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Some Greek Questions in the Gospels:

Explaining John 1:3; 2:19; 8:58; and Luke 23:43

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Question #1:

Dear Dr. Luginbill, Have you ever read an article in your journals from some guy McKay, about the translation of John 8:58, in which, he implies, I think, that "I have been" is acceptable instead of "I am"? What is your opinion of it? I have been told that "I am" is just as jarring in Greek as in English, where in both languages, one would expect a past tense, or at least, a present perfect, or another verb like gignomai (to become). Also, they are discussing the verse from Luke, where Jesus tells the thief, "Truly, truly I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise." There are some anti-Trinitarians who think that the comma should go after "today". 

Response #1: 

On John 8:58 your sources are correct. The Greek reads ego eimi, which is the present tense of the verb "to be". There is no prefect tense of the verb "to be", but that only means that no Greek writer and no Greek speaker would ever consider using the present of the verb "to be" and assume that somehow people would understand that it had a perfect significance - that never happens in Greek. You are also correct that a Greek speaker/writer could easily use the perfect of gignomai (although the correct form is gegona, not *gegomai) to get the perfect idea across. That sort of substitution happens all the time (in Hebrews 11:3, for example). I am not familiar with the article to which you refer, but I would not be surprised to find someone arguing this point doing so from standpoint of an "original Hebrew/Aramaic Vorlage". However, even if one assumes this was originally said in Hebrew or Aramaic, one can't really explain how the result of translation would be the present tense "ego eimi" (which is indeed striking) as opposed to the imperfect (past) tense (which the verb "to be" does possess in Greek).

As to the issue of where to put "today" in Luke 23:43, it is true that Greek word order is, in general, a very flexible thing. It is also true that in the New Testament one does occasionally find instances where Semitic patterns of speech have had an influence on word order (although this is far more common in the Johannine works than in Luke, the most "Classical" of the NT writers). That said, and though there aren't really many books written about it, the cola of Greek sentence syntax are of immense importance. When one reads the Greek aloud (any ancient Greek), one is forced to make decisions about "what goes with what", and it soon becomes clear that all ancient Greek has an architecture which, while often hidden to the eye, is unmistakable to the ear. Every Greek sentence has these "units", and the more Greek one does, the more clear it becomes (to the ear, even the "mental" ear) where they are and what they mean for translation/interpretation. Things do go together in Greek, albeit in a very Greek way.

This is all by way of saying that in Luke 23:43, I would definitely read semeron ("today") with the second clause rather than first, and would do so 100 times out of 100, even if I had no idea there was any issue riding on it. In the instance of Luke 22:34, for example, semeron is embedded within the object clause (so that there can be no question of where it goes). This is also true of parallel Hebrew passages. For example, in Deut.4:26, "this day" is emphatic all right, but the phrase is encapsulated here too, this time within the main clause (it is not placed right next to the object clause, so there is really no parallel here on the main point of where to take it). Because of the fact that in the Luke passage there is no object clause marker after "Truly I say to you" (common in English too - we often leave out "that"), even though there is a theoretical possibility that one might take semeron with what precedes (though, as in English, this makes gibberish of language), this "possibility" suffers from two further fatal problems:

    1) it defies standard usage that places the object clause material directly after the verb of saying when the object clause marker is left out (see the preceding verse, Lk.23:42: "he was saying - "Jesus, ..."). As in English, to do otherwise leaves the reader/listener in doubt as to what goes where (unacceptable in either language).

    2) it makes semeron here a rather meaningless addition; For example, in Lk.19:42, Luke does use the "this day" formula, however, it takes the form, as one might have expected, not of "semeron" (which really means, "today", not, "this day"), but of "taute te hemera" - a direct Greek translation of the Hebrew idiom. The word "today" taken in the main clause thus would have no point (and make it a throw-away phrase), whereas one must consider that all Jesus' other words from the cross are very much to the point.

