Wednesday, September 08, 2004

JB15584-Rob #7: PPA and Temporal Clauses with PRIN or PRO 

(15584) Jason BeDuhn [Wed Sep 8, 2004 11:55 am] (Re: John 8:58 - Rob #7: The PPA and Temporal Clauses with PRIN or PRO) [Jason #8


In reply to your message #7:

You set out eleven passages that you believe "more closely parallel John 8:58 grammatically than the PPA texts." This belief is grounded in an arbitrary narrowing of the PPA category in a way that excludes adverbial clauses, as I pointed out in my last post, where I also demonstrated that such a narrowing of the PPA is invalid.

You state at the beginning of your post #7 that "not one of these eleven biblical texts is a PPA," while several pages later conceding that two of them (Psalm 90:2 and Jeremiah 1:5) are usually "classified as a PPA." But, you argue, they should be reinterpreted as examples of a previously unheard of grammatical classification, the "eternal present." Now, Rob, if you would like to propose a brand new category of verbal tense in the Greek language, please write an academic argument and submit it to a peer reviewed journal dealing with such matters. In the meantime, I think it best that we stick to generlly recognized grammatical categories as the level playing field on which we discuss the meaning of John 8:58. I simply see no convincing argument that there ever was such a thing as an "eternal present" in the Greek language, and I think this is another example where theological interpretation has invaded linguistic analysis. I often recommend to people, as an exercise to avoid this mistake, that they pretend that a sentence is said not of God or of Jesus but of John or Jane Doe. Would there be any PRESUMPTION that an ordinary present tense verb signified something eternal of John or Jane Doe? No. But if a biblical writer wanted to inform us that something said of John or Jane Doe is meant eternally, the writer will state so explicitly and clearly, and not by hoping that we will presume it and read it into perfectly ordinary verbs.

Of your eleven examples, we can quickly dismiss the following (using your preferred labels for the type of present involved): Exodus 1:19 (iterative present) Job 8:12 (customary present) Proverbs 18:13 (gnomic present) Isaiah 46:10 (iterative present)

These are all sentences in which the Greek present tense is used to refer to customary or repeated action.

We can also set aside:

John 13:19 (tendential present)
Malachi 3:22 (futuristic present)

These are sentences where the Greek present tense verb refers to action initiated in the present "before" something that will happen in the future. The same construction is found in Deuteronomy 31:21, which you offer as an example of a so-called "eternal present": "I know their wickedness which they do HERE THIS DAY, before I have brought them into the land I promised them." The bringing into the promised land is a future event, and before that, "here this day" when God is speaking, God knows their wickedness. The sentence itself says no more than that. Even without the adverbial phrase "here this day," the present tense verb indicates God knows now, at the time of speaking, the wickedness of the people he intends to lead into the promised land. Grammatically, God knows in the present things that, from the context, one must read as still to happen in the future. One can integrate this information with other verses of the Bible into a theological position on the omniscience of God, and thus derive a theory of God's eternal knowing. But that is something that occurs beyond the sentence itself, beyond the passage itself, and outside of its first order narrative meaning. In other words, it's interpretation, not translation; it is not what the sentence means in itself, but what it might imply when made a part of a larger biblical theology. Notice that there are two verbs in parallel here functioning as present indicatives: "I know" and "they do." If one of them were an "eternal present," the other one would have to be as well. So if the sentence is read as saying that God knows eternally, then it must also be read as saying that the people do wickedness eternally. You would have to do this if you wanted to argue that the eternal character of God's knowing occurs at the level of the Greek grammar. You would not have to do this, and could the eternal knowing of God from the simple present or future doing of the people at an interpretative level, once you have started to meld the immediate meaning of this sentence with other sentences about God elsewhere in the Bible.

The same is true of Matthew 6:8: "You Father knows what you need before you ask him." This is simply a customary or iterative present, a general truth that holds good in every case. You see it as "eternal" because of a theological concept you have of God's eternal omniscience. I have no problem with that theological concept; it's implicit throughout the Bible. But there is nothing in the verb itself, or in the syntax of the verb's use with a modifying "before" clause, that makes the verb signify "eternal." In its grammar and syntax, the sentence matches customary/iterative/gnomic uses of the present. It is formally no different than "A fool and his money ARE soon parted," or "A stitch in time SAVES nine." Are a fool and his money ETERNALLY parted? Does a stitch in time ETERNALLY save nine? Or is it just generally the case in individual events that these statements hold true? So eternal is part of an interpretation of the overall character of God that is read into an individual statement such as Matthew 6:8, and not something inherent in the grammar of the verse itself.

These eight of your eleven examples only superficially resemble John 8:58, because in each the aorist infinitive is employed not of past time, but of general or future time, unlike John 8:58 where it is used of past time. That leaves three examples where the aorist infinitive is used in a similar manner to its use in John 8:58.

