Wednesday, January 12, 2005

RB16600 - Rob #23: Word order revisited 

(16600) Robert Bowman [Wed Jan 12, 2005 1:20 am] (Rob #23: Word order revisited)


I have spent a good many hours composing my responses to your last round of posts from the end of October. It was my intention to post my responses when had finished with all of them, so as to avoid duplicating comments on similar points. In light of your post yesterday, I will go ahead and start posting what I have ready.

In my previous post in this discussion (dated November 14), I commented on the first few sentences of your review of our earlier exchange on the matter of word order (your post #17, p. 217). In this post, I will respond to the rest of that same section of your post dealing with word order (pp. 217-19). But first I will reply to your attempt in yesterday's post (which, by the way, should be numbered #23) to show that you had not changed your position at all (pp. 274-75).


You wrote:

In your message of Nov. 14th (Rob #22, Message 15992), you accuse me of changing my position. I have not changed my position. I have clarified it. As I stated before, the drive to be as simple as possible in my book sometimes led me to over-generalizations which I have been able to refine in a forum such as this where the discussion gets more technical. (p. 274)

I knew you were off to a bad start when you construed the matter as a difference between your book and your comments in our online discussion. The discrepancy that I noted was between your earlier posts, particularly post #2, and your post #17. Let us review. Here is what you said in post #2:

But leaving that aside for the moment, and looking at these various versions just as English sentences, they are not English sentences. That's true of the NW as well as of almost all of the others.. 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 NW rendering of John 8:58 has only the anomaly of broken syntax (the main clause at the end of the sentence), which it shares with almost all the other versions, and that's just a residue of the English translation tradition of the verse as far as I can see. (pp. 18, 22, 24)

This is the same position as the one taken in your book, and you return to it in today's post:

My clarification of 'broken-syntax' is a clarification, not a change of position, because it tightens up the sense in which I was saying that the inversion of standard English word order was in itself a defect of translation. I have never changed to saying it was not a defect. I have continued to maintain, as I did in my book, that it is itself a defect distinct from the issue of verbal tense. It is a defect because the isolated be-verb cannot, as a rule, stand at the end of a sentence with its predicate complement relocated to a position in front of it. To write an English sentence with this inverted order is 'fractured' or 'mangled' syntax. (p. 274)

So, in your book, in your post #2, and in your post #23, you take the position that the inverted order of most translations of John 8:58 (including the NWT) is in and of itself "broken" or "fractured" or "mangled" syntax, independent of the English tense used to translate EIMI. However, in post #17, you wrote the following:

In your post 3, you denied that the word order found in most English translations of this verse was, in my words, "fractured or broken syntax." You argued that English has flexibility to put dependent clauses before main clauses, and this does not constitute "fractured" syntax. I clarified that my characterization referred to both the word order and the disharmony of verbal tenses between the main and dependent clauses, and that these two aberrations together merited that characterization. (p. 217)

The "characterization" to which you refer with that word twice in the last sentence quoted here is "fractured or broken syntax." You state here that "my characterization referred to BOTH THE WORD ORDER AND THE DISHARMONY OF VERBAL TENSES" and that "THESE TWO ABERRATIONS TOGETHER merited that characterization." Thus, in your post #17 you claimed that your position was that it was only the combination of these two elements ("the word order and the disharmony of verbal tenses") that merited the characterization of fractured or broken syntax.

To review: in your book, your post #2, and your post #23, you clearly state that the inverted word order in most translations of John 8:58 is in and of itself fractured, broken, or mangled syntax. In your post #17, however, you claimed that you had clarified your position to be that this fractured or broken syntax characterizes the conventional translations of John 8:58 because of the "two aberrations together" of inverted word order and the translation of EIMI with "am" ("disharmony of verbal tenses"). This is clearly a contradiction in your online discussion, and in fact you have veered back and forth on the matter (inverted word order alone is broken syntax, post #2; inverted word order together with disharmony of verbal tenses constitutes broken syntax, post #17; inverted word order alone is broken syntax, post #23). Rather than further clarifying the matter, your post #23 exacerbates the problem.

