John 8:58 & Koine grammars

From: Ron Henzel (
Date: Tue Aug 13 1996 - 21:55:35 EDT

This message is a *continuation* of my response to Mitchell Andrews'
message regarding John 8:58, this time with reference to his use of
grammatical reference works to justify his position.

To begin with, Mitchell quoted from a long-outdated and discredited
Greek Grammar, as follows:

> Concerning this construction, A Grammar of the Idiom of the New
> Testament, by G. B. Winer, seventh edition, Andover, 1897, p. 267,
> says: "Sometimes the Present includes also a past tense (Mdv. 108),
> viz. when the verb expresses a state which commenced at an earlier
> period but still continues,-a state in its duration; as, John 15:27
> [ap' arkhes' met' emou' este'], John 8:58 [prin Abraam' gene'sthai
> ego' eimi]." (note Winer's reference to John 8:58)

At Mitchell's request, I do amply note Winer's reference to John
8:58, but I also notice that Winer does NOT supply the NWT rendering
of the verse as "I have been," as Mitchell would have liked. And
with good reason -- but I will get into that later.

First, I must take issue with even using Winer as an authority, given
the fact that Winer had many theological axes to grind (he was not
primarily a grammarian, but a theologian -- and a LIBERAL one at
that!), and that much more up-to-date authorities are available. In
addressing this ill-begotten reference can do no better than to cite
_The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church_, edited by Cross and
Livingstone (London: Oxford University Press, 1974), p. 1492:

"WINER, JOHANN GEORG BENEDIKT (1789-1858), German theologian. From
1832 he was professor of theology at Leipzig. His celebrity rests on
his NT Greek grammar (_Grammatik des neutestamentlichen
Sprachidioms), first publd. in 1822. It went through a large number
of editions and was several times translated into English, e.g. by
W.F. Moulton (1870). Its elaborate collection of material is still
valuable, though Winer's conclusions have been largely invalidated by
increased knowledge of Hellenistic Greek."

Mitchell also goes on to quote W.F. Moulton's son, J.H. Moulton, as

> Likewise, A Grammar of New Testament Greek, by J. H. Moulton, Vol.
> III, by Nigel Turner, Edinburgh, 1963, p. 62, says: "The Present which
> indicates the continuance of an action during the past and up to the
> moment of speaking is virtually the same as Perfective, the only
> difference being that the action is conceived as still in progress . .
> . It is frequent in the N[ew] T[estament]: Lk 2:48 13:7 . . . 15:29 .
> . . Jn 5:6, 8:58 . . . " (note Moulton's reference to John 8:58).

Again, I note the reference to John 8:58, and again, I note the fact
that Moulton himself does NOT supply the rendering "I have been" as
does the NWT. Again, I assert that this is with good reason. But
before I get to that, I must note the manner in which Mitchell has
strung together these grammatical citations. In particular, note the
one that immediately follows the Moulton reference:

> Further, A Manual Grammar of the Greek New Testament, by Dana and
> Mantey, MacMillan, 1927, p. 183, says: "Sometimes the progressive
> present is retroactive in its application, denoting that which has
> begun in the past and continues into the present. For the want of a
> better name, we may call it the present of *duration.* This use is
> generally associated with an adverb of time, and may best be rendered
> by the English perfect. "Ye have been (present tense) with me from
> the beginning" John 15:27.

Please note that not only do Dana and Mantey not supply the "I have
been" translation for John 8:58, but they do not even refer to John
8:58 in this context! In fact, Dana and Mantey do not refer to John
8:58 ANYWHERE in their grammar. The effect of stringing together the
quotations in the manner in which Mitchell proceeded to do, however,
conveys the inaccurate impression that he has built a cumulative case
from standard Koine reference works that <ego eimi> should be
translated "I have been" in John 8:58 -- which he has not.

Dr. Julius R. Mantey was well-known for debunking Watchtower Society
misuse of his and Dr. Dana's grammer. He wrote articles, appeared on
Christian radio programs, etc., in an effort to assert in the loudest
possible terms that nothing in his grammar, and nothing in the New
Testament Greek language, can be used to demonstrate that Jesus
Christ did not claim equality with Jehovah-God. He also pointed out
exactly how the Watchtower Society has misquoted him. Although this
controversy played itself out (much to the discredit of the
Watchtower Society) over a decade ago (Mantey died in the early
'80s), I'm sure that literature on it would still be available
through Christian Research Institute, or some other source.

Now back to my previous point: there is a very good reason that
neither Winer nor Moulton (nor, of course, Dana and Mantey) offered
such a translation as "I have been" for <ego eimi> in John 8:58:
because it would have been entirely unsuitable. This is something
that English readers have difficulty comprehending, because Koine
Greek used verb tenses in a quite different fashion from most
modern languages. E.g.: ONLY in the indicative do tenses possess any
specific time-reference (and <eimi> happens to be in the indicative).
In other moods tense only helps ascertain the kind of action, not the
time of it.

