Thursday, August 05, 2004

RB15329-Rob #3: Word order 

(15329) Robert Bowman [Thu Aug 5, 2004 8:27 pm] (Rob #3: Word order)


Please note that in the interests of ease of reference, I am numbering my posts in this discussion, and I will refer to your posts by number as well. That may be easier than resorting to dates and times or to the message number on the web site.

In this post, I will respond to your argument that most English versions fail to translate John 8:58 correctly because they incorrectly follow the Greek word order. This turned out to be a dominant theme in your second post. You claim that these translations of John 8:58 “are not English sentences,” that they are “not English” or are “bad English,” and that their “syntax is fractured” or “broken.” The translations are so bad in this respect as to be “UNREADABLE.” At one point, you write:

“I think you and I agree that the only reason for the broken syntax -- having ‘I am’ at the end of the sentence – is the mistaken notion that Jesus is quoting Exodus. So at least can we agree that the main subject and verb should stand at the beginning of any English translation (‘I am before Abraham was born’) before we go on to debate the proper rendering of the tense of the main verb?”

The answer to your question is No. I do not agree that the main subject and verb must appear first in “any English translation.” 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.”

In your book, you say that the normal word order in English is “subject + verb + object or predicate phrase.” However, you observe, the word order of the Greek in John 8:58, and of the conventional translations, is “predicate phrase + subject + verb.” So, the Greek word order may be “before Abraham came into existence, I am,” but the normal word order in English for this sentence ought to be “I am before Abraham came into existence.” You write: “Just as we do not say ‘John I am’ or ‘Hungry I am’ or ‘First in line I am,’ so it is not proper English to say ‘Before Abraham came to be I am.’” You conclude that of the translations you were comparing in your book, only the Living Bible avoids “this sort of mangled word order.”[1]

The three examples of poorly worded English sentences that you give are all of a particular kind. In all three sentences, the expression wrongly placed first in the sentence is a noun or adjective (or adjectival phrase) that gives a further description of the subject. Other kinds of predicate expressions and phrases might appear first in an English sentence without violating normal English word order.

In your first post, you state that most of the Bible translations you reviewed “place the main clause after the adverbial clause, rather than before it, violating standard English syntax.” However, none of the examples you gave in your book of malformed sentences contained adverbial clauses.

The fact is that adverbial clauses often appear first in English sentences with no sense of abnormality, let alone of them having “mangled word order,” as you claimed. Here are two examples, with the “offending” adverbial clauses in all capital letters:

“For example, when the main verb is negated, prin actually has the reverse meaning….”

Most of the time when Jesus speaks of himself with the present tense be-verb, there is a predicate noun with which he wishes to identify himself (‘I am the light,’ ‘I am the good shepherd,’ etc.).”

You probably recognize these sentences; I took them from your first post. Notice that the emphasized clauses are adverbial clauses expressing time, as in John 8:58. Here is another one, taken from the very page of your chapter on John 8:58 where you explain this objection from word order:

When verb tenses or any other part of grammar is used in a way outside of usual expectations, we call it an ‘idiom.’”[2]

Here are some more examples, using sentences created to illustrate the point:

“WHEN THE CLOCK STRIKES midnight on New Year’s Eve, the ball always drops in Times Square.”

“When you read something a scholar has written, you should not assume that he’s always right.”

In your first post, you wrote:

“Since the same sort of defective translation is not found in these Bibles in other passages of similar construction in the Greek, there is reason to suppose that this verse has been impacted by bias in the translators.” Likewise, in your chapter you say that the conventional word order of English translations in John 8:58 “violates…normal English usage” and that “the reason for doing so” is “theological bias.”[3]

Yet adverbial clauses often appear first in sentences in English translations of the Bible. Here are several examples, all involving adverbial clauses beginning with the word “before” (as in John 8:58). I quote each of these from the NRSV, though almost any English version will be similar:

“But BEFORE they lay down, the men of the city, the men of Sodom, both young and old, all the people to the last man, surrounded the house” (Gen. 19:4).

