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“Sick” or “Sick People” - Mark 6:55 (Monday with Mounce 186)

Categories Mondays with Mounce

Monday with MounceSubstantival participles (and substantival adjectives) can be tricky, especially when they are generic. Take, for example, τοὺς κακῶς ἔχοντας in Mark 6:55 in the HCSB.

“Mark 6:55 They hurried throughout that vicinity and began to carry the sick on mats to wherever they heard He was.”

When I first read this, I stopped on the word “sick.” “Sick what?” I found myself asking. It actually took me a few passes before I realized that “the sick” meant “the sick people.”

I don’t know why I struggled with this one. I am scanning other verses in the HCSB that use “the sick,” and they seem fine. And when the adjective is in the predicate, it is clear as well. “Now a man was sick, Lazarus, from Bethany” (John 11:1).

Checking other translations, I read things like “those who were sick” (NASB),“those that were sick” (KJV), “sick people” (ESV, NLT), but most have “the sick” (HCSB, NIV, NET, NRSV, NJB).

One of the basic rules I learned is that good writing does not make the reader wonder what the writer is saying. Perhaps the concept being discussed is deep and thought provoking and requires reflection, and consequently it is not a fast read. That’s not what I am talking about. I am talking about being so precise in our grammar and word choice that the intended meaning comes through without confusion.

For example, I have what I consider to be a bad habit of using a pronoun before stating the antecedent. “While she is driving,” Robin is listening to music while I type this blog (which she is; we are somewhere between Washougal and Spokane). Who is “she”? You have to wait to find out. Better to write, “While Robin is driving, she is listening to music.”

Or sometimes it shows in working a little harder to choose just the right word. Never settle for “thing.” If there is a more precise word, use it.

I encourage all of you to read, On Writing Well, by William Zinsser. Not only will it give you permission to split infinitives — long may the control of Latin grammar over English die! — but he will help you learn how to formulate your thoughts and express them clearly and persuasively. My dad jokingly (I think) told me the second year of my graduated studies that there would be no more money if I didn’t read the book.

So back to Mark 6:55. Is “the sick” understandable? Sure. Did I have to work a little to understand it? Yes. And so I think something like “those who are sick” is better.

Zinsser will also give you permission to begin a sentence with a conjunction — periodically.


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 BillMounce.com, and visit his other blog on spiritual growth, Life is a Journey, at BiblicalTraining.org.

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