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Jan 6 / Steve Runge

Meaningful distinction between ἀλλά and εἰ μή, pt. 1

I’ve talked a lot about choice and meaning in language, but it is important to cover this ground again. In clauses that create an exception or restriction of some kind (e.g. “John didn’t do anything except sit there”), we need to recognize that the same assertion could have been phrased differently so as to avoid using such a construction. The choice to use an exception or restriction inevitably involves creating a more complex assertion than a simple “John just sat there” statement. So as we talk about the meaningful distinction between ἀλλά and εἰ μή, keep in mind that both of these constructions represent the writer’s choice to use a rhetorically more complex construction compared to using a simple assertion. I am not sure I made this point as clearly as I could have in §4.2-§4.3 of the Discourse Grammar.

Both exceptive and restrictive constructions have something in common. Both constructions signal that what follows the ἀλλά and εἰ μή (or English rather and except) is to correct or replace some comparable element in the preceding context. It qualifies the preceding statements by adding some other piece of information. This piece of information either corrects some overstatement or replaces one option for another, in the case of ἀλλά. Focus on what each one does instead of worrying about how to translate it.

The problem with a translation-based understanding of the words comes to the fore when we note but is used to translate both ἀλλά and εἰ μή. But has a much broader range of meaning than rather or except. But merely joins two things of equal status (e.g. phrases, sentences) and indicates the presence of semantic discontinuity between between the two. Except and rather add further constraints, and are thus more precise. To paraphrase the Hallmark slogan, but is the conjunction you use when you don’t care enough to send the very best. When precision is not needed and you just need to indicate discontinuity, but is the conjunction you reach for. But do not be fooled: the less-restricted meaning of but is no basis for claiming that ἀλλά and εἰ μή mean the same thing. Each conjunction brings its own unique constraint to bear on what follows.

Function of ἀλλά

Now ἀλλά is used to correct or replace some aspect of what precedes. The need for correction or replacement presupposes that something is wrong with what precedes. This makes good sense in a dialogue, where one person got it wrong and the other person is fixing it. The latter is most likely a first-born child. 🙂 However, if we look at the distribution of ἀλλά, most of the uses are in a monologue situation, where the speaker is correcting themselves. In most cases, this means an intentional misstatement (e.g. telling you what didn’t happen) in order to manufacture (yes, manufacture!) an opportunity to correct it.

So why would someone purposefully get it wrong? Isn’t that risky? Couldn’t that lead to miscommunication? Absolutely! However, the rhetorical payoff is worth the risk. Why? Because using the misstatement/correction method draws extra attention to the corrected element that it would not have received just using a simple, positive assertion.

Let’s begin with a look at some uses of ἀλλά found in Rom 3:27-31, a classic use of rhetorical questions. Rhetorical questions can either expect positive or negative answers; we see both below. The element replaced and its replacement are both underlined.

Romans 3:27–31 (SBLGNT)

27 Ποῦ οὖν ἡ καύχησις; ἐξεκλείσθη. διὰ ποίου νόμου; τῶν ἔργων; οὐχί, ἀλλὰ διὰ νόμου πίστεως. 28 λογιζόμεθα γὰρ δικαιοῦσθαι πίστει ἄνθρωπον χωρὶς ἔργων νόμου. 29 ἢ Ἰουδαίων ὁ θεὸς μόνον; οὐχὶ καὶ ἐθνῶν; ναὶ καὶ ἐθνῶν, 30 εἴπερ εἷς ὁ θεός, ὃς δικαιώσει περιτομὴν ἐκ πίστεως καὶ ἀκροβυστίαν διὰ τῆς πίστεως. 31 νόμον οὖν καταργοῦμεν διὰ τῆς πίστεως; μὴ γένοιτο, ἀλλὰ νόμον ἱστάνομεν.

It would have been much easier for Paul to make simple positive assertions instead of using interrogatives, but doing so would have significantly reduced the rhetorical impact. Here are my comments about the use of interrogative pronouns as “forward-pointing references” to draw extra attention to a target: the answer to the question.

“Paul could have made the same point more plainly by stating, ἡ καύχησις οὖν ἐξεκλείσθη διὰ νόμου πίστεως (“Therefore boasting is excluded by the law of faith”), but this would significantly reduce the rhetorical impact compared to using the forward-pointing references. Unpacking this principle in two parts allows each one to sink in. Allowing the reader to think about the questions adds significantly to the power of these statements. It also allows Paul to draw extra attention to exactly what kind of law it is that excludes boasting.1

Note that the rhetorical answers introduced in vv. 27 and 31 use ἀλλά. It constrains the reader to correct or replace some aspect of what precedes. The English conjunctions rather and instead convey the same kind of constraint. I might be able to use but as a gloss here, but its less-constrained meaning leaves it open to a wider range of interpretation than is present in Greek. The Greek ἀλλά constrains us to take “law of faith” and the correct answer instead of “law of works.” The same holds in v. 31; the law is not nullified, rather it is upheld.

