For an Informed Love of God
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The Joys of Idioms (εἰ μή)
Idioms can really be a pain, can’t they? Idioms are phrases in which the individual words don’t bear their normal meaning, but together they have a special meaning. The trick is to learn which words form idioms.
Take for example Mark 6:8. “He charged them to take nothing for their journey except a staff—no bread, no bag, no money in their belts” (εἰ μὴ ῥάβδον μόνον, μὴ ἄρτον, μὴ πήραν, μὴ εἰς τὴν ζώνην χαλκόν). I received a question the other day that wondered why μὴ ῥάβδον was not translated “no staff” like the rest of the terms in the list.
The key is the εἰ, which when combined with μή, forms an idiom translated “except.” So the first four words are properly translated as “except a staff.” NASB explicitly translates μονον as “except a mere staff.”
So how are you supposed to know that ει μη is an idiom? There are several clues. One is, how would you translate the εἰ if it were not an idiom? “If” does not make sense here. As a general rule, when the gloss you know for a word does not fit into a context, you should check a lexicon to see if there is another meaning that does fit.
But thankfully, we have a great friend in BDAG. This is a wonderful Greek lexicon; it is not only the standard in the field, it is almost the only one in the field. There are some shorter lexicons that are cheaper and easier to carry, and there is the mammoth Liddell and Scott, but for basic, serious Greek work you must have access to this text.
BDAG lists idioms near the end of the entry. So if you look up εἰ, scan to the bottom and at entry 6 you find the rather cryptic “In combination w. other particles, w. the other particles foll.” It means that when ει is used in combination with other particles it means …,” and then BDAG lists those meanings. Entry “i” under εἰ μή has “except, if not.”
So the moral of the story is first of all to pay attention to common idioms, perhaps keeping a list as you come across them. And when the “normal” translation of a word doesn’t fit (especially if it is a particle followed by another particle), check out BDAG.