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Tuesday, August 10, 2004

JB15367-Jas #4: "Rules of Language" 

(15367) Jason BeDuhn [Tue Aug 10, 2004 1:17 am ] (Re: John 8:58 - Jason #4)

Rob,

Thank you for your thorough and searching post. One of the reasons I do these forums is a selfish one: to see where I can improve defects of clarity in my book. One can read a manuscript over and over again, read it aloud to oneself, read it aloud to others, have others read it, and still overlook that the intended communication is imperfect. I know what I mean to say. My manuscript readers assure me they understand what I am saying. Yet the general reader, or the particularly careful critical reader such as yourself does not see what I thought I was saying (and evidently did not successfully say). So I greatly appreciate you uncovering one of these weaknesses in the book that I can now seek to improve. I worked so hard to keep the book slim and simple that sometimes I fall into oversimplification, particularly when it comes to self-evident and common sense knowledge of modern English. It is ironic that more than one of these public forums on an issue in my book has turned more on my facility in explaining English grammar than on my grasp of Greek. But to fairly respond to your points, I am willing to provide a more technical discussion than I thought was suitable for my book (so long as you don't take my prose as a standard of good English!).

I suppose it may be useful here to also see if you and I are on the same page regarding how "rules" of language are determined. There is no authority over the rules of language; it is a matter of common usage. Grammars of a language are post hoc constructions of implicit rules found in practice. The "rules" of English in the time of the KJV are not the same as those of modern English. As one can see by comparing the same passages in modern Bibles which take as primary the nobility and poetics of classical English with other Bibles that are more interested in broad readership and comprehension, the displacement of temporal clauses to a position before the main clause has greatly declined in common English usage. But, going back to the point you made in an earlier post, we must acknowledge the different purposes of these different translations, and not judge them by the same template.

Our current point of disagreement is summed up nicely in your post#3:

I do not agree with your assessment of the conventional rendering of John 8:58 as not being English, or being bad English, or having fractured or broken syntax. And I do not agree that "the only reason" these translations are worded this way "is the mistaken notion that Jesus is quoting Exodus."

We can, I think, agree that that mistaken notion is clearly at work in the NAB, TEV, and AB, since they all capitalize "I Am." But what about the rest?

You are perfectly correct that English generally has the flexibility to place a subordinated adverbial (in this case temporal) clause before the main clause of a complex sentence. This is not the primary standard order in English, but it is acceptable as a variation of style.

Please note that I have said both in my book and in my earlier post that the single weakness of inverting standard subject-verb-predicate complement is not in and of itself enough to judge a translation of John 8:58 faulty, or to provide grounds for charges of bias. It is only the combination of inversion of standard word order with the anomalous tense of English "am" that together gives reason to fault the translation significantly. See the last paragraph of page 110 in my book where I enumerate three anomalies that, stacked one upon the other, build up progressively increasing grounds for suspecting bias; and my post #2 where I say: "In itself, either weakness does not cry out 'bias.' It could just be lame translating. But when there is inconsistency . . . and the weaknesses begin to pile up in a single verse, and there are other clues (such as capitalizing "I Am") to the translators' thinking, then one starts to have grounds for suspecting bias."

You are also correct that in my book I gave weak comparative examples because I failed to include an adverbial complement along with nominal or pronominal complements as examples of typical English word order in sentences with the be-verb.

You have rightly pointed out that in my book I did not seem to note the general flexibility found in modern English in placing subordinate clauses relative to the main verb. I skipped right over that fact, although I shouldn't have, for the simple reason that it this general flexibility of placement of a subordinated predicate complement is not found in connection with the English be-verb. The English be-verb, whether used as a copula or existentially, always has an explicit or implicit predicate complement that completes the idea of the verb. The English be-verb is incomplete without such a complement, whether it be a noun, adjective, or adverb. The English be-verb cannot stand alone without such an explicit or implicit complement as a self-standing meaningful expression, as far as I know. When in modern English we wish to make an existential statement independent of all complement, we abandon the be-verb and resort to some other existential verb, such as "exist." Take the expression sure to leap to everyone's mind here, Descarte's cogito ergo sum. In the English of Descarte's day it was acceptable to translate this as "I think, therefore I am." This is retained in its classical form the same way Shakespeare is preserved in its original form, as an historical artifact. But just as modern English Bibles abandon many characteristics of King James English because they have dropped out of general use, so an expression of Descarte's is no longer considered straightforward contemporary common English, which would render it instead "I think, therefore I exist."

