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Robert Hommel's Second Reply to Jason BeDuhn



Hello, Dr. BeDuhn,

Thanks again for your time on this topic. As you did, I'll try to condense things a bit by responding in depth to what I think are your key comments.

I think we've covered Metzger pretty thoroughly. We agree on some points and disagree on others. Not a bad start!

With regard to Colwell, you wrote: "It can be shown that in nearly every example of anarthrous pre-copulative nouns Colwell cites, he is mistaken about their definiteness." I wasn't aware of this fact. I quoted two articles and one grammar that substantiated his rule "as formulated." While Colwell's methodology can be characterized as "subjective," that does not necessarily invalidate his results. I don't think one can fault McGaughy's methodology on the same grounds, nor Hartley's. Can you please point me to studies that have demonstrated that his rule is invalid, or provide your own statistics that do so?

You went on to say:

JB: The point I am trying to make about John is that he is BUILDING an argument, or presentation, about Christ in his gospel. What precisely, theologically, that argument and presentation is can be debated to some degree. But in terms of translation, you cannot legitimately pack the whole of that presentation into any one passage, verse, or word. You must let the presentation unfold in the course of the gospel. John 20:28 is a climax John has worked very hard to prepare the reader for, by spelling out in a variety of ways throughout the gospel in what way it can be true that Jesus is Thomas' "Lord and God." The gospel is all about stretching monotheism to accommodate the intimacy of identity between Christ and God the Father. It is a gross oversimplification of John's elaborate and delicate task in doing this to translate John 1:1c in the traditional manner. It is not what John wrote and it misses the point of what he wrote. 

ROBERT: In general, I agree with your assessment that John is building an argument that stretches monotheism to accommodate Jesus - I would say - in the identity of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. I'm pleased to see that you view John 20:28 as the climax of John's Gospel and therefore key to understanding John's christology. Placing Thomas' confession at the climax of his Gospel, John would seem to preclude the possibility of the NWT's indefinite rendering of John 1:1c, unless we believe that John's christology was essentially ditheistic (that is, that a second god may be included in the devotional praxis of believers). If we understand the traditional rendering in the way proposed by countless orthodox commentators and grammarians - that the Logos has the qualities, attributes, or characteristics of theos - I don't think this in any way is a "gross simplification." Thomas' confession is then placed in a proper context, in which his God has not changed from YHWH to a second god (in direct violation of the Law), but to Jesus, who is essentially One with the Father - the ultimate fulfillment of the Law.

JB: You are right that everyone has biases. The critical thing is which biases operate when and with what self-awareness. Yet you have missed "something fundamental" which most people usually miss, and that is the training of someone like myself in the field of religious studies. You see, I teach at a state university. Teaching religion at a state institution requires the cultivation of objectivity and neutrality, or what we in the field call "bracketing." That is, we learn and strive to bracket our personal beliefs when engaged in our professional work, in the classroom and in research. When we fall short, others are there to point it out to us. It's very important to do this because, in the US, religion can only be taught in state institutions if it is handled in this neutral way. That's the law, but more importantly it is absolutely essential to our religious freedom. But, to stick to the point, I "bracket." But I don't expect you to take my word for it. If in my arguments you detect a bias at work in defiance of the grammatical, literary, and historical/cultural facts, come down on me as hard as you can.

ROBERT: Fair enough. I would just point out that I am - to some extent - a product of our state college system (I got my undergraduate degree from California State University, Northridge), and as a student, I saw very little 'bracketing' from my professors. The English department, in which I studied, was rife with anti-Christian thought, and it was thinly veiled in the classroom, if at all. I recall one professor in particular ridiculing me in front of the entire class, more or less as follows: "I think Hommel is a born-again Christian and, frankly, I don't think such people have much of interest to offer to this discussion." This was in a "Bible as Literature" course. The entire experience at state college broke me of the naive, cultural Christianity I grew up with. I came to believe that anyone who was a Christian was simply not thinking clearly. So, while I appreciate the effort you're making to 'bracket,' I do remain skeptical that anyone is completely unaffected by his or her presuppositions.

JB: Then you must have a grammatical argument to make for the definite semantic force. I take it that the following is your argument, and will respond accordingly.

