Out of order (emphatically)


If you haven’t traveled in WY or SD or similar areas, you might not have seen signs like these.  They still make me do a double-take, even after having driven thousands of miles on these roads.  The words are out of order!

Why was the sign fashioned that way?  I figure the police and highway care crews got together and decided they needed to be extra-clear with the warnings. . . .  “Hey,” they must’ve agreed, “let’s put the word ‘Closed’ at the top so that no driver can argue he didn’t see the warning.”

Problem is, the sign is confusing because of word order.  It should read more like this:

When [lights are] flashing

I-90 closed ahead

Must exit now

Which brings up matters related to word order in the Greek New Testament.  Word order considerations are somewhat different when comparing Greek to English, but in certain instances, we find that Greek words have been “promoted” or moved toward the first of a clause or sentence.  Just such a case is found in 1Cor 11:24, where I have spent some time recently.

A typical word order might have been this:

τοῦτό ἐστιν τὸ σῶμα μού
(touto estin to soma mou)
this     is    the body my

But, in the actual text, the word “mou” (the personal pronoun “my”) has been “promoted”—moved to an earlier position in the word order.  Here is the phrase as it appears in 1Cor 11:24:

τοῦτό μού ἐστιν τὸ σῶμα
(touto mou estin to soma)
this   my     is    the  body

Compare any one of the lines of blue text to the corresponding line of brown text above.  See the difference?  One word (mou) moved toward the front means that the whole expression may reasonably be rendered in written English this way:

This is my body.

I trust that my bold italics (incidentally, a relatively new technique in written language) help to show the emphasis placed—by the change in word order—on the word “my.”

In the course of an effort to make sense in a different language, word order and other elements may sometimes be adjusted during the process of translating.  Why?  Well, if a driver speaks “literal” English, he would tend to move his foot toward the brake before reading the words “when flashing” in the sign below:


And if a reader of 1Cor 11:24 didn’t know that “my” had been promoted in the word order to show emphasis, she might not be able to ascertain the import of the emphatic “my” . . . and she’d probably not be impelled into further consideration of the larger context of 1Corinthians, chapters 8 through 14 and beyond.  It is a context that deals not only with cup multiple times, but also with multiple senses of body.  Here, there is a special emphasis on its being the Lord Jesus’s body.  The Corinthians appear to have been in need of some pointed instruction about Whose body it was they were dealing with!

Intriguing comparisons may also be made with Luke’s (and Matthew’s and Mark’s) record of the same event, and also with the oral tradition that was surely part of early Christian practice.  In any version of this phrase, the essence is the same, but the emphasis is changed when the word order is changed.

B. Casey, Aug. 5-12, 2015

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