1 Cor 13:7 – the language of love

One of the most famous and beloved passages in the NT is 1 Cor 13. I have been digging into the Greek text of verse 7 recently and thought I might share my thoughts with you.

The Greek words are: πάντα στέγει, πάντα πιστεύει, πάντα ἐλπίζει, πάντα ὑπομένει.
RSV provides a fairly literal translation: Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

The verse is poetic in two ways: the rhetorical repetition of πάντα (panta) – all things or everything or all the way and a chiasm. Let me explain the chiasm.
The Greek word στέγει (stegei) is very close in meaning to ὑπομένει (hupomenei), so the first and last words are close. Similarly the word for believe and hope are close in meaning, so the two middle words correspond to each other.

στέγω only occurs 4 times in the NT and all in Paul’s letters. Let us look at them:
1 Cor 9:12 – we endure everything (NET), we put up with anything (NIV)
1 Cor 13:7 – bears all things (NET), always protects (NIV)
1 Th 3:1 – we could bear it no longer (NET), we could stand it no longer (NIV)
1 Th 3:5 – I could bear it no longer (NET), I could stand it no longer (NIV)

I like the NIV idiom ”I cannot stand it”. This idiom is mainly used in a negative construction, I believe, so for the positive usage NIV says ”we put up with anything.” Why NIV did not also say ”Love puts up with anything” in v. 7 I do not know. It would be consistent with 9:12 and give the meaning nicely. Why did they use ”protect” and why say ”always” instead of ”everything” or “anything”? Paul commonly used the standard word for always (pantote). I can only guess the reason for the NIV rendering. My guess is that it was to forestall possible misuses of the text. Because we have a long tradition of pretty unreadable Bible translations, Bible readers, including pastors, cannot stand to read many verses at a go before they get tired. Maybe that is one reason for their habit to take one or two verses out of context and meditate or preach on them. The result is often some strange teaching and ideas. Of course, we are not to ”put up with everything” in every situation. But this text talks about the characteristics of love. It must be set in the context of a relationship between people, especially the context of a natural and spiritual family. PANTA – everything/all things is a rhetorical hyperbole, it does not literally and absolutely mean everything, but it does mean a lot. A loving person puts up with a lot that an unloving person would not put up with. Another reason for the NIV may be that a text is supposed to be read aloud, and ”Love bears everything” might possibly be understood when spoken as ”Love bares everything.” Or maybe ”bear” is just too old-fashioned English?

The final word ὑπομένω (hupomenw) means to endure something, to stay put when others might have left. These words describe love very well, including the relationship between husband and wife. If I have love, I can put up with (almost) everything in my spouse, and I will stay put in the relationship through difficult times.

The two middle words are πιστεύω (pisteuw) and ἐλπίζω (elpizw). PISTEUW can have a semantic frame with three participants or with two. When pisteuw has three participants, it means that A entrusts P to G.
We see this in John 2:24 IHSOUS OUK EPISTEUEN AUTON AUTOIS – Jesus was not entrusting him(self) to them. Jesus is Agent, him(self) is Patient and AUTOIS is the Goal/Direction. It is normal for the semantic Patient to be encoded with the accusative case and the Goal with the Dative case or a preposition such as EIS and occasionally EN or EPI, and this is how PISTEUW is used.

In many instances of this verb, the Patient is not expressed openly, but assumed, and in that case it refers to the same person as the Agent. In John 3:15 we find hO PISTEUWN EN AUTWi and the next verse has the variation with the same meaning hO PISTEUWN EIS AUTON. John 4:21 has PISTEUE MOI – entrust (yourself) to me. This is the same as “put your trust in me” or “believe in me.”

This tri-valent APG verb is sometimes used in the middle-passive. One of the functions of passive is to make the Agent (or Goal) implicit. Usually the Patient takes over the subject slot in a passive construction, but in some cases the Goal can also be subject in Greek.
1 Cor 9:17 OIKONOMIAN PEPISTEUMAI – a stewardship has been entrusted to me or: I have been entrusted with a stewardship. Implied/assumed Agent is God, Patient (accusative) is OIKONOMIAN and Goal is me, expressed as subject.
Gal 2:7 PEPISTEUMAI TO EUAGGELION – the gospel has been entrusted to me (also 1 Th 2:4)
1 Tim 1:11 TO EUAGGELION…hO EPISTEUQHN EGW – the gospel which has been entrusted to me. (also Tit 1:3)
Rom 3:2 EPISTEUQHSAN TA LOGIA TOU QEOU – The words of God were entrusted to them. The implicit Agent is God, the Patient is TA LOGIA TOU QEOU and the Goal is represented by the plural subject – they/them.

