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My Second Thoughts about Subjunctives in Purpose Clauses (Monday with Mounce 117)

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Monday with MounceThis has been an issue for me for several years now. When I was first writing my grammar, I taught the subjunctive as I had been taught. But when I became more involved with formal translation, both the ESV and NIV, I started to have my doubts.

Warning: this blog is more technical than usual.

Many of us were taught that the default translation of the subjunctive is to use “may” or “might,” but when I got into second year Greek I remember being frustrated. Either “may” did nor work, or it introduced an element of conditionality that did not fit the context.

Let’s look at the different uses of the subjunctive.

1. Prohibition. “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid (μὴ φοβηθῇς) to take Mary  as your wife” (Matt 1:20).

2. Hortatory subjunctive. Let me take (ἐκβάλω)” (Mt 7:4).

3. Deliberative subjunctive. “What should we eat (φάγωμεν)” (Mt 6:31).

No “may” so far.

4. Conditional sentences. Third class conditional sentences have a protasis introduced by ἐάν and a verb in the subjunctive. “For if you love (ἐὰν ... ἀγαπήσητε) those who love you, what reward do you have? “ (Mt 5:46).

The protasis is surely conditional, but the “if” comes from the ἐάν all by itself; we don’t need to connect it with the subjunctive. The subjunctive conveys the element of uncertainty., appropriate for the idea of “if.” To translate, “If you may love,” seems to be double translating the ἐάν.

5. The final basic use is in a ἵνα clause. This is where the issue of “may” is especially important. Take Matt 1:22 as an example. A second year student’s translation might be, “All this  took place so that (ἵνα) what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet might be fulfilled (πληρωθῇ).”

But how does that sound to you? Does it sound like there is a conditional element to the “might be fulfilled”? Is there any question that a prophetic utterance may or may not be fulfilled?

We all hear things a little differently, and maybe this doesn’t sound conditional to you, but it does to me. Would either of these be better?

  • ” All this  took place so that what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet be fulfilled.”
  • ” All this  took place so that what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet would be fulfilled.”

1 John 1:9 brings the last two uses together, a conditional sentence with ἵνα in the apodosis in essence acting as the apodosis. “If (ἐὰν) we confess (ὁμολογῶμεν) our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive (ἵνα ἀφῇ) us our sins and to cleanse (καθαρίσῃ) us from all unrighteousness.

A first year student might translate this as “might forgive” and “might cleanse” in the purpose clause, which of course is near heresy. The only conditional element is whether we will confess or not, but we can know beyond a shadow of a doubt that God will in fact forgive those who confess. No issue of “may” or “might” forgive. (I make this specific point in 31.15 in the grammar.)

I am starting to seriously question whether we should rethink the standard presentation of the subjunctive, specifically in ἵνα clauses. Much better to generally define the subjunctive as indicating something that is not “is” but is “uncertain but probable” (Wallace, 461). The indicative indicates what is (or what we want to present as is), and the subjunctive is one step removed from reality (with the optative one more step removed as only “possible”).

I know that one of the challenges of teaching first year Greek (and writing a first year Greek grammar) is knowing how far to simplify. If you don’t simplify enough, the students are overloaded. If you simplify too much, student misunderstand basic concepts that then have to be relearned in later years.

Maybe it is time to forget “may” and “might” in subjunctives.

(This is why I have gone away from “may” in my own grammar, and added the following to the third edition. “Notice how rarely I use “may” or “might” in the translations. Use of these key words is only to help you get comfortable with the subjunctive and are not always required.”)

MouncewWilliam 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 NIVLearn more and visit Bill's other blog on spiritual growth, Life is a Journey, at www.billmounce.com.

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