Hannah and Je together

Thursday, 27 October 2016

Who do you say I am?

A month of ago or so, I was reading the Gospel of Matthew in Greek Bible.  It was Matthew 16:13-20 that Jesus was asking his disciples what the people say about him and also what the disciples say about him.  And one thing made me very curious.

Jesus asked the question twice first in v.13, and then v.15.  In Common English Bible, these questions are:

  • Who do people say the human one is?
  • And what about you?  Who do you say that I am?

In CEB and all other English translations as well use the present tense of BE – IS and AM.  But in Greek Bible, both verbs are Infinitive:

  • Τίνα λέγουσιν οἱ ἄνθρωποι εἶναι τὸν υἱὸν τοῦ ἀνθρώπου;
  • Ὑμεῖς δὲ τίνα με λέγετε εἶναι;

To begin my question, let me say what I learned about Infinitive in English.  According to the English grammar book which I learned English from, Infinitive (or TO-Infinitive) carries the hint of notion of future not 100% but quite often.  For example, at the beginning point of a meeting we say “Nice to meet you” because the main body of meeting is in future while we say “Nice meeting you” at the end of the meeting because the main body of meeting is already in the past or present, not in future.

There is a 2006 film “the Queen” which famous actress Helen Mirren plays the Queen of England.  At the beginning scene, Tony Blair won the election and visited the palace to see the Queen.  The secretary tells the Queen that the Prime Minister came, and the Queen corrected the secretary angrily that he is the Prime Minister To Be.  In this example as well, the infinitive tells that is it future, not the present.

I became curious what the infinitive signifies in this passage.  To me, it very much sounds something like “Oh, this smart boy is got TO BE a doctor in the future.”  Then, is Jesus asking his disciples what or who he should be (in the future)?

I just learned Biblical Greek just for one year and was Teaching Assistant for another year, which means my Greek knowledge is very shallow.  And I could not figure it out by myself.  What I usually do in these situations is to (visit and) ask my professor even though I am out of school.  And I did.  I met her couple hours before her class and she was very busy preparing for the class.  I felt sorry but I was curious.  (Her only original sin is that she taught me and she is a good teacher.)

According to my Greek professor, the infinitive in Greek does not necessarily carry the notion of future as in English.  The second question of Jesus is literally translates “But who do you guys say me to be?”  And it can be translated into English for all  three tenses:

  • Who do you guys say I was?
  • Who do you guys say I am?
  • Who do you guys say I will be?

Then how can I decide the tense in English translation?  Her answer was ‘context.’  And I sighed to myself because I heard the importance of context hundreds of times, if not millions.  In language, there is not really absolute answer that almost nothing is 100%.  But if there is one, context is the only one.

As we all know, Peter answers to Jesus in v.16:

  • You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.
  • Σὺ εἶ ὁ χριστὸς ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ θεοῦ τοῦ ζῶντος.

Peter’s answer in Greek uses which εἶ is Verb-Indicative-Present-2nd Person-Singular.  Because Peter clearly uses present tense, the other two questions in the same context should be present tense of BE.

This infinitive aspect of Greek is somewhat similar to Biblical Hebrew infinitive.  (Again not always but frequently) infinitive construct in Hebrew often times used with ב and כ to make temporal clause and it does not specify the tense.  We need to judge it through the context (YES CONTEXT) or we may have preceding marker such as וַיְהִי or וְהָיָה telling the tense of the clause.

Well, curiosity solved and it did not kill the cat yet. 🙂

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