In response to comments on a recent post concerning Rashi’s treatment of Genesis 1:1 Rashi’s treatment of Genesis 1:1
Joel M. Hoffman said “I think that b’reishit is a sentence level adverb here, and that it answers the question ‘when?’”. Mulling this over, I was wondering if clause initial adverbial expressions were commonplace at the beginning of an ancient narrative text. In other words, is the temporal locator in a narrative text typically the very first thing we encounter in the text. I looked at a small sample of ancient texts including narrative prose, gospels, tragic drama, and prophetic writings. I used the Greek version of the Old Testament just to speed up the process.
In the five books of Moses, Genesis 1:1 is the only place where we find an adverbial expression at the very beginning of the text. In Josua 1:1 we read
Josh. 1:1 καὶ ἐγένετο μετὰ τὴν τελευτὴν Μωυσῆ εἶπεν κύριος τῷ Ἰησοῖ υἱῷ Ναυη τῷ ὑπουργῷ Μωυσῆ λέγων
This is a relative temporal locator using the death of Moses as a point of reference. This is a common pattern in biblical narrative. The temporal locator is not often the very first thing we encounter (1Kings, 2Kings, Ezra, Nehemiah, Isaiah, Hosea, Amos, Zephaniah). In Jeremiah the temporal locator doesn't show up until the middle of the second verse and it is quite elaborate.
Jeremiah 1:1 τὸ ῥῆμα τοῦ θεοῦ ὃ ἐγένετο ἐπὶ Ιερεμιαν τὸν τοῦ Χελκιου ἐκ τῶν ἱερέων ὃς κατῴκει ἐν Αναθωθ ἐν γῇ Βενιαμιν 2 ὃς ἐγενήθη λόγος τοῦ θεοῦ πρὸς αὐτὸν ἐν ταῖς ἡμέραις Ιωσια υἱοῦ Αμως βασιλέως Ιουδα ἔτους τρισκαιδεκάτου ἐν τῇ βασιλείᾳ αὐτοῦ 3 καὶ ἐγένετο ἐν ταῖς ἡμέραις Ιωακιμ υἱοῦ Ιωσια βασιλέως Ιουδα ἕως ἑνδεκάτου ἔτους Σεδεκια υἱοῦ Ιωσια βασιλέως Ιουδα ἕως τῆς αἰχμαλωσίας Ιερουσαλημ ἐν τῷ πέμπτῳ μηνί
In Haggai and Daniel the relative temporal locator is not only clause initial it is a prepositional phrase similar to Gen. 1:1.
Haggai 1:1 ἐν τῷ δευτέρῳ ἔτει ἐπὶ Δαρείου τοῦ βασιλέως ἐν τῷ μηνὶ τῷ ἕκτῳ μιᾷ τοῦ μηνὸς ἐγένετο λόγος κύριου ἐν χειρὶ Αγγαιου τοῦ προφήτου λέγων εἰπὸν δὴ πρὸς Ζοροβαβελ τὸν τοῦ Σαλαθιηλ ἐκ φυλῆς Ιουδα καὶ πρὸς Ἰησοῦν τὸν τοῦ Ιωσεδεκ τὸν ἱερέα τὸν μέγαν λέγων
Daniel 1:1 ἐπὶ βασιλέως Ιωακιμ τῆς Ιουδαίας ἔτους τρίτου παραγενόμενος Ναβουχοδονοσορ βασιλεὺς Βαβυλῶνος εἰς Ιερουσαλημ ἐπολιόρκει αὐτήν
In Attic tragedy, the only example is found in Euripides Heraclidae which is vague without an explicit point of reference. The inferred point of reference is the time of speaking.
Euripides Heraclidae 1-5
Πάλαι ποτ' ἐστὶ τοῦτ' ἐμοὶ δεδογμένον·
ὁ μὲν δίκαιος τοῖς πέλας πέφυκ' ἀνήρ,
ὁ δ' ἐς τὸ κέρδος λῆμ' ἔχων ἀνειμένον
πόλει τ' ἄχρηστος καὶ συναλλάσσειν βαρύς,
αὑτῶι δ' ἄριστος· οἶδα δ' οὐ λόγωι μαθών.
Historical narrative is where we would expect to find temporal expressions with a fixed point of reference. In Herodotus and Thucydides there are plenty of temporal locators but not at the beginning of the text. In the new testament, the gospels of Mark and John both use Ἀρχὴ the word found at the beginning of Genesis 1:1.
John 1:1 Ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ λόγος, καὶ ὁ λόγος ἦν πρὸς τὸν θεόν, καὶ θεὸς ἦν ὁ λόγος.
Mark 1:1 Ἀρχὴ τοῦ εὐαγγελίου Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ [υἱοῦ θεοῦ].
Are these temporal locators? Neither of them use an historical point of reference to anchor them, e.g. after the death of Moses. John’s Ἐν ἀρχῇ is absolute an echo of Genesis 1:1 LXX which is also absolute. In Mark however Ἀρχὴ is the beginning of something, τοῦ εὐαγγελίου Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ. Both begin at the beginning, the question is what beginning?
This post isn’t intended to answer those questions. I set out to see if clause initial adverbial expressions used as temporal locators at the very beginning of the text are common in ancient narrative. I only looked at a small sample and included some non-narrative texts (Homer, Attic Tragedy, Hebrew Prophets). What I discovered is, temporal locators in clause initial position at the very beginning of the text is not a typical pattern. The two examples from the gospels, Mark and John are somewhat complex, both remind us somewhat of Genesis, John more so than Mark. Haggai and Daniel seem to fit the pattern. Not exactly the pattern in Genesis but the pattern for narrative temporal locators. Unlike Genesis, they use a relative reference to a reigning monarch to anchor them in history.
What I conclude from a brief review of a limited sample is there are complex issues that need to be sorted out in regard to Ἐν ἀρχῇ in Genesis 1:1
Labels: biblical greek, discourse analysis, LXX, Septuagint, word order