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Friday, August 20, 2004

JB15524-Jas #6 (Psalm 89/90:2) 

(15524) Jason BeDuhn [Fri Aug 20, 2004 12:38 pm] (Re: John 8:58 - Jason#6B (Psalm 89/90:2)) [This post has not yet been addressed by Rob Bowman]


Rob,

In your last message (#5), you asked me to comment on Psalm 89:2 (LXX). In a previous post, you had offered this verse as an example of an English sentence in which an adverbial clause preceded a main clause that employed the verb "to be." This is Psalm 90:2 in English Bibles. The NIV translation is: "Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever you had formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God." I pointed out that this provides no parallel to John 8:58 because the main clause is a complete copulative clause, "You are God," and so the adverbial clause is an adjunct, not a complement to the verb. One should also note that the Psalms are poetry, not prose.

Now you have asked me to comment on the Greek of this verse, as found in the Septuagint (LXX). Of course, the English verse is not a translation of the Greek of the LXX; it is a translation from the Hebrew, which reads substantially as the NIV has it. The Greek differs. I give it in the transliteration used on this site, along with an interlinear (lexical) rendering of each word:

PRO TOU ORH GENHQHNAI
before the mountain came to be

KAI PLASQHNAI THN GHN KAI THN OIKOUMENHN
and was formed the earth and the world

KAI APO TOU AIWNOS EWS TOU AIWNOS
and from the age until the age

SU EI
you are


You have asked me how I would translate this verse. If we remove the second adverbial modifier (the APO phrase), and keep only the first adverbial modifier (the PRO clause) with the main clause, this would clearly have to be translated:

"You have been before the mountain came to be and the earth and world were formed." or better "You have existed before the mountain came to be and the earth and world were formed."


The formally present tense verb of the main clause (EI) is a PPA, because it is modified by an adverbial clause indicating past time. Therefore the subject did and continues to do the action of the verb (that's what a PPA is), in this case, "exist."

One COULD NOT translate this sentence as:
"You are before the mountain came to be and the earth and world were formed."

Such a translation (1) ignores the Greek idiom that indicates continuation of past action in the present, and so violates the Greek, and (2) ignores English verbal tense complementarity, and so violates English. Unlike Greek, English does not (cannot) use a present tense verb to convey continuation of past action in the present. English uses the imperfect tense for that meaning. This is the case with this verse because of the adverbial clause which indicates that the action of the main verb began in the past.

Granted that the Psalms are poetry, and as such may employ more varied word order than prose, one could arguably translate this sentence with the adverbial clause first:

"Before the mountain came to be and the earth and world were formed, you have existed."


Note that this form of the sentence is to be preferred to:
"Before the mountain came to be and the earth and world were formed, you have been."


As I said in a previous post, in modern English such a dangling be-verb calls out for a depictive complement, and the reader or listener must mentally go back over the sentence and, in effect, retranslate, either restoring standard prose word order or substituting "existed" for "been" for the sentence to make sense.

The simple sentence I have been discussing is complicated by the addition of a second adverbial modifier, this one a phrase rather than a clause. This addition moves the verse away from the close similarity of structure to John 8:58 that the more simple sentence would have. It adds a new adverbial element that may impact the best translation of the main verb. Whether it does or not depends upon the temporal meaning of "from the age until the age," which as it stands in the Greek is ambiguous. Are the ages referred to here, in their immediate literary context, all ages past and future, or only ages of the past? Note that I am not asking a theological question, but a literary one. I am not asking if the Psalmist believes God to exist through all ages past and future; I am asking if the Psalmist refers to such an eternal existence here, or is making another point. Note the previous verse, in both its verbal tense and structure (I give it in the NIV translation): "Lord, you have been (EGENHQHS) our dwelling place throughout all generations (EN GENEA KAI GENEA)." The Psalmist is speaking of a past record of accomplishment, and the close structural parallelism of "in generation and generation" to "from the age until the age" would lead me to read the latter as referring to past ages as well. If that is the sense of the APO phrase, then the translation of the rest of the verse is not significantly changed:

"You have existed from age to age, before the mountain came to be and the earth and world were formed." or, more poeticly, "Before the mountain came to be and the earth and world were formed, from age to age, you have existed."


But let's assume that the Psalmist is shifting from what God has been to what he is in the middle of verse 2, and that "from the age until the age" refers to all ages past and future. In order to avoid a non sequiter, with conflicting temporal modifications of the main verb (one past tense adverbial clause and one trans-temporal present adverbial phrase), we must choose one of the two adverbial expressions as having priority over the other in connection with the main verb. That is, we need to consider one of them a depictive complement to the verb, and the other as a more distantly connected adjunct. So, if we choose the APO phrase as the complement, and understand it as a trans-temporal present, then we would translate the main verb differently, using the present tense:

"You exist from age to age, before the mountain came to be and the earth and world were formed." or "Before the mountain came to be and the earth and world were formed, from age to age, you exist."


Note that "exist" is the verb we would normally use in English for the sense of this sentence, and not "You are from age to age" or "From age to age, you are." Note, too, that the presence of the past tense adverbial PRO clause makes any translation with the main verb as a present tense awkward, since the PRO clause does not provide a suitably trans-temporal modification of the main verb (something like "Before the mountain came to be and after it is reduced to dust") – it contains only past time reference. For this reason, I think that my first reading, with both adverbs having a past tense reference, remains the best:

"You have existed from age to age, before the mountain came to be and the earth and world were formed."

Or
"Before the mountain came to be and the earth and world were formed, you have existed from age to age."


Finally, note that only the presence of the APO phrase gives us any reason to hesitate on the PPA status of the main verb. Without the APO phrase, with the main verb EI (2nd person singular form of EIMI) modified only by an adverbial clause of past time reference (the PRO clause here, the PRIN clause in John 8:58), it would be absolutely clear that the main verb is used to express continuation of past action. God is not said to now exist before mountains and earth were formed, as if the mountains and earth are things that will in the future come to be. They already came to be in the past, and so God's existence "before" them is a past fact, but also an ongoing fact, and that is why the Greek employs EI as the standard idiomatic way to convey this complex verbal meaning. This is exactly the same in John 8:58, where the same idiom is employed.

Best wishes,
Jason B.





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