Monday, 12 October 2015

In THE beginning (2)

In the previous post I established that the key question in understanding a word is not why, but how or when. I already informed you that I am also particularly interested in the Greek word arché, which has been understood to mean various things from beginning, the beginning, first (adjective function), corner, principality, rule, ruler. That's quite a swathe.

I am particularly curious about this word because of John 1:1 and John 1:2, where it is sometimes argued (and I certainly thought) that we cannot develop sophisticated grammatical ideas on the critical anarthrous (article-free) theos in John 1:1 because Greek articles are basically unpredictable.
In English, if we want to show that a noun is not just any old one of that thing, but it is the thing in view, we must add the article "the". In plural form, that "the" becomes "these" or "those". You know that. In Greek, the word "the" has a gazillion different variants because the Greek language functions with cases. When it is used, the author is being just as specific as we are with our definite articles.

That said, it sometimes is used when we would not, because for us proper nouns, like "Mary" already carry that specific unique sense - unless of course there are two ladies called Mary in view, and one specific Mary needs identification: (pointing to a photo) "This is the Mary you met, she is called Mary Jones; the other Mary is Mary Smith.

New Testament Greek varies here: sometimes "Jesus" has the definite article, which in English is totally superfluous since we do not have two "Jesuses" in view. Another example is God: ho theos, the One True God, whom many Trinitarian scholars will concede is God the Father (there are no tripersonal usages of "theos" or "ho theos" to my knowledge in the New Testament). See John 17:3 for a great example.

And what about the indefinite article? In English, when a noun is indefinite, we simply add "a", "an" or "some", n'est-ce pas? "I picked up a pebble to toss into the sea". Well here in Greek there is a big shift, because they simply add... NOTHING!

So the temptation can be to say, well, because this or that noun has no article, it is therefore indefinite. That is what the Jehovah's Witnesses have basically done, it would seem, with the anarthrous theos in John 1:1. So they say: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was a god. And of course the Christian world goes into uproar at this because of the way JWs have "meddled" with the text. (By the way, I am not convinced at all by JW theology, I only care what the Bible - and Biblical authors - taught and thought). Careful Christians, I unashamedly like to consider myself in this group, also note that they did not start their translation of John's prologue with: "Once upon a time", i.e. in a beginning. We say: surely those JWs must have been allowing their theology to bias their exegesis here, because for the first anarthrous noun, which is arché; they add the THE: In THE beginning, while the anarthrous theos connected to the Word, the logos, is "demoted" to "a god". Could you be any more inconsistent?!

This is how the verse looks with its articles:

In [the] beginning was THE word and THE word was with THE God and [the?] God was THE word.

I am now going to steer away from the highly sensitive anarthrous theos question, and focus on this word arché. Could it be that in my own dislike for some of JW theology and bias, that I was clutching at arguments like the anarthrous arché? Yes, that is precisely what happened.

In the next post I will start to show how the omission of the definite article before arché is ABSOLUTELY NORMAL AND CONSISTENT. There is nothing random about it and it is utterly consistent with how this word arché can be seen to function throughout the New Testament, and even in the Septuagint (LXX). What that means is that if we had significant textual variation in the manuscripts between "In the beginning" and "In [the] beginning", i.e. we didn't know what the prologue originally said, then we would very confidently deduce that an early copyist had changed the text he was copying, inadvertently or deliberately, to ADD the definite article, not to delete it.

That was just a hypothetical textual variation by the way! The manuscripts agree: no article.

At some other stage, maybe, I will delve into the anarthrous theos question, but it is a much bigger project. One argument that will be scrapped however is the necessary unpredictability of usage of articles based on the anarthrous arché in the same verse.

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