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Infinitives in Aconjunctive Structural Parallel in the NT: What Do They Mean?

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This study is suggested by a recent in-house discussion at bible.org about the meaning of the infinitives in Jas 1:27. The passage reads in the NET Bible as follows: “Pure and undefiled religion before God the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their misfortune [and] to keep oneself unstained by the world.” At issue is whether ‘to care’ and ‘to keep’ are parallel to each other or whether the second infinitive is subordinate to the first. If parallel, then it is fully legitimate to have “and” between the two infinitive clauses. If subordinate, the idea could mean something like the means of keeping oneself unstained by the world is to care for orphans and widows.

This essay will be a brief exploration into the syntactical issues involved, with some final observations. We are looking only at infinitives that could truly be structurally seen to be on the same level. Typically, but not always, this means that they govern their respective clauses (note the first example, Matt 2:13, in which the first infinitive is complementary to μέλλει while the second is not). Any that are joined by a conjunction to one another are not considered (thus, aconjunctive infinitives only).

Accordance identified 475 possible constructions in 358 verses (of infinitives that occur within 10 words of each other). Of these, the following are the most relevant:

  1. Matt 2:13: μέλλει γὰρΗρῴδης ζητεῖν τὸ παιδίον τοῦ απολέσαι αὐτό. The second infinitive is subordinate to the first, but it also is a genitive articular infinitive, suggesting that at least a true parallel was not meant (which can also be seen by the fact that genitive articular infinitives are not complementary; since ζητεῖν is complementary to μέλλει, the construction becomes irrelevant for our purposes).
  2. Matt 6:1: Προσέχετε [δὲ] τὴν δικαιοσύνην ὑμῶν μὴ ποιεῖν ἔμπροσθεν τῶν ἀνθρώπων πρὸς τὸ θεαθῆναι αὐτοῖς. Same as the previous example (subordinate): the second infinitive is not structurally parallel but has πρός before it.
  3. Matt 8:28: ὥστε μὴσχύειν τινὰ παρελθεῖν διὰ τῆς ὁδοῦ ἐκείνης. Second infinitive is complementary to first. Only found with certain kinds of verbs.
  4. Matt 23:23: ταῦτα [δὲ] ἔδει ποιῆσαι κἀκεῖνα μὴφιέναι. Two parallel infinitives, no conjunction joining them (κἀκεῖνα is presumably not joining the infinitives). They are also parallel semantically, not in a subordinate relationship. However, καί may be joining the two clauses, so this example is probably irrelevant.
  5. Mark 1:45: ὥστε μηκέτι αὐτὸν δύνασθαι φανερῶς εἰς πόλιν εἰσελθεῖν. Second infinitive is complementary to first; this can only happen with certain kinds of ‘helper’ verbs.
  6. Mark 3:15: καὶ ἔχεινξουσίανκβάλλειν τὰ δαιμόνια. The second infinitive is actually epexegetical to ξουσίαν, which interrupts the construction. This becomes irrelevant for our purposes.
  7. Mark 4:32: ὥστε δύνασθαι ὑπὸ τὴν σκιὰν αὐτοῦ τὰ πετεινὰ τοῦ οὐρανοῦ κατασκηνοῦν. See Mark 1:45.
  8. Mark 5:17: ἤρξαντο παρακαλεῖν αὐτὸνπελθεῖν. See Mark 1:45.
  9. Mark 5:43: εἶπεν δοθῆναι αὐτῇ φαγεῖν. The direct object (τιναv), which is also the subject of the first infinitive, is implied; the second infinitive is thus in a different construction. This text becomes irrelevant.
  10. Mark 10:32: ἤρξατο αὐτοῖς λέγειν τὰ μέλλοντα αὐτῷ συμβαίνειν. The object breaks the construction; irrelevant.
