Wednesday, April 1, 2009

A “Misdirected” Translation

“But if I do it, even though you do not believe me, believe the miracles, that you may know and understand that the Father is in me, and I in the Father” (John 10:38, New International Version and similar in the New American Standard Bible, NASB and many other English translations, bold mine)

Based on the English translations, the question arises as to the lexical difference between the English words “know” and “understand.” Webster says that to know is “to perceive or understand as fact or truth; apprehend clearly and with certainty” and to understand is “to grasp the meaning of.” Though overlap occurs between these English terms, the translations imply a difference in the depth of meaning, even if slight; and the interpretive focus of the verse ties to this difference.

Based on the Greek text, the question centers on the lexical differences between the words translated “know” (γνῶτε) and “understand” (γινώσκητε). Surprise! There is no difference. The terms have the same root and the same range of meanings. The only variation is in the aspect (formerly called “tense”) of the verbs. The first word (γνῶτε) is an aorist subjunctive whereas the second (γινώσκητε) is a present subjunctive. The difference is not lexical but syntactical. The translations have misdirected the meaning of the text, its interpretation and application.

This problem has existed since the early days of the transmission of the New Testament. Recognizing that the words translated know and understand have the same lexical meaning, the copyists of many New Testament manuscripts exhibited a variety of alternative readings—various changes to the grammatical form of the second word, replacing “know” with “believe,” and even omitting the latter word entirely. Clearly a perceived tautology, a redundancy, appeared to exist in the text by these copyists (see Metzger, A Textual Commentary, 198). However, tautology would in fact exist if the two words in question represented the same grammatical form, but they do not. There is a difference in the syntax of the verbal aspects that can account for an understandable duplication of the lexical meaning and lead to a clearer translation and interpretation of the verse as written.

The syntactical differences reflect the different functions of the aorist and present aspects. The aorist is ingressive meaning an entrance into a state of knowing; the present is progressive meaning a continuing to know. Here is a translation option that captures the essence of the meaning, “in order that you may come to know and continue knowing,” or as Abbott suggests (referenced in A.T. Robertson, A Grammar of the Greek New Testament, 850), “John employs the two forms with great deliberateness of ‘knowing’ and the development of it.” The difference is between “beginning and continuing to know” and not on “knowing and understanding” implying greater depth of knowledge.

The problem with the translation cited is that it causes one to raise the wrong question about the meaning of the text—“What is the difference between ‘knowing’ and ‘understanding?’” And asking the wrong question may lead to a wrong interpretation—“The listeners need to think deeper.” And the wrong interpretation may lead to a faulty application suggesting that there is a deeper level of meaning in the text.

In this passage Jesus invites his antagonistic Jewish listeners to begin to know Him and “continue travelling with Him,” so to speak, in confirming the fact that “. . . the Father is in Me and I in the Father (NASB),” a statement of deity stemming from John 10:30. Sadly, their response to this invitation was to try to seize and destroy Him.

A contextually proper and contemporary application for this passage would be for skeptics of Jesus’ self-proclaimed deity to begin to know Him by reading the Gospel with an open mind, and to continue adding to their knowledge, evaluating the weight of all the accumulating evidences regarding Jesus’ statement of deity, “. . . the Father is in Me and I in the Father.”