ROBERT: I do not think the only choices are definite or indefinite. More on this, below

JB: The semantic distinction between quality and category is not made in Greek GRAMMAR. In other words, Greek writers do not write differently for qualitative meaning than they do for categorical meaning. For them, category and quality are the same. We can argue over the exact nuance of a phrase, over its semantic stress, certainly. But the language does not carry in itself anything that allows us to settle the argument definitively. On the other hand, it carries enough information to permit us to define the semantic RANGE of a phrase, what is possible and what is impossible, what conveys what the language carries and what steps beyond that. Your argument above would support, at most, a translation of "the Word was god," using "god" as a common noun denoting a category of being, just as "man" in your example. Of course, to translate that way results in exactly the same meaning, the same semantic force, as "the Word was a god." For John, as for Greek writers generally, membership in a category carries with it (at least some, if not always all) the qualities of that category.

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

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; 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. 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: We agree on the point that by placing someone or something in a category, ancient Greek endows that person or thing with the qualities and attributes of that category generally speaking. That is part of the IMPLICIT MEANING in such a usage. But there is no "qualitative noun" in Greek GRAMMAR. "Quality" is a matter of interpreted semantic stress in a usage of a noun in one of its forms, in the case of John 1:1c, an indefinite form. The author may well intend stress one way or another, but we only know the author's "intention" based upon signs in his use of grammar and syntax. What's not there can only be guessed at. Harner may well be right that a certain pattern of placement of anarthrous nouns is such a sign of stress on quality. That would yield a translation of "the Word was a divine being" or, a bit looser, "the Word was divine." Is there something conveyed in such translations that is not conveyed by "the Word was a god" or "the Word was god"?

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: I don't think the choice between indefinite and adjectival works for you here. Don't you want it to be between indefinite and qualitative? or categorical and qualitative?

ROBERT: No, not really. You had stated that a Greek writer stresses quality by using either an indefinite noun or adjective. I was interested in obtaining your view on the following verses, which I take to be fairly clear examples of qualitative usage:

JB: Mark 2:28: "So the Son of Man is lord (or a lord) also (or even) of the sabbath." He has the status of lord, master. He is not "lordly" or "masterly" -- these adjectives don't work here. He belongs to the class of beings that have mastery over the (rules of the) sabbath. He does not have the "nature" or "qualities" of a master -- he has the authority of one.

ROBERT: So you see kurios as purely indefinite, here? This is one of the key verses that Harner uses to establish the qualitative nuance in his article. What do you find lacking in his logic regarding this verse? Do you think the Jews believed that there was a "class of beings that have mastery over the Sabbath?" Or was Jesus introducing the concept? What beings would be in this class? From my perspective, if quality is not being stressed (as I believe it is), kurios is far more likely to be definite ("the Lord of the Sabbath") than indefinite. Indeed, Harner writes that qualitative nouns "may also have some connotation of definiteness" (Harner, p. 87).

JB: John 1:14: "And the Word became flesh." "Flesh" (sarx) is an indefinite noun of substance, just as we would say, "The jar is pewter." So it doesn't take the indefinite noun in English. "Fleshly" could work as an adjective here, although some would object that the connotation would be wrong applied to Christ. The fact is that John is not stressing "fleshly" in that moral sense, but the material substance. But there are ramifications of that material substance that are negative for John -- most importantly, it is vulnerable and mortal. The Word takes on or becomes the substance, and so the qualities and attributes of flesh, certainly. The Word becomes something in the "flesh" category.

ROBERT: OK. I'm beginning to understand why you say quality is expressed only with indefinite nouns or adjectives. In addition to denying qualitative nouns, you are including more nouns in the indefinite category than I would. This is a good example. Nouns of substance, like "Pewter" and "flesh," would generally be termed "mass" or "non-count" nouns. Non-count nouns cannot be semantically indefinitized or pluralized. I think Jespersen makes this fairly clear, as do a number of other linguists. If I say "the jar is pewter," I'm not saying the jar is a member of the pewter category, but rather that the jar is made out of pewter. Thus, the Word is made flesh. The qualitative force of mass nouns seems straightforward to me.

You seem to be using "indefinite" in a more general way, as a noun that does not refer to a specific person, place, or thing. In that sense, I suppose I'd consider sarx indefinite, too - or at least non-definite - but you also argue strongly that the indefinite semantic force places the subject in a class or category, and I concur. But, I simply don't see such a meaning as being possible with non-count nouns. Consider what you wrote, above: "The Word becomes something in the 'flesh' category." Notice that to express the idea of membership, you had to introduce an indefinite noun that is not present in the original sentence. It would have been easy enough for John to have written, "ho logos egeneto anqrwpos," had he wished to stress the Word's membership in a class or category. It seems John wished to say something other than that. The equative verb attributes "flesh" to ho logos; it does not equate ho logos with "a" member of a class. When someone equates a subject with a non-count noun, it seems to me that a qualitative force more naturally reflects the intended meaning. As you have said, "the qualities and attributes of flesh, certainly."

