Studying the Optative
Oct 13, 2008 David Lang

Studying the Optative

In my last post, I challenged you to use Accordance to study the optative mood in the Greek New Testament. So far, no one has offered any answers to my questions, but I'm hopeful at least a few of you tried doing some searches for the poor underrated optative. Here are some of the ways I found answers to those questions.

I began by asking just how rare the optative is in the Greek New Testament, whether different Greek texts differ with respect to the number of times the optative appears, and how frequently the optative is used in other Greek corpuses such as the Pseudepigrapha or Apostolic Fathers. The easiest way to answer all of these questions is to use the Search All window to search all of these texts at one time.

The easiest way to open the Search All window is to use the keyboard shortcut command-F. In the Language pop-up, specify Greek. Then choose Verb... from the Enter Grammatical Tag submenu of the Search menu. In the dialog box, choose Optative from the Mood submenu. Click OK to close the dialog box, then click OK in the Search All window to perform the search.

When we look at the results of this search, we see immediately that the optative appears in the tagged Nestle-Aland Greek New Testament (GNT-T) a mere 68 times. Yet surprisingly, it appears 83 times in the tagged Textus Receptus. In an upcoming post, I'll show you how to explore the differences between those two texts, but for now, let's compare the number of optatives in the New Testament with that of other Greek texts.

In the Greek Septuagint, which is roughly four times the size of the Greek New Testament, and which predates the New Testament by several hundred years, we find nearly nine times the number of optatives.

The Pseudepigrapha, which is a bit larger than the New Testament but which contains texts ranging in date from the third century B.C. to as late as the fourth or fifth centuries A.D., has 266 occurrences of the optative. To see how these hits are distributed across the corpus, I'll click PSEUD-T in the Search All window to open a Search window displaying the search results, and then click the Details button to get a Hits Graph.

This graph shows that some pseudepigraphal works use the optative far more than others. The Sybillene Oracles, The Letter of Aristeas, 4 Maccabees, the Psalms of Solomon, and Aristobulus show the most frequent use of the optative, and all date from between the second century B.C. and the first century A.D.

The Works of Josephus, which are roughly three times the size of the New Testament and which date from the first century A.D., show the greatest use of the optative: more than thirty times that of the New Testament! Philo, whose works are roughly the same size as those of Josephus, uses the optative far less frequently than Josephus does, but still far more frequently than the New Testament.

What are we to make of all this? Well, at the very least we can conclude that while the optative is extremely rare in the New Testament, it's not nearly so rare in extrabiblical Greek corpuses. I think we can also loosely discern the following pattern: the optative is more likely to be used early than late (judging by the contrast between the New Testament and Septuagint), and far more likely to be used by more literary writers of Greek (like Philo and Josephus) than in standard koine Greek.

Let's look more closely at the use of the optative in the New Testament to see if this second trend holds true. Are the New Testament books generally recognized as having the most literary Greek more likely to use the optative? We can find out by clicking GNT-T in the Search All window and then clicking Details in the resulting Search window. That will get us the following Graph:

This graph shows that most of the optatives in the New Testament occur in books written by Luke and Paul, as well as in 1 Peter, while the optative is hardly ever used by Matthew, Mark, John, James, or the author of Hebrews. This would seem to support the supposition that the optative is most likely to be used by the more literary Greek writers.

If I want to focus on Paul's use of the optative, I might double-click the Graph in the area of Romans to have the corresponding search window scroll to Romans. When I look at the search window, I find that Paul's use of the optative there is almost exclusively limited to the expression me genoito which I talked about in my previous post. This leads me to wonder, is Paul's use of the optative largely formulaic? Is he merely repeating a common expression which just happens to be in the optative mood, much as we might use some archaic English expression which has worked its way into common parlance? Or does Paul use the optative in other ways which show that he clearly understands its meaning and use?

I'll show how I explore that question in my next post, but if anyone's brave enough to suggest how I might go about doing it, I welcome your comments.

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