English Noun System

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In our final lesson together we will look at the Greek noun system, especially the genitive case.

English Noun System


Course: Greek Tools for Bible Study

Lecture: English Noun System

Week 6a: How Do We Describe Things?

English Noun System


In Week 6, the first four chapters have to do with the noun system. It is not very exciting, so we are going to get through it pretty quickly. There are some things in the dative and the genitive that we need to look at. We will spend most of our time on Chapters 29 and 30: “How to Read Commentaries”. We have already learned a lot of the bits and pieces, but we will pull it together. Then in Chapter 30: “The History of the Bible and Textual Criticism”. The chapter started out with a desire to equip you to handle the King James debate, but it quickly grew into a “Bible Appreciation” week. The more you read about the history of the Bible and what it cost people to be obedient to God and to get it to us, the more you realize it really is an amazing story.

Chapters 25 – 28: How to Form a Greek Noun

Let me say a few things about how you form the Greek nouns. You have already seen bits and pieces of this. You need to know this in order to make sense when you are using an interlinear and some of the other tools. But we’ll go through it rather quickly. Do you remember in verbs that they were formed with parts? You had the stem which conveyed the basic meaning of the verb, and then you had personal endings to make it first, second, or third person; singular or plural.

You have somewhat the same thing with nouns. You have the stem; so logo is the stem of the Greek word meaning “word”. And then the V (sigma) at the end is called a case ending. In other words, Greek nouns are going to be inflected. They are going to change their form depending upon meaning and function. So in the Greek nouns you have a stem and you have a case ending. If you want to put a word in another case, you just give it a different case ending.

For example, lovgoV is the form of the word when it is the subject of a sentence;  lovgon with a n (nu), is a form of the word when it is a direct object.  You have inflection. You have the changing of case endings depending upon function and other things.


For review, in English we have three cases: subjective, possessive, and objective. Subjective is the form of the word when it is the subject of the verb; possessive, when it is showing possession; objective, when it is the direct object, object of prepositions, and other things like that.

In Greek, we have four cases. The nominative case is basically the same as the English subjective case. When a word is functioning as the subject of a sentence, they will put it into the nominative case. They put it into the nominative case by adding a nominative case ending. If you have a word that is functioning as the subject of the verb, that word has to go into the nominative case. It goes into the nominative case by appending nominative case endings onto the stem, not by the word order.

Example: “Bill bit the cat.”

In English, how do we know that Bill is doing the biting?… because it comes before the verb. How do we know the cat was bitten?… because it comes after the verb. In English we use word order. Greek does not use word order. It uses case endings.

If a Greek word is a subject of a verb (and there are a few other reasons for putting something in the nominative, but most of them are subjects), then you put it in the nominative. If the word is going to be a direct object (and again, a few other things), in English it would be in the objective case; in Greek they would put it into the accusative case by adding accusative case endings onto it. That is all straight forward.

In English we have the possessive. In Greek it is called the genitive. They are surprisingly close. It is the idea of “of”. “Bowl of silver”  If it is the possessive case in English, it will go into the genitive case in Greek. The genitive case is capable of doing a lot more than just “of”, but that is its predominate meaning.

We have another case in Greek called the dative. The dative can mean a lot of different things. It can mean, “to, for, in, by”, and that is just the beginning of the list.

So you have four cases in Greek. We are not going to look at nominative and accusative because they are very straight forward, but I do want to take a look at the dative and genitive.
But let me say a couple of things first.

Word Order

The issue of word order was raised. Here’s a good example of it. If this were in English word order, it would be: “God…” (qeovV in Greek almost always has the definite article with it, but we just translate it “God”.  oJ is the word “the”.)  “God loves the world.” Do you see the case ending changes?  qeovV: the V (sigma) tells us that qeovV is the subject. kovsmon: the n (nu) tells us it is the direct object. Because it is the case endings and not word order, you can do anything that you want to with the word order. You can say, to;n kovsmon oJ qeo;V ajgapei: (ton kosmon ho theos agapei) and it means basically the same thing.

It is not word order. It is the case endings that help us do this. Now, there is, in very general terms, normal word order in Greek, but they change it so much that you don't see it that much. What I want you to see is that it is not word order; it is the case endings that tell the translator:  Where’s the subject? Where’s the direct object? What’s showing possession?… all these kinds of things. If you have an interlinear, you might read verses and the order sounds strange to an English ear. That is because they use case endings, not order.

Word Order for Emphasis

For example, here’s John 3:16: “so  for  he loved   the God   the world   so that   the son   the only   he gave”.  That is very normal in Greek. There are no surprises about that. What you can see is, “So for God loved the world…” There’s your V in qeovV. There’s your n in kovsmon. So, you know that qeovV is the subject of the verb hjgavphsen (ēgapēsen). “…so that the son…”, there’s your n, (there are other case endings for the accusative), “…the son the only he gave.” So, it is case endings.