  11. Luke 1:17: πιστρέψαι καρδίας πατέρων ἐπὶ τέκνα καὶπειθεῖς ἐν φρονήσει δικαίων ἑτοιμάσαι κυρίῳ λαὸν κατεσκευασμένον. This text seems to be a true parallel to Jas 1:27. The two infinitives could be treated as either parallel or the second in some subordinate capacity to the first. But how should it be interpreted?
  12. Luke 1:79: See Matt 2:13. Same situation. If this is Luke’s way of indicating that the second infinitive is subordinate to the first, then it may suggest that in 1:17 he intended for the two to be seen as parallel semantically since they are both simple infinitives.
  13. Luke 2:27: Same basic idea as Luke 1:79. The second infinitive is clearly subordinate to the first, but it also is a genitive articular infinitive.
  14. Luke 4:18: ἔχρισέν με εὐαγγελίσασθαι πτωχοῖςπέσταλκέν με κηρύξαι αἰχμαλώτοις ἄφεσιν καὶ τυφλοῖς ἀνάβλεψιν ποστεῖλαι τεθραυσμένους ἐν ἀφέσει. This is the clearest parallel to Jas 1:27 in that the infinitives are all simple, there are several words intervening, and they could conceivably be taken as semantic parallels or subordinate. I believe the great majority of exegetes consider them to be semantic parallels. That’s how this verse naturally scans as well.
  15. Luke 6:12: ᾿Εγένετο δὲν ταῖς ἡμέραις ταύταιςξελθεῖν αὐτὸν εἰς τὸ ὄρος προσεύξασθαι. Here is a clear example of the second infinitive being subordinate to the first, even though it is not introduced by a genitive article.
  16. Luke 8:55: See Mark 5:43 for the parallel and discussion.
  17. Luke 11:42: See Matt 23:23 for parallel and discussion.
  18. Luke 14:1: Καὶ ἐγένετο ἐν τῷλθεῖν αὐτὸν εἰς οἶκόν τινος τῶν ἀρχόντων [τῶν Φαρισαίων σαββάτῳ φαγεῖν. First infinitive is in prepositional phrase. Thus, even though the second is subordinate to the first, the constructions are different. This, again, seems to be the more routine way to indicate subordination of the second infinitive: the two infinitive constructions are not structurally parallel.
  19. Luke 16:3: σκάπτειν οὐκ ἰσχύωπαιτεῖν αἰσχύνομαι. Semantically parallel, but since they each have a different controlling verb they are not the best parallels to Jas 1:27.
  20. Luke 21:14: μὴ προμελετᾶν ἀπολογηθῆναι· Second infinitive is complementary to first, something that can only occur with certain kinds of verbs. Thus, irrelevant to Jas 1:27.
  21. Acts 7:19: τοῦ ποιεῖν τὰ βρέφη ἔκθετα αὐτῶν εἰς τὸ μὴ ζῳογονεῖσθαι. The second infinitive is subordinate, but the structure is also different.
  22. Acts 10:47: μήτι τὸ ὕδωρ δύναται κωλῦσαί τις τοῦ μὴ βαπτισθῆναι τούτους. Second infinitive is subordinate, but the structure is different.
  23. Acts 15:20: see Acts 10:47 for a parallel construction and meaning.
  24. Acts 24:23: μηδένα κωλύειν τῶν ἰδίων αὐτοῦ ὑπηρετεῖν αὐτῷ. Here seems to be a clear instance of two simple infinitives in the same clause in which the second is clearly subordinate to the first. However, the first is one of those verbs that takes a complementary infinitive.
  25. Acts 26:18: νοῖξαι ὀφθαλμοὺς αὐτῶν τοῦπιστρέψαιπὸ σκότους. Second is subordinate, but it has the genitive article, indicating that it’s not parallel semantically.
  26. Acts 27:43: τοὺς δυναμένους κολυμβᾶνπορίψαντας πρώτους ἐπὶ τὴν γῆνξιέναι. Although these two infinitives look structurally parallel (and the second would thus be subordinate to the first), the first is actually a complementary infinitive to the participle, and thus the first infinitive is in a substantival construction.
