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Can εἰ μή mean “but” (John 3:13)
Jesus has just chastised Nicodemus for not understanding, and then he adds v 13. “No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man” (ESV). This is the normal translation of ei me. The source of Jesus heavenly knowledge is the fact that he descended from heaven.
But notice the problem with timing. No one has ascended (past time) except the Incarnate Jesus who has descended. But how can Jesus at the beginning of his ministry say that he has (past item) ascended? Did John make a mistake?
The NLT’s solution is to translate this way: “No one has ever gone to heaven and returned. But the Son of Man has come down from heaven.” “But” is the translation of the idiom ei me, which the ESV and most others translate as “except.”
The difference is significant. According to the NLT, Jesus is saying that no one has ever ascended to heaven and thus cannot speak with the divine authority he possesses. Jesus, on the other hand, descended from heaven. This hint at his pre-existence is proof of his divine authority to speak divine things. The question is, can the Greek idiom bear this meaning?
While the standard meaning of the idiom is “except,” BDAG do list one usage where it means “but” and bears the same meaning as plen (1 Cor 7:17, citing BDF #376). This usage also surfaces in Matt 12:4 and Gal 1:7. Carson goes to some length to explain this usage (The Gospel according to John, in, The Pillar New Testament Commentary series, page 200), saying that the idiom can introduce an exception to the general rule just stated, and yet the exception does not break the general rule.
So the solution is found with a rather rare use of ei me. No one has ever gone to heaven (and the idea is, and then brought back that heavenly knowledge). However, the pre-existent Jesus comes from heaven and comes with heavenly knowledge.
So what do we learn? Idioms can be difficult. While they can have a basic meaning, that does not mean they only mean one thing. Language is fluid, and sometimes you have to read to the end of the lexical entry to find the full meaning of a word or idiom.
We also learn a little humility. It is probably easy to look at the translation of the NLT and dismiss it as a peculiarity that disagrees with all other translations. And I should add, that even with translating ei me as “but” it is still a little difficult to get their translation out of the Greek. (Difficult; I didn’t say impossible.) But the NLT saw a significant problem and did their homework to suggest a solution.
And if this sounds irrelevant, know that the timing of “has ascended” is a common example in liberal Johannine studies to show that the writer is anachronistic (writing from a later point of view in which Jesus has already ascended) and therefore untrustworthy.