If you would like to ask a question about the text of the New Testament, other early Christian texts, or documents from the wider Hellenistic World, feel free to post it as a comment below.
If you have a question about me personally, post that as a comment to the “About Micheal Palmer” page.
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In the LXX, ‘hilaskomai’ was used to translate the Hebrew ‘selach’: 2 Kings 5:18 (2x, trans. ‘pardon’, ESV) ; 2 Kings 24:4 (‘pardon’, ESV); 2 Chron.6:30 (‘forgive’, ESV); Ps.25:11 (‘pardon’, ESV); Lam.3:42 (‘forgiven’, ESV); Dan.9:19 (LXX Theodotian text); the Hebrew ‘nacham’ (Ex,32:14) and 3x the Hebrew ‘kppr’ (Ps.65:3, Ps.78:38 and Ps.79:9). However, In my study of ‘hilaskomai’, as it is used in the NT and the LXX, I have reasoned that the word would have been understood with a sense of the meaning that was common in the Hellenistic world.
Would you say that its biblical usage in the middle or passive voice is not just about forgiveness, but also ‘atonement’ – as might be achieved through propitiation and the act of forgiving? (Heb.2:17, which we have discussed, is very much in mind.)
– Perhaps context determines which aspect of meaning has emphasis? I can’t help thinking that the idea of ‘atonement’ is always present in some form, either sought, provided or refused. Regards.
If ἱλάκομαι were used exclusively in religious contexts, such as referring to what goes on in a temple or at a place of sacrifice, then it might be reasonable to suspect that the word would have a connection with sacrificial theology as a core part of its meaning, but this is in fact not the case. Here’s the LXX text of Ex. 32:14:
καὶ ἱλάσθη κύριος περὶ τῆς κακίας, ἧς εἶπεν ποιῆσαι τὸν λαὸν αὐτοῦ.
In this text ἱλάσθη refers to God deciding to show mercy rather than carry out the threat he has issued against his people. No sacrificial imagery is present.
What gives the sense of expiation or propitiation in Hebrews 2:17 is the context. It is a high priest (Christ) who mediates the mercy/forgiveness mentioned here. The means of forgiveness/mercy mediated by a priest did involve sacrifice.
Thank you, Micheal. That is very clear. The Lord’s own sacrifice and prayerful intercession provided the means of mediation and atonement for our sins.
Ex.32:14 indicates that the usage of hilaskomai extends also to propitiation by prayer and intercession. This was an aspect of mediation incumbent upon high priests.
I know that the word the Apostle Paul used in Colossians 2:23(ethelothreskia) was never used as a compound in the Septuagint. But was it ever used as an uncompounded phrase there or in any Jewish Greek writings? The reason I ask is because Paul coined a compound word in 1 Corinthians 6:9 condemning homosexuality that was originally a two word phrase in Leviticus 18:22. Regards,
I’m not sure I’m understanding your question correctly. Ἐθελοθρησκία is formed from by compounding the verb θέλω and the adjective θρησκός (See James 1:26). Other compounds with θέλω were used in the Septuagint. See ἐθελοκωφῶν in Sir. 19:27 for θέλω compounded with κόπτω, for example. The adjective θρησκός was not used in the Septuagint, though.
I don’t see how this relates to the compound in 1 Corinthians 6:9, though.
I wonder if you are familiar with the inscription from Cos, no.81? It may be viewed here:
The word hilasterion occurs at the end of the inscription and I have come across three very different attempts at translation. We are told that it appears ‘in a tank, not far from the theatre.’
One suggests that it refers to a “propitiatory sacrifice” and another to an “atoning monument”. The phrase “theois hilasterion” relates it to “the gods”, but how? Is the object a dedication for the purpose of propitiating the gods on behalf of the emperor?
I wonder how you might translate the inscription?
Perhaps I should ask if the object so inscribed could be viewed as part of a monument dedicated as a place of propitiation to the gods on behalf of the emperor?
– If this interpretation could be valid, then it could lend support to the interpretation that the ‘hilasterion’ of the temple, the ‘kapporet’, was so called because it too was dedicated as a place for propitiation.
What do you think?
This would be very hard to answer without knowing the use of the tank. Was it a water reservoir, for example? If so, it would not have been a place of sacrifice.
