Thanks for all the comments on my preceding post. You are alert readers. You caught that the issue had to do with whether or not I was referring to a specific tree in my made-up paragraph. (BTW, I did go moose-hunting with my father. I forget how old I was the last time he took me. I know I was big enough to help him pack out the carcass. But I was still fairly small, so I couldn’t carry a very big load.)
The usual pattern for well-formed discourses in English is, as some of you noted, to introduce an item first before we can refer to it with the definite article “the”. For instance, I could have included the following sentence in my moose-hunting story:
There was a tree where we always stopped when we were moose-hunting. It had large branches which could shelter us if there was a sudden downpour of rain.
However, as some of you also noted, English allows for “the” to precede certain other nouns under special conditions. One is if the speaker can assume that the hearer already knows which thing is being talked about, perhaps from previous conversations, or because it is common public knowledge, such as commonly known to everyone who lived in our village.
We properly ask each other in English, “How’s the weather?” We don’t ask, “How’s a weather?” We can safely assume that everyone else knows what we mean by weather.
These days, especially, we may fairly safely talk to someone about “the” national debt, without having to introduce the concept of a national debt.
For those BBB readers who live under the British monarchy, it is perfectly good English for them to refer to “the queen,” without having to first introduce into their discourse a person who is the current monarch of the U.K. There is only one monarch at a time and it is currently a queen. Presumably any resident of the U.K. knows this. Nouns which refer to entities which are assumed to be known as common knowledge can be referred to as definites.
Now, what does this discussion about English “the” have to do with Bible translation? It is on my mind these days because I am nearing the end of my check of the CEB sampler of the Gospel of Matthew. It has impressed me how often in the CEB a noun is marked with “the” as definite (already known to the author and assumed by the author to be known by his audience) when I am unable to find evidence that that noun was introduced yet in the discourse (typically the length of an episode). That clashes with my understanding of the use of English “the”. But it aligns word-for-word with the presence of the Greek definite article before its noun.
Usually this phenomenon occurs with the noun phrase “the house”, as in CEB Matt. 9:28, 13:36, 17:25, 24:43 (UPDATE: only the first instance in CEB 24:43 of “the house”). Notice how 9:27-28 reads:
I don’t know which house in all of Palestine Jesus entered on this occasion, or any of the other occasions I have listed where a problematical “the house” occurs. (The issue is not for every instance of “the house” in Matthew, only where a specific house has not yet been introduced into the discourse).
The Greek text has ten okian, for which the default literal translation would be “the house,” and so the CEB translation has “the house.” I have checked other English versions and several follow the same practice of translating the Greek noun phrase with the definite article with an English noun phrase with the definite article “the.” (For Matt. 9:28 these other versions include KJV, RSV, ESV, NASB, and NET.) Matching the Greek definite article with the English definite article makes sense for doing word-for-word translation. But it needs to be questioned if we are attempting to translate all levels of meaning, including pragmatic meaning, discourse meaning, referential meaning, etc.
I have been wondering why Matthew marked these instances of “house” with a definite article. I have not come up with any satisfactory answer. I am assuming that in all of Jesus travels around Palestine while he was teaching, he did not always teach in the same house, a house whose identity was known to Matthew and assumed by Matthew to also be known to his readers.
If I were translating the particular passages in question in Matthew, I would have to translate the phrases with “house” as “a house”, following English rules of introduction of new entities in discourse, in the absence of any other evidence to cause me to believe that it was a specific house known to the author and his hearers.
Note how the translators of the following versions handle this issue of definiteness or indefiniteness of the house mentioned (Matt. 9:27-28):
When Jesus left that place, two blind men followed him. They shouted, “Have mercy on us, Son of David.” Jesus went into a house (GW)
When he had gone indoors, the blind men came to him (NIV, TNIV)
Jesus left that place, and as he walked along, two blind men started following him. “Have mercy on us, Son of David!” they shouted. When Jesus had gone indoors, the two blind men came to him (TEV/GNB)
As Jesus was walking along, two blind men began following him and shouting, “Son of David, have pity on us!” After Jesus had gone indoors (CEV)
As he went on from there Jesus was followed by two blind men, shouting, ‘Have pity on us, Son of David!’ When he had gone indoors they came to him, and Jesus asked, ‘Do you (REB)
When Jesus was leaving there, two blind men followed him. They cried out, “Have mercy on us, Son of David!” After Jesus went inside, the blind men went with him. (NCV)
After Jesus left the girl’s home, two blind men followed along behind him, shouting, “Son of David, have mercy on us!” They went right into the house where he was staying (NLT)
By the way, it is well known to students of Greek that Greek marks more nouns with the definite article than English does. One of the most famous instances, one which is debated by theologians, is John 1:1 where a rigorous word-for-word kind of translation would require a wording like:
In beginning was the god and the word was with the god and god was the word.
Since Greek word order is pragmatically determined, not syntactically determined, as is much of English,, the final clause can be re-ordered as “the word was god” or “the word was a god” or “the word was divine”. (Please, this is not the place to argue about the divinity of Christ from this verse. I can assure you who wonder, from what I have just written, that I do believe in the divinity of Christ. I am only referring objectively here to legitimate translation possibilities for the Greek. Please do not address the issue of the divinity of Christ in the Comments to this blog post. Such comments will be off-topic for this post and I will have to delete them.)
The point of referring to the Greek of John 1:1 is that the words for “god” (“God) as well as the word for “word” (Word, Logos) are marked as with the Greek definite articles, except, of course, for the final instance of “god”. Yet we never find word-for-word English Bible versions translating the word for “God” for this verse as “the god”. I assume that Greek theos is marked with the definite article because Matthew is a monotheist and assumes that his readers are, as well. In other words, there is for them, just one “god” (God). (Yes, I am a monotheist, as well!)
Again, in summary, I do not know why Matthew refers to “the” house several times in his gospel. Perhaps some of you might know why and can comment on this. I do know that if Jesus stayed and/or taught in more than one house and if this plurality of houses is noted throughout Matthew’s gospel, there is a mismatch between the Greek and English discourse patterns for marking definiteness.
I guess, in conclusion, I would have to say that I am indefinite about the Greek definite in some cases! How about you?