Bill Mounce

For an Informed Love of God

You are here

Sunday, May 5, 2013

“Sick” or “Sick People” (Mark 6:55)

Substantival participles (and substantival adjectives) can be tricky, especially when they are generic. Take, for example, τοὺς κακῶς ἔχοντας in Mark 6:55 in the HCSB.

“Mark 6:55 They hurried throughout that vicinity and began to carry the sick on mats to wherever they heard He was.”

When I first read this, I stopped on the word “sick.” “Sick what?” I found myself asking. It actually took me a few passes before I realized that “the sick” meant “the sick people.”

I don’t know why I struggled with this one. I am scanning other verses in the HCSB that use “the sick,” and they seem fine. And when the adjective is in the predicate, it is clear as well. “Now a man was sick, Lazarus, from Bethany” (John 11:1).

Checking other translations, I read things like “those who were sick” (NASB),“those that were sick” (KJV), “sick people” (ESV, NLT), but most have “the sick” (HCSB, NIV, NET, NRSV, NJB).

One of the basic rules I learned is that good writing does not make the reader wonder what the writer is saying. Perhaps the concept being discussed is deep and thought provoking and requires reflection, and consequently it is not a fast read. That’s not what I am talking about. I am talking about being so precise in our grammar and word choice that the intended meaning comes through without confusion.

For example, I have what I consider to be a bad habit of using a pronoun before stating the antecedent. “While she is driving,” Robin is listening to music while I type this blog (which she is; we are somewhere between Washougal and Spokane). Who is “she”? You have to wait to find out. Better to write, “While Robin is driving, she is listening to music.”

Or sometimes it shows in working a little harder to choose just the right word. Never settle for “thing.” If there is a more precise word, use it.

I encourage all of you to read, On Writing Well, by William Zinsser ( Not only will it give you permission to split infinitives — long may the control of Latin grammar over English die! — but he will help you learn how to formulate your thoughts and express them clearly and pervasively. My dad jokingly (I think) told me the second year of my graduated studies that there would be no more money if I didn’t read the book.

So back to Mark 6:55. Is “the sick” understandable? Sure. Did I have to work a little to understand it? Yes. And so I think something like “those who are sick” is better.

Zinsser will also give you permission to begin a sentence with a conjunction — periodically.


It is, of course, harder when the word to be supplied is not so obvious and it becomes more a question of interpretation than making the reading easier. Case in point: The Lord's Prayer, where you find "deliver us from the evil". The evil what? Many translations just lose the definite article and leave it as "deliver us from evil" but that has been done, hasn't it? Others supply "one" making it a reference to Satan, but hasn't that been done too? Personally I prefer "day" making the phrase an expression of hope for the eschaton, which we know was a very real and close thing in the minds of the early Christians. But any way you try to make it make sense involves not just translation but interpretation. Footnotes help, though they are not a particularly good solution, but what other options are there?