In any event, the inscription does not label the tank as a “place of” or “place for” an ἱλαστήριον, but as the ἱλαστήριον itself. It is a dedicatory inscription. Such inscriptions typically present the object being dedicated as a gift or offering, not as a place for offerings to be made.
I’m sorry it has taken me so long to respond, Norman. The inscription you mention is fascinating. Here is an image from of the relevant section of The inscriptions of Cos by W. R. Paton and E. L. Hicks.
The intention of the inscription seems clear enough. It is a dedication for the tank in which it is found. The absence of any mention of the dedicator seems natural given that the dedication is given by the people (ὁ δᾶμος) on behalf of the Emperor.
I don’t think we have enough context to derived a precise meaning of ἱλαστήριον here. It quite obviously refers to a gift or offering to the gods in some sense, but the precise nature of that offering is not clearly implied. What does seem clear is that the thing being dedicated is the tank. It is the Θεοῖς ἱλαστήριον—the offering to the gods.
Here’s a rough attempt at a translation (but leaving ἱλαστήριον untranslated):
The people, on behalf of our Lord Emperor,
Son of God, Augustus, our Savior,
An ἱλαστήριον to the Gods.
Thanks for that. Yes, I understand that you refer to the object itself as the hilasterion. It just seems to me that as it was dedicated as a permanent object to the gods, that it would likely have continued to have been used as a place of propitiation on behalf of the emperor. – Rather as a monument today can serve as a focal point for laying wreaths, etc., perhaps this type of dedicatory object was meant to continue to have propitiatory usage in ancient times.
I have a question about 1 corinthians. I recently heard that the ancient text of 1 Corinthians contains sort of a quotation mark, where Paul quoted portions from the letter he received from the corinthian church. For example, 1 Cor 14: 34-35. I heard since quotations were not used in Greek back then, when someone quoted portions of the original letter in their responses, they sometime quote use an ‘e’ character that basically functions like a quotation mark. I would like your insight in this. Thank you.
It is true that many scholars consider the verses you mention to be a quotation that Paul is trying to refute. It is also true that Ancient Greek had no equivalent of our modern quotation marks (“”). So if the verses in question were a quote, Paul would not have had a way to make that clear other than to say something like, “As you said….”
I’m not sure what you mean by an “e” character. While there is a small word that sometimes precedes a quote, it is not always found there, and it often appears where there is no direct quote, so it is not a reliable indicator of a quote.
What drives the debate over these verses is trying to make sense of Paul’s argument. While he approves of women praying and prophesying in public worship in chapter 11 (as long as they dress appropriately, or have their hair done appropriately), he seems to forbid that very same activity in chapter 14. Is he inconsistent? Or is he quoting someone else in chapter 14?
I will not debate that question here, because this blog is about the Greek language, not the theology of Paul. Perhaps I’ll comment further on the Greek text of 1 Corinthians 14:34—35 later, though, focussing on the use of the language there.
Thanks Michael. I appreciate your reply.
Our New Testaments today use upper case letters to identify the Holy Spirit. My question is did the original Greek New Testament have upper and lower case alphabets?
No. At the time the documents in the Greek New Testament were written, what we now call “lower case” letters had not yet been invented. Greek texts were written using only the letters than now serve as upper case, and there were no spaces between words either.
Considering no spaces used in the Greek New Testament, I have another question. “Were punctuation marks used?” Thank you
There were no punctuation marks until well after the time of the New Testament. You might want to take a look at these posts here on this blog if you are interested in the implications of this lack of punctuation.
My question is regarding John 1:14. Does “egeneto”/”ginomai” in this verse declare the the subject “has made himself flesh”, or that the subject “has been made flesh” by someone else? Who actually does the “making”/”incarnating” of the Logos according to the text?
The aorist verb form ἐγένετο (from γίνομαι) is used with both middle and passive meanings. So the Greek text is not going to resolve this debate for you. It’s a theological debate rather than a linguistic one. You can find an introductory discussion of the aorist middle and passive forms in the online grammar at http://greek-language.com/grammar/21.html.
Are you still working on the pronoun lessons? They do not seem to be accessible.
