Bill Mounce

For an Informed Love of God

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Monday, November 26, 2018

How much should we ask of our students? (Mark 12:28)

Video version of the blog

I am thinking quite a bit these days about sequencing, and how different Greek is from English, which then raises interesting problems for the translator. I am also wondering more about how students should be translating in first year.

Look at the series of participles in the Greatest Command (Mk 12:28).

προσελθὼν εἷς τῶν γραμματέων
ἀκούσας αὐτῶν συζητούντων,
ἰδὼν ὅτι καλῶς ἀπεκρίθη αὐτοῖς
ἐπηρώτησεν αὐτόν· ποία ἐστὶν ἐντολὴ πρώτη πάντων;

The basic sentence structure is εἷς ἐπηρώτησεν αὐτόν. “One (of the scribes) asked him.” As a side note, my friend Dan Wallace told me that he prefers his students to find the verb–subject–direct object, especially in a complicated sentence, and then see where the rest of the words fit in relation to that structure. This is instead of just going word for word. A good idea.

In first year Greek, in order to let your teacher know that you know the difference between a present and aorist participle and understand the concept of relative time, you might translate something like this.

“After having come, one of the scribes, after having heard them debating, after having seen that he answered them well, asked him, ‘Which is the first commandment of all?’”

Relative time means the aorist participles indicate actions occurring prior to the aorist ἐπηρώτησεν.

This might let your teacher know that you know the individual forms, but I think we should be asking more of our students, since this translation, while word for word, is not really English (unless you think Yoda speaks acceptable English). I am thinking that we should require first year Greek students to do two levels of translation, word for word, and then English. This would force them to the end of the translation process, and it would also explode the myth that wooden, word for word “translations” are somehow superior to smoother English.

Does anyone really think that the translation I gave above is acceptable? I don’t. Teachers, let’s have our students do both word for word and then a real translation. Which brings me to the topic of sequence.

Greek uses participles (with different tenses) to indicate the relationship between various actions and the main verb. A simpler example is Matt 2:16.

“After Herod saw (ἰδὼν) that he had been tricked (ἐνεπαίχθη) by the Magi, he became angry (ἐθυμώθη), and after sending (ἀποστείλας), he had the babies killed (ἀνεῖλεν).”

However, in English we understand a series of verbs to already be in sequence (assuming of course that the context allows this). If we hear “Herod saw he was tricked” and “Herod sent the soldiers and had the babies killed,” we intuitively understand the relationship between the events. We don’t need an explicit “after.”

So going back to our passage, after the student has translated word for word, how should they compose an accurate and yet readable translation?

“One of the scribes came and heard them debating. He saw that Jesus answered them well and asked ….”

I had to break the Greek into two English sentences, supply the subject “he,” and then supply the subject from the verb ἀπεκρίθη as “Jesus”; otherwise, I would have “he … he …,“ each referring to different people. But what I get is readable, understandable English that faithfully reproduces the sequencing of ideas but avoids the awkward English of the first translation.

Let’s ask more of our students and of ourselves. If we wait until second year, we miss the bulk of our students and the patterns of poor translation are set in their minds.


