For an Answer Home Mars Hill  Index Bibliography Glossary
The Bible Gateway The Blue Letter Bible The Greek New Testament (NA26) Greek & Hebrew Lexicons

powered by FreeFind

Mars Hill  Apologetic Discussions



Jason BeDuhn's Third Reply to Robert Hommel 


Dear Robert,
Thank you for your latest set of thoughtful remarks and questions on the issues surrounding the translation of John 1:1c. I want to focus on a few key points that I think hold the most promise for reaching clarity in this discussion. I think we have already made substantial progress in that direction, and I want to stay on track. 

So, we set aside Metzger and all those who, like Metzger misuse Colwell. We can also set aside Colwell, because you and I agree that, even if he is right, his "rule" cannot settle the translation of John 1:1c. The fact is, though, that Colwell is not right. His own article contains data that shows so many exceptions to his "rule" (that is, fifteen definite nouns that DO HAVE the article even though they are before the verb) that no one should have taken his claims seriously. His predetermination of definiteness made his whole study circular from the start. You say:

ROBERT: We agree - at least I hope we do - that such nouns can also -
in some cases - convey a definite semantic nuance (that is, be semantically
equivalent to having the article). Thus, we cannot assume that simply
because the noun is anarthrous that it must be indefinite. 

JB: On the contrary, there are only a couple of examples in the whole NT where a definite semantic nuance appears necessary despite the lack of an article. But here we have to wonder, since the grammar does not indicate definiteness, whether we are importing definiteness from how we would say something in English. The best example of this is John 19:31 where English usage suggests a definite sense to "preparation day," which appears in this verse as an article-less predicate noun before the verb. Yet just a few verses earlier, in John 19:14, the same expression, "preparation day" appears as an article-less predicate noun AFTER the verb, where it must be indefinite. So we need to recognize the mismatch between how Greek uses indefinites and English does. You also say:

ROBERT: While Colwell's methodology can be characterized as "subjective," that does not
necessarily invalidate his results.

JB: But on the contrary, the subjective basis of his determination of definiteness makes it interpretive rather than translational. How does he KNOW they are definite without some sort of objectively valid grammatical marker of definiteness? That's what I mean by circular, and that makes his claims invalid. But what does this have to do with John 1:1c? Just this point that I started to make above. When we see how exactly Colwell went wrong we learn something about a basic mistake we may be making when we translate. Colwell was often misled by how we would say something IN ENGLISH into thinking that in Greek it has definiteness. But Greek communicates meaning in different ways than English does. The very same problem afflicts appeals to "qualitative" vs. "indefinite" -- these are semantic distinctions we make in English, and that can be distinguished grammatically in English, but in Greek there is no grammatical distinction and therefore we cannot be sure there was a semantic distinction. The claim that there is a distinct "qualitative noun" in Greek is only a hypothesis, and cannot be proven because there is nothing in the grammar that conclusively shows such a distinct noun function. Ah, but what about Harner?

Harner believes that he sees a trend in noun placement that points to a distinct semantic function, namely, that an article-less predicate noun before the verb conveys "quality." This is certainly not a "rule," because there are plenty of exceptions. That is, we have article-less predicate nouns before the verb that are clearly indefinite, rather than qualitative in meaning, for example:

John 9:16 "And there was a schism among them." "A schism," indefinite, not in any sense qualitative.

Mark 6:49 "It is a ghost." "A ghost" is used here to identify, not designate quality. The one quality is given in the narrative: what they see walks on water. From that one quality they conclude the identity, that is, the category to which what they see belongs: the ghost category. (Harner agrees, page 78).

1 Corinthians 8:4 "There is no god except one." "No god" with an article-less theos where a category, not a quality, is referred to, as clearly shown by the use of a enumerative expression, "no/none."

You add:

ROBERT: A Greek writer can express the indefinite force in copulative
sentences unambiguously by placing the noun after the verb and dropping
the article. 

