate hermeneutics and translation is to know the context well enough to determine if the direct statement would have been factitive or deliberative. Consider the following statement: “The student asked the professor what course grade he would receive.” The direct question would be, “What course grade will I receive?” The sense of the request is simple, and demands a straight-forward, factual answer. There is nothing in the indirect statement which suggests that the student had a number of possible answers swimming around in his head. Assume now that the student had just failed his final exam in the course. His reported speech may well look more like this: “The student asked the professor what course grade he might receive.” The direct question would be, “What course grade might I receive?” The indirect deliberative question suggests that the speaker is “pondering the possibilities.”13 The sense of the request is now complex, and avoids a straight-forward, factual answer. The ten instances of the oblique optative in the New Testament can all be classified as either factitive or deliberative, but selecting criteria for determining a passage’s classification is complex.14

This uncertainty surrounding the factitive and deliberative oblique is perhaps most apparent in modern translations of the New Testament.

F=Factitive translation
D=Deliberative translation

Translation

Luke1.29

Luke 3.15

Luke 8.9

Luke 18.36

Luke 22.23

Acts 17.11

Acts 21.33

Acts 25.16

Acts 25.16

Acts 25.20

KJV

D

F

D

F

F

F

F

F

F

F

NASB

D

D

D

D

D

F

F

F

F

F

NIV

D

D

F

F

D

F

F

F

F

D

NRSV

D

D

F

F

D

F

F

F

F

F

NET

D

D

F

F

D

F

F

F

F

F

Jerusalem 

D

D

D

F

D

F

F

F

F

D

NEB 

D

D

F

F

D

F

F

F

F

F

Phillips

D

D

F

F

F

F

F

F

F

F

It is precisely at this point that most grammars fail to help. According to Chamberlain, all examples of εἴη in indirect questions, along with Acts 25.20, should be taken as deliberative.15 According to Heinz, “The deliberative optative is found in Luke 1:29; 8:9 … 18:36; 22:23; Acts 21:33.”16 According to Dana and Mantey, the deliberative translation is appropriate at Luke 1.29; 22.23; Acts 17.11,17 while Robertson suggests its presence at Acts 25.20, but asserts it “undoubtedly occurs in Lu. 3:15.”18

Perhaps a brief consideration of the New Testament occurrences of the oblique optative will speak to this dilemma. The first two will be examined together.

Luke 1.2919

ἡ δὲ ἐπὶ τῷ λόγῳ διεταράχθη και διελογίζετο ποταπὸς εἴη ὁ ἀσπασμὸς οὓτος.

“Now she was greatly perplexed at his statement, and contemplated what sort of greeting this might be.”20

Luke 3.15

καὶ διαλογιζομένων πάντων ἐν ταῖς καρδίαις αὐτῶν περὶ τοῦ ᾿Ιωάννου μήποτε αὐτὸς εἴη ὁ χριστός.

“…and all of them were contemplating in their hearts concerning John, whether he might perhaps be the Christ.”

These two passages share in common the governing verb “διαλογίζομαι,” meaning “to contemplate” or “to ponder.” This governing verb lends itself to the deliberative classification. The deliberative nature of these passages is especially apparent in light of the previously-mentioned characteristic of “pondering the possibilities.” In such instances, the speaker is mulling over options; deliberating.

Luke 8.9

᾿Επηρώτων δὲ αὐτὸν οἱ μαθηταὶ αὐτοῦ τίς αὕτη εἴη ἡ παραβολή

“Now when his disciples asked him what this particular parable might mean …”

Luke 18.36

ἀκούσας δὲ ὄχλου διαπορευομένου ἐπυνθάνετο τί εἴη τοῦτο.

“Now when he heard the crowd passing by, he asked what was happening.”

The above two passages, while not sharing a common principal verb, communicate the similar governing action of “asking.” The sense, though, is less clear than in the previous examples. In fact, one would virtually have to be inside the minds of the speakers to know if they were speaking in a factitive or a deliberative manner. If forced to categorize these verses, the first is more probably deliberative in light of the disciple’s history with Jesus (which would suggest they had some idea as to the meaning of the parable). In the second, it seems improper to assume that the man had any reason to be searching his mind for possible causes of the disruption.

Luke 22.23

καὶ αὐτοὶ ἤρξαντο συζητεῖν πρὸς ἑαυτοὺς τὸ τὶς ἄρα εἴη ἑξ αὐτῶν ὁ τοῦτο μέλλων πράσσειν.

“And they began to dispute with one another about which of them it might be who was planning to do this thing.”

The text above can certainly be translated with the deliberative, since the disciples have access to a number of possible answers to the question (there were twelve disciples) and the text signifies they were pondering those options.

Acts 17.11

καθ’ ἡμέραν ἀνακρίνοντες τὰς γραφὰς εἰ ἔχοι ταῦτα οὕτως.