Now, the verb PISTEUW can also have only two participants with the meaning “accept as true”. In this case, we have the Agent (or Experiencer) and the Patient (object). The Patient can be in the form of a clause introduced by hOTI (that) or it can be an infinitive (or participle) with accusative or it can be a noun that stands for a statement.
Mat 9:28 PISTEUTE hOTI DUNAMAI TOUTO POIHSAI – Do you accept as true that I am able to do this?
John17:9 (+21) EPISTEUSAN hOTI SU ME APESTEILAS – They accepted as true that you have sent me.
John 11:27 EGW PEPISTEUKA hOTI SU EI hO CRISTOS hO hUIOS TOU QEOU – I have accepted as true that you are the Messiah, the Son of God.
Acts 8:37b (v.l.) PISTEUW TON hUION TOU QEOU EINAI TON IHSOUN CRISTON – I accept as true that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.
Jn 11:26 PISTEUEIS TOUTO – Do you accept this as true?
Rom 14:2 hOS PISTEUEI FAGEIN PANTA – he who accepts as true that he can eat anything.
1 Cor 13:7 PANTA PISTEUEI – it (love) accepts all things as true

Quite often the verb is used without any object or prepositional phrases, and in such cases there is no way to know whether it is the tri-valent verb “entrust” or the di-valent verb “accept as true”. Context will usually clarify it, but not always.

So, “accept everything as true” shows the attitude of love. You accept that this other person (husband, wife, child, etc.) speaks the truth and can be trusted. It does not mean that we are to accept and believe every wind of doctrine that comes our way. The accusative object “everything” indicates that this is not a matter of believing in God or Jesus, but of accepting as true what the other person is saying.

ἐλπίζω (elpizw – hope) can be used with a semantic Goal in the dative case or a preposition like EIS (towards), e.g. John 5:45 ”Moses, in whom you have placed your hope.” (NET). Also 2 Cor 1:10, 1 Pet 3:5. Sometimes EPI (on) is used as in Rom 15:12 ”The root of Jesse will come, and the one who rises to rule over the Gentiles, in (EPI) him will the Gentiles hope.” (NET). Also 1 Tim 4:10, 5:5, 6:17, 1 Pet 1:13. Or an EN (in) can be used as in 1 Cor 15:19 and Php 2:19 ”I hope in the Lord Jesus” (KJV has trust here – I place my hope and trust in Jesus).

However, in most cases ἐλπίζω (elpizw) has the two semantic participants Agent and Patient (object). This object may be a clause introduced by hOTI (that) or it may be a noun that stands for something that you can hope and expect will happen.

In 1 Cor 13:7, the two words hope and believe are parallel in the sense that they are both used with an object (Patient). Love accepts everything as true and hopes for everything. A relationship has hopes and aspirations, but these hopes require acceptance and love to be realized.

A scary ghost in your grammar book

Some folks are celebrating Halloween right now. So I thought I would mention a scary creature that many people claim to have seen but which actually does not exist.

English grammar books like to talk about “prepositions” as if they are real like rocks and water. But prepositions are more like light, sometimes wave and sometimes particle.

For example:

“The teacher looked over my essay.”

Can you find the preposition? According to the textbook it’s over. But in this sentence over is actually a part of the verb phrase looked over.

Over could only be a “preposition” if I wrote something and the teacher looked beyond what I had written, maybe at a pastoral scene outside the window.

The easiest way to see that over isn’t a preposition is by substitution.

  1. The teacher looked over my essay.
  2. The teacher read my essay.
  3. The teacher destroyed my essay.
  4. The teacher laughed at my essay.

In cases 1. and 4. the “preposition” is an intrinsic part of the verb phrase. A couple ungrammatical examples show why:

  1. * The teacher looked my essay.
  2. * The teacher liked over my essay.

There are some cases that we really want to call prepositions. But they’re not. Here’s an example:

  1. The dog ran to the door.
  2. The dog ran away.
  3. The dog ran quickly.

We’ve all been taught that to the door is a prepositional phrase. But this just isn’t a helpful way of describing English. As you can see in the dog examples, to the door can be substituted by all sorts of things. And not one of them is a “prepositional phrase.” It’s far better to simply call all those chunks of language “adverbial phrases” and leave it at that.

