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Ellipsis’ Ugly Head (John 12:7) —Monday's with Mounce 254

Categories Mondays with Mounce

We don’t talk much about ellipsis in first year Greek, but it is a grammatical fact that occurs more than you might think.

An ellipsis is when words are left out, and the assumption is that the context is sufficient to fill in the gaps. It especially happens in the second of two parallel thoughts, words from the first assumed in the second.

But John 12:7 gives us a good example of ellipsis when there is no parallel. Mary anoints Jesus’ feet, Judas objects, and Jesus responds, “Leave her alone…. It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial” (NIV). ἄφες αὐτήν, ἵνα εἰς τὴν ἡμέραν τοῦ ἐνταφιασμοῦ μου τηρήσῃ αὐτό. In other words, the words “It was intended” is the NIV’s guess as to what “should” have been before the ἵνα.

The problem of course with “it is intended” is that the current day is not the day of Jesus’ burial; that was the next. And “intended” sounds like she is a puppet of fate. So in what sense should Judas leave her alone so that she would have the perfume for the day of the upper room?

You can see the other translations making their guess. The ESV is pretty non-sensical. “Leave her alone, so that she may keep it for the day of my burial.” But she had just poured it out! Judas leaving Mary alone could not have had the purpose (ἵνα) of keeping it for the next day; it was already gone. (This was a change from the RSV’s comma splice: “Let her alone, let her keep it for the day of my burial.”)

The NRSV supplies the idea of a purchase: “She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial.”

The NLT says, “Leave her alone. She did this in preparation for my burial.” The meaning may be right, but it is really hard to get “did this” from τηρήσῃ. They do see, however, that ἐνταφιασμός can mean “burial” or “preparation for burial” (BDAG).

NET has, “She has kept it for the day of my burial.” The TEV has, “Let her keep what she has for the day of my burial,” which I assume means Mary had not poured all of it out (see Bernard), although she had poured it all out (see Morris).

I think it is safe to say that either we translate ἐνταφιασμός as “preparation for burial,” or we understand Jesus to say that the events that would most certainly end in his death had already been put in place.

I prefer the guess that Mary had been keeping the perfume for some reason, but in a deeper sense, she had been keeping it for this night in which Jesus’ death had begun (see Burge).

Don’t you love John and his deeper meanings!

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William D. [Bill] Mounce posts about the Greek language, exegesis, and related topics on the ZA Blog. He is the author of numerous works including the recent Basics of Biblical Greek Video Lectures and the bestselling Basics of Biblical Greek. He is the general editor of 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 about Bill's Greek resources at Teknia.com and visit his blog on spiritual growth at BiblicalTraining.org/blog/life-journey.

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