I had hoped to have these lessons up and running long before now, but have just not been able to get back to it. I am currently working on a presentation for the SBL meeting in San Diego, so I doubt I’ll be able to put much time into it over the next few weeks either.
Just curious. I am grateful for what you have done. Will continue to pray for you. Many blessing and thanks.
As a teacher of Greek and Spanish, I’ve noticed correlations like ekeivos/ekei=aquellos, tote=entonces, etc. Are there other correlative “jewels” that you can think of that come immediately to mind, other than the obvious cognates? (and thank you so much for all that you do)
I speak Spanish very fluently and use both Spanish and English on a daily basis, but I am not aware of a large number of cognates between Spanish and Greek. It is the case, though that the two languages have many phonemes in common. While there clearly are some interesting parallels in vocabulary (such as ἐκείνος and “aquellos” as you point out), the total number of such parallels, I suspect, is quite low.
οὐδέν με ἠδικήσατε· οἴδατε δὲ ὅτι διʼ ἀσθένειαν τῆς σαρκὸς εὐηγγελισάμην ὑμῖν τὸ πρότερον, καὶ τὸν πειρασμὸν ὑμῶν ἐν τῇ σαρκί μου· οὐκ ἐξουθενήσατε οὐδὲ ἐξεπτύσατε, ἀλλὰ ὡς ἄγγελον θεοῦ ἐδέξασθέ με, ὡς Χριστὸν Ἰησοῦν. Gal. 4:18-19
I liked your essays on NT Greek punctuation and appreciated your invitation to struggle with punctuation when reading a text. Above is a periscope as punctuated by Lachmann in his 1850 critical edition, notable for diverging from the Textus Receptus in favor of the more original text as determined by textual criticism. He makes a full stop after …καὶ τὸν πειρασμὸν ὑμῶν ἐν τῇ σαρκί μου· This links that phrase with the verb οἴδατε and makes –οὐκ ἐξουθενήσατε the beginning of a new sentence.
This is my translation, following his punctuation:
You did me no wrong: You know that it was because of weakness of the flesh — your temptation in my flesh — that I shared the Announcement with you originally: You neither despised nor spit me out, but as an angel of God — as Christ Jesus — you received me.
Would you please offer your comment Lachmann’s punctuation? And on my translation?
Thanks in advance,
Post edit: “In the periscope above (as punctuated by Lachmann in his 1850 critical edition, notable for diverging from the Textus Receptus in favor of the more original text as determined by textual criticism), there is a a full stop after καὶ τὸν πειρασμὸν ὑμῶν ἐν τῇ σαρκί μου· This makes τὸν πειρασμὸν the object of οἴδατε and makes οὐκ ἐξουθενήσατε the beginning of a new sentence.”
I’m sorry it has taken me so long to respond, Gregory. It has been hard to make time for the blog these past few weeks.
I’m reprinting the passage you mention to make it a little easier for readers to find and to show exactly where the punctuation issue lies. The relevant text is Galatians 4:12-14, not 18-19.
12… οὐδέν με ἠδικήσατε· 13 οἴδατε δὲ ὅτι διʼ ἀσθένειαν τῆς σαρκὸς εὐηγγελισάμην ὑμῖν τὸ πρότερον, 14 καὶ τὸν πειρασμὸν ὑμῶν ἐν τῇ σαρκί μου·[.] οὐκ ἐξουθενήσατε οὐδὲ ἐξεπτύσατε, ἀλλὰ ὡς ἄγγελον θεοῦ ἐδέξασθέ με, ὡς Χριστὸν Ἰησοῦν.
You are quite right that Lachmann’s punctuation would make a significant difference in the meaning of this text. Do you know what motivated his decision to put a full stop at this point? I do not. The NA28 has even removed the raised dot that is in the version you cite and the one I have reprinted, meaning the editors see not even a slight pause at this point, and the SBL GNT does the same. I would need to do a serious analysis of the text to see if I could find any justification for Lachmann’s decision.
For the sake of argument, though, let’s assume that his punctuation is correct. What would that indicate about the meaning of the text? As you state, it would mean that the string καὶ τὸν πειρασμὸν ὑμῶν ἐν τῇ σαρκί μου would be related to the verb οἴδατε rather than what follows. I am a little confused about the translation you propose, though. Why do you translate πειρασμὸν as “temptation” and not “trial” or “testing”? Do you think there is something in the context that would suggest Paul is talking about temptation here?
