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Anacoluthon and Using Greek Tools - Eph 2:1 (Monday with Mounce 105)

Categories Mondays with Mounce

Monday with Mounce Eph 2:1-3 is a great example of anacoluthon, and seeing this explains some of questions raised about the translation of ὄντας.

“Anacoluthon” is a technical term for a change in syntax. To my 9th grade English teacher, it would just be a grammatical error.

We see it develop in Ephesians 1. “And you, being (ὄντας) dead in your trespasses and sins ….” The problem, of course, is that Paul never completes his thought. Before he talks about what God has done for us, he wants to clarify and emphasize the lostness of our natural position. And so he continues with a series of dependent constructions: “sins … in which you walked”; “sons of disobedience … among whom we once lived.”

In other words, he never gets to the main verb. So technically, there is a dash after verse 3, and Paul starts over again. “But God … made us alive together with Christ.” Interestingly, the first six words in v 1 are identical to the first six words in v 5 other than Paul has shifted from “you (ὑμᾶς) to ”us” (ἡμᾶς).

So how do we translate the participle ὄντας?

Not a single translation leaves it as a dependent construction such as a participle, and the reason is obvious. V 1 is just too far away from v 4. It is too hard for English to keep the subordinate thought in mind while it waits for the verb in the second half of v 5.

The NET ends v 3 with ellipsis, showing the anacoluthon. The RSV, in a rather bold move, brings v 5b back to v 1 and starts, “And you he made alive, when you were dead through the trespasses and sins.”

This illustrates why it is important to understand even a little Greek if you are going to use the tools. You do a mouse over on “You were dead,” see it is a participle, and wonder why it isn’t translated as “being.” Most translations want to smooth out the Greek; even the NASB doesn’t keep the analcoluthon.

One of the decisions a translation team must make is how much attention is spend on the receptor language? The more dynamic a translation, the more attention is paid to the quality of the English, and the more meaning is potentially lost in the original language. I have pretty strong feelings about leaving dependent constructions dependent, but even I would bend on this one.

Mouncew William D. [Bill] Mounce posts about the Greek language, exegesis, and related topics at  Koinonia. He is the author of numerous books, including the bestselling Basics of Biblical Greek, and is the general editor for Mounce's Complete Expository Dictionary of the Old and New Testament Words. He served as the New Testament chair of the English Standard Version Bible translation, and is currently on the Committee for Bible Translation for the NIV. Learn more and visit Bill's blog (co-authored with scholar and his father Bob Mounce) at www.billmounce.com.

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