Bill Mounce

For an Informed Love of God

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Sunday, February 28, 2010

What's an Anacoluthon?

I went in to see the doctor a while back and he said that I had, well, I didn’t know the word he used. It was too long and Latin based. I asked him what that meant, and he said, a cold (I think it was).

“If it is just a cold,” I asked, “then why not call it a cold?”

“Because we can’t charge you a lot of money to diagnose a cold,” he responded.

“No, really, why use a long complicated term when a short one would do?”

My doctor is a long-term personal friend, so we have lots of fun conversations. Honestly, part of the answer is to sound esoteric he said, but part of it is to be medically specific. “Cold” is a pretty large category, and I had a specific form of a cold.

But before we start blaming the medical profession for something, we should look at our own discipline and ask if we do the same thing. I snicker sometimes when I use the word “lexicon” to describe a dictionary. Why do we call it a “lexicon”? Perhaps there is an historically specific reason, but perhaps we like to sound especially learned.

Or how about “anacoluthon”? This is a Greek term that means “a sentence or construction that lacks grammatical sequence” (an + akolouthos, “not following”). In general parlance, it is just a sentence fragment. Why not call it a “grammatical error”? Well, perhaps we can be more specific than using the broad category of “grammatical error,” and perhaps some of us recoil a bit in saying that the Bible as an “error.” So we take a deep breath and say that his verse exhibits anacoluthon.

A simple example is 1 Tim 1:3. Paul writes, “As I urged you when going to Macedonia to remain at Ephesus that you may charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine ….” The sentence goes to the end of v 4, and verse 5 starts a new sentence. What is missing? A subject and a verb! So technically vv 3-4 is a sentence fragment, a series of dependent clauses without a main clause.

Translations do a series of things to get around the problem. The ESV changes the participle “remaining” to an imperative “remain!” (also TNIV, NASB, RSV, NET). The NRSV changes the past tense “urged” to “urge”; “I urge you, as I did when I was on my way to Macedonia, to remain in Ephesus.” The “as I did” is to retain the fact that Paul is thinking about a past event. The NLT reads, “When I left for Macedonia, I urged you to stay there in Ephesus and stop those who are teaching wrong doctrine.” I thought I remember seeing a translation that placed a dash at the end of v 4.

These are all legitimate ways to try and make Paul’s Greek acceptable. The tricky thing is to let the English reader know that Paul is referring to a past event, and that he is in essence repeating the same charge; he has not changed his mind as to what Timothy should be doing.

This is why all full expressions of the doctrine of inerrancy make allowance for grammatical “mistakes.” At times I suspect the grammatical errors are totally on purpose. Revelation is full of anacoluthon, but that is because John is in an ecstatic state and partial sentences and other incongruities help convey the sense of his ecstasy. But other times the mistake is just a mistake. Perhaps he didn’t feel like spending the time for his amanuensis to scape the parchment and start v 3 over again.

Whatever be the historical reason, the biblical writers are human and God in his sovereignty worked through them, and that included not always finishing their sentences.

Statements of the doctrine of Inspiration should not be based on how we think God should have done it, but on what we can see of how he did.