Date and time

In a post reacting to Wayne’s Eye Opening post, Wezlo comments:

It caught my interest because I mentioned the phrase, “No one knows the day or the hour”  of the Son of Man’s return in my sermon yesterday, and how people mistakenly believe that this means the year is still open for us to figure out (oh the headaches).

In my darker moments I think all literalism in the evangelical world could be eliminated simply by getting rid of Biblish. (But that would be a mistake of the kind Orwell made in his essay, Politics and the English Language, which I pointed out in a post last year.)

Still, dealing up front with Biblish is a worthy undertaking.

In some places even DE translations succumb to the inclusion of Biblish. In this post I’ll pick on the Holman Christian Standard Bible. That’s not because I think it’s bad. In fact, I think it gets a lot spang on referentially. But no one gets this baby right. I could just as well go after the TNIV, CEV, or NLT.

The phrase at issue is the juxtapostion of ἡμέρα and ὥρα. The key passages are:

περὶ δὲ τῆς ἡμέρας ἐκείνης καὶ ὥρας οὐδεὶς οἶδεν οὐδὲ οἱ ἄγγελοι τῶν οὐρανῶν οὐδὲ ὁ υἱός εἰ μὴ ὁ πατὴρ μόνος
Now concerning that day and hour no one knows — neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son — except the Father only. (Mat. 24:36)

… ἥξει ὁ κύριος τοῦ δούλου ἐκείνου ἐν ἡμέρᾳ ᾗ οὐ προσδοκᾷ καὶ ἐν ὥρᾳ ᾗ οὐ γινώσκει
… that slave’s master will come on a day he does not expect and at an hour he does not know. (Mat. 24:50)

γρηγορεῖτε οὖν ὅτι οὐκ οἴδατε τὴν ἡμέραν οὐδὲ τὴν ὥραν
Therefore be alert, because you don’t know either the day or the hour. (Mat. 25:13)

περὶ δὲ τῆς ἡμέρας ἐκείνης ἢ τῆς ὥρας οὐδεὶς οἶδεν οὐδὲ οἱ ἄγγελοι ἐν οὐρανῷ οὐδὲ ὁ υἱός εἰ μὴ ὁ πατήρ
Now concerning that day or hour no one knows — neither the angels in heaven nor the Son — except the Father. (Mk. 13:32)

… ἥξει ὁ κύριος τοῦ δούλου ἐκείνου ἐν ἡμέρᾳ ᾗ οὐ προσδοκᾷ καὶ ἐν ὥρᾳ ᾗ οὐ γινώσκει
… that slave’s master will come on a day he does not expect him and at an hour he does not know. (Lk. 12:46a)

and possibly also:

καὶ ἐλύθησαν οἱ τέσσαρες ἄγγελοι οἱ ἡτοιμασμένοι εἰς τὴν ὥραν καὶ ἡμέραν καὶ μῆνα καὶ ἐνιαυτόν ἵνα ἀποκτείνωσιν τὸ τρίτον τῶν ἀνθρώπων
So the four angels who were prepared for the hour, day, month, and year were released to kill a third of the human race. (Rev. 9:15)

The Biblish word hour and the English word hour differ. In Biblish (as in Latin and Greek) hour (hōra, ὥρα) is ambiguous between referring to a point in time and a period of time. (I posted on ὥρα as a point of time here.)

καὶ ἰάθη ὁ παῖς αὐτοῦ ἐν τῇ ὥρᾳ ἐκείνῃ
… And his servant was cured that very moment. (Mat. 8:13b)

In modern English hour is a (shortish) period of time. You can do something for an hour. You can complete it in an hour. But you can’t say that it is the hour to do something. In modern English we mostly use the word time for point of time meanings.

It’s time to go.
I have been looking for a new car since that time.
At the time he left, I was still asleep.

In Shakespeare’s day the word hour was ambiguous.

I have served him from the hour of my
nativity to this instant (The Comedy of Errors Act IV Scene IV)

But give me leave to try success, I’ld venture
The well-lost life of mine on his grace’s cure
By such a day and hour. (All’s Well That Ends Well Act I Scene III)

In modern English there are only a few remnant constructions in which hour can refer to a point in time, mostly as the object of at and referring to the time of day (or night).

What are you doing up at this hour?