1. We have discussed Psalm 89/90:2 in detail already. I need only add here the following point: The translation you use is not particularly close to the Greek; "even from everlasting to everlasting" is particularly tendentious. There is nothing at all in the Greek behind "even," which is added in this translation to heighten the supposed "progression" of the imagery. "Everlasting" is based on "the age," and I have discussed the ambiguity of this expression in my post on this passage. The addition of this phrase, "even from everlasting to everlasting" (or, "from age to age") is what suggests to you an "eternal" character to the present tense verb. Note that it is the CONTENT of this phrase, not the grammar employed in the sentence, that leads to your interpretation. As I pointed out in my post on this passage, their is no such additional phrase in John 8:58, and this verse is a closer parallel to John 8:58 if we remove this additional phrase, leaving only a PRO TOU/PRIN clause with a present tense main verb. When we do that, the action of the verb is a classic PPA, with existence predicated "before" certain other past events and continuing to the present time of the statement. I also pointed out that the presence of the PRO TOU/PRIN clause dominates the sentence and demands a PPA translation of it; otherwise, the clause is left awkwardly dangling. You can say either "You exist from age to age" or "You have existed from age to age." But while you can say "You existed before the mountains came to be" or "You have existed since before the mountains came to be," you cannot say "You exist before the mountain came to be." To use a present tense in English as in the latter example, you have to change the sentence into something more closely resembling the gnomic/iterative/customary form: "You exist before the mountains COME to be." There you have something you might call an "eternal present." Otherwise, it's a PPA, like John 8:58.

2. Jeremiah 1:5 is also quite clearly a PPA, and is usually translated that way in English Bibles. It should be, "I have known you since before I formed you in the womb, etc." You say: "In view of the perfect tense verbs `consecrated' and `appointed' that parallel the first line, it would be a mistake to translate the first line `I have been knowing you . . .'" I'm sorry, but this makes no sense to me at all. Yes, there is parallelism of structure; both parts of the sentence involve adverbial "before" clauses modifying the main verb, and even the content of the two adverbial clauses is in parallel. So why does the writer employ a present tense in the first part of the sentence and perfect tense in the second part? There has to be a nuance of difference, and there is. In the second part of the sentence, the perfect verbs "consecrated" and "appointed" refer to acts at one point of time. The perfect tense signifies completed action of the past. But the present tense is used in the first part of the sentence because the action of the verb (God's knowing) was not a punctiliar past event, but a familiarity that was in place "before" and continues to the present of God's speaking. Hence, a classic PPA. May I also point out that in your previous post you stated that of the 15 grammars you surveyed, "The only grammars that evidently include whole clauses [among examples of PPAs] are BDF and McKay (and only because they count John 8:58 as a PPA)." In my last post, I showed how this summation was not accurate, but I failed to note that it also deliberately ignored Winer's citation of Psalm 90:2 and Jeremiah 1:15 as PPAs comparable to John 8:58 (which you noted but failed to include in your summation).

3. Finally, we have Proverbs 8:25, which you also wish to see as an "eternal present." But here again the present tense main verb "he begets" is modified by a PRO TOU clause referring to past time in such a way that the main verb must have a past tense value. Our disinclination to read this as a PPA is based solely on the CONTENT of the verb, not the grammar or syntax of the sentence. We think of the action of begetting as punctiliar, happening at one particular moment, and so we are inclined, as you note, to read this as a historical present. I agree with you that this is possible, but weak (although I don't understand your reasoning that "the odds of an historical present in a translation of a bit of Hebrew poetry would seem to be extremely minute"; this is a narrative section of the poem, surrounded by past tense verbs). You leap to the "eternal present" as better. But the PPA is more ready to hand: "He has begotten me." Note the full context:

22-23a The Lord created me ... before ...; he appointed me ... before ...
23b-25 In the beginning, before ..., before ..., before ..., before ..., he has begotten me.

The reason why the present is used as a PPA here is that the existence of the speaker is ongoing. I alluded to this special existential/identity function of the PPA before. This is why in the Testament of Job a present tense verb as a PPA is used to say Job "was" Jobab before he was renamed Job. He continues to be the person he was, he is still in existence. Jobab was not another person or a previous incarnation, it is the same, still alive person. It is not easy to convey this in English, but the Greek form was apparently well understood. In Proverbs 8:25, as you acknowledge, the use of the verb EKTISE (clearly a punctiliar past) in the context conflicts with an "eternal" reading of the verb GENNAi. The two verbs are in parallel, and here again the use of different verbal tenses suggests a nuance of difference, for while the act of creating Wisdom is handled as occurring at one point of past time, the act of begetting or generating Wisdom is construed as having an ongoing element. This may either be, as I have suggested, the implicit continued existence of Wisdom or else some nuance of meaning having to do with the manner in which God (continually) generates Wisdom.

So at least two and possibly three of your eleven examples are PPAs, and these are also the two or three that most closely resemble John 8:58, in that the aorist infinitive of the dependent adverbial clause is used of past time (as noted by Winer), rather than general or future time. Therefore your survey supports the identification of John 8:58 as a PPA, and the translation "I have been" or "I have existed." This is further supported by the examples of PPAs from your previous post, among which were a couple similar to John 8:58, in that they involved adverbial clauses of past time.

