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Mars Hill  Apologetic Discussions



Jason BeDuhn's Fourth Reply to Robert Hommel 

Part 1


Dear friends,

As you know it had been my intention to close this discussion with my last message, and Mr. Hommel's reply to it. It is Mr. Hommel's tenacity, ability to argue a position, and skill in raising crucial points that have compelled me to return one more time to clarify the key points where we have fundamental differences, and why I think basic grammatical facts are being overlooked or misconstrued in his argument. In biblical studies, we frequently must engage in this sort of refutation of people we respect, and I hope my response will be seen in that light. But I would not bother to come back just to restate our differences. In reading his latest message, I was able to see some important common ground of principle that he and I share. We both believe in cautious, contextual reading. We both are anxious not to read into the text things that are not really there. We both recognize the importance of a solid foundation in the grammar of the Bible, while acknowledging that grammar alone is not sufficient to answer all translation issues. So I began to see that some of our apparent differences might be due more to confusion over our use of terms, or miscommunication over the relevance of a particular line of reasoning. For these reasons, and because Mr. Hommel asked additional questions and invited me to respond when I find the time, I have returned to the discussion. In what follows I sometimes speak to our readers, and at other times direct my remarks to Mr. Hommel himself.

Clarification #1
In his latest message, Mr. Hommel spends some time more on Colwell. I made the error of continuing to discuss Colwell after we both agreed that "Colwell's Rule" cannot settle the point at issue in translating John 1:1c. The debate over whether Colwell's Rule is valid or not is entirely beside the point. So it can be set aside in this discussion, as it should have been before. The only reason it keeps coming up is a lingering tendency in Mr. Hommel's argument to lean towards a definite reading of THEOS in 1:1c. This involves a grammatical error found in the following two sentences in his latest posting:

ROBERT: Harner considers theos in (another passage we discussed) to be definite on the basis of the anarthrous theos almost always being definite in the NT. . . . While the anarthrous theos may be indefinite here, theos is often definite in the NT, even when it is anarthrous.

The mistake entailed in the above statements is an error in computing statistics on anarthrous THEOS. The claim that "anarthrous theos (is) almost always . . . definite in the NT," or that "theos is often definite in the NT, even when it is anarthrous" is based on a faulty methodology that combines occurrences of THEOS in the genitive and dative cases with occurrences in the nominative and accusative. The grammatical rules involving Greek genitives and datives make the definite article practically unneccessary, and used only in a limited set of circumstances. So definite nouns in their genitive and dative forms often omit the article. But the opposite is true of Greek nouns in the nominative and accusative cases. In these forms, definite nouns as a rule require the definite article, with a very limited set of exceptions. So any count of anarthrous THEOS that combines these four cases into a single statistic yields erroneous results. Lokking just at the nominative and accusative occurrences of THEOS, one would be able to state the opposite of what Mr. Hommel says, namely, that anarthrous THEOS is almost always INDEFINITE. I would be happy to entertain an assessment of every anarthrous THEOS in the genitive and accusative cases to demonstrate this fact.

Clarification #2
Mr. Hommel has repeatedly argued, and in his latest message continues to argue, for a "qualitative" reading of THEOS in John 1:1c, basing himself appropriately on the article by Harner which first put forward a detailed discussion of a qualitative construction using pre-verb, article-less ("anarthrous") predicate nouns. But Harner himself states that the most accurate rendering of John 1:1c qualitatively would be "The Word was divine." I tried to point out to Mr. Hommel in our exchanges that if he truly adopts the qualitative reading of THEOS in John 1:1c, then he must adopt a translation such as Harner's, and that he contradicts himself by instead proposing to translate John 1:1b-c as "The Word was with the Deity and the Word was Deity." I say "contradicts" because he uses Harner to establish the "qualitative" sense of THEOS, but does not seem to agree with Harner's view of how a qualitative meaning would read in John 1:1. He says:

ROBERT: Rendering John 1:1c as "the Word was divine" suggests that John used a predicate adjective - which he did not. He could have used an adjective (theios) but he chose not to. I submit there is a reason he made that choice, and it has to do with the meaning John intended to convey.