  27. Rom 4:11: εἰς τὸ εἶναι αὐτὸν πατέρα πάντων τῶν πιστευόντων δι᾿ ἀκροβυστίας εἰς τὸ λογισθῆναι [καὶV αὐτοῖς [τὴν δικαιοσύνην. The second infinitive is clearly subordinate to the first, yet both are structurally parallel. However, the structure is almost always reserved for purpose, so that it does not exactly parallel Jas 1:27. Still, this is a fair example of subordination with structural parallels.
  28. Rom 12:15: χαίρειν μετὰ χαιρόντων κλαίειν μετὰ κλαιόντων. Clearly the two infinitives are coordinate semantically, and they are simple infinitives. They are also imperatival infinitives, which renders them no better a parallel than Rom 4:11 is on the other side.
  29. 2 Cor 10:16: εἰς τὰ ὑπερέκεινα ὑμῶν εὐαγγελίσασθαι οὐκ ἐν ἀλλοτρίῳ κανόνι εἰς τὰτοιμα καυχήσασθαι. The two infinitives are clearly coordinate and are simple. The prepositional phrases modify the improper preposition and the adjective, not the infinitives (as is obvious by the fact that the articles are plural).
  30. 1 Tim 4:3: κωλυόντων γαμεῖνπέχεσθαι βρωμάτων. The first infinitive is complementary to the participle, but the second, if it is not, is a dangling infinitive. It is probably best to take both infinitives as complementary to the participle, though the second one is so in a different meaning. Thus, ‘prohibiting from marrying, [commanding] to stay away from meat…’ They are clearly semantically parallel if that is the case.
  31. 1 Tim 5:14: Βούλομαι οὖν νεωτέρας γαμεῖν τεκνογονεῖν οἰκοδεσποτεῖν. Clear structural and semantically parallel (simple) infinitives. Three in a row.
  32. 1 Tim 6:18: γαθοεργεῖν πλουτεῖνν ἔργοις καλοῖς εὐμεταδότους εἶναι. More structural and semantic parallels in a laundry list of instructions.
  33. Titus 2:9: Δούλους ἰδίοις δεσπόταις ὑποτάσσεσθαιν πᾶσιν εὐαρέστους εἶναι. Again, structural and semantic parallels with simple infinitives.
  34. Titus 3:1: ῾Υπομίμνῃσκε αὐτοὺς ἀρχαῖς ἐξουσίαις ὑποτάσσεσθαι πειθαρχεῖν πρὸς πᾶν ἔργον ἀγαθὸν ἑτοίμους εἶναι. Structural and semantic parallels with simple infinitives.
  35. Titus 3:2: μηδένα βλασφημεῖνμάχους εἶναι. Structural and semantic parallels with simple infinitives.
  36. Jas 1:19: ἔστω δὲ πᾶς ἄνθρωπος ταχὺς εἰς τὸκοῦσαι βραδὺς εἰς τὸ λαλῆσαι βραδὺς εἰς ὀργήν· Clearly structural and semantic parallels, though neither is a simple infinitive.
  37. Jas 1:27: θρησκεία καθαρὰ καὶμίαντος παρὰ τῷ θεῷ καὶ πατρὶ αὕτη ἐστίν πισκέπτεσθαι ὀρφανοὺς καὶ χήρας ἐν τῇ θλίψει αὐτῶν ἄσπιλον ἑαυτὸν τηρεῖνπὸ τοῦ κόσμου. This is the target passage. Two simple infinitives, separated by nine words. The first one is clearly appositional to θρησκεία καθαρὰ καὶμίαντος (παρὰ τῷ θεῷ καὶ πατρὶ αὕτη ἐστίν). The question is what the second infinitive means. The two broad options are that it is parallel to the first infinitive (and thus, also appositional), or it is subordinate in some sense to the first infinitive. If parallel, then both infinitives are giving complementary examples/definitions of pure and undefiled religion. In this case, it is appropriate to add an “and” between the two infinitive clauses, as most translations have it. If subordinate, the options seem to be (1) epexegetical (“care for orphans… so as to keep oneself unstained from the world”), (2) result (“care for orphans… with the result that you keep yourself unstained from the world”), or (3) purpose (“care for orphans… for the purpose of keeping yourself unstained from the world”). We will come back to these options after we summarize our findings.
  38. Rev 2:14: ὃς ἐδίδασκεν τῷ Βαλὰκ βαλεῖν σκάνδαλον ἐνώπιον τῶν υἱῶν ᾿Ισραὴλ φαγεῖν εἰδωλόθυτα. Two simple infinitives in parallel structures, though the second is subordinate to the first.

