The smallest words in a language often do some heavy lifting. This is certainly true for the Greek (definite) article, which corresponds to the English “the”.
The article takes many different forms, depending on the gender, number, and case of the noun phrase to which it belongs. Each of these forms starts in t– or h-, and is followed by an ending. For instance,
- τὸν κύριον (ton kyrion) “the Lord”: masculine, singular, accusative
- τοῖς ἔθνεσιν (tois ethnesin) “to the nations”: neuter, plural, dative
- ἡ δικαιοσύνη (hê dikaiosynê) “the righteousness”: feminine, singular, nominative
- οἱ βασιλεῖς (hoi basileis) “the kings”: masculine, plural, nominative
The Greek article performs more duties than the English article “the”. Some of its usage cannot be translated literally. For the English-speaking student who learns to read and translate Bible Greek, this can be a challenge.
Different grammars approach the article in different ways. Some focus on the various possible translations into English. Others consider all possible shades of meaning the article can have. As in all questions of grammar, I prefer a minimalist and structuralist approach, trying to work as few categories as possible and viewing the article from the perspective of the Greek structure.
The article (ὁ, ἡ, τό, etc.) functions to form a noun phrase that denotes a specific entity.
Article with Simple Nouns
Nouns generally refer to a class of people or things; for instance the word βασιλεύς (basileus) “king” applies to all individual kings of all possible kinds. Adding the article singles out one specific entity that fits the description: ὁ βασιλεύς (ho basileus) = “the king”. It is assumed that we know from the context which of the many kings is meant.
This applies even in some situations where we would not use the article in English.
- ὁ θεός (ho theos) = “God”. This is very common in the NT. Without the article, θεός may also refer to the one true God, but this usage is less frequent.
- ὁ Πετρός (ho Petros) = “Peter”, etc. Proper names may be used with or without article; both options are common. The article is especially used when referring back to a well-known person.
Article with adjectives
When combines with a noun and an adjective, the article also serves to delineate the noun phrase. The school example is
- ὁ ἀγαθὸς ἀνήρ (ho agathos anêr) “the good man”
- ὁ ἀνὴρ ὁ ἀγαθός (ho anêr ho agathos) “the good man”
In the first case, the adjective “good” is located between the article and the noun, making it part of the noun phrase. In the second case, the adjective “good” is placed after the noun; now the article is repeated, to indicate that it still belongs to the same noun phrase.
In contrast, in
- ἀγαθὸς ὁ ἀνήρ (agathos ho anêr) “the man [is] good”
- ὁ ανὴρ ἀγαθός (ho anêr agathos) “the man [is] good”
the adjective is not immediately preceded by the article, and therefore not part of the noun phrase.
Something similar applies when instead of an adjective, a genitive modifier is used. The following three noun phrases are equivalent.
- ἡ βασιλεία τοῦ θεοῦ (hê basileia tou theou) “the kingdom of God”
- ἡ βασιλεία ἡ τοῦ θεοῦ
- ἡ τοῦ θεοῦ βασιλεία
It also works with propositional phrases:
- ὁ πατὴρ ὑμῶν ὁ ἐν τοῖς οὐρανοῖς (ho patêr hymôn ho en tois ouranois) “your father in the heavens”; the article is repeated to show that the phrase “in the heavens” is part of the noun phrase
- ὁ ἐν τῷ κρυπτῷ Ἰουδαῖος (ho en tôi kryptôi Ioudaios) “the Jew in secret” (Rom 2:29)
Article as substantivizer
In the previous examples, the article was followed by a noun. In Greek, the article can also be used with other parts of speech. It can turn virtually anything into a noun phrase—that is, substantivize it. If the resulting phrase refers to a person, the article will be masculine or feminine; otherwise, the article is neuter.
The most typical example is with an adjective. We do the same in English: “the poor”, “the privileged”.
- οἱ πτωχοί (hoi ptôchoi) “the poor” (plural).
- ἀπὸ τοῦ πονηροῦ (apo tou ponêrou) “from the evil one”
- τὸ ἀγαθόν (to agathon) “the good”, i.e. “goodness”
A special case of this is the combination article + participle.
- ὁ ἀκούσας καὶ μὴ ποιήσας (ho akousas kai mê poiêsas) “the hearing and not doing” = “the one who hears and does not do”
The combination article + infinitve is used to substantivize verbs, just like the English gerund.
- καὶ τὸ θέλειν καὶ τὸ ἐνεργεῖν (kai to thelein kai to energein) “both the willing and the doing”, i.e. “both to will and to do” (Phil 2:13)
An interesting example of article + adverbial phrase:
- τὸ ἔξωθεν τοῦ ποτηρίου (to exôthen tou potêriou) “the on the outside of the cup” = “the outside of the cup”
An ironic use of the substantivizing article is found in the genealogy of Jesus, Mat 1:6: ἐκ τῆς τοῦ Οὐρίου (ek tês tou Ouriou) “out of the [one] of Uriah”. The woman in question, Bathsheba, is reduced to a mere article in the feminine genitive form. English translations tend to insert “the wife of”, or “she who used to be the wife of”, but that removes the harsh reality in this poignant Greek noun phrase.
The article can also substantivize pieces of text, similar to using quotation marks.
- ἄχρις οὗ τὸ σήμερον καλεῖται (achris hou to sêmeron kaleitai) “until what is called ‘today'” (Heb 3:13).
There are more uses of the article in Bible Greek, but at this point we have covered the vast majority of occurrences. One thing to take away: it is often impossible to make a one-to-one translation; the article cannot always be rendered by “the” in English. In order to interpret and translate such words successfully, one must be aware of the basic function(s). As you get to know the language better, it may happen that you know exactly what something means but find it difficult to render it into English. That is a good sign!