Thanks for your kind reply.
As to why Lachmann put the full stop after “your temptation In my flesh” I think Lange probably summed it up here: “Gal 4:14. With the reading πειρασμὸν ὑμῶν it appears best to set a period after ἐν τῇ σαρκί μου, and to connect the words with οἴδατε Gal 4:13=you know how you, through my bodily infirmity, and the hampering of my evangelical activity in consequence of it, were put on proof=experienced the temptation to think unfavorably of me. Unquestionably the connection is somewhat difficult. But plainly the connection with what follows is wholly inadmissible=you have not despised your trial in my flesh. But what is meant by despising the trial, &c.? Who could understand it at all?”
The illogical discontinuity is a clue to the reader that Paul is starting a new sentence. When we separate the idea of “your temptation in my flesh,” from the idea of the urge to “despise” then the range of interpretive options for the word “temptation” is widened.
Thank you for this question: “Why do you translate πειρασμὸν as “temptation” and not “trial” or “testing”? Do you think there is something in the context that would suggest Paul is talking about temptation here?”
In short, yes. Why not interpret “διʼ ἀσθένειαν τῆς σαρκὸς… καὶ τὸν πειρασμὸν ὑμῶν” (because of weakness of the flesh… and your temptation…) in light of how Paul uses this same phrase elsewhere: “διὰ τὴν ἀσθένειαν τῆς σαρκὸς ὑμῶν” (your weakness of the flesh… you used to offer yourselves as slaves to impurity and to ever-increasing wickedness. Romans 6:19)?
Honestly, the only reason i can come up with for avoiding that direction of meaning is embarrassment about where it leads.. I’m feeling it now. Did I share my real name here? Yikes!
Thank you, Gregory. That makes your point much easier for me to understand. Hmm…. Perhaps we should spin this into a discussion under punctuation on the blog rather than here on the questions page. I’ll have to see if I can make time for that this coming week.
Have a wonderful weekend.
What books, sources, and advice would you recommend for a beginner in the area of Greek New Testament studies? Besides learning koine Greek and reading the Greek New Testament itself, of course.
What are the core, seminal, scholarly works in the field?
Wow. That’s a really hard question to answer! As you will see as you get farther into your studies, the amount that has been published on new Testament Greek Studies is enormous, with vast numbers of books available in many different languages. Any list that I could give of the “core, seminal, scholarly works” would be inevitably incomplete and open to valid disagreement.
Here are a few things to consider.
For works available in English, you should probably invest in one of the several reference grammars as soon as your understanding of the language is solid enough for them to be of benefit to you. My personal favorite is the Blass-Debrunner grammar. It has undergone many revisions over time with the most up-to-date version in English edited by Robert Funk. There is a more up-to-date German version that you will want if you can read German. Other popular and well researched reference grammars are those by Moltman and Robertson, though each has its drawbacks. The main drawback for the Blass-Debrunner grammar is its less than user-friendly organization.
You will also want a good, well researched lexicon. I recommend the latest revision of Baur’s lexicon (Baur, Arndt, Gingrich, Danker). This latest revision has corrected some significant flaws of earlier renditions and is very well respected among biblical scholars.
You will also want to invest in solidly researched commentaries on the Greek text. I cannot recommend a single series because each of the better commentary series has some volumes that are spectacular while others are weaker. I would recommend that you consult scholars who you respect about commentaries on the particular books that interest you most.
There is no end to the list of “seminal works” on biblical Greek. These short recommendations are only a suggestion of how you might get started. None of these books will be of much use to you, though, until your mastery of Greek is strong enough to use them effectively. Give yourself some time! Great things lie ahead if you apply yourself.
Thank you for the very helpful response, even though my question was a broad one.
Could you point me to books or resources that would help a student working through the Greek of the four New Testament gospels? Anything besides the aids you have already described?
Is intransitivity marked by the Middle Voice as a general rule, or is that only true of some verbs, like παυω? Your help is very much appreciated!
