The Figure of Speech – Anacoluthon as used in the Bible

The ability to communicate by words is one thing that sets apart mankind from all other creatures. God is the Author of language, and no one has ever used language as precisely as God does in the Bible, including His use of figures of speech. When most people say, “a figure of speech,” they are speaking in general terms of something that is not true to fact. However, genuine “figures of speech” are legitimate grammatical and lexical forms that add emphasis and feeling to what we say and write. Recognizing and properly interpreting the figures of speech in the Bible has many advantages. We can understand the true meaning of Scripture and be able to more fully enjoy the richness of the Word of God. It is important that we become at least somewhat familiar with the figures of speech in Scripture, of which there are more than 200 varieties. [1]

The figure we are going to cover in this article is Anacoluthon. This is a figure of speech that we all use, and even sometimes get angry at ourselves or others for using, so it is very familiar to us. Nevertheless, most people use the figure accidentally, and without knowing its name. Have you ever started a new sentence before you finished the one you were speaking, or interrupted yourself and changed the subject? If so, you have used the figure Anacoluthon.

Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th edition) defines Anacoluthon as a:

“syntactical inconsistency or incoherence within a sentence; especially a shift in an unfinished sentence from one syntactic construction to another (as in ‘you really ought—well, do it your own way’).”

Anacoluthon comes from the Greek “a” or “an,” a negative prefix and akolouthos, “a following.” Thus it is a “not following,” or non-sequence, and it is most noticeable when one sentence is completely broken off and a new thought begins. However, much less noticeable Anacoluthons occur when the subject of a sentence changes abruptly from singular to plural, or vice versa, the gender changes from masculine to feminine, or vice versa, or even when the voice, mood, or tense in a sentence suddenly changes. These changes may leave the listener somewhat puzzled or confused as to the intent and meaning of the speaker or author.

When we use Anacoluthon, we usually do so by accident. We start a sentence and then change our mind about what we are saying, or we get distracted and do not properly finish our thought, which is precisely why we tend to get annoyed with someone who uses a lot of Anacoluthons. However, God always uses Anacoluthon on purpose to catch our attention and/or bring emphasis to what He is saying.

Christians can become confused by the Anacoluthons in the Bible, because although we are used to them in speech, we are not used to them in writing. After all, if we did not complete a sentence in an essay we were writing for English class, or if we changed the subject in the middle of a sentence, our teacher was sure to circle it in red and make a comment in the margin about how we should write in complete sentences.

Most Anacoluthons in Scripture are hard to recognize for a couple of reasons. The presence of this figure can make the sentence read very roughly, and so some Bible versions translate it out of the English version so the text reads smoothly. Also, some of the Anacoluthons that occur in the Greek or Hebrew grammar do not transfer well into English. For example, in English the word “you” is both singular and plural, so a sentence containing both a singular and plural “you” would still read smoothly and seem unified even if the speaker meant to change the number of people he was addressing. However, in Greek, su is the singular “you,” while humeis is the plural “you” (or as some say, “you all,” pronounced “y’all”). Thus the change in Greek would be very noticeable. Let’s look at some examples of Anacoluthon in the Bible.

In Mark 11:32 (ASV), [2] this Anacoluthon is an unfinished sentence, and to best see and understand it, we must understand the context.

Mark 11:29-32 (ASV)
(29) And Jesus said unto them, I will ask of you one question, and answer me, and I will tell you by what authority I do these things.
(30) The baptism of John, was it from heaven, or from men? Answer me.
(31) And they reasoned with themselves, saying, If we shall say, From heaven; He will say, Why then did ye not believe him?
(32) But should we say, From men—they feared the people: for all verily held John to be a prophet.

The verses above speak of an event that unfolded in the Temple in Jerusalem just before the Passover on which Jesus was crucified. The religious leaders were trying to trap and arrest him, and they questioned him concerning his authority. He questioned them back, asking about the authority of John the Baptist. They knew they were trapped, and huddled together to discuss the situation. If they said John got his authority from God, the people would ask why they would not allow themselves to be baptized by him. But if they said John’s authority was not divine, but human…well, the consequences would be so dire that they could not even finish their sentence. The text lets us know why: they were afraid of the people. The Anacoluthon in this verse is one we can relate to easily.

Galatians 2:6 (REV)
But from those who seemed to be important (whatever they were at one time, it does not matter to me, God does not accept a man’s face)—before me, then, those seeming to be something placed nothing,

This Anacoluthon is interrupted by the parenthesis. Take the parenthesis out and it shows up powerfully, but, as was stated above, it can be confusing to the student of the Bible. The first part of the sentence would logically be completed by something that Paul received, such as “I received nothing.” But that would hardly be true, for Paul certainly received some things from the leaders in Jerusalem. The Apostles acceptance of Paul is much more graciously expressed by changing the emphasis from what Paul received to what the Apostles did, which in this case was to recognize Paul’s ministry and calling and not place any burden on him, something they would readily have done if they felt that something was lacking in Paul’s ministry.

Most versions are incorrect when they say such things as the Apostles “added nothing to me” (KJV, ESV [3]) or “contributed nothing to me” (NASB [4]). The Greek word many versions translate as “impart,” “add,” or “contribute” can also mean to “lay before,” or to “place before,” and that is its meaning here. I am sure the Apostles in Jerusalem contributed something to Paul, even if it was their encouragement and blessing, but they did not place any extra work or burden on him, realizing he had his own calling from the Lord to fulfill. Furthermore, although Paul was trying to establish his own credibility in this section of the book of Galatians, he would hardly have done so by pointing out that the Apostles in Jerusalem, who were men of standing in the Church, “added nothing” to Paul. By using the Anacoluthon, Paul makes the delicate point that his ministry was recognized by, and acceptable to, the Apostles in Jerusalem (so it should be to the Galatians, too!), without seeming to denigrate them in any way.

Galatians 6:1 (KJV)
Brethren, if a man be overtaken in a fault, ye [plural] which are spiritual, restore such an one in the spirit of meekness; considering thyself [singular], lest thou also be tempted.

This is an example of an Anacoluthon in which the plural suddenly switches to a singular, which is hard to see in English, and some versions avoid the problem by translating the Anacoluthon out of the text. Everyone [plural: thus “ye”] pitches in together to help restore brothers in need, but each person [singular: therefore “thyself”] must personally watch out for temptations. Proper grammar without the Anacoluthon would be “…you [plural] who are spiritual…considering yourselves….

Mark 6:11 (REV)
And whatever place does not receive you or listen to you, as you go forth from there, shake off the dust that is under your feet for a testimony against them.

Here the singular “place,” referring to a town, suddenly changes at the end of the sentence to the plural, “them,” referring to people. Nevertheless, the Anacoluthon seems natural, because we automatically make the jump in logic from the fact that one walks into a “place,” but can be rejected by the people who live there. Proper grammar would end the sentence with “it.”

There are many more examples of Anacoluthon in the Bible, and many of those can be found in Bullinger’s wonderful book, Figures of Speech Used in the Bible. [5]

Endnotes

[1] E. W. Bullinger, Figures of Speech Used in the Bible (Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, MI, reprinted 1968).
[2] Scripture quotations marked (ASV) are taken from The American Standard Version, 1901.
[3] Scripture quotations marked (ESV) are taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version™ © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. All rights reserved.
[4] Scripture quotations marked (NASB) are taken from the New American Standard Bible®, © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.
[5] Bullinger, op. cit., Figures of Speech Used in the Bible.

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