In my opinion, “prepositional phrase” is an unhelpful grammatical category. It doesn’t give us any insight into the nature of the phrase itself and why and how it is being used.

In summary, “prepositions” are either an optional part of a verb phrase or an optional part of an adverbial phrase.

Repeat after me: “There is no such thing as a prepositional phrase.”

P.S. I think all clauses can be described with only three constituents: nouns, verbs and adverbs.

Genitives and the semantics of love and faith

The question is often asked: ”Is this genitive an objective or a subjective genitive?” I am going to suggest that this is an old-fashioned and unhelpful question, which can lead to questionable conclusions. It is based on the grammatical concepts of subject and object and it was asked long before people started to talk about semantics.

I am saying it is unhelpful, because it is too restricted. In terms of syntax there are three kinds of potential participants in a clause. They are best illustrated with a common ditransitive verb like ”give”. A gave B to C. A is subject, B is object and C is indirect object. In terms of semantics for ”give”, A would be the Agent, B the Patient and C the recipient. In semantics we operate with a bigger set of roles, including Experiencer, Location, Source, Goal, Direction, Instrument, Beneficiary, Recipient. Different theories of semantics operate with slightly different sets and the borderline between the roles are at times fuzzy.

Sometimes people ask about a phrase like ”the love of God”, is it a subjective or objective genitive? But quite often it is neither.  In a clause like ”I love you”, it is more interesting to ask what are the semantic roles than what is subject or object. Is the subject an Agent? Is ”love” an action? Or a feeling or an attitude? It seems to me that the subject expresses the role of Experiencer. This semantic role is somewhere in-between Agent and Patient, probably closer to Patient. When I say ”I am in love”, or ”I love you” I am describing my feelings, not my actions. So, if the grammatical subject is Experiencer, what is behind the grammatical object? I would suggest the role to be a Goal or Direction. My love is directed towards ”you”. Similarly, in the phrase ”the love of God”, God might be the Direction (A loves God) or the Experiencer (God loves A) or the Source (love from God).

The Greek verb πιστεύω is usually translated by ”believe” or ”trust”. A few times it corresponds to ”entrust”.  In the sense of ”entrust” it may take an accusative direct object and a dative indirect object in Greek (e.g. John 2:24, Luke 16:11), but it never has an accusative object in the common sense of ”believe, trust”. I suggest that the subject is best described as Experiencer and the ”object” for belief is the semantic Direction. The Direction can be expressed in different ways in the grammar.  The most common Greek preposition used is εἰς, and this is understandable since εἰς indicates Direction. A quite rare preposition with πιστεύω is the Greek ἐν (Mark 1:15, John 3:15).  In Koine Greek a prepositional phrase with ἐν is often equivalent to a simple dative, and we find that the ”object” for faith is often expressed in the dative, especially if it is a pronoun. This is understandable since the dative is often connected with the semantic roles of Direction, Goal and Beneficiary.  It is common to have a mismatch between semantic roles and grammatical cases. One case may correspond to several roles, and one role may correspond to several cases or prepositions. Another preposition used with this verb is ἐπί (Matt 27:42; Luk 24:25; Acts 9:42, 11:17; 16:31, 22:19,; Rom 4:24,9:33, 10:11; 1Tim 1:16; 1Pet 2:6). Again, ἐπί with accusative often indicates Direction or Goal.

Now, when a noun is used rather than a verb, all semantic roles are made implicit and must be deduced from context. In order to indicate at least one of the roles, another noun or pronoun is often connected to the first noun by way of a genitive construction. The genitive in itself does not determine whether the second noun functions as Experiencer or Direction. In the case of a genitive pronoun, we find the following:

1st person singular: faith in me (Jesus speaking) – Rev 2:13, my faith – Rom 1:12

1st person plural: our faith – 1Jn 5:4 (once in NT)

2nd person singular: your faith – Matt 9:22 etc. (11 times in the NT)

2nd person plural: your faith – (24 times in NT)

3rd person singular: his faith – (Rom 4:5), faith in him – (Eph 3:12)

3rd person plural: their faith – (4 times in NT)

In each and every case the Direction for this faith is Jesus or God. Only two places do we have the pronoun in the role of Direction. That all the others are what is traditionally called ”subjective genitive” has nothing to do with the grammar or semantics, but is what is to be expected pragmatically. Faith is assumed in these contexts to be faith in Jesus and different people can have faith. In a few cases the role of Direction is explicit by way of a prepositional phrase, e.g. ἐν (1 Cor 2:5, Col 1:4), εἰς (1 Pet 1:21; Col 2:5) and πρός (1 Th 1:8), but it is rarely necessary to make this explicit.

