Discourse Matters: Changing topics (James 2:5)

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by Kris (with a "K") Sometimes you come to the Greek text or a commentary, or hear a pastor say: “In the Greek, this word is placed at the beginning of the sentence because the author wanted to emphasize it." However, thanks to discourse studies (and Information Structure, in particular), we know there are multiple reasons an author may have moved a piece of information to the beginning of a sentence (i.e. fronted it)—and the traditional understanding of emphasis just doesn't cut it.

[[Personal anecdote: My first Hebrew teacher always told us, "The moment you hear your pastor say, 'In the Greek...'" and then he would proceed to squinch his face and plug his ears. And as I've become more familiar with the languages over the years, I hate to say it, but it was good advice.]]

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But back to the post. A quick look at James 2:5 will explain one of the reasons a Greek author might place some (non-verbal) information at the front of a sentence.[1]

ἀκούσατε, ἀδελφοί μου ἀγαπητοί. οὐχ ὁ θεὸς ἐξελέξατο τοὺς πτωχοὺς τῷ κόσμῳ πλουσίους ἐν πίστει...

Listen, dear brothers, did not God choose the poor of the world to be rich in faith...?

At first glance, a typical reader might think ὁ θεὸς (God) has been fronted before the verb because it’s the part of the sentence that James wants to stress—because he wants to “emphasize” this word. But we couldn't be farther from the truth going down this road.

In short (and simple) terms, James placed ὁ θεὸς (God) before the verb to help his readers notice a change in who he’s talking about.[2]

In the previous verses, his audience was the primary topic of the things he was saying: they look, they say, they make distinctions, they become judges. But in this verse, James isn’t going to talk about them anymore—he’s going to talk about God.

To mark this topic shift, he fronts ὁ θεὸς (God) before the main verb ἐξελέξατο ([he] has chosen).

Sure his readers could have picked up on this topic-shift if he had left ὁ θεὸς (God) in its default position after the verb (unmarked position); but by placing ὁ θεὸς (God) in a marked position—one that stands out from the usual—James is able to draw more attention to this shift and thus prompt/prepare his readers to process the topic change more easily. In other words, by fronting ὁ θεὸς (God), James provides a situation for his readers where less mental sweat is involved—as far as detecting the topic shift. This, in turn, leaves more mental energy to be spent on processing his main assertion: These people who they neglect are the very ones that God esteems!

Now that should leave them sweating.

The team God roots for: the Underdog!

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’s 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.

Also, you can get 15% off until Oct 26 using promo code “HighDefCom” to purchase any of the High Definition commentaries written by Steve Runge.

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[1] W. Hall Harris III, The Lexham Greek-English Interlinear New Testament: SBL Edition (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2010), Jas 2:5.

[2] For a helpful introduction to the concept of focal information (the counterpart of topical), see Runge’s Discourse Grammar (chapter 9). Though note, in an attempt to make linguistic jargon less debilitating, Runge has opted to "redeem" the word emphasis from its futile ambiguity and use this word to represent what's referred to in strictly linguistic circles as focal information. You might want to tell him "thanks" next time you see him.