JB: John 3:6: "That which is born of flesh is flesh." Excellent example of two indefinite nouns, indistinguishable grammatically, that convey what I have been saying about category and quality. In short, category defines qualities. Belonging to the flesh category means that one has flesh qualities. You could get away with "fleshly" for the second sarx, but it hardly seems necessary. The same remarks hold true for "spirit" (pneuma).

ROBERT: If sarx is a non-count noun in Greek as it is in English, I don't see it as being indefinite in the sense of being a class or category. Again, it seems forced to say that Jesus is placing that which is born of the flesh in the "flesh category." Rather, it seems to me that - just as in John 1:1 - there is an interplay between the same noun used with and without the article - between definite and qualitative: "that which is born of the flesh is (by nature) flesh." At least, I take this to be the essential meaning of what Jesus is saying.

Pneuma is, of course, a count noun. Thus, grammatically, it is distinguishable from sarx, at least in this sense. I agree that the count noun in this verse takes on the same semantic force as the non-count noun does - the parallelism virtually demands it. However, since a non-count noun does not denote membership in a class or category, we are left with qualitative in both cases.

JB: John 6:63: "The words that I have spoken are spirit and life." In the context, Jesus has talked about the "spirit" as the life-force that animates flesh into a living being. Now he identifies his teachings metaphorically with this imagery of spirit and life. "Spiritual" and "living" doesn't quite get at the direct analogy he is making.

ROBERT: If these nouns are not adjectival, they must be indefinite in your view, correct? If so, do you see Jesus' meaning as being that his words are metaphorically in a class of spirits and the category of life? Isn't it more natural to understand him as meaning that his words have the qualities of (life-giving) spirit and (eternal) life?

JB: But how do you know what John includes in the list of qualities and attributes he intends in this particular verse by the category theos? Does he spell that out sufficiently in the subsequent pages of his gospel? How much should we bring in the common or philosophical views of theos John would have assumed in his readers? To keep from being totally circular in our reasoning, and from reading into the text everything we might want to be there, we have to ask ourselves self-disciplining questions such as these. 

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. 

Since I don't view theos in this verse as an indefinite noun, I don't see it as a category. I see it as having the exact same semantic force as sarx in John 1:14 - as you do. But I think the qualitative force more accurately reflects John's meaning in both cases. The Word had the attributes of theos. The Word assumed the attributes of flesh. To the extent that He became flesh, he was theos.

JB: Put the shoe on the other foot: when John says that "the Word became flesh" does he mean that Christ has "the sum total" of the qualities, attributes, and characteristics of "flesh" as those are spelled out in the Bible, including lust, selfishness, warring against the spirit, etc.? 

ROBERT: I don't think we can exclude any qualities of flesh being attributed to the Son in John 1:14. The grammar points to the Son becoming 100% human. This is, of course, how most commentators and grammarians view this verse. Jesus was not almost human or human in part or human in a lesser degree. He was completely, 100% human. Other verses, of course, qualify this revelation about the Son so that we know He was entirely human in all but sin.

JB: Or when Jesus himself says that he is the vine, does he mean he has the sum total of a vine's characteristics, including leaves and juice? Or when he says that he is the son of God, does that mean that he has all of the characteristics of a son, including genetic material of the father? Categories are flexible, and the qualities associated with a category vary with use.

ROBERT: I don't believe Jesus calls himself the vine or the Son by using a qualitative noun, but I may be mistaken.

JB: Yes, I do disagree, because the traditional translation inadvertently makes an individual identification that John does not intend (because he shows he does not intend it by writing theos differently in John 1:1c than he does in 1:1b). 

ROBERT: Again, I think any translation of John 1:1c will require some explanation. The traditional understanding is, of course, that the lack of the article signifies that the qualities of the Word, not his person, are in view.

ROBERT: "Deity" is a bit awkward, I think, but so is "a god." But you cannot legitimately capitalize "Deity" because it is not used as name. And by using "Deity" also in John 1:1b you commit the same mistake of individual identification that the traditional translation makes. 

ROBERT: I don't think so - 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: With all due respect, I think you are simply overlooking very common uses of "qualitative" nouns (meaning indefinites) where all the attributes are not carried over to the subject. After all, metaphor and simile could not possibly work in a language such as the one you imagine. 

