Usage of καί

Earlier today, Eric Rasmusen posted the following comment in the Punctuation in Ancient Greek Texts discussion. While it is related to that topic, it raises a question more specific to the usage of the word καί, and I would like to invite other comments more particular to that topic than to punctuation.

Here’s what Eric had to say:

I don’t know Greek. I have a question about Biblical Greek, which often strikes me as ugly in literal translation. I was just reading Colossians in English and wondered whether most of the “and”‘s in it ought to be translated by periods. In other words: is the Greek word kai actually mean NEW SENTENCE?

3:13 Forbearing one another, and forgiving one another, if any man have aquarrel against any: even as Christ forgave you, so also do ye.
3:14 And above all these things put on charity, which is the bond of perfectness.
3:15 And let the peace of God rule in your hearts, to the which also ye are called in one body; and be ye thankful.

And here’s my response, to which you can feel free to add:

I agree that overly literal translations sound “ugly.” That’s because they try to make English sound like Greek, and that’s just not normal English usage!

As to the meaning of καί…
No. Καί is not equivalent to a verbal punctuation mark. It can be used in all of the ways that the English word “and” can be, plus a few others. I’ll stick to ways that have a parallel in English to make the discussion below easy to follow.

Καί can be used to link two or more simple words in a list:

χρυσὸν καὶ λίβανον καὶ σμύρναν
gold and frankincense and myrrh (Matthew 2:11)

Σίμωνος καὶ Ἀνδρέου
Simon and Andrew (Mark 1:29)

Καί can be used to link two or more phrases:

γῆ Ζαβουλὼν καὶ γῆ Νεφθαλίμ
The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali (Matthew 4:15)

It can be used to link entire clauses:

τέξεται. . . υἱόν, καὶ καλέσεις τὸ ὄνομα αὐτοῦ Ἰησοῦν
She will bear a son, and you will name him “Jesus” (Matthew 1:21)

In English we often omit “and” when it would sound repetitive. For example, in the first example above (Matthew 2:11), a more natural English translation would be “gold, frankincense, and myrrh” rather than “gold and frankincense and myrrh.” In a list of three or more items, we tend to use “and” only between the last two in English. In ancient Greek texts, however, it is quite common to find καί between each set of items in the list. While including “and” in all of these places in the English translation would sound “ugly” as you put it, including και´in Greek sounds quite normal.

Because Ancient Greek had a much more developed system of grammatical endings (for verbs, nouns, pronouns, adjectives, etc.), it was possible to write sentences that were considerably longer than what would be understandable in English. Often the parts of such long sentences were held together by conjunctions like καί. There were, of course, many other such conjunctions, but καί was among the most common. Overly literal translations attempt to make English work like Greek and include all of those conjunctions rather than breaking the long sentences down into the smaller units that English usage requires. This results both in “ugly” sounding sentences and a significant loss of comprehensibility.


19 Replies to “Usage of καί”

  1. I see that kai can be used as a conjunction, like the English “and”. Usually in English, though, it is a bad to use “and” to start a sentence in place of the alternatives of replacing the period with a comma or deleting the “and”. The same must be true in Greek, even if it so common that readers are used to it. Does modern Greek use both punctuation and kai as a way to separate sentences? If it doesn’t that would an indication that the ancient kai is serving as a sort of punctuation.

    If that is true, it’s similar to something I’ve started doing myself with HTML. My webpage says: “My notes on Acrobat and Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop and broadband connecting and Excel and Geometer’s Sketchpad and Google and HTML…” ( because each of the software names is in blue because it is a hyperlink, and I want to separate the blue words with black “and”s so readers will realize they are different hyperlinks.

    Another thought. I know it’s presumptuous, but can Colossians 3:12 be split up differently than the verses do it. Here’s the versification:

    Colossians 3:12. Ἐνδύσασθε οὖν ὡς ἐκλεκτοὶ τοῦ θεοῦ, ἅγιοι καὶ ἠγαπημένοι, σπλάγχνα οἰκτιρμοῦ, χρηστότητα, ταπεινοφροσύνην, πραΰτητα, μακροθυμίαν,

    3:13 ἀνεχόμενοι ἀλλήλων καὶ χαριζόμενοι ἑαυτοῖς ἐάν τις πρός τινα ἔχῃ μομφήν: καθὼς καὶ ὁ κύριος ἐχαρίσατο ὑμῖν οὕτως καὶ ὑμεῖς:
    3:14 ἐπὶ πᾶσιν δὲ τούτοις τὴν ἀγάπην, ὅ ἐστιν σύνδεσμος τῆς τελειότητος.
    3:15 καὶ ἡ εἰρήνη τοῦ Χριστοῦ βραβευέτω ἐν ταῖς καρδίαις ὑμῶν, εἰς ἣν καὶ ἐκλήθητε ἐν ἑνὶ σώματι: καὶ εὐχάριστοι γίνεσθε.