“… [for they were] daily examining the scriptures to see if they did, in fact, contain these things.”

Acts 21.33

καὶ ἐπυνθάνετο τίς εἴη καὶ τί ἐστιν πεποιηκώς.

“… and he inquired who he was and what it is that he had done.”

Acts 25.16

πρὶν ἢ ὁ κατηγορούμενος κατὰ πρόσωπον ἔχοι τοὺς κατηγόρους τόπον τε ἀπολογίας λάβοι περὶ τοῦ ἐγκλήματος.

“before the one being accused has his accusers face to face, and receives opportunity to make his defense concerning the charges.”

Acts 25.20

ἔλεγον εἰ βούλοιτο πορεύεσθαι εἰς ῾Ιεροσόλυμα κἀκεῖ κρίνεσθαι περὶ τούτων.

“… I asked if he preferred to go to Jerusalem and to be judged there concerning these things.”

These final examples are all best understood as factitive. In each case, the originator of the indirect question lacks the mental reservoir of options from which to draw (or at least the text indicates none).

Conclusion

The oblique optative is difficult to pigeonhole. Grammars and grammarians are divided over the criteria for its classification. From our present study, it seems that the best way to categorize an oblique (or a potential) optative is to first ask the question, “Does the person’s mind have access to options regarding the answer to the question at hand?” If not, the translation must be factitive. If so, one must ask the second question: “Does the text suggest the person is accessing and examining those options in the narrative?” If not, the safest translation (so as not to presume what is absent from the text) is factitive. If both questions are answered in the affirmative, however, the deliberative translation should fit well, and will hopefully reflect the rich sense of the text accurately.

Optative Data In The New Testament21

PASSAGE

OPTATIVE W/O αν

OPTATIVE W/ἄν

TENSE

VOICE

CATEGORY22

Mark 11.14

φάγοι

 

Aorist

Active

Voluntative

Luke 1.29

εἴη

 

Present

Active

Oblique

Luke 1.38

γένοιτό

 

Aorist

Middle

Voluntative

Luke 1.62

 

ἂν θέλοι

Present

Active

Potential

Luke 3.15

εἴη

 

Present

Active

Oblique

Luke 6.11

 

ἂν ποιήσαιεν

Aorist

Active

Potential

Luke 8.9

εἴη

 

Present

Active

Oblique

Luke 9.46

 

ἂν εἴη

Present

Active

Potential

Luke 15.26

 

ἂν εἴη

Present

Active

Potential

Luke 18.36

εἴη

 

Present

Active

Oblique

Luke 20.16

γένοιτό

 

Aorist

Middle

Voluntative

Luke 22.23

εἴη

 

Present

Active

Oblique

John 13.24

 

ἂν εἴη

Present

Active

Potential

Acts 5.24

 

ἂν γένοιτό

Aorist

Middle

Potential

Acts 8.20

εἴη

 

Present

Active

Voluntative

Acts 8.31

 

ἂν δυναίμην

Present

Passive

Potential

Acts 10.17

 

ἂν εἴη

Present

Active

Potential

Acts 17.11

ἔχοι

 

Present

Active

Oblique

Acts 17.18

 

ἂν θέλοι

Present

Active

Potential

Acts 17.27

ψηλαφήσειαν

 

Aorist

Active

Conditional

Acts 17.27

εὕροιεν

 

Aorist

Active

Conditional

Acts 20.16

εἴη

 

Present

Active

Conditional

Acts 21.33

εἴη

 

Present

Active

Oblique

Acts 24.19

ἔχοιεν

 

Present

Active

Conditional

Acts 25.16

ἔχοι

 

Present

Active

Oblique

Acts 25.16

λάβοι

 

Aorist

Active

Oblique

Acts 25.20

βούλοιτο

 

Present

Middle

Oblique

Acts 26.29

εὐξαίμην

 

Aorist

Middle

Voluntative

Acts 27.12

δύναιντο

 

Present

Passive

Conditional

Acts 27.39

δύναιντο

 

Present

Passive

Conditional

Romans 3.4

γένοιτό

 

Aorist

Middle

Voluntative

Romans 3.6

γένοιτό

 

Aorist

Middle

Voluntative

Romans 3.31

γένοιτό

 

Aorist

Middle

Voluntative

Romans 6.2

γένοιτό

 

Aorist

Middle

Voluntative

Romans 6.15

γένοιτό

 

Aorist

Middle

Voluntative

Romans 7.7

γένοιτό

 

Aorist

Middle

Voluntative

Romans 7.13

γένοιτό

 

Aorist

Middle

Voluntative

Romans 9.14

γένοιτό

 

Aorist

Middle

Voluntative

Romans 11.1

γένοιτό

 