JB: But we also have article-less predicate nouns in after the verb that are every bit as much "qualitative" as Harner's nouns, such as in Mark 9:35; Luke 20:33; John 4:18; John 18:13; Acts 10:36; 2 Thessalonians 2:4. You go on:

ROBERT: The fact that he can also place the anarthrous noun prior to
the verb, and when doing so, the result - more often than not - lays stress
on the quality of the noun - seems to me a rather clear GRAMMATICAL

JB: This would be so if there was a grammatical rule. But there is no such rule, as the counter-examples demonstrate. We must be clear to our readers here that Harner and some others following him are ADVOCATING qualitativeness as a separate semantic category. But this has not been PROVEN to be true of Greek. Harner himself uses plenty of "may be"s in his article. I have looked at the very same evidence, and I contend that it shows that while indefiniteness and qualitativeness are distinct semantic categories in English, they are not in Greek. That mismatch means that there is room for variations in translation of sentences like John 1:1c. But there are also limits to how far your variation can go. When in comes to Greek grammar, the basic characteristic I learned in school and from the grammars is that word order is not significant grammatically, generally speaking. Greek has cases and relational particles that relieve word order of grammatical function. And so we see Greek writers arranging sentences in all sorts of orders.

Not that word order cannot serve some semantic function. Harner actually throws in, page 85, that "the word theos is placed at the beginning for emphasis." This has often been stated over the centuries, and Harner is saying nothing new. But it's a big problem for his thesis, because he can't have it both ways. Either John placed theos first to convey quality, or he placed it first for emphasis. It can't do both at the same time. Placing a word first in a sentence for emphasis is universally recognized as something that is done in Greek, whereas the "qualitative" function of such placement is still debatable. You say:

ROBERT: And in clear cases where quality is stressed (we'll discuss some of those, below), the
semantic force is far from indefinite (membership in a class), and must be
preserved in translation, as much as possible, without adding ambiguity with
an indefinite rendering, if such did not exist in the target language.

JB: I very strenuously disagree with your statement that qualitative semantic force is "far" from indefinite semantic force. In Greek they are indistinguishable, as I have said. There may be some need to distinguish them in English (the target language), but always keeping in mind that this is a distinction not made in Greek (the source language). You also say:

ROBERT: In the English example I provided, I don't believe that "man" denotes a
category of being. I am not saying that homo erectus is a category of
being. "Man" certainly contains within its semantic range the idea of a
category of men (a generic sense); but in the sentence I wrote, that
category is not the referent of "man." Nor am I saying that he is a member
of a category of being - that would be an indefinite semantic force - "homo
erectus was a man." I am using "man" in a qualitative sense to mean that
he possesses all the attributes or characteristics of humanity. I'm arguing
from the sense I intend by writing that sentence the way I did - not what
may be deduced from it. 

JB: That's fine that you as the author can tell us what you intend. But we don't have John tot ell us what he intended by what he wrote. All we have is the language he used from which we must deduce a meaning which we hope and have some reason to believe (based on language choices he made) is what he intended. You go on:

ROBERT: We may deduce that having the qualities of "man,"
homo erectus was also in a class or category of "man," but you'll notice
that we have to indefinitize the noun grammatically to unambiguously
express this idea. The GRAMMAR stipulates only that the qualities are
attributed to the subject ("Homo Erectus is man" not "is a member of the
category of man").

JB: Yes, Robert, ENGLISH makes this grammatical distinction, but GREEK does not. Take for example Mark 12:27: "He is not a god of the dead" or "He is not god of the dead." By your definition, a negated "qualitative." But it is expressed here by an article-less predicate noun AFTER the verb, so outside of Harner's set and surely indefinite grammatically. The very same semantic force is conveyed in Luke 20:38: "He is not a god of the dead" or "He is not god of the dead," but this time with an article-less predicate noun BEFORE the verb. You can see that these are interchangeable in meaning, while employing different word orders, one definitely indefinite in construction, the other looking just as indefinite, but falling into Harner's set. Greek does not appear to distinguish these the way Harner wants to. So, having made this point, let me move forward to something else you say.