If we look at those cases where no pronoun or genitive is involved, we find the same three prepositions (εἰς, ἐν and ἐπὶ) used to indicate the Direction role:

Acts 24:24 περὶ τῆς εἰς Χριστὸν Ἰησοῦν πίστεως about the faith in/towards Christ Jesus.

Rom 3:25 διὰ [τῆς] πίστεως ἐν τῷ αὐτοῦ αἵματι through (the) faith in his blood

Gal 3:26 διὰ τῆς πίστεως ἐν Χριστῷ Ἰησοῦ through the/our faith in Christ Jesus

2 Tim 3:15 διὰ πίστεως τῆς ἐν Χριστῷ Ἰησοῦ though a faith that is in/towards Christ Jesus

Heb 6:1 πίστεως ἐπὶ θεόν faith in God

We found with the verb form that the dative case was used more often than a prepositional phrase, and in the case of a noun plus genitive we find that a genitive is also more common than a preposition.

These cases are somewhat debated, because it is a matter of context whether the genitive indicates Experiencer or Direction or even Source. One would need to look carefully at the context, and I am only giving references here:

Mark 11:22 πίστιν θεοῦ – probably faith in God (possibly Source)

Rom 3:22 διὰ πίστεως Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ – probably through faith in Jesus Christ

Rom 3:26 πίστεως Ἰησοῦ – probably faith in Jesus

Rom 4:12  πίστεως τοῦ πατρὸς ἡμῶν Ἀβραάμ – the faith of our father Abraham

Rom 4:16 πίστεως Ἀβραάμ – the faith of Abraham

Gal 2:16 διὰ πίστεως Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ, καὶ ἡμεῖς εἰς Χριστὸν Ἰησοῦν ἐπιστεύσαμεν – through faith in Jesus Christ, and WE have come to believe in Christ Jesus.

Gal 3:22 ἵνα ἡ ἐπαγγελία ἐκ πίστεως Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ δοθῇ τοῖς πιστεύουσιν – so that the promise based on faith in Jesus Christ could be given to those who believe (in him)

Php 1:17 τῇ πίστει τοῦ εὐαγγελίου – probably a genitive of Source, the faith that is contained in and brought by the Good News

Php 3:9 μὴ ἔχων ἐμὴν δικαιοσύνην τὴν ἐκ νόμου ἀλλὰ τὴν διὰ πίστεως Χριστοῦ, τὴν ἐκ θεοῦ δικαιοσύνην ἐπὶ τῇ πίστει – not having a righteousness of my own which is based on (keeping) the law, but the (righteousness) that (comes) through (having) faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on (us having) faith (in Christ)

Col 2:12 διὰ τῆς πίστεως τῆς ἐνεργείας τοῦ θεοῦ – through faith in the (powerful) operation/working of God

Rev 14:12 οἱ τηροῦντες τὰς ἐντολὰς τοῦ θεοῦ καὶ τὴν πίστιν Ἰησοῦ – those who keep/hold on to the commands of God and the/their faith in Jesus.

As can be expected, when the genitive refers to a person (like Abraham), the genitive indicates the Experiencer (”subjective genitive”), and where the faith is directed towards Jesus or God or an activity of God then we have the role of Direction.

Some people have argued that a ”subjective genitive” is possible in some of these constructions as long as we understand πίστις to refer to ”faithfulness” rather than ”faith”. Normally ”faithfulness, trustworthiness” is expressed by the adjective πιστός, but πιστός can occasionally also mean ”a believer” and πίστις can at times mean ”faithfulness”. There is one genitive construction where the context demands this sense, namely Rom 3:3:

εἰ ἠπίστησάν τινες, μὴ ἡ ἀπιστία αὐτῶν τὴν πίστιν τοῦ θεοῦ καταργήσει;

If some were unfaithful, surely their unfaithfulness does not obliterate God’s faithfulness. Here the contrast is between the unfaithfulness of people and the faithfulness of God, a common topic in the Old Testament.  The faithfulness of God is not a common topic in the NT, because that is assumed to be a known fact. When the writer wants to remind the hearers of God’s faithfulness, the adjective πιστός is used. I have only found two places where the faithfulness of Jesus is being mentioned (Heb 3:2, Rev 1:5)

The absence of the historical present in translations of John 13

In the samples below I’ve colored the verbs in order to show how different verb tenses are being used by John.

