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The Joys of Ellipsis (John 12:7) — Mondays with Mounce 246

Categories Mondays with Mounce

When Mary anointed Jesus’ feet, Judas objected to the extravagant waste of money. Jesus responds, “‘Leave (Ἄφες) her alone,’ Jesus replied. ‘It was intended (ἵνα) that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial’” (NIV).

One of the interpretive challenges of the verse is ἵνα. The NIV (above) keeps the normal force of the ἵνα to indicate purpose, but in doing so it makes it sound as if Mary really had no choice in the matter. It removes the value of her choice and makes it sound like she was simply responding to God’s preordained plan.

The ESV has, “Leave her alone, so that she may keep it for the day of my burial.” This keeps the full force of the ἵνα but, in my mind, makes no sense. Mary didn’t keep the perfume for the day of Jesus’ burial; she had just poured all of it on his feet.

The related difficulty of the verse is the aorist τηρήσῃ, translated by the NASB as, “Let her alone, so that she may keep it for the day of my burial.” Again, the problem is that Mary has already poured out the perfume, which explains the textual variant τετηρηκεν, “she has kept” referring to Jesus’ present.

It is probably best to see the expression as an example of ellipsis; and therefore the question is, what has been left out? The NRSV suggests, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial” (also the HCSB).

The NLT reads, “Leave her alone. She did this in preparation for my burial.”

Ah, the joys of ellipsis. My guess is that Jesus is telling Judas (Ἄφες is singular) to not object to Mary’s extravagance. She used the perfume to symbolically prepare Jesus for his death. Mary apparently had entered more into the mind of Jesus than had his twelve disciples, and she knew what was coming.

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William D. [Bill] Mounce posts about the Greek language, exegesis, and related topics on the ZA Blog. He is the author of numerous works including the recent Basics of Biblical Greek Video Lectures and the bestselling Basics of Biblical Greek. He is the general editor of 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's Greek resources at Teknia.com and visit his blog on spiritual growth at BiblicalTraining.org/blog/life-journey.

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