ROBERT: We're agreed that indefiniteness places a person or thing in a
class or category. We're also agreed that indefiniteness implies that the
attributes associated with the class are possessed by the member, at least
to some degree. But I don't agree that there is no qualitative noun in Greek
grammar. There are quite a few Greek scholars that do not agree with you
on this point, either. I'm not making an appeal to authority, here - just
pointing out that I'm not out on a limb on this one. If we accept as given
that a non-definite noun may express two meanings - membership or
qualities - it seems obvious that in any given context, a writer may be
stressing one or the other. It's possible, as some have argued, that the
writer may be equally stressing both, but I tend to think that writers have
one specific semantic force in mind, and our inability, at times, to discern
which force is intended is an artifact of the inherent ambiguity of language.
I find Harner convincing that when the author intends to stress quality, he
places the anarthrous noun prior to the copula. In such cases, I believe
considering the noun qualitative more accurately reflects the author's
meaning. I would never argue that John 1:1 (or any other disputed verse)
proves that the semantic category of qualitativeness exists. Other semantic
forces are possible in such a construction. However, I think there are rather
clear examples of qualitative usage elsewhere, and quite a few of them. So,
while I understand your view that qualitative = indefinite, I think this
approach to semantics does not provide an adequate way to express the
author's meaning.

JB; This is a very sound statement of a position that, while not in full agreement with mine, is defensible. I am willing to walk down this road with you, and assume a "qualitative" semantic force as something logically separable, and in English grammatically distinct, from an indefinite. The next question would be, what is meant by "qualitative"? What I find in what you have written in our discussion, and in some of the studies you cite, is a leap from the general, linguistic meaning of "qualitative" to a very specific philosophical concept of "in every sense the same as x." This same leap is made by Wallace and Hartley. But this very elaborate and restrictive definition of "qualitative" cannot be derived from the language alone, but is read into the language as a desired interpretation. It is a leap that cannot be substantiated, as you can see if you try to apply it to every case where a "qualitative" semantic force appears.

ROBERT: You were, I think, telling me that Greek grammar cannot convey
something as tightly defined as "nature." I was pointing out that the very
definition that Harner and others have given to "qualitative" points to
nature. Harner makes this same connection, though I'm sure you don't
agree with him on this point. 

JB: We are just moving the question from one term to the next, from "quality" to "nature." When you use "nature" it has theological overtones derived from the philosophical elaboration of Christology that occurred over several centuries after John was written. Yes, that elaboration was based in part on what John wrote, and I am not arguing over whether or not that elaboration went in the right direction. What I am saying is that you cannot pack the entire content of that very carefully defined concept of "nature" into the linguistic designation "quality." "Quality" just isn't that precise, and any Greek scholar speaking about a "qualitative" sense in a noun in any other text would be really shocked to see the term construed as conveying the meaning you and others are giving it.

In the linguistic sense, "quality" means the character, condition, substance, status, etc. that something has. In any given case the exact nuance, the exact set of qualities that are being tapped into, will vary. That was the point I was trying to make by bringing up metaphor and simile -- NOT that John 1:1 is a metaphor or simile, because I don't think that -- but that both Greek and English are able to make metaphors and similes by constructing parallelisms that invoke some, but not all of the qualities possessed by the subject and object of the parallel. You say:

ROBERT: I think nouns with qualitative-indefinite or indefinite semantic forces can
carry the sense to which you're referring. The predominant sense imparted
by a qualitative noun is to attribute the qualities of the PN in full measure
to the subject; at least I'm unaware of any counter-examples. It's possible
there are some exceptions, and I'd like to learn of them if you know of any.
But I think the "full measure" connotation is well established: When we read
that God is spirit, or God is love, I don't think it's reasonable to conclude
that there are some qualities of spirit lacking in God, or that He does not
have all the qualities of love.

JB: I think part of the problem with us getting on the same page is that you keep taking your examples from theologically significant passages, where God or Christ is the subject, so naturally your beliefs read in "full measure." But if we look at examples where the subject is not so significant, you will see that your "full measure" over-determination of "quality" doesn't hold up. For example: 

John 6:70 "One of you is a devil."