The majority of the excellent examples you provided from the NRSV of preposed temporal clauses do not involve "to be" as the main verb of the sentence (there are three exceptions to which I will return). I would propose that there is a reason for that. In the examples you provide, the subordinate temporal clause is what grammarians call an ADJUNCT to the main clause, because the main verb has sufficient meaning in itself for the main clause to stand alone as the intended meaningful statement, to which the adjunct only adds some sort of supplementary information. But with the be-verb, as in John 8:58, the subordinate temporal clause is what grammarians call a COMPLEMENT to the main clause, that is, it is an internal part of it, directly qualifying the sense of the main verb and completing a meaning that it would not have without such a complement. There are many verbs that have an OBLIGATORY complement, that is, they cannot be used alone without a predicate complement to complete the meaning of the verbal expression. The be-verb is one, and there are several others. For example, you cannot say "She perused." There must be a predicate complement, as in "She perused the report." In this case, as in many others, the complement is a direct object. Other verbs of this type are consist, tend, intend, seem, feel. Many more verbs have obligatory complements when used actively, although they do not require them when used passively, e.g., blame, prove, refer, prefer, send, keep. The English be-verb does not, of course, take a direct object, but requires a predicate noun or adjective when it is used as a copula, or a DEPICTIVE COMPLEMENT such as an adverb when used existentially. This fact of English is stated, for example, in R. Huddleston & G. K. Pullum, The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (Cambridge University Press, 2002), on page 222: "Most obviously, the verb be almost always requires an internal complement." For example, one can say "Jill is in her study" but not "Jill is." One can say "The meeting was on Monday" but not "The meeting was." For the apparently intended meaning of the two unacceptable statements just given, an English speaker resorts to some other existential verb: "Jill exists." "The meeting occurred." The verb "to be" is not employed in modern English in this uncomplemented existential function. The authors of the Cambridge Grammar state that "only a small number of verbs (or verbal idioms) take complements of temporal location; clear examples include: i. be . . ." (page 694). This is precisely the case with John 8:58, where the prin clause is, I think, an obligatory temporal complement to eimi.

This brings us to position within the sentence. Quoting again from the Cambridge Grammar, page 225:

"Complements are more restricted than most adjuncts as to what positions they can occupy in a clause. In general, there is a basic or default position for a given kind of complement, with its occurrence in other positions being permitted only under a limited set of conditions."


The authors go on to add "the preposing construction . . . is relatively unusual" for a complement (while being commonly employed for an adjunct). The preposing construction is what most translations employ in John 8:58. So, for example, you can say "The office is operating independently" but not "Independently the office is operating." You can say "We will make our decision separately" but not "Separately we will make our decision." The English be-verb generally does not take preposed complements. The only exception that I am aware of being locative expressions -- such as "Here I am" or "There she is" -- and when the verb is part of a relative expression with "which" or "that" – such as "in which she is," or "among which you are." In other words, there are a limited number of expressions where the complement is permitted to precede the be-verb in English, and the kind of expression we have in John 8:58 is not one of them.

The exceptions among your examples involving the be-verb are:


1. "BEFORE he had finished speaking, there was Rebekah, who was born to Bethuel son of Milcah, the wife of Nahor, Abraham's brother, coming out with her water jar on her shoulder" (Gen. 24:15). Note that in this example, the "before" clause is an adjunct, not a complement, since "was" is provided with a more immediate complement (the locative "there") for the complete meaningful statement "Rebekah was there." This doesn't help us with the kind of apparently uncomplemented "I am" of John 8:58 as it is commonly translated.

2. "BEFORE the mountains were brought forth, or ever you had formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God" (Ps. 90:2). Note again that that the main clause is a copulative sentence, unlike John 8:58, with a nominal complement to the be verb: "You are God." The "before" clause is an adjunct, not a complement.

