Re: If you wish, you can - ???

From: Jonathan Robie (
Date: Mon Sep 15 1997 - 10:10:34 EDT

At 04:59 PM 9/14/97 -0700, Andre Desnitsky wrote:
I'm surprised that nobody has responded to this yet. Maybe the title of the
email scared people off, since it sounds like one of those get-rich-quick
emails that I keep getting in my inbox (grin!).

>I would like to ask you a question about a well known NT passage that
>usually is neglected by the commentators though it often remains
>unclear. I mean the leper's words to Jesus: "If you wish, you can make
>me clean" (Mt 8:2, Mk 1:40, Lk 5:12). What does this expression - if you
>wish, you can - E)A\N QE/LH|S DU/NASAI - actually mean? Several answers
>come upon one's mind (perhaps none of them is correct):
>1) it's a statement (= there is nothing impossible for you);
>2) it's a request (= you certainly can do it for me. Will you?)
>3) it's a politeness formula (= French "s'il vous plait"), marking high
>respect for the addressee or a very humble position of the speaker.

I think it is helpful to separate what is SAID from what is IMPLIED here
(that is, to separate semantics from pragmatics). If I knock on your door
and say "I ran out of gas", I have actually made a statement, not a request,
but given the fact that I'm standing there at your front door, waiting for
you to respond, you quickly come to the conclusion that I'm really asking
you to suggest some way of helping. My words didn't say that, but the
situation did. I might not know what I want you to do, but I want you to do
*something*, and I may assume that you know more about the options than I do
- you might have a full can of gas somewhere, or there might be a gas
station just around the corner, or whatever. So instead of telling you what
to do, I make a statement and wait for you to respond.

In the case of the leper, the literal meaning of the words is a statement.
Given the situation, the statement points to the leper's need and to the
power of Jesus. It is pretty clear that the leper thinks Jesus can do it,
and that the leper would like to be healed.

>The only other occurence of the expression E)A\N QE/LH|S in the NT is Mk
>6:22 - O(/ E)A\N QE/LH|S - whatever you wish. Similar expressions can be
>found in the LXX (e.g. Sirach 15:15-16) or in the Hellenistic literature
>of the same period (e.g. Josephus, de bel. jud, 1.621 or Philo, de fuga,
>28.1). The meaning seems to be "if you wish; as you wish, whatever you
>wish" etc. But that does not seem appropriate for the NT passage (the
>leper is asking to save his life!).

As Grice points out, most of what we communicate is implied, not explicitly
stated. If a leper comes up to Jesus, who has been healing people, and says
that he believes that Jesus can heal him if he should wish to, we don't have
to establish that the grammatical form has been used elsewhere as a polite
form of request - the leper clearly wants to be healed, which is why he is
saying this to Jesus.


Jonathan Robie
POET Software, 3207 Gibson Road, Durham, N.C., 27703

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