Finally, to pick up on what I said at the outset, to read and take semeron with the main clause, then break directly after reading the word and understand an object clause to begin at the point, hits the ear as very wrong. This may be subjective, but it is just the kind of thing which tells us that someone at the airport who says "No indeed, I am not having a revolver in my baggage" is someone you might want to check out (even though the grammar is theoretically correct). The only reason I can see to want to read semeron in the main clause is to eject it from the object clause (i.e., unnaturally molding the Greek in order exclude an idea one has trouble reconciling with one's theology).

Hope this helps,

Yours in Him.

Bob L.

Question #2: 

Dear Sir,

I have just come across your site and am well impressed and I intend to visit it often. I have no doubt that you are aware of the New World Translation of the Jehovah's Witnesses. At John 8:58 they have rendered EGO EIMI as "I have been." I would like to ask if this is possible.

I was recently sent an excerpt from McKay's "A New Syntax of the Verb in New Testament Greek, An Aspectual Approach" which states:"Tense...4.2.4. Extension from Past. When used with an expression of either past time or extent of time with past implications(but not in past narrative, for which see 4.2.5), the present tense signals an activity begun in the past and continuing to the present time: Luke 13:7...Lu 15:29....Jn 4:9 [Tosouton khronon meth muoon eimi]..have I been with you so long...? ; Ac 27:33...Jn 8:58 [prin Abraam ego eimi], I have been in existence since before Abraham was born...."As you can see this scholar agree with the NWT but with the added word "since." He refers to a "Extension from Past" and gives examples one of which is indeed John 8:58. What do you make of this?

Response #2: 

This passage is indeed getting much play of late. Let me assure you from the start that translating Jn.8:58 with anything but a present tense (i.e., as "I am") does a disservice to the language here. These words of our Lord are most definitely carefully chosen and meant precisely as a claim of deity (as in Ex.3:14). Any Greek reader (contemporary or since) would be struck by these words, for the present tense here is otherwise unexplainable.

That brings me to the parallels in the grammar you cite. Of the five passages cited, Lk.13:7, Lk.15:29, Jn.14:9, Acts 27:33, and Jn.8:58, the passage with which we have to do, John 8:58, is clearly the "odd man out" here. That it to say, what is happening there contextually is completely different from the other passages cited. In all of the other four cases, the critical element is a phrase expressing duration which keys the reader to see the present tense as idiomatically used:

Lk.13:7: "Behold, it's been three years since I come seeking fruit ..."

Lk.15:29: "Behold, for so many years I'm serving you, and I never violated ..."

Jn.14:9: "Am I with you for so much time [now], and you haven't come to know Me?"

Acts 27:33: "[This is now] the fourteenth day [that] you continue in expectation without eating."

I have deliberately avoided using an English perfect tense in rendering the examples above, and I hope you can see that even though we lack a comparable idiom in English, the sense is still clear enough to understand. That is to say, even using the present tense to translate, it is still crystal clear what the author is trying to say (it doesn't change the essential meaning). For in all these cases, the idea is that something somewhat unexpected is true NOW in spite of some prelude which has lasted a long time. This is clearly not what Jesus is saying in John 8:58. The absence of an adversative or concession duration phrase with "I am" means that the four examples above are not in any way truly parallel to John 8:58 in this crucial respect. Bottom line: the so-called "present with perfect aspect", as it is sometimes called, is just a way for grammarians to explain that there is a Greek idiom which uses the present in combination with a contrasting long duration for emphasis in cases where a contrary result has occurred. There is no way that John 8:58 fits into this box. Jesus' use of the present here is deliberate and meaningful. Even if we were to try to fit this verse into such a "box", why in the world we translate it "I have been", a rendering which makes no sense on the face of it, is not parallel to any other NT usage, and can only have meaning in some non-biblical theosophical system (i.e., such a translation would only make sense if given sense in some esoteric system - it's not English and it's not Greek, it's gobbledygook).

Finally, while it is true that in Greek there is no perfect tense of the verb "to be", Greek writers have no trouble expressing tense distinctions of this sort (when they are really there). One would expect the perfect of gignomai (gegona) if this is what our Lord had wanted to say. What He does say is "I am", and it is absolutely clear to me that this is also what He meant.

