Being Pragmatic about Words

We are having a fascinating discussion about ἀποστέλλω and πέμπω in Apostles and missionaries. I don’t want to slow it down, but one comment on that post brought some thoughts about Pragmatics to mind.

Stephen Beck, here, says, “But for now I did want to ask Mike to consider two verses: John 7:18 and 12:49.”

He who speaks on his own does so to gain honor for himself, but he who works for the honor of the one who sent him is a man of truth; there is nothing false about him.[NIV, 7:18]

For I did not speak of my own accord, but the Father who sent me commanded me what to say and how to say it.[NIV 12:49]

You’d think John would use ἀποστέλλω in both places, wouldn’t you?

At first glance (and second and third) I would think so, too.

But, I think each can be relatively easy to explain (well, “easy” from my perspective, that is 🙂 )

Let me state that my perspective seeks to bring to the surface each word’s pragmatic function in the texts in question. It really doesn’t have as much to do with their precise referents or their relative semantics (though the semantics come into play). It has to do with the impact on the hearer’s interpretive context. It has to do with molding the way we (and they) interpret the words. Your observation–which is a good one in my view–is focused on the semantics. However, it is that focus that (I think) causes people to go down a specific pathway that leads them to questions framed as you have yours. Language, and more specifically, language in use, is more complex than (dare I say) simply semantics. If we analyze the discourse from a pragmatic functional perspective, then (I think) some exegetically relevant observations and conclusions are ready at hand.

Specifically, as I see it, considering the sentences results in:

John 7:18: The story develops to a relative climax.
John 12:49: Jesus’ authority would be overstated (I’m not thinking in theological terms here, but in linguistic ones; that is, it would receive too much focus.)

First, John 7:18.

πέμπω is used in John 7:16, 18, and 28. ἀποστέλλω is used in 29 and 32. πέμπω is then used again in 33.

The use of ἀποστέλλω in 32 refers to the guard sent by the Pharisees; so, let’s set that aside–the discourse relevant features applicable to this discussion revolve around Jesus and not the guard. (Though this rather interestingly pits the Pharisee’s authority against God’s–not a good place to be. More about that in a sec.)

As the pericope develops, the question of where Jesus comes from is developed. That is, it’s initially a πέμπω type of question–it’s solely geographic. However, the building of tension continues until Jesus uses ἀποστέλλω. At that point there’s a strong reaction (vs 30). Note that these are two widely disparate reactions: take him by force and unreserved commitment to him. Both of these are responses to an exercise of authority. The first is the proud, belligerent reaction. The second is the humble, submissive one. But, the important thing to note is that the sense of ‘geography’ changed to one of ‘authority’. As a slight aside, in the English translation, did you (like me) wonder, “What’s up with these two strong reactions? Why the hate? Why the belief?” Our Pragmatic level response to the text differs from how the original readers (and participants in the event) responded. As I see it, that’s a translation problem.

Also note the use of ἄρχων (‘authorities’/’leaders’) in verse 26. I don’t wish to make too fine a point, but the question of who is in charge is clearly portrayed in the background on the canvas of this pericope picture. This “questioning of the Pharisee’s authority” in 26 is picked up again in verse 32–the Pharisees don’t like it. It seems to me, BTW, that verses 25-32 form a chiasmus with the use of ἀποστέλλω pretty close to the middle.

So, basically, it’s a build to climax pericope. Consistent with that is the uses of πέμπω (more general ‘send’) building to the use of ἀποστέλλω (specific type of ‘send’) at a climatic point.

Furthermore, verse 33 starts the next paragraph. Notice the use of οὖν in 33. οὖν is a discourse marker which indicates two things: Development and close thematic proximity to the previous theme. In other words, John indicates to the reader that this new paragraph picks up the theme of the previous one and develops it further. That is, Jesus states, by using ἀποστέλλω in 29, that he has been given a mission. So, his use of πέμπω here in 33, though it’s referring to a change in location, would still keep conceptually alive the ‘mission’ concept in the background of the hearer’s thinking (cognitively, the associated neurons would stay turned on). In fact, it does exactly that, but the crowd misses the meaning (the theme is way too beyond them). John continues (from chapter 6) to build this idea of Jesus being glorified in his resurrection. But, sadly, the crowd can’t think in terms of a resurrected Christ. So, when they wonder, “where is this guy going to go?” they think in terms of a mission; but quite interestingly, it’s a mission to the Gentiles!

