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Tuesday, April 3

When is “You” not “You” (John 1:51)

I wish modern English had a different form for “you” plural. It would solve some sticky translation problems. So until then, I guess we all have to learn some Greek.

Philip finds Nathanael to tell him about Jesus, and Nathanael responds with his now famous, “Can anything good come from [Nazareth]?” (1:46). Jesus tells Nathanael that he saw him under the fig tree, and Nathanael responds “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the king of Israel” (1:49).

But then Jesus says, “Jesus said, ‘You (πιστεύεις) believe because I told you (σοι) I saw you (σε) under the fig tree. You (ὄψῃ) will see greater things than that.’ He then added, ‘Very truly I tell you (ὑμῖν), you will see (ὄψεσθε) “heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on” the Son of Man’” (NIV, 1:50-51).

Did you notice how the number of the second person pronoun shifted from singular to plural? There is no way you would pick that up from the English. Jesus is talking (apparently) just to Nathanael, but in v 51 he shifts to speaking to Nathanael and Philip.

But there may be even more. The shift to the plural may also signify that the fulfillment of this promise includes all the disciples who would, over the next several years, experience the power of the coming kingdom of God. Carson comments, “The fulfillment of the promise of 1:51, the culmination of the Father’s attestation of the Son, the privilege of seeing the glory of the Son of Man — these transpire throughout the Fourth Gospel, and are climaxed by Jesus’ death and resurrection” (page 164).

This is why the ESV has the habit of including footnotes when the Greek is so obscured by the English. “The Greek for you is plural; twice in this verse.” So also the NIV and probably others.

This is why I personally am spending so much time these days working on ways for people who know a little Greek to be able to go deeper in their Bible study, both with my book, Greek for the Rest of Us and my new video series, The Biblical Greek Primer.” Anyone with even the most basic awareness of Greek should be able to pull up their favorite Bible study software, do a mouse over the word “you,” and see that it is plural.

Until then, we can be thankful for footnotes.

Comments

Is this another case where the judicious adding of a few words can make the meaning clearer? Being English, I cannot sanction the use of the southern US "Y'all", but "all of you" seems reasonable, and adding Nathanael's name in the first bit could emphasise the singular: “Jesus said, ‘You, Nathanael, believe because I told you I saw you under the fig tree, yet you will see greater things than that.’ He then added, ‘Very truly I tell all of you that you will all see  “heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on” the Son of Man’” Four small words added, yet the sense is clear. I suppose one could then add footnotes along the lines of "'all of' is implied by the original Greek use of the plural form of 'you'" It is a shame, in some ways, that the old style of italicizing such added words has gone out of style, though I suppose it wasn't understood well by most people and only got in the way.

Your solution certainly is possible, but the problem is that sometimes there are two words, "you" and "all," and this would confuse it. But yes, your solution is certainly possible.