Tag Archives: singular verb

Neuter Plurals Singular Verb

This post discusses a textual variant in Matthew’s gospel, chapter 26, verse 31, as follows:

διασκορπισθησεται 𝔓³⁷ 𝔓⁴⁵ D E F K U V W Γ Δ Θ Π Φ ƒ¹ 2 28 565 579 1424 pm Eus Chrys Or-pt TR RP διασκορπισθησονται 𝔓⁵³ ℵ A B C G H L M S Σ 067 0281 ƒ¹³ 33 157 700 892 1071 1241 pm Or-pt SBL TH ΝΑ28 {\} lac 𝔓⁶⁴ N P Q Ζ 0233 346

The nominative substantive, the subject of our sentence here, is τα προβατα, “the sheep,” a neuter plural subject. But the BYZ text couples with it a singular verb, διασκορπισθησεται, while the NA28 text uses a plural verb, διασκορπισθησονται.

Classical, Attic, Greek had a grammar rule that broke the grammar rules.  Usually, verbs must agree in gender, number and case with the subject noun.  This is called concord.  But there was a rule that neuter plural subjects usually took a singular verb.

BDF §133: “This is because neuter plurals were originally in part feminine singular collectives: Schwyzer ɪ 581 f.). The rule appears to have been most strictly followed in the Attic dialect (Schwyzer ɪɪ 607); Homer and Koine are less consistent, while the plural is used exclusively in MGr.  In the NT (as in the LXX and pap.: Mayser ɪɪ 3, 28 ff.) there is marked diversity, and often in individual instances the MSS diverge.  The plural is used for the most part in Herm. (1) The plural is used especially with neuters designating persons (also class., K.-G. ɪ 65), most frequently with ἔθνη, less often wth τέκνα and δαιμόνια. (2) The singular, on the contrary, preponderates with words having non-personal meaning (even when a numeral is inserted: ἐὰν γένηται…ἑκατὸν πρόβατα Mt 18:12), (3) and even more so with abstracts and pronouns (ταῦτα, ἅ etc.).—For stereotyped ἴδε, ἰδού, ἄγε used in spite of a plural subject, s. §144.”

Smyth §958: “A neuter plural subject is regarded as a collective (996), and has its verb in the singular: καλὰ ἦν τὰ σφάγια the sacrifices were propitious X.A.4.3.19.  Here, sheep are a herd, a collective, so take a singular verb, the herd is scattered.  But Smyth then says in §959, “A plural verb may be used when stress is laid on the fact that the neuter plural subject is composed of persons or of several parts: τὰ τέλη τῶν Λακεδαιμονίων αὐτὸν ἐξέπεμψαν the Lacedaemonian magistrates despatched him (Thuc. 4.88), φανερὰ ἦσαν καὶ ἵππων καὶ ἀνθρώπων ἴχνη πολλά many traces both of horses and of men were plain X.A.1.7.17. (a.) With the above exception Attic regularly uses the singular verb.  Homer uses the singular three times as often as the plural, and the plural less frequently with neuter adjectives and pronouns than with substantives.  In some cases (B 135) the metre decides the choice.” 

Here in Mt 26:31 the sheep are persons, so one cannot declare with absolute certainly which reading in this variant is grammatically correct for classical Greek.  Now, there are many other examples of this category of variant in Matthew, but I am showing this one because so many papyri are extant.  The testimony is equally early for both readings.  Each has a III century papyrus in support, 𝔓⁴⁵ and 𝔓⁵³.  The Greek Old Testament, the Septuagint, does not pertain here, as Zech 13:7 in the LXX does not have the same sentence structure, that is, there is no neuter plural subject.  Rather it says, “Strike the shepherds, and remove the sheep…” 

Now a question for us is, was Matthew (or his translator, if he wrote his gospel in Hebrew or Aramaic) bound to follow Attic rules, or even familiar with Attic rules?  Possibly editors or copyists of Matthew corrected what they thought was incorrect grammar, to follow the Attic rule.  But in this variant we probably have a legitimate exception to the Attic rule since the sheep are persons.  This explanatory note, and many like it, can be read in my translation of the gospel of Matthew, downloadable here.