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What’s an Anacoluthon? (Monday with Mounce 62)

Categories Mondays with Mounce

Monday With Mounce buttonI went in to see the doctor a while back and he said that
I had, well, I didn’t know the word he used. It was too long and Latin-based. I
asked him what that meant, and he said, a cold (I think it was).

“If it is just a cold,” I asked, “then why not call it a

“Because we can’t charge you a lot of money to diagnose a
cold,” he responded.

“No, really, why use a long complicated term when a short
one would do?”

My doctor is a long-term personal friend, so we have lots
of fun conversations. Honestly, part of the answer is to sound esoteric he
said, but part of it is to be medically specific. “Cold” is a pretty large
category, and I had a specific form.

But before we start blaming the medical profession for
something, we should look at our own discipline and ask if we do the same
thing. I snicker sometimes when I use the word “lexicon” to describe a
dictionary. Why do we call it a “lexicon”? Perhaps there is a historically
specific reason, but perhaps we like to sound especially learned.

Or how about “anacoluthon”? This is a Greek term that
means “a sentence or construction that lacks grammatical sequence”
(an + akolouthos, “not following”).
In general parlance, it is just a sentence fragment. Why not call it a
“grammatical error”? Well, perhaps we can be more specific than using the broad
category of “grammatical error,” and perhaps some of us recoil a bit in saying
that the Bible has an “error.” So we take a deep breath and say that this verse
exhibits anacoluthon.

A simple example is 1 Tim 1:3. Paul writes, “As I urged
you when going to Macedonia to remain at Ephesus that you may charge certain
persons not to teach any different doctrine ….” The sentence goes to the end of
v 4, and verse 5 starts a new sentence. What is missing? A subject and a verb!
So technically vv 3-4 are a sentence fragment, a series of dependent clauses
without a main clause.

Translations do a series of things to get around the
problem. The ESV changes the participle “remaining” to an imperative “remain!”
(also TNIV, NASB, RSV, NET). The NRSV changes the past tense “urged” to “urge”;
“I urge you, as I did when I was on my way to Macedonia, to remain in Ephesus.”
The “as I did” is to retain the fact that Paul is thinking about a past event.
The NLT reads, “When I left for Macedonia, I urged you to stay there in Ephesus
and stop those who are teaching wrong doctrine.” I thought I remember seeing a
translation that placed a dash at the end of v 4.

These are all legitimate ways to try and make Paul’s
Greek acceptable. The tricky thing is to let the English reader know that Paul
is referring to a past event, and that he is in essence repeating the same
charge; he has not changed his mind as to what Timothy should be doing.

This is why all full expressions of the doctrine of
inerrancy make allowance for grammatical “mistakes.” At times I suspect the
grammatical errors are totally on purpose. Revelation is full of anacoluthon,
but that is because John is in an ecstatic state and partial sentences and
other incongruities help convey the sense of his ecstasy. But other times the
mistake is just a mistake. Perhaps he didn’t feel like spending the time for
his amanuensis to scrape the parchment and start v 3 over again.

Whatever the historical reason, the biblical writers are
human and God in his sovereignty worked through them, and that included not
always finishing their sentences.

Statements of the doctrine of Inspiration should not be based
on how we think God should have done it, but on what we can see of how he did.


William D. [Bill] Mounce posts every Monday about
the Greek language, exegesis, and related topics at Koinonia. He is the author
of numerous books, including the bestselling 
Basics of Biblical Greek 
edition coming in 2009
!), and general editor for Mounce's
Complete Expository Dictionary of the Old and New Testament Words
. He served
as the New Testament chair of the English Standard Version Bible translation.
Learn more and visit Bill's blog (co-authored with scholar and his father Bob
Mounce) at



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