How Greek Cases are Used

This document provides general information about the use of Greek cases. It begins by describing the overall Greek case system, then briefly explains the various ways that each case can be used in a clause or sentence. A more detailed discussion of grammatical uses for each case is available through a link at the end of each explanation of each case.

However, this document does not discuss the case endings or inflections of nouns, pronouns, articles, adjectives and participles. For more information about the case endings, see the document The Greek Article and Case Endings.

My own comments are added, but the following information basically came from three sources: (1) Daniel B. Wallace's book, Greek Grammar: Beyond the Basics; (2) Ward Powers' book, Learn to Read the Greek New Testament, and, of course, (3) William Mounce's book, Basics of Biblical Greek Grammar. All of these are recommended grammars.

The Greek Case System

About 60% of all the words in the Greek New Testament (GNT) are declined into case forms. There are 28,956 nouns, 19,869 articles, 16,703 pronouns, 7,636 adjectives and 6,674 participles. Each one is an inflected form, indicating a grammatical case. In the Greek New Testament, the breakdown of these words into cases is as follows:

The above numbers are all based on statistics in Wallace's book, calculated by acCordance software.

The study of the Greek case system is critical. As you can see above, there are very many Greek New Testament (GNT) words which indicate case. Each one's specific role, function and meaning in its clause or sentence is determined according to case. Therefore, if one cannot first identify the case of a word, to first determine its specific role and function in its sentence, very little meaning can be derived from the word. Thus, it is absolutely necessary to be able to identify the case forms correctly, then further identify exactly how each form is used.

The use of Greek cases is very flexible. Each case can serve in several different grammatical roles. Then each role can be broken down into several different kinds of grammatical functions, with different meanings implied by each. On top of all this, each function can imply different things in different contexts. All this is based on the lexical definition of the word, of course. Yet one lexical definition can imply radically different things in different functions and contexts.

So one role of a noun in the genitive case may be to modify another noun. But, in that grammatical role as a modifier, that genitive noun might be able to perform possibly any one of more than twenty different functions. Then the meaning of that specific genitive noun in the same specific role and same specific function can be different in a different context as well.

A specific example can be the genitive form of the noun Θεοῦ, when it modifies another noun in the phrase δικαιοσύνη Θεοῦ in Romans 3:21. Here it serves in the grammatical role of a modifier. But, as a modifier, what function does it serve? Does this genitive modifier serve the function of a possessive, or an ablative indicating a source, or some other function? If it functions as a possessive, it should be translated something like "God's righteousness." If it functions as an ablative indicating source, it should be translated something like "righteousness from God." Its context, and the lexical definition of the word, will determine its function. After we know that this word means "God," and refers to the one and only God, and we know the global context of all that is taught about God in the entire Bible, and we know the local context of what is stated, we can draw a conclusion about what function this genitive form, in the role of a modifier, serves. Thus, we know it should be interpreted "righteousness from God."

Thus, in order to read Greek with comprehension, one must be able to:

  1. know the lexical definition of the word, what it can mean in all possible roles, functions and contexts;
  2. clearly recognize and correctly identify its case form;
  3. understand the specific grammatical role that case is serving in its clause or sentence;
  4. know the context enough to be able to determine which specific function that case form is performing in that role; and
  5. identify and know the implications of its specific function, the way in which it is used to express meaning in its specific grammatical role.

This process of understanding Greek inflections can be very difficult for an English-speaking person, because, in English, we do not use very many inflected forms. And we only need a few inflected forms, because the grammatical roles of our words are determined primarily by the lexical definitions, context, and the order in which we place them in a sentence.

The lexical definition of English nouns are normally fairly constant, although they can change in context. But each is modified by an adjective when it needs to bear an implication beyond what the lexical definition suggests. The inflection or position of the noun in a construction or clause does not affect its meaning much. Then any function, other than the most obvious, is normally indicated through the use of a preposition, not an inflection. So most English nouns only need singular and plural forms, where plural forms can take a suffix or infix or both ("saint" and "saints," "man" and "men," "body" and "bodies"). And some of our pronouns take different forms according to gender ("he," "she"), case ("he," "him," "his"), and number ("he," "they"). But, aside from these few instances, we rarely ever think about inflections in English.

The opposite is true in Greek. One must always think about the inflections of all the words. Greek is a highly inflected language. Inflections are everything, and without understanding the role and function of each inflected form, one cannot comprehend much of anything in Greek.

So we must learn to think like the Greek writers, to fully comprehend their meaning through their use of inflections. We must understand Greek syntax, that is, the way in which the Greeks built the structure of their sentences through the use of inflections. Then we need to convert that Greek syntax into English syntax, and translate the Greek inflected forms into English non-inflected forms, with added prepositions and other words, to create the English structure of sentences, in order to convey the same meaning that the Greek text indicated.

The Five-Case System Versus the Eight-Case System

Some Baptist and Presbyterian Greek grammars and teachers may talk about eight cases, while the majority only recognize the existence of five cases. This course follows the assumptions of the more common five-case system. In order for you to understand what those other grammars and instructors are talking about, and to know why this course only delineates five Greek cases, the eight-case system is briefly explained here.