He works on his car at all hours of the night.

It’s interesting (but not surprising) that there are few limited expressions left over from an earlier time, but not sounding archaic — a phenomenon well known by linguists. But the fact remains that in 21th century English, all non-idiomatic uses of hour as a point in time are Biblish. This is not limited to Protestants, by the way. The English Ave Maria also has this mistake (compounded by the odd use of in). (1)

Ave Maria, gratia plena, Dominus tecum.
Benedicta tu in mulieribus, et benedictus fructus ventris tui, Iesus.
Sancta Maria, Mater Dei, ora pro nobis peccatoribus, nunc, et in hora mortis nostrae.

Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee.
Blessed art thou amongst women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now, and in the hour of our death.

A similar argument can be made for day – it generally refers to a period of time in modern English. but the situation is a little more complex than with hour. There are a number of regular usages with day as a point in time, for example on a day. Nonetheless, the normative point in time word that corresponds to day is date.

So translations of the two different texts with parallels above should read as follows:

περὶ δὲ τῆς ἡμέρας ἐκείνης καὶ ὥρας οὐδεὶς οἶδεν οὐδὲ οἱ ἄγγελοι τῶν οὐρανῶν οὐδὲ ὁ υἱός εἰ μὴ ὁ πατὴρ μόνος
No one knows the date and time — not the angels in heaven, not even the Son — just the Father. (Mat. 24:36)

… ἥξει ὁ κύριος τοῦ δούλου ἐκείνου ἐν ἡμέρᾳ ᾗ οὐ προσδοκᾷ καὶ ἐν ὥρᾳ ᾗ οὐ γινώσκει
… that slave’s master will return on a day he doesn’t expect and at a time he doesn’t know. (Mat. 24:50)

There is the temptation to simplify the whole thing (including moving information up from the following verse).

No one knows just when the Son of Man will return – not the angels in heaven, not even the Son himself – just the Father. It will be like it was in Noah’s time. (Mat. 24:36-37)

As a final note, the usages I’ve talked about here are subtle. When does it sound OK to say at that hour? What’s the difference between at [modifier] time and at [modifier] hour? — to which I plead ignorance.

OK: What are you doing up at this hour?
Odd: What are you doing up at this time?

Bad: He was eating at the hour.
OK: He was eating at the time.

By comparison with real English Biblish is flat. And for my money that’s a crucial reason to avoid Biblish — especially for those who claim they want literary quality translations.

(1) In my wife’s Catholic family, they said at the hour of our death.

21 thoughts on “Date and time

  1. J. K. Gayle says:

    Great post. The Greek concepts of time run deep in ancient mythology and are part and parcel of Greek-speakers’ cultural literacy. In Homeric Hymns, there’s this:

    the Graces with beautiful hair, the benevolent Hours [Ὧραι]
    Join with Harmonia, Hebe, the daughter of Zeus, Aphrodite,
    In the melodious dance, holding each others’ hands by the wrist.

    These three Hours (and the Graces, goddess representing female beauty and charm) figure significantly in the Iliad and Odyssey and in Hesiod’s theological poems. The Hours are personified seasons, and they serve as metaphors for unspecified if regular time periods. Whether LXX translators or later NT translator-writers had them in mind specifically, they were in the cultural psyche, and in the language, of the Greek and Roman empires.

    It’s reminiscent of Shakespeare’s reflection of or influence on English seasonal language (as in Richard III): “Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this son [or sun] of York.”

    Since you bring up Wayne’s post on that biblish phase in Matthew 9, I have posted a translation challenge from the same passage. I’d be interested in your input and in anyone else’s too.

  2. J. K. Gayle says:

    Sorry for another comment, but I meant to say also that “Day” (i.e., or Ἡμέρη) is, likewise, personified and profoundly a divine concept in the Greek language. Here’s from Hesiod’s Theo-gony: “Next out of Chaos with Erebus black Night too was engendered, and out of Night were the Aether and Day together begotten, Whom she conceived after lying with Erebus lovingly, and bore.” and “Even where Night and Day as they pass one another salute each other.”