Here is another example, where James uses ἀλλά to recharacterize an unbridled tongue.

James 1:26 (SBLGNT) Εἴ τις δοκεῖ θρησκὸς εἶναι μὴ χαλιναγωγῶν γλῶσσαν αὐτοῦ ἀλλὰ ἀπατῶν καρδίαν αὐτοῦ, τούτου μάταιος ἡ θρησκεία.

The more expected counterpart would have been a bridled tongue, right? But James wants the bridling/not bridling to be understood as something else: as a pure versus a deceived heart. It creates a rather unnatural pairing, one we’re unlikely to have inferred had it not been explicitly stated. But consider the alternative. Stating the person who deceives their heart (or alternatively doesn’t bridle their tongue) and claims to be religious has a worthless religion. Choosing either option omits the connection to the other, since bridling the tongue and purity of heart are not a commonly paired opposition. The writer would have needed to make this connection is some other way–likely a separate clause–which would have been clunky and lacked the same rhetorical punch.

So ἀλλά is used to signal that something in the preceding context is to be corrected or replaced by the element that follows it. In the negative examples above, the element introduced by ἀλλά replaced rather than corrected. The following example is a positive statement, where ἀλλά introduces a caveat that corrects what precedes. The implication is that it is somehow incomplete. Some great examples are found in 1 Peter 3:

1 Peter 3:13–16 (SBLGNT)

13 Καὶ τίς ὁ κακώσων ὑμᾶς ἐὰν τοῦ ἀγαθοῦ ζηλωταὶ γένησθε; 14 ἀλλʼ εἰ καὶ πάσχοιτε διὰ δικαιοσύνην, μακάριοι. τὸν δὲ φόβον αὐτῶν μὴ φοβηθῆτε μηδὲ ταραχθῆτε,

15 κύριον δὲ τὸν Χριστὸν ἁγιάσατε ἐν ταῖς καρδίαις ὑμῶν, ἕτοιμοι ἀεὶ πρὸς ἀπολογίαν παντὶ τῷ αἰτοῦντι ὑμᾶς λόγον περὶ τῆς ἐν ὑμῖν ἐλπίδος, 16 ἀλλὰ μετὰ πραΰτητος καὶ φόβου, συνείδησιν ἔχοντες ἀγαθήν, ἵνα ἐν ᾧ καταλαλεῖσθε καταισχυνθῶσιν οἱ ἐπηρεάζοντες ὑμῶν τὴν ἀγαθὴν ἐν Χριστῷ ἀναστροφήν.

It is reasonable to expect not to be hassled for doing good, that’s the way things out to work. The expected answer to the rhetorical question of v. 13 is “no one.” But v. 14 deals with a different reality: the unlikely scenario where you do suffer. In either you are still blessed. Verse 13 technically involves negation, but v. 14 adds another element rather than replaces what precedes.

Verses 15-16 highlight the wonder of language. The exhortation to set apart Christ as Lord in our hearts, followed by a verbless clause elaborating on what this practically looks like. There are no guidelines provided about the manner in which this defense is to be made; the sky’s the limit … until we reach v. 16. Introducing gentleness and reverence using ἀλλά constrains us to read these qualities as somehow correcting what precedes, setting a boundary that was only implicit before. We are not to make the defense at all costs, or “in such a way as to win,” but gently and reverently. Notice that I could not underline discrete words preceding ἀλλά in these examples since what is corrected concerns unstated assumptions. The writer would not have added the caveats in vv. 14 and 16 had there not been a need for them. The only way we can process these caveats is by addressing the implicatures inherently present in the initial statements.

This explanation if ἀλλά is meant as a thumbnail, something that covers the prototypical usage. There are indeed quirky instances, and we’ll survey this in the coming weeks. Do a concordance search for ἀλλά in your favorite corpus and think through how what follows corrects or replaces what precedes. See if the explanation works; see what insight it adds. Forget about translating it and focus on what it does.

  1. Steven E. Runge, Discourse Grammar of the Greek New Testament: A Practical Introduction for Teaching and Exegesis (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 66.

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