Monday, December 12, 2011

John 8:58 - Word Order and Verb Tenses, Part Two

In Part 1, we discussed how word order plays a role in translating Koine Greek into English, specifically in John 8:58. We then compared several verses with syntax that is similar to John 8:58. These verses began with a dependent clause with some kind of temporal indicator referring to past time, which was then followed by the main subject and verb of the sentence. It was found that most of the time, the word order was re-arranged to reflect natural English usage in the popular translations, and that in every instance the Greek Present Tense verb was not translated into the English Present Tense, but with the English Present Perfect (translating "is/am" into "has/have been"). Why is this? Why do the popular English translations not hesitate to translate a Greek Present Tense verb with something other than the English Present Tense? And what is more, why do some criticize the New World Translation for doing the exact thing in John 8:58?

The Differences in Verb Tenses between Greek and English

Languages are not codes that have a direct one-to-one correspondence, and this is true when it comes to the different verb tenses between Greek and English. In particular, Greek and English verbs handle time differently. Without getting too technical, verbs convey both time and aspect. Time refers to when the action of the verb takes place, such as the past, present, or future. Aspect refers to the type of action taking place, such as continuous action versus simple action. English verbs tend to stress the time when the action of the verb takes place. But in Greek, time is secondary, and it is primarily the aspect that is stressed. This is a simplification, but remember that in Greek verbs, time is secondary. One result of this is that a Greek verb in the Present Tense can actually be describing action that doesn't occur in the present, but in the past or the future. 

Let us briefly go over a few functions of the Greek Present Tense so as to better understand this. First we will look at the obvious use of the Greek Present Tense: a verb occurring in the present time. One particular function is called the Progressive Present. The Progressive Present emphasizes continuous action occurring in the present. If visualized, it looks like this:

The Greek Present Tense:
The Progressive Present

Here is an example of a Progressive Present:

αἱ λαμπάδες ἡμῶν σβέννυνται - Matthew 25:8
ai lampades emon sbennuntai - Transliteration
the lamps of-us are-extinguishing - Interlinear translation
"Our lamps are going out." - NIV

This is straightforward and intuitive, so let's move on. Sometimes the Greek Present Tense is used to describe events occuring in the past or future. Greek's Historical Present is a use of the Present Tense verb used to describe vividly a past event, as if to put the reader in the scene. Visualized, it looks like this:

The Greek Present Tense:
Historical Present

Here is a verse with two instances of the Historical Present:

Τῇ ἐπαύριον βλέπει τὸν Ἰησοῦν ἐρχόμενον πρὸς αὐτὸν καὶ λέγει· ἴδε ὁ ἀμνὸς τοῦ θεοῦ - John 1:29
Te epaurion blepei ton Iesoun erkhomenon pros auton kai legei· ide o amnos tou theou - Transliteration
To-the morrow he-is-seeing the Jesus coming towards him and he-is-saying: look the lamb of-the God - Interlinear translation
"The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, 'Look, the Lamb of God.' " - NIV

The Historical Present is almost always translated with the English Past Tense in English translations. Even Young's Literal Translation uses the English Past Tense in this verse.

Another use of the Greek Present Tense is the Futuristic Present. It is commonly used to vividly describe a future event. Visualized, it looks like this:

The Greek Present Tense:
Futuristic Present

Here is an example of the Futuristic Present:

ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ ἀνθρώπου παραδίδοται εἰς χεῖρας ἀνθρώπων - Mark 9:31
o uios tou anthropou paradidotai eis kheiras anthropon - Transliteration
the son of-the man is-being-betrayed into hands of-men - Interlinear translation
"The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into the hands of men." - NIV

The Greek Present Tense can describe action that occurs in the past, present, or future. Greek grammars confirm this fact. If a Greek Present Tense verb is describing action as happening in the time other than the present, then an accurate translation should convey that meaning into English with the appropriate English tense. The meaning of the Greek should be conveyed accurately into English, and using a strict interlinear translation can alter the thought, which would itself then be an inaccurate translation.

Why such a long discussion on the various time functions of the Greek Present Tense? Because one of the most common arguments against the New World Translation's (NWT) rendering of John 8:58 is that the Greek phrase "I am" is in the Greek Present Tense, and therefore the English translation should be in the English Present Tense. After the above discussion, it should be clearly seen by a layperson that this reasoning is fallacious, for not all Greek Present Tense verbs are translated into English Present Tense verbs. The simplistic argument collapses because it fails to understand how Greek verbs handle time, and assumes a one-to-one correspondence between Greek and English Verbs. The argument  commits the Dicto Simpliciter logical fallacy, applying a general rule (Present Tense verbs occur in the Present) to a particular case (John 8:58)

Similarly, appealing to an interlinear translation of John 8:58, thereby "proving" that the NWT is inaccurate, is a faulty tactic. All of the other verses compared so far would also be "proven" to be inaccurate using this method. But most major English translations - the work of many Bible scholars - have chosen to render the Greek Present Tense with English tenses other than the Present.

The Greek Present Tense: Extension From Past

There are several other functions of the Greek Present Tense. For example, there is the Gnomic Present, which is timeless, and there is the Perfect Present, which emphasizes the results of an action that occurred in the past. But now we will turn our attention to a function of the Greek Present Tense that has a direct bearing on John 8:58 - the Extension From Past.