The five-case system is straightforward. A particular case takes a certain form, and a certain form is a particular case. So a genitive form is a genitive case, and a dative form is a dative case, plain and simple. Case and form are directly related, and one is the other. But the eight-case system categorizes case according to function, not form.

In the eight-case system, any one genitive form can be either one of two different cases, depending on how it is used in a sentence. In one Greek text, a particular genitive form of a certain word might be said to be of the genitive case, just as one would call it a genitive in the five-case system. But, in the eight-case system, they would only call it a genitive if it served certain kinds of normal genitive functions. However, they might say exactly the same word in the same genitive form was of the "ablative case" if it served a different kind of function in another sentence. Then the eight-case system designates three different cases for a dative form. The following chart describes the cases in the eight-case system.

Case Represented
by the form:
Nominative Nominative Same as the five-case system.
Vocative Vocative Same as the five-case system.
Accusative Accusative Same as the five-case system.
Genitive Genitive Most of the functions which can be indicated by a genitive form in the five-case system, except the ablative functions.
Ablative Genitive In general, the genitive form indicates "separation" of some kind, such as:
  • Separation: "from," "away from," or "out of" as in "dust from the feet," mostly replaced in koine Greek by prepositions like ἀπό ("from") + genitive, or ἐκ ("out of") + genitive.
  • Source or Origin: "out of," "derived from" or "from" as in "the righteousness that comes from God," mostly replaced by ἐκ ("out of") + genitive.
  • Comparison: usually found after an adjective in the comparative degree and is translated as "than" as in "wiser than men" or "worth more than many sparrows."
Dative Dative Most of the functions which can be indicated by a dative form in the five-case system, except the locative and instrumental functions.
Locative Dative Indicates a position in physical space, non-physical terms, or time, such as:
  • Sphere: "in the sphere of," i.e., within all the things existing that are represented by the noun, as in "the pure in heart" or "death in the flesh."
  • Time: "on," "at" or "in," referring to a point in time and answering the question "when?", as in "raised on the third day."
  • Rule: "according to" or "in conformity with" the sphere of a body of standards, rules, codes of conduct, etc., as in "walk according to their own ways."
Instrumental Dative Indicates the means or answers the question "how?" usually with regards to the action of a verb, such as:
  • Association: "with" as in "unequally yoked [in association] with unbelievers."
  • Manner: "with" or "in," as in "he speaks with boldness," mostly replaced by ἐν ("in") + dative, or μετά ("with") + dative.
  • Means / Instrument: "by," "by means of" or "with" as in "justified by faith."
  • Agency: "by" or "through" as in "done by him."
  • Measure / Degree of Difference: after or before an adjective (or adverb) in the comparative degree, often the dative πολλῷ ("much") with the comparative adverb μᾶλλον ("more"), as in "saved much more."
  • Cause: "because of" or "on the basis of " as in "persecuted because of the cross."
  • Cognate: used in order to emphasize the verb's action, a cognate with same form as the verb as in ἐνυπνίοις ἐνυπνιασθήσονται ("will be dreaming dreams"), or with the same meaning as in ἀγαλλιᾶσθε χαρᾷ ("rejoice with joy").
  • Material: "with" as in "anointed with oil."
  • Content: "with" as in "filled with wisdom."

Wallace points out some of the things which cause disagreements between those who use the eight-case system (classified by the function of the cases), and those who use the five-case system (classified simply by form). The case system can affect the way in which one interprets the Greek text. From what I understand in Wallace's explanations, the eight-case system does not really allow for as much flexibility or integrity in the interpretation of cases.

The eight-case system appears to be somewhat academic and artificial. Yet Scriptures were natural and heart-felt communications to ordinary persons, packed with subtle implications, just like much of our conversational English. For instance, Wallace points out that the one who takes the eight-case view may not acknowledge that a genitive or dative word form may be intended to convey two functions (and thus two meanings) at once. But the five-case view, held by most grammars, maintains that a Greek writer could use a genitive or dative form with a double meaning, in a way that serves two functions at once.

Wallace also refuted two main arguments for the eight-case system. The eight-case system stands on two main premises: (1) the historical argument, that the older Sanskrit language (to which Greek is closely linked) had an eight-case system, so Greek should have an eight-case system too; and (2) the linguistic argument, that a case system should be a matter of function and not form. Wallace countered that we must look at the actual way the Greeks developed and used their own language. This is a more important consideration than anything regarding the historical origins of their language. History can help us understand reasons for many things which happen later on, but the fact is that things change. Also, Wallace says it is not a valid assumption that case is a matter of function. Both the Sanskrit and Greek had different forms for the different cases, and, therefore, "case is a matter of form rather than function."

Of course, each Greek case is clearly used for numerous different functions, especially the genitive and dative cases. And we need to understands these various functions. But it is simply inappropriate to begin any interpretation of a text by first classifying cases according to function, since it automatically distorts the meaning of the text before you even get started.

