Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Word Order—Does It Make Any Difference?

English Prose usually requires a fairly strict order of words in a sentence to communicate clearly. Greek can rearrange the words without confusing the meaning because the word forms and not their location dictate word functions. A Greek sentence communicates its emphasis and/or focus by word order, something that English prose can only do occasionally without sounding unnatural.

Typically the initial part of a Greek sentence will carry the greatest emphasis, next comes the last part of the sentence, and even the middle can carry the emphasis especially if it involves a contrast. Speakers indicate emphasis by vocal stress. In written English stress must be indicated by varying the presentation (underlining, italics, bold, etc.). Consequently English translations of the Bible frequently lose this emphasis or focus data. There is no such loss in the Greek New Testament. Written Greek sentences reveal stress by means of its word order, and without controversy what is stressed or brought into dramatic focus has great significance for the interpretation of the New Testament.

1 Peter 2:18 provides one of those opportunities in English where word order variation communicates well. It is also an example of a word order textual variation in the manuscripts of the Greek New Testament. For many people a “minor” textual variation such as changing the word order bears little importance; for adequately trained Bible interpreters, however, any and all textual data is important and must not be overlooked.

The word order variation in 1 Peter 2:18 affects the interpretation of a larger literary segment of the epistle. The following two alternative readings are adapted from the New American Standard Bible (NASB). The first is the NASB text as written; the second is the alternative reading based on the variant manuscript evidence. For reference the Greek is supplied. Note the italicized words that highlight the difference in word order.

Servants, be submissive to your masters with all respect
οἱ οἰκέται ὑποτασσόμενοι ἐν παντὶ φόβῳ τοῖς δεσπόταις

Servants, with all respect be submissive to your masters
οἱ οἰκέται ἐν παντὶ φόβῳ ὑποτασσόμενοι τοῖς δεσπόταις

The textual issue, and consequently the interpretation, concerns the location of the prepositional phrase with all respect (ἐν παντὶ φόβῳ). The first reading puts the primary emphasis on the forward-positioned participle “be submissive” (ὑποτασσόμενοι). It points the reader back to the command in 2:13 (“Submit yourselves,” ὑποτάγητε) and strongly suggests a similar imperative function for the participle. The phrase with all respect (ἐν παντὶ φόβῳ) that comes later focuses attention secondarily on the manner of submission to one’s master. Thus, the paragraph beginning at 2:18 emphasizes primarily what to do and secondarily how to do it. Such a focus or emphasis affects the interpretation of the text and should be reflected in preaching and teaching.

Fortunately the major translations selected the first option supplied above based on a clear and consistent evaluation of the manuscript evidence. However, not ignoring this “minor” textual problem helps the interpreter see an element of Peter’s style. The participles in 2:18, 3:1 and 3:7 (submit, submit, and live together respectively in the NASB) represent the author’s literary outline, each placed in the forward position and showing dependence on the command of verse 2:13. The latter two verses reinforce this focus by inserting the adverb in the same way (ὁμοίως) that has prior reference points.

It is possible, of course, to discover this “outline” without knowing about or studying this textual issue. However, working out this textual problem focuses attention on what would not normally be a question in the interpreter’s mind, namely, “What difference would the alternate reading make?” In this instance the difference points to the priority of submission in Peter’s mind, and oh yes, there is a right way to do it!

Is word order an important issue in Bible interpretation? A second question should answer the first, “Is the stress placed upon words in speech important in understanding a speaker’s message?” Without contradiction, for both questions the answer is a resounding “Yes!” Word Order—It Does Make A Difference! And it provides another excellent reason to learn to read the Bible in the original languages where the stress can be “heard”!