Whose cities?

Several English versions translate Matt. 11:1 similar to:

When Jesus had finished giving instructions to His twelve disciples, He departed from there to teach and preach in their cities. (NASB)

Notice the phrase “their cities”. Whose cities does it sound like Jesus is preaching in (read as much of the context as you would like)? Do you think your answer is the intended meaning of the original Greek text?

18 thoughts on “Whose cities?

  1. Gary Simmons says:

    I’ve often wondered this myself. Obviously, the “they” would be Jews’ or Judaeans’ cities. However, I find the implied “us – them” mentality unsettling and at odds with my understanding of Gospel authors’ attitude toward non-Christian Jews.

    However, if not possessive, what else could fit this genitive? Perhaps it’s a descriptive/aporetic* genitive: “He departed from there to teach and preach in people’s own cities.” So, instead of the emphasis being on “us – them” with “their,” perhaps Matthew’s point is that Jesus made housecalls instead of having everybody come to Nazareth. This would be consistent with seeing Jesus as a [Son of] Man on a mission.

    *Aporetic genitive is a category in Daniel Wallace’s intermediate grammar that is a tongue-in-cheek label for genitives when an interpreter can’t pin down its exact sense.

  2. Peter Kirk says:

    The sentence in NASB (without reading any further context – but also in RSV read in context) clearly implies that Jesus taught in the disciples’ cities. That could make sense as he would choose places where he had contacts. But is it what the Greek means? I don’t know. TNIV had interpreted “the towns of Galilee”, but on what basis?

  3. LeRoy says:

    You just have to read what it says in Mt 10:5 These twelve Jesus sent forth, and instructed them, saying, Go not into the way of the Gentiles, and into any city of the Samaritans enter ye not: 6 But go rather to the sheep being destroyed of the house of Israel.
    Mt 11:1 And it happened, when Jesus had finished he withdrew to the twelve disciples, he departed thence to teach and to proclaim in their country towns.Noun: πόλεσιν= Dative Plural Feminine
    Και εγένετο οτε ετέλεσεν ο ις διατάσσων τοις δώδεκα μαθηταις αυτου μετέβη εκειθεν του διδάσκειν και κηρύσσειν εν ταις πόλεσιν αυτων.
    πόλεσιν of a country town, city, local, (1 Chr. 11:5), the city of David, Jerusalem the Holy City see (Easton)

  4. Bill says:

    I’m no Greek expert, but it looks like the only reason to pull in more context for the one word (autwn/their) is if we prefer some other view of the story at this point. The sentence alone sounds like he went to the hometowns of the twelve, implying they didn’t. Which evokes Mt.13:57 for anyone on a second reading, or for anyone already familiar with the tradition.

    Of course – on the radical presumption that Matthew himself had lived out these little episodes in person – if this was the occasion when Jesus impressed the prophet/hometown principle into his apostles, then it makes sense for Matthew to attach that memorable detail without even considering it. There were other logistical arrangements for ensuring that each apostle would avoid his own hometown, but if Jesus claimed all their hometowns for himself it would be an excellent coaching technique to drive home that point.

    Personally, I believe Jesus had already been home to Nazareth twice, before this event. That may not be a double-standard in strategy; that may be evidence of group learning. The disciples witnessed his rejection at Nazareth, so he’s going to spare them the same experience. Perhaps.

    At any rate, with such interesting potential, I’d especially love to hear more from you Greek experts about the text itself… and on the extent to which Story elements should influence our translating here, one way or another.

  5. hypatia says:

    It’s reasonable to assume that since Jesus had just finished speaking to his twelve disciples (τοις δώδεκα μαθηταις αυτου = lit. ‘to the twelve disciples OF HIM’)that ‘their cities’ refers to the home-towns of those very disciples (εν ταις πόλεσιν αυτων = lit. ‘in the cities OF THEM’). Doesn’t sound like they went along too: μετέβη is a singular verb-form.

  6. Gary Simmons says:

    Hypatia: True, however often the gospels speak of Jesus doing something (+singular verb) “and the disciples.” Like with John 2: Jesus was invited to a wedding… and his disciples [tagged along]. It doesn’t necessarily mean they didn’t come too. But it does give Jesus prominence, so perhaps they just tagged along.

    You could be right, however. Maybe they didn’t come along.