“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).

“BEFORE the years of famine came, Joseph had two sons, whom Asenath daughter of Potiphera, priest of On, bore to him” (Gen. 41:50).

“BEFORE they went to sleep, she came up to them on the roof” (Josh. 2:8).

“Moreover, BEFORE the fat was burned, the priest’s servant would come and say…” (1 Sam. 2:15).

“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).

“BEFORE the mountains had been shaped, before the hills, I was brought forth” (Prov. 8:25).

“For BEFORE the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted” (Is. 7:16).

“For BEFORE the child knows how to call ‘My father’ or ‘My mother,’ the wealth of Damascus and the spoil of Samaria will be carried away by the king of Assyria” (Is. 8:2).

“…BEFORE they spring forth, I tell you of them” (Is. 42:9b).

“BEFORE they call I will answer,

while they are yet speaking I will hear” (Is. 65:24).

“BEFORE she was in labor she gave birth;

BEFORE her pain came upon her she delivered a son” (Is. 66:7).

“BEFORE I formed you in the womb I knew you,

and BEFORE you were born I consecrated you” (Jer. 1:5).

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

“Truly I tell you, this very night, BEFORE the cock crows, you will deny me three times” (Matt. 26:34; similarly 26:75; Mark 14:30, 72; Luke 22:61).

“But BEFORE all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you” (Luke 21:12).

“BEFORE Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you” (John 1:48).

“Now BEFORE the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father” (John 13:1).

“Now BEFORE faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed” (Gal. 3:23).

Let me repeat your claim:

“Since the same sort of defective translation is not found in these Bibles in other passages of similar construction in the Greek, there is reason to suppose that this verse has been impacted by bias in the translators.”

The preceding 23 verses all have adverbial clauses beginning with “before” (PRIN or PRO in Greek, including in the LXX translations of the OT verses). These are relevant because you argue that adverbial clauses in English translations (like “before Abraham came into existence”) should come after the main clause. As you can see, most Bible translations simply don’t follow this rule. If they often place adverbial “before” clauses prior to the main clause, the placement of the adverbial clause in John 8:58 simply cannot qualify as evidence of theological bias. Moreover, the fact that so many Bible translations do this in so many places strongly suggests that your criterion of good English is simply wrong.

I suppose, though, that by “passages of similar construction in the Greek” you might mean more narrowly passages using the PPA. These don’t typically have “adverbial clauses” (a point I will explore more fully in a later post). Still, let’s look at some of the standard textbook examples of the PPA and see how the NRSV translates them. For these texts, I will put the qualifying adverbial phrases in all capitals.

“FOR THREE YEARS I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none” (Luke 13:7).

“FOR ALL THESE YEARS I have been working like a slave for you…” (Luke 15:29).

“For in every city, FOR GENERATIONS PAST, Moses has had those who proclaim him, for he has been read aloud every sabbath in the synagogues” (Acts 15:21).

“…and how FROM CHILDHOOD you have known the sacred writings” (2 Tim. 3:15).

“For ever since our ancestors died, all things continue as they were from the beginning of creation!" (2 Peter 3:4).

Again, I have limited my examples to the NRSV for sake of economy, but one can see the same phenomenon in many other translations.

Of course, I do not deny that *sometimes* it is clearer or smoother English to put the adverbial phrase after the verb. Sometimes it is a matter of feel or style. However, your claim that adverbial clauses or phrases in good English must appear after the verb is simply false.

You might be tempted to contend that the NRSV and many other English translations *frequently* violate good English word order by putting adverbial clauses before the main verb, or adverbial phrases before the subject. If you take this route, though, you will have to say the same about your own writing. Indeed, I would venture to predict that you would have to say the same thing about every major English writer for the past five hundred years. I would hope that the absurdity of the claim is already sufficiently evident that you will not venture down that road. In any case, the charge that these translations put “Before Abraham came into existence” before the main clause “I am” because of theological bias is without merit.



[1] BeDuhn, _Truth in Translation_, 105.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., 104.


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