Here’s how I would translate 7:29
    I know him. Because I am from him. He’s the one who gave me my mission.

That’s how I see it.

For John 12:49, I see it as Jesus muting the whole authority component. It’s kind of like this. If I say, “I’ve been given the authority to do a job. I’m the envoy. This authoritative sending has..yada…yada…yada.” Pretty soon it’s not about what I’ve come to do; it’s about me talking about my authority. That misses the point. So, in this pericope of John 12, the authority aspect is already there in that it is the Father who is in focus. To use ἀποστέλλω, while consistent with the aspect of the mission, wouldn’t be consistent with the intended focus. It’s about the Father.

For example, if he had used ἀποστέλλω, then the text would read more like this:
Then Jesus cried out, “When a man believes in me, he does not believe in me only, but in the one who gave me the authority to do what I’m doing.”
That subtly shifts the focus from being on God, the Father, to being on Jesus. Jesus goes on to say that when a person sees him (ie Jesus), he’s looking at the Father. And that Jesus is the light so people can really see what they need to look at. So, the whole point is to get people to see the Father. Jesus is the reflector, but the Father is the point. Read the pericope now, I think you’ll see that part of what is being conveyed there is Jesus saying, “It’s not about me; it’s about the Father.”

One could easily argue that using ἀποστέλλω would be more consistent with the theme. However, one can also easily argue that its use would bring too much emphasis to a specific component, in fact, one that can be very easily not emphasized by the use of a different word, namely πέμπω. I lean toward the later.

At least, that’s how I see this one.

12 thoughts on “Being Pragmatic about Words

  1. John Radcliffe says:

    Mike, how do you see this fitting in with the observation that John (1) only uses ἀποστέλλω in the aorist indicative and perfect, and (2) only uses πέμπω in the aorist participle, present and future? (E.g. see the first article that Tony linked to in the other thread.)

    Now I don’t know why John would follow this pattern, but it does suggest that in 7:18 and 12:49 it was his use of an aorist participle that led to the use of πέμπω, rather than it being a semantic choice.

  2. Stephen Beck says:

    Thanks for the lengthy reply! Your presentation of the tone and desired reader-effect does shed an added light onto these passages. I still feel that your interpretation relies on an assumed difference of meaning behind pempw and apostellw which I simply do not have (or rather, one which my experience has not caught me up to) and that I cannot discern from the lexicons available to me (Louw & Nida does not even have a separate entry for apostellw).

  3. Mike Sangrey says:

    ἀποστέλλω is to ἀπόστολος as πέμπω is to _______?

    [Editing my comment: This analogy isn’t exactly what I want. However, it raises the right questions that helps me get at the issue.]

    So, how do you, in Greek, refer to the the one who sends (or like construction)?

    I can’t find a noun that will do that.

    There’s πεμπτός, but that’s more a verbal adjective sent. And, anyway, because of the accent, it’s too easily met with pleading the fifth. LOL

    There’s also πεμπτέος, as in it’s a sending thing, but that adjective doesn’t work where John needed a noun.

    And there’s πέμψις. But, that refers to the activity one is sent on–a mission (interestingly enough).

    This explains the use of the participle. In other words, if an author doesn’t want to raise the authority component to the fore, or the authority component is already cognitively viable and raising it again would stress it, then you have to use the participle of πέμπω. You don’t have a πέμπω-noun that would approximate the English ‘sender’.

    Interestingly, there appears to often be an authority component in the referent of the antecedent to the πέμπω participle. For example, John 4:34: ἵνα ποιήσω τὸ θέλημα τοῦ πέμψαντός με. (…that I should do the will of the one who sent me). Seems to me this could be rendered as “that I should do my sender’s will.”

    The close textual proximity of an authority component would explain why scholars are more recently suggesting the two words are interchangeable, particularly in John. It appears to me, if I may say so, that they are reading the surrounding text into the specific uses of πέμπω. Careful lexicography requires one to keep the meaning of the word separate from the meaning presented by the context. Frankly, I think keeping these meanings separate is difficult to do since, cognitively, the mind builds coherence quite naturally–the mind naturally chunks the text as it digests it. I’m certainly no lexicographer, but I suspect they would concur.

    I’m not sure that’s a complete answer. But, I think that’s the bulk of it.

  4. Mike Sangrey says:

    Stephen wrote: I still feel that your interpretation relies on an assumed difference of meaning behind pempw and apostellw.

    That’s a fair assessment.

    The thing what would cinch it would be doing the same analysis throughout John. If there are no leaks, or the leaks are relatively easily plugged, then I think we’d have it.