Probably for the baby-Greek approach, what will be helpful (and this will come up in commentaries, too) is the writers will say that the biblical writer has moved the word to the front to emphasize it. Because word order is so flexible in Greek, if you want to emphasize something you move the word to the beginning, and because it still has the same case ending, it does not matter.

You know Ephesians 2:8:  “For by grace you have been saved through faith.” That is a very accurate translation because the Greek is pulling the “grace” to the front of the verse because that is what Paul wants to emphasize. “It is by grace that you have been saved.” That kind of thing happens all over the place.

Again, at this point, you probably can’t feel where something has been pulled forward. What is being emphasized is, “for in this way, he loved, God the world, his son, his only one, he gave.” Normally you would find the direct object after the verb. But here, they pulled it before it because the emphasis is not so much that he gave (and these are nuance things), but that it is the only son that God gave.

Word order is not nearly as significant as it is in English. The case endings tell you subject, direct object, and so on. They can move things, especially to the beginning of the clause, to emphasize it. If you are using The Reverse Interlinear, you won’t see that because I switched the Greek. You will see that in a standard interlinear.
Here’s another example, and you can hear the cadence as I read it.

Galatians 2:20, “with Christ  I have been crucified  but  I live…” (The de;, remember, is one of those words that is never first in the clause. They put it second, but you translate it first.)  “… but  I live  no longer  I  but  he lives  in  me  Christ”.  Do you see what they did? In this case they put the subjects at the end. Again, “with Christ I have been crucified but I live no longer I but he lives in me Christ.”

The real rule is they just put the words out of order to bring emphasis to them. Sometimes they can put them at the end as well. Normally, they will be up near the front. If the commentary writer starts saying, “In the Greek word order, this word has been emphasized”, that is what they mean. They probably pulled it forward in the sentence. You can get a feel for what you can do in terms of nuances if you don't have to follow word order, and you can put CristovV (Christos) wherever you want.

Problems of Word Order

Of course, there are always problems when you can do these kinds of things. Romans 1:17 is probably the primary example in the Bible. This is Paul's quote of Habakkuk. There are a lot of difficulties with this verse. If you read a good commentary, it will go on for pages on this verse. Here you can see:  “The righteous  out of  faith  he will live.”  The  ejk pivstewV, the “out of faith”, Paul has put right in the middle. What does it modify? If you were going to phrase that, what would you hook the prepositional phrase to? Is it, “The person who is righteous out of his faith, will live”? Or, is  ejk pivstewV  adverbial, that “the righteous person will live by faith”?  “The righteous person will live by his faith” tends to fit the Habakkuk context a little better. But, “the person who is righteous because of his faith” fits the Pauline context a little better. That is a difficult phrase to know how to translate.

So, of course, the ESV does what the ESV does.  We try to be as transparent as we can and let you figure it out.  “The righteous shall live by faith.” It is hard to say, “the righteous by faith will live.”

The New English Bible (I’ve not quoted that before, but it’s the only one that went this position that I could find.)  “He shall gain life who is justified through faith.” They’ve hooked it with the verb.

That is part of the problem with the way Greeks put their sentences together. The prepositional phrase can be either adjectival or adverbial. This does not happen a lot, but it happens sometimes.

Number and Gender

Briefly, Greek nouns, like adjectives, also have number and gender. They can be singular and plural. The way that they indicate it is by having a different set of endings.  Sigma (V) is a nominative singular case ending. The iota (i) is one of the nominative plural case endings. So  lovgoV (logos) is “word”;  logoiv (logoi) is “words”.  There are all different kinds of patterns. We call them declensions and other things.

ajdelfhv (adelphē) is actually a feminine word (it is not masculine) because it means “sister”.  ajdelfovV (adelphos) is “brother”.  ajdelfhv  is “sister” so they put it in the feminine. Here  ajdelfhv  is nominative singular; ajdelfaiv (adelphai)  is nominative plural. But this is a feminine form.

I wanted you to see that there are actually many, many endings that can be used and part of the agony of a full-Greek approach is that you have to memorize all them. Because you are sitting there with logo- and you ask yourself,  “Does it use a sigma to go to a nominative singular, or does it use something else?” And that’s part of the agony.

Natural Gender

Briefly, let me say something about natural gender. Outside of pronouns and a few words like ajdelfovV and ajdelfhv, Greek does not have natural gender.  aJmartiva (hamartia) means “sin” and grammatically it is a feminine noun. That does not mean that sin is a female trait.  aJmartwlovV (hamartōlos) means “sinner” and it is masculine, but men are not sinners to the exclusion of women.

You do have natural gender in pronouns, (he, she, and it). Natural gender just means that it’s a feminine noun because it’s a feminine concept. That would be natural gender. You get a few words like that. But all Greek nouns have gender, and in the vast majority of cases there is no connection between the meaning of the word and its gender.

