A Question of Greek Adjective Agreement: Romans 1:29 and Context

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This article is based on my answer to an email from my dear friend Lynn Heath, συστρατιώτης μου τοῦ σταυροῦ, my fellow soldier of the cross. He raised an interesting question and has graciously given permission to share it in this post. His email and my answer follow below.

Dear Dewayne,

I have taught myself Greek and use it to enhance my studies. We are currently studying Romans and I have discovered something I do not understand.

Romans 1:29b reads so in the English:

“…full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, malice, gossips…”

Most add “they are” before gossips/whisperers.

I learned that an adjective must agree with the noun in case/number/gender

Full of is the adj. =accusative/plural/masculine

envy = genitive/singular/masculine

as does murder & deceit

strife & malice = gen/sing/feminine

gossips is the only one the is the same as this adjective.

Any comments would be welcome.

Yours in Christ,

Lynn Alan

Hi Lynn,

Εν ονοματι Ιησου Χριστου ημων, τω αδελφω αγαπητω μου χαιρειν.

To help us both keep track of our thoughts on this, let’s start by putting Rom. 1:29b and then our key terms in Greek (text taken from the Society of Biblical Literature Greek New Testament; you can get a free download of the full NT text here, http://sblgnt.com/download/. It is also available in some Bible study software, such as Olive Tree and Logos.):

μεστοὺς φθόνου φόνου ἔριδος δόλου κακοηθείας, ψιθυριστάς,

And here is the entire verse, with 1:29b in red:

πεπληρωμένους πάσῃ ἀδικίᾳ πονηρίᾳ πλεονεξίᾳ κακίᾳ, μεστοὺς φθόνου φόνου ἔριδος δόλου κακοηθείας, ψιθυριστάς,

As you mentioned, μεστοὺς (from μεστός, -ή, -όν, “full”) is indeed an adjective, accusative plural masculine. And you’re right, an adjective does agree with its noun in case, number and gender. However, unlike in English usage, a Greek adjective does not always (or usually) come before the noun it modifies. Sometimes it does, in which case it is attributive, giving a quality or characteristic of the noun. For example, in the phrase ὁ πιστὸς δούλος, the faithful servant (Matthew 24:45), πιστὸς is attributive: it describes the servant. But an adjective can also be predicative, which makes an assertion about the noun. If it is not directly preceded by an article, a predicate adjective follows the noun it modifies.

For instance, in Rom. 7:12, ὁ…νόμος ἄγιος, “the law is holy”, ἄγιος, the adjective,  is predicative and follows the noun. The predicative construction is translated into English using both an adjective and a form of the verb “be”. (These examples, and the statement about how predicative constructions should be translated,  are taken from the discussion about adjective agreement on greeklinguistics.com in Hellenistic Greek, Lesson 5: Masculine and Neuter. “Hellenistic” is an alternate term for Koine.)

Here we have a predicative adjective. So we need to look for a noun (or pronoun, because a pronoun substitutes for a noun and can function as a noun) in the verses before this one that is accusative plural masculine.

This exercise is a perfect example of the importance of context in learning vocabulary usage and in Biblical interpretation. In this case, the context extends back to verse 18.

Once we find the noun, it will show us what or who is being described. Or if a pronoun is used, we’ll also want to see what its antecedent is (the noun it refers to) to complete the picture.

Another clue that we need to go back before verse 29 is the clause πεπληρωμένους πάσῃ ἀδικίᾳ πονηρίᾳ πλεονεξίᾳ κακίᾳ, where πεπληρωμένους is a participle, parsed as perf. pass. ptc., acc. pl. m., πληρόω, fill (they have become) filled with. Like μεστοὺς, it functions as an adjective. A participle can function both as an adjective and adverb, as well as a verb. (Dana and Mantey, A Manual Grammar of the Greek New Testament, 220-221, 223-224)  As with μεστοὺς, πεπληρωμένους does not agree with the nouns that follow. Since it functions here as an adjective, it must agree with something that precedes. Again, we’re looking for a noun or pronoun that is acc. pl. masc.

We find 3 occurrences of an appropriate word, in vv. 28, 26, and 24: αὐτούς, pronoun, acc. m. pl., αὐτός, -ή, -όν, them. In the singular αὐτός can be used to mean he/she/it (using the masculine ending when it stands for “he”), and so the masc. plural, αὐτούς, stands for “them”.

So we have μεστοὺς, “full of”, and πεπληρωμένους, “filled with”, in 1:29 agreeing with αὐτούς in 1:28, 1:26, and 1:24. So far, so good. But this raises another question: who are “them”? Whom does αὐτούς refer to, that is, what is the antecedent of αὐτούς?

A point to keep in mind about a pronoun and its antecedent is this: it must match its antecedent noun in gender and number but not necessarily in case. (Ken D. Noakes, Introduction to NT Greek, online at https://trinitycity5pmchurch.files.wordpress.com/2015/09/nt-greek-unit-6-pronouns-personal-conjunctions.pdf

So we need to find a noun that is masculine plural, but need not be in the accusative case. And we are still moving upward (or back to) in the context in the direction of 1:18.

One helpful signpost along the way is in 1:20, where we find another adjective that parallels μεστοὺς and πεπληρωμένους in gender, number, and case: ἀναπολογήτους, adj., acc. m. pl., ἀναπολόγητος: without excuse, without (legal) defense; cf. ἀπολογία, defense; ἀπολογέω, defend.

And just as before, the adjective does not modify anything that follows it. So it must modify something before it. And it does, αὐτούς, which comes right before ἀναπολογήτους. But what does αὐτούς refer to?

Remember, we’re still looking for that masculine plural noun. It could be, but need not be, in the accusative case.

Our best candidate is in 1:18, ἀνθρώπων, gen. m. pl., of people. It fits by being a masculine noun that is plural. And it makes sense as the antecedent and the noun that our adjectives ultimately refer back to, via the pronoun αὐτούς (and the other case forms of it in 1:22 and 1:19: αὐτῶν, genitive, and αὐτοῖς, dative, used 2 times). This is so because all the sinful actions described in 1:18 to the end of the chapter are done by people, human beings, ἄνθρωποι. Especially since both males and females are guilty (vv. 26—27).

Lynn, I hope this helps answer your question. Feel free to follow up with any other questions you have.

χαρις και ειρηνη σοι απο Ιησου Χριστου, ο κυριος και σωτηρ ημων.

ο αδελφος σου Δεβένιος

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