Postclassical Greek Prepositions and Conceptual Metaphor

by | Sep 26, 2022 | Book Review

A Book Review

William A. Ross and Steven E. Runge, eds., Postclassical Greek Prepositions and Conceptual Metaphor: Cognitive Semantic Analysis and Biblical Interpretation, Fontes et Subsidia ad Bibliam pertinentes 12 (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2022).


This book is a compilation of papers presented at the 2017 “Tyndale House Workshop in Greek Prepositions: Cognitive Linguistic Approaches to Lexicography and Theology.” Prepositions do not map one-to-one across languages, or even dialects. The preposition in in the name of the conference is an example of a mismatch between British and American English. In America, it would be called “Tyndale House Workshop on Greek Prepositions.” Therefore, a mismatch between Greek and modern languages should come as no surprise. Interpreting and translating Ancient Greek prepositions is no easy process. This book offers a well-reasoned approach to handling this challenge.

What is cognitive linguistics and what does it contribute toward our understanding of prepositions? According to Vyvyan Evans, in A Glossary of Cognitive Linguistics, it’s “a school of linguistics and cognitive science which emerged in the early 1980s onward. Places central importance on the role of meaning, conceptual processes, and embodied experience in the study of language and the mind and the way in which they intersect. Cognitive linguistics is an enterprise or an approach to the study of the mind rather than a single articulated framework” (22). And what can Cognitive Linguistics bring to the prepositions table? Cognitive Linguistics “offers a principled way to understand the kinds of meanings prepositions express” face the challenge of polysemy (12). Look up almost any preposition in a lexicon and you find multiple or many glosses. How can such tiny words have so many senses? The approach discussed in this book proposes that we can pare down our lists of senses to radial categories organized around prototypes (22–23).

Each chapter in this book offers linguistic insights that will benefit those involved in lexicography, Bible translation, interpretation, and textual criticism. Half a decade later, we now have access to these edited conference papers plus a bonus paper not presented at the two-day event in Cambridge, England. 

Chapter Summaries

With such a variety of chapters, it’s difficult to give each the attention it deserves. What follows is a summary and brief review of each of the book’s eleven chapters.

Chapter 1. Introduction

William A. Ross and Steven E. Runge

After pointing out the problem of “a misleading representation of the polysemy of most prepositions” in Greek lexicons like BDAG and LSJ, Ross and Runge present Cognitive Linguistics as a beneficial approach (1). They applaud the relatively recent work on Greek prepositions written by Pietro Bortone and Silvia Luraghi while noting their limited coverage of the postclassical period.

Ross and Runge provide a short  overview of Cognitive Linguistics that includes a helpful list of defined key terms that readers can look back to as they read the other chapters. The final section charts the course for the ten chapters that follow. 

Chapter 2. Greek Prepositions: A Cognitive Linguistic View

Richard A. Rhodes

Rhodes outlines the linguistic framework that this book explores by showing us what the claim that “the cognitive view of language is that meaning arises out of perceptual experiences” actually means (12). In short, prepositions and language as a whole reflect how we perceive the world we inhabit. Therefore, the way we use prepositions metaphorically is directly related to their literal meaning (29).

The author walks readers through the core concepts of profiling, Landmark/Trajector, image schemas, prototype, containment, and frames. As Landmark and Trajector will appear throughout this review, it is helpful to know that “the object of a preposition is the Landmark, and the entity modified by the prepositional phrase is the Trajector” (14). Hence, in the sentence “Little Miss Muffet sat on a tuffet,” the Landmark is the tuffet and the Trajector is Little Miss Muffet.

Demonstrating the usefulness of Cognitive Linguistics, Rhodes uses roads. He analyzes the prepositions Greek writers used with roads and convincingly demonstrates the value and legitimacy of this approach for helping us understand Greek prepositions. 

