Re: PRWTH in Lk2:2

From: Carl W. Conrad (
Date: Wed Sep 06 1995 - 15:34:36 EDT

At 1:36 PM 9/6/95, Stephen Carlson wrote:
>In another forum, I came across the claim by someone citing
>Nigel Turner, "Grammatical Insights into the New Testament" that
>Lk2:2 should be translated as "and this taxing was PRIOR to the
>one made when Cyrenius was governor" (emphasis in original).
>To me, this passages says something like "This registration was
>first [and] happened while Quirinius was governing Syria." So,
>is it really possible that we have PRWTH with a genitive of
>comparison (hHGEMONEUONTOS) here? I think this unlikely for the
>following reasons:
>1. Although this construction occurs in other languages (e.g.,
>the Italian PRIMA DI), it seems rare in the Koine. BAGD cites
>Jn1:15 30 hOTI PRWTOS MOU HN (because he was before me) as an
>example of PRWTOS meaning "before" (or "prior to"), but the
>Middle Liddell says that this PRWTOS MOU is "first" of Order
>with a note that this use of genitive is late. L&S, on the
>other hand, does recognize the adverbial use of PRWTOS =
>PROTEROS in Attic Greek (Xenophon). However, I would expect
>Luke to use PRO (see Lk2:21) or PRIN (see v26) to express
>priority of time.
>2. The placement of hHGEMONEUONTES after EGENETO instead of
>PRWTH suggests to me that it is not modifying PRWTH. Instead,
>it would be a commonplace genitive of time within which.
>I have two questions: (1) Is Turner's translation grammatically
>feasible? and (2) Is this the most natural rendering of the Greek?

This question was raised earlier in the summer (I think by Bruce Terry);
I've checked my August archive and it's not there, so it must have been
earlier. If I can find it I'll send it on or summarize it. I recall
responding myself to the original query that I don't see this way of
reading Lk 2:2 as ordinary Greek, certainly not the kind of good Greek that
Luke normally wrote. The phrase hHGEMONEUONTOS ... KURHNIOU is the sort of
genitive absolute that Luke uses elsewhere when he's trying to pinpoint the
exact date of something (cf baptism of Jesus, Lk 3:1). In ordinary Greek we
often find the superlative with an ablatival (perhaps partitive? I really
think ablatival) genitive in the sense "far removed in x quality from y." I
think L&S are absolutely right on this matter and that, had Lk wanted to
say before the governorship of Quirinius, he would have written either PRIN
THS SURIAS. The reading in John's gospel may be a Semitism--I really don't
know, but following ordinary Greek interpretation, I'd say PRWTOS MOU HN
means "he was way ahead of me." I think PRWTH here in Lk 2:2 can only be
construed predicatively with EGENETO. The suggested reading looks like an
attempt to evade the embarassing time discrepancy between a conception of
John the Baptist during the reign of Herod the Great, no later than 4 B.C.,
and a birth of Jesus during Quirinius' governorship of Syria, 6 A.D.

Carl W. Conrad
Department of Classics, Washington University
One Brookings Drive, St. Louis, MO, USA 63130
(314) 935-4018 OR

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