If we go along with Mr. Hommel is adhering to formal equivalence to that degree (which in many other passages might cause considerable awkwardness in English), then the consistent translation would be "The Word was a divine being" or "The Word was a god" or "The Word was god." The traditional translation, "The Word was God," which Mr. Hommel says he still finds to be the most accurate, is not accurate according to Harner's conclusions, because it does not convey to the reader the qualitative sense. The contradiction in this position is further highlighted when you say:

ROBERT: a qualitative noun . . . the stress is on
qualities, not membership in a class. In English, we may express this idea with
either an indefinite noun, or a qualitative one. That's because in English idiom,
as you've pointed out, qualities are often expressed by an indefinite noun.

Since you recognizes that the qualitative is often rendered in English with an indefinite noun, on what grounds do you reject "a divine being" or "a god" as acceptable, accurate translations of THEOS? The article-less qualitative noun has mostly disappeared from contemporary English usage, except for "mass" nouns.

Clarification #3
Mr. Hommel has defended both the traditional translation and his own suggested alternative on the grounds that capitalization can be used in English not only for proper nouns, such as names and titles, but also for emphasis and for poetic affect. My initial reaction was to say that he was being disingenuous with this claim, using it as a screen for working into the text a capitalization scheme that would lead readers to accept his theological interpretation of the passage. In light of his latest posting, where he objects to my use of "disingenuous," I carefully considered whether that had been a fair characterization. The term implies conscious and deliberate misdirection in argument -- in other words, that the person knows that the point of argument is not true or relevant. That was an unfair assumption on my part, and I apologize for using the word. Let me speak more carefully. 

The sort of capitalization for poetic affect, of which he cites several examples in his latest message, has nothing to do with the capitalization patterns in the most commonly used Bibles, such as the KJV, NASB, NIV, NRSV, NAB, TEV, LB, etc. The capitalization of "God" in John 1:1c is not part of a poetic program of capitalization, but belongs to a consistent, systematic capitalization of the word "God" when it refers to the individual supreme being of the Christian faith. I had assumed that Mr. Hommel was well aware of that fact. Once we know that capitalization for poetic affect has nothing to do with capitalizing "God" in the Bible, we can set aside any comparison to such poetic capitalizing as an illegitimate argument.

But what about capitalizing for emphasis? His latest message helped me a great deal to figure out exactly what he meant by "emphasis." This is what I found:

ROBERT: It is a commonplace in Bible translation to render theos
with a capital letter when it is deemed to refer to the God of Israel - even
when it is not a title or proper name. . . . So, why is it
capitalized? Perhaps to show emphasis - to make sure the reader understands
that the "God" being referred to here is Jehovah. This is precisely my reason
for capitalizing Deity. . . . Capitalization emphasizes the noun as refering to the true God -
as virtually every English translation does, even when the noun is indefinite.

So by "emphasis," Mr. Hommel means to emphasize the identity of the noun as "God," the "God of Israel," "Jehovah," "the true God." And that, he adds, is the exact reason why he thinks "God" or "Deity" should be capitalized in John 1:1c. This is a fundamental mistake on his part, and really the key to our whole stalemate on this verse. "God," the individual being, is HO THEOS in Greek, not THEOS. The anarthrous noun THEOS, be it indefinite or qualitative in meaning, is not an identification of the individual being "God." It is a general category of being, or, if you prefer, a defined set of qualities. The exact confusion of these two things in Mr. Hommel's thinking is what happens when you read the traditional translation of John 1:1, and the same confusion will only be perpetuated in Mr. Hommel's proposed translation.

He objects that the NWT itself (along with most translations) capitalizes "God" even in indefinite expressions, such as Luk 20:38 and 1 Cor 14:33. He says:

ROBERT: In each case, we have "a God." "God" cannot be a name or title in any of these verses, as it is preceded by the indefinite article. . . . Was the NWTTC arbitrary when it capitalized theos in the . . . verses I've just mentioned?

