Recently I had cause to read Acts of John 76.3, which includes the following:

ἀποσυλήσαντός μου ἤδη ἅπερ ἦν ἠμφιεσμένη ἐντάφια

“and I had now torn away the grave-clothes she was wearing”

Upon encountering this passage I was at a loss as to how to construe it. That it begins with a genitive absolute is clear enough, but what to do with the rest? There is a relative pronoun, ἅπερ: ἅ, neut. plr. nom. plus the particle περ, which more or less strengthens the relative in some way (commonly in Koine it does nothing much). Further complicating things, there is the anarthrous ἐντάφια, “grave clothes.” Both are nominative, though that can only be discerned from the context. The fact that ἐντάφια is anarthrous is noteworthy, as contextually it is certainly cognitively accessible, thus it would be expected to be articular.

Once you know the standard relative pronouns–ὅς, ἥ, ὅ (as well as the related words)–the average Greek grammar has nothing else much to say about relative clauses as, from the point of view of translating Greek to English, you know basically all you need to know. However, this bit of knowledge proves to be lacking in construing the relative clause above, as this type of relative clause works very different from English. It is what could be called an “internally-headed” relative clause.

Externally and Internally headed clauses

Greek relative clauses come in two forms. The most common form is when the relative clause follows—usually immediately—upon the noun (phrase) which it is modifying, as here in Matt. 2.9:

καὶ ἰδοὺ ὁ ἀστήρ, ὃν εἶδον ἐν τῇ ἀνατολῇ,

and behold, the star, which they had seen in the east,

We can call these types of relative clauses “externally headed relative clauses.” The “head” of the relative clause—the noun (phrase) which it modifies—is external to the relative clause. The case of the relative pronoun is determined by its role in its own clause. Most grammars would probably not even bother to call them anything beyond relative clauses, since they are so dominant in Greek. Incidentally, this is how relative clauses usually work in English, which makes it even more attractive to not spend time teaching them, since English-speakers will have no trouble translating upwards of 95% of the clauses they encounter.[i]

There is, however, another type of relative clause. This relative clause is what we could call an “internally headed relative clause.”[ii] These are relative clauses where the “antecedent” is syntactically part of the relative clause, and does not stand outside it (this makes the use of the term “antecedent” somewhat clumsy, given that in internally headed relative clauses the “antecedent” actually comes after the word that supposedly “points back” to it). An example from Mark 4.24 will be helpful here:

ἐν μέτρῳ μετρεῖτε μετρηθήσεται ὑμῖν

“in which measure you measure, it will be measured to you”

In this passage in Mark—one of a handful of internally headed relative clauses in the NT—the head of the relative clause is the noun μέτρῳ: “in which MEASURE you measure…” This word obviously follows the relative pronoun and is inside the relative clause. Thus, it is an internally-headed relative clause.

Having read the NT many times in Greek before, I have read this and the others like it. Given that I already know what the passage should be, it is easy to just “read” the Greek without taking clear notice of how it works. Encountering the internally-headed relative clause in fresh Greek required finding out how it works. There are a few key criterion which characterize internally-headed relative clauses, nicely laid out here in Smyth:

2536. Incorporation.—The antecedent taken up into the relative clause is said to be incorporated. The relative and antecedent then stand in the same case, the relative agreeing adjectively with its antecedent. If the antecedent is a substantive, it often stands at the end of the relative clause, and commonly has no article. An antecedent in the nominative or accusative is more frequently incorporated than one in the genitive or dative.

Smyth, Herbert Weir. Greek Grammar for Colleges. New York: American Book Company, 1920.

What Smyth calls “incorporation” (and other grammarians have other names for it), I am calling “internally-headed” relative clauses. The key features to note are that the “antecedent” is in the same clause as the relative pronoun and its case agrees with the relative pronoun. As the example from Acts of John shows, the “antecedent” can occur at the right margin of the clause, though it also occurs smack in the middle, as in Mark. When the head is on the right margin of the clause, it is not always obvious whether it belongs to the relative clause or not. Semantically, internally-headed relative clauses are only able to modify the head noun restrictively, while externally-headed relative clauses can modify the head noun either restrictively or non-restrictively.[iii]

Suggestions for further reading

This is just a brief primer on relative clauses–much more could be said–highlighting an important sub-group of relative clauses that don’t get the press they deserve. Here are some suggestions for further exploration of this facet of relative clauses (all available for free online):

  • Boyer, James L. “Relative Clauses in the Greek New Testament: A Statistical Study.” Grace Theological Journal 9, no. Fall (1988): 233–56.
  • Culy, Martin M. “A Typology of Koine Relative Clauses.” Work Papers of the Summer Institute of Linguistics, University of North Dakota Session 33, no. 3 (1989): 67–92.
  • Fauconnier, Stefanie. “Internal and External Relative Clauses in Ancient Greek.” Journal of Greek Linguistics 14, no. 2 (2014): 141–62.
  • Hayes, Michael. “An Analysis of the Attributive Participle and the Relative Clause in the Greek New Testament.” Doctor of Philosophy, Concordia Seminary, 2014.

[i] The 95% number comes from Hayes’ study of the NT (see reference above). I’m merely assuming this is generally representative of the major predominance of this sort of relative clause in Greek in general.

[ii] The label “internally-headed relative clause” is used first, by my preliminary researching, by Culy (see above for reference). He does not actually do the work to argue that this is a valid category name in Koine Greek. A recent paper by Fauconier (reference above) does just that. Both are worthwhile contributions for getting a handle on relative clauses.

[1] Fauconnier, “Internal and External Relative Clauses in Ancient Greek,” 151.