Chapter 3. The Overlap between ἀπό and ὑπό to Mark Agents: The Trials and Tribulations of a Traditionalist Lexicographic Treatment

Patrick James

This chapter and those that follow each address a specific case and application of Cognitive Linguistics. James examines the challenge of how prepositions overlap in meaning, presenting the case of ἀπό and ὑπό as an example. What motivated the choice between the two, specifically as they mark agency? He reports that “the examples of ἀπό that could mark agents tend to be found with verbs that involve some notion of separation” (63).

The only shortcoming of this chapter is the absence of headings and subheadings, making this a tough chapter to consult for reference.

Chapter 4. Spatial Profiling: ἐκ, ἀπό, and Their Entailments in Postclassical Greek

Rachel E. Aubrey and Michael G. Aubrey

Aubrey and Aubrey analyze and compare the spatial scenes communicated by ἐκ (glossed “out of”) and ἀπό (glossed “from, away from”) and their resultant meanings in abstract expressions. They find that while both prepositions share many commonalities between their image schemas, ἐκ and ἀπό differ on the Trajector’s starting point.

After comparing these two prepositions in a variety of constructions (source, origin, partitive, temporal, and cause), they detect a key difference—ἐκ is used with bounded Landmarks and ἀπό lacks boundary markers.  

Chapter 5. The περί Preposition Phrase at the Grammar-Discourse Interface

Travis Wright

Wright writes about Cognitive Linguistics and discourse analysis to show why περί has caused lexical confusion. He contends that such confusion has arisen from topic [“what an utterance is about”] complexity and a mismatch between περί and its English equivalents (98).

Wright’s discussion is extremely technical, and I failed to make sense of his proposed lexical network that appears as a figure immediately prior to his conclusion. But I would be interested to go back and spend more time trying to understand his methodology and findings.   

Chapter 6. Construals of Faith in ἐν and ἐκ Prepositional Constructions

William A. Ross

Ross sets out to shed light on theological debate by categorizing “all instances where πίστις acts as the complement in a prepositional construction headed by either ἐν or ἐκ in the New Testament” (123). The output of his analysis is a map showing how locative construals proceed to more abstract semantic extensions. Ross concludes that choice implies meaning; therefore, we should pay more attention to a New Testament author’s choice of prepositions.

Chapter 7. “Why Do You Eat and Drink with Tax Collectors and Sinners?” How Prepositions Shape Social Space and Norms in Luke

Bonnie Howe

Howe looks at how Luke uses prepositions to communicate social norms. Her core methodological question is: “How can Cognitive Linguistics models help interpreters understand the social-relational usages of prepositions, and how are these usages related to the spatial-locative meanings of prepositions?” (152). Howe seeks to answer this question by analyzing prepositions in four focal texts:

  • Levi’s Banquet (Luke 5:29–32)
  • Jesus’ Meal at a Pharisee’s House (Luke 7:36)
  • Pharisees and Scribes Grumbling about Jesus (Luke 15:1–2)
  • Jesus and Zacchaeus (Luke 19)

Howe employs a variety of tools to study prepositions and mental spaces, raising important questions about social relationships. I found her reading of Jesus and Zacchaeus particularly fruitful with its attention to conceptual metaphor and status/honor.

Prepositions, Howe contends, can “contribute powerfully to social-cultural frame evocation, directing attention to particular frame elements” (171). She urges readers to consider how prepositions communicate “an embodied social ethic” (177).

Chapter 8. Land Forms, Weapons, and Body Parts: How Mismatches in Preferred Construals Have Shaped Our Understanding of Greek Prepositions

Steven E. Runge

Runge examines two types of Greek nouns two show how Greek writers profiled spatial scenes, and how those scenes extend to metaphor. The first group of nouns he studies (mountains, bodies of water, and military forces) are “concrete nouns that have a physical referent and that are largely restricted to one primary spatial metaphor” (185). The second group of nouns Runge studies (hands, fire, and weapons) is that with “far fewer restrictions on the kinds of spatial relationships that may be employed to profile a situation” (196).  