Summary: Of the 37 structurally parallel passages listed in this paper,1 we discovered that:

  • Seven of the passages were truly irrelevant as being legitimate parallels to Jas 1:27 (Matt 23:23; Mark 3:15; 5:43; Mark 10:32; Luke 8:55; Luke 11:42; Acts 27:43).
  • Six of the passages involved the first infinitive taking the second as a complementary infinitive. Since there is a finite number of verbs that can take complementary infinitives, and since the infinitives in Jas 1:27 aren’t on the list, this fact renders all these passages irrelevant to our discussion. Matt 8:28; Mark 1:45; Mark 4:32; Mark 5:17; Luke 21:24; Acts 24:23.
  • Nine of the passages involved a different construction for each infinitive and thus were not truly structurally parallel. Among these, six constructions involved a genitive articular infinitive as the second infinitive; in each case, the infinitive had a telic force (Matt 2:13; Luke 1:79; Luke 2:27; Acts 10:47; Acts 15:20; Acts 26:18). The genitive article seemed to provide the clue for the reader that this second infinitive should be taken as not only subordinate to the first infinitive, but also as having a purpose force. The other passages include: Matt 6:1 (second infinitive is governed by πρός; it indicated the purpose of the first infinitive); Luke 14:1 (second is simple while the first is in a temporal infinitive clause with ἐν; the second indicates purpose); Acts 7:19 (εἰς τό with the second, indicating purpose).
  • There are also two structurally parallel passage that uses other than a simple infinitive (the same one for each infinitive), thus creating a less than ideal parallel to Jas 1:27. Rom 4:11 has both structures with εἰς τό + the infinitive, which is almost always used for purpose or result; in this instance the second infinitive is subordinate to the first. But in Jas 1:19, just eight verses before our target text, two parallel εἰς τό constructions are found, and both are clearly parallel semantically as well.

This leaves only those constructions that have simple infinitives in true parallel structures. This is the requirement of the closest parallels to Jas 1:27. What do these constructions indicate?

  • One of these passages seems to be ambiguous, capable of going either way: Luke 1:17 (‘to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared for him’). Are these coordinate thoughts or is the second subordinate to the first, or are the two infinitive construction complementary to each other?
  • There were two passages in which the second simple infinitive seemed to be subordinate to the first simple infinitive. Luke 6:12 (‘Now it happened in those days that he came to the mountain to pray’). This passage borders on having a complementary infinitive. It should be noted that many times ἔρχομαι takes a complementary infinitive; here, the idea seems to fit purpose as well as complementary. But in the least, the presence of ἔρχομαι softens the parallel with Jas 1:27. The second passage is Rev 2:14: ‘who instructed Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel so that they would eat food offered to idols.’ This text cannot be relegated to a borderline complementary infinitive as Luke 6:12 can. Rather, it is clearly affirming that the second simple infinitive is subordinate to the first, even though they are structurally parallel. This is thus the best parallel to seeing a subordinate infinitive in Jas 1:27. It should be noted, however, that the grammar of the Apocalypse is the very worst in the New Testament, while James’ grammar is significantly better (one of the best writers in the NT). Thus, it may be that writing in this way is not usually found among the better writers (so far, the NT writers suggest this point), which softens considerably the testimony that Revelation can give to what James is saying in his good Greek.
  • Two texts, though clearly on behalf of semantic parallels, have some features that may render them as slightly tapered parallels to Jas 1:27. First, Luke 16:3 involves two simple infinitives in structural and semantic parallel: “I’m not strong enough to dig, [and] I’m too ashamed to beg” (NET). What makes this less than an ideal parallel is that each infinitive is governed by its own controlling verb. Thus, the parallels are the verbs more than the infinitives. Nevertheless, a clear semantic parallel exists rather than any subordinate role. Second, Rom 12:15 has two coordinate infinitives, both simple, with parallel (rather than subordinate) meanings. However, each of these is an imperatival infinitive (“Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep”). As such, they are not functioning as infinitives normally do, so their value in helping us decide the probative force in Jas 1:27 is most likely minimal.
  • Finally, eight passages have structurally parallel simple infinitives, with clearly parallel semantic forces. Luke 4:18 is a strong parallel to Jas 1:27 in that there are three infinitives, with several words between the clauses, all dependent on the same verb. Further, they could conceivably be taken as subordinate or coordinate. But the majority of exegetes consider them to be semantic parallels: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor, he has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and the regaining of sight to the blind, to set free those who are oppressed.”

