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Tuesday, October 2, 2012

"Prepositions and Theology in the Greek New Testament"

TITLE: Prepositions and Theology in the Greek New Testament: An Essential Reference Resource for Exegesis
AUTHOR: Murray Harris
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012, (304 pages).

This reference work is not about prepositions or about theology. It is about how the use of prepositions has contributed to the theological framework at various locations in the Greek New Testament. While it covers all 17 "proper" and 42 "improper" NT prepositions, the key emphasis in this book as about the theological significance the prepositions are presenting. Harris makes sure that the theological and literary contexts are addressed, together with the linguistic exercises needed to clarify the texts. While one needs to learn the "Big Four" of Greek grammar, namely, the aorist, the genitive case, the article, and the prepositions, the author feels that in order to "master" an in-depth knowledge of the Greek, one needs to master the prepositional system. In short, a preposition is a small word that ties relationships among words. Where it is placed, before or after the word makes a world of difference. What makes this study refreshing is the theological significance revealed after doing all the heavy lifting of word by word exegesis.

Murray takes special care to differentiate his book from the BDAG or the traditional textbooks on Greek grammar which focuses on the grammar. He gives a fascinating overview of the development of the Greek language.

  1. Ancient Greek (as in the days of Homer)
  2. Classical Greek from 450-330 BC;
  3. Hellenistic/Koine Greek from 330BC to 330AD (also known as biblical Greek);
  4. Medieval/Byzantine Greek from AD330 to 1453;
  5. Modern Greek (AD1453 to present).
Then he dives into the structures and meanings of prepositions. Using a cube, the 17 "proper" prepositions:
  • moving into (through, into, toward)
  • Moving out of (away from, out of)
  • On top (around, above, upon)
  • Outside (with, in front of, opposite, beside)
  • Inside (in)
  • Under
  • Up, Down.

When exegeting the grammar, care needs to be taken for the meaning of the preposition itself, the significance of the case used with the preposition, the context, and any irregular usage. Even as Murray highlights the many nuances and the details of each type of preposition, he cautions readers from becoming too eager in analyzing the details. He points out five dangers; first, the tendency to define each distinction too rigidly; second, failing to understand the style of the writer; third, missing the meaning for the style; four, missing out double meanings; and five, neglect of significant prepositions.

He then provides a chapter by chapter description of all the prepositions in the Greek NT, complete with examples and scriptural references. What is really helpful is the conscious effort of Murray to explicitly bring out the significance of each preposition. In some ways, the book reads like a concise commentary for the biblical texts chosen to highlight each preposition. For instance, in the exegesis of Hebrews 12:2, the grammar is an effective argument against any interpretation that Jesus died on the cross for the sake of receiving a heavenly reward. Rather, it is a conscious choice of willingly enduring the suffering on earth, instead of the heavenly joy. The former interpretation points to Jesus having a purpose of getting rewarded. The latter instead suggests to Jesus' love that overcomes all manner of personal gain or reward. It is a willing giving up of self-privilege or advantage that is the key meaning. Page after page, there are meanings and theological underpinnings that not only brings out profound insights of the Greek writers, it makes the study of Greek very interesting. Through examples, illustrations, comparison with other pericopes of the New Testament, this reference book is a big boon for the Christian world. I highly recommend this book for students of Greek, as well as anyone who needs to exegete the Greek texts on a regular basis. I wish I had this text when I was studying Greek.

Rating: 5 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me free by Zondervan and NetGalley without any obligation for a positive review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.


  1. I would love if you could elaborate a little more on the Heb 12.2 passage. I see John Gill in his commentary explains both possibilities of which you mentioned.

    I have a bias towards "for the glory set before him" indicating that our Saviour did see that as paramount in his mission. Eph 3:10 maybe giving example also. Plus the Father's purpose in predestinating many to be conformed to the image of his son so that HE WOULD BE the first born of many brethern so that again in this verse his name glorified. Or Our Lord's prayer in John 17 "restore unto me the glory which I had with you before..." Of course none of this negates the love he has for his own. None of this negates his tender compassions. Does the love that Jesus holds for his bride need to overcome his own glory? Or can you at one time be intent upon his loving purposes and the exaltation of his own name, which is above every name.

    This book really intrigues and I'm very much thinking of purchasing but I would like to do so with my eyes open, understanding the theological position of the author more fully.

    thanks for this review.

  2. This was poorly worded by me:

    "Or can you at one time be intent upon his loving purposes and the exaltation of his own name, which is above every name. "

    "Or can he at one time be intent upon his loving purposes and the exaltation of his own name, which is above every name. "

    IN otherwords no purpose of Christ giving way to another purpose of Christ. But at one and the same time acting in perfect love and the perfect pursuit of the Glory of His own Name.

  3. @Scott,
    You asked about the Hebrews 12:2 passage. The author basically was trying to exegete the preposition "ἀντί" which is either "in order to obtain" or "instead of" meaning. The latter was chosen because the context of Hebrews 12 represents a present reality rather than a future hope. The author expressly says that it is "highly improbable" that Jesus is primarily driven by a future reward. Note the word "primarily." Instead, Jesus' main purpose is to complete his present reality. This is also supported by the knowledge of Jesus' character, of selflessness for the sake of others, not to let personal benefits (of a future reward) undermine the need to be sacrificial for others (suffering for others).

    As for Morris's theological position, I see more exegesis and very little eisegesis, so I will not be too worried.

    Thanks for your comments. It's a good book, so if you're keen, it's worth a buy.


    1. Thank You for the reply and further explanation. Your review and mention of Heb 12.2 has worked much benefit for me in both studying out the verse, looking into the meaning of the preposition, "anti", consulting several commentaries and even a 45 minute discussion this morning with a couple of brothers as we considered the text and related scriptures.

      I had forgotten and probably never learned very well the fact that "anti" could mean "in order to obtain" or "of that for which anything is given, received, endured" as [Thayers]

      It has given me opportunity to consider the relation of this verse with Heb 10:35 for example. And also the possible relation to Heb 11 passages which indicate the faithful looking for a future reward. "...the city whose builder and maker is God," or "faith..the evidence of things not seen," or Moses in the 25th and ff "25Choosing rather to suffer affliction with the people of God, than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season; 26Esteeming the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures in Egypt: for he had respect unto the recompence of the reward. "

      But also, I saw several commentaries tracking with Morris. He doesn't stand alone. I can appreciate his insight here which corresponds to what seems to me to the be the more basic meaning of "anti". Though, I'm not persuaded to abandon the view of Our Lord Jesus Christ looking to the Joy he saw rebounding upon his sufferings - I am much strengthened in a bigger view of "anti" and for the stretching required to understand Morris here.

      Thank you again.