Discourse Matters: An Example with Word Order


John 4:16 Λέγει αὐτῇ· Ὕπαγε φώνησον τὸν ἄνδρα σου καὶ ἐλθὲ ἐνθάδε. 17 ἀπεκρίθη ἡ γυνὴ καὶ εἶπεν αὐτῷ· Οὐκ ἔχω ἄνδρα. λέγει αὐτῇ ὁ Ἰησοῦς· Καλῶς εἶπας ὅτι Ἄνδρα οὐκ ἔχω· 18 πέντε γὰρ ἄνδρας ἔσχες, καὶ νῦν ὃν ἔχεις οὐκ ἔστιν σου ἀνήρ· τοῦτο ἀληθὲς εἴρηκας. (SBLGNT)
John 4:16 He said to her, “Go, call your husband and come here.” 17 The woman answered and said to him, “I do not have a husband.” Jesus said to her, “You have said rightly, ‘I do not have a husband,’ 18 for you have had five husbands, and the one whom you have now is not your husband; this you have said truthfully!” (LEB)

The conversation between Jesus and the Samaritan woman is a prime example of how two people can say the exact same thing, but mean something completely different. In verse 16, Jesus tells the woman to do something:

Call your husband and come here
— Jesus

But the woman responds:

I don’t have a husband
(Οὐκ ἔχω ἄνδρα)
— Samaritan Woman

In Jesus’ instruction, he discloses an assumption that the woman has a husband. But because this isn't true, the woman corrects him. 

Her assertion — that she has no husband — follows the standard word order of sentences in Greek (the verb is first). As such, there is nothing unusual about the way the information is structured. But we can't say the same for Jesus’ response:

You have said rightly, “I don’t have a husband”
(Καλῶς εἶπας ὅτι Ἄνδρα οὐκ ἔχω)
— Jesus

Now pay attention to the Greek, not the English. Notice that Jesus re-arranges the word order of what the Samaritan originally said. He mentions ἄνδρα (husband) before οὐκ ἔχω (I do not have), whereas the Samaritan had the order reversed. And recall that her arrangement reflects the standard (or unmarked) order of words; thus Jesus’ arrangement is considered marked (i.e., it's not the default setup). Because of this, even though Jesus repeats the exact same words as the Samaritan, he inevitably means something different.

While those who have heard the rest of the story know that she was being only partially truthful — and actually has had multiple husbands — when we read the story in English it's highly likely that we don't pick up on this fuller reality that Jesus hints at in his rearrangement of the Samaritan woman's response. Instead, we tend to fill in the story after the explicit mention of five husbands in the following verse. But the point remains, in Greek, you don’t have to wait until verse 18 to find out that something is up — that something is off in the Samaritan's claim.

By fronting ἄνδρα (husband) before the main verb Jesus draws more attention to this piece of information than would otherwise have been the case had it followed the verb. (In English we can accomplish a similar effect through stressed intonation.) The specific function achieved by the fronted information is determined by the context.

In this case, Jesus is able to draw more attention to a particular aspect of the Samaritan woman's claim for the sake of confirmation, namely that she does not have a (single) husband. Even though the Samaritan probably did not mean to imply (or leave open the fact) that she has had multiple husbands with the words Οὐκ ἔχω ἄνδρα (I do not have a husband), Jesus knows better and exploits the ambiguity in her response by reconfiguring the information structure. And yet, even if the extra attention on ἄνδρα (a husband) doesn't fully make sense at this point (to the Samaritan or the reader), it primes a situation where Jesus is able to affirm with equal force that it's not one but five husbands that she has had. For just as Jesus fronted ἄνδρα (husband) in verse 17, so he fronts πέντε ἄνδρας (five husbands) in verse 18. The attention drawn to the singular ἄνδρα (husband) thus functions as a foil for the plural mention in the next sentence. In a similar manner, we might make the same point in English with raised intonation: You don’t have A HUSBAND — you've got FIVE!

Though you probably knew before reading this post that it’s not what you say but how you say it that matters, now you should have a better understanding of how this principle can get fleshed out in Greek — even when the exact same words are repeated.