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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.

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  • Thats only a problem in English. In German Luther writes "Am Anfang" and not "An dem Anfang", because there is only this one. The same differentiation is central for the Greeks with "God" and "The God as on of the many. The first sentence is a philosophical beat of drum, see eg Goethes Faust I, who in his monologue tries to find the complete content of λογος between "word" and "common sense" or "plan" or even a materialized order of state in the sense of Aristoteles politeia.
    – Roland F
    Sep 27, 2023 at 19:44

2 Answers 2

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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.

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  • Ah, that makes sense. Especially it being a calque on the Hebrew phrase. Thanks.
    – ktm5124
    Aug 19, 2017 at 21:05
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As a student of scripture along the way I came to understand that the missing article (or “anarthrous” use) is used to stress quality or essence. In (the essential) beginning (of all beginnings), was the Word, and the Word was (again no article- “very”) God.... [disclaimer- I’m not a Greek scholar but have searched out some of the best Kenneth Wiest, Sam Jones, Etc.]

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    This would be a stronger answer if you cited the sources you've come across that argue for this.
    – cmw
    Sep 24, 2023 at 21:06

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