What are prepositions?
Learning more about prepositions can give you a deeper understanding of the Bible. The dictionary defines prepositions as: “any member of a class of words found in many languages that are used before nouns, pronouns, or other substantives to form phrases functioning as modifiers of verbs, nouns, or adjectives, and that typically express a spatial, temporal, or other relationship, as in, on, by, to, since.” In other words, a prepositional phrase, taken as a whole, usually functions as an adverb.
Prepositions in English include: over, under, across, above, below, around, from, to, into, out, in, by, etc. biblical Greek has 59 prepositions (17 of which sometimes attach as prefixes to verbs, and 42 that do not), and many of them have different meanings according to the varying case of their objects. In English, the objects of all prepositions must be in the objective case.
Noun cases and prepositions
English has lost nearly all of its substantive inflections (ways of differentiating cases by spelling), except for its pronouns. The first person has ‘I,’ ‘me,’ and ‘my,’ and in the plural, ‘we,’ ‘us,’ and ‘our’ for its subjective, objective, and possessive cases, respectively. The second person, which used to have ‘thou,’ ‘thee,’ and ‘thy’ in the singular and ‘ye,’ ‘you,’ and ‘your’ in the plural, has now become ‘you,’ ‘you,’ and ‘your’ for both the singular and plural. The third person, personal pronouns are ‘he/she,’ ‘him/her,’ and ‘his/her’ in the singular and ‘they,’ ‘them,’ and ‘their’ in the plural.
Instead of these three cases in English, Greek has five: vocative (direct address), nominative (=subjective), genitive (=possessive), dative (for indirect object), and accusative (for direct object). Greek prepositions use one or more of the last three cases (genitive, dative, and accusative – G, D, and A), and their meaning changes according to which case their objects have. That’s why, when referring to Greek prepositions, I will always include the case of its object as: + G, + D, and + A.
Spatial meaning of prepositions
When the prepositions have spatial meaning, they usually conform to the inherent spatial meaning of each case: genitive = motion away from, accusative = motion toward, and dative = rest within.
Paying close attention to prepositions yields many insights into the meaning of the biblical text. Please consider the following examples.
Sometimes, the literally spatial relationships that prepositions create are crucial to the understanding of the text. For example, does the New Testament teach that the mode of water baptism is sprinkling, pouring, or immersion? Prepositions provide us with an unambiguous answer.
In the description of Jesus’ baptism, Mark 1:10 has “coming up out of the water,” which attaches the preposition ana (which means ‘up’ when its object is in the genitive) to the beginning of the verb for ‘come’ and adds the preposition ek + G for ‘out of.’ The preposition ek is the word from which we get the word ‘exit.’ With this object in the genitive case it consistently means ‘out of.’
Acts 8:38–39 adds kata (which means ‘down’ with its object in the genitive) as a prepositional prefix to the verb for ‘went’) plus eis + A for ‘into’ in the phrase, “both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water,” and similarly uses ana as a prepositional prefix to the verb for ‘came,’ plus ek + G for ‘out of’ in the phrase, “when they came up out of the water.” This definitely proves that immersion was the mode of New Testament baptism.
The prepositions in Colossians 1:13 use prepositions’ spatial relationships in a metaphorical sense. For instance, Paul says: “For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the son he loves.…” (Colossians 1:13). The two prepositions in this verse, indicated by italics, are ‘from’ (ek + G) and ‘into’ (eis + A).
By using ek + G, Paul definitely means that we used to be subjects of the dominion of darkness, from which Christ rescued us. ‘Out of’ would be a better translation than ‘from,’ which is ambiguous, perhaps suggesting to some readers that we were close to the dark dominion, but not within it. (Two other prepositions, apo + G and para + G, are regularly translated ‘from.’)
Conversely, the preposition eis + A consistently has the spatial meaning of ‘into.’ We have not just come up to the entrance of Christ’s kingdom; He has brought us all the way in.
Paul loves to use the expression ‘in Christ’ (en + D) – e.g., 2 Corinthians 5:17; Ephesians 2:13; Romans 8:1-2. If he is considering that relationship with Christ as a metaphorical sphere or space, how does one make the transition from being on the outside (“without God, in the world”– Ephesians 2:12) to being “in Christ”? Look at these verses, which speaking of coming “into Christ Jesus” (eis + A): Romans 6:3 and Galatians 3:27.
Temporal meaning of prepositions
A few Greek prepositions have a temporal or time meaning, such as pro + G (‘before’) and meta + A (‘after’). Paul uses pro + G in Galatians 2:12 to explain Peter’s hypocritical behavior in Antioch. He also uses it in Galatians 3:23 to describe the situation prior to the arrival of Christ, in the phrase “before faith came….”
