[b-greek] RE: Agency&Passive, Mk 14:57-59 False testimony

From: Iver Larsen (iver_larsen@sil.org)
Date: Wed Jun 06 2001 - 02:07:44 EDT

Just a couple of thoughts:
> Marius Reiser* in an extended discussion of the so called "divine passive"
> points out that when the agent of a true passive constituent is left
> unspecified, it is not exegeitically sound parctice to make assumptions or
> draw conclusions about the agent, since the intention of the author was to
> downplay the issue of agency.

I would agree with this statement. The main purpose of using passive - for those languages
that employ passives - is to downplay the issue of agency. This is true across languages,
and those which do not employ passives have other means of downplaying agency, e.g. using
a very generic word to fill the subject slot.
For instance, "my car was stolen" has no agent, because I do not know the agent. I could
still make it grammatically active by saying "Someone stole my car." The agent is still

However, the so-called divine passive is a special case connected to Jewish aversion to
mentioning the name of God. Often they would take the other route and use a substitute
like "heaven" to avoid mentioning "G-d". But sometimes, a passive may be used for the sole
purpose of avoiding mentioning the Name. In some of these cases, one could consider
supplying the agent "God" or "Lord", although I can't think of any examples at the moment.
I would not suggest to supply "God" as agent in Mk 2:5.

> Reiser points out that in Mk 2:5 we see Jesus use the passive:
> and even though the agent is not specified the scribes concluded that Jesus
> was claiming to be the agent. Hold that thought.

It is part of the background for a statement like this that the Jews considered sins to be
done first and foremost against God. It caused us some problems while translating the
Bible into a language where people did not consider sins as done towards God, but towards
other people exclusively.
> Now if we take at the false testimony in Mk 14:57-59 and test that testimony
> against Jesus statement in Mk 13:2:
> We can begin to see how this false testimony might have been based on a
> misunderstanding (either intentional or not) of what Jesus had said. Jesus
> leaves the question of agency open in MK 13:2, which is in fact fairly
> standard practice in prophetic and apocalyptic texts when destruction is
> the topic. The false wittnesses at his trial take advantage of this and fill
> in the agency slot with Jesus just like the scribes did in Mk 2:6.

It seems to me that the false testimony in Mk 14:57-59 is based on the public statement of
Jesus recorded in John 2:19 rather than the private statement made to the disciples in Mk
> Anyway, this illustrates Marius Reiser's point that agentless passive
> constituents are left agentless on purpose and that attemts to fill the
> agent slot, even when it is more or less obvious who should fill it, will
> lead to exegitical results which are at cross purposes with the authors
> intent.

I basically agree with this. It is important to understand why a passive form is used and
respect the author's intentions in doing so.

Iver Larsen

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