Bill Mounce

For an Informed Love of God

You are here

Sunday, December 28

Ellipsis (Luke 2:49)

Here is a great example of why translation involves interpretation, and why a “word-for-word” approach can often fail.

When Jesus’ parents finally find Jesus, he responds, “Didn’t you know I had to be (δεῖ εἶναί με) in my Father’s house (ἐν τοῖς τοῦ πατρός μου)? (NIV).

As you can see from the Greek, there is no word for “house,” and yet every modern translation supplies “house.” The KJV is alone in suggesting another interpretation. “I must be about my Father’s business?”

One of the things you will learn as you get further into Greek is how Greek can drop out words; I suspect this is true of any language. Context and a basic knowledge of the language fills in the gaps. For example, as I have said in other blogs, I am from Minnesota and we are famous for ending sentences with a preposition such as, “Do you want to go with?” What word is missing? “Me.” Since it is so obvious, why waste the time saying it?

So the question is, what is missing in Luke 2:49?

It is possible that nothing is missing. τοῖς could be neuter and functioning substantivally. I suspect this is where the KJV derives its translation. “I must be about the things of my Father.”

On the one hand, if Jesus meant the temple, where he currently was, we would expect to see οἴκος (see 6:4; 11:51; 13:35; 19:46) or ἱερόν; however, it is dangerous to make an exegetical decision based on how we think a writer “should” say something.

The idea of “necessity” (δεῖ) is probably what God requires. Bock gives three possibilities (269f.)

  1. ”With the rabbis,” but considering the coming conflict and the ubiquity of their conflicts, having the discussions in the temple would not be of necessity.

  2. ”About my Father’s business” hardly answers Mary’s question because, once again, God’s business took Jesus into many places other than the temple.

  3. ”In my Father’s house,” since Jesus “must be involved with instruction in divine things, [and] the temple as presented by Luke is above all a place where instruction occurs” (270). Bock goes on to show that ἐν + neuter plural definite article + genitive is an idiom for “being I one’s house.”

Either way, it is a good example of an ellipse and illustrates the need for interpretation in translation.