Logical meaning of prepositions
Greek prepositions also describe logical relationships. The same preposition eis + A, which spatially means ‘into,’ also has the logical meaning of ‘for,’ in the sense of purpose or goal. This is crucial to the understanding of Acts 2:38’s phrase, “for the forgiveness of your sins.”
The same phrase occurs in Matthew 26:28: “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” Unless we have strong reason to believe otherwise, the same phrase must mean the same thing in both persons.
We can confidently reject the claim of some that in Acts 2:38, eis + A means ‘because of,’ since applying this meaning in Matthew 26:28 would make nonsense of the verse. Jesus did not pour out his blood because our sins were already forgiven.
In Romans 4:25, the preposition dia + A “on account of” occurs twice: “He who was delivered over because of our transgressions, and was raised because of our justification” (NASB). We can readily accept the meaning that our sins caused Jesus to die on the cross, but how does our justification cause His resurrection? (The use of ‘for’ instead of ‘because of’ is misleading, as if what follows is the goal.)
Some scholars have this answer: When Jesus dies on the cross, He accomplished our justification. God accepted that accomplishment as an achievement worthy of raising Him from the dead. This makes a chain of cause and effect: transgressions → delivered over [to death] → justification → resurrection, and this seems to be the import of the two instances of dia + A.
Learn more about prepositions
This has been only a brief and simplistic introduction to how we can use Greek prepositions as a tool for understanding the Bible. As you learn more about them, you will gain skills for discerning when to insist on distinctions between prepositions, and when to ignore their differences, since the meanings of certain prepositions overlap and since biblical authors often sought to avoid tedious repetition.
Nevertheless, giving prepositions the attention they deserve will force you to go deeper in your thinking about the message of the Bible.
Want to go deeper?
Consider the difference prepositions make in the following verses:
- 1 Corinthians 8:6 – What distinctions does Paul’s choice of prepositions make between the one God, the Father, and the one Lord, Jesus Christ?
- John 1:3–4 – Is there a difference between “through Him” and “in Him” in this passage? What do these verses teach about the role of the Logos in creation?
- John 14:17 – Take a look at the prepositions in this verse. What do they teach us about the apostles’ relationship to the Spirit before and after the day of Pentecost?
- Colossians 1:16–17 – The seven prepositions in this passage express Christ’s agency in creation, his supremacy over creative things, and his ongoing sustaining power in behalf of creation. What is the meaning of “all things were created… for Him”?
- What is the difference, if any, between “in the name of Jesus Christ” (Acts 10:48) (en + D), “on the name of Jesus Christ” (Acts 2:38), and “into the name of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 19:5; compare Matthew 28:19)? (Unfortunately, most translations us ‘in’ for all three prepositions in these passages.)
- Consider these examples of chained prepositions, and think about what they mean:
For further reading:
J. Harris. “Appendix: Prepositions and Theology in the Greek New Testament.” 3:1171–1215 in New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology. 4 vols. Colin Brown et al., eds. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1978–1986). Harris has expanded this essay into a 293-page book available from Amazon. Includes a lengthy and very helpful discussion of prepositions with baptizō (‘baptize’) and with pisteuō (‘believe’).
James H. Moulton. “Construction of pisteuō.” 67–68 in Grammar of New Testament Greek, vol. 1: Prolegomena. 3d ed. (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1908). Moulton discusses the meaning of ‘believe in’ (pisteuō with en + D), ‘believe on’ (pisteuō with epi + D), and ‘believe into’ (pisteuō with eis + A), as compared with ‘believe’ with its object in the dative case and no preposition.
H. P. Hatch. The Pauline Idea of Faith. (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University, 1917). I know of Hatch’s attention to prepositions in his discussion of the relationship between faith and baptism.
Jeff Smelser. “Prepositions.” Part of Lesson 9 in New Testament Greek, an online course. Includes a table of the 17 prepositions of the Greek New Testament, along with their meanings when their objects occur in the three cases. Also includes a simplification of Bruce M. Metzger’s helpful spatial chart, which pictures the distinctions between the spatial meanings of 10 the prepositions (and their cases).
“Adventures with a Lion, or How to Preposition a Lion.” Wonderful cartoon on a boy’s encounter with a lion, each panel of which illustrates the meaning of one or two Greek prepositional phrases, covering 20 in all.
Pamela M. Bendor-Samuel. “The Exegesis and Translation of Prepositional Phrases in the Greek New Testament: A Semantic Role Analysis.” Master of Philosophy thesis. Oxford Centre for Mission Studies, 1996.