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The Greek Tenses in John 7:34

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Question:  Bob, In John 7:34, I am wondering if there is any evidence from the Greek that the tenses may have been mistranslated - Jesus says they "will seek but not find" Him (future), but then seems to switch to the present with "where I am you cannot come" - shouldn't these be in the future too?.

Response:  The translation you are using accurately reflects the Greek tenses (but ...): "will seek" and "will not find" are indeed futures in the Greek, while "I am" and "cannot" are present tenses.

However, you should know that the "sequence of tenses" is not the exactly same in Greek as it is in English. For example, if you make the statement "I will do it tomorrow", and I am asked to repeat what you said, I say "He said he would do it tomorrow"; in proper English, we don't say "He said he will", even though the verb you used was a straight future. So English does do some shifting around of the verbs in a way that presents no problem to those of us who grew up speaking the language - but, believe me, this is a difficult concept for non-native speakers to master.

Greek does some odd things too, at least from our point of view, and we should also keep in mind that New Testament Greek sometimes is more colloquial than what one would find in, say, Demosthenes. If in Greek you say "I will do it tomorrow", I would repeat using the same tenses: "He said he will". How does all this apply to John 7:34? My take on what is going on here is that Jesus is doing a very natural thing from the Greek point of view: assimilating the tenses from the point of view of the audience: "You will not find Me, and where I am [i.e., will "be" at that future time] you are not able to come [i.e., then]." We would probably not be very likely to say it like this in English. We would be more likely to say, as you rightly suspect: "... and where I will [then] be, you will not be able to come." The text as is in Greek (the strange presents) makes the statement much more vivid, because it puts the audience right into this future mind-set, as if it were a present reality (but this sort of thing doesn't really happen in English - which is OK, because Christ didn't say it in English - but it makes it hard to translate "literally" and not confuse people because the idiom of the two languages is different).

This is a perfect example of how a "literal translation" is a literal failure. The literal rendering only causes confusion for English readers. Translation is an art, not a science; one has to truly understand what the text means before rendering it into something that accurately reflects that meaning in the target language.

That Jesus' audience understood the "not be able to come" reference as future is obvious from the next verse: "where does this man intend to go ...".

Anyway, hope this is of some help.  You might also want to have a look at the following, related links:

The Greek Text of the New Testament and some Issues of Textual Criticism.

Some Greek Questions in the Gospels (John 1:3; 2:19; 8:58; Luke 23:43)

Why was the New Testament written in Greek?

Gospel Questions.

Gospel Questions II: Jesus' Turning Water to Wine, Sweating Blood, Walking on Water, Washing the Disciples' Feet, and the Promise of Freedom."

Gospel Questions III: Least in the kingdom, Millstones, Pennies, Pebbles, Babes, Rhaka, Tallits, and the Crown of Thorns.

Only-Begotten, Mother-of-God, On-this-Rock: English-only Interpretation is Dangerous.

Bible Interpretation:  Interlinears, Academics, Versions et al.

How can we know whose interpretation of the Bible is right (Part 1)?

How can we know whose interpretation of the Bible is right (Part 2)?

Yours in Christ,

Bob Luginbill

 

 


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