The answer to this question is not simple. The middle voice CAN be used to give an intransitive sense to a usually transitive verb. Most languages have some mechanism by which a speaker or writer can use a verb that is normally transitive in an intransitive way. Take the English verb “teach” for example. “I teach Linguistics” is clearly transitive (It has an object, “Linguistics”). It is perfectly normal English, though, to respond to the question, “What do you do for a living?” with “I teach.” Here there is no object and it is the action of teaching that is in focus, and no particular subject or group of students is even implied. We could call this usage intransitive.
Here’s an example from Hellenistic Greek: ἐκχέω in the active voice refers to pouring something out of a container (transitive). See John 2:15, for example, where Jesus poured out (ἐξέχεεν) the silver coins of the money changers. Here the verb is clearly transitive. This same verb, however, can be used in the middle voice when something pours out on its own, or spills (intransitive). See Matthew 9:17 where Jesus says no one puts new wine in old wine skins because the skins will burst (ῥήγνυνται, middle voice, intransitive) and the wine will spill (ἐκχεῖται, middle voice, intransitive).
There are several other uses of the middle voice, though, that do not involve making a transitive verb intransitive.
I’ve been wrestling with John 9:1-3, the text that seems to imply that God created a man blind for the purpose of displaying His own glory, an interpretation I find inconsistent with the general teaching of the NT on the role of Satan in suffering. As I’ve tried to hear other people’s viewpoint on this scripture, some suggest that the phrase “alla hina” translated: “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him” could be translated with a period before the “but” so that the rendering would be: “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,’ said Jesus. ‘But so that the work of God might be displayed in his life…” A strong argument is made by Gary M. Burge, as he states that John 1:31, 13:18, 14:3, and 15:28 have been translated to use “alla hina” to start a new thought, and even a new sentence in 13:18 and 15:28. Do you think that it is possible to interpret this verse with a period before, rather than a comma?
I’m sorry it has taken me so long to respond. Grammatically, it is possible to start a sentence with ἀλλ᾽ ῾ἰνα, as you indicate that Dr. Burge says about 13:18, though I’m not sure why he cited that verse since it does not have the word ἀλλά at all.
I would discourage anyone from deciding punctuation on the basis of the interpretation we want, though. In the vast majority of cases we have solid evidence to suggest where the punctuation should go in the Greek text. One type of evidence is the Greek manuscripts themselves. While there is no punctuation in the earliest copies, there is punctuation in later ones. That punctuation represents the attempt of fluent Greek speakers to make the structure of sentences clear to later readers. We can look at what they decided to see how fluent Greek speakers were reading the text over 1000 years ago. Where the text is open to more than one reading, we often find differences between the manuscripts. I am not aware of any manuscripts that place a period where you are proposing, though.
Another place we can look for decisions about the punctuation is published translations in a variety of languages. Have qualified translators come to different decisions about where the punctuation should be? Roger Omanson, a dear friend of mine, spent much of his career compiling evidence about that. He completed the last revision of the punctuation apparatus for the United Bible Societies Greek New Testament. None of the translations into any language they included has a period before ἀλλ᾽ ῾ἰνα in John 9:3.
ἀλλ᾽ ῾ἰνα always begins a new clause. In particular, it begins what is usually called a dependent clause. That is, the clause that follows ἀλλ᾽ ῾ἰνα cannot be a sentence on its own. It needs an independent clause to complete the sentence unless the immediate context clearly implies what that independent clause should be. That’s what’s going on in Mark 14:49, for example, where it is implied that Jesus is consenting to be arrested, but pointing out that the reasoning of his captors is suspect.
In the context of John 9:3, if we assumed a period where you propose, we would need to be able to show that the completion of the sentence started by ἀλλ᾽ ῾ἰνα is readily available in the clause that follows (verse 4) or is clearly implied by the context already established by this point in the text. That is, by verses 1-3.
If we put a period where you propose, the Greek text (including verse 4) would read like this:
That makes a good, complete sentence that could fairly easily be translated into English as:
This makes good sense in the context, as it implies that Jesus is about to heal the man, which we read about in verses 6 and 7. The problem comes in explaining why no manuscript, nor any translation in a wide variety of languages, has ever punctuated the verse this way. I would hesitate to recommend an interpretation based on a punctuation with such weak support. I would, though, propose to a graduate student in Ancient Greek or New Testament Studies that this passage would make a good case study of interpretational differences suggested by changes in punctuation.
