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Emphatic Negations in Biblical Greek

When we read English translations of the Bible, or for that matter any other language other than the original Hebrew and Greek, we often do not get the fullness of the grammatical and syntactical structures that the Hebrew and Greek are actually stating and presenting. Over the next several weeks, we are going to focus on some of these structures—namely, those structures that denote strong emphasis in what is being said.

The use of an emphatic structure in the Greek New Testament is called the Subjunctive of Emphatic Negation. The Subjunctive of Emphatic Negation is, without any equivocation, the most emphatic grammatical structure in the Greek New Testament. Allow me to first explain what this means.

Moods of Actuality

In the Greek of the New Testament, you have four moods that relate to actuality. Or, in other words, we have four moods that refer to that which is actually happening—versus what may happen or that which one wants to happen but it isn’t occurring as yet. These four moods are as follow:

  1. Indicative Mood — this is the mood of reality, which describes events that are actually occurring, that have happened, or that will actually occur in the future.
  2. Subjunctive Mood — this is what is called the mood of probability, which refers to potential events as probably occurring but not for certain; thus, it is used to indicate that potential happenings will occur if certain actions take place (on a conditional basis).
  3. Optative Mood — this is two steps removed from the Indicative Mood of reality, and thus, it is what is called the mood of possibility. In this mood, the events described are deeply contingent upon certain events happening in order for them to occur; thus, there is a greater degree of doubt contained in this mood of an event actually happening than in the subjunctive mood.
  4. Imperative Mood — this is the mood of volitional possibility, which provides a command for something to be done, and it is totally dependent upon a person’s willingness to accept the command and follow through with it; thus, it is three steps removed from the Indicative Mood of reality and consequently, it expresses the least possibility of something occurring.

Negative Participles

In Greek, you also have particles that express the negative, and they are as follow:

  1. οὐ (ou) – this is the basic Greek particle that represents some form of “no” or “not” in our English translations, as well as a multiple form of combinations that reflect the negative in some form or other.
  2. µή () – this is the other Greek particle that represents “no” or “not,” and it too has a variety of forms that it occurs in reflecting the negative. However, there is a difference in the application of οὐ (ou) and µή (), and Thayer explains it quite simply and clearly:

µή, the Septuagint for אַל , אַיִן , אֵין, a particle of negation, which differs from οὐ (which is always an adverb) in that οὐ denies the thing itself (or to speak technically, denies simply, absolutely, categorically, directly, objectively), but µή denies the thought of the thing, or the thing according to the judgment, opinion, will, purpose, preference, of someone (hence, as we say technically, indirectly, hypothetically, subjectively).

Why It Matters: Subjunctive of Emphatic Negation

However, when these two Greek negative particles are combined in the form of οὐ µή (ou ) with reference to a future event, what results is an intensified form of the negative: “οὐ µή (ou ) is the most decisive way of negativing something in the future.” Thayer adds, “The particles οὐ µή in combination augment the force of the negation, and signify not at all, in no wise, by no means; . . .”

However, when this combination is attached to an Aorist Subjunctive, what occurs is what has been termed the Subjunctive of Emphatic Negation. As was pointed out above, the Subjunctive Mood indicates the probability of an event, and the Aorist Tense emphasizes an action as simply occurring, without any specific reference to time, apart from the use of an adverbial modifier (e.g., that which would describe when, where, how much, or how often). Thus, when you have οὐ µή (ou ) in combination with the Aorist Subjunctive, what occurs is the absolute and unequivocal denial of the probability of an event EVER OCCURING at any moment or time in the future.

The following quote helps to summarize this quite clearly:

Emphatic negation is indicated by οὐ µή, plus the aorist subjunctive or, less frequently, ouv mh, plus the future indicative (e.g., Matt 26:35; Mark 13:31; John 4:14; 6:35). This is the strongest way to negate something in Greek.

One might think that the negative with the subjunctive could not be as strong as the negative with the indicative. However, while οὐ µή + the indicative denies a certainty, οὐ µή + the subjunctive denies a potentiality. The negative is not weaker; rather, the affirmation that is being negatived is less firm with the subjunctive. ouv mh, rules out even the idea as being a possibility: “οὐ µή, is the most decisive way of negativing someth. in the future.”

Emphatic negation is found primarily in the reported sayings of Jesus (both in the Gospels and in the Apocalypse); secondarily, in quotations from the LXX. Outside of these two sources it occurs only rarely. As well, a soteriological theme is frequently found in such statements, especially in John: what is negatived is the possibility of the loss of salvation.

Therefore, what we are going to be looking at and examining in this study is the usage of οὐ µή (ou ) combined with the Aorist Subjunctive in the Greek New Testament, and in doing so, we will discover emphases in the Greek that are oftentimes not all readily seen in the English, but which are unequivocally there for our benefit in order to be encouraged, enlightened, and strengthened in the Truth of God’s Living and Abiding Word! The way we are going to do this is by looking in context at various passages in the English text that use οὐ µή (ou ) with the Aorist Subjunctive, and the English text I will be using primarily is the New American Standard Text of 1977, as I view the NAS being the closest to the literal translation of the Greek as any English translation available. However, at times I may also quote the NKJV for the purpose of pointing out textual variants, and I will explain those when we come to them. In the written quote of the passage we are looking at, I will embolden and underline the οὐ µή (ou ) and Aorist Subjunctive in the English so that you will know exactly how it fits in the passage and the emphasis it is bringing to what is being said. I pray that the Lord will greatly bless and encourage you as we go through this study as we all look to Jesus, “the author and perfecter of (our) faith” (Hebrews 12:2).