Oct 15, 2008 David Lang

Studying the Optative, Part 2

In my previous post, I did a Search All for optative verbs and compared the use of the optative in biblical and extrabiblical Greek texts. I then examined a Graph of the use of the optative in the Greek New Testament, and observed that the optative appears most frequently among the more literary authors like Luke and Paul. Yet on closer inspection, it appeared that Paul's use of the optative consists primarily in his frequent repetition of the phrase me genoito, "May it not be!" This led me to ask whether Paul's use of the optative is limited to merely repeating a common expression which just happens to be in the optative mood, or if he actually demonstrates an understanding of the optative's meaning and use.

How would we determine that? Well, I'd begin by limiting my search for the optative to Paul's writings. I happen to have a predefined range called "Pauline Epistles" which includes everything from Romans to Philemon, so I simply chose that range and updated my search. I then clicked the Details button to get a statistical overview of what was found.

The first thing I see is a Hits Graph showing where Paul uses the optative most frequently. Romans, Galatians, and both Thessalonian epistles immediately stand out. At this point, however, I am more interested to see the specific lexical forms which Paul uses in the optative mood. If the only one he uses is ginomai (the lexical form of genoito), then it could certainly be argued that Paul's use of the optative is largely formulaic. If, however, he uses a variety of lexical forms, it would seem that Paul understood well the purpose of the optative mood and how to use it. To get the list of lexical forms which were found I'll click the Analysis tab.

The Analysis window tells me immediately that of the 31 occurrences of the optative mood in Paul, he uses 13 distinct lexical forms. To sort the list of lexical forms by frequency of occurrence, I'll choose Set Analysis Display from the Display menu (or use the one keyboard shortcut you absolutely must learn: command-T). In the dialog which opens, I'll change the Sort pop-up menu from Alphabetical to Count Down. Then I'll click OK to close the dialog box.

Here I can see that Paul clearly does use ginomai in the optative more than any other lexical form. But he does indeed use a variety of other verbs in the optative. It's interesting to note the general flavor of the lexical forms which Paul uses only once or twice: verbs meaning "to sanctify", "to benefit", "to comfort", "to abound," "to increase", "to fill", etc. What might be Paul's reason for using these kinds of verbs in the optative?

I'll get back to that question in a minute, but for now, I'm curious to see where Paul uses these different optatives. To do that, I'm going to choose Analysis Graph from the Graph pop-up menu. The Analysis Graph takes the ability of the Hits Graph to plot frequency across the search range, and combines it with the Analysis window's ability to break down the results of a search by various criteria. The default criterion is lexical form (LEX), so my Analysis Graph opens to show me the distribution of the top seven lexical forms found by this search:

Note how ginomai is concentrated in the epistles of Romans and Galatians. Paul uses me genoito only once outside these two epistles, and that's in 1 Corinthians 6:15, in answer to his rhetorical question, "Shall I then take the members of Christ and unite them with a prostitute?" Apart from that strong denial, all of the other instances of "May it not be!" come in his two most theological and soteriological treatises. Do you think Paul felt strongly about the theological truths he was trying to communicate in those two letters?

Another interesting observation we can make from looking at this Analysis Graph is how much the optative appears toward the beginning or end of some of the other epistles. Note the spikes at the end of 1 Thessalonians, 2 Thessalonians, 2 Timothy, and Philemon. Note also the spike at the beginning of 2 Timothy. Is there a reason for this pattern?

Now that we've used the statistical details to spot certain trends, it's time to explore the reasons for those trends by looking at each hit in context, so I'll return to my Search window and begin scrolling through my results. At this point, I'm more interested in Paul's use of other optatives besides me genoito. Is there a way I can quickly skip past all the me genoitos? Well, since they're all concentrated in Romans and Galatians, I could just scroll past those two books! But if I want to eliminate those hits altogether, I can go up to my search argument, add an 'at' symbol (@), followed by a minus (-), and then type ginomai.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with these symbols, you'll find a brief explanation of them if you look at the Enter Symbol submenu of the Search menu. There you'll see that the 'at' symbol joins a tag to a word, and the minus sign indicates negation. By using these two symbols and entering the word ginomai, I am telling Accordance to find all the optatives in Paul except for the optative of ginomai. When I click OK, I go from 31 hits to 17, because I've now excluded the 14 occurrences of me genoito.

If you have a good English translation in parallel with the Greek, a quick scan of the results will show an obvious pattern: in almost every case, the English word "may" is used in conjunction with these verbs: May God fill you, may the Lord direct your hearts, may the Lord show mercy, etc. From this we can see the answer to some of the questions we asked earlier. Why does Paul use the optative with so many verbs which speak of filling, comfort, abounding, etc.? And why do so many of his optatives appear near the beginning or the end of his epistles? Because Paul is using the optative to express various prayers, wishes, or blessings—something which he typically does in the opening salutation or closing greeting of his epistles.

In this post, we've explored Paul's use of the optative and found that it goes beyond the mere repetition of the phrase "May it not be." We've done that using the various statistical details available, and by refining our search in order to narrow our focus. In an upcoming post, we'll consult grammars to explore the meaning of the optative further and explore some other questions related to the optative.

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