At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth.
Mark 10:22, NIV
This is a strange little expression. The original Greek is strange (or at least rare). And the history of the use of “face fell” as an idiomatic expression for, “become sad or gloomy” is really weird.
Let’s begin with the English expression and work back toward the Greek expression.
Here’s what the ngram chart looks like for the words “face fell”:
The expression was almost unheard of until around 1860 when it began to ascend in use until it peaked at the beginning of the 20th century. Then it slowly began to decline in usage until around 1980 where it turned around and started being used again. After about 2000 it ascended very rapidly.
In the early part of the 20th century the expression seemed to have two main uses:
- to rest your head, usually on someone’s shoulder.
- to change the expression of your face showing sadness or a sense of impending calamity.
Starting in the 1980’s examples seem to be mostly about the second sense. I haven’t looked at it in depth but that seems to be the general trend.
This brings up a big question: Why did “face fell” rise? Could the NIV translation, first released in 1973 and 1978 have exerted an influence on writers who began to use the expression in their own writing? I suppose it’s possible.
I had always assumed that there was some Greek expression behind this that caused the NIV translators to use this expression. But all the English translations that predate NIV simply say something like, “Hearing this, he was sad.”
So we have a translation mystery here. Why would the NIV translators use an uncommon idiom to translate the original expression in Greek? NIV was so influential that when NLT came out they used the same expression. WEB translation is also guilty of following the NIV.
Interestingly, RSV connects this passage to Genesis 4:5-6 using “countenance fell” in both passages.
What is the Greek then? στυγνος is a very uncommon verb in Greek occurring only twice in the New Testament. The first example we’ve already mentioned. The second example is in Matthew 16:3:
and in the morning, ‘Today it will be stormy, for the sky is red and overcast.’ You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times.
Matthew 16:3, NIV
A related adjective in Titus 3:3 is translated “being hated.”
At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures. We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another.
AT Robertson defines the verb, “sombre, gloomy, like a lowering cloud” in an attempt perhaps to connect the passages from Matthew and Mark.
Well, my face has fallen because I haven’t been able to solve the question of why this expression was used in the NIV or why it surged in usage in the late 20th century. But even so these kinds of studies rock my face off*. I hope you enjoyed it, too.
* “You rock my face off” has only appeared in the 21st century. It means, “I think you’re terrific.”
Some of the tools I found useful for looking at this topic are:
http://bible.cc (For parallel translations)
http://www.biblestudytools.com/ (For interlinearizations, Greek and AT Robertson’s Word Pictures of the New Testament)
http://ngrams.googlelabs.com/ (For usage of the expression “face fell” over the years)
http://quod.lib.umich.edu/r/rsv/browse.html for the RSV.