  7. hypatia says:

    Gary: John 2:1 is indeed an interesting one: the verb is a passive SINGULAR (ἐκλήθη = HE was called) despite the fact that the invitation clearly extends to his disciples too (ἐκλήθη δὲ καὶ ὁ Ἰησοῦς καὶ ὁι μαθηταὶ αὐτοῦ = and also was called Jesus, also the disciples of him).
    However, as you note, Jesus is the ‘main feature’ of the clause – the disciples have a secondary importance and don’t ‘have shares’ in the main verb! There is no reason why the author could not have used the plural form of the verb (THEY were called) in this passage if he had felt it appropriate.
    Interestingly, the following passages (which have Jesus….’καὶ ὁι μαθηταὶ αὐτοῦ’)
    Matt.9:19, Mark 2:23, 8:27, Luke 8:22, John 2:12, 3:22 & 18:1
    all have singular verbs of MOTION (coming, going, embarking, leaving) as their main verb, despite the fact the disciples go too.
    However, Jesus is the decisive force in the clause, his disciples DO just seem to follow on, AFTER the verb.
    However in Matt.11:1, the singular verb of motion μετέβη is NOT followed by the ‘καὶ ὁι μαθηταὶ αὐτοῦ’ tag. Did they go or not? Perhaps the author considered it so obvious they would go to their own home-towns that he felt no need to add the rider! Or maybe it’s a stylistic thing to avoid the duplication of μαθηταὶ.
    But this is all just fascinating speculation: we don’t REALLY know.

  8. LeRoy says:

    The last part reads: HE withdrew to the twelve disciples country towns πόλεσιν= Dative Plural Feminine
    You are also forgetting what he instructed them to do, which implied that they were not to waste their time in their hometowns but to continue in Jerusalem:
    Mt 10:5 These twelve Jesus sent forth, and instructed them, saying, Go not into the way of the Gentiles, and into any city of the Samaritans enter ye not: 6 But go rather to the sheep being destroyed of the HOUSE of Israel.(Judah)

  9. Gary Simmons says:

    hypatia, thanks for looking those up. I knew the pattern occurred elsewhere, but I was too lazy to look it up.

    Perhaps they all went to a given city/town, then split up within the town (if it was too big for Jesus personally). As far as I understand, I’m with you that we can’t say for sure there.

    LeRoy: We don’t know for sure that they were sent to Jerusalem. Any Jewish city would do fine. And the sheep were not “being destroyed,” they were “lost.” It is a well-attested idiom for animals.

    Also, please understand that you’re talking to people who (mostly) can tell that something is dative plural feminine (not that polis has a masculine form, mind you) and that Israel is Judah. Please don’t talk down to us.

  10. LeRoy says:

    Gee Gary Simmons, we do not patronize here, we are using exegsis, for the understanding of the message, not to argue, but to discuss as among friends.So, I would correct what you said and leave it as I presented:
    Mt 10:6 But go rather to the sheep being destroyed of the HOUSE of Israel.(Judah)
    6 πορευεσθε δε μαλλον προσ τα προβατα τα απολωλοτα οικου ισλ
    (Codex Sinaiticus)
    απολωλοτα Destroy/ Perish, 661, Prime 661, 622. Απολλυμι, To Destroy

    His name derives from the greek verb “απολλυμι” apollymi (=to destroy)
    (Etymology of ancient Macedonian names – Page 5 – Macedonia Forum)

    Its All Greek Mythology To Me: Apollo, god of sun, truth and prophecy
    13 Aug 2009 … The Greeks later associated Apollo’s name with the Greek verb απολλυμι (apollymi) meaning “to destroy”.

    Perseus Digital Library (LSI) stronger form of ολλυμι, destroy utterly, kill, in Hom. mostly of death in battle,
    2. [select] in NT, perish, in theol. sense, verb: perfect active participle accusative plural neuter
    Louw-Nida a destroy 20.31 (απόλλυμι την ψυχήν) die

  11. Wayne Leman says:

    As I have been checking the translation of the Gospel of Matthew in the CEB, I have noticed something I wasn’t aware of before: There are a number of instances of third person plural (“they”) and third person plural possessors (“their”) which do not match English “they” and “their”. At this point I am guessing that these particular instances of Greek (perhaps influenced by the Semitic background of the N.T. authors) third person are “unspecified” (a technical category of pronouns), similar to (but with some differences from) English indefinite “they”. English indefinite “they” has been commonly used for hundreds of years as the generic pronoun to refer back to an indefinite pronoun such as “someone” or “anyone.”

