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The difference between knowing and being sure - Luke 1:18 (Monday with Mounce 191)

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Monday with Mounce

Before I get into today’s blog, I want to mention something I was asked recently. The question has to do with why learn Greek.

“It seems there are many cases where this is true [referring to multiple interpretations], and it seems the Greek leaves us with nothing definitive. Then I see all of the Greek cases on your website, all the possibilities to consider ... then throw in verbal aspect or Aktionsart and it makes the idea of wanting to know New Testament Greek seem so much less appealing. In light of all of this, what would be the benefits of me (Joe Pew-sitter) to try to learn and understand New Testament Greek?”

I answered. “Remember that I focus on the difficult passages. The vast majority of the Greek Testament is clear in terms of its meaning. What Greek does, for those confusing passages, is show you the legitimate options and the tools to make the decision.” So don’t get discouraged.

I ran across Luke 1:18 a few days ago. In response to the angel’s message about the birth of his son John, Zechariah responds, “How shall I know (γινώσκω) this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years” (ESV). Wrong response.

But more than that, on a surface a really dumb response. “Your wife is going to be pregnant,” the angel says. “How shall I know this” Zechariah responds. What does that mean? Look at the words carefully, and you will see that a word for word translation makes no sense. “Oh, I don’t know,” Gabriel responds. “Maybe her stomach will get big. Maybe she will have strange food cravings. In nine months you might hear some screaming.” (I am being sarcastic.)

Certainly Zechariah was not asking the question of “how?” That makes no sense.

Enter the task of the translator.

Most likely Zechariah doesn’t have an IQ below 50. He is obviously asking some other question. How different this is from Mary, whose question was more along of the lines of how is this physically possible since I am a virgin (Luke 1:34). Mary’s answer was the response of faith; apparently not for Zechariah.

BDAG defines γινώσκω (among several meanings) with the following semantic range (something English can not do, in reference to the question I started with).

  • to arrive at a knowledge of someone or someth., know, know about, make acquaintance of
  • to grasp the significance or meaning of someth., understand, comprehend
  • to indicate that one does know, acknowledge, recognize

BDAG puts our verse under the first meaning. What is perhaps most important to is to see the wide range of meaning for γινώσκω, from the process of coming to know, to knowing, to a confidence in knowing.

Zechariah’s question was not of faith; that is why he (and not Mary) was punished for his question. He simply didn’t believe, and hence the NIV’s translation, “How can I be sure of this?” (also the NET), which is a translation well within the semantic range of γινώσκω.

You can see other translations struggle with this same thing. “How will I know this for certain?” (NASB, note the italics). “How will I know that this is so?” (NRSV). “How can I be sure this will happen?” (NLT).

But before we are too hard on Zechariah, how would we respond if we had an angelic visitation, telling us that the one thing we longed for the most and yet a desire we had totally abandoned was now going to come true.

“Yeah, right,” pops to my mind. 

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 NIV. Learn more about Bill at, and visit his other blog on spiritual growth, Life is a Journey, at

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