When Grammar Fails (Matt 10:10) — Mondays with Mounce 242
One of the great conundrums in the Synoptics is the issue of whether Jesus told his disciples to take a staff, not take a staff, or don't take an extra staff. I don't have a complete answer, but in my reading part of the answer occurred to me and it illustrates the need for common sense in exegesis.
In Mark 6:8–9 Jesus says, "Take nothing for the journey except a staff (εἰ μὴ ῥάβδον μόνον)—no bread, no bag, no money in your belts. Wear sandals but not an extra shirt (ὑποδεδεμένους σανδάλια, καὶ μὴ ἐνδύσησθε δύο χιτῶνας)."
In Luke 9:3 he told them, “Take nothing for the journey—no staff, no bag, no bread, no money, no extra shirt (Μηδὲν αἴρετε εἰς τὴν ὁδόν, μήτε ῥάβδον μήτε πήραν μήτε ἄρτον μήτε ἀργύριον μήτε [ἀνὰ] δύο χιτῶνας ἔχειν)."
Matt 10:9–10 reads, "Do not get (κτήσησθε) any gold or silver or copper to take with you in your belts—no bag for the journey or extra shirt or sandals or a staff (μὴ πήραν εἰς ὁδὸν μηδὲ δύο χιτῶνας μηδὲ ὑποδήματα μηδὲ ῥάβδον), for the worker is worth his keep."
The basic message is clear, regardless of the details. They are not to make human provisions for the future; those they serve must care for them. But what about the staff?
I want to focus on Matt 10:10. From a straight exegetical viewpoint, the repetition of μηδὲ clearly separates Jesus' instructions into four categories:
- no bag
- not two tunics (the garment worn under the coat)
- no sandals
- no staff
The repetition of μηδή limits δύο ("two," or "extra") only to "tunics." Grammatically, it cannot modify ὑποδήματα or ῥάβδον.
But enter common sense. Word for word, in Matt 10:10 Jesus is saying his disciples cannot take sandals, which means they would have to go barefooted. In the ancient world, this simply would not be possible (see Bock, Luke 1:816). It would also conflict with Mark 6:9.
Remember the basic principle that grammar is descriptive, not prescriptive. There are set ways of saying things (we call that being grammatically correct), but that doesn't mean we always say things exactly, precisely correct, and often we let context and common sense interpret our words.
I saw an advertisement last night composed of two words, a verb and an adjective. Now, we should know that is incorrect grammar. Adjectives don't modify verbs (at least according to my high school English classes, and my mom!). If you are going to modify a verb, you must use an adverb, which changes "different" to "differently."
But even though the advertisement violated grammar (and I am aware of the post modern movement that seeks to remove almost all grammar), it still communicated just fine. I am supposed to "Think Differently."
So back to Matt 10:10. Grammatically, the δύο modifies χιτῶνας, but in terms of its sense surely it carries over to ὑποδήματα as a prohibition of carrying extra sandals. And if it carries over to ὑποδήματα, there is no reason why it also can't carry over to ῥάβδον.
Of course, there is the added question of why would anyone take two carrying sticks (if that is what the ῥάβδον is), but that is a different blog. What I wanted to emphasize here is that people don't always speak with perfect grammar (except my mom), and we all expect our listeners to use common sense.
This is, I think, the clear meaning of the passage, and brings Matt 10:10 somewhat into agreement with Mark 6:8.
William D. [Bill] Mounce posts about the Greek language, exegesis, and related topics at Koinonia. 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.
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