Thank's for your interest in ICHTHYS!

I hope this has been of some help to you.

Yours in Him who is and was and will ever be, our Lord Jesus Christ.

Bob Luginbill

Question #3: 

Dear Dr. Luginbill,

I once asked you a question about John 2:19. Of course, this verse causes great consternation among those who say that Jesus isn't God, or that He ceased to exist at His death. But I keep maintaining that Jesus said that "I" will raise it [His body] up." I am in correspondence with an individual who wants to read the verb passively here to change the meaning. He calls the active translation above "translator skew" and says that taking it actively contradicts other passages where God raises Jesus' body. Could you please look at the Greek, and let me know if there is any way it could be translated passively, as one critic of this point of view says? I don't think it can be, but wanted to make sure. Thanks, and God bless you.

Response #3: 

Happy to help. First, you are absolutely correct about the verb egeiro here. It is the future ACTIVE which can never ever be translated passively or in a middle sense (there are separate distinct forms for this in Greek). The fact that there is a clear direct object here also means that there is no other possible way of taking it than as Jesus as the subject producing an action on an object. That is why all translations of which I am aware agree in this. Your correspondent questions the translation. I would submit that, where translators across centuries and denominations have reflected this same basic structure, it can only be because this is the only meaning they saw as possible. That is not "skew" - trying to pervert the only possible meaning in order to match one's own theosophy is "skew".

Secondly, I find it somewhat galling that someone who has not yet come to appreciate the Person of Jesus Christ - the very Logos of these sacred logoi, the One about whom and for whom and through whom we have the Bible, should be making claims about what is or is not consistent with scripture overall (and without offering any scripture or argumentation at that). Perhaps there is some understanding of scripture in a purely academic sense on his part, but clearly without the power, the truth, and the wonder of the Word of God. That is certainly tragic, but not unexpected. Jesus told us that those who have will abound yet more, and those who do not have will find even what they have taken away (Matt.13:12). That is/will clearly be the case for whatever knowledge is possessed by those who play games with the Bible while denying the gospel of Jesus Christ (2Tim.3:5). Which begs the question of why this person makes any use of the Bible whatsoever. The only answer that occurs to me is one which is common in cults: they use the Bible, which has a natural authority even among unbelievers, to draw victims in on the pretense that they have the right interpretation; once the fly is in the web, they dispense with it.

Finally, the idea that, with limited human logic, "because one passage may seem to someone to contradict another one it is therefore wrong" is perhaps the most widespread fallacy in the interpretation of the Word. We have to let the Bible inform us. We have to listen humbly to it. When we do not understand, we have to be patient and search. But if we arrogantly begin to dictate to scripture what it can and cannot mean, the entire foundation of any genuine faith we might have is threatened.

To take two well known examples of this apropos of our discussion, first, the question "who sent the Spirit?", the famous filioque clause, is famous for its divisiveness, but in reality this sort of controversy only points out the lack of wisdom on both sides. The Father sends the Spirit, and so does the Son - in terms of the united Trinity there is no contradiction. Likewise, "can we pray to Jesus"? Here too there is one key passage where our Lord makes this issue clear, John 14:14. The fact that elsewhere prayer is addressed to the Father does not invalidate this verse. We pray to the Father, we also pray to the Son. So for my part I see know reason why scripture cannot attribute the resurrection to the whole Trinity since the whole Trinity always are in complete agreement and cooperation in all that they have ever done by definition. What all three of these instances have in common is that those who question one side of the equation or the other have completely failed to come to any sort of understanding of this ineffable way in which the Father, Son and Spirit are "One". These are all issues for the edification of serious disciples of Jesus Christ. But for those who have overtly "returned to their own vomit" in such a willful way, one doubts that any weight of instruction or argumentation could possibly have much effect at all.

In Him who is the truth, our LORD and Savior, Jesus Christ,

Bob L.

