Interpreting the Bible: Have You Ever Wondered…
This semester, I have been fortunate enough to take Biblical Greek with one of the greatest professors I have ever had.
The following is part of my final assignment for this class, and I wanted to share it here, because I am truly blown away by the knowledge I’ve gained from this class. Can I write or speak the Greek language with ease? Not a chance. Do I have a much better understanding of how a knowledge of how the Greek language works is crucial for proper interpretation of the Bible? Absolutely.
And here is just one example.
Let’s look at the New Living Translation of John 15:11-17:
I have told you these things so that you will be filled with my joy. Yes, your joy will overflow! 12 This is my commandment: Love each other in the same way I have loved you. 13 There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command. 15 I no longer call you slaves, because a master doesn’t confide in his slaves. Now you are my friends, since I have told you everything the Father told me. 16 You didn’t choose me. I chose you. I appointed you to go and produce lasting fruit, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask for, using my name. 17 This is my command: Love each other.
The Book of John is found in the New Testament of the Christian Bible, and is the fourth canonical Gospel in the New Testament. John 15 is one of the chapters that is commonly called the “farewell discourse” of Jesus (Carson 1980), as it features Jesus speaking in first person to his disciples the night before he is crucified. Prior to verses 11-17, Jesus had been discussing a parable in which he stated that he is “the true grapevine, and [his] Father the gardener” (John 15:1 NLT).
Beginning in verse 11, Jesus says, “I have told you this so that…” and goes on to explain his purposes for the discourse in the first place.
“The single most common category of the subjunctive in the NT is after Ἵνα, comprising about one third of all subjunctive instances” (Wallace 1996). Phrases in the subjunctive mood express a “hope or desire,” while also recognizing that that desire becoming the outcome is not sure, but probable (Wallace 1996). There are several uses of the subjunctive, but John 15:11-17 is written in what is called the final subjunctive, “to indicate the purpose of an action” (Black 1998). Ἵνα itself, though, regardless of mood, is a conjunction translating most basically to “that” when introducing indirect discourse.
To recognize the subjunctive mood, we might look for “lengthened connecting vowels; no augment in the aorist” (Mounce 2009), as well as the word Ἵνα. So, when we read John 15:11 and see Ἵνα, we can assume we are reading a subjunctive message: an uncertain hope.
John 15:11 is translated as, “I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete” (NLT). While these verses were spoken to His disciples, many scholars agree that it was also a message for the coming church (Carson 1980). Let us imagine we are reading this verse as one who is mourning the death of a closed loved one in today’s world, and is not experiencing any sort of joy in that moment. If that reader read Ἵνα as a conjunction indicating a certain outcome, they would likely feel confused and doubtful, as “complete joy” is not their current experience. However, if the same reader understood that Ἵνα in this phrase is relaying Jesús’ hope for him/her, and His purpose for His discourse, a purpose that may or may not be reality, they are more likely to understand Jesus as one who loves and wants the best for His people, rather than one who makes false claims.
Jesus continues in the proceeding verses that we love each other as He has loved us… and that we “did not choose [Him], but [He] chose [us] and appointed [us] so that [we] might go and bear fruit–fruit that will last–and so that whatever [we] ask in [His] name the Father will give [us]” (John 15:16 NLT). Now, let us imagine that we are the disciples listening to Jesus as He is speaking these words. If I were one of His disciples, and understood Jesus to mean that I absolutely must bear fruit, or as I understand it, be Christ-like in my love, and do so in a way that lasts, I can only imagine the immense pressure I would feel. This sort of command would give way to a works-centred Gospel, or one that suggested I must bear fruit in order to reap the “rewards” of the Father. Even the word “and,” placed where underlined in: “we might go and bear fruit–fruit that will last–and so that whatever we ask in His name the Father will give us” is so crucial for the translation of this sentence. Without that “and” separating two ideas, two “Ἵνα” phrases, it would seem as if one action was necessary in order for the other: “we might go and bear fruit–fruit that will last– so that whatever we ask in His name the Father will give us.” However, what we have in reality is two separate “Ἵνα” phrases, in the subjunctive mood, and therefore phrases that are desires of the speaker, Jesus Christ, to His disciples and, likely, a exhortation to all Christ-followers, that He appointed us because He hopes that we will go and bear fruit that will last. As a reader personally, knowing this phrase in subjunctive in nature alleviates any pressure to “do good,” and rather pushes me on in wanting to follow Jesus, rooted in Him.
Finally, the latter half of verse 16 could be very easily mistranslated: “and so that whatever we ask in His name the Father will give us.” Now, imagine you are a newcomer to Scripture, reading the Book of John for the first time, and come across this phrase. You were told that Scripture is “Capital ‘T’ Truth,” and so you are very excited when you come across this verse! You close your eyes, and pray, “God, I ask you for a million dollars, in Your name.” You open your eyes, and… no money. You are bitter, and refuse to acknowledge the Bible as Truth.
Now, when we read this same verse in the subjunctive mood, we know that Jesus is speaking with a hopeful desire for His disciples and followers, also understanding that this is not a sure equation of “ask and receive.” This phrase, also separated by the and conjunction, so not directly linked to “bearing fruit.”
We might also add that the “asking in the Father’s name” is an action that follows abiding in Him and bearing fruit. We might assume, then, that the things we would ask the Father for when abiding in Him would be more in line with His will for us, and thus more likely things that He “would give us.”
It seems so bizarre that understanding such a small word, Ἵνα, is so vital for translating Biblical texts. But, upon close analysis of John 15:11-17, it is very clear that an awareness of the mood Ἵνα is used in, its meaning, and what it might be mistaken for meaning is so important for correctly interpreting the English translation of Biblical texts that use it.