3. "For BEFORE those days there were no wages for people or for animals" (Zech. 8:10)

This is the closest parallel to John 8:58, with a typical English existential form supplying a "dummy" complement "there" that allows what would normally being an obligatory depictive complement ("before those days") to be shifted to adjunct status with its relatively greater flexibility of placement. Note that if one does not employ the dummy complement "there," one cannot say "Before those days no wages for people or for animals were" or "Before those days were no wages for people or for animals." A similar case is "How many thousands there are" for lexical Greek "how many thousands are (eisin)" (Acts 21:20)

Now suppose one wants to argue that eimi is meant as an existential absolute, that the prin clause functions not as a verbal complement that completes the meaning of the verb, but only as a verbal adjunct that adds supplementary information to the basic existential claim (like Descarte's "I exist," plain and simple). In that case, modern English normally, usually, and regularly abandons the be-verb and substitutes some other existential verb. In other words, one could then argue that the prin clause can be preposed in English, before the main clause, but only with a different existential verb: "Before Abraham was born, I have existed" or "Before Abraham was born, I have been in existence." This is still inverted order from the primary standard sequence of an English sentence, but it is allowable for emphasis. It does not work with "am" because "am" leads the reader to expect some verbal complement.

A similar set of circumstances is found in Acts 17:28, which reads lexically: "in/by him for we live and move and are." As in John 8:58 we are dealing here with an adverbial complement taking the form of a prepositional phrase or clause which in Greek is preposed to the main verb(s). This is translated fairly literally by the LB: "For in him we live and move and are," whose awkwardness as an English sentence serves to highlight how ungrammatical such a translation is, where the normal word order would be "We live and move and *are in/by him." Note, too that "are" is only retained in English if the expression is understood locatively as "in him" ("we are in him") or "by (that is, `beside') him ("we are by/beside him"). If the prepositional phrase is understood to signify means or agency, "are" is dropped in favor of another existential verb, as in the NW: "For by him we have life and move and exist" (NW). Most translations, in any case, abandon "are" for some other existential expression that works better in English in a sentence of this sort: "For in him we live, and move, and have our being" (KJV, NIV, NRSV, NAB, AB), "For in him we live and move and exist" (NASB, TEV). This reflects the translators seeing the "in/by him"as an adjunct, rather than a complement, to the main verbs, and so taking the be-verb to have an absolute existential meaning, leading them to choose some appropriate existential expression in place of the unacceptable isolated "are." This shows how the be-verb is generally not used in English existential expressions where it would stand in isolation, as at the end of a sentence, because it is seen as incomplete without an immediate depictive qualifier in such a position. Even if seen as an adjunct, however, "in/by him" is not normally preposed to the main verb in modern English prose. So we can see here the strong influence of the KJV on the other translations in retaining a poetic, rather than a prosaic word order. When the translators take the a prepositional phrase as an intrinsic depictive complement to the verb, as in 1 Jn. 2:5, we see the phrase following the verb: "We are in him" for lexical Greek "in him we are" in all major translations.

Of course you have not provided parallel examples of "I am" or "You are" or so forth as predicate absolutes in the Bible. Since it is inevitable that we address this, I have taken the liberty of beginning the search (which takes some time), at least within the New Testament. When we scout around in the NT for such be-verb predicate absolutes, we find that most apparent examples are actually copulative sentences with an implicit predicate noun or predicate pronoun. For example, there are quite a few cases where translators supply the implicit noun or pronoun from the context, "I am (he)" or "I am (Christ)" or so forth, for lexical Greek "I am":

Mk. 13:6 [LB omits]; Lk. 21:8 [LB omits]; Jn. 4:26 [NW: I . . . am he"]; Jn. 8:24 [NIV: "I am the one I claim to be"; NAB: "I AM"; TEV: "I Am Who I Am"]; Jn. 8:28 [NIV: "I am the one I claim to be"; NAB: "I AM"; TEV: "I Am Who I Am"]; Jn. 9:9 [NASB: "I am the one"; NIV, NRSV, AB, TEV: "I am the man"; LB: "I am the same man"; NAB: "I am"], Jn. 13:19 [NAB: "I AM"; TEV: "I Am Who I Am"; LB omits]; Jn. 18:5, 6, 8 [NAB: "I AM"].

