The phrase Ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ λόγος is the first verse from John, chapter 1, and is commonly translated as "In the beginning was the Word". I would like to know why the definite article is missing inside the prepositional phrase, Ἐν ἀρχῇ. I would expect to see Ἐν τῇ ἀρχῇ instead. Is there some rule I am unaware of pertaining to articles inside prepositional phrases? Or is there some more general rule pertaining to the omission of definite articles that explains this phrasing?

Part of my confusion stems from the fact that almost every English translation I have read renders it as a definite noun. But perhaps Ἐν ἀρχῇ was idiomatic at the time, and did not require an article. It would be nice to know, additionally, whether this phrase was grammatical in both Attic and Koine, or only the Koine dialect. If it was common in Attic, then any examples from Attic texts would be much appreciated.

Thank you in advance for any feedback.


The use and non-use of the definite article in the language of the Greek Bible is irregular and often unexpected. At least partially this is due to the fact that the authors of most of these writings were native speakers of Aramaic, a language which (at least at its Middle Aramaic stage) does not have a clear-cut definite article. Speakers of Aramaic must have had difficulty with the Greek article in much the same way that many Russians have difficulty with the English article.

Another point is that the opening words of John (ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ λόγος) are clearly inspired by the opening words of the Septuagint version of the Pentateuch (ἐν ἀρχῇ ἐποίησεν ὁ θεὸς τὸν οὐρανὸν καὶ τὴν γῆν), where ἐν ἀρχῇ renders Hebrew בְּרֵאשִׁית, literally “in beginning”, without the article, and which seems to be an idiomatic phrase for “first of all”. The Greek is a calque on this Hebrew phrase.

In classical Greek you can say ἐξ ἀρχῆς, or κατ' ἀρχάς, or ἀπ' ἀρχῆς, but not (or not normally) ἐν ἀρχῇ.

  • Ah, that makes sense. Especially it being a calque on the Hebrew phrase. Thanks.
    – ktm5124
    Aug 19 '17 at 21:05

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