in Confessions we read:

magnus es, domine, et laudabilis valde. magna virtus tua et sapientiae tuae non est numerus.

while the meaning is quite clear, I can't clearly resolve the literal translation and/or grammar of the sentence. I've thought of several options:

1) "sapientiae tuae" - gen. case => number of your wisdom "non est" . I have problem with this option as "non est" would mean "does not exist". But is this valid? I would assume "non est" would be better translated as "is not"

2) same as (1), but this time "sapientiae tuae" will take the dative case. ("to your wisdom")

3) maybe literal translation is: "of your wisdom is not a number"


3 Answers 3


I'd go for your second option, i.e., to analyze sapientiae tuae non est numerus as containing a dative of possession: literally, 'to your wisdom there is no number'//'your wisdom has no number' (cf. sapientia tua non habet numerum). The idea is that the wisdom of God cannot be calculated since it is infinite.


Although the dative reading of sapientiae tuae in this example is also found in this authoritative commentary of the Language in the Confessions of Augustine (please see page 114), let me say that, on second thought, your third reading, the one that involves considering sapientiae tuae as a topicalized genitive nominal (lit. 'of your wisdom there is no number'), is not to be excluded.

  • Thanks. So just to make my understating more complete. I tend to evaluate "non est" as "is not" . is the usage of "there is no" is common?
    – d_e
    Commented Dec 11, 2019 at 12:49
  • 1
    @d_e yes, both translations are correct. Notice that the so-called existential reading ('there is (no)') is related to the possessive dative construction. In the specialized linguistic literature, this construction has sometimes been referred to as a "dative subject construction" (e.g., cf. core.ac.uk/download/pdf/4818977.pdf or su.diva-portal.org/smash/get/diva2:757609/FULLTEXT01 ).
    – Mitomino
    Commented Dec 11, 2019 at 19:00
  • Wow. that's news for me. I knew that we can say "mihi est liber" to say "I have a book" , but I didn't know we can say "mihi non est liber" to say that I don't have a book.
    – d_e
    Commented Dec 11, 2019 at 19:12
  • @d_e The possessive dative construction is not incompatible with negation: e.g., cf. books.google.es/…
    – Mitomino
    Commented Dec 11, 2019 at 19:57
  • I would suggest that this is extrapositioning, not topicalization. A topic should be in the unmarked/nominative form (nominativus pendens).
    – fdb
    Commented Dec 12, 2019 at 16:14

I prefer to read this as a genitive rather than a dative.

I think it's worth pointing out two Scriptural parallel, which I was able to find using this commentary, as well as one parallel from the Nicene creed:

  1. Psalm 146:5:

    Magnus Dominus noster, et magna virtus ejus,
    et sapientiæ ejus non est numerus.

    Obviously, this has the same ambiguity as in Augustine's text, but the Greek text actually uses the genitive, even though it, like Latin, could have used the dative. (I realize this isn't a knock-down argument, since Augustine didn't read Greek and the Latin doesn't have to correspond to the Greek, but I think it's definitely a point in favor.)

    μέγας ὁ Κύριος ἡμῶν, καὶ μεγάλη ἡ ἰσχὺς αὐτοῦ,
    καὶ τῆς συνέσεως αὐτοῦ οὐκ ἔστιν ἀριθμός.

  2. The Latin text of the Nicene creed:

    Et iterum venturus est cum gloria,
    iudicare vivos et mortuos,
    cuius regni non erit finis.

    This is unambiguously genitive and has the same "gen. + non est + limiting noun" structure.

  3. Psalm 144:3:

    Magnus Dominus, et laudabilis nimis,
    et magnitudinis ejus non est finis.

    This, too, is unambiguously genitive, and the preceding part is clearly echoed in Augustine's thought.

Augustine was positively steeped in the Scriptures, and particularly the psalms, and this is especially evident in the opening of the Confessions. My own ear, and these Scriptural parallels, strongly inclines me towards the reading as a genitive.

Obviously, the meaning would remain the same.

  • 1
    Glad to see you've given arguments in line with my previous 2nd thought above. Your 2nd and 3rd arguments above are indeed very suggestive that the genitive reading is probably the correct one. +1vote!
    – Mitomino
    Commented Dec 12, 2019 at 4:55
  • 3
    Another argument for the genitive reading is that datives of possession usually have human referents.
    – TKR
    Commented Dec 12, 2019 at 5:47
  • @TKR That's a good point. I can't think of a single example of a dative of possession where that was not the case.
    – C Monsour
    Commented Dec 12, 2019 at 17:03
  • 1
    @CMonsour It's true that, typically, the possessor is animate and the possessum is inanimate (both in the habere and dat. + esse constructions). However, some cases do not follow this prototypical description. E.g., cf. section "4.26 The verb sum in the so-called possessive construction" from Pinkster (2015:109), where several examples are given. E.g., cf. Quid est enim iam non modo pudori, probitati, virtuti, rectis studiis, bonis artibus sed omnino libertati ac saluti loci? (Cic. Fam. 5.16.4) or Tum neque nomen erat, nec honos aut gloria monti (Verg. Aen. 12, 135), i.a.
    – Mitomino
    Commented Dec 12, 2019 at 20:28

It's perfectly correct and common to have both a possessive adjective and a genitive of possession with the same noun. Possession by a personal pronoun can't be shown by the genitive form of that pronoun but has to be expressed with the related possessive adjective; and although possession by some nouns can be shown through a related adjective (for example, regalis may be used with the same meaning as regis), not all nouns have such a related adjectives (and at any rate, the genitive is more common). Therefore, if possession of some noun by both a personal pronoun and some other noun has to be shown, you're likely to get this mixture of constructions.

In short, I'd say that this means 'The great virtue of you and of your wisdom...' or 'Your great virtue and that of your wisdom....'


Based on the other uses of non est numerus cited by Mitomino and brianpck, I see that this answer is incorrect. Ah well. I'm still inclined to view sapientiae tuae as genitive rather than dative, though – just a different type of genitive.

  • 1
    "...is not a number?" This reading might work in terms of syntax (though I don't know if there are examples of a possessive adjective coordinated with a genitive), but it doesn't make much sense to me.
    – TKR
    Commented Dec 11, 2019 at 22:36
  • 1
    @TKR. I was taking numerus somewhat loosely: '...is not a quantifiable thing'. Even so, you may be right that that doesn't work very well. Still, as I said, the coordinated use of possessive adj. with genitive is quite common, though it will be a nightmare to search for examples; perhaps I'll run across one during my reading over the course of the week.
    – cnread
    Commented Dec 12, 2019 at 1:13
  • 1
    @cnread I'm afraid that your translation involving the coordination 'The great virtue of you and of your wisdom...' does not apply here. Cf. supra. Note also that the very same sequence sapientiae tuae non est numerus is repeated as an independent syntactic chunk below, in V.5 (cf. books.google.es/… ).
    – Mitomino
    Commented Dec 12, 2019 at 4:03
  • 1
    I think the parallel from Ps 146:5 (quoted in my answer) excludes this reading.
    – brianpck
    Commented Dec 12, 2019 at 4:16

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.