Re: "a" or "the" ??

From: clayton stirling bartholomew (
Date: Thu Mar 26 1998 - 03:25:35 EST

Allison Sanders wrote:

> I have just completed an assignment for my Mark class, and am
> interested to know what other people think of this question. We were
> asked to write a brief paper discussing whether the centurion
> considered Jesus to be THE son of God, or A son of God in Mark 15:39.
> There is no definite article preceding hUIOS so that is wherein lies
> the diffciulty.
> We had to present the options, and then make a decision for ourselves
> based on what we studied. I have made my decision, but I would love to
> know what the general concensus would be concerning this (if there is
> one!).


What is traditionally called the definite article in Koine Greek has a number
of functions quite foreign to the English definite article. The article in
Greek also changes it's mix of functions from Homer to the NT, so that if you
try and read Homer after studying only NT Greek, Homer's use of the article is
going to surprise you a little. The function of the English definite article
overlaps somewhat with the Greek article. In some cases the Greek article is
used to mark a substantive that has a referent that is already known. The
Greek article can also be used to particularize the substantive. So it is fair
to say that the Greek article can be used to make a substantive definite.
However, since there are also several other functions of the Greek article, it
is not a valid inference that the lack of a Greek article indicates that a
substantive must be indefinite. Some substantives are always definite, like
proper names. An absolute mapping of form and function is not workable in
this case. The binary oppositions:

Greek article :: definite substantive
no Greek article :: indefinite substantive

These binary oppositions are not universally valid.

Now applying this to your test case Mark 15:39, I would say that one would not
want to be dogmatic about the indefiniteness of this word based on the syntax
of this verse. If you take a look at Mark 1:1, 3:11, 5:7 you will see that
Mark uses this formula without articles on either word in 1:1 [text
uncertain], with articles on both words when it is coming from the mouths of
demons in 3:11 , and with an article on QEOS only in 5:7 (also a demon). If
one wanted to argue that the syntax of 15:39 demands that hUIOS be indefinite,
one would have to do some fast talking about these other examples.

Leaving syntax aside. I think that the cultural context probably would give us
reason to assume that the Roman Centurion was a typical Roman and therefore a
polytheist. So there is some weight here for the word being indefinite.
However, we have absolutely no knowledge of the influence under which the
Roman was speaking. Whether his was, like the Caiphus (sp?), speaking
prophetically without knowing it.

My conclusion is, I don't know. I remain in suspended judgment on the issue.
However, I lean toward the indefinite interpretation because I read the Roman
Centurion as simply a dazzled pagan, not a incipient believer.

Enough for now. It is past midnight.

Clayton Stirling Bartholomew
Three Tree Point
P.O. Box 255 Seahurst WA 98062

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