The Greek Definite Article

HOW THE GREEK DEFINITE ARTICLE DIFFERS FROM THE ENGLISH DEFINITE ARTICLE

Over the years I have often heard preachers force unique, even bizarre, nuances on passages in the New Testament based on the presence of the Greek definite article. If the Greek definite article is present, they insist, we are obligated to represent it with a definite article in the English. This mistaken translation principle frequently results in stilted English and occasionally leads to nonsense. The fact is, no two languages that employ definite articles use them in exactly the same way. If anyone translated definite articles this way from German, or French, or Spanish into English, they would make some embarrassing mistakes. And if they insisted that their stilted translation was the only correct translation, they would be regarded as a laughingstock. So . . . why does anyone think we should translate the definite article in this manner from the Greek of the New Testament into English?

Here are ten common instances where New Testament Greek employs a definite article and the English does not.  These observations will be of use to both serious Greek students and those whose Greek goes little further than looking up Greek words in a Strong’s Lexicon as they work through a passage.

 

1. The demonstrative pronoun οὗτος, αὕτη, τοῦτο (“this” in English) when used adjectively requires the definite article with the noun.

— Matt. 16:18 — ἐπὶ ταύτῃ τῇ πέτρᾳ οἰκοδομήσω μου τὴν ἐκκλησίαν
— ἐπὶ [upon] – ταύτῃ [this] – τῇ [the] – πέτρᾳ [rock] – οἰκοδομήσω [I shall build] – μου [my]
 - τὴν [the] – ἐκκλησίαν [church]
— upon – this – the – rock – I shall build – my – the – church

— this is not English — “upon this the rock I shall build my church”
— this is not English — “upon the this rock I shall build my church”
— this is not English — “upon the rock this I shall build my church”
— this is English — “upon this rock I shall build my church”

— John 3:2 — οὐδεὶς γὰρ ταῦτα τὰ σημεῖα δύναται ποιεῖν
— οὐδεὶς [no one] – γὰρ [for] – ταῦτα [these] – τὰ [the] – σημεῖα [signs] – δύναται [he is able] –  ποιεῖν [to do]
— no one – for – these – the – signs – he is able – to do

—  this is not English — “for no one is able to do these the signs”
— this is not English — “for no one is able to do the these signs”
— this is not English — “for no one is able to do the signs these”
— this is English — “for no one is able to do these signs”

— Summary — In English we don’t use the definite article when we use demonstrative pronouns adjectively.
 We  don’t say, “the this house” or “the house this,” we say, “this house.”
 

2. When adjectives follow nouns that take the definite article, the definite article is repeated with the adjective. This is true whether the adjective is a strict adjective or a participle.

— John 4:11 — πόθεν οὖν ἔχεις τὸ ὕδωρ τὸ ζῶν
— πόθεν [ whence] – οὖν [ then] – ἔχεις [you have] – τὸ [the] – ὕδωρ [water] – τὸ [the] – ζῶν [living]
— whence- then – you have – the – water – the – living

— this is not English — “how then do you have access to the water the living?”
— this is not English — “how then do you have access to the living the water?”
— this is not English — “how then do you have access to the the living water?”
— this is English — “how then do you have access to the living water?”

— Note —  one interpretive option is that ἔχειν (have, hold) is used in its sense of “have the ability
 to do something” — like Latin habeo
— Note — another option is to take ἔχειν in the inceptive sense (secure, get, take hold), i.e. “How are
 you going to secure/get the living water?”

— Rev. 12:9 — ὁ δράκων ὁ μέγας, ὁ ὄφις ὁ ἀρχαῖος
—  ὁ [the] – δράκων [dragon] –  ὁ [the] – μέγας [great] – ὁ [the] – ὄφις [serpent] – ὁ [the] – ἀρχαῖος [ancient]
— the – dragon – the – great – the – serpent – the – ancient

— this is not English — “the dragon the great, the serpent the ancient”
— this is not English — “the great the dragon, the ancient the serpent”
— this is not English — “the the great dragon, the the ancient serpent”
— this is English — “the great dragon, the ancient serpent”

— Summary — In English we don’t repeat the article with adjectives. Indeed, we don’t have occasion,
 for adjectives almost never follow the noun. We don’t say, “the house the big” or “the big the house.”
 We say, “the big house.”
 

