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Mark 5:7: "Swear by God" (Monday with Mounce 27)

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Monday With Mounce buttonThere are certain Greek words and constructions that normally will not come over into English easily. It is always fun to watch the translations struggle to get the idea across. Two come to mind.

In Mark 5:7 the demon says to Jesus, "I adjure you by God (horkizo se ton theon), do not torment me" (ESV). The TNIV says, "In God’s name don’t torture me!" There are two issues here. The accusative ton theon is an accusative of oath, the name by which the oath is taken. That is why you can translate an accusative with "by," an idea normally connected with the dative.

The other issue is horkizo. BDAG lists its meaning as, "to give a command to someone under oath, adjure, implore." It is more than just a command or a strong request from the demon. The demon wants Jesus to take an oath not to torment him. This explains the "adjure" and "In God’s name." Pretty bold of the demon—asking the Son of God to swear an oath in the name of God.

Other translations don’t maintain the sense of an oath. The TEV says, "I beg you," which is far from the meaning of the text. The NLT’s is a bit mystifying to me. "For God’s sake, don’t torture me!" I don’t know how "For God’s sake" rings in your ears, but to me it sounds like a curse, and that is not what is happening either.

Another illustration is the optative me genoito (e.g., Luke 20:16; Rom 3:4). We always have fun with this one in class. This use of the optative is the strongest form of a prohibition in Greek.

"Under no circumstances whatsoever" is the idea. I often heard this when I asked students if they wanted to take an extra quiz, do a little extra homework, or hand in papers early. me genoito.

But look at how the translations struggle to get the point across. Let’s take Rom 6:2.

"By no means" (ESV; NRSV; TNIV).

"God forbid" (KJV).

"May it never be!" (NASB).

"Of course not!" (NLT).

"Absolutely not!" (NET).

"Out of the question!" (NJB).

This is one of those situations where no one tries to go word-for-word. It just doesn’t work. But again the NLT is surprisingly weak.

The question is, in your language, what is the strongest way you can say "No!"?

"Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace?" (Rom 6:15). Paul responds, "under no circumstances, nohow, nowhere, over my dead body, you’ve got to be kidding me, that’s absolutely the most ridiculous thing have ever heard, do I look that stupid, give me a break! me genoito."

There are other words and expressions that I could list, such as the idiom generally translated "forever," which word-for-word says, "into the age(s)," or "into the ages of ages," a phrase that sometimes is somewhat limited in time (1 Cor 2:7), and other times clearly means forever (Rom 1:25). But I am working on this as a separate blog post.

The point is this: languages are not codes. You can’t go neatly from one into the other. Words don’t have exactly the same meanings, and neither do grammatical constructions. All translation is both science and art. Much of the science is done in first year Greek, but the "art" part requires at least second year Greek.

So hang in there. Keep taking Greek classes as you are able, keep reading a verse a day in Greek, and force yourself to use the better commentaries that require more technical knowledge. The feel for the language will come.

MounceWilliam D. [Bill] Mounce posts every Monday 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 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. Learn more and visit Bill's blog (co-authored with scholar and his father Bob Mounce) at www.billmounce.com.

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