Attila the Hun's commentary on John 1

From: Jonathan Robie (
Date: Fri May 08 1998 - 14:40:09 EDT

At 09:13 AM 5/8/98 -0700, wrote:
>The only way I know about in approaching this whole 1:1-18 section of
>text is to utterly and rigorously clean up the tenses in translation
>into English. HN then is not 'was', but is 'was being', and so
>forth. It does turn into a kind of 'Attila the Hun' pursuit, but what
>is lost in gloss is more than amply rewarded in comprehensibility,
>when read slowly and thoughtfully, and in the terms of the text, as
>they are introduced by the text, and unfolded by the text. The
>meaning of this text will not be exhausted by any of us, eh?

This approach worries me because the resulting translation has already
changed the Greek tenses into English tenses that are not completely
equivalent. For instance, the example you cite, HN, is a verb which never
occurs in the Aorist, and is the only past-referring form of the verb "to
be" in Greek. It isn't particularly marked, and doesn't imply much. You
translated it with "was being", which is a very marked, unusual form which
implies a lot more in English - but what it implies wasn't in the original.
So this is an instance in which translating the Greek imperfect into the
English past progressive is very misleading.

Wooden tense-for-tense translations from one language into another do not
preserve the original meaning. And they can tempt you into thinking that
you have understood the text, when what you have really grasped is the
meaning of the translation you have produced. And the meaning of verb
tenses may depend a great deal on the original sentence structure - e.g. in
subordinate clauses the meaning of the tense is often to be grasped only in
relationship to the verb in the main clause, and the tense of non-finite
verbs can only be grasped in relationship to the finite verb. If you
translate into English before examining the use of verb tenses, you've
already lost the critical data.

I LOVE reading texts slowly and thoughtfully, but in Greek, and out loud.
If you want to really note the use of the tenses, stop at every verb, and
notice the tense that is used, perhaps even saying the name of the tense
out loud. I've found that helpful at times. But do it in Greek.

And then keep in mind that there can be many reasons for the use of a tense
- e.g. that some verbs tend to take certain tenses, some forms don't even
exist for certain verbs, some authors tend to favor one tense over another,
or use a tense more carefully than another - e.g. the Johannine writings
use the perfect with a great deal more care than the rest of the New
Testament, and the perfect is in the process of dying out during the New
Testament period.

When I'm surprised or confused by the use of a tense, I ask a question here
on b-greek, where I get lots of help.

Texcel Research

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