3. When infinitives are used as nouns (substantives), they take the definite article.

— Phil. 1:21 — τὸ ζῇν, χριστός· καὶ τὸ ἀποθανεῖν, κέρδος
— τὸ [the] – ζῇν [to live] – (is) – χριστός [Christ] – καὶ [and] – τὸ [the] – ἀποθανεῖν [to die] – (is) –  κέρδος [gain]
— the – to live – (is) – Christ – and – the – to die – (is) – gain

— this is not English — “the to live is Christ, the to die is gain”
— this is not English — “to live the is Christ, to die the is gain”
— this is English — “to live is Christ, to die is gain”

— Mark 12:33 — τὸ ἀγαπᾷν αὐτὸν ἐξ ὅλης τῆς καρδίας
— τὸ [the] – ἀγαπᾷν [to love] – αὐτὸν [him] – ἐξ [from] – ὅλης [whole] – τῆς [the] – καρδίας [heart]
— the – to love – him – from (with) – whole – the – heart

— this is not English — “the to love him with the whole heart”
— this is not English — “to love the him with the whole heart”
— this is English — “to love him with the whole heart”

— Summary — In English we don’t use the article when we use an infinitive as a noun (substantive).
 We don’t say, “I love the to build houses.” We say, “I love to build houses.”
 

4. When abstract nouns are used in a generic use, they take the definite article.

— 1 John 3:4 — ἡ ἁμαρτία ἐστὶν ἡ ἀνομία
—  ἡ [the] – ἁμαρτία [sin] – ἐστὶν [it is] – ἡ [the] – ἀνομία [lawlessness]
— the -sin – is – the – lawlessness

— this is not English — “the sin is the lawlessness”
— this is English — “sin is lawlessness”

— NOTE — this is not talking about a particular sin that is a particular lawlessness
— NOTE — this is not talking about a particular sin in contrast to other sins
— NOTE — this is not talking about a particular lawlessness in contrast to other lawlessnesses
— NOTE — this is simply saying that sin as a generic concept is lawlessness as a generic concept
— NOTE — this is simply saying that sin is lawlessness, that every act of sin constitutes lawlessness

— John 1:17 — ἡ χάρις καὶ ἡ ἀλήθεια διὰ Ἰησοῦ … ἐγένετο
— ἡ [the] – χάρις [grace] – καὶ [and] – ἡ [the] – ἀλήθεια [truth] – διὰ [through] – Ἰησοῦ [Jesus] …  ἐγένετο [ became]
— the – grace – and – the – truth – through – Jesus – became

— this is not what is intended — “the grace and the truth came through Jesus”
— this is what is intended — “grace and truth came through Jesus”

— NOTE — this is not talking about a particular instance of grace and a particular instance of truth
— NOTE — this is not talking about a particular kind of grace and a particular kind of truth
— NOTE — this is talking about the generic fact of God’s grace and God’s truth
— NOTE — simply put, God’s grace and truth, in their origin, wholeness, and fullness are found in Jesus

— John 3: 19 — ἠγάπησαν οἱ ἄνθρωποι μᾶλλον τὸ σκότος ἢ τὸ φῶς
— ἠγάπησαν [they loved] – οἱ [the] – ἄνθρωποι [men] – μᾶλλον [rather] – τὸ [the] – σκότος [darkness]
 -ἢ [than] – τὸ [the] – φῶς [light]
— they loved – the – men – rather – the – darkness – than – the – light

— this is not what is intended — “men loved the darkness rather than the light”
— this is what is intended — “men loved darkness rather than light”

— NOTE — this is not talking about a particular kind or instance of darkness and a particular kind or instance of light
— NOTE — this is talking about darkness (as a generic concept) in contrast to light (as a generic concept)
— Summary — In English when we use abstract nouns generically, we do not use the definite article like Greek does.
 We do not say, “the love is better than the hate.” We say, “love is better than hate.” We do not say, “the wisdom is to
 be preferred over the stupidity.” We say, “wisdom is to be preferred over stupidity.”
 

5. The word God is often used with the definite article.

— Gen. 1:1 (LXX) — Ἐν ἀρχῇ ἐποίησεν ὁ θεὸς τὸν οὐρανὸν καὶ τὴν γῆν
—  Ἐν [in] – ἀρχῇ [beginning] – ἐποίησεν [he made] – ὁ [the] – θεὸς [God] – τὸν [the] – οὐρανὸν [heaven]
 - καὶ [and] – τὴν [the] – γῆν [earth]
— in – beginning – he made – the – God – the – heaven- and – the – earth

— We don’t speak this way — “In the beginning the God created the heaven and the earth.”
— We speak this way — “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.”

