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Did the Temple “take” or “has taken” 46 years? (John 2:20)

What is the difference between “took” and “has taken”? In first year Greek, it is the difference between the aorist and the perfect, but beyond first year, and especially thinking of the nuances of English, what do you hear?

To my ears, “took” refers to a completed action in the past, with no real effect on the present. “Has taken” is also a completed action, but the action moves into the present as well. So far it sounds like the difference between the aorist and perfect in Greek.

But let’s say you want to refer to an action that was completed, but you don’t want to give the impression that the work is actually finalized. How would you say that? If you say “took,” then it relegates it to the past with no effect in the present.

This is the problem in John 2:20. The Jews are telling Jesus that it οἰκοδομήθη 46 years to build the temple. If you translate οἰκοδομήθη has “took,” then it means that the building project is done, and yet we know from other sources that it was not completed until 64 A.D. Morris has a lengthy note on the issues of dating this passage (p. 200n81).

It is well within the scope of the aorist to use “has taken” as a translation. Welcome to second year Greek. The question is really one of English. Do you want to run the chance of misunderstanding and say “took,” sounding like it was totally done, or do you want to use “has taken,” which leaves the critical question open? What if the Jews were saying that it has taken 46 to get the temple to the stage it currently was, but without giving the impression that it was totally done?

This does explain the myriad of ways the different translations handle the verb.

  • “It took forty-six years” (NASB; also CSB, KJV)
  • “It has taken forty-six years” (ESV, NIV)
  • “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years” (NRSV, NET, NLT)

Critics like to accuse translations of softening these types of problems and proposing wording that the Greek can’t support but solves a critical issue. Certainly the NRSV can’t be accused of having an evangelical bias. The counter argument is simple: if there are two legitimate translations, and one creates problems and the other doesn’t, why choose the problematic solution?

The charge could just as easily be made that the critics choose the translation that makes the most problems.

The lesson for most of us is that English, like any language, is nuanced and flexible, and we must move beyond the strict guidelines of first year Greek if we are going to translate and not misinform.

Comments

Study note of hte NET Bible says on John 2:20 as following ; A close parallel to the aorist οἰκοδομήθη (oikodomhqh) can be found in Ezra 5:16 (LXX), where it is clear from the following verb that the construction had not yet been completed. Thus the phrase has been translated “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years.” Some, however, see the term ναός (naos) here as referring only to the sanctuary and the aorist verb as consummative, so that the meaning would be “this temple was built forty-six years ago” (so ExSyn 560-61).
Bill Mounce