Matthew 22:36: comparative rarity of the vocative case

The Pharisees ask Jesus a question.

Διδάσκαλε, . . . . “Teacher

ποία ἐντολή . . . . which commandment

μεγάλη . . . .  big

ἐν τῷ νόμῳ; . . . . in the law?”

“Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?”  (ESV)

Notes:

This verse is a complete sentence, even though it lacks a verb.  The verb ‘to be’ (εἰμί) and similar verbs are often optional in Greek.  In English we could not correctly say

Which commandment greatest in the law?

but this and similar sentences are possible in Greek.  For example, in John 4:24:

πνεῦμα ὁ θεός

God [is] spirit

 The word μεγάλη is the feminine singular nominative form of the adjective μέγας, μεγάλη, μέγα (‘large, great’).  In theory, ‘μεγάλη’ is only the positive form of the adjective, i.e., ‘great’ in the series of ‘great, greater, greatest’.  It is so translated in the ESV, above.  Many other translations, however, use ‘greatest’ in their translation, e.g.:

“Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”

in both the ISV and the NIV.

More on the adjective μέγας in the next post.

Διδάσκαλε is the vocative case of ὁ διδάσκαλος, ‘teacher’.  This one form is used about thirty times in the New Testament.  The vocative is much less common than the other cases; Wallace’s numbers are as follows*:

Nominative case:  used 24,618 times (about 31% of the total)

Genitive case:  used 19,633 times (~25%)

Dative case: used 12,173 times (~15%)

Accusative case: used 23,105 times (~29%)

Vocative case: used 317 times (~0.4%)

Vocatives are the case of direct address.  In English, for example, the sentence

Doctor, my shoulder hurts.

is direct address.  In Greek, ‘doctor’ would be in the vocative case.

For more (read: ‘a lot of’) information about the vocative, I recommend this article from the ‘In the Salt Shaker’ site: http://inthesaltshaker.com/drills/voccase.htm


*  Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar: Beyond the Basics.  Zondervan, 1996.  See pg. 35 and chart 3.  It should come as no surprise to a student of koine that there are occasional differences of opinion in assigning case.

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