Translators similarly supply the implicit copulative meaning of Greek "I am" in Jn. 13:13, "(so) I am" or "(that is what) I am" [NAB: "indeed I am"; NW: "I am such"; LB: "it is true"], and in Acts 13:25, "I am not (he)" or "I am not (that one)" [TEV: "I am not the one you are waiting for"; LB: "no"]). But in other passages, the nominal complement is left implicit, as in Lk. 22:70, "You say that I am [the Son of God]" [AB "I AM"], 1 Cor. 9:2, "to/for you I am [an apostle]." The use of the relative pronoun is often involved, as in 1 Cor. 15:10 (lexically: "I am what I am") "I am what I am" (all except LB: "whatever I am now").

Similarly, when a statement is an affirmative or negative answer to a direct question, we find "I am" and so forth as an acceptable English translation of Greek "I am" because and only because they have an implicit nominal or pronominal complement. For example, "I am [the Christ]" [AB "I AM"] (Mk. 14:62), and "I am not [one of them/Elijah]" for lexical Greek "not I am" (Lk. 22:58; Jn. 1:21 [LB: "no"]; Jn. 18:17).

In other cases where "I am" appears in the original Greek as a specifying copulative expression with an implicit (often self-referential) complement, English makes use of either a "dummy" subject to make a complete English sentence, or employs some sort of rephrasing to avoid what would be a nonsensical statement in English. For example:

"It is I" (neg. "it is not I") or "Is it I?" for lexical Greek "I am": Mt. 14:27 [AB "I AM"; LB omits]; Mt. 26:22 [negative, "Surely not I?" common; TEV: "Surely . . . you don't mean me?"; LB "am I the one?"]; Mt. 26:25 [same]; Mk. 6:50 [AB "I AM"]; Lk. 24:39; Jn. 6:20 [AB "I AM"; LB omits]

None of these examples provide good parallels to John 8:58 because they all involve the be-verb as a copula, not in its existential function. They do provide some examples of the limited number of expressions in which modern English tolerates "I am" as a self-standing expression (namely, in affirmative answers to direct questions or as part of a relative clause). Otherwise, English translations ignore the many cases where Greek word order and form of expression could, in isolation from all syntax, be translated as "I am," and provide something meaningful in English.

We agree that in John 8:58 the be-verb is not a copula, but has an existential function. One of the points we are seeking to resolve is whether it is a predicate absolute or occurs with a dependent depictive complement. I have argued that it cannot be a predicate absolute, since "before Abraham was born" must form part of the sentence. For comparison, here are some examples of true predicate absolute be-verb sentences in the NT:

Lk. 9:13 (lexically: "not are [eisi] with us more") translated as absolute: "We have no more" (KJV, NASB, NRSV, AB), "We have nothing more" (NW); translated as non-absolute: "We have only" (NIV, LB), "All we have" (NAB, TEV).

Jn. 11:9 (lexically: "not twelve hours are [eisi]") "Are there not twelve hours?" (all except NW: "There are twelve hours . . . are there not?"; TEV: "A day has twelve hours, doesn't it?")

Acts 24:11 (lexically: "not more are [eisi] for me days twelve") "There are yet but twelve days" (KJV), "It is not more than twelve days" (NRSV, AB), "It has not been more than twelve days" (NW), "It was no(t) more than twelve days" (TEV, LB), "Not more than twelve days have passed" (NAB), (others drop verbal form of expression)

1 Cor. 8:5 (lexically: "are [eisi] ones called gods") "there are those that are called gods" (NW), "there are so-called gods" (NASB, NIV, NAB, TEV), "there may be so-called gods" (NRSV, AB), "there be that are called gods" (KJV)

1 Cor. 8:5 (lexically: "are [eisi] gods many") "there are many gods"
(NASB, NIV, NRSV, NAB, AB, NW), "there are many of these gods" (TEV),
"there be gods many" (KJV)