  3. Peter Holloway says:

    I have to say first off that I subscribe to your blog and generally enjoy it. I do however think that you are perhaps unfairly labelling this item as biblish. Although I’m from the other side of the Atlantic (I suspect) I don’t think it is purely a British English thing to consider the use of ‘hour’ in the sense it is used in these passages as anachronistic. From the perspective of a user, not a translator I wouldn’t find it out of place to hear someone say to me today: “the hour has come”. English is a great language, with lots of colour and I wouldn’t like to see our bibles so reduced to the simplistic as to avoid anything not in the common use of 100% of the population.

  4. Rich Rhodes says:


    No, I don’t think it’s the difference between British and American usage.

    I don’t know if you were reading this blog two years ago, but I addressed the point you’re making here. We’re so used to hearing Biblish that we hardly notice it until it’s taken out of the Bible context. Then we hear that it isn’t contemporary English.

    Very odd:The surgeon says that this operation will open my eyes. (=’restore my eyesight’)

    Very Odd:It’s the hour to end the class. (=’time’)

    Odd: What hour does your flight arrive? (= ‘time’)

    This last one doesn’t sound like you’re asking for an exact time.

    Don’t confuse the attempt to make the text sound to an English speaker the way it sounded to a Roman era Greek speaker with simplification. Part of the problem of Biblish is that it makes much really straightforward communication sound inappropriately highfalutin’. For my money there is no Bible in English that gets this right.

  5. Dru says:

    I agree with Peter on this one. To quote Victor Meldrew, ‘I don’t believe it’. Anyone who thinks ‘no man knows the day or the hour’ means that the month and the year are known, is quite bluntly an idiot. I wouldn’t like to see either my bible or any other book reduced to the banal to protect it from being misunderstood by such.

    The reference to Victor Meldrew won’t mean anything to most readers, but the statement in his mouth and intonation, ‘I don’t believe it’ ceases to be a statement of disbelief and becomes an expression of amazement. So, if one were to want to, how would one translate it into Greek or Hebrew?

  6. Rich Rhodes says:

    The reason I said that in my darker moments I think accurate translation will get rid of literalism, is that I realize that the roots of literalism run much deeper.

    But that doesn’t provide a reason to overlook the difference between Biblish and regular English. The mere fact that we have learned to interpret “the day and the hour” as meaning “the exact moment” or “exactly when” only means that we have learned to interpret it, not that it’s the right translation ceteris paribus. The real problem in English Bible translation is that the cetera are never para. Churched folks have a hard time hearing just how weird the English sounds to non-churched folks.

    This isn’t about simplifying the translation. I think we too often mistake the extra brain power needed to process Biblish with the Bible being “real” literature. Yes, we need to listen hard to understand good poetry, but just because it’s hard to figure out doesn’t mean it’s good poetry.

  7. J. K. Gayle says:

    Why can’t translation of a foreign text sound foreign?

    And is it really extra brain power to read the foreignism in context to “get it”?

    You wrote:
    Very odd:The surgeon says that this operation will open my eyes. (=’restore my eyesight’)

    Very Odd:It’s the hour to end the class. (=’time’)

    Odd: What hour does your flight arrive? (= ‘time’)

    “Will the surgeon make a mistake and close up your blind eyes forever?” “No, the surgeon says that this operation will open my eyes.”

    “The class is to end this very hour.” “Is this the hour to end class then?” “Yes, that’s what I’m saying.” (your construct is what’s odd. would you say “It’s the second to end the class”? no you wouldn’t)

    “The noon hour, or the hour before noon? What hour does your flight arrive?”

  8. Rich Rhodes says:

    The translation of a foreign text so it sounds foreign is, generally, a mistake. There are places in the NT where Biblish is required (e.g. the quote in Jude 1:9 — the way ἐπιτιμάω is used gives it away, see my series on the NT meaning of ἐπιτιμάω written in June-July of 2006, starting here). If the whole NT is in Biblish, how can we hear when the text is in LXX Greek.

    The mere fact that there is such a difference in the original requires that we translate a corresponding difference in English.

    You might also look at my recent comment on the “Eye Opening” post.

  9. Dru says:

    Part of what I’m also getting at, which I’ve said before, is there is a huge difference between saying ‘this is not how I would phrase it’, or even ‘this is how I’d rather it was phrased’, and ‘the person who phrased it this way is wrong’.