I’m only focusing on three verb tenses:


This opening section contains background information, so most of the verbs are PERFECT and AORIST. One thing I notice here is that there seems to be a pattern of PURPLE – RED – RED … I would expect this in a background section where the PERFECT sets the time with relation to the main event, and the AORIST continues within the timeframe of the PERFECT.

john13 1-3

In this next section, the action proper begins. The narrative begins with PRESENT and then AORIST. The pattern here is GREEN – GREEN – RED – RED … This pattern seems to reflect the narrative structure in which event complexes are being grouped together using PRESENT and AORIST. This PRESENT should strike you as slightly strange. If you have a look at the English glosses you can see that it looks like the narrator is talking about something in the present moment. But we know that this is referring to something in the past. This is a marked usage of the present tense, usually referred to as “historical present.” Historical present is often said to add vividness or immediacy to a narrative. I’m not sure that’s the case. It seems that if you didn’t know these verbs were in “present” tense you would think they were just in another form of past tense.

john13 4-7

There’s a lot of really interesting stuff going on here. The interaction between “says” and “answered” is more complex than it seems on the surface.  Verse six is especially interesting. Jesus “comes” and then Peter “says.” After that Peter is PRESENT and Jesus is AORIST. What’s going on there? I suspect it has something to do with activation of participants. In verse six, the major participant switches from Jesus to Peter. Only in verse ten does Jesus take control of the conversation again, signaled by the historical present. That’s just my theory. I welcome any more reasonable explanations.

john13 9'10

Now, my question is, “How do English translations handle the historical present?” You’ll have to go back to the King James to find evidence of the historical present although the translators missed one of the historical presents:

He riseth from supper, and laid aside his garments; and took a towel, and girded himself.

To be consistent, “laid aside” should be “lays aside.”

Here are several other translations of verse four:

1 2 3 4 5

rose from supper. He laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist.

So he got up from the supper table, set aside his robe, and put on an apron.

rose from supper, laid aside his garments, and girded himself with a towel. So he got up from the table, took off his robe, wrapped a towel around his waist, so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist.

As you can see, none of the other translations seems to reflect the historical present. In fact, with the exception of “taking a towel” in translation 1, all the translations just use a flat narrative past tense. I suspect there is no error here, only a reflection of common English usage. Still I’d be curious if anyone could argue for a more complex narrative structure in English in order to bring out something of the drama of this text in Greek.

I’ve looked at historical present for John 4, 9 and 13 and the results seem to generally line up with what I’ve shown here.

What do you think about the historical present? Are we missing something in our English translations by not reflecting this feature of the source text?

Note 1: If you are color blind or reading this in black and white you should be able to pick out the different verb tenses based on the English glosses.

Note 2: For the purpose of our discussion I have ignored the verb tenses within speech.

Note 3: The Greek texts were produced using BART. A helpful online site for Greek analysis is Greek & Hebrew Reader’s Bible (although it doesn’t let you color individual verb tenses).

Note 4: The English translations cited were: 1=ESV, 2=Message, 3=RSV, 4=NLT, 5=NIV

Who or which?

In current English the relative pronoun “who” refers to humans persons (more broadly, intelligent beings), as in:

  1. I know the athlete who took State in the pole vault.
  2. Women who visit this blog are outnumbered by men.
  3. Angels who help us have important work.

The relative pronoun “which” refers to non-humans persons:

  1. The dog which woke me up with its barking last night belongs to our neighbor.
  2. The ice which built up in the river near us is now all gone.