Rev. 1:19 (lexically: "that are [eisi] and that is about to become") "the things which are, and the things that shall be" (KJV), "the things that/which are, and the things that/which shall take place" (NASB, NW), "the things that are now and the things that will happen" (TEV), "what is, and what is to take place" (NRSV), "what is now and what will take place" (NIV), "what is happening, and what will happen" (NAB), "what they are and what is to take place" (AB, written as a copula), (LB omits)

We see here how English deals with be-verb predicate absolutes. It supplies a dummy subject "there" to make a complete English sentence "There are x," or rephrases the sentence to avoid a dangling be-verb at the end. The one exception here is Rev. 1:19, which involves the relative pronoun. In such expressions, English does permit the be-verb to end the clause. I have argued that if the be-verb is to be taken as an absolute in John 8:58, then English would normally substitute some other existential verb, such as "exist."

But in fact John 8:58 is much more similar to be-verb sentences with obligatory depictive complements. That is, the be-verb is modified by some adverbial qualifier that provides the full meaning of the verbal element in the sentence, and without which there is no meaningful statement in the be-verb alone. There are very many examples of this in the NT (my results are based on a survey of all present tense forms of eimi except third person singular – there are so many of the latter that I haven't had time to survey them yet).

There is, first of all, eimi with a locative complement. In this usage, the subject of the verb is not said simply to be, but to be in a particular location. Even those these expressions employ pronouns, the latter function adverbially, and so are included here.

Here/there: Mt. 18:20 (lexically: "there I am") "There am I" (KJV, NIV, NAB), "There I am" (NASB, NW, AB:"there I AM"), "I am there" (NRSV, TEV), "I will be right there" (LB) (other examples: w/esmen Lk. 9:12; w/eisi Mk. 6:3) (Examples with pronoun following verb: w/semen Acts 16:28

Where: Jn. 7:34; Jn. 12:26; Jn. 14:3; Jn. 17:24 (lexically: "where am I") "where I am" (all except TEV 7:34: "where I will be"; LB omits 17:24)

Before: Rev. 7:15

Note that English allows the be-verb to follow a pronominal complement, but not a prepositional one, in locative expressions. For example: Lk. 22:27 (lexically: "in midst of you I am") "I am in your midst" (NW, AB), "I am among you" (all others; LB omits).

Second, eimi is often used with a stative complement. In this usage, the subject of the verb is not said simply to be, but to be in a particular state. Here, too, when the complement is a pronoun, English word order permits the be-verb to trail the complement, as in Jn. 7:28 (lexically: "whence [pothen] I am") in the KJV "whence I am." This order is retained even when it is a prepositional phrase is used rather than a pronoun "from where I am," although this form is losing ground in contemporary English to "where I am from" (all others except LB: "where I was born and raised"). Other examples include Lk.13:27 and Jn. 19:9.

Participles can also be used as stative complements to eimi, as in:

Acts 25:10 (lexically: "at the judgment seat of Caesar standing I am") "I stand at Caesar's judgment seat" (KJV), "I am standing before Caesar's judgment seat" (AB), "I am standing before the judgment seat of Caesar" (NW), "I am standing before the tribunal of Caesar" (NAB), "I am now standing before Caesar's court" (NIV), "I am standing before the Emperor's own judgment court" (TEV), "I am appealing to the emperor's tribunal" (NRSV) , "I demand my privilege of a hearing before the Emperor himself" (LB)

But most frequently, the stative complement involves a prepositional phrase. So as to not make the list of examples too cumbersome, I will limit it to close parallels to John 8:58 in word order (i.e., with main verb at end of Greek sentence, with preceding prepositional phrase):

1. with (meta/pros):

Jn. 7:33; Jn. 13:33; Col. 2:5 (lexically: "with you I am") "am I with you" (KJV*), "I am with you" (NASB, NRSV, AB*, NW*, NAB 2:5, TEV 2:5, NIV 7:33, KJV 13:33), "I will be with you" (NAB, NRSV 7:33, NIV 13:33), "I shall (not) be with you" (TEV*), "I am to be with you" (AB 13:33), "I am to be here" (LB 7:33), "I am present with you" (NIV 2:5), "I continue with you" (NW 7:33), "my heart is with you" (LB 2:5) – LB omits 13:33 (other examples: w/ei Lk. 15:31; w/eisi Lk. 11:7)