Lexical Form

Lexical form means that this is the form that is going to be in the dictionary. If you want to look up Greek word in a dictionary, you need its lexical form. For verbs, it is first person singular present. For a noun, it is nominative singular. Nouns are either masculine or feminine or neuter, so that does not matter. The lexical form is going to be the nominative singular form of the word. So oJ =Ihsou:V (ho Iēsous) is a lexical form. If you want to look up a word in a regular Greek dictionary and you want to go alphabetically, you have to know the lexical form.
Do you remember how to find the lexical form? I did not talk about it much last week. A computer program will do it, but the exhaustive concordances will do it as well. You find your verse in the entry and you see what number it is. Then, when you go to the back of like Strongest Strong’s, it will list the Greek word. That is the lexical form. It will also give its number, which is probably what you all will use more. That is where you can get the lexical form. On the computer programs, when you just do a mouse-over it will generally show you the lexical form as well. That is the form if you want to use like Bauer or some of the main Greek dictionaries that do not have numbers.

Paradigm and “Parsing”

This may give you a little appreciation for the headaches that the full-Greek approach is. This is only one of, I think, fifty-three noun paradigms. The other ones are derived from it, or share some of the forms but do not share others. These are what the full-Greek approach is memorizing ( oJ lovgoV, tou: lovgou, tw:/ lovgw/, tovn lovgon… …) and you say it a ‘gazillion’ times until it gets into your head. I remember when I was in college, I used to skip chapel and go into one of the empty classrooms. I probably shouldn’t have skipped chapel, but it was the only time I could get a white board. And I just wrote these paradigms hour after hour, just trying to memorize these things.

This is what the tools will give you. You will do a mouse-over on lovgw/ and it is going to tell you that it is a dative singular masculine. The tool tells you that for your approach. Then, you take off from there and do what you want to do with that.


Enough about nouns in general. As I said, the nominative basically is for subjects. The accusative is basically for direct objects. Things can be in the nominative and the accusative for other reasons, but that is the predominate usage. But I want to say something about the dative and then something about the genitive, just so you can get a little feel for it.

The dative case, the case that we do not have a corollary in English, is extremely flexible. You will see the Greek translated with lots of helping words. Words like “to”, and “for”, and “by”, and that kind of stuff. All those little words are just trying to help bring out the significance of the dative. As I have been comparing translations, most of the time the translations are using the same little words. In other words, there are not a lot of translational differences in the dative case. There will obviously be some. But let me give you a quick overview of how the dative functions.

Dative (Indirect Object)

If something is an indirect object in Greek, it goes in the dative case.

Jesus says to the Samaritan woman (John 4:10), “Give me (moi) a drink.”  “Me” is an indirect object, so moi is dative.

Dative (Wide Variety)

There is a wide variety of all the ways in which the dative is going to be translated.

2 Corinthians 5:13, “For if we are beside ourselves, it is for God (qew:/); if we are in our right mind, it is for you (uJmi:n).”

qew/: and uJmi:n are simple datives. There is no preposition corresponding to the “fors”. The translators look at the dative; they know the range of meaning; they look at the context; and they say that it is “for God”. So they insert “for”. They are not adding to Scripture. That is the only way you can do it.

Dative (Reference)

Romans 6:2, “How can we who died to sin…” (the “to” is coming out of the dative), “…still live in it?”

Luke 18:31, “And taking the twelve, he said to them, 'See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written about the Son of Man by the prophets will be accomplished.'”  “About” is trying to get the dative.

These actually, in grammars, are categorized under the same categories, called the dative of reference. “How can we who died with reference to our sin still live in it?”  “…Everything that is written with reference to the Son of Man is going to be accomplished.” It is a very common use of the dative but it is horrible English to say “with reference to”. So they say things like “to” or “about”.

Dative (Sphere)

Acts 16:5, “So the churches were strengthened in the faith, and they increased in numbers daily.”

It is interesting at times to try to pin these illusive prepositions down and say, “Now, what exactly is that meaning?” It can be very hard. This is called a dative of sphere. “The churches were strengthened within the sphere, within the arena of their faith.

This is an example that the dative is being translated correctly with “in”. I don't want you to think that when you start seeing these little words “added” that the translators were adding to Scripture. You have to have some preposition in English. Greek does not need prepositions like English does.

Dative (Means)

Luke 3:16, “John answered them all, saying, 'I baptize you with water…” (“with”, simple dative, u{dati), “…but he who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with…”  But here John actually used a preposition. He didn’t have to. He could have just said pneuvmati aJgivw/ and we still would have translated it “with the Holy Spirit and with fire” but he varied his way. It’s no big deal. But again, the dative is translated as “with”.

