[b-greek] JOH 16,23

From: Wayne Leman (Wayne_Leman@SIL.ORG)
Date: Wed May 02 2001 - 14:28:12 EDT

from: Wayne Leman

----- Original Message -----
From: "Alan B. Thomas" <a_b_thomas@yahoo.com>

> Concerning EN TWi ONOMATI MOU and like "ambiguous"
> prep. phrases,
> I note this comment by Carl:
> begin quote:
> These are all instances, I think, wherein more careful
> writing could have
> eliminated ambiguity; I don't think there's any
> intentional ambiguity in
> any of these verses I've cited (nor in John
> 16:23)...<snip> end quote.
> Why?
> Is it possible that several of the ambiguous
> constructs we find sprinkled throughout the NT were
> indeed intentional?

It is possible, but not likely. Intentional ambiguity is usually marked in
languages clearly enough for hearers/readers to catch on that an ambiguity
is intended. Note how we punsters (I confess!) have pregnant pauses, scrape
our throats, and go through other, uh, punishing, contortions, to try to
ensure that our hearers will catch our puns and realize how intelligent we
are! :-)

I claim that there are at most perhaps only 2 or 3 cases of intentional
ambiguity in the NT. The other purported cases are more likely the result of
our recognizing alternative syntactic or lexical analyses, which is very
different from saying that we don't know which of the analyses the original
author intended, but normal human communication theory strongly hypotheses
that only one was intended.

> Carl mentioned the famous Eph. 1:4 or 5 construct EN
> AGAPHi. It makes sense if you take it with either
> verse. Why could not the author have intended to use
> it in such a way as to allow it to have a "dual
> function?"

Only if it is clear enough from the syntax or context that the ambiguity was
intended. Otherwise, we are eisogeting our 21st century analysis, which
recognizes more than one *possible* analysis, back into the text, rather
than letting the author's intention speak for itself.

> Or, are we certain that all "ambiguous" constructs
> were done with lack of care.

Very little in life is "certain," but in language analysis, as in all
sciences, we can make great progress in understanding by going with strong

> And by ambiguous
> constructs, I am only commenting on phrases where it
> SEEMS that even the original readers would have
> observed this ambiguity.

But, again, even if we observe a possible ambiguity, and this works all the
time in English as well as other languages, we usually can figure out from
the speech context which alternate is intended.

> It just seems to me that ambiguity can be a
> syntactical time-saver and an effective tool.

Only if it is closer to the most likely analysis, or "truth," if you prefer
it in these terms.

> Even as
> in Romams 9.22, is KATHRTISMENA a Middle or Passive?
> Well, I can make sense of it either way.

And you have that right as an analyst. But it is usually better to ask:
Which was more likely intended by the original author? If we still cannot
tell, then we humbly say that we cannot tell, but it is epistemological
dangerous, IMO, to go to the other side and say that just because we
recognize a *possible* ambiguity, one must have been intended. Normal human
communication strongly suggests otherwise. This observation is based on a
huge amount of data from many languages around the world, and Hellenistic
Greek is a normal one of those, even though, unfortunately, we can no longer
check with the original authors or even native speakers.

> And I am
> quite content with that "ambiguity." (God's preparing
> them for destruction [passive] need not be done apart
> from human decisions [middle].)

I submist that you are making a *theological* decision here, rather than a
syntactic one. We need to allow syntax to precede theology.

> Of course, if we are willing to concede intentional
> uses of ambiguity, I guess the next question to
> explore is whether or not we can distinguish an
> intended ambiguity from an unintentional one.

Yes, authors almost always give fairly clear indication when they intend
ambiguity. If that is lacking, then the *possible* ambiguity is much more
likely to be unintentional.

> Is anyone aware of any material published on this
> issue?

I cannot think of references at the moment, but I suggest that you comb
through the index archives of Notes on Translation at URL:


Also, you should be able to get some helpful insights into intended vs.
unintended ambiguity from some of the translation textbooks, such as Mona
Baker's In Other Words, Mildred Larson's Meaning-Based Translation, and
Beekman and Callow's Translating the Word of God (Zondervan, see their
discussion of ambiguities on pages 22, 24, 25, 31, 187-88, and several other

Best wishes,
Wayne Leman
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