I think your comment may have a typo, since there is no John 15:28. Did you perhaps mean verse 28 of a different chapter?
Thank you for your reply!
Yes that was a typo, i meant to type 15:25.
It is helpful to know that there is no variety in manuscripts, or languages, there seems to not be much wiggle room! My next question would be related to the determination of punctuation by scribes. If there is no punctuation in the earliest manuscripts which are assumed to be more authoritative than later ones, how did these scribes determine the punctuation marks? There seems to be disunity in other parts of the NT; for example the quotation marks are limited to John 3:10-15 (NIV) while they end in verse 21 in NRSV. Additionally, in Mark 5:12, variety amongst modern translations change wording to form a purpose clause to a command clause:
“The demons implored Him, saying, “Send us into the swine so that we may enter them” (NASB).
“and they begged him, “Send us into the pigs; let us enter them” (ESV).
Again in Titus 3:13:
“Do your best to speed Zenas the lawyer and Apollos on their way; see that they lack nothing (ESV).
“Diligently help Zenas the lawyer and Apollos on their way so that nothing is lacking for them” (NASB).
These are just a few examples of disunity amongst opinion of translators with words similar to those in John 9:3; there are many other disagreements on word choice for other words in the NT. While it is true that uniformity amongst manuscripts should determine our translation, are we to assume this uniformity (say for John 9:3) is authoritative if there seems to be interpretive variety in a substantial amount of other texts that are in the same manuscripts (I assume the manuscripts used are the same)? If they got it right with John 9:3, but seemed to not get it in other parts, how can we know that they got John 9:3 right in the first place? Perhaps I am asking for too much certainty, but it seems that the absence of absolute certainty on the accuracy of the later scribes allows for some wiggle room on interpretation, especially when the difference between a period and comma in John 9:3 has major theological implications; does God cause blindness, is it natural, or from satan? Jesus’ teaching generally connects physical suffering to Satan; blindness is even implied to be from demons (Matt 12:22, Acts 10:38). It is certainly a major issue to confuse the activity of Satan to the activity of God. F.F. Bruce would agree:
“The clause ‘that he should be born blind’ has in Greek the form of a purpose clause (hina with the subjunctive) but the sense requires us to take it as a clause of result. On the other hand, the clause in Jesus’ reply, ‘that the works of God might be manifested…’ (again hina with the subjunctive) is a clause of purpose in meaning as well as in form…The purpose of his blindness was that a divine work should be wrought in him and the divine glory be revealed (as it is revealed in all the ‘signs’ of this Gospel). This does not mean that God deliberately caused the child to be born blind in order that, after many years, his glory should be displayed in the removal of the blindness; to think so would again be an aspersion on the character of God. It does mean that God overruled the disaster of the child’s blindness so that, when the child grew to manhood, he might, by recovering his sight, see the glory of God in the face of Christ, and others, seeing this work of God, might turn to the true Light of the World. (Bruce, The Gospel of John, 209).
All too often influential pastors and normal lay people read this verse and conclude that God is the one behind suffering, which drastically changes our view of God as a God of love rather than a God of fear. How could the Father who embraced the wayward prodigal son also cause another son to be blind for most of his life, simply to display his glory? This delineation has major implications on our view of God, and the mission of the church. I am still absolutely committed to the authority of Scripture, and I hope I’m not coming across as critical and audacious! To summarize, my questions would be:
1. How did scribes determine the correct punctuation marks, and how can we know their marks are correct (since there seems to be variety passages other than John 9:3)?
2. Have there ever been instances where modern translators interpreted a text to better preserve well established doctrines? An example would if there was a high degree uniformity amongst later manuscripts on a passage that disagreed with a central doctrine (like justification by faith, salvation by grace, etc.), and was considered inaccurate in light of general teaching on a subject.
Thank you for summarizing your questions at the end of your comment. That makes it easy to organize my response!
Let’s start with your first question:
We can’t know with certainty that they were correct. We should not accept their judgment as final, but when there was no disagreement between them, it’s pretty good evidence that the structure of the sentence was very clear to them. There was probably no real disagreement over what the structure was.
