When is “Was” Really an “Is”? (John 5:13)
When Jesus healed the man at the Pool of Bethesda, the Pharisees objected to him carrying his mat on the Sabbath and wanted to know who had told him to do so. Verse 13 says, “But the man who was healed did not know who he was (ἐστιν).” But ἐστιν is present tense. Why do all the translations make it past tense, “was”?
This is the difference between direct and indirect speech. “Direct” speech purports to convey the actual words used. This often occurs after ὅτι, which would be translated with quotation marks.“Ed says, ‘I am hungry and want to eat.’” “Indirect” speech does not claim to report what exactly is said but it does report the basic meaning. “Ed says that he wants to eat.’”
We do a rather strange thing in English with indirect discourse, but it feels so natural that we probably aren’t aware of it. When the introductory verb is a past tense, we shift the tense of the verb in the indirect speech back one step.
Consider the example of Ed saying, “I want to eat.”
In indirect speech, if the introductory verb is present tense, there are no changes. “Ed says that he wants to eat.” “Want/wants” is present tense.
However, if the introductory verb is a past tense, then we shift the tense of the verb in the indirect speech back one step. “Ed said that he wanted to eat.” “Want” shifts to “wanted.” If the verb in the indirect speech is past (“I wanted to eat”), we say, “Ed said that he had wanted to eat.” “Wanted” shifts to “had wanted.” (You can see more examples in my grammar, #32.18–19, and in Wallace, p. 457.)
This is what is happening in John 5:3. The man would have said (direct speech), “I do not know who he is (ἐστιν).” When this is reported with indirect speech, in Greek the tense of verb is retained. “The man who had been healed did not know who he is (ἐστιν).” In both cases, the verb is present tense. But we don’t say “he is” in this context. We shift the tense back one step and say, “he was,” and so this has to be accounted for in translation.
That’s why in John 5:3 we all translate the present tense ἐστιν with the past tense “was.” The man who was healed did not know who he was (ἐστιν).”
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