Meaningful distinction between ἀλλά and εἰ μή, pt. 2
Making a clear distinction in meaning between function words like ἀλλά and εἰ μή can be difficult. They are function words providing instructions about how to relate two textual elements. Our tendency is to link them to the closest counterpart in English, but this means we are understanding them through a perhaps inaccurate filter. This is why I have found the idea of cognitive constraints to be so useful; it removes the need for assigning a gloss and focuses on what the word signals. In the last post, I summarized:
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.
The last post focused on the function of ἀλλά to correct or replace. So what exactly is the difference between these two connectives if they both do this replacing thing? The key distinction between them is whether the correction/replacement was part of the preceding set or not. Here’s what I mean.
In the case of ἀλλά, the following statement introduces information that was not present in the original statement. The original statement had one or more elements that were incorrect or incomplete, and ἀλλά introduces a new element that was not under consideration. This new element can be added to the preceding set to make it complete or correct (i.e. correcting) or it may stand in the place of some incorrect element(s) (i.e. replacing). Here is what it looks like graphically.
Let’s take another look at an example from the last post
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.
Verse 13 asks who there is who’d harm you for being zealous, with the implied answer being “no one.” Verse 14 now introduces a new element, the idea that such a person really does exist. The ascensive καί casts this hypothetical person as though it were a “least likely possibility” comparable to our use of “even” in English. So in terms of the diagram above, the Xs stand for the people who’d harm you for being zealous. Are there any? No, well, maybe. The Y is adding a caveat that even if they do exist and this does happen, you shouldn’t let them affect your behavior.
The second one is a bit more tricky, since the ground rules for how you make your defense are not explicitly mentioned in v. 15. Nevertheless, v. 16 introduces a new element that (most likely) was not under consideration by the hearer. If Peter was merely adding another thing to do (“Oh, and be sure to do it with gentleness and reverence”), whatever negative thing that he was trying to prevent would still have been admitted. The use of ἀλλά constrains what follows to replace whatever negative behavior the preceding may have conjured up, defined as the opposite of gentle and reverent.
So although ἀλλά and εἰ μή both do the same sort of thing, and both can quite often be translated using a generic “but,” they nevertheless have a meaningful distinction which differentiates them from one another. The distinction is present in Greek regardless of how it might be translated. I feel like this point is dismissed by some using a sense-based explanation: “It’s the A sense of the word in this context, not the B sense.” Regardless of the translation used, the same distinction between them will be present.
This means that Paul’s use of εἰ μή in Gal 2:16 rather than ἀλλά was meaningful and intended. The lack of textual variants for this reading also points toward Paul intending to communicate something with εἰ μή that would not have been conveyed with ἀλλά. I’ll move on to εἰ μή in the next post.
Understanding grammar is a double-edged sword. It can improve the precision of our exegesis and understanding of the text. But it also makes it much harder to hide from what appear to be unpleasant things. If Paul had intended for “works of the law” to have been replaced by “through faith in Jesus Christ,” he surely could have done so using ἀλλά. To be blunt, I think a lot of reformed folks would have preferred Paul has used ἀλλά, but he didn’t. An unpleasant thing this, but not the end of the world that some have made it out to be.
Instead Paul used εἰ μή in order to bring about some constraint that ἀλλά would not have achieved. Translating with the generic “but” in English–which can convey either constraint–only masks what is going on. I am not arguing here for the proper gloss, but for a recognition of what is going on in Greek.
Next post will spell out the constraint of εἰ μή and pave the way for heading back to Gal 2:15-16.