Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Case of the “Hanging Nominative”

Designation defines the basic function of the nominative case in the Greek New Testament. It is most commonly thought of as the case of the subject. One rarely looks to the nominative to discover some important exegetical point. However, John 1:12 contains one such exegetical nuance discoverable in some translations but hidden in others.

John 1:12 in the New American Standard Bible (NASB) reads, “But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name.” The relative clause translated “as many as received Him” represents a nominative plural clause that should function as the subject of an independent clause. But another subject “He” is inserted in the following independent clause. The initial nominative clause is left hanging without a connection to the main clause.

The New International Version of this passage says, “Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.” It changes the initial subject nominative to an indirect object dative,” to all who received him.” This has the effect of eliminating the hanging nominative subject of the NASB and the Greek text.

Although it may be advantageous for readers of the English Bible not to encounter a hanging nominative, there are reasons why writers used them. One possible use is for emphasis or focus. Stanley E. Porter, Idioms of the Greek New Testament, 86, writes
Since the independent nominative [hanging nominative] is in sense, though not in grammar, linked to an element in another clause, this construction quite possibly is used to draw attention to an item in the main clause which would be otherwise overlooked. The independent nominative may also serve as a topic marker or shifter which does not become grammatically entangled in the main construction.

See also Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics, 52.

In John 1:12, the writer emphasizes that, although Jesus’ own people did not receive him, those who did could become children of God. The hanging nominative appears to have the rhetorical effect of focusing the readers on those who did believe. A translation that captures this is, “But as for those who did receive Him . . . .”

The interpreter must be careful when translating not to ignore or distort the emphasis in the original text since emphasis is a powerful medium of communication and interpretation. If it is possible to transfer such emphasis into the English translation, the translator is duty-bound to do so.