This sentence has an article-less predicate noun before the verb, just like John 1:1c. By what you've been arguing in line with Harner, we should consider it qualitative. Fine. Does Jesus mean that Judas (the implied subject) has the "full measure," that is every single one of the qualities of a devil? Well, some of the qualities of a "devil" are that it is disembodied, can move itself and others instantly over great distances, can possess people and animals, and has other powers humans do not have (all of this is biblical). Does Judas have even one of these qualities? No, he does not. So by calling Judas "a devil," Jesus is making a general association between Judas and a devil, one that draws on only some of a devil's qualities (such as maliciousness, betrayal, etc.). You see, a qualitative semantic function does not necessarily involve the "full measure" of qualities.

But the question is not "full measure" or "partial measure" as issues of INTERPRETING what John wrote. The question is how to TRANSLATE a qualitative noun. I think we have come very close to one another in recognizing that the traditional translation is flawed. But where we seem to be stuck is what is suitably put in its place. "A god," "god," "a divine being," "divine," even "deity" in the way you use it, mean the same thing. You simply cannot derive from the grammar anything as over-determined as "possessing all the qualities." That's an interpretation you are building on top of the grammar based on other passages. Interpretation is fine, but it shouldn't be confused with translation. If John wanted to say "possessing all the qualities" he certainly could have written that. This issue keeps coming up for us, as in the following exchange:

JB: When Pilate asks "Am I a Jew?" He is not asking, "Am I circumcised? Do I
pray at set times of the day? Do I observe the sabbath?" etc. -- all the
attributes of Jewishness. He means simply, "Do I belong to the category of
persons for whom what you are saying would have some meaning?"

ROBERT: This is an interesting example. I'll have to give this one some
further thought, but my initial reaction is that the 'mhti' at the beginning of
the verse inverts the qualitative force - "I not Jewish, am I?" meaning, "I
don't have any qualities of a Jew, do I?

JB: It simply isn't relevant to the context that Pilate would mean "I don't have any of the qualities of a Jew." There is a specific reference point to which he is responding, and anything else is superfluous to the narrative. So it is arbitrary to pack the "full measure" of Jewishness into it. Likewise, in Mark 12:35: "The Messiah is a son of David." Jesus' own remarks here show that not all of the qualities are being invoked. Descent yes, but the hierarchical subordination of a son to a father is specifically rejected as not accurately connoted by this expression. The same holds true for the very verse Harner was most interested in exegeting, Mark 15:39: "Truly this man was a son of God." Is the centurion asserting that Christ had the "full measure" of qualities of a son of God? Contextual reading is essential here. The centurion is remarking on the evidence of what is happening around him that God loved this person like a son, and thus the signs of the cosmos being shaken and stirred by his death. He certainly is in no position to make claims about the person's birth (which is another member of the full set of qualities one would have as a son, but is not even a subject in Mark's gospel). "Son of God" was a widely used title for a person beloved of God, chosen or favored by God, and the centurion is portrayed invoking that sense of it. The title is used more fully, more significantly, in the mouth of others in the NT, perhaps even in the sense of the "full measure" of qualities of such a title. But not here.

So if I go along, and say, "okay, let's call it qualitative," then our next joint task is to look at how English conveys qualitative relative to how Greek conveys it. Some examples from sentences using the same grammatical construct as John 1:1c:

John 4:19 "You are a prophet" not "You are prophet."
John 8:34 "Everyone who does sin is a slave of sin" not ". . . is slave of sin."
John 8:48 "You are a Samaritan" not "You are Samaritan."
John 9:24 "This man is a sinner" not "This man is sinner."
John 9:28 "You are a disciple of that man" not "You are disciple of that man."
John 10:1 "This one is a thief" not "This one is thief."
John 12:6 "He was a thief" not "He was thief."

I'm not going to argue that these are indefinites rather than qualitatives. You have cited several of them already as qualitative, and we'll just consider them qualitative. Even so, in English they must be translated as indefinites. That's just the way English conveys the meaning, which happens to be precisely the same way Greek does -- namely, by saying something is one of a category of things, you convey its quality. You say:

ROBERT: As I hope I've clarified, I don't prefer the adjectival rendering.
When an adjectival form for a noun exists - as it does with theos/theios -
we must ask if the substantive used qualitatively is synonymous with the
adjectival form. We must ask if there are examples of it modifying a
substantive as an adjective elsewhere in our literature. Hamartwlos does
not have distinct forms of substantive and adjective, and does modify other
nouns, which is why (as I have previously stated) I think an adjectival
rendering may be appropriate in some contexts. But this is not the case
with theos. 