    Second, there are five passages which involve coordinate ideas, sometimes with minimal words intervening, all in laundry list injunctions in the pastorals: 1 Tim 5:14 (‘I want young women to marry, raise children, [and] manage a household’); 1 Tim 6:18 (‘[tell them] to do good, to be rich in good deeds, to be generous givers’); Titus 2:9 (Slaves are to be subject to their own masters in everything, to do what is wanted); Titus 3:1 (‘Remind them to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work’); Titus 3:2 (‘They are not to slander anyone, [but] to be peaceable, gentle, showing complete courtesy to all people’).

    There are also two passages that, like Luke 4:18, present very compelling structural parallels to Jas 1:27. First Timothy 4:3 reads, “They will prohibit marriage and require abstinence from foods that God created.” On the surface, it doesn’t seem that the two infinitives are being translated properly. But they are both complementary infinitives to ‘prohibit,’ though with a twist. To prohibit is a negative command. What Paul has done here was to carry the idea of a command over to the second infinitive, allowing the infinitive itself (πέχεσθαι) to connote the negative aspect of what he was saying. In any event, this is a clear text of two simple infinitives, used in parallel constructions, with semantically parallel meaning. Second Corinthians 10:16 involves two infinitives that are clearly coordinate to each other, are unencumbered with articles and prepositions, and have several intervening words (seven in the Greek text) between the two infinitives: “so that we may preach the gospel in the regions that lie beyond you, and not boast of work already done in another person’s area.” A very strong parallel to Jas 1:27 indeed!

In sum, what we have seen is that there were two passages that seemed to qualify well as parallels to Jas 1:27 with the second infinitive bearing a subordinate meaning. But each of them had glitches. The first involved a verb that frequently seems to take a complementary infinitive. The second was from the Apocalypse, the NT book with unquestionably the worst Greek. These are simply not stellar witnesses for a subordinate idea in Jas 1:27. Second, we noticed that when subordinate ideas were typically communicated in aconjunctive double infinitive constructions in the New Testament, the second infinitive almost always had a different structure from the first one. The genitive article was a key signal that the second infinitive was subordinate to the first and had a telic force, found especially in the better writers. This is hardly irrelevant to Jas 1:27: if the better writers wanted the readers to understand the second infinitive as subordinate, they would usually mark it out by changing the structure from the first infinitive structure. That James does not do this at least gives no comfort to the subordinate view. Third, a large number of subordinate infinitives were found to be complementary infinitives to other infinitives. But since the lexical parameters of such helping verbs are very specific and since the first infinitive in Jas 1:27 does not involve such a verb, such passages proved irrelevant to our study. Fourth, the clearest examples—and overwhelmingly so—for the semantics of structurally parallel aconjunctive infinitives displayed a semantically parallel meaning. It would seem that the evidence that we have seen in the New Testament strongly suggests that, if syntactical evidence accounts for anything, we should read Jas 1:27 as speaking of two different components of pure and undefiled religion: “to care for orphans and widows in their misfortune and keep oneself unstained by the world.”


The three leading semantic possibilities for a subordinate infinitive in Jas 1:27 were epexegetical, result, and purpose. None of the possible subordinate infinitives in our study involved notions either of epexegesis or result. Now, to be sure, the sampling is small, but in light of this datum some clear instances of such would need to be forthcoming from Koine literature if one wanted to build a case for τηρεῖν as an epexegetical or result infinitive in Jas 1:27. Further, epexegetical infinitives, as a rule, are not related to other infinitives but are related to nouns and adjectives.2 This means that a telic infinitive is the most likely possibility, statistically speaking. The problem is that this meaning doesn’t seem to be very satisfactory in this passage. Is James saying that the reason we should help the helpless is because this will accrue to our character quality? That seems a bit too self-serving. If the infinitives are taken as both appositional to the ‘pure and undefiled religion,’ then James is not making any motivational speeches about how helping orphans and widows makes us better Christians. He is simply defining what pure and undefiled religion does. He is not saying ‘take care of widows’ and this will keep you sanctified.

At bottom, the traditional exegesis of the text seems to fit better with the structure, and gives a more satisfactory sense to the force of James’ argument. It should of course be noted that if both infinitives are giving complementary definitions of pure religion, then neither activity can be neglected if the pure religion is to be in place.

1 Others were found as well, but all the others fits the patterns of some listed here that were considered, upon closer examination, to be irrelevant (e.g., first infinitive is complementary to a ‘helper’ verb, etc.).

2 See D. B. Wallace, Greek Grammar beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996) 607.

Related Topics: Grammar, Text & Translation, Textual Criticism