— John 1:1 — ὁ λόγος ἦν πρὸς τὸν θεόν
— ὁ {the] – λόγος [Word] – ἦν [was] – πρὸς [with] – τὸν [the] – θεόν [God]
— the – Word – was – with – the – God

— We don’t speak this way — “the Word was with the God”
— We speak this way — “the Word was with God”

— Summary — In English God is intrinsically definite, so it doesn’t need the definite article when speaking
 absolutely. To use the definite article in this instance rattles us because it sounds like Jehovah Witness
 talk. We do use the definite article when we use God with an adjective or an adjectival phrase, e.g.,
 ”the true God” or “the God in heaven.”
 

6. Possessive pronouns require the definite article with the noun.

— Rev. 12:7 —  οἱ ἄγγελοι αὐτοῦ πολεμῆσαι
— οἱ [the] – ἄγγελοι [angels] – αὐτοῦ [of him = his] – πολεμῆσαι [to war]
— the – angels – his – at war

— this is not English — “the angels his at war”
— this is not English — “the his angels at war”
— this is English — “his angels at war”

— NOTE — sometimes infinitives are best translated by a participle or an “at” phrase, e.g. “warring” or “at war”

— Rev. 13:2 — οἱ πόδες αὐτοῦ ὡς ἄρκου
— οἱ [the] –  πόδες [feet] – αὐτοῦ [his] – ὡς [like, as] – ἄρκου [of a bear]
— the – feet – of him – like –  [the feet] – of a bear

— this is not English  —  “the feet of him like a bear”
— this is not English  — “the his feet like [the feet] of a bear”
— this is English — “his feet like [the feet] of a bear” or “his feet like bear’s feet”

— Summary — In English we don’t use a definite article when we use pronouns. We don’t say
 ”the his house” or “his the house,”  we say “his house.”

 

7. Proper names in Greek often take the definite article when used without clarifying material.

— Rev. 12:7 — ὁ Μιχαὴλ καὶ οἱ ἄγγελοι αὐτοῦ
— ὁ [the] – Μιχαὴλ [Michael] –  καὶ [and] – οἱ [the] – ἄγγελοι [angels] – αὐτοῦ [his]
— the – Michael – and – the – angels – his

— this is not English — “the Michael and his angels”
— this is English — “Michael and his angels”

— John 1:26 — Ἀπεκρίθη αὐτοῖς ὁ Ἰωάννης λέγων
— Ἀπεκρίθη [he answered] – αὐτοῖς [to them] – ὁ [the] –  Ἰωάννης [John] – λέγων [saying]
— he answered – to them – the – John – saying

— this is not English — “the John replied, saying” or “the John answered and said”
— this is English — “John replied, saying” or “John answered and said”

— Summary — In English we don’t use the definite pronoun with names unless we add clarifying material.
 We don’t say, “the John is my friend.” We say, “John is my friend.” If we use clarifying material, however,
 we can add the definite article. We could say, for clarification, “The John who lives in the upstairs
 apartment is my friend. But the John who lives in the downstairs apartment is not.”
 

8. The definite article is regularly employed where English would use a relative pronoun.

—- John 1:18 — ὁ μονογενὴς υἱός, ὁ ὢν εἰς τὸν κόλπον τοῦ πατρός
—  ὁ [the] – μονογενὴς [only begotten] – υἱός [son] – ὁ [the] – ὢν [being/is] – εἰς [into, at] – τὸν [the] – κόλπον [bosom]
 - τοῦ [of the] – πατρός [father]
— the – only begotten – son – the – is – at – the – bosom – of the – father

— this is not English — “the only begotton Son, the is at the bosom of the Father”
— this is English — “the only begotton Son, who is at the bosom of the Father”

— 1 John 3:4 — Πᾶς ὁ ποιῶν τὴν ἁμαρτίαν, καὶ τὴν ἀνομίαν ποιεῖ
— Πᾶς  [all] – ὁ [the] –  ποιῶν [doing] – τὴν [the] – ἁμαρτίαν [sin] –  καὶ [and, also] – τὴν [the] – ἀνομίαν [lawlessness]
 - ποιεῖ [he is doing]
— all/everyone – the – doing – the – sin – also – the – lawlessness – he is doing

— this is not English — “Everyone the commits sin also commits lawlessness”
— this is English — “Everyone who commits sin also commits lawlessness”

— Summary — English regularly uses the relative pronoun in these circumstances to introduce the clarifying phrase or
 clause. We don’t say, “All the build houses also pound nails.” We say, “All who build houses also pound nails.”
 