JB: I am not particularly interested in understanding theos as an adjective. I have simply pointed out that a predicate adjective is something we use in English to convey . . . "quality." For example, John 7:12 reads agathos estin, which can be translated as either "He is a good man" or "He is good." In both the original Greek and in English, the indefinite and the qualitative mean the same thing. In English you can use either an indefinite predicate noun or a predicate adjective; there is not even a shade of semantic difference.

So the problem here is that you work very hard to defend a "qualitative" reading of John 1:1c over against an indefinite one, and then you refuse to embrace the translational outcome of that "qualitative" reading because it does not, in itself, provide all of the interpretive restrictiveness you wish to impose on the verse. You want ot move it back towards an individual meaning, a definite meaning, or at the very least to read "qualitative" in a very specialized way that simply does not apply to the ordinary linguistic meaning of that word. You want to infuse "quality" with theological significance. And that brings us back to the use of capitals. You say:

ROBERT: The use of the definite article "the Deity" signifies
a certain person is in view; the anarthrous use ("Deity") does not signify
the person, but the qualities of Deity. I won't quibble about the capital,
other than to say that nouns may be capitalized for emphasis, not merely
to signify a proper name.

JB: You're being disingenuous here, Robert. The qualitative sense you have been arguing so strenuously for REQUIRES a non-capitalized "d" in English. A capital "D" does not communicate the qualitative sense. It seems to me that something is holding you back from following through on the logic of your own position. What seems to be difficult for you to accept is that the qualitative semantic force rules out the traditional translation of John 1:1c, because capitalization of "God" or any substitute term does not convey the qualitative sense in English. Capitalization makes a noun proper, a name or title. John is not using it as either a name or title in 1:1c. Just as you wouldn't translate John 10:34 as "You are Gods," so you shouldn't arbitrarily use a capital in John 1:1c. Similarly, it is incorrect to translate 2 Thessalonians 2:4 as "he is God" (as some translations do). That's not the claim the antichrist makes, but rather that "he is a god," or, qualitatively, "he is god." Capitalizing "God" confuses the claim to belong to the category of "gods" or to have the qualities of a "god" with the claim to be specifically identical to the individual God. This confusion should be avoided here and, speaking strictly linguistically, as a matter of translation, the same holds true for John 1:1c.

ROBERT: It is, I think, the translator's
burden to attempt to ascertain John's meaning as best he or she can by
careful consideration of these larger chunks, rather than acquiesing to
grammatical possibilities.

JB: What will set limits to your ability to read anything you might want into the Bible if you disdain to "acquiesce" to grammatical possibilities? The larger the "chunk" the more interpretive the reading, the more a generalized, abstracted, derived meaning can be injected into any one part. This gets to my whole point about bias, about the temptation not to be confronted by the challenges of the text. You and I have different definitions of contextual reading. For me the parts define the whole, while it seems to me that for you the whole defines the parts. I think the latter approach is too open to arbitrary harmonization, and what I mean by "harmonization" is imposing an agreement of passages on one's own terms, that is, what someone on their own thinking, prior to and outside of the text, thinks to be right and true. For me, close attention to the particulars, to the details of the individual passages, prevents me from having the free space in which I might unconsciously impose my will on the text. On your web site you characterize my position as "secular." Maybe I come across that way sometime, but I feel it to be a bit of an assumption on your part. After all, Christians believe in a God who reveals, and that revelation is communicated in language. Therefore, according to this set of beliefs, language is the key God has provided to knowing his will. If you presume to know God's will despite, rather than through, the language in which it is supposedly communicated, then the Bible will become merely the mirror of your own will, rather than the window to God's.

That's all for me. I know I haven't responded to all your questions, but I hope I have addressed the most salient points. Classes start on Monday and I must turn my full attention to them. I'll give you the last word, Robert. I'm sure our readers look forward to your response. Maybe we can pick up with some time in the future.

Best wishes,
Jason BeDuhn

Return to Jason BeDuhn - Robert Hommel Index