The Greek of Revelation

By: Garrett Best

Note: A solecism is a grammatical mistake in the morpho-syntax of a sentence (Example: “You is one of three people reading this blog.” In that sentence, ‘is’ is a solecism because the correct form would be ‘are’).

As early as the third century C.E., Dionysius of Alexandria said about the Greek of Revelation: “I observe his style (διάλεκτον) and that his use of the Greek language (ἑλληνίζουσαν) is not accurate (οὐκ ἀκριβῶς), but that he employs barbarous idioms (ἰδιώμασίν τε βαρβαρικοῖς χρώμενον), in some places committing downright solecisms (σολοικίζοντα).” (Eusebius Hist. eccl. 7.25.26-27)

In a recent monograph, Laurențiu Moț has calculated that scholars have proposed as many as 232 individual solecisms in Revelation. While the real number is not nearly that high, there are many solecisms in Revelation adding to the mystery and already complicated nature of understanding this apocalyptic work. What kind of solecisms do we find in Revelation? There are singulars for plurals and vice versa; disagreements in case, number, and gender; incorrect use of prepositions; and, incongruent use of verbal tenses and moods. Although scholars disagree as to which individual occurrences constitute solecism, all scholars agree there are many solecisms. After Moț analyses all proposed solecisms, he concludes there are 45 actual solecisms. Other scholars would identify more.

What fascinates me about the solecisms in Revelation is that for the most part, you can demonstrate the author knows how to write correct Greek, but for whatever reason uses irregular forms and constructions on many occasions.

I’ll provide two examples that demonstrate what I’m talking about:

  • In Rev. 3:12, John uses the feminine nominative participle ἡ καταβαίνουσα to modify the genitive phrase τῆς καινῆς Ἰερουσαλὴμ. Because the participle is modifying a genitive antecedent, it should be in the genitive (τῆς καταβαινούσης). The fascinating thing is that John uses the participial form of καταβαίνω five times elsewhere and in each occurrence, uses it correctly (10:1; 18:1; 20:1; 21:2, 10). In 21:2, there is an almost identical phrase as 3:12, and it’s correct. Fascinating.
  • In Rev. 21:9, John uses the genitive participle τῶν γεμόντων to modify the accusative phrase τὰς ἑπτὰ φιάλας. It should be in the accusative form (τὰς γεμούσας). The fascinating thing is that John uses the feminine participial form correctly elsewhere (4:6; 5:8; 15:7), and in 5:8 and 15:7, he uses the accusative form γεμούσας to modify φιάλας. Fascinating.

What Accounts for the Solecisms? (The main scholarly explanations)

  1. Semitic Transfer
    • There’s several different versions of the Semitic transfer explanation, but they all have in common that Greek is the author’s second (or third) language, and the solecisms are instances when his primary Semitic language (Hebrew and/or Aramaic) comes through the Greek. R.H. Charles famously wrote, “While he writes in Greek, he thinks in Hebrew” (Apocalypse, 1:cxliii).
  2. Greek Idiolect
    • Other scholars explain the solecisms without recourse to Hebrew or Aramaic since the writer was writing in Greek to Greek speakers. There are examples of the same kinds of errors occurring in other Greek literature (especially the papyri) which clearly cannot be considered to be influenced by Semitic languages. Rather than resulting from unsuccessful bilingualism, the Greek should be considered a Greek idiolect within possible 1st century Koine registers, no matter how rare it is judged to be.
  3. Anti-Imperial Rhetoric
    • Allen Callahan argued that the author seems to know how to use correct grammar which means the solecisms appear to be intentional. He argues the author was intentionally employing insurgent language. The solecisms are part of the author’s anti-imperial subaltern voice. He intentionally transgressed the grammatical rules of the colonizing power.
  4. Old Testament Allusions
    • G.K. Beale has made a provocative argument that is fleshed out in his commentary. He argues that the solecisms are meant to point to OT allusions. The irregular syntax causes dissonance which points the hearers to an OT passage. Beale takes his cue from the most famous solecisms in Revelation 1:4 and 1:5. Beale argues the solecism in 1:4 occurs because the author is alluding to Ex. 3:14, and the solecism in 1:5 occurs because the author is quoting from Psalm 89 (88 LXX). For the example listed earlier in 3:12, Beale believes the solecism is due to an allusion to Isaiah 64:1.
  5. Prophetic Ecstacy
    • A few authors have suggested that the syntax gives the document an “ecstatic” feel and thus lends credibility to John’s authority as a prophet. I have yet to find substantiation for this claim.
  6. Another Explanation?
    • In my opinion, there is more work to be done on this particular topic. Perhaps the truth is a complicated mixture of several different explanations. I don’t think the last word has been said on the solecisms of Revelation. I, for one, find the solecisms to be a fascinating phenomenon in the NT.

Stay tuned for my musings on the implications of this phenomenon for English translations.

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2 comments

  1. Just wanted you to know that’s the first article I’ve ever read on solecisms. Glad you are using your brain to expand mine.

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