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The Definite Article and 1 Timothy 4:13 (Monday with Mounce 15)
by Bill Mounce

Categories Mondays with Mounce

The word that we call the "definite article" in Greek is a slippery fellow. Many of its uses in English overlap with that of Greek, and so it is easy to tell first year Greek students to translate it is "the" when ho is present, and to not include it when ho is absent.

But even in first year Greek we quickly start to see the problems of this approach. Greek uses ho when we never would, such as before proper names. So we tell our students to ignore ho in this case.

But then it is "missing" when English requires it, such as in prepositional phrases, so we tell students they can add in "the" when English requires it, such as in a preposition-noun construction where the noun is anarthrous (i.e., not preceded by ho). "born of … spirit" in John 3:5 becomes "born of … the Spirit".

And then as we get further into the language we start seeing more subtleties.

The fact of the matter is that Greek nouns carry a degree of definiteness beyond that of English nouns, and the Greek article is not required to make them definite. This is why we can add "the" into a translation when English requires it to carry over the sense of the Greek. But the more we do this, the further we go into interpretation, and the further we go into interpretation the greater the danger of subjectivity in translation process.

Take for example 1 Tim 4:13. "Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching" (ESV). Paul has put the opponents to the back of his mind for the second half of this chapter and is focusing on Timothy and his personal concerns for his younger partner in ministry. Outside of 2 Timothy, this is the most personal look into Paul’s heart.

Dealing with deceptive and evil leadership within a church can become so consuming that a pastor forgets to focus on the positive aspects of ministry. So Paul encourages Timothy to focus on three positive elements of public church life: reading Scripture out loud, exhorting the people to understand and follow the Scriptural message, and to teach them (a term that in the Pastorals denotes what we call biblical and systematic theology, didaskalia).

But that is not exactly what Paul says. He says, "Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to the exhortation, to the teaching." If you look at all of the translations, you will see that uniformly "the" is omitted from the translation of the latter two phrases. Even the NASB and ESV omit the "the", suggesting that its occurrence is not significant.

However, if you check out my commentary in the Word series, you will see my concern over this omission. It is not a natural place to find the Greek article, and hence its inclusion suggests something specific. I argue that Paul is referring to explicit parts of the first century worship service, that there was a time specifically for the public reading of Scripture, an explicit time for encouraging people to follow it, and a specific time for the people to be taught not only the content of Scripture but its theology.

The problem is, how do you say that? If you simply translate "to the exhortation, to the teaching" it comes across stilted and confusing. And that is where translation philosophy kicks in.

We often hear that people are starving for God’s word (events one and two). Perhaps we do not hear about the exclusion of the third (theology) because it almost never occurs. I believe the omission of three of these is because preachers are not committed to the inspiration of Scripture and therefore feel no true compulsion to publicly read it and to encourage people in it. "After all," they may say (implicitly, not explicitly), "my ideas are as important as God’s."

Does that sound harsh? How else can we explain the steadfast refusal of the majority of pulpits in this country to center on the biblical text and the theological formulation of its teaching? And how many pulpits that are committed to biblical exposition actually move from content (i.e., telling the story) into theological formulations on the meaning of the text?

When was the last time you heard a sermon on the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart so that Pharaoh would not respond to the first plague; and God therefore sent ten plagues, including the killing of the first-born of every Egyptian family, and all this so that God could "get glory over Pharaoh"? Is this a minor issue? I don’t think so. The theme of God’s glory may be the unifying principle that ties the entire Bible together, and the plagues are one of the most compelling stories that make the point.

I do not believe it is an issue of seeker vs. feeding. I believe it is an issue of deep conviction on the role of the preacher and whether or not he or she is a herald of the king and therefore driven to be faithful to what he has said, or whether the pastor is there to encourage people by whatever means they deem helpful.

The biblical example is that there are set patterns for biblical community worship. Among many things, this must include public reading of the Bible, a set time to encourage people to understand it and follow its teaching (which implies that the public reading should be related to the sermon), and also the set time in which people can see how the teaching of the passage fits into their theological framework.

While there may be no way to translate this neatly and smoothly, it is nonetheless what Paul says. The "thes" are important.

Mounce William 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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