You also wrote:

It appears to me that you have confused two separate issues I addressed in my book: (1) whether the inverted word order is a defect of translation, and (2) whether the defect is sufficient in itself to indicate theological bias in the translation. My answer to the first is, and always has been, YES. My answer to the second is, and always has been, NOT NECESSARILY (because habituation to the traditional translation can cause translators to not notice the defect in it, and so not consciously choose the inverted word order, but follow it as 'normal' from tradition or habituation). (p. 274)

The above statement really makes me wonder whether you actually read all of my post #22. I clearly stated:

"I agreed that you built your case *for bias* on the cumulative effect of these two aspects of the traditional translation (along with the capitalization of "I AM," which as I pointed out applies to only a few modern versions). I did *not* agree that your meaning (previously) was that the traditional rendering of John 8:58 was 'fractured or broken syntax' onlywhen those two 'aberrations' were combined" (p. 272).

In the rest of your post #23, you assert that I have not yet refuted your basic point. I think I have done so, but I will revisit the matter in the rest of this post.


I turn, then, back to your post #17, picking up where I left off in my post #22. You wrote:

I went on in my post 4, making use of one of the most respected modern grammars of English, to demonstrate that the noted flexibility in ordering clauses in English is not found in connection with the be-verb. You subsequently (your post 5) acknowledged that it was "unusual" for the be-verb to be employed with the same flexibility of word order found with other verbs. I introduced the difference between adjuncts and complements to the verb, which I had left out of my book as too technical for the broad audience I was addressing. This difference is crucial in determining how flexible one can be with the order of clauses in a sentence. Since the dependent clause in John 8:58 is a verbal complement, not an adjunct, it should not be preposed to the main clause. You subsequently (your post 5) acknowledged my explanation of this rule of English grammar (which you summed up as: "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"]") without argument or further comment. You had offered a long list of English passages from the Bible which you felt demonstrated the ability to prepose the dependent clause. I pointed out that most of them did not involve the be-verb, and those that did involved adjuncts, not complements, to the be-verb. These arguments of mine went unanswered in all subsequent posts, and so, unless you have something more to add, can be considered to have prevailed. (p. 217)

It isn't true that these arguments went unanswered. I gave an example from the LXX that translators usually render with the similar dependent clause (PRIN + aorist infinitive) preposed before the be-verb (Ps. 89:2 LXX). Your response was to argue, in effect, that the translators erred in their rendering of that text as well. I also argued that the dependent clause in John 8:58 can be construed as an adjunct. You may disagree, but I did answer your argument.

You wrote:

I provided an extensive (but far from exhaustive) list of pronoun+be-verb statements in the New Testament to illustrate when and how these were employed. This served to demonstrate that English usually reorders the sequence of words relative to the Greek in acknowledgment of the different demands of syntax between the two languages. It showed how some uses were closer to John 8:58 than others, and how the closer parallels generally avoided the final position of the be-verb in the clause, so that the verbal complement preposed to the main verb in the Greek would follow the main verb in English, since English syntax normally follows this order. This contribution, which amounts to five printed pages, was never acknowledged or responded to by you. (pp. 217-18)

The main point in those five pages (pp. 40-45) was whether EIMI in John 8:58 is to be construed existentially or copulatively. You cited a variety of texts to illustrate the difference and to show that when translating the Greek be-verb into English one must choose between using "exist" (or some equivalent) or a copula such as "am"-in which case the English translation
must (you argued) express or clearly imply a predicate complement following the copula. In this regard, you wrote:

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. (p. 42)

I quoted the above statements and responded to you on this issue in my post #17 (pp. 199-201).

