καὶ ἀποκριθεὶς ὁ ἑκατόνταρχος ἔφη· Κύριε, οὐκ εἰμὶ ἱκανὸς ἵνα μου ὑπὸ τὴν στέγην εἰσέλθῃς· ἀλλὰ μόνον εἰπὲ λόγῳ, καὶ ἰαθήσεται ὁ παῖς μου·
And the centurion replied: “Sir, I am not worthy that you should come under my roof. Rather, just say a word and my servant will be healed.
There is something out of the ordinary in this passage. Did you catch what it is? I don’t know how many times I have read Matthew in Greek now and the other day reading through it was the first time that it jumped out at me. The word order here is all goofy. Well, not all goofy. It is goofy with regard to one small word: μου “mine.”
The possessive pronoun μου is part of a prepositional phrase headed by the preposition ὑπό. But here in Matthew it comes before the preposition. That is not normal. In fact, that is quite abnormal. We call these words “prepositions” because they come before the phrase that follows (“pre-position”). The Greek grammarians used the word πρόθεσις, with the same meaning. In Greek poetry, the preposition can be placed after part of its prepositional phrase for metrical reasons, which is called “anastrophe,” but this is quite unusual in prose like the Gospel of Matthew. The very clear pattern, dare I say “rule,” in Koine is that the preposition comes first and then the noun phrase which it heads up follows it.
Syntax tree diagram
Every now and again I like to play with syntax tree diagrams in Greek. Since I am in the mood to do so, here are a couple syntax tree diagrams. I used this free online syntax tree generator built by Miles Shang. Not feature rich, but easy to use and gets the job done for a little playing around.
Here would be a normal tree diagram of the relevant clause:
Note that here I have moved the possessive pronoun to follow the preposition ὑπό. Of course, it could go in a few spots within the NP, but this one is fine for illustrative purposes.
Here is a syntax tree diagram of what is actually in the text:
In this case, we find a possessive pronoun that is out of line, or rather, split apart from the noun phrase it belongs with: “my roof.” What is going on here?
I see three possible explanations for the word order in this prepositional phrase. First, it is possible that Matthew simply wrote incompetent Greek at this point. Second, it is possible that there is a text transmission issue which has resulted in this configuration that we have here. Third, it is possible that the constituent order here is intentional and thus significant. And a bonus fourth issue is that Matthew could be recording someone else’s speech and/or text rather than writing in a free manner of his own. While this is possible, it raises a bunch of complicated questions about the nature of the Gospels’ source material and composition which we will ignore for the sake of this post because they are too complicated.
Option number one: Matthew is incompetent
Regarding the option that Matthew simply wrote incompetent Creek at this point, we have a lot of evidence to establish that he did, in fact, know the appropriate way to write Greek prepositional phrases. He uses 1137 of them (according to the NA 28 Greek text). Without having looked back through every single one of them, I can say with confidence that the overwhelming majority, if not all, of the others follow the normal Greek word order pattern. Matthew clearly knew how to control word order in prepositional phrases and in using possessive pronouns. The exceptional nature of this passage suggests that this is not a slip into incompetent Greek at this point.
Option number two: an error in the text
It’s also possible that there’s a text transmission error or issue which has resulted in the word order which we see in the text here. Anyone who has spent any time looking around at the manuscript tradition is well aware that there are scores of different orders and different errors spread throughout the texts. We can’t rule out that the configuration we see here is the result of a scribal error. However, it should be instructive that in the apparatus of the NA28, there is no textual difficulty even mentioned here. This suggests that the word order found here is normal throughout the textual tradition.
Option number three: intentional word order.
Finally, having ruled out the first two possibilities, I deem it more likely that Matthew is here using an intentional departure from normal Greek word order. This would make this instance a motivated order pattern and we should consider what the motivation might be.
Compare the order here to the order in Luke’s parallel passage (7.6), where a conventional word order is followed: οὐ γὰρ ἱκανός εἰμι ἵνα ὑπὸ τὴν στέγην μου εἰσέλθῃς (Luke 7.6). As Matthew’s order is marked, I would surmise that Matthew has made the order marked for his purposes, rather than that Luke has taken the order and turned it into a non-marked usage.
I suggest that the ordering here is meant to draw strong emphasis on “mine.” The point of issue with the centurion and his discussion with Jesus is about his identity. It is clear in the context that he is not a Jew. And he makes no pretenses to be. In fact, he puts it very clear that he’s not, here even emphasizing that Jesus does not belong under my roof. This emphasis sets the stage for leading into Jesus subsequent discussion about the inclusion of those coming from the East and the West into the eschatological feast. While there is certainly a possibility of this including the dispersed diaspora of Jewish people, within the context of Matthew’s Gospel one is hard pressed to argue that this discussion is not intended to include the ingathering of the Gentiles. The emphatic positioning of “my” drawing clear attention to the ethnic distinction between the centurion and Jesus, adds further wait to this interpretation.
This marked order also creates a degree of parallelism between Jesus’ prior response to the centurion, with an emphatic fronted pronoun ἐγώ, and the centurion’s response to him. R. T. France suggests that Jesus’ response to the centurion’s request for healing should be read as a question and is meant to draw attention to the social and religious impropriety of Jesus, a Jew, entering into the home of the Gentile centurion. The centurion’s response in Matthew picks up on that same dynamic: “you’re right, don’t come to my house.” Instead of coming to the house, the centurion demonstrates faith that Jesus can heal from a distance with a word, not requiring a touch or even his physical presence in the vicinity.
This unusual faith prompts Jesus’ subsequent explanation of the incoming of the Gentiles as well to God’s eschatological banquet. In short, those who are willing to respond in faith to Jesus will be gathered into the great feast, along with the Patriarchs. One might see here a link to the defining characteristic of Abraham which Paul draws attention to for his purposes: Abraham believed God.
Here we have an interesting case where grammar and theology meld so effortlessly together. Paying attention to the position of words, and when they violate normal orders, drives understanding the text. It is not the only thing, but it is a thing.
 There are individual words which are exceptional, like the improper preposition χάριν (not to be confused with identical in appearance but quite different in meaning accusative form χάριν, “grace”).
 The order is identical in the Textus Receptus, the Patriarchal Bible, and the Robinson-Pierpont text, all sharing an approach which places the Byzantine text-type as central, in one form or another, against the NA which takes the Alexandrian text as better.