Yet there are some instances in the KJV where “which” refers to a human person, for example:

  1. And blessed be the most high God, which hath delivered thine enemies into thy hand. And he gave him tithes of all. (Gen. 14:20)
  2. How much more abominable and filthy [is] man, which drinketh iniquity like water? (Job 15:17)
  3. My help cometh from the LORD, which made heaven and earth. (Psalm 121:2)
  4. I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me. (Phil. 4:13)
  5. And the angel which I saw stand upon the sea and upon the earth lifted up his hand to heaven (Rev. 10:6)

At other times the KJV translators used “who” to refer to a human person, as in:

  1. And the children of Israel remembered not the LORD their God, who had delivered them out of the hands of all their enemies on every side (Judges 8:34)
  2. Rest in the LORD, and wait patiently for him: fret not thyself because of him who prospereth in his way, because of the man who bringeth wicked devices to pass. (Ps. 37:8)
  3. As thou knowest not what [is] the way of the spirit, [nor] how the bones [do grow] in the womb of her that is with child: even so thou knowest not the works of God who maketh all. (Eccl. 11:5)
  4. The people answered and said, Thou hast a devil: who goeth about to kill thee? (John 7:21)
  5. For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, who was preached among you by us, [even] by me and Silvanus and Timotheus, was not yea and nay, but in him was yea. (2 Cor. 1:19)

It is jarring to my ears when “which” refers to a human person. How does it impact you?

Does anyone happen to know why “which” was sometimes used in the KJV to refer to a human person? Does anyone know if “which” was acceptable at some stage of the English language for referring to a human person?

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.

mixing apples with apples

My wife and I smile about an anecdote of an elderly lady concerned for the souls of Indians in Mexico. She wrote to a missionary there and asked him to send her a dictionary of one of the languages so that she could translate the Bible into that language. I hope that you smile at this story also. The lady was well-intentioned but did not realize that it takes much more knowledge of a language than access to a dictionary to translate anything into that language, let alone an ancient, complex document such as the Bible.

Before we can translate anything into any language, someone on our translation team must be a fluent speaker of that language. Translation professionals say that it is best that the translator be a native speaker of that language. And, ideally, it should be a native speaker who is considered by their peers to be a good speaker of the language, known to follow the the language patterns (rules) which speakers of that language have developed and used over a long period of time. And it should be someone who has a good sense for composing in the various genres of that language, and able to use the rich storehouse of figurative expressions in the language.

Translation is truly an awesome responsibility for anyone, more so when translating a text so important as that of the Bible. A good translator must be able to resist the pressure of importing syntax and word combinations which are not part of their own language. A good translator need not necessarily have a formal knowledge of the syntactic and lexical rules of their own language, but they need to sense intuitively when those rules are being broken. They must know how to revise improper wordings until they become proper. A good translator recognizes that there is often more than one proper way to word something. A good translator knows the difference between high-level oratorical language and colloquial, slangy language.

Unfortunately, sometimes those who translate the Bible to English lack some of these qualities. They may speak and write English well, but they may not have a good enough intuitive grasp of the language to detect translation wordings which are not part of the grammar of their language. (Here I am using the term grammar in the linguistic sense to refer to all patterns of a language which are followed by its speakers, including sound patterns, syntax, word combinations, and discourse patterns such as proper ways to introduce new characters in a story.)

There are exercises which any of us can do which can help us discover and state explicitly what we already know implicitly about our own language. Let’s try one of these exercises, the search to discover some of the syntax of one of the shortest but most important words in English, the conjunction “and.” Following are a number of sentences which have the word “and.” A sentence may or may not be grammatical. You should be able to discover facts about the grammar of English “and” if you can intuitively sense which sentences are properly worded and which are not. You may never have had this particular exercise in any of your English grammar classes in the past, but you may be able to discover something about the grammar of “and” from these sentence. Try to express what you sense are some rules that you follow for the proper usage of English “and”, as you examine these sentences. You don’t have to use any special terminology to express your grammatical observations. Just tell what you have observed in your own words.

  1. I saw Jeff and Marie at the store yesterday.
  2. I saw my wife and my spouse at the store yesterday.
  3. I like my car and my automobile.
  4. Our son and daughter each have a significant other.
  5. We are students and pupils in Professor Rhodes’ Semantics 451 class.
  6. My wife helps and assists me with the housework.
  7. Pastor Hobbins delivered the homily and sermon at our church this morning.
  8. I like the trousers you have on and the slacks you are wearing.
  9. This morning I washed my car and changed the spark plugs.
  10. My elderly parents are living with us and residing with us.

OK, what observations can you make about what can and cannot be properly joined together with the word “and”?

In our next post we’ll followup with implications for use of the word “and” when translating the Bible to English.