Discourse Matters: Why front a topic? (James 2:10)


By Kris (with a "K") Sometimes when we want to talk about something, that thing can be quite complex. And sometimes, that thing hasn’t been mentioned yet. So instead of just going on one’s merry way and talking about this complex thing as though our conversation partner is following us, there’s several different ways we can say something that can help prepare our readers to engage with a new topic.

In the same way we might use cleft constructions in English (e.g. It was that kid over there who took my...), Greek writers could do the same. But unlike us, Greek writers were more prone to use a special construction called 'Left-dislocation'—something English speakers rarely employ in writing, though in speech perhaps more. But on top of this, there was another way to introduce less established or completely new topics: they could place the relevant information up front before the verb (i.e. fronting). In such cases, no extra cleft words or extra-clausal phrases are needed.

James 2:10 provides us with a good example of a long topic phrase that's been fronted before the main verb:

ὅστις γὰρ ὅλον τὸν νόμον τηρήσῃ, πταίσῃ δὲ ἐν ἑνί, γέγονεν πάντων ἔνοχος (SBLGNT)

For whoever keeps the whole law but stumbles in one point only has become guilty of all of it. (LEB)

If he had not chosen to front this information, more mental sweat (cognitive processing) would have gone towards assimilating the particularities of this person into the overall comment than would be desired. It’s hard to say for certain, but such heavy cognitive processing on the back end of the sentence might have the effect of detracting his readers' attention from the main point he’s making in verse 10—namely, that this person is guilty of the whole Torah, not just the one part he violated. In verse 10, James provides offline material that strengthens the point he made in verse 9. He does so by introducing a hypothetical person using a compound relative clause: ὅστις γὰρ ὅλον τὸν νόμον τηρήσῃ, πταίσῃ δὲ ἐν ἑνί (for a person who keeps the whole Torah, yet stumbles at one point). This entire string of information is used to introduce a single person, who is defined by their actions.

But due to the complexity of the new person's identity (who hasn’t been mentioned before), James places all of the relevant defining information before the verb to help activate this person as the topic of the proposition.

[ficticious ordering] :: γέγονεν [main verb] πάντων ἔνοχος ὅστις ὅλον τὸν νόμον τηρήσῃ, πταίσῃ δὲ ἐν ἑνί [subject & topic]

In short, the word order maneuver James opts for allows all the heavy mental processing to be done before one get’s to the main verb; and consequently, allows the full-force of what is being asserted to be taken in.

Get the hard part out of the way first—it's easy processing after that

Shameless plug: For a hands on walk-through of important discourse features in the Greek New Testament, check out the Lexham Discourse Handbook series that is in press and available via pre-pub for a discount purchase. Or, do yourself a favor and get the Lexham Discourse Greek New Testament 6 volume bundle for 15% off, using coupon code OSSDISCOURSE.