    I happen to be protestant, but that doesn’t stop me disagreeing with the use of the word ‘mistake’ in the statement ‘The English Ave Maria also has this mistake’. I happen to think that, whether it’s C21 idiomatic usage or not, “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now, and in the hour of our death” is more expressive of what the prayer is actually praying than “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now, and when we die”, would be – or even “when we are dying”, which is probably a closer rendering of what the prayer is about.

    As to the roots of literalism, quite an interesting test is to ask what a person understands 2 Sam 6:23 to mean, ‘to her dying day Michal, the daughter of Saul, had no children’.

  10. J. K. Gayle says:

    Thanks Rich. I follow and very much appreciate what you’re saying in both comments. I especially like what you write about the false distinction between accuracy and naturalness, as you and Pike note.

    Since you mention Pike, the one distinction he did acknowledge is that between etics and emics (outsiderness and insiderness). This is huge. It allows readers and translators to ask very important questions like yours: “If the whole NT is in Biblish, how can we hear when the text is in LXX Greek.” And you get us thinking about what for Matthew may be etic (i.e., LXX biblish) and what emic (his & his hearers’ koine). And “wouldn’t we like to hear that too?” — hence your question.

    You make some fantastic points about “mistake.” Who can say what to do with 2 Sam 6:23? What do you say? And how does anyone, especially a non-Jew non-Hebraist literary-professional and Christian like C.S. Lewis, reflect on the Psalms? He chooses to take it personal, and rightly reflects also on himself rather subjectively. Brave perspectives (as in his Reflections on the Psalms:

    “From this point of view [i.e., my own about what I read the Psalms saying about me and about enemies] I can use even the horrible passage in 137 about dashing the Babylonian babies against the stones.” (p 136)

  11. David Frank says:

    As long as we’re invoking the name of Ken Pike with respect to translation, I understand the etic-emic issue, and that it is very important, but what did he say about a false distinction between accuracy and naturalness?

  12. Rich Rhodes says:

    I can’t quote Pike chapter and verse on accuracy and naturalness. As far as I know he never used those terms. I’m inferring from the fact that he thought a tagmeme as a unitary entity included phonology, syntax, semantics, and pragmatics. (His terms were different, sui generis, and changed somewhat over time, so I’m “translating” into general linguistic terminology for clarity.) Semantics is the accuracy part and pragmatics is the naturalness.

  13. Rich Rhodes says:

    I understand why you might want to quibble about whether a particular choice of phrasing rises to the level of being called a mistake.

    There are two points.

    First, in the case of living languages there are clear standards for translation. For example, if a German speaker says Ich kann kein Blut sehen. (in the appropriate context) and you translate it I can’t see any blood. instead of I can’t stand the sight of blood., it’s not a matter of better or worse, it’s wrong. Period.

    Second, there is a theory out there that differences in Bible translations are ultimately a matter of doctrine or taste — or some combination. I don’t buy that at all. It’s just like the case with modern languages. The window of acceptably correct translations is pretty narrow.

    There are certainly things that we can’t know about the meaning or naturalness of the original, but there are a lot that we can know, and the failure to deal appropriately with what we do know does, in my mind, rise to the level of mistake. if it’s the kind of thing that you would get dinged for if there were bilingual native speakers around, it’s a mistake.

    Using hour to refer to a point in time without implied reference to clock time (outside of a few idioms) is a mistake in modern English. Put it in an essay you write for me and I’ll grade you down for it. (I’m grading essays at this point in the semester, some by non-native speakers. I’m quite sensitive on points of usage.)

  14. J. K. Gayle says:

    David asks: As long as we’re invoking the name of Ken Pike with respect to translation, I understand the etic-emic issue, and that it is very important, but what did he say about a false distinction between accuracy and naturalness?

    I like Rich’s translation of Pike from memory. But there are some examples to remember from Pike’s writings. Here are 2:

    (1) The investigator tends to deprive himself of hearing the natural range of key and free variation which comes in repetition by the informant and may, therefore, record as different some utterances of tonemes which are functionally the same in spite of temporary slight, free, pitch divergences. . . .