9. The definite article is often employed where English would use a personal pronoun followed by a relative pronoun.

— John 1:15 —  Ὁ ὀπίσω μου ἐρχόμενος ἔμπροσθέν μου γέγονεν
—  Ὁ [the] – ὀπίσω [behind, after] – μου [of me] – ἐρχόμενος [coming] – ἔμπροσθέν [before] – μου [of me]
 - γέγονεν [established, made]
— the – after – me – coming – before – me – established, made

— this is poor English — “the after me coming is preferred before me”
— this is poor English — “the coming after me is preferred before me”
— this is good English — “He who comes after me is preferred before me”
— this is tolerable English — “The one coming after me is preferred before me”

— NOTE — The latter rendering is often taught in first year Greek, but should be regarded as “training wheels.” It is less
 formal and should be used with discretion. English grammarians discourage the use of “one” in this sense.

— Rev. 1:3 — Μακάριος ὁ ἀναγινώσκων
— Μακάριος [blessed] – (is) – ὁ [the] – ἀναγινώσκων [reading]
— blessed – (is) – the – reading

— this is poor English — “blessed is the reading” (this is ambiguous)
— this is good English — “blessed is he who reads”
— this is tolerable English — “blessed is the one who reads”
— this is tolerable English — “blessed is the one reading”

— NOTE — see the “training wheels” note on John 1:15 above
— Summary — In English when we use clauses substantively, we prefer constructions with  pronoun followed by a relative
 pronoun. We don’t say, “The snoozes, loses.” We  say, “He who snoozes, loses.” We don’t say, “Happy are the win the
 lottery.” And it sounds a little off-kilter to say, “Happy are the ones who win the lottery.” We say, “Happy are those
 who win the lottery.” In the latter instance we employ a demonstrative pronoun followed by a relative pronoun.
 

10. The neuter plural definite article is often employed where we would use “things” in English.

— Rom 12:16 —  Μὴ τὰ ὑψηλὰ φρονοῦντες, ἀλλὰ τοῖς ταπεινοῖς συναπαγόμενοι
— Μὴ [not] – τὰ [the] – ὑψηλὰ [highs] – φρονοῦντες [minding] – ἀλλὰ [but] – τοῖς [with the] – ταπεινοῖς [humbles]
 - συναπαγόμενοι [carried away]
— not – the – highs  – minding – but – with the – humbles – be carried away

— this is inferior English — “Don’t set your mind on the highs but be carried away with the humbles”
— this is better  English — “Don’t set your mind on high things, but be carried away with humble things.”

— John 1:11 — Εἰς τὰ ἴδια ἦλθεν
— Εἰς [into, unto] – τὰ [the] – ἴδια [personals] – ἦλθεν [he came]
— unto – the – personals – he came

— this isn’t good English — “unto the personals he came” or “unto the owns he came”
— this isn’t good English — “unto the his personals he came” or “unto the his owns he came”
—  this isn’t good English — “unto the personal things he came” or “unto the own things he came”
— this isn’t good English — “unto the his personal things he came” or “unto the his own things he came”
— this is good English — “unto his personal things he came” or “unto his own things he came”

— Summary — In English we don’t say things like, “the my personals” or “the my personal things.” We say,
 ”my personal things.”

 

CONCLUDING THOUGHTS:
There are several hurdles that students of New Testament Greek must overcome to gain a mastery of the Greek New Testament: vocabulary, differences in sentence structure, and differences in the uses of the various parts of speech. In my observation the last mentioned is generally the last hurdle that the student gets over, if he gets over it at all. Many get caught in the slough of thinking that literal translation means translating infinitives by infinitives, participles by participles, articles by articles, etc. But this is not the case. Languages use forms differently. Our job in translation is to figure out how to best render the  sense being conveyed by a form in one language into another language, whether we do so with the same form or with a different form. Bear in mind that we are translating sense or meaning, not form.  Sometimes we will be better off to render a Greek infinitive by an English participle or a Greek participle by an English finite verb. As far as the part of speech covered by this post is concerned, sometimes we are better off to not translate the Greek definite article and sometimes we are better off to render the sense it conveys with a different form, as a pronoun, or a relative pronoun, or some combination thereof.

I trust that these observations  will help students of the Greek New Testament add to their stock of practical lore, taking them one step closer to a mastery of the Greek New Testament—a valuable treasure indeed.

“Eyes wide open, brain engaged, heart on fire.”

Lee W. Brainard

 

Scripture citations are from —

[The New Testament in the original Greek: Byzantine Textform 2005, with morphology (2006). — Logos Bible Software.]

[Septuaginta: With morphology. (1979). (electronic ed., Ge 1:1). Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft. — Logos Bible Software.]

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