When Is Then, Then? (Matthew 27:38) – Mondays with Mounce 330
The longer I work in Greek, the more curious I am about conjunctions, and the more I am concerned about how we teach glosses.
Take τότε for example. BDAG give two meanings using the gloss “then.” It can mean “at that time,” which conveys no idea of sequence. It can also mean “then” in the sense of “that which follows in time.” The problem of course is that if you translate with the simple gloss “then,” we hear it as sequential.
Coupled with this is how English hears a series of events. Even without conjunctions, we default to hearing them as sequential. This happened, then that happened.
The sequencing of events around Jesus’ trial illustrates the issue. There is a series of events introduced with τότε, with καί, and with aorist and present participles. I can’t do it here, but it is really worth your time to lay out all the conjunctions and verbal forms and watch how the sequencing works in Greek.
Picking up the account in vv 35f., Matthew writes that “When they had crucified (σταυρώσαντες) him, they divided up (διεμερίσαντο) his clothes by casting (βάλλοντες) lots. And sitting down (καὶ καθήμενοι), they kept watch (ἐτήρουν) over him there” (NIV).
Verse 38 continues, “Then (τότε) two criminals were crucified with him, one on the right and one on the left” (CEB, see also the ESV). But how do you hear “then”? Did all the events surrounding Jesus happen, and only after the soldiers sat down to watch over Jesus did other soldiers crucify the two thieves? That seems highly unlikely to me since I can’t imagine why another group of soldiers would wait that long. This means that τότε is being used with the first definition. Presumably, this is why the NIV and NLT leave τότε untranslated, letting the sequence of the story convey the meaning of “at that time.” In fact, translating τότε as “then” really miscommunicates.
This also serves to illustrate what I have been saying for some time. It is simplistic to think that translating every Greek word with an English word is somehow more accurate. In this case, “then” is a mistranslation and miscommunicates the meaning of the passage. If you feel that you have to represent every Greek word with an English word, then something like “at that time” or “at that same time” is not-as-good English but at least it doesn’t miscommunicate.
Can you translate verse 38 without interpretation? Of course not.
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Bill is the founder and President of BiblicalTraining.org, serves on the Committee for Bible Translation (which is responsible for the NIV translation of the Bible), and has written the best-selling biblical Greek textbook, Basics of Biblical Greek, and many other Greek resources. He blogs regularly on Greek and issues of spiritual growth. Learn more about Bill’s Greek resources at BillMounce.com.