    (2) The investigator is tempted to be too “accurate,” that is, to transcribe (just because he can find them with instruments) details which do not reflect the system, but are changes within tonemes. (Tone Languages: A Technique for Determining the Number and Type of Pitch Contrasts in a Language, with Studies in Tonemic Substitution and Fusion 1964 p44)

    Conviction 1.7. Approximate translation is possible; it may be viewed as a variety of cross-cultural paraphrase. . . .
    The speaker and hearer may agree, under appropriate circumstances, that two different statements are ‘saying the same thing’ relative to the purpose of the speaker, the expectations of the hearer, and the shared cultural horizon. But for either paraphrase or translation, identity of words is unnecessary, identity of particular grammatical focal mechanism is unnecessary, and the exact same degree of detail is unnecessary. Truth, in such a statement, is not dependent upon the exact degree of precision obtained, if the generalizations are acceptable to both speaker and hearer. . . . ambiguity is utilized by the speaker as part of his presentation. Puns, for example, cannot normally be translated directly by puns in the target language. They can be explained, but the explanation of a pun does not carry the same impact as the pun itself—an impact which in tagmemic theory is part of the meaning. (Talk, Thought, and Thing
The Emic Road Toward Conscious Knowledge 1993 pp10-14)

  15. J. K. Gayle says:

    ugh. I forgot the commentary. The first example is Pike’s gripe with phoneticians’ reliance on tape recordings. The second is his discussion of natural ambiguity (i.e., as in puns) not requiring accuracy (or an “exact degree of precision”) in translation.

  16. Cameron says:

    I don’t want to derail the thread here, but I do want to point out another time-word that can only be found in Biblish—‘season.’

    To me seasons are either defined periods on a calendar or (less strictly) times of the year associated with particular weather patterns and lengths of days. A ‘season of prayer’ or a ‘season of testing’ don’t sound pious. They sound like you’re trying too hard.

    Back to the regularly scheduled discussion…

  17. David Frank says:

    Ah, Kurk, thanks for the tip regarding Pike. I’ve found my copy of Talk, Thought and Thing, and the place where he says that impact on the hearer is part of the meaning, which reminds me of a discussion you and I were having on your blog. That is a lot to think about, in regard to (Bible) translation.

    Cameron, your mention on the spiritual-sounding use of the word ‘season’ is apropos — more so than some of the other things we have gotten sidetracked with in the comments on Richard’s post on Date and Time. Thanks for getting us back on track.

  18. donjo says:

    OK, I will be a contrarian. I think a non-Biblish Bible is what is needed for public reading and worship; but a literal Bible with extensive footnotes as to meaning is what is (often) best for study.

    The reason is that sometimes patterns in the original text get clobbered in translation and there is a better chance of this not happening when the translation stays literal with footnotes as to meaning. For example in 1 Cor 14 where sigao/be silent is used 3 times, it is sometimes translated DIFFERENTLY in these verses which makes it HARDER to see the Paul’s pattern or in the worst case even suspect there is a pattern.

  19. Rich Rhodes says:

    OK, but then why not just buy an interlinear for study.

    Your comment also raises the question again as to how important words are as opposed to meanings. We have long argued that meanings are prior to words in a philosophical sense. (For example here This means that concordant translations have limited value.

    In your example, it’s not at all clear that there is any intended pattern with σιγάω in 1 Cor 14. In vss. 28 and 34 it refers to the state of being silent, but in vs. 30 it refers to the inchoation of the state, but the inflection is identical (up to the number).

  20. Dru says:

    I’m still not totally persuaded, and realise also that this is now an old topic, but as it happens, I’ve today come across two oddities in the NIV where Rich I think I would agree with you.

    The first one is in one of the carol service readings from this evening. Lk 2 v 9
    “an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified”. In normal English usage, the first ‘and’ is bad grammar.

    The other is Mark 1 v 5 where it oddly refers to John the Baptist baptising in ‘the Jordan river’. Normal English is either ‘in the Jordan’, or if for some reason you must make it clear that the Jordan is a river, ‘river’ comes before Jordan, not after it. There are a few idiomatic exceptions to this, most of which seem to be inexplicable and random, but the Jordan is not one of them.

  21. Don says:

    Rich wrote “In your example, it’s not at all clear that there is any intended pattern with σιγάω in 1 Cor 14. In vss. 28 and 34 it refers to the state of being silent, but in vs. 30 it refers to the inchoation of the state, but the inflection is identical (up to the number).”

    My take is the pattern is that the same result happens after each 3, the person is totally silent. Some translations mask this by translating sigao differently, which I think it is a mistake.

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