In Greek, and we tend to do the same thing in English, that if you have two or more nouns and they are a unit, we use one preposition and we say that one preposition “governs” the unit. In Greek— nothing is hard and fast in language, but that is getting pretty hard and fast. The ejn preposition is saying, the “Holy Spirit and fire” belong together. Do not separate them as two different things. This translation, “with the Holy Spirit and with fire”, is probably not the best way to translate it because then it sounds like the Holy Spirit and the fire could even be unrelated things. But the Greek does not allow that: “with the Holy Spirit and fire” and they’re connected.


Genitive (of)

The last case is the genitive. There are a couple of things about the genitive that you really need to know. Some of it is pretty technical. I will try to convey it to you in terms that people who haven’t learned Greek can understand. The genitive is actually an extremely important case. It basically does what the English preposition “of” does. It takes a word and it puts it in some sort of adjectival relationship. In other words, the word in the genitive is normally qualifying or limiting or telling you something about another word. “The house of Bill”  It is not just any house; it is Bill's house. But with an “of” construction there can be a mind-bending number of varieties in terms of meaning.

For example, what does “bowl of silver” mean? The bowl could be made of silver, or it could be a bowl full of silver. That is the kind of ambiguity that you have in “of” and you have in the genitive case. What we do in Greek grammar is that we say: “There is a genitive of material” (that’s the bowl made of silver); or “There is a genitive of content” (a bowl whose contents are silver). So we apply labels and categories to these kinds of things. When you are reading in the commentaries, especially in genitives, they will often try to identify that it’s a genitive of “this” or it’s a genitive of “that”. Dan Wallace in his grammar has sixty-four categories, I think, for the genitive, and Dan loves the genitive. He said to me that there’s actually a few that he left out.

Genitive (“Subjective” or “Objective”)

Definitely the most important distinction in the genitive, and the one that you will tend to come across the most, is whether the particular form that you are looking at is a subjective or an objective genitive. This is going to be a little technical. But I need you to hang in there with me because most of the genitives that you find discussed in the commentaries will include this discussion.

Romans 8:35, the ESV translates, “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?”  What does “of Christ” mean? You have two basic options. It could be Christ's love for us, or our love for Him. What is nice is that English has that same ambiguity. That is exactly the ambiguity in the Greek. The words they use are subjective or objective. This is where the words come from.
The word “love”—this is called the head noun which is the word that the genitive is modifying. The head noun has action implied in it. “Love” can be a verb as well as a noun. If you think of the noun “love” as being a verbal concept, is Christ the subject of that verb or is it the direct object of that verb? That is where the words come from. A subjective genitive is when the word that is in the genitive is the subject of the action in the head noun. Another way to say it is that the subjective genitive is the genitive that is producing the action implied in the noun. So it would be Christ loving me.

If it is an objective genitive, it means the word in the genitive is receiving the action implied in the noun. In other words, it is the object of the implied verb. It is a love directed toward Christ. Then you have to look at the context and see, “Whose love is it?” It would be my love for Christ.

There are some people who argue that all genitives break down into one of those two categories. It is actually helpful to think that way. Most of the time it is not going to be a big deal. It will be like a “bowl of silver”, and you will be able to see it. A lot of times, especially in theological passages, you have precisely this ambiguity.

You can see what happened. I used to say the NIV always removes ambiguity; I need to back-off on that. I’m finding a lot of times in the NIV where they leave it like “the love of Christ”. The NLT doesn’t. They’ve made a decision, “Can anything ever separate us from Christ's love?” When you say “Christ's love”, is that treating “of Christ” as a subjective genitive or as an objective genitive? It is treating it as a subjective genitive; it is saying that Christ is doing the action of love.

One of the reasons that this is so important is that there are key passages on “the righteousness of God” throughout Paul. Well, is that God's righteousness or is that a righteousness that comes from God to us? You are always having to make this distinction in those kinds of constructions. So I just wanted to make sure that was clear.

Here’s another example:  Romans 3:23, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”  The NLT says, “For all have sinned and fall short of God's glorious standard.” They are reading the genitive as a subjective genitive. This is what you can expect to find in these kinds of constructions.

Genitive (Attributive)

Just one more, and this one actually isn’t in the text book. But it can explain a lot of differences if you are comparing translations. It’s called an attributive genitive. The word in the genitive is giving an attribute of the word that it modifies.

Romans 6:6, “For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin.”  The NLT says, “Our old sinful selves…” That’s fine translation; there’s nothing wrong with that. “Body of sin” means “sinful body”, and then they have shifted “body” to “self” and that’s another issue. They have made it an attributive; they made it an adjective. That is okay to do. Again, the genitive is very, very flexible. And frankly, I’ve been really pleased as I’ve been comparing translations that even when the translations translate the genitive a little differently, it is not going to cause problems in Bible studies. Normally it’s pretty straight forward. But objective and subjective genitives are the main ones.


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