ROBERT: Well, I hope I'm not being quite that obtuse, but one is often blind to one's own faults! Yes, I recognize the use of metaphor and simile - as I do paradox and hyperbole and other figures of speech. I don't regard John 1:1 as simile or metaphor. I would not rule out paradox completely, but don't advocate that view.

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, but 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: One of the most famous lines from the Bible -- "Vanity of vanities, all is vanity" -- is translated thus from the original "All is vapor." Now the passage does not mean that all things have the entire sum of qualities of vapor or mist. Rather, the passage highlights a particular quality of vapor/mist -- that it quickly evaporates without a trace -- that everything is said to have. 

ROBERT: I see exactly what you're saying, and I agree that not all the qualities of "vapor" are applied to "all things," but this is not an example of a pre-verbal anarthrous PN construction, at least not in the Greek of the LXX.

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: I agree, and have always maintained, that there is room within the semantic range of what John has written for it to be either adjectival or nominal, because I know that category and quality fall within the same grammatical construction in Greek. You prefer an adjectival rendering -- that preference does not rule out other renderings. 

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 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. Such is the case with hamartwlos, which is why (as I have previously stated) I think an adjectival rendering may be appropriate in some contexts ("he was sinful" instead of "he was a sinner"). But this is not the case with theos. 

JB: Yes, it is useful to compare what John wrote to what he could have written. Such a comparison clearly shows that John didn't mean "the Word was God" because there are at least two other ways to write John 1:1c that could only be read that way, and John didn't use them. 

ROBERT: Those other ways would make theos definite, wouldn't they? I agree, John probably did not intend a definite semantic force. But if John intended to stress quality, and wanted to distinguish the qualitative force from an indefinite one, he would have written John 1:1c just as he did. At least, this is Harner's conclusion and it seems to be accepted by most Greek scholars since him who've written on the subject.

JB: It is also true that there is at least one other way John could have written 1:1c that could only be read as "the Word was a god," and he didn't use it either. There are also several ways John could have written 1:1c with an adjective, that could only be read as "the Word was divine," but he didn't. So what we are left with is phrasing that could be adjectival or nominal, and we have no way to prove it one way or the other. 

ROBERT: We have no way to prove it from grammar alone, I agree. We do, though, have John telling us things about the Logos in John 1:1a, 1:1b, and 1:3 that should limit what John could mean, though, as you have noted. As Barr has demonstrated, "meaning" is expressed in larger chunks of discourse than a word or phrase or even a sentence. 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 acquiescing to grammatical possibilities.

JB: I agree that the chiasmic repetition of "theos" and "logos" is deliberate and significant, as well as poetic. But what you seem to gloss over in mentioning that pattern is that it is slightly broken, in that John drops the article with second "theos." Now in ancient Greek when you set up a parallelism and break the parallel in one place, you are drawing attention to that break (Paul does this all the time). So John is being very careful here to mark the nuance he is trying to convey in John 1:1c: the Word was with HO THEOS, and the Word was THEOS. What is the significance of that distinction? What is John getting at? The answer is open to interpretation, and the translator's job is not to foreclose and predetermine interpretation, but to convey John's phrasing as openly as John left it.

ROBERT: I agree that John emphasizes the distinction between ho theos and ho logos. But I think you're overstating the case a bit on the significance of broken chiasmus. There are examples of perfect chaismus in the NT, such as Mat 13:15. And there are examples where the breaks are exegetically significant (Eph 6:5-7). But even in the larger stairstep structure of the Matthew passage, there are minor breaks in the parallelism ("prophecy of Isaiah" v. 14; "prophets and righteous men" v. 17) that do not seem to be there for emphasis, but rather are simply stylistic variations that do not affect the overall chiastic structure. My impression is that chiasmus in the NT is generally not perfect - near parallels are often used instead of exact ones, with no intended emphasis. But perhaps I'm mistaken - I cannot claim to have studied chiasmus extensively.

John is certainly emphasizing theos in 1:1c, both by the slightly broken chiasmus and by placing theos at the head of its clause. Yes, the absence of the article is vital to a proper understanding of John 1:1, but that does not negate the emphasis on theos itself. If John wishes to place an emphasis on the anarthrous theos, is that emphasis intended to diminish the Logos as theos in comparison to ho theos, or is it intended to elevate the Logos to the level of ho theos? I think we agree that it is the latter - theos is EMPHASIZED. This would be consistent with the exalted status the Son is given throughout the Prologue and the Gospel as a whole. Does this not argue against the Logos as "a god?" And, if you wish to understand theos as an adjective, can you please show me where a noun is paralleled in the climax of a chiastic pattern by exhibiting an adjectival force?

Kind regards,


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