The answer is: yes. The NWT translators made a mistake when they capitalized "God" in indefinite expressions. Mr. Hommel admits that this arbitrary capitalization of "God" in indefinite expressions is "grammatical license," but maintains that it is a "well-travelled typographical road." That doesn't make it right. In fact, it is inaccurate translation that obscures the meaning of the passages where it occurs. Readers of poetry know what's going on with creative use of capitals. Readers of the Bible do not have this same expectation, and capitals can be confusing if they do not follow normal English usage (for example, when my students say "Lord" louder and with stress in reading an Old Testament pasage because it is printed "LORD," not knowing the story behind this typographical convention).

What is at issue for these capitalizations of indefinite "god" in the Bible, and for Mr. Hommel, is a confusion between characterization and identification, between THEOS as a quality or category, and HO THEOS as an individual. This basic mistake of thinking the Word is identified with HO THEOS in John 1:1c is reflected in the capitalization "God" (or "Deity"). Printing "God" in John 1:1c has the effect of confusing readers familiar with normal English capitalization. In the Greek New Testament, HO THEOS functions as a name, hence as a proper noun, and that is why "God" is capitalized in those instances where the Greek reads HO THEOS. Everywhere THEOS is not used as a name (determined by the lack of an article or by context), "god" should not be capitalized. By capitalizing as well THEOS without the article, Mr. Hommel creates a sentence like "Snoopy is Dog." Yes, Snoopy has the full and complete set of "dog" qualities, as Mr. Hommel would say. But in English we would convey this neither by capitalizing "dog" nor by leaving off the indefinite article. Capitalizing the second "Deity" (or "God") does not follow normal English usage and misleads the reader with respect to the grammatical form and function of THEOS in 1:1c.

In a previous posting, I compared Mark 12:27: "He is not a god of the dead" to Luke 20:38 (which has the exact same translation in English), in order to show an anarthrous THEOS after the verb with the same meaning as an anarthrous THEOS before the verb. Mr. Hommel disagreed with my example, maintaining that both passages should be read definitely, as "the God of the dead," despite the fact that there are no definite articles in either of these two sentences. He brings various arguments in support of his reading, including a rule of Greek grammar known as "Apollonius' Canon" (for Mark 12:27), and the view of Harner (on Luke 20:38). It is certainly true that Matthew's version of this saying (Mt. 22:32), written differently than either Mark's or Luke's, is to be read "the god of (the) dead," because unlike them Matthew writes HO THEOS, "the god." 

Now why have I not capitalized "god" even in this case, where the form HO THEOS is employed? Quite simply, in English we properly capitalize "God" when we use it as a name, but do not capitalize it when we use it to refer to a class of beings. And this distinction is further maintained by the use of the English articles. When we speak in English of the individual God, we do not say "the God," but simply "God." We do not put articles in front of names. This is proper English usage. Nevertheless, Mr. Hommel is quite correct that in the Bible translation tradition, the capitalized "God" has often been used even in sentences where "the" and "a" appear with it. This is an error of translation based upon a confusion between the individual "God" and the class "god" which occurs in English precisely because we use God (rather than, say, Yahweh or Zeus) as a proper name as well as a title.

This confusion in English has no bearing on the semantics of Mark 12:27, Luke 20:38, and Matthew 22:32. Regardless of whether the phrasing is "a god of the dead" (Mark & Luke) or "the god of the dead" (Matthew), the meaning of the expression is a characterization of the subject, not an identification. Okay, it is remotely possible that Matthew's wording is meant to say that the subject is not THE god of the dead, that is, the specific deity of the underworld, Hades or Pluto. That's a possible interpretation. But at the level of translation this would still be handled just like, "He is not the governor of Alaska," or "He is not the commander of the soldiers." In the case of Mark and Luke, the wording is more clearly in what I think Mr. Hommel and I agree to call "qualitative," something like, "He is not a man of wealth," or "He is not a lecturer of skill." In either case -- the definite or indefinite reading of this characterization of the subject -- the characterizing phrase "god of the dead" does not contain the name "God," but only a reference to the class "god" used in a phrase that identifies a type within that class, a type of god. I have carefully kept referring to "the subject" -- which in this sentence is "he" -- to avoid the confusion of how "god" functions in the sentence from the identity, that is, the name, of the subject which is given in the context as "God."

It is precisely this distinction that also is at work in John 1:1.

More to come . . .

Jason BeDuhn

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