The following is an excerpt from Discourse Studies & Biblical Interpretation: A Festschrift in Honor of Stephen H. Levinsohn. This portion is written by Rick Brannan regarding “The Discourse Function of ἀλλά in Non-Negative Contexts.” If you have benefited from Dr. Levinsohn’s work or are interested in discourse studies, this festschrift is a must-read. Contributors include Steven E. Runge, Stanley E. Porter, Regina Blass, Buist Fanning, and Jenny Read-Heimerdinger. Get your copy in Logos now.
A working hypothesis regarding ἀλλά
Virtually every grammar, monograph and lexicon article that discusses ἀλλά notes that it is an “adversative” conjunction. Several go so far as to say that it is a “strong adversative.”4 Upon an examination of every instance of ἀλλά in the New Testament and the Apostolic Fathers, one learns that the vast majority of instances of ἀλλά in these corpora (approximately 80%) involve the comparison of two items (phrases, clauses or otherwise), one of which uses a negator. It is this larger context that is “adversative”; ἀλλά itself does not create the adversity or contrast. It is more proper in such instances to speak of ἀλλά as being used in adversative contexts. But ἀλλά is used in other contexts as well, as the standard lexicons and grammars readily display.
This leads to the larger and more appropriate question: What function does ἀλλά play in discourse? Recall Funk’s distinction between function words which are “lexically empty” and other words which are “lexically full.” One must understand the function of ἀλλά, not simply substitute sense-derived glosses, in order to understand what a particular passage communicates. Proposed guidelines for understanding the role of ἀλλά in a given passage include:
• ἀλλά involves enhancing the contrast between two things. To understand a particular instance, the two contrasting items must be located. The antecedent item usually directly precedes the ἀλλά; but it may be discontiguous and it may even be a general assumption in the current context.9 Context (e.g., presence of a negator, contrast based on word choice) determines the degree of contrast between the two items.
• ἀλλά involves correction or replacement. The second item either corrects or replaces the first. “Correction” is when the second item sharpens, redirects or clarifies the first item. “Replacement” is when the second item wipes the first item off of the table and replaces it completely. In discourse, the correction or replacement has the effect of making the second item more prominent than the first.
Applying these two guidelines when examining New Testament passages that contain instances of ἀλλά will result in clearer understanding of passage flow; this in turn bears exegetical fruit.
The balance of this paper will ground these guidelines in the existing literature and apply them to non-negative instances of ἀλλά within the synoptic gospels. The goal is to demonstrate the reliability and usefulness of the guidelines toward understanding the discourse function of particular instances of ἀλλά in the New Testament and in other early Christian literature.