Aorist

Middle

Voluntative

Romans 11.11

γένοιτό

 

Aorist

Middle

Voluntative

Romans 15.5

δῴη

 

Aorist

Active

Voluntative

Romans 15.13

πληρώσαι

 

Aorist

Active

Voluntative

1 Corinthians 6.15

γένοιτό

 

Aorist

Middle

Voluntative

1 Corinthians 14.10

τύχοι

 

Aorist

Active

Conditional

1 Corinthians 15.37

τύχοι

 

Aorist

Active

Conditional

Galatians 2.17

γένοιτό

 

Aorist

Middle

Voluntative

Galatians 3.21

γένοιτό

 

Aorist

Middle

Voluntative

Galatians 6.14

γένοιτό

 

Aorist

Middle

Voluntative

1 Thessalonians 3.11

κατεύθυναι

 

Aorist

Active

Voluntative

1 Thessalonians 3.12

πλεονάσαι

 

Aorist

Active

Voluntative

1 Thessalonians 3.12

περισσεύσαι

 

Aorist

Active

Voluntative

1 Thessalonians 5.23

ἁγιάσαι

 

Aorist

Active

Voluntative

1 Thessalonians 5.23

τηρηθείη

 

Aorist

Passive

Voluntative

2 Thessalonians 2.17

παρακαλέσαι

 

Aorist

Active

Voluntative

2 Thessalonians 2.17

στηρίξαι

 

Aorist

Active

Voluntative

2 Thessalonians 3.5

κατευθύναι

 

Aorist

Active

Voluntative

2 Thessalonians 3.16

δῴη

 

Aorist

Active

Voluntative

2 Timothy 1.16

δῴη

 

Aorist

Active

Voluntative

2 Timothy 1.18

δῴη

 

Aorist

Active

Voluntative

2 Timothy 4.16

λογισθείη

 

Aorist

Passive

Voluntative

Philemon 20

ὀναίμην

 

Aorist

Middle

Voluntative

Hebrews 13.21

καταρτίσαι

 

Aorist

Active

Voluntative

1 Peter 1.2

πληθυνθείη

 

Aorist

Passive

Voluntative

1 Peter 3.14

πάσχοιτε

 

Present

Active

Conditional

1 Peter 3.17

θέλοι

 

Present

Active

Conditional

2 Peter 1.2

πληθυνθείη

 

Aorist

Passive

Voluntative

Jude 2

πληθυνθείη

 

Aorist

Passive

Voluntative

Jude 9

ἐπιτιμήσαι

 

Aorist

Active

Voluntative

**Optatives in NT=68

Optatives in Luke=28/68=41.2%

Optatives in Paul=31/68=45.6%

Optatives elsewhere=9/68=13.2%

**Voluntative=39/68=57.4%

In Luke=4/39=10.3%

In Paul =29/39=74.4%

Elsewhere=6/39=15.4%

**Potential=9/68=13.2%

In Luke=8/9=88.9%

In Paul=0

Elsewhere=1/9=11.1% (in John 13.24)

**Conditional=10/68=14.7%

In Luke=6/10=60%

In Paul=2/10=20%

Elsewhere=2/10=20% (both in Peter)

**Oblique=10/68=14.7%

In Luke=10/10=100%

Bibliography Page

Blass, F., and A. Debrunner. A Greek Grammar of the New Testament and Other EarlyChristian Literature. Translated and revised by Robert W. Funk. Chicago: TheUniversity of Chicago Press, 1961.

Boyer, James L. “The Classification of Optatives: A Statistical Study.” Grace TheologicalJournal 9.1 (1988): 129-140.

__________. “Third (and Fourth) Class Conditions.” Grace Theological Journal 3 (Fall1982): 163-75.

Burton, Ernest DeWitt. Syntax of Moods and Tenses in New Testament Greek. 3rd ed.Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 1976.

Chamberlain, William Douglas. An Exegetical Grammar of the Greek New Testament.New York: The MacMillan Company, 1941.

Dana, H. E., and Julius R. Mantey. A Manual Grammar of the Greek New Testament. NewYork: The Macmillan Company, 1927.

Goetchius, Eugene Van Ness. The Language of the New Testament. New York: CharlesScribner, 1965.

Goodwin, William Watson. Sytnax of the Moods and Tenses of the Greek Verb. Boston:Ginn & Company, 1890.

Heinz, Vincent A. “The Optative Mood in the Greek New Testament” (Thesis, DallasTheological Seminary, 1962).

Kijne, J. J. “Greek Conditional Sentences.” The Bible Translator 13 (October 1962): 223-24.

Perschbacher, Wesley J. New Testament Greek Syntax: An Illustrated Manual. Chicago:Moody Press, 1995.

Porter, Stanley. ??