Perhaps this chapter should have been moved closer to the beginning because Runge does an excellent job of establishing and summarizing some foundational principles of Cognitive Linguistics. The chapter shows that Greek and English construe their prepositions differently. We should determine and privilege the Greek construal in our readings, and choose English translation equivalents on a best-fit basis.  

Chapter 9. Construing Agency and Cause in Passive Constructions

Michael G. Aubrey and Rachel E. Aubrey

Aubrey and Aubrey show the three ways Greek prepositions communicate an agent’s involvement in an event when the agent is not the subject of the sentence. The three ways are . . .

  • ὑπό: Spatial superiority is control
  • ἐκ and ἀπό: Events proceed from a source
  • διά: An intermediary is a channel for an ultimate cause

They then apply their findings to an extended case study on δικαιόω, concluding that concrete concepts such as location, distance, and source can help us understand abstract concepts such as time, control, and instrument. 

Chapter 10. The “Ins” and “Outs” of Matthew 15:1–20: Insights on Prepositions from Prototype Theory and Metaphor Theory

Erin M. Heim

Heim applies Prototype Theory, a tool from Cognitive Linguistics, to study biblical metaphor. She uses Matthew 15:1–20 (Jesus, the Pharisees, and the traditions of the elders) as a case study to show that Cognitive Linguistics unlocks fresh and exciting possibilities for biblical scholarship. Her short study finds that the prototypes and metaphors of prepositions reinforce Jesus’ teaching on intimacy with God and the relationship between body and person.

Chapter 11. Cognitive Linguistics and Greek Prepositions: A New Testament Perspective

Jonathan T. Pennington

Pennington notes that he writes as an observer who learned a lot at the Tyndale House Workshop on Greek Prepositions. He reflects on the possibilities he sees for employing Cognitive Linguistics in Greek pedagogy, translation, and biblical hermeneutics. 

In an attempt to show the value of cognitive linguistics for exegesis, Pennington explores the use of ἐν and ἐκ in 1 John. Unfortunately, his results are underwhelming. “At the level of describing the function of ἐκ in 1John,” he concludes, “in my mind there is no distinct advantage of a Cognitive Linguistics approach to other modern linguistic modes (262). Although he does believe that the philosophical commitments of Cognitive Linguistics help us better understand John’s outlook on dualities in the world. His findings on the preposition ἐν agree with a prototypical locative idea held by Cognitive Linguists. 

Pennington demonstrates that Cognitive Linguistics deserves more implementation in biblical studies. New Testament scholarship can only benefit as we seek to put this relatively fresh approach to good use.


One of my favorite quotes from the book comes from Ross and Runge in the introductory chapter: “The results of analyzing language without being informed of linguistic theory are rarely ideal” (3). Many of our standard introductory works on linguistics are outdated and inadequate. In this book, informed and responsible linguists, classicists, lexicographers, theologians, and biblical scholars offer substantive steps forward. Their combined efforts succeed as an invitation for New Testament scholars to investigate and advance the promising approach of Cognitive Linguistics. Their combined work consists of an appropriate mixture of introductory and technical material. I would have liked an additional introductory chapter explaining general methodological principles for those wishing to conduct their own research, but the existing chapters provide plenty of helpful examples for others to explore.

I hope this book informs and encourages more work on prepositions and cognitive linguistics within biblical studies, perhaps even within Old Testament scholarship. The bibliographies and footnotes alone are valuable sources of direction for further study. 

Note: Those interested in a more practical application of this work should check out Greek Prepositions in the New Testament: A Cognitive-Functional Description by chapter contributors Michael and Rachel Aubrey. (At this time, only available digitally for Logos Bible Software.)

Special thanks to De Gruyter for a review copy of this book. This did not affect my thoughts, so far as I’m aware. 


Brent Niedergall

Pastor, Grammarian, Runner

Brent Niedergall, MDiv, is Chief Editor at Positive Action for Christ in Whitakers, North Carolina. He’s gone to war in Afghanistan, felled towering trees, and parsed Greek verbs.


Brent Niedergall