You wrote:

I further argued that English normally employs alternatives to the be-verb when we wish to make absolute existential statements, that the use of the be-verb in this capacity had fallen out of English usage since the days of King James. You initially (your post 5) tried to dispute that English had changed that much in the last three hundred years, but wisely dropped this position as untenable. (p. 218)

"Tried to dispute" is a bit overstated. I said I was "unsure if English has changed in this respect" and said that I thought we could find contemporary examples (Rob #5, p. 50). You disqualified the one example I gave off the top of my head ("Let It _Be_") on the ground that it is imperative and poetry (Jason #6A, p. 54). I didn't pursue the matter further, but I still think some contemporary examples can be found. This one might be adequate to illustrate the point:

"While Eeyore Frets...
And Piglet Hesitates...
And Rabbit Calculates...
And Owl Pontificates...
Pooh Just _Is_."
--Benjamin Hoff, _The Tao of Pooh_ (emphasis in original)

It's somewhat poetic, so you may object to it as an example of those grounds. Then again, Psalm 89:2 LXX is poetry, but you objected to translators rendering the last two words there as "you are," so I'm not sure poetry has much to do with it. And in the above example, the dependent
clause ("While...") is preposed before the main clause. Quick-write a letter to Mr. Hoff and tell him to join the 21st-century English-speaking world!

Here's an example from a New Age book on prayer:

"_Everything that ever was or ever will be_ already _exists_.... So in God's
world, all already _is_."-Guy Finley, _The Lost Secrets of Prayer_
(Llewellyn, 1998), 32, 33 (emphasis in original).

It's not imperative, and it's not poetry. So, it would seem that by your criteria the use of "is" at the end of the second sentence instead of "exists" is poor English usage. Yet it seems fine to me.

Perhaps you could argue that these examples are dissimilar to the conventional English translations of Psalm 89:2 LXX and John 8:58 in that the above examples italicize "is" for emphasis: "Pooh Just _Is_"; "all already _is_." I think such an "out" would be a stretch. The wording would carry essentially the same force without the italics; the use of italics simply makes more explicit or emphatic what is already evident as to the import of the word "is" in these two texts.

You wrote:

In your post 5, you conceded that the order found in most translations of John 8:58 was "unusual or even odd." In my reply I said that this admission was sufficient to place the burden of proof on a defender or "unusual or odd" word order in an English translation. You had suggested that the word order of the original was "also unusual," and this seemed to be the line of argument you intended to follow to defend the unusual or odd English order. But I stated there was nothing at all unusual about the Greek word order, and asked directly: "Please be precise: what is it that you consider out of the ordinary for Greek grammar here?" You have never replied to this question. (p. 218)

Your summary of the discussion here is once again a bit off. I did not say that the word *order* of most English translations of John 8:58 was unusual or odd. I said that one might fairly describe "the wording" that way. Likewise, I said that "the wording" of the Greek was unusual, not the word *order*. Here is the whole paragraph from my post #5:

"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" (p. 50).

I have already addressed this question about what is unusual in the wording of John 8:58, at least indirectly, but I do plan to say more about it when I reply to your post #19, dealing with the PRIN + aorist infinitive clause. A brief answer here without a full explanation will almost certainly not do.

As for the burden of proof, I believe I showed why we may translate John 8:58 as most English versions do. Additionally, the fact that most English versions, including the decidedly nontraditional NWT, prepose the adverbial clause shifts the burden of proof back in the direction of those who would say that all of these translators got it wrong.