Question #4: 

Looking at John 1:3 "All things were made through him; and without him was not anything made that hath been made." The program I have parses the perfect of ginomai here (italicize) as an active voice, yet translates it passively. How is that possible? Generally, the aorist tense is a secondary tense which finds its action in the past, right, so does it relate to the Hebrew perfect in that the writer can have a completed action in the past, present, or future? Is there any foundation to the argument that the aorist comes to us from the Greek--invisible or undefined, therefore, this tense is actually untied to time, but only really indicates that the action occurred?

Response #4: 

As to your first question, yes, gignomai is deponent, but it's an irregular verb and as such has some peculiarities (like the fact that there is a perfect active, which is indeed what gegonen is). The "passive" is really a strong intransitive (sometimes called "quasi-passive"), coming from the meaning of gignomai - "coming into being", the base meaning of the verb is not far removed from the passive in meaning, but technically it is not the same. "Having been made" is passive in English, but there are many times when trying to be too close to the original results in nonsensical English, hence the standard translations. One might render this all "Everything came into being through Him, and without Him nothing came into being which has come into being (gegonen)". John's point here is to shift from the act of creation through our Lord to the fact of the present continued existence of that creation - that's the reason for the shift of tense. So the fact that the perfect is technically active and the second aorist is technically deponent middle is not significant since that is what always happens with this verb. The only semantic difference between egeneto and gegonen is the tense "came into being" vs. "has come into being" - the real voice is the same in Greek and should be in English translation as well.

Your second set of questions is indeed more complicated. I do have definite opinions about these things, but I should say at the outset that they are not universally held (I believe that they are nevertheless correct - just have to get that on the record). In general terms, one can't compare what happens in Hebrew with what happens in Greek, but the problem in NT studies is, of course, the issue of how much Hebrew has influenced Greek in the NT writers - does it affect the way they construe their tenses? The short answer is "yes, but not to a tremendous degree". There are many times in the gospels, for instance, where perfects are used where we should expect aorists. In such cases, one may well say that there has been Hebrew influence on the tense system. Outside of John's writings, however, I find this to be less the case in the epistles, and overall I have to say that the issue is far overstated in most of the literature (like the supposed big difference between "koine" and other Greek). Generally speaking, I don't find tense issues particularly significant in interpretation - the New Testament is still real Greek and it works like real Greek, and with a bit of Septuagint experience and repeated exposure to the NT, there is really nothing that is too strange to understand in this regard. Overdoing it can lead to trouble. For example, Romans 3:23 is a gnomic aorist in form and in meaning so that reading it as a Hebrew perfect is a mistake (i.e., it says and means "everybody sins" rather than "all have sinned"). On the tense side of things, that is really the biggest error people make, i.e., seeing Greek aorists as Hebrew perfects with an English perfect meaning in instances where is not the case.

Let me see if I can give you some guidance as to the other bits of your compound question here. Almost without exception in the Greek NT, indicatives are indicatives. So that if it is an aorist indicative, it equals a simple past tense, imperfect = progressive; perfect = continued action (with p/pf. in the past); present = present; future = future. I can think of few exceptions off hand besides the handful of gnomic aorists (and this is a Greek idiom dating back to archaic times).

Outside of the indicative, however, there is a different story. It is ironic that English speakers have such a time with this issue of aspect (aorist = simple action; present = continuing action; perfect = stative). For we are one of those rare languages that does the same thing. The only difference (well, OK, we've lost most of our moods too) is that we track aspect mainly in the present - I run [= aorist], I am running [= present], I do run [somewhat akin to perfect] - while Greek only does it in the past. Of course Greek can also get this aspect thing into all subjunctives, optatives, imperatives, etc. The thing is, though, I can count on one hand the number of times in secular Greek or the NT when this aspect thing outside of the indicative has been of any great importance in interpretation. In general, outside of the indicative, writers use the aorist of strong verbs (because they like the forms) and the present of weak verbs (because they are simpler).

One could go on about these things at length, but by now your eyes are as glazed as those of my students when I go off on one of these rants.

Yours in Him.

Bob L.


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