Bill Mounce

For an Informed Love of God

You are here

Sunday, March 20, 2011

How Many Times Did Jesus Offer Forgiveness from the Cross? (Luke 23:34)

We teach that the imperfect designates an action normally occurring in the past that is continuous in nature. “Jesus walked by the sea” is aorist; “Jesus was walking by the sea” is imperfect.

And we also teach that there are different kinds of imperfects. “Descriptive” is the catchall. “Ingressive” focuses attention on the beginning of the action. “Iterative” is repeated action. “Customary” leaves a sense of time behind. But in all these, the action is continuous, ongoing.

So when you come to the account of Jesus trial and crucifixion, you can see the imperfect in action. The Jewish leaders kept yelling, “Crucify him” (επεφωνουν, Luke 23:21). The soldiers were striking (ετυπον) him and were spitting (ενεπτυον) on him (Mark 15:19). And finally we read that Jesus was saying (ελεγεν) to his Father, “Forgive them” (Luke 23:34).

A wonderful picture of their ongoing attack on Christ, and his repeated acts of forgiveness, asking the Father over and over to forgive them.

Except for one small fact; it is not right.

If you check Wallace (Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics, p. 452), you will see that there is what Dan calls the “Instantaneous Imperfect” (also called aoristic or punctiliar imperfect). He comments, “The imperfect tense is rarely used just like an aorist indicative, to indicate simple past. This usage is virtually restricted to ελεγεν in narrative literature.” For example, “And he said, ‘Let the one who has ears to hear listen!’” (Mark 4:9).

Too bad. I like the idea of repeatedly driving the point home for all to hear, that Jesus really did want the Father to forgive his executioners (or was it the Jewish leadership?). But that isn’t what the text says.

So the moral of the story is, well, what is it? A couple things. Review Wallace on a regular basis. But also pay attention to the translations. None of them that I know translate the ελεγεν in Luke 23:34 as a continuous. There must be a reason.

Regardless, Jesus really did want God to forgive them. He only had to say it once.


Actually the ISV Bible translates it as continuous. I wonder why?

For readers of ''Basics of Biblical Greek" - 3rd edition, 2009, this article will signify a change of mind on the part of Bill. There he was in agreement that the translation means Jesus repeatedly made the statement. Good that this webpage clarifies his thinking. Lesson of the day - don't be in a rush to preach a new understanding / interpretation of a Greek word without brooding over it for a while and considering what is generally accepted interpretation.

Yesd, and the change is reflected in the fourth edition, due out in a year.