    The Greek discourse patterns for these particular third person pronouns are different from the English discourse patterns for standard third person plural pronouns which refer to plural entities.

    I suggest that the “their cities” is *not* referring to the cities of the disciples, even though that is what would be the usual interpretation for how these verses are translated in the NASB, CEB, ESV, and some other English versions. Instead, these are towns in Palestine which Jesus visited. The identity of those who live in these towns is not identified in the text, which is why I suspect that the third person plurals are unspecified.

    It is quite likely that Greek scholars have been long aware of this phenomenon and even have a technical term for it.

    One of the points we *must* take away from this study of “their” in this verse is that we *cannot* match the Greek word which can be glossed as “they” with the English word “they” since, in this context, they do not mean the same thing. They do not refer to the same entities.

    It is instructive to compare translation of this particular “they” of the Greek with the more meaning-oriented translations such as TEV, CEV, NLT, and, in this case, the NIV.

  12. LeRoy says:

    English readers may easily misunderstand the NASB as meaning “the hope that he will call you.” But that is not what Paul means.
    In Greek the actual meaning is closer to “hope arising from his calling” or “hope pertaining to his calling.” The RSV, NIV, and GNB all have “the hope to which he has called you,” which heads off the possible misunderstanding, and is one useful solution.

    They have also put in the extra word “you.” That word is there in Greek. By implication, it is “you.” But that is not what it actually conveys and in English it results in a meaning slightly more definite than the Greek.
    “His calling” in Greek has to do with God’s calling people. As a word picture, it opens the horizon to anyone whom God calls. In addition, the RSV/NIV/GNB wording suggests that the whole point of God’s calling is to have hope in the inheritance with the saints.
    The Greek leaves one more open to the broader possibility, namely that God’s call to be a Christian includes many aspects, only one of which is the hope for fulfillment of his plan. This latter view is the one that in fact occurs elsewhere in Paul (Eph. 4:1; 1 Cor. 1:9; etc.).

    Unlike GW, the NLT’s expression “the wonderful future he has promised to those he called” has the future element, all right, but lacks the subjective side of “hope,” and introduces from nowhere the idea of “promise.”
    Whereas “the hope to which he has called you” restructured a bit, these paraphrases restructure a lot and use words that convey a smaller part of the original meaning.

    The problem with changing the word “hope” to something else, and thereby loosening the connections with the idea of “hope” in other Pauline passages, recurs in paraphrases with a huge number of other passages as well.
    Part of the meaning of a passage comes from the connections that one text enjoys with many others. These connections take the form not merely of direct quotations from earlier parts of the Bible, but common wording and subtle allusions.

    When paraphrases restructure the text, use simpler words that capture a smaller part of the original meaning, and add explanatory phrases, the complex and multiple connections with other texts simply cannot be captured.

    At times, because of cultural differences, target readers within a particular language and culture are almost bound to misunderstand, not so much the words as the cultural significance of the act.
    For instance in one target culture, meeting someone with palm branches signifies scorn.
    So what does one do with Jesus’ Palm Sunday entry in John 12:13, where the crowds “took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him”
    Mk 11:8 Many people spread their cloaks on the road, while others spread branches they had cut in the fields. (NIV)? That is a distortion of the translation and was drawn from John who did not say that they spread the palm branches but suggests that they simply carried the branches as an arch as he rode the donkey down the road.
    However, the word κλάδος is branch and so it should instead be translated : And many bestrew their cloaks onto the road; and others layered cut offs from the fields.

    Mk 11:8 και πολλοι τα ϊματια αυτω εστρωσαν εις την οδον · αλλοι δε στιβαδας κοψαντες εκ των αγρων στιβάδος layer
    8 And many spread their mantles in the road, but others, bundles of straw, having cut them from the fields. (Codex Sinaiticus)
    The translators perhaps wanted to show the palms a relating to
    Le 23: 40 And ye shall take you on the first day the boughs of goodly trees, branches of palm trees, and the boughs of thick trees, and willows of the brook; and ye shall rejoice before the LORD your God seven days. 43 That your generations may know that I made the children of Israel to dwell in booths, when I brought them out of the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.