Problems arise in interpreting Koine Greek verb tenses when we
attempt to draw too close of an analogy between Koine tenses and the
tenses of other languages -- especially modern languages. Some of
these problems found their way even into some grammatical works,
particularly those of the 19th century.

In his _A Grammar of the Greek New Testament in the Light of
Historical Research_, A.T. Robertson notes that, "Winer laments that
'N.T. grammarians and expositors have been guilty of the greatest
mistakes' here [i.e., in understanding Koine's use of verb tenses],
JUST IDEAL," p. 821. [Emphasis added.] And, of course, Winer often
did not live up to his "just ideal" due to his own Unitarian
leanings, which creates an interesting parallel between him and the
Watchtower Society. Nevertheless, even Winer himself was sensitive
enough to the nuances of Koine tenses to avoid translating <ego eimi>
as "I have been."

Robertson then spends the next several pages dealing with the
complexity of Koine tenses, citing "The Difficulty of Comparing Greek
Tenses with Germanic Tenses" (p. 821; Winer was German), the "Bad
Influence of the Latin on Greek Grammarians" (p. 822), the "Absence
of Hebrew Influence," (ibid.), etc., before finally dealing with
individual tenses beginning on p. 830. Then, on 879-880, he writes:

"_The Progressive Present_. This is a poor name in lieu of a better
one for the present of past action still in progress. Usually an
adverb of time (or adjunct) accompanies the verb. Gildersleeve calls
it 'Present of Unity of Time.' Cf. <estin hews arti> (1 Jo. 2:9).
Often it has to be translated into English by a sort of 'progressive
perfect' ('have been'), though, of course, THAT IS THE FAULT OF THE
ENGLISH. [Emphasis added.] 'So in modern Greek, <hechenta menas s'
agapw> (Abbott, _Joh. Gr_., p. 222). The durative present in such
added.] (Moulton, _Prol._, p. 119). Cf. <Idou tria etee aph' ou
erchomai> (Lu. 13:7); <tosauta etee douleuw soi> (15:29); <polun
eedee chronon echei (Jo. 5:6); <tosouton chronon meth' humwn eimi>
(14:19); <ap' arches met' emou este> (15:27); <palai dokeite> (2 Cor.
12:19). Cr. <apo Brephous oidas> (2 Tim. 3:15). It is a common
idiom in the N.T. Cf. 2 Pet. 3:4; 1 Jo. 3:8. IN JO. 8:58 <EIMI> IS

Note that Robertson himself points out that while this "Progressive
Present" is often translated "by a sort of 'progressive perfect,'"
this is only due to the shortcomings of English itself; ergo, "have
been" is a less-than-adequate translation for conveying the meaning
of this use of the present. It is resorted to only because English
lacks a verb form that directly corresponds to this particular use of
the Koine present tense. "I have been" is at best a rough
equivalent, at worst very misleading.

Furthermore, Robertson demurs from the judgment of Winer and Moulton
by asserting that "<eimi> is really absolute" in John 8:58. So it is
FAR from unanimous among Koine scholars that John 8:58 can be classed
in this fashion. (Dana and Mantey CERTAINLY CANNOT be called upon in
defense of such a position!)

But even IF we allow that this particular use of the present active
indicative in John 8:58 "gathers up past and present time into one
phrase," given the context in which <ego eimi> appears, the
translation of "I AM" is more than sufficient for that end. It is
also consistent with the position that Jesus is eternally existent,
which the Watchtower Society works diligently to avoid.

The Koine perfect tense has a very different connotation: it
indicates an action that was completed in the past, but has
continuing results in the present. SURELY, Jesus cannot be implying
that his own "existence" was somehow "completed in the past," yet has
"continuing results in the present!" And yet, even the Watchtower
admits that <ego eimi> is a statement about Christ's existence!
Furthermore, in their footnotes to their own translation of John
8:58, they insist on identifying it as a "perfect indicative," and
NOT a "perfective use of the present," which is a device seized upon
by Mitchell, and not by the Watchtower Society.

I hesitate to point this out -- because I fear that some may think
that I veer from the subject of this discussion group -- but in the
interest of historical fact and veracity in scholarship it must be
stated that the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society (of Jehovah's
Witnesses) has a long and storied history of misquoting, selectively
quoting, out-of-context-quoting, and generally misusing standard
Biblical linguistic reference works in order to support their
"translations" (BTW: despite the claims of the Watchtower Society, it
is a long-established fact that none of the NWT translators had any
training in Biblical languages) which are in turn used to support
their theological positions.

-- Ron Henzel

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