Turning to a couple of Greek Grammars, we find this function described this way:

Extension from Past. When used with an expression of either past time or extent of time with past implications (but not in past narrative, for which see 4.2.5), the present tense signals an activity begun in the past and continuing to present time: Lu 13:7 ἰδοὺ τρία ἔτη ἀφ᾽ οὗ ἔρχομαι ζητῶν καρπὸν... καὶ οὐχ εὑρίσκω, it is now three years since I have been coming looking for fruit...and not finding it; Lu 15:29 τοσαῦτα ἔτη δουλεύω σοι, I have been slaving for you all these years; Jn 14:9 τοσούτῳ χρόνῳ μεθ᾽ ὑμῶν εἰμι, have I been with you so long?; Ac 27:33 τεσσαρεσκαιδεκάτην σήμερον ἡμέραν προσδοκῶντες ἄσιτοι διατελεῖτε, today is the fourteenth day you have been continuing on the alert without food; Jn 8:58 πρὶν Ἀβραὰμ γενέσθαι ἐγὼ εἰμι, I have been in existence since before Abraham was born. This is a form of the continuation realization of the imperfective aspect, and similar uses are found with the imperfect tense and with imerfective participles."
--A New Syntax of the Verb in New Testament Greek (1994), Kenneth L. McKay, pages 41-42

Extending-from-Past Present (Present of Past Action Still in Progress)
1. Definition
The present tense may be used to describe an action which, begun in the past, continues in the present. The emphasis is on the present time. Note that this is different from the perfect tense in that the perfect speaks only about the results existing in the present time. It is different from the progressive present in that it reaches back in time and usually has some sort of temporal indicator, such as an adverbial phrase, to show this past-referring element. Depending on how tightly one defines this category, it is either relatively rare or fairly common.
2. Key to Identification
The key to this usage is normally to translate the present tense as an English present perfect.
--Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics (1996), Daniel B. Wallace, pages 519-520

Summarized, the Extension From Past is a Greek Present Tense verb, coupled with an expression of past time or extent of time, indicating that the verb commenced at that earlier period but still continues. Note that Wallace says it is normally translated as the English Perfect Present ("has been"). Visualized, it like this:

The Greek Present Tense:
Extension From Past

All of the verses compared in Part 1 had verbs that were in the Present Tense Extension From Past. They all had an indicator of past time or extent of time that affected the sense of the verb. Try to think like a Koine Greek speaker: the indicator of past or extent of time places the start of the verb at that earlier time, and the continuous aspect of the Greek Present Tense brings the action of the verb up to the present time. Here are visualizations for every verse compared:

 John 14:9
"You have been with me from . . . "

1 John 3:8
"The devil has been sinning from . . . "

John 14:9
"I have been among you such . . . "

Luke 15:29
"I've been slaving for you . . . "

Similarly, John 8:58 has the Greek Present Tense verb εἰμί - I am - coupled with an expression of past time (πρὶν Ἀβραὰμ γενέσθαι, "before Abraham existed"), indicating that Jesus' existence commenced before that time but still continues. The Greek syntax matches the description of the Extension From Past as found in Greek grammars. It matches the syntax of the verses above. McKay quoted above even lists John 8:58 as an example of the Extension From Past. The best way to translate this phrase, using natural English word order and the proper English tense, is:

"I have been in existence since before Abraham was born." -- Kenneth L. McKay

Visualized, it looks like this:

John 8:58
"I have been in existence since before . . . "

In our popular English translations, we find that the translators had no trouble translating the Greek Present Tense verbs in the verses discussed above with the English Perfect Present. All, that is, except John 8:58. Since the syntax is the same, one suspects theological bias and tradition to be the reason for the inconsistency.

As it stands, our popular translations leave John 8:58 as an ultra-literal interlinear translation. They fail to use the correct English tense - the Perfect Present - and they do not use natural English word order.

The Goodspeed translation mentioned in Part 1 renders John 8:58 as:

"I existed before Abraham was born!" - The New Testament: an American Translation (1923)

While Goodspeed used natural English word order, it appears he saw the Greek verb as a Historical Present when he used the simple English Past, "I existed." However, the syntax of John 8:58 matches the description of the Extension From Past, and finds no parallels as a Historical Present in the rest of the Greek New Testament. The basic sense of the verse is retained, but some subtlety is lost. That is, it is not as accurate as is possible for an English translation of John 8:58.

The New World Translation renders John 8:58 this way:

"Before Abraham came into existence, I have been." - NWT

In this instance, the NWT uses the correct English tense to render the verb - the English Perfect Present. But it doesn't use natural word order, although it is still understandable. This could be because one of the translational principles of the NWT translators was "to give as literal a translation as possible, where the modern English idiom allows and where a literal rendition does not for any clumsiness hide the thought." (New World Translation of the Christian Greek Scriptures, Foreword, page 9, 1950). As has been noted before, the NWT's rendering is not technically bad English. But it remains awkward and woodenly literal to the original Greek word order. However, the NWT translators often sacrificed smooth English for the sake of a more strictly literal translation.

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