Bill Mounce

For an Informed Love of God

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Monday, May 3, 2021

When does “Not” mean “Never”? (Matt 5:18, 20)

Greek has a wonderful ability to state a prohibition with different nuances. Unfortunately, these nuances are often lost in translation.

  • A prohibition can be stated with a present tense imperative, which prohibits a continuous action.
  • A prohibition can be stated with an aorist tense imperative, which prohibits an undefined action.
  • You can also use a negated future indicative, which has its own issues. You could use the antiquated term “shall,” which clearly indicates a command, but you sound like an old person (and perhaps you are, like me, so that is okay). Or you can use “will,” which then is ambiguous. “You will not commit adultery.” Is that a prediction or a command?

However, if you use οὐ μή and an aorist subjunctive, the prohibition is much stronger in force, almost as if the speaker is yelling. So how do you convey the significance of this construction in your translation?  

Usually, translators just under-translate and treat it as a standard prohibition. For example, most translations pass over the οὐ μή + aorist subjunctive construction in Matt 5:18.

“For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished” (ESV). 

This is under-translating, missing the full force of the Greek. The NIV gets it right.

“For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.”

The KJV also conveys the force: “shall in no wise pass from the law.” 

However, the same construction occurs two verses later, and here most translations fully translate the οὐ μή + aorist subjunctive construction using “never.” 

“For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (ESV).

The NIV has “you will certainly not enter.” 

But what I want to focus on is the use of “never.” The οὐ μή + aorist subjunctive construction does not mean “never,” and yet, contextually, we may understand that what is prohibited is a “forever” kind of thing. When that is the case, then “never” does properly convey the force of the construction. It is true, forever, that if our righteousness does not exceed that of the Jewish leaders in Jesus’ day, then we will not enter God’s kingdom. 

It is hard to imagine someone pursuing external righteousness with more aggressiveness than the scribes and Pharisees, but what God requires, what constitutes true righteousness, is a deep righteousness welling up from the heart so that we don’t just obey externally, but we obey from the heart. 

When the heart does not hate, the hands will not kill.