Lk 19:1-10: ambiguous present tense

From: Carl W. Conrad (
Date: Sun Nov 05 1995 - 16:36:16 EST

The lectionary gospel text in my church today was the Zacchaeus narrative
in Luke. Although I was certainly aware of the special status of TELWNAI in
Luke as paradigms of the righteous in antithesis to the Pharisees (Lk
3:12-13; 7:29; 18:9-14); yet I was not aware of the Joseph Fitzmyer (Anchor
Bible) interpretation of the Zacchaeus pericope: that here is a man who,
although a despised publican, indeed an ARXITELWNHS, has evidently been
regularly donating 50% of his income to the poor and reimbursing 4-fold any
persons whom he is found to have defrauded. The key verse 8 uses the
present tense for Zacchaeus' declaration, in response to scoffers' outrage
that Jesus should have chosen to dine with a "sinner," that his customary
practice more than satisfies the requirements of the Law.

I had always sort of "taken for granted" that vs. 8 was an assertion of
what Zacchaeus intended to do hereafter in response to the confrontation
with Jesus, and that the translation of NRSV of the verbs of this verse in
the FUTURE tense was appropriate to the right interpretation of the
passage. In viewing the text this morning, we noted that RSV retains the
present tense in English to translate the Greek present tense.

It appears to me that there are indicators pointing both to the traditional
interpretation (that Zacchaeus promises he will undertake these actions)
and to the Fitzmyer interpretation. In favor of the former is the fact that
there is nothing in the narrative that says Zacchaeus is repenting of
former sins (unless one wants to read "EI TINOS TI ESUKOFANTHSA" that way)
and that Jesus makes the dinner appointment at the house of Zacchaeus with
the assertion (v. 9), "KAQOTI KAI AUTOS hUIOS ABRAAM ESTIN." In favor of
the alternative view is what would appear to be an indicator of a
conversion on Zacchaeus' part, Jesus's declarations, (v. 9) "SHMERON

As intriguing to me as the fact that an noteworthy interpreter has argued
for such an interpretation and the evident ambiguity of the story itself is
the use of the present tense in v. 8. We have just had an intriguing
discussion of the possibilities of varied interpretation of the Greek
present tense, and it occurs to me that this particular instance is
sufficiently ambiguous to invite discussion amongst our learned colleagues.
What do you think this present tense means about Zacchaeus' habitual
behavior or future demonstration of present repentance?

Carl W. Conrad
Department of Classics, Washington University
One Brookings Drive, St. Louis, MO, USA 63130
(314) 935-4018 OR

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