Robertson, A. T. A Grammar of the Greek New Testament in the Light of HistoricalResearch. Nashville: Broadman Press, 1914. You might want to use the 4th edition.

Smyth, Herbert Weir. Greek Grammar. Revised by G. Messing. Cambridge, MA: Howard ?? University Press, 1956.

Turner, Nigel. Syntax. Vol. 3, A Grammar of New Testament Greek, Edit James HopeMoulton. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1963. Correct the data here.

Wallace, Daniel B. Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the NewTestament. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1996.

Young, Richard A. Intermediate New Testament Greek: A Linguistic and ExegeticalApproach. Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1994.

Zerwick, Maximilian. Biblical Greek: Illustrated by Examples. Translated and adapted byJoseph Smith. Rome: Editrice Pontificio Istituto Biblico, 1963.


1 James Boyer, “The Classification of Optatives: A Statistical Study,” Grace Theological Journal 9.1 (1988), 140. Accordance, too, calculated this total.

2 The shorter grammars omit a discussion of the oblique perhaps for brevity, since it only accounts for ten NT words.

3 For statistical data on the optative mood in tabular and graphic form, along with subcategories and handsome colors, see the pages immediately preceding the bibliography.

4 William Douglas Chamberlain, An Exegetical Grammar of the Greek New Testament (New York: The MacMillan Company, 1941), 83; H. E. Dana, and Julius R. Mantey, A Manual Grammar of the Greek New Testament (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1927), 173; and A. T. Robertson, A Grammar of the Greek New Testament in the Light of Historical Research (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1914), 326. Chamberlain is uncertain whether there are sixty-five or sixty-seven occurrences. Dana and Mantey conclude there are sixty-seven, probably following Robertson who favors the Byzantine reading in John 13.24 which omits the optative.

5 Those with variant readings include Luke 6.11; 15.26; 18.36; John 13.24; and Acts 17.11. Only Luke 15.26 and 18.36 involve variants of αν which may alter the optative’s classification (between oblique and potential).

6 Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1996), 699.

7 Robertson, A Grammar of the Greek New Testament in the Light of Historical Research, 325. See also Dana and Mantey, A Manual Grammar of the Greek New Testament, 173. The optative mood has since phased out, and does not exist in Modern Greek.

8 William Watson Goodwin, Syntax of the Moods and Tenses of the Greek Verb (Boston: Ginn & Company, 1890), 77. While Goodwin did not describe an oblique subcategory, he is apparently one of the first grammarians (Classical Greek) to syntactically classify the optative mood based on the presence or absence of the particle “αν.”

9 The following do not specify an “oblique” category or its equivalent: Robertson, A Grammar of the Greek New Testament in the Light of Historical Research; Dana and Mantey, A Manual Grammar of the Greek New Testament; Ernest DeWitt Burton, Moods and Tenses in New Testament Greek, 3rd ed. (New York: Kregel Publications, 1976). Furthermore, Boyer, “The Classification of Optatives: A Statistical Study,” concludes that “there are really no oblique optatives to be found in the NT” (p. 137).

10 Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament, 481-484.

11 Eugene Van Ness Goetchius, The Language of the New Testament (New York: Charles Scribner, 1965), 312.

12 According to Chamberlain, An Exegetical Grammar of the Greek New Testament, 84, and Dana & Mantey, A Manual Grammar of the Greek New Testament, 174, the deliberative optative forms its own category.

13 Buist M. Fanning, lecture in Advanced Greek Grammar at Dallas Theological Seminary, Spring,1999.

14 The potential optative can usually be thus divided also, as suggested by the similarities between the oblique and potential in a number of passages. Compare Luke 8.9 and 18.36 (both obliques) with 15.26 (potential), and Luke 1.29 and 3.15 (obliques) with Acts 5.24 and 10.17 (potentials). All appear to be deliberatives.

15 Chamberlain, An Exegetical Grammar of the Greek New Testament, 84-5.

16 Vincent A. Heinz, “The Optative Mood in the Greek New Testament” (Unpublished Th.M. Thesis, Dallas Theological Seminary, 1962), 56.

17 Dana and Mantey, A Manual Grammar of the Greek New Testament, 174.

18 Robertson, A Grammar of the Greek New Testament in the Light of Historical Research, 940.

19 The translator’s note in the NET Bible appears to be a trifle misleading at Luke 1.29, implying that all subsequent oblique optatives occurring in Luke’s Gospel are governed by a verb of “thinking.” This, in fact, is not the case. Rather, only Luke 1.29 and 3.15 are such, while the remaining are preceded by verbs of asking, etc.

20 Unless otherwise indicated, all translations are the writer’s own.

21 The computer program Accordance was used to acquire the data presented in these pages.

22 The categories used here are taken from Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament, 481-484.

Related Topics: Grammar