Let’s try a sample text in English. I think you will see that it’s usually pretty simple for a native speaker of a language to recognize where the punctuation should be even if it’s not there. Look at the following short paragraph. Can you tell where capital letters, periods, question marks, and comma’s should be?
If I showed that text to a group of native speakers of English, they would probably have a high degree of agreement about where the punctuation belongs. It was the same with Ancient Greek. Now compare that to this one:
If I showed that sentence to a group of native English speakers, they would disagree about where to put periods and a comma. They would see it as either of the following two options:
Both options have two periods, but where the first period belongs is not clear.
It is the same with the Ancient Greek manuscripts. Some texts were crystal clear to the scribes who were native Greek speakers. In those texts we don’t find any disagreement over the punctuation. Other texts, though, are like the second example I’ve given. They can legitimately be read either of two or more different ways. And sometimes the difference has theological implications. In those cases we often do find differences in the manuscripts because the scribes could not agree on which version was right. For those texts we have a legitimate reason today to continue to debate the proper punctuation. We can, of course, also debate the places where they all agreed, but we should be ready to explain why they did not have any disagreement in those texts.
Your second question is much harder, and opinions will vary sharply over any answer I might give. Of course there are modern translators who have translated texts to preserve the doctrines they hold dear. There is a clear danger in doing that, though. The readers can’t necessarily tell that it’s been done. What if they don’t agree with the theological presuppositions of that translator? The translator has made the interpretive decision for them!
For this reason, many academics, professional scholars in the field of Biblical Studies, don’t use those translations. They prefer to use a translation done by a committee whose members represent a wide variety of theological positions. That helps guard against theological bias in the translation process. The hope is that serious scholars on the committee with differing perspectives will debate the text and go with the reading that is best supported by the evidence rather than the one they like best.
And yes, there are places where their judgment about the evidence will lead them to translate in a way that is not comfortable for later theology. You could even look at John 9:3 this way. The theology would be more acceptable to many readers if the period you asked about were in the text, but the translators recognize that the earliest evidence we have does not support its presence. Should they change it anyway?
I think it’s important to also address the issue you raised about the older manuscripts being more reliable. That is true. Normal procedure is to view the older manuscripts as more likely to contain the original wording. The problem we face is that the oldest manuscripts don’t contain much evidence at all about punctuation. (There are things like occasional adding of space between lines to indicate the beginning of a new section.) So, virtually all of our evidence is relatively late. That does not mean it is worthless, though.
Have you ever though about why punctuation was invented in the first place? As long as everyone (or the vast majority of people) reading the text spoke Greek fluently, it wasn’t really necessary for most texts. But when Christianity began to grow outside of it’s original Greek-speaking environment, more and more people who spoke Greek as their second language began to read the texts. They needed help knowing where to pause. The system Greek speakers devised to make this clear was rather simple compared to our modern punctuation systems. They used a dot at the base of the line like our period (.) to represent a major pause, a raised dot (•) to indicate a minor pause like our comma or even colon (:), and a symbol that looked like our semicolon (;) to indicate a question. They did not use quotation marks at all. That phenomenon would come along much later.
I am learning a lot from your responses, so thank you!
I would say I have a much better grasp on how modern translations come into being. Perhaps the questions I will ask get in to more controversy so an email might be necessary. What i’m learning makes me wonder: what is the best translation philosophy? That is, what is considered authoritative for a translation, general scriptural teaching, or hard evidence? To me, it seems that a general teaching on scripture should be more authoritative than agreement among scribes. If we have a historical document about someone’s life and general personal character, would we not have reason to doubt something written about them that is inconsistent with that general established knowledge? It should be on the burden of the one who wrote a nuance to prove all other counts of the general claims as wrong, and that is the case with our passage in John; its the one possible instance where Jesus might have hinted at God’s active purpose in suffering. Isn’t the aforementioned methodology consistent with current apologetic methods in proving the authenticity of the New Testament documents and the historical life of Jesus?
