Watching for sharp contrasts in the New Testament
Here is the cartoon that accompanies this post.
A book of contrasts
God’s word uses contrasts to inform us and remind us of where the boundaries are. We read of light and darkness, good and evil, strong and weak, truth and lies. Often in Scripture, these and other contrasts are set off from each other with a conjunction, which in English is usually the word ‘but.’
Two ‘buts’ in Greek
Ancient Greek, the language in which the New Testament was originally written, has two words for ‘but’: de and alla.
De is the milder term to express a contrast. It occurs nearly 3000 times in the Greek New Testament. Many of these occurrences are so mild as an adversative that they are either translated as ‘now’ or just ignored by the translators when they believe it is superfluous to the meaning of the sentence. This often occurs when it introduces a paragraph, for example (e.g., Romans 1:12-13). For those dependent on an interlinear, de is postpositive, which means it never comes first in the sentence.
Alla serves for the times the author wants to express a strong contrast. It occurs 638 times in the Greek New Testament and always prompts translators to provide an English rendering: ‘but,’ ‘instead,’ ‘yet,’ or ‘except.’
This posting is to alert you to alla as a useful marker to help you identify when the biblical author makes a strong contrast.
The ‘buts’ of 1 Corinthians 6:11
A good example occurs in First Corinthians 6:9-11 (niv):
9 Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men 10 nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. 11 And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.
Not only is alla present where the ‘but’ occurs in verse 11, but also immediately after each of the two following commas. A more literal translation of the sentence would be: “But you were washed; but you were sanctified; but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ….” Not only does Paul use the emphatic ‘but’ in this verse, but he also repeats it two more times, leaving us wondering how he could possibly have made it more emphatic.
After pointing out that some of the members of the Corinthian congregation had been in their pre-Christian lives playboys, idolaters, adulterers, practicing homosexuals, thieves, greedy, drunkards, slanderers, and swindlers, Paul exclaims, “But! But! But!” Now they are different. Their conversion has washed them, sanctified them, and justified them because of the sacrifice of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the power of God’s Spirit.
Many other examples
Here are a few other examples of the use of alla in Paul’s epistles:
Galatians 1:1 – As an apostle, Paul was not sent from man or by man, BUT by Jesus Christ and God the Father.
Galatians 1:8 -Paul’s opponents make their claims, BUT even if Paul himself or an angel from heaven delivered a new gospel, it should be rejected.
Ephesians 2:19 – Gentile Christians are no longer foreigners and aliens, BUT fellow citizens with God’s people and members of God’s household.
Ephesians 4:29 – we should not permit unwholesome talk to come out of our mouths, BUT only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs….
Want to go deeper?
Here is an exhaustive list of all of the occurrences of alla. Look up each passage and think ask yourself why the biblical writer chose the stronger adversative in this case.
A. T. Robertson. Grammar of the Greek New Testament in the Light of Historical Research. (3rd ed., 1919).
Discussion of de and alla as adversative conjunctions is on pp. 1183-1187.
Friedrich Blass. Grammar of New Testament Greek. (1908).
Here is his discussion of de and alla, which he calls “adversative particles” (pp. 266-269).