When Rocks Talk: Discourse Features of Luke 19.40


Wow. So I really miss writing. A lot. I've been preparing for a move, ending a couple jobs, still figuring out how to be a new dad, and everything in between – so apologies for my quietness here. Thankfully, Fresch has been keeping you all entertained with his (very engaging) dialogue with others at Mosissimus Mose. But I'm growing tired of keeping my mouth shut and fingers still. I'm afraid rocks will start talking.

So please, let me spit out a quick information structure blurb from... Well, let's just see what's going on in the Greek of the text quoted in the picture above.

37 Now as he was drawing near by this time to the descent from the Mount of Olives [on his newly commandeered donkey], the whole crowd of the disciples began rejoicing to praise God with a loud voice for all the miracles that they had seen, 38saying, “Blessed is the king, the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!” 39 And some of the Pharisees from the crowd said to him, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples!”

40 And he answeredand said, “I tell you that if these keep silent, the stones will cry out!”

40 καὶ ἀποκριθεὶς εἶπεν· Λέγω ὑμῖν, ὅτι ἐὰν οὗτοι σιωπήσουσιν, οἱ λίθοι κράξουσιν.

So honestly, quite a bit is going on here in v. 40, as far as the discourse techniques are concerned. We have (and these will be explained) a 1) redundant quotative frame, 2) metacomment, and 3) several cases of marked word order. So clearly, Luke has gone out of his way to make something pretty explicit. Let's see what that is.

  1. Redundant quotative frame: After the oh-so-righteous instruction from the Pharisees to Jesus in v. 39 (i.e. tell your followers to shut up!), all that really needs to be said to introduce Jesus' response is a single verb of speech. And he said (καἰ εἶπεν) would have done nicely, and is the standard way of moving a back-and-forth dialogue along. However, this isn't what Luke says. Instead, he chooses to be wordy, slow things down, building anticipation for what is to come. He does this through using an extra speaking verb— and he answered and said (καὶ ἀποκριθεὶς εἶπεν). In other words, Luke uses a redundant quotative frame to point the reader's mind to what is to follow, and not simply digest Jesus' response to the Pharisees' pointed instruction as a simple reiteration of a past conversation. No, what's coming is important. You really got hear Jesus' response. Such prodding is probably representative of the internal motivations of Luke at the time he was jotting this down.
  2. MetacommentNow, it seems like it was Jesus' turn to take the reigns and slow things down, orienting his audience to really get ready to hear what he is about to say. Jesus does this through what we call a metacomment – which is basically a comment about a coming comment. In this case, it's fleshed out in the words Λέγω ὑμῖν (I say to you). Well, as far as understanding the actual message of what Jesus is about to say, this little phrase really isn't necessary. It doesn't add or detract from what his major point is. It's unnecessary fluff – to an extent. For what it does do is attract extra attention to what is about to be relayed. So far, whatever it is that is coming out of Jesus' mouth is doubly pointed to by, first, a discourse technique by Luke (redundant quotative frame) and, secondly, by Jesus (metacomment).
  3. Conditional frame: Finally, we get to hear what all this hullabaloo has been about. Jesus says that if he tells his followers to keep quiet that something outlandish will happen: rocks are gonna start speaking on behalf of those that have been silenced! Yet he reveals this catch-22 (at least, it is so for the Pharisees who's wishes are thwarted either way, as silence is clearly not an option) in a catchy manner. Jesus establishes a conditional frame of reference through laying out the "if-clause" first. The standard order would have been the stones will speak up if the people keep quiet; but Jesus reverses this and fronts the condition, which has the effect of casting more light on what's to be revealed.
  4. Marked focus (emphasis): Now if this isn't enough, Jesus (or Luke) re-configures the word order of what's been said in such way that indicates what parts are most important, or unpredictable, given the current discourse context. In the fronted conditional frame, these (οὗτοι) is placed before the verb to act as a foil for another referent soon to be introduced. The temporary focus placed on these (οὗτοι)then gives way to the newly introduced referent, the stones (οἱ λίθοι) – which is similarly fronted to signal that it, the rocks, is this new information that turns this proposition into something worth saying.

All of the discourse devices discussed so far have really pointed to this final response of Jesus. Of all the things to open their mouth and speak if his followers do not, ROCKS will talk in their stead! What?! Sounds like nature's voice might actually be heard for once.

The heavens are telling the glory of God, and the firmament proclaims the work of his hands.

Every day they pour forth speech, and every night they tell knowledge.

אֵֽין־אֹ֭מֶר וְאֵ֣ין דְּבָרִ֑ים בְּ֝לִ֗י נִשְׁמָ֥ע קוֹלָֽם

From this exposition of the discourse features of Luke 19.40, I hope you can appreciate the build-up to this final declaration by Jesus. Just to re-cap, we had a redundant quotative frame and metacomment dialing down the pace of the story, all the while a conditional frame is fronted to direct attention to the main clause, and to top it off, there were two cases of focus in which one constituent foreshadowed the primary focus that would be held by the stones in this final, absurd declaration.

If you have any questions, or disagreements with my analysis, please ask or push back.