If we using the manuscripts with punctuation, we are essentially believing that the scribes punctuation, at the time of their writing, is our best shot at what they are. But it must be said as a result: we are taking human interpretation of the right grammar and quotation placements; there is not really any way to know the original meaning/intent of the author, so nuances should be called into question. If this is how our bible has been formed, how then are we supposed to read the text as “authoritative”? This seems like it is delving into the inerrancy debate, which I am acquainted with but not totally knowledgeable of.
I will attempt to summarize questions again:
Since bible committees are basing their grammar and punctuation choice off of essentially human renderings which may or may not be accurate, are we bound to see our modern bible we have as without possible error? Are we permitted to doubt modern wordings or punctuation?
Secondly, to further clarify a question from my prior comment, have there been specific instances where a committee translated differently something, but that early scribes all agreed on? Example: If the committee saw that all the scribes had no variation on a certain passage, but the committee still saw it as faulty for some reason. If so, can you give an example or provide a reference to a website or resource I could further use to do research on my own?
Lastly, do the manuscripts that are used for punctuation have any major differences in words or phrases than the earliest and most reliable manuscripts?
Hi Michael, In John 3:4, at the end of the verse, is Nicodemus making a declaratory statement or asking a question? (The statement that begins “me dunatai…”)? In general, in the absence of punctuation in the original text, how can I differentiate between a question and a statement in my studies? Thank you!
Which part of the end of this verse do you mean?
There are two questions in the verse. Let’s take them one at a time.
Πῶς δύναται ἄνθρωπος γεννηθήναι γέρων ὤν;
The interrogative word πῶς at the beginning of this clause indicates a question. The same word can occasionally function as an indefinite indicator (somehow, in some way, etc.) when it appears elsewhere in a sentence (but it is accented differently: πώς), but when located at the beginning of the clause it marks the clause as a question.
μὴ δύναται εἰς τὴν κοιλίαν τῆς μητρὸς αὐτοῦ δεύτερον εἰσελθεῖν καὶ γεννηθῆωαι;
The negative indicator μὴ is usually used for moods other than the indicative. When it is used alone and negates an indicative verb (such as δύναται in this instance), it almost always indicates a question, and implies that the answer will also be negative. Nicodemus asks, “Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” expecting Jesus to answer, “Of course not.” (Jesus does not answer that way, but that’s beside the point.) For a clear example of this with the negative answer provided, see Luke 22:35.
I said “almost always” because in a subordinate clause it can sometimes “inherit” the implications of a negative used in the main clause. See for example John 3:18 (later in the same chapter we are discussing). There μὴ negates πεπίστευκεν but does not indicate a question. Compare First Corinthians 13:1, where μὴ negates the verb ἔχω in a hypothetical statement, with the verb in the previous clause being subjunctive, or Second Peter 1:9 where it negates πάρεστιν. Note that in none of these seeming exceptions is μὴ the first word in the clause.
When it comes first in the clause and negates an indicative mood verb, μὴ virtually always indicates a question.
When μὴ follows the usual negative indicator for the indicative mood (οὐ) it does not indicate a question. It simply strengthens the negation. See, for example, Matthew 15:6 and 16:22.
When it follows εἰ (if) it does not indicate a question but may introduce a counterfactual condition (Matthew 24:22) or a contrasting statement (Mark 2:21 and 22) where it may be translated as “otherwise”.
Thank you! The following is the question I ws referring to:
μὴ δύναται εἰς τὴν κοιλίαν τῆς μητρὸς αὐτοῦ δεύτερον εἰσελθεῖν καὶ γεννηθῆωαι
The reason I asked is because I am trying to get a sense of where Nicodemus is coming from. In other words, is he there to investigate and learn, or to argue. Your answer helps and leads me increasingly in the direction that he was likely there to learn.
I want to learn the Greek language from scratch (i literary do not know anything but i want to learn), how can I go about this? Your recommendation.
Thank you very much in advance.
I have an online grammar that you can use (http://greek-language.com/grammar/), but it uses a very traditional approach, and that may not be very helpful when studying on your own. It is also not complete, but would be enough to take you through a few months.
I am currently working on a radically different approach that involves learning Biblical Greek as a living language. Those materials are not publicly available yet, but they should be in a few months time.
I’m really looking forward to the living language approach!!!! Please keep me posted!!!!!!!
I’ll make an announcement on the blog when we go live. It will probably be late Summer at least before that happens, though.