    Here’s another way to slice it. Does this make any sense in Greek?

    Ἐνδύσασθε οὖν ὡς ἐκλεκτοὶ τοῦ θεοῦ, ἅγιοι καὶ ἠγαπημένοι, σπλάγχνα οἰκτιρμοῦ, χρηστότητα, ταπεινοφροσύνην, πραΰτητα, μακροθυμίαν ἀνεχόμενοι ἀλλήλων.

    καὶ χαριζόμενοι ἑαυτοῖς ἐάν τις πρός τινα ἔχῃ μομφήν καθὼς.

    καὶ ὁ κύριος ἐχαρίσατο ὑμῖν οὕτως.

    καὶ ὑμεῖς ἐπὶ πᾶσιν δὲ τούτοις τὴν ἀγάπην, ὅ ἐστιν σύνδεσμος τῆς τελειότητος.

    καὶ ἡ εἰρήνη τοῦ Χριστοῦ βραβευέτω ἐν ταῖς καρδίαις ὑμῶν, εἰς ἣν καὶ ἐκλήθητε ἐν ἑνὶ σώματι.

    καὶ εὐχάριστοι γίνεσθε.

    Does that make any sense, or not?

  2. It was not bad style in Ancient Greek to start a sentence with καί. But of course that’s a little presumptuous of me to say, since there was no punctuation in the oldest Greek texts. What we call a “sentence” is a subjective judgment imposed later. Still, it is quite true that clauses very often began with καί if there was a desire to connect their content in any number of ways with the previous clause.

    Your question about versification raises another issue of structure imposed at a later date. Chapter and verse numbers were added to the New Testament texts long after they were written. None of the oldest manuscripts contain them. While legends exist about their origin, the truth is that we do not know who added them.

    Most of the chapter and verse numbers are located in places that make sense in a very general way, but they are not always aligned with the most reasonable place to break a sentence. If you do not read Greek, you can see this easily by comparing a few of the more modern translations. You will notice that some verse numbers fall in the middle of the sentence in these translations.

    I would definitely not recommend taking the verse numbers as an indication of where to break up a sentence.

    Your proposed structure works as well as the one indicated by the verse numbers. The instances of καί link clauses together, and you have separated those clauses out on different lines. Notice, though that you have left one instance of καί in the middle of a clause:

    εἰς ἣν καὶ ἐκλήθητε ἐν ἑνὶ σώματι
    to which indeed you were called in one body
    to which you were called in one body (Col. 3:15)

    This is one of those places where the usage of καί does not match English. Here it is sometimes translated as “indeed” or even left untranslated.

    1. Thanks. My Greek is limited to interlinear, and I deliberately didn’t cut out that last kai because it didn’t seem to separate two possible sentences.

  3. I failed to mention in my last comment, Eric, that I do not feel competent to judge what constitutes good style in Modern Greek. I may have some readers who might be willing to comment on that, though. Since I’m not a native speaker, I’d better leave that one to those more qualified than me.

    1. Thank you, Eeli.

      Runge gives a clear discussion of the difference between καί on the one hand, and the English conjunctions “and” and “but” on the other. Here’s a brief excerpt from page 16.

      Καί does not mark a distinction of semantic continuity or discontinuity, it merely indicates that the connected elements are to be closely related to one another. Stated another way, καί links two items of equal status.

    2. The Steve Runge discussion is very clear, even for an amateur like me. It does make me think even more that it’s important in Greek to keep in mind that writing without punctuation necessitates using words in different ways. Commas, semi-colons, and colons are conjunctions too, and maybe even a literal translation should translate kai using them instead of a word.

      I wonder: could it be that the use of kai is a literary device not used in speech? (just as we don’t say “period” in speech ordinarily). When my kids were preschoolers I’d have them dictate stories to me, and they had a tendency to start every sentence “And then…”.

  4. Eric,

    There is another factor that needs to get mentioned here: the prototypical means of joining clauses in English. Unless there is some good reason to do otherwise, we do not use conjunctions to join clauses in English. This absence of a connecting particle is called “asyndeton” by grammarians. This means that the only time you’ll hear conjunctions in English is where some relationship needs to be specified, most often subordination. So the frequency of use of connecting particles varies from language to language.

    In narrative writing like the Gospels and Acts in Greek, and like the Pentateuch and Historical books in Hebrew, most every clause is joined by their equivalent of “and.” This is why is sounds like it is overused; by English standards it is. However, this does not make it wrong, just different compared to your English sensibilities. In the non-narrative writings in both languages, asyndeton is much more common.