Wallace says, "If case is truly a matter of function only, then there should be over one hundred cases in Greek. The genitive alone has dozens of [distinct and very different] functions.... to begin with semantic categories [i.e., to categorize cases according to function, thus according to meaning] is to put the cart before the horse. Syntax [i.e., the way in which words are used to construct a clause or sentence] must first of all be based on an examination and interpretation of the structures. To start with semantics skews the data."

So a good and objective interpretation must start by obtaining a general overview of the sentence structure (syntax), which will indicate all the possible functions and meanings available for each case form found within that particular structure. Since the grammatical function determines the meaning of the word, to assign it a function is to assign it a very narrow area of meaning. Thus, one does not do that until one first explores all the possible options available.

Yet, in the eight-case system, assigning a function (thus a meaning) is done first, because a case is a function to them, and they need to know the case of each word (thus the function) before they can even continue to read the rest of the words in a sentence, before they can even begin to interpret anything. Therefore, they must assign the function (thus the meaning) very quickly and hastily, without really taking the time to consider the overall syntax and all the available options. So the eight-case system promotes hastiness and carelessness in determining the function, and therefore the meaning of all declined words.

But the five-case system simply determines the case by form, and the form is used first to indicate syntax only. So, when a declined word is found, all that needs to be done is to recognize the form, which only indicates the general grammatical role that word is serving. Then the rest of the sentence can be interpreted in a general way. After this, more time can be spent to accurately determine each word's precise function, and thus its exact implied meaning (or possibly multiple implied meanings) according to its entire context.

Syntax is about understanding the roles which the words serve in a clause or sentence, where and how each word fits into the surface structure of the sentence, how the sentence is constructed or put together. Determining the syntax is the first step towards determining the meaning of the sentence, and each individual word in it. In the five-case system, grammatical cases simply provide information about syntax -- about how and where a noun, pronoun, adjective or participle fits into the structure of a sentence. That is what we must know first, in order to interpret a clause or sentence. And that is really all a case form itself can tell us.

Then, after we know the syntax or structure, after we see what the sentence is saying in a general way, we can work on finding out the deeper meaning. We can determine -- through the local and global context, through the broad area of meaning given in the lexical definition of each word, and by many other considerations -- the precise function and implied meanings of each word. After the case form tells us the general role that the word plays in the clause or sentence, and after we see the big picture of the whole sentence structure and its context, then we can then figure out what the author specifically meant or implied when he used each word in a given role, that is, the function and meaning of each word.

Because function involves so many factors other than the case form, and because there are so many different functions, it is impossible to designate a case by function first, like they do in the eight-case system.To determine function and meaning, thus to delve into semantics, one must look at the whole context and other information, not just the case form.

The case form, which only indicates syntax, is only a starting point, the first step. Semantics, determining meaning or function, is the second step, after understanding the syntax. After one determines the syntax, then one can look at the words' lexical definitions more closely, determine what kinds of verbs and nouns used with the word, examine the context, put all the data together logically, and take into account many other considerations.

So one must first determine the syntax, and understand the sentence structure. Only after one comprehends the structure, can one work on the semantics, to gain an understanding of the function and meaning of each particular word in its assigned syntactical role. Function is about expressing meaning, and is therefore a semantic category, thus a second step. But case is clearly just a syntactical category and does not provide much semantic information, only syntax, only a general indication of the role of a word in the structure of the sentence.

Consequently, as Wallace says, one cannot "put the cart before the horse," and classify case according to function and meaning first, according to semantic categories. Therefore, a case form is also a case category. Every genitive form is a genitive case, and every dative form is a dative case. Like the majority of grammars, BB Greek follows the five-case system.

The Nominative Case

A noun or pronoun in the nominative case is most often used as a subject of a clause or sentence. If the Greek clause or sentence uses a linking verb, a second nominative form may also be found in it, one used as a "subject complement" (which we place after the linking verb in our English translations). Sometimes this subject complement is also called a "predicate nominative," if it is a nominative form of a noun, pronoun or substantive (like an adjective or participle functioning as a noun). Or it may be called a "predicate adjective," if it is a nominative form of an adjective or participle which asserts something about the subject.

For a more complete explanation regarding the grammatical functions of the nominative case, see The Nominative Case.

The Vocative Case

A noun in the vocative case is primarily used for direct address, as the word "Lord" in "Lord, who is it?" The vocative case, therefore, means the noun is grammatically independent from the rest of the sentence (it is not a subject, complement or any other grammatical part of the sentence). In addressing someone, it simply indicates who is being addressed.

For a more complete explanation regarding the grammatical functions of the vocative case, see The Vocative Case.

The Accusative Case

A noun, pronoun, or adjective in the accusative case is mostly used as a direct object or the object of a preposition.

For a more complete explanation regarding the grammatical functions of the accusative case, see The Accusative Case.

The Genitive Case

A noun, pronoun, or adjective in the genitive case is often used as a possessive form or the object of a preposition.

For a more complete explanation regarding the grammatical functions of the genitive case, see The Genitive Case.

The Dative Case

A noun, pronoun, or adjective in the dative case most often used as an indirect object or the object of a preposition.

For a more complete explanation regarding the grammatical functions of the dative case, see The Dative Case.