You wrote:

I should also repeat here that there is no direct correlation between Greek word order and English word order. In my book, I quoted Orlinsky & Bratcher on this point. They referred to the notion that "faithfulness in translation demands that the word order of the original be reproduced," and commented, "This , of course, is simply wrong" (History of Bible Translation, 1991, page 251), a view that is shared by all the major modern translations. An "unusual" order in one does not dictate "unusual" order in the other. It is only when an "unusual" word order in Greek has some semantic significance that that significance must be rendered in English is some way - by word order if appropriate. But none of this has been demonstrated for John 8:58, by you or anyone else. (p. 218)

I did not say that the unusual wording of the Greek "dictated" an unusual wording in the English translation. However, it at least allows for it and may be a reason to prefer it, depending on the specifics of the case. Remember, you have been arguing that "I am" is absolutely unacceptable,
whereas I have simply been arguing that it is legitimate and even, arguably, the best rendering-not that it *must* be translated that way. Why do I think the conventional translation is the best? With respect to word order, it is because the conventional word order in translations of John 8:58 more forcefully expresses the contrast between "came into being" and "am" that is expressed in the Greek between GENESAQI and EIMI.

You began your conclusion of your review on word order as follows:

With your post 6 and subsequent posts, you have made no further argument on the issue of word order, leaving my position unrefuted and my refutation of your arguments standing. Thus, unless you wish to mount any new argument, we can consider the issue of word order closed. (p. 218)

I have explained why I think your claim that your position stands unrefuted is false. I did respond to your arguments and rebutted the crucial points from your "refutation."

You wrote:

The main clause should proceed the dependent clause in an accurate translation of John 8:58: "I am/have been before Abraham was born." This correct word order acknowledges the function of the dependent clause "before . . ." as a depictive complement of the main verb, a function that you have accepted without argument. (p. 218)

Again, I argued that the dependent clause might be an adjunct rather than a complement, so once again your review of the discussion is in error. Shortly after making the above statement, you acknowledged that I had made that argument:

All that remains in your avoidance of this conclusion is the claim that "I am" is a "predicate absolute," and hence the "before" clause is an adjunct, not a complement. (p. 219)

I am having difficulty putting your two claims together. Did I accept the "depictive complement" function of the dependent clause "without argument," or did I argue that the clause "is an adjunct, not a complement"?

You wrote:

Now you have stated this claim both in respect to the English and in respect to the Greek, so I will need to address both sides of this claim. (p. 219)

I said that the Greek dependent clause is probably an adjunct. What the corresponding English words are depends on how the sentence is translated, of course.

You wrote:

I will comment on the Greek in my reply to your post 17. On the English, first of all, it would have to be "I exist," not "I am" to be an absolute and, second, you would have to read the sentence to mean that Jesus is declaring his present existence plain and simple, not his existence in any time reference to Abraham. Since this breaks the sentence up into meaningless and decontextualized fragments, it is unacceptable. In context, Jesus is clearly saying he was already in existence at a particular point of past time, and in English this requires the dependent clause to serve as a verb complement, not an adjunct, the verb to not be read absolutely but to be completed by the sense of the dependent clause, and a resultant shift in the verb from the simple present to the past or past progressive. (p.219)

I believe the above argument misunderstands the concept of an adjunct dependent clause. The adjunct cannot stand alone, but the main clause to which that adjunct is related could stand alone-yet the adjunct contributes something to the meaning of the whole sentence. Let me quote some examples of temporal adjunct expressions and dependent clauses from _The Cambridge
Grammar of the English Language_:

"I read your thesis _last week_" (p. 694).
"_When John attacked Bill_ the police arrested him" (p. 699).
"_On hearing this news_, he phoned his solicitor" (p. 699).

Obviously, the adjunct expressions and dependent clauses in these examples-"last week," "when John attacked Bill," "on hearing the news"-cannot stand alone as sentences; they require the main clauses to gain their meaningful context. However, the main clauses are meaningful without the dependent clauses. One could write or say, "I read your thesis" or "The police arrested him" or "He phoned his solicitor" and these are coherent, complete sentences in their own right.

Remember, all I'm arguing is that the evidence does not rise to the level needed to warrant your strong claim that most English translations botch the rendering of John 8:58. That strong claim is prima facie suspect when so many scholars skilled in the use of English have rendered it in that traditional way, and the specific objections you have advanced to justify your criticism all seem answerable.

My next post will complete my response to your post #17.

In Christ's service,

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

Comments: Post a Comment

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?