    In other words, given our finiteness, all reasoning is eventually circular. I’ve always felt that the way out of that, when dealing with a small set of data (like one pericope), is to build up a network of mutually supporting analyses.

    Anyway, thanks for hanging in.

    Also, for what it’s worth, putting an argument down on paper (or blog) helps me think through it myself. There’s been not a few times when I’ve tried writing a well thought out disagreement only to convince myself the other guy was right. 🙂

  5. Wayne Leman says:

    There’s been not a few times when I’ve tried writing a well thought out disagreement only to convince myself the other guy was right.

    That builds character, doesn’t it?!

  6. Stephen Beck says:

    The thing what would cinch it would be doing the same analysis throughout John. If there are no leaks, or the leaks are relatively easily plugged, then I think we’d have it.

    In other words, given our finiteness, all reasoning is eventually circular. I’ve always felt that the way out of that, when dealing with a small set of data (like one pericope), is to build up a network of mutually supporting analyses.

    Indeed, that was essentially our modus operandi in the course I took on John’s gospel – take a few various theories about different aspects in the book, give a bunch of 20ish year olds a couple commentaries and a witty professor (Jewish nonetheless! Jn 8 was a fun discussion) and see what shakes out.

  7. John Radcliffe says:

    Sorry Mike, on re-reading the other thread I see you did address my question there, by saying (if I understand you correctly) that the semantic differences you see naturally lead to the use of different grammatical forms.

  8. Mike Sangrey says:

    True, John, but I’m still exploring the issues. I think there’s a number of things going on. And I don’t think I’ve answered all the objections.

    For example, I’m convinced (well, currently convinced 🙂 ) that it is quite possible to use the two words “interchangeably.” However, I put interchangeably in quotes because it is not that one can simply substitute the one word for the other. For πέμπω to substitute for ἀποστέλλω requires other semantic components in the surrounding text.

    However, I also don’t think they’re as close to each other as (say) English ‘high‘ and ‘tall‘. That is, we can say, the building is tall and mean the identical thing to the building is high. But, even without the drug association, we can not substitute, the boy is high for the boy is tall.

  9. Mike Sangrey says:

    One other thought I had last night while I was sleeping (actually, waking would be more accurate).

    Using the participle of πέμπω as in the one who sent would be much more common than doing the same thing with ἀποστέλλω simply because the real world works that way. The participle of ἀποστέλλω (in the specific case I’m thinking of) would mean something like, the one who commissioned and sent. That’s a much more specific action and therefore naturally less likely to occur. The concept of commissioning for a specific task and therefore the participial form of ἀποστέλλω, is used in John. See John 1:6.

    There came a man who was sent from God; his name was John.[NIV]

    Here John the Baptist is viewed as someone who has been given a responsibility and the authority to carry it out.

    Interestingly, the phrase παρὰ θεοῦ is used there in a similar way as John 7:29, but the use in 7:29 is much more emphatic. Hmmmm…I think I’ll make a comment in the other thread regarding this.

  10. Mike Sangrey says:

    Wayne asked (rhetorically, probably, but I’ll respond anyway 🙂 )

    That builds character, doesn’t it?!

    Not always. 🙂

    But, it does tend to make one honest. [chuckle].

  11. Stephen Beck says:

    If I may ask a question on similar lines, do you see a similar pragmatism in the word choice of John 20:21? In other words, would you propose as a really drawn-out translation something like “As the Father sent me to the world with authority to do all these things which you witnessed, so likewise I am sending you now to the world to do things, though not with quite the same authority, but rather the Holy Spirit will be with you and guide you, and He will be your authority.” That verse always appealed to me as the linchpin of the whole book, what I saw as a drastic change from repeated (almost redundant) aorist/perfect tense uses to the present tense. If not for the explicitness of 20:31, I might have marked 20:21 as the general purpose statement for the whole gospel.

  12. felipemassote says:

    Dear brothers,
    please allow me to step in.

    Not to raise any issues, for I’m only a layman seeking some knowledge, but to compliment: this discussion has come so deliciously interesting that I left my original question (I was googling the difference between Missionário and Apóstolo – you see, I’m brazilian…) and dived in the matter between *apostélw* and *pémpo*.
    It also made me remove the dust from my little *E KAINE DIATHEKE* and take a look at some verses again.

    Thank you very much for the incentive!
    May the Lord keep blessing, guiding and lighting you all with His passionate love,

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