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Were they drowning? Mark 4:38 (Monday with Mounce 177)

Categories Mondays with Mounce

Monday with MounceI have always said there is always a reason for any one specific translation. For all the versions out there, and all the different verses, there always seems to be a specific reason why the translators did what they did in every verse; there are no random translations.

That’s why I am stuck on this one. In the NIV we read, “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?” (Mark 4:38). The disciples are on their way across the lake, Jesus is sleeping in the back, and the storm hits. They are frightened when they realize the size of the storm, and surprised that Jesus apparently is not concerned. “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?”

That makes sense, until you start looking at the Greek and the other translations. Word for word, the disciples say, “Teacher (διδάσκαλε), is it not a concern to yo (οὐ μέλει σοι) that we are perishing (ὅτι ἀπολλύμεθα;)? It is the present tense ἀπολλύμεθα and the absence of εἰ (“if”) that caught my eye.

I checked Wallace (page 450f.) and there is a conditional indicative, but that is with an explicit εἰ in a conditional sentence. There isn’t even a textual variation listed in NA27 for an εἰ.

That’s weird, so I checked other translations, and every one treats it as a present continuous, “Teacher, do You not care that we are perishing?” (NASB, so also NKJV, NET, NLT). Interestingly, the RSV “Teacher, do you not care if we perish?” was corrected in the ESV and the NRSV to “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” The NJB has, “Master, do you not care? We are lost!’”, which is a clever way of emphasizing the present continuous,

The difference is significant. In one the possibility of drowning is present; in the other they are in the process of drowning.

Picture this with me. (Even if my directions are not accurate, the point about the present tense is.) If I have my directions right, they are going basically west to east. And as I understand it, most of the storms come from the north-west. The storm hits mostly from the back of the boat where Jesus is sleeping. The sides of these boats were just a little over a meter high. Correctly translated, the disciples were in the process of drowning; it was not a potential threat. Apparently, they had tried to save themselves, perhaps bailing as fast as they good, adjusting the sail and the angle of the boat. But nothing they could do work, and the boat was going down.

There sat Jesus, sound asleep. After trying to do everything they could on their own, they turned to the savior and asked to be saved. And this may be very fanciful (which I don’t normally do), but I can see Jesus standing up and facing the wind (which means his back was to the disciples), speaking to the very wind and waves that he had created, telling them to calm down, and then turning to look at the disciples and ask, “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?” Get that picture in your mind.

Even if the details of the reconstruction are not accurate, I can find no reason to insert the “if” in the translation. But if I am right in the reconstruction, it makes a powerful story even more dramatic. And we, like the original audience, are meant to leave the story with the same question on our lips, “Who is this?”

Who is this that controls even the wind and the waves? He is the Son of God (Mark 1:1). He is the one who made the wind and the waves. He is the one who loves us so much that he willingly died for us. He is the one who could not be kept in the grave. He is the one who intercedes for us before the throne. He is the one whose love cannot be separated from us (Rom 8:35).

This is the image I need to have in my mind when my problems become great, when I feel discouraged and alone, when I feel powerless in the face of evil and evil people. I need a picture of a great God who stands in the stern of the boat of my life, and with love in his eyes, and in his hands and feet, turns to me and asks if I believe in him, if I trust him. When I question his commitment to me and am drowning in the seas of life, he asks me to look and see the obvious, and trust.

Amen. So let it be.


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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