Wednesday, August 18, 2004

RB15521-Rob #5: Word order (cont.) 

(15521) Robert Bowman [Wed Aug 18, 2004 10:22 pm] (John 8:58 - Rob #5: Word order (cont.))


Thank you for your latest contribution to our discussion. Some of the issues you raise take us beyond the matter of English word order; I will postpone these for a later post.

I am gratified that my previous post was sufficiently probing that it elicited such effort on your part to clarify your argument concerning the word order of traditional renderings of John 8:58.

You are right that the study of grammar is descriptive, though we must not ignore the prescriptive dimension of how language is learned. To the best of my knowledge, in all languages and throughout recorded history, parents and teachers have corrected the grammar of the young. When we study how people actually use language, though, our concern is descriptive, not prescriptive. I think this observation cuts both ways, as I hope to explain in a later post.

I recognize that you did fault traditional versions at John 8:58 for the cumulative effect that you perceived in their “inverted word order” combined with their rendering of EIMI with “am.” However, if such “inversion” is not itself bad English, as you had claimed, it cannot be a valid part of a cumulative complaint against the versions exhibiting that word order. You argue that most versions are faulty in two respects and that it is that combination of the two faults that suggest bias. Well, if one of these faults is not really a fault, the argument based on the combination of the two “faults” is unsound.

The third “anomaly,” namely, the use of unusual capitalization—“I AM” or “I Am”—applies to only a few English versions. Moreover, in this case one can hardly blame the KJV, since it does not employ such unusual capitalization at John 8:58. I agree that the versions using such capitalization have tipped their hand; or, to put it more neutrally, they have made their understanding of the text more explicit. But one of the problems with your argument, from a polemical standpoint, is that you seem to allow your strong disapproval of these modern, explicitly worded renderings to “feed back” to the more traditional rendering “I am.” I would suggest reviewing the chapter of your book with this concern in mind.

If I understand you correctly, you agree with me that subordinate predicative clauses often can stand before the main verb in normal English, but you maintain that they cannot do so when the main verb is a form of the “be” verb:

…this general flexibility of placement of a subordinated predicate complement is not found in connection with the English be-verb.

There are two main steps in your newly clarified argument. First, you argue that the “be” verb in English, unlike most other verbs, requires a predicate complement:

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."

Second, you argue that when we use the “be” verb with a predicate complement, that complement follows the “be” verb rather than preceding it. The only exceptions are irrelevant to John 8:58 (e.g., the locative “Here I am” or relative clauses such as “which you are”).

I think the first step of your argument is open to question. You note that in English we usually translate Descartes’ famous statement, _cogito ergo sum_, as “I think, therefore I am.” However, you regard this translation as “its classical form” that we retain “as an historical artifact,” just as we preserve Shakespeare in its original Elizabethan English. If we were serious about translating the _cogito_ today, we would render it, “I think, therefore I exist.” Here, I must confess that I am unclear as to what you mean by “its classical form.” Are you referring to the Latin or to the conventional English translation? It would seem that you must mean the English translation, but I may be mistaken. If you do mean the English translation, then you seem to be suggesting that the translation “I think, therefore I am” was acceptable English centuries ago but is no longer good English. I am unsure if English has changed in this respect since, say, 1700.

If we move forward to the contemporary period, I think we can find examples of the “be” verb without an expressed complement that cannot qualify as mere “artifacts.” The famous Beatles’ song, “Let It Be,” which features a line that ends with those words, comes to mind. Should the line have been better expressed in English with the words, “Let it exist”?

You quoted _The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language_ as stating,

“Most obviously, the verb be almost always requires an internal complement” (222). “Almost always” is not the same as “absolutely always.”

On your second point, you quote _The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language_ again as stating, “the preposing construction . . . is relatively unusual” for a complement. Well, “relatively unusual” is not the same as “bad English.”

Remember, your earlier claim was that these translations of John 8:58 “are not English sentences,” that they are “not English” or are “bad English,” and that the translations are so bad in this respect as to be “UNREADABLE.” In order to justify your conclusion (that the translations are theologically biased), you need to show that the English is unreadable to the point where it is not English at all. The more moderate statements of the _Cambridge Grammar_ that such constructions are “relatively unusual” or that the “be” verb “almost always requires an internal complement” won’t do.

I would be happy with an assessment of the wording of the traditional translation of John 8:58 that described it as unusual or even odd. The reason I could accept such an assessment is that I think the wording of the original text is also unusual. In the end, how we resolve the issue of the propriety of the English rendering depends on how we understand the original language text. You think that the Greek wording of John 8:58 follows a perfectly normal Greek idiom. I do not, and that is the root of our real difference over this text.

Your comments on the difference between an “adjunct” subordinate temporal clause and an “obligatory” or “complementary” subordinate temporal clause are interesting. Throughout most of the long paragraph explaining this difference, you seem to be referring to English. At the end, though, you seem to be referring to the Greek. Picking up the paragraph about half way through, you wrote:

. . . 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.

Perhaps you can see my confusion. The second to last sentence is a quotation from a “grammar of the English language”; the last sentence, immediately following, is an assertion that “this is precisely the case” in the *Greek* text of John 8:58. I think we need to distinguish two issues here: whether the PRIN clause is “an obligatory temporal complement” to EIMI (and if so, what that means), and whether in English we should translate the sentence to reflect the same grammatical structure as in the Greek.

I would be interested to know how you think we should translate the following Greek text:

“Before (PRO) the mountains were brought into being (GENHQHNAI) and the earth and the inhabited world were formed, even from age to age, you are (SU EI)” (Ps. 89:2 LXX).

I do hope to start posting soon on the exegesis of John 8:58 itself, and in particular on the question of the PPA.

In Christ's service,

Robert M. Bowman, Jr.
Center for Biblical Apologetics
Online: http://www.biblicalapologetics.net

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