    I am traveling at the moment, but I’d suggest reading the article in the book “Language Typology and Syntactic Description” edited by Timothy Shopen on strategies for connecting clauses. It is a three volume set sitting on my book shelf, but not being there I can’t tell you the specific author and volume. You could also find an overview in an introduction to language typology, something that focuses on languages besides English.

    1. Thanks for joining the discussion, Steve. UNC Chapel Hill’s main library has a copy of the three volume set you mention. At least they did a decade ago. I had the pleasure of reading it when I was there back in the mid 1990s.

  5. Dear Micheal,

    The use of καί in the New Testament, as far as I know, is considered one of the several Semitisms that it displays, probably reflecting the Hebrew constructions with Waw Consecutive, and especially those in which Waw Consecutive is attached to the Imperfect.

    I am not a specialist in Greek or Northwest Semitic philology (I currently study Greek and I took an Introduction to Biblical Hebrew years ago), but from my particular perspective (I am a graduate student of Egyptology), I can point out another parallel that we find in Late Egyptian, in the so-called NIMS constructions (non-initial main sentences). These constructions are characteristic of narrative texts, and consist of a chain of independent sentences that are never used initially, which is introduced by an independent verbal form, generally preterital. An example, from the Tale of the Doomed Prince, would be:

    wn.jn=sn Hr jT.t pA Hrd r pAy=sn pr
    jw=sn Hr wab=f
    jw=sn Hr dj.t wnm n pAy=f Htr
    jw=sn Hr jr.t jx.t nb n pA Xrd

    “Then they took the boy to their house, washed him, fed his team, and did everything for the boy…” (the text continues with four more NIMS, but I think that the idea is clear).

    The NIMS are sentences introduced by the particle jw, followed by the preposition Hr (that can be omitted in writing) and an infinitive. The use of this jw reminds me of the kai and the Waw Consecutive as ways of coordinating sentences.

    I hope you find this helpful!


    1. The issue of semitic influence in the New Testament in general is quite easy to demonstrate, but when we try to argue that a particular usage of a very common word such as καί is a semitism it gets more problematic. The kinds of constructions in which we find καί in the New Testament can also be observed in the Discourses of Epictetus, for example, and no one would argue for semitic influence there.

      It is perhaps true that the frequency of some constructions with καί in the New Testament is influenced by Hebrew or Aramaic, but those same constructions do appear, though perhaps less frequently, in the wider Hellenistic Greek literature.

      Of course we could argue that the wider Hellenistic Greek literature is to some extent the recipient of semitic influence since there was a large Jewish presence in Egypt and Rome and many other Roman cities in the hellenistic period.

  6. Yes, it’s very good. I should write this just to indicate that I’ve read and appreciated all the posts. Seeing Billy Martin’s post reminds me that I ought to find a modern Greek and ask him about this.

  7. Hi, very interesting article also I have a question regarding Kai. When is Kai translated to mean “Then”? I was recently reading luke:23:46 and noticed some translations used then or and. Which one is more likely also which one is correct?

    1. Great question, Brian. Καί is a conjunction that is very often translated into English as “and”, but it has a range of meanings that is a good bit wider than the English word “and.” It is often used in a sequence (This, then that, then the other…). In such instances it is better translated as “then.” The question of how best to translate it in the particular case of Luke 23:46 would require studying the larger context to see whether it is coordinating two events without any reference to their sequence (“and”) or two events with a clearly implied sequence (“then”).

      Another way of thinking about this is to say that καί suggests only that the two items it coordinates are related in some way. It is the larger context that defines in what way. If the elements in the context constitute a sequence (first, next, etc.), καί should be translated as “then”. If, on the other hand, no sequence is implied by the context, “and” makes the better translation.

    1. Here are some general comments about καὶ in John 17:3. I hope they address what you want to know. If not, just clarify your question for me, and I’ll be glad to address it. Here’s the relevant part of John 17:3:

      ἵνα γινώσκωσιν σὲ τὸν μόνον ἀληθινὸν θεὸν καὶ ὃν ἀπέστειλας Ἰησοῦν Χριστόν

      In John 17:3 καί coordinates two clauses that both modify σέ (you). The first is τὸν μόνον ἀληθινὸν θεὸν (the one true God). The second is ὃν ἀπέστειλας Ἰησοῦν Χριστόν (who sent Jesus Christ). In such cases we do not typically use the word “and” in English. We might translate this whole construction like this:

      that they might know you, the one true God, the one who sent Jesus Christ.

      It’s important to keep in mind that καὶ is not equivalent to the English word “and”. While we can often use “and” to translated καί, it is not always appropriate to do so. Καὶ connects two elements of the same status (two words, two phrases, two clauses). Because the two clauses here are of different kinds (One is an independent clause, the other a relative clause), it is not standard usage to connect them with “and” in English.

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