The difference between an aorist participle and a present participle is that the present participle expresses an action as presently happening and the aorist participle doesn't express anything at all, neither time nor aspect, but only the fact of the action, since it is, by the very definition of the word, αοριστος, indefinite. Time and sequence are then assumed from the context, not the grammatical conjugation, so we know in Mark 12:28 and Matt 2:16 that these are past-time sequences because they are historical narratives. One thing you can ask of your students is to think for themselves, to read, read, read the Koine Greek as Koine Greek (not as translated English), not memorize, memorize, memorize paradigm tables and dictionary entries, and to develop critical thinking skills. Having studied Biblical Greek for so many years completely independent from seminary academia, I often cringe at the complications that I hear from the traditional academic sources. It seems as if English (or, previously, Latin) is thought of as the master language by which all other languages are evaluated, a bias easily seen from the days of Erasmus through the reformation era, up through today. Students should endeavor to get used to the flow of Koine Greek before translating. Then the student will understand what the writer wrote. Can he translate it? Maybe not properly. Will he generate "Yoda-talk"? It doesn't matter. What the original writer said is what is important. It is, after all, another language, and maybe you can't render it in English very well, or at least not properly. But so what? It is another language. So, why learn Koine Greek? It is so that we can understand the source as the original writer expressed it, without the burden of imposing the rules of the English language upon the Greek text. Or does seminary academia have as its ultimate goal the production of more translators to copyright and publish yet more English translations of the same New Testament? I hope not. We need to know what the Word of God says, so that we can understand and live our lives accordingly. That is the goal. Am I rogue for saying that no aorist intrinsically implies any time or aspect? A.T. Robertson certainly recognized and characterized it as such for what it was (even though he then proceeded to describe and elaborate upon all the usual complicating "aorist categories" anyway). A.E. Knoch wrote of it in his pamphlet, "The English and Greek Indefinite," and I credit this for tipping me off to the problem many years ago; Frank Stagg wrote of it in JBL 1972 (p. 222-31), and Charles R. Smith did the finest job I've seen of decomposing and debunking the collection of status quo aorist conglomerations in the article, ERRANT AORIST INTERPRETERS (Grace Theological Journal 2.2, Fall 1981). Someone uploaded that here: So, what I am saying is not without credentialed academic precedent. Is it because of all the pilgrimages of teachers and students to modern-day Greece to learn δημοτική γλώσσα, not realizing that modern Greek evolved through centuries and centuries of European and Latin language influence? And, alas, the Reformation-era translators really didn't understand the problem that well either, from Erasmus onward. Let's face it: They were experts at Latin, novices at Greek. Or is it that keeping to the academic status quo is highest priority, harmonizing all the way back to Tyndale, so as not to rock the boat? Such a simple language, Koine Greek! So easy and straightforward it is to understand. Sure, it takes some getting used to, the different grammar and associated flow. But it is providentially elegant, specific, and unambiguous. That was by necessity anyway, as a result of Alexander's conquests. So, now they had the lingua franca to express the many timeless truths associated with the New Covenant, with a verb conjugation available to keep from turning everyone into a fatalistic Calvinist. But, alas, the English past tense, systematically and by rule applied to the aorist, does that. Just read Eph 1 and Rom 8:29-30 in your favorite English translation and see. Here's my favorite verse to ask of any student of Greek that I might happen to meet, who starts in on the aorist thing that they learned from their seminary professors: Col 1:23. Was the apostle Paul implying that the gospel had already been preached, at his time of writing, everywhere, including Japan, Australia, Alaska, South America, Hawaii? That's an aorist participle. As the rule you stated, reapplied to this, would have it, "Relative time means the aorist participle, κηρυχθεντος, indicates action occurring prior to the aorist ηκουσατε." So, when "was" the gospel preached the world over? The plain fact of the matter is that, because it is an aorist participle, it is not specifying time or completion but just the fact of the preaching of the gospel. The aorist participial phrase functions adjectivally, describing the gospel that they (without specifying time or completion) "hear." Therefore, it is the "preach-in-all-the-creation-the-under-the-heaven" gospel. Problem solved. Maybe untranslatable into formal English, but problem solved and easy to understand. And that's why we learn Greek. Not to translate into English yet again, but to understand what was said, so that we know the word of God. And there we have the resolution to a common Bible skeptic's question: Col 1:23 never stated that the gospel was preached everywhere the world over in the first century A.D. It never said that to begin with. Translations just made it look as though it did. For your examples of Mark 12:28 and Matt 2:16, in context, these are historical narratives, and that is the reason, the only reason, why each case is a sequence in the past, naturally rendered in English past tense, but not because of aorist participles and an aorist verb, which grammatically do not give any indication of past time or completion, either themselves or together. The original writers in this language described events in the past as though they were there observing them then in that past time. That's just frame of reference. We American English speakers actually sometimes do that informally, colloquially, in verbal speech ("So, I go down the street and meet this guy, and he looks at me funny and talks about this thing and that, so I tell him about Jesus..."), but not in formal English writing ("So, I went down the street, met this guy, and he looked at me in a funny way and talked about this thing and that, so I told him about Jesus..."). We use [implied aorist indicative] the sense of an implied aorist very commonly in American English. If I tell [implied aorist indicative] you right now, "I play [implied aorist indicative] the piano," that is the English simple present tense, yet you wouldn't assume [implied aorist subjunctive] that I am doing that right now, especially since, by necessity, my fingers are typing right now on a computer keyboard. Rather, it is the case that I claim [implied aorist indicative] to be [implied aorist infinitive] a piano player, without reference to time or completion of any of my piano-playing activity. As you see [implied aorist indicative] from the above, we use [implied aorist indicative] the English simple present tense to commonly express [implied aorist indicative] the same sense as the Greek aorist, yet few people give [implied aorist indicative] it a second thought. As a personal note, I have noticed that you rarely accept comments on your blog (you can edit this out if you post it, but I doubt you will post something this provocative, making the point moot). I imagine that now I have *reaally* done it, challenging a scholar of your standing and reputation by direct contradiction, and probably will earn a spot on your blacklist, if I haven't already. But, taking my example from Jesus and the apostles, the rogue fanatics they were, I cannot help it. In any case, we are all students of a greater Master, and I am always open to consideration of criticism and correction. I am certainly not a well-known celebrity or famous, but I am never anonymous, nor am I an internet troll. -- [email protected]