Bill Mounce

For an Informed Love of God

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Sunday, July 21, 2013

How can Jesus take something away from someone who has nothing (Luke 8:18)

I found an interesting little example of the synoptic problem and harmonization. In Luke 8:18, Jesus says, "Therefore consider carefully how you listen. Whoever has will be given more; whoever does not have ((ὃς ἂν μὴ ἔχῃ)), even what they think they have (ὃ δοκεῖ ἔχειν) will be taken from them" (NIV).

When I first read this, it felt strange. I spend more time in Mark than in Luke, so I checked out Mark 4:25 (also Matt 13:12; 25:29). "Whoever has will be given more; whoever does not have, even what they have (καὶ ὃ ἔχει) will be taken from them" (NIV).

The Markan version at one level is non-sensical. If a person has nothing, then there is nothing to be taken away. And so at one level, what appears to be a Lukan clarification saves the passage from absurdity: "even what they think they have." The δοκεῖ is the key.

Of course, Mark and Matthew could have taken a perfectly understandable saying and made it absurd — not really. Most see Luke as clarifying its meaning.

Interestingly, the NLT conflates the two readings and hence removes the power of the Markan form and the interpretation of the Lukan: "But for those who are not listening, even what little understanding they have will be taken away from them." The TEV ("those who have nothing will have taken away from them even the little they have") and the NJB ("nyone who has not, will be deprived even of what he has") does the same. This strikes me as moving beyond translation to commentating.

While Luke's version is more obvious in meaning, the Markan/Matthean version has more rhetorical punch to it and is the kind of thing Jesus would say given his tendencies toward metaphor and obfuscation. His images have punch and cause one to think. The absurdity of the Markan version, I would guess, is original, and Luke is making explicit the implicit meaning.

Either way, it is a simple little example of how the gospel writers work with their traditions to convey the truth of the gospel to their context.


Bill, I find this to be very interesting. Since Jesus probably said the original saying in Aramaic, not Greek, then what we have here between Mark and Luke is an example of the very same problem of translation that we then see in the attempts you quote to turn it into English--Do we translate the "exact" words and leave it obscure, or put it into clearer language even if it means a bit of explanation/interpretation.

Interesting comparison; however, we (as modern translators) do not have the benefit of inspiration, as did Mark and Luke (1 Cor 2:10-13).