When Word-for-Word Is Ambiguous (John 9:7) – Mondays with Mounce 279
I have been sensitive lately to finding passages in which a word-for-word translation is not clear but is ambiguous and perhaps even misleading. I am finding lots of examples.
The one that jumped out to me this morning is John 9:7. Jesus tells the man born blind, “‘Go, wash in the pool of Siloam [τὴν κολυμβήθραν τοῦ Σιλωάμ]’ (which means Sent [ὃ ἑρμηνεύεται ἀπεσταλμένος]).” The ESV here is traditional and is reflected in the CSB (the new edition of the HCSB), NET, NRSV, and KJV.
So why then does the NIV have “(this word means ‘Sent’)”? The NLT is even more explicit. “(Siloam means ‘sent’).” The answer is clear. To the English reader, “which” does not clarify if “Sent” is a translation of Σιλωάμ or τὴν κολυμβήθραν τοῦ Σιλωάμ. But those who know Hebrew or have access to a biblical dictionary know that the term “Siloam” all by itself means “Sent.” So word-for-word creates a problem that the NIV and NLT don’t.
But there is another oddity in this verse, and that is the neuter relative pronoun. It’s antecedent Σιλωάμ, while indeclinable, is masculine. So why is ὅ not ὅς? There are several possible answers to this.
One is that it is an idiom, and you can see the same lack of gender congruence in similar expressions. John 1:42: “‘You are Simon, the son of John; you will be called Cephas [Κηφᾶ, masculine]’ (which [ὃ] is translated ‘Peter’).” Matt 1:23: “‘They shall call him Emmanuel [Ἐμμανουήλ, masculine],’ which [ὅ] is translated ‘God is with us.’” See BDAG 1gα (page 727).
Another answer is that there is an assumed antecedent that is neuter, something like ῥῆμἀ. “Siloam, a word which means ‘Sent.’”
Another answer is the use of the neuter pronoun when referring to masculine and feminine words that are viewed as a thing. “And cover all these virtues with love [ἀγάπη, feminine], which [ὅ] is the bond that leads to perfection” (Col 3:14; note the feminine variant, ἥτις). The same thing happens when the pronoun refers back to a phrase. “Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?’ which [ὅ] means, ‘My God, my God, why did you forsake me?’” (Mark 15:34; cf. Acts 2:32). See BDAG 1gβ.
Ah, the joys and intricacies of language. Moral of the story? Be sure you have purchased BDAG if you want to do serious exegesis.
William D. [Bill] Mounce posts about the Greek language and exegesis on the ZA Blog. He is the president of BiblicalTraining.org, a ministry that creates and distributes world-class educational courses at no cost. He is also the author of numerous works including the bestselling Basics of Biblical Greek and a corresponding online class. 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 BillMounce.com.