The Greek ‘the’ and the English ‘the’

Wayne Leman over at the Better Bibles Blog has posted on the translation of Greek articles here, focusing specifically on occurrences of “the house” in Matthew where a house has not previously been introduced in the text. One discourse pattern we often find is that definite nouns are used only after that noun has been introduced in the text in an indefinite manner. However, definiteness is not always dependent on the article in Greek. I have posted my response to Wayne in the comments of his post. I’ll only repeat part of that here…

When I read “the house” in the gospels about a house that I have not been introduced to yet, this communicates to me that there was a definite house that Jesus was going to. If the translation were to say “a house,” that would sound to me like Jesus was aimlessly meandering and randomly came across any house when he felt like it was time to stop. So in some of these cases, the ‘the’ doesn’t have to have the same discourse function that we often think of when it is used to refer back to a previously introduced noun. Rather, the article conceptualizes the noun in a certain way (perhaps even making it definite, although it is true that definiteness is not ultimately dependent upon the Greek article) for other reasons besides its previous occurence in the text.In Mt. 9:28, I like what the NLT has done here with “the house where he was staying.” That has the effect of communicating a certain definiteness, and it seems to be a very likely referent that is not too overly specific without other clues. Often times “going into the house” in Greek is the equivalent of our English “going home.” On the other hand, isn’t it possible that “the house” refers to Matthew’s house, the last house we hear of before Jesus was summoned to go to the synagogue leader’s house? Maybe not, since that interpretation would assume that Jesus stayed there for more than just dinner and was there for several days during which the disciples of John the Baptist came to him before the synagogue ruler came to him. Probably quite unlikely. Therefore, it seems that the best option is that Jesus is still in his own town (cf. 9:1), so “the house” is probably whatever house he’s staying in, perhaps even a family house, or ‘home’ as “the house” often means in Greek.

As for 13:36, it’s very possible that Jesus is back in his home town again, since 12:15 says that he left the area he had gone to after he left his home town. Also, his mother and brothers are back in the picture in 12:46. Mt. 13:1 refers to Jesus leaving “the house” and so 13:36 refers to him going into “the house.” It’s the same one he left, very definite even if we don’t want to go so far as to say it was his family home.

As for 17:25, this is Peter’s home town, (cf. Mt. 4:18) and we know that Peter’s mother-in-law had a house there (Mt. 8:14), so this is probably one of those places where “the house” is best understood as the definite idea of ‘home’.

Mt. 24:43 has “the house of him” because it has already referred to the ‘homeowner’.

Daniel Wallace discusses the uses and non-uses of the Greek article in Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics, pp. 206-290. I have summarized his discussion in 4 pages if anyone is interested.

As for the differences between the Greek and English uses of the article, it is best to try to identify why a Greek noun has the article in particular instances before deciding if the same meaning is communicated in English with or without the definite article.

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Refresher Greek Course

I have completed teaching the first week of a 2-week refresher Greek course. I am team-teaching this intensive review of basic Koine Greek morphology and grammar with one other person. We meet from 8am until noon every day, and the mid-course evaluations were overall very positive. We have 12 participants—all Bible translators, translation trainers, and translation consultants—who have not had formal Greek training for anywhere from 7 years ago to 34 years ago. Although we entered this course with a bit of fear and trepidation, knowing that the participants must have a broad range of experience and ability in Greek, we soon learned that everyone felt rusty and were looking forward to whatever they could get out of the course.
We have mostly been using Bill Mounce’s Basics of Biblical Greek, and we have been following his “Track 2” for the most part in order to get into verbs sooner. Here is what we covered in the first week…

  • Day 1: Introductions, syllabus, Greek alphabet, 1st & 2nd declension nouns, articles, nominative, accusative, genitive, and dative case
  • Day 2: Prepositions, present indicative forms of εἰμί, adjectives, 1st & 2nd person personal pronouns, introduction to verbs, present active indicative
  • Day 3: Contract verbs, present middle/passive indicative, imperfect indicative
  • Day 4 (only met from 10:30 until noon): 3rd declension nouns
  • Day 5: forms and uses of αὐτός, demonstratives, relative pronouns, first aorist active, introduction to participles, present participles

We had laid out a tentative schedule that would allow us to get through Mounces entire introductory grammar in 2 weeks, but we affirmed that we would slow down if the pace was too quick. At the end of the first week, we are actually 3 chapters ahead of schedule. This may allow us to get into a few more discourse topics and the use of computer tools during this second and last week of the course.

Jesus Ran Away

Written around May 2,

and finally posted…

This past week I have been going through the final checking process for the Gospel of Luke in four related languages in Papua New Guinea. Here is one of the most interesting translation problems that we were able to resolve so far…

In Luke 5:15-16 here is what the NASB says:

“But the news about Him was spreading even farther, and large crowds were gathering to hear Him and to be healed of their sicknesses. But Jesus Himself would often slip away to the wilderness and pray.”

Clearly, the intended meaning of the imperfect verbs is that these are things that were repeatedly happening throughout a period of time (including the news spreading, the crowds gathering, and Jesus slipping away). The implied information must be that Jesus would actually teach and heal the people when they came to him before he slipped away for prayer. However, in all four of the translations that we are checking, they understood this passage to mean that the people were coming to Jesus to be healed, but he wasn’t there when they sought him out because he had run away from them to be by himself and pray!

It’s not surprising that they would have this interpretation, since the second sentence begins with an adversative conjunction. Even most English versions begin vs. 16 with ‘but’, which certainly may suggest the faulty reading. But ‘but’ may often over-translate the Greek connective DE, which is better seen as the normative connecting particle for narrative when there is a shift in the subject. Expressing any more contrast begins to err in this passage.

“And from time to time he would withdraw to remote places for prayer.” (REB)

“So He Himself often withdrew into the wilderness and prayed.” (NKJV)

The implied information is expressed well in these translations without ‘but’…

“And from time to time he would withdraw to remote places for prayer.” (REB)

“So He Himself often withdrew into the wilderness and prayed.” (NKJV)

“As often as possible Jesus withdrew to out-of-the-way places for prayer.” (The Message)

Other versions include the word ‘often’, so their use of ‘but’ does not give the wrong impression (NASB, NIV, NLT, NCV, CEV).

Also, consider these excellent renditions…

“However, he continued his habit of retiring to deserted places and praying.” (ISV, Version 1.1)

“Yet Jesus himself frequently withdrew to the wilderness and prayed.” (NET)

Several versions present the faulty possible interpretation that Jesus was nowhere to be found when the people were seeking him out…

“But so much the more the report went abroad concerning him; and great multitudes gathered to hear and to be healed of their infirmities. But he withdrew to the wilderness and prayed.” (RSV)

Compare the KJV, Darby, Young, ASV, Phillips, Wuest, TEV, NAB, NRSV, GW, and ESV, which also leave the interpretive possibility open that Jesus would hide from the crowds.

Jesus didn’t run away from the crowds of people when they were coming to hear him and to be healed by him. But he did often withdraw from them to be alone with his Father in prayer.