2. from (ek):

Jn. 7:29 (lexically: "from him I am") "I am from him" (all except TEV: "I come from him"; AB: "I come from his presence"; NW: "I am a representative from him"; LB: "I was with him") (other examples: w/esmen 1 Jn. 3:19; 1 Jn. 5:19; w/este Jn. 8:47; Jn. 15:19; 1 Cor. 1:30; w/eisi Jn. 17:14; 2 Tim. 3:6; 1 Jn. 4:5)

3. in (en):

Phil. 4:11 (lexically: "in which I am") "in whatsoever state I am" (KJV), "in whatever state I am" (AB), "in whatever circumstances I am" (NASB, NW), "whatever the circumstances" (NIV), "with whatever I have" (NRSV), "with what I have" (TEV), "in whatever situation I find myself" (NAB), "whether I have much or little" (LB) (other examples: w/ei Lk. 23:40; w/este Rom. 1:6; 2 Cor. 7:3). Note that the relative pronouns used in the first three translations open up the possibility of having the be-verb last in the clause.

Acts 17:28 (lexically: "in/by him for we live and move and are [esmen]") "For in him we live and move and are" (LB), "For in him we live, and move, and have our being" (KJV, NIV, NRSV, NAB, AB), "For in him we live and move and exist" (NASB, TEV), "For by him we have life and move and exist" (NW). Note the abandonment of the be-verb for some other existential expression.

1 Jn. 2:5 (lexically: "in him we are [esmen]") "we are in him" (all except NAB, NW: "we are in union with him"; TEV "we are in union with God"; LB: "you are a Christian").

Finally, we have the usage found in John 8:58, where a temporal complement is employed. Here the subject of the verb is not simply said to be, but to be in reference to a designation of time. I have two examples of this:

Jn. 14:9 (lexically: "for such a time with you I am") "Have I been so long time with you" (KJV), "Have I been so long with you" (NASB), "I have been among you such a long time" (NIV), "Have I been with you all this time" (NRSV), "Have I been with you for so long a time" (NAB), "Have I been with all of you for so long a time" (AB), "Have I been with you men so long a time" (NW), "Even after all this time I have been with you" (LB), "For a long time I have been with you all" (TEV)

Jn. 15:27 (lexically: "from [the] beginning with me you are") "you have been with me from the beginning" (all except KJV: "ye have been with me from the beginning"; TEV: "you have been with me from the very beginning"; NW: "You have been with me from when I began")

Note how here the temporal reference almost necessarily makes the present tense anomalous, since past and future are much more commonly used to qualify a verb (what would it mean to qualify a true present verb temporally? In English we do so by adding an adverb such as "now" or "currently". A closer parallel to the form found in John 8:58 would be to use a prepositional phrase such as "at the present time."), and leads to a redefinition of the tense of the verb on the basis of the temporal significance of its complement.

This survey shows in practice the "rules" that govern the English be-verb as discussed in English grammars and employed by English writers and speakers generally. Modern English Bibles generally adhere to them, unless influenced either by traditions of translation in which archaic expressions are sometimes preserved, or by interpretations that they wish to reinforce by deviation from standard English. I apologize for the length of this discussion and survey here, but I wished to put as much at our disposal as I could in such short order. I hope this fills in the gap of any terse statements I have made in the past, and shows what I mean when I criticize most translations of John 8:58 as ungrammatical English. In short, it is ungrammatical to place "I am" after its adverbial complement in modern English in a sentence such as John 8:58. Even if we ignore what is arguably the obligatory depictive complement (the prin clause) and translate ego eimi as an absolute, modern English favors the substitution of another existential verb for the be-verb, or risks producing a meaningless sentence that needs itself to be translated into meaningful English.

Okay, I think that's enough to chew on for now.

Best wishes,

Jason B.


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