    The Parable of the Sower functions as a way of sorting out those who know the secrets of the translations, from those who do not. Matthew 13:1-23; Mark 4:1-20; Luke 8:4-15
    “For this people’s heart is waxed gross, and their ears are dull of hearing, and their eyes they have closed; lest at any time they should see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and should understand with their heart, and should be converted, and I should heal them. But blessed are your eyes, for they see: and your ears, for they hear”

    This spiritual seed is the Word of God
    The wayside soil is that person who has a closed mind before it can grow as Matthew 13:19 reads, “understandeth it not.”
    Stony places are they which will be burned up as were the tares (weeds) and the chaff.
    The thorns are those people who are smothered by thinking in worldly terms.
    Good-soil are those who “hear the word, and understand it”

  13. bzephyr says:

    A few observations…
    (1) The instructions that Jesus gives the disciples before sending them out strongly implies that they will be strangers in the towns they visit.
    (2) When Jesus told the disciples not to go to “the way of Gentiles” in Mt. 10:5, this may very possibly be a shortened reference to “The way [of the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee] of the Gentiles” from Isa. 9:1 that Jesus used to refer to the region of Galilee, including the disciples’ home towns of Nazareth and Capernaum (Mt. 4:12-15). If so, then the disciples have been sent away from Galilee. Galilee was considered a Gentile city anyway, so aside from Mt. 4, they were probably sent away from Galilee (unless you argue that they could have gone to Jewish households within Gentile cities, although Jesus’ use of hODON EQNWN “way of Gentiles” and POLIN SAMARITWN “city of Samaritans” seems to exclude whole areas and cities.
    (3) Doesn’t sending out typically imply that the sender is not going with the ones he sends?
    (4) The parallel passage in Luke 10 has the disciples returning to Jesus to report back to him. On the other hand, Luke 10 also includes some of Jesus’ preaching from Mt. 11 in his instructions to the disciples.
    (5) Although singular verbs are often used when Jesus is in focus even though the disciples are also doing the same action with him, Matthew 11:1 does not include any additional mention of the disciples as we see elsewhere. Also, the context of Matthew 11:1 is unique in that the most readily understood implication is that Jesus and the disciples are separating.
    (6) The simplest and most apparent explanation of Mt. 11:1 is that the AUTWN “of them” refers back to the closest plural human noun phrase, “the twelve disciples.”
    (7) Among the cities that Jesus visited after he sent the disciples out, it seems that at least Capernaum may be one of them (Mt. 11:23) if not also Korazin and Bethsaida. If we understand Jesus’ words in 11:21-24 to be spoken in one place (although some might argue that this is more like a summary or compendium of what he said in various places), then Korazin and Bethsaida are more easily excluded as possible places where he is located since he addresses both cities at the same time. But when he addresses Capernaum in 11:23, it seems more of a possibility that he is now turning to address the town he is currently in. Even if he’s not there, however, it is most likely that he is addressing these woes to Korazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum within relative proximity to them in the region.
    (8) If I remember correctly, I think it was Iver Larson who was doing a pretty thorough study of the possible use of indefinite ‘they’ in Greek. That’s very common in languages of Papua New Guinea, but I don’t think that’s a real good possibility here in Mt. 11:1. Wayne, I’d be interested to know what other verses you have seen in Matthew that have uses of ‘they’ and ‘their’ that don’t match our English usage.

  14. Iver Larsen says:

    Bzephyr said:
    (8) If I remember correctly, I think it was Iver Larson who was doing a pretty thorough study of the possible use of indefinite ‘they’ in Greek. That’s very common in languages of Papua New Guinea, but I don’t think that’s a real good possibility here in Mt. 11:1. Wayne, I’d be interested to know what other verses you have seen in Matthew that have uses of ‘they’ and ‘their’ that don’t match our English usage.

    Iver responds: One of several indefinite uses of “they” – recognized by several translations – is found In Mat 1:23:
    KJV: and they shall call his name Emmanuel
    RSV: and his name shall be called Emmanuel
    NLT96: and he will be called Immanuel
    NLT04: and they will call him Immanuel
    GNB: and he will be called Immanuel

    The use of the third person plural for an indefinite reference is common in Hebrew, and therefore also common in parts of the NT influenced by Hebrew. However, it is also used in Greek as it is in English. But Wayne is right, that we cannot assume that English can use the indefinite “they” in the same contects that Hebrew and Greek can use it.

    Another aspect is that third person pronouns are often used to refer to main participants in a story. I would therefore think that “their” in Mat 11:1 does not refer to the disciples, but to the main recipients of the preaching of Jesus and the disciples, that is the Jews (Mat 10:6 the lost sheep of Israel), especially those in Galilee.

    Iver Larsen

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