(Let me reply very briefly to your analysis of the two non-biblical examples I offered as examples of PPAs that used the be-verb with a "before" clause. Of the Menander quote, you say, "I agree that EIMI is a PPA here. However what qualifies it is a PPA is not the subordinate clause PRIN IDEIN but the adverb of time PALAI." This is a deduction from your (disproved) claim that adverbial clauses are not part of the PPA construction. If you remove the adverb PALAI from the sentence, you still have a sentence that would still be translated as a PPA: "I have been a friend of yours since before I saw you." It could not be a simple present, "I am a friend of yours since before I saw you," for that would be a non-sequiter. And if the statement was meant as a simple past, "I was a friend of your before I saw you," a past tense verb would be used. Hence your fixation on PALAI is beside the point. On the Testament of Job quote, you note the shift of tense in the next line to an imperfect: "I used to be called Jobab." But in the line I quoted a present tense verb is used with a "before" clause: "I have been (EIMI) Jobab since before the Lord named me Job." Admittedly, we would tend to render this in English as a simple past "I was Jobab." But it seems the PPA is employed because it is a matter of existential identity. The next line uses an imperfect because he is no longer CALLED Jobab, and yet the PPA present is used just before because in some sense he still IS Jobab. This is an unexplored aspect of the PPA that maybe I should write up someday. Of these two examples, you make the final point that "in neither of these texts is the verb EIMI absolute. That in in both texts a complement follows EIMI," and go on to say that in John 8:58 EIMI is absolute. No, it is not. It has an adverbial expression as part of the predicate. So the difference between the two examples I gave and John 8:58 is in the type of complement (nominal versus adverbial) rather than the presence or absence of a complement.) although you have yet to directly answer my question regarding what it is that you wish to defend in the traditional translation of John 8:58, and what you regard as threatened by (a) rendering the sentence in typical English word order and (b) rendering the verb in a tense complementary to its adverbial modifier, I can see by your line of argument that you wish the verb EIMI to convey eternal existence. To read it the way you wish, you do not need to hold on to (a) above. If the verb is going to convey eternal existence, it does not need to be awkwardly at the end of the sentence to do so. Nor does it need to be "am" rather than "exist to do so. Perhaps you have already recognized that, and that is why we have moved beyond that issue and focused on the proper tense rendering of the verb. So, moving on to (b) above, I have demonstrated in my last two posts why John 8:58 should be construed as a PPA, how it most closely resembles other sentences that we would translate as PPAs, and that the novel suggestion of an "eternal" present is a confusion of theological interpretation with literal translation. Your goal in this latter part of your argument would appear to be to exclude non-eternal interpretations of John 8:58. As I stated in the beginning of this discussion, you will not be able to exclude such non-eternal interpretations, just as your eternal interpretation cannot be excluded. Both are possible on the basis of the Greek of this verse. In your post #7, you pull back to the position that, "at the very least, one can no longer argue that texts following this grammatical pattern *must* be assigned the category PPA." Since I acknowledge that there is considerable range in how the PPA category is defined, we are in substantial agreement on this point. It all depends on what you mean by "this grammatical pattern." I have shown that three of your examples in this post are closer to John 8:58 than the others, and that all three are translated as PPAs in several Bibles, while two happen to be cited as PPAs closely parallel to John 8:58 in Greek grammars. In my previous post, I identified two other examples of "this grammatical pattern" that were also PPAs as you yourself acknowledged, although you did not recognize their clausal form. In all these cases, how the Greek functions is clear: it indicates past action continuing up to the present. So in that sense these examples MUST be assigned to the PPA category. In this post you have included
several other examples that are not PPAs, and I have never and would never argue that they are PPAs. Of these, you are quite right that there is nothing about them that says we MUST assign them to the PPA category. It is only a PPA if the modifying element refers to past time, not when it refers to customary or future time. So as in your previous post you argue here in a circular manner. You expand your examples to include non-PPAs and then dramatically announce that not all of your examples MUST be construed as PPAs(!). Nonetheless, the two or three examples that are PPAs are those that most closely resemble John 8:58.

All of this brings us, I think, full circle. As I pointed out in the very beginning of our discussion, I am concerned with translation, and you with interpretation. Your desire to have only one possible interpretation of this verse has driven you into the realm of translation, because only by arguing for a particular translation can you close off interpretations you do not care for. You have been unsuccessful in this effort, despite very careful research. Translation will not provide you with the narrowing of possible meaning you desire. The translation should be "I have been" or "I have been in existence" or "I have existed." In the realm of interpretation, you can take that as "always, eternally in existence" or "for a time in existence." All that the sentence says is existence at least since "before Abraham was born." To argue out which interpretation is better, one needs to pull in other passages and construct a Christology from them. The grammar and syntax of John 8:58 alone will not settle the question. I have yet to see any evidence or argument that supports narrowing the meaning of the grammar of the verse, or anything to persuade me that there was such a thing as an "eternal present" in the Greek language. Since we seem to have exhausted the biblical data on the grammar and syntax of John 8:58, since the closest parallels among that data all support the reading of the verse I have been defending, and since broader interpretation and Christology is not what this discussion is about, I am inclined to see this exchange as nearing its finish. Of course, if you have anything new to introduce, I would be happy to consider it.

Best wishes,
Jason B.

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