The Case for “Case”

April 25, 2014

It has been brought to my attention that for the average person whose first language is English, the idea of “case”, to which I frequently refer in word studies which deal with nouns, makes no sense whatever.
The English language has no such phenomena in its use of nouns: our nouns do not appear in different forms. Pronouns do, in a limited way: the subject of a sentence employs “I, you, he, she, it; we, you, they”; a possessive is expressed by “my, your, his, her, its; our, your, their”; and an object – direct or indirect – by “me, you, him, her, it; us, you, them”. Even these, however, are often scrambled in common usage. So there really are no English equivalents of “case”, and to translate them requires a degree of circumlocution.

I have dealt with this issue in some detail in the Appendix to my Translation Notes, but since it is such an important key to understanding and evaluating the legitimacy (or not!) of the translation of a text, I have decided to offer a grossly over-simplified introduction. Please feel free to raise any questions that might clarify this subject for persons unacquainted with languages that include “case” with nouns. If you want a more comprehensive treatment, the grammar by A.T. Robertson will take you all the way back to Sanskrit, but this is an attempt at a simplified explanation.

The term “case” refers to the grammatical form of a noun, which is identified by the ending affixed to the “stem” of the word. The “stem” is the part that carries the “lexical meaning” (dictionary definition) of a word. The ending, or “case”, reveals nuances of its meaning and its use in the sentence. Nouns are also identified by “number” (singular or plural) and “gender” ( which has no connection to actual fact). By way of illustration, the Greek words for “hand, head, voice, or heart” all have feminine form; those referring to “foot, mouth, or mind” are masculine; and “breath, or body” are neuter – all completely regardless of the physical gender of their “possessors”. The “gender” of a word is an artifact of the language, and nothing more.

There are four “cases” (some grammarians divide them further, into six), in New Testament Greek. A beginning student will identify them most readily by using an Analytical Lexicon, which provides precise identification of every word-form exactly as it appears in the New Testament text, and includes a reference to the nominative singular form, the one in which a more comprehensive lexicon would list it.

The nominative case is the one used for the subject of a sentence, or, in the event of an intransitive verb, the predicate nominative. A variant form, sometimes classified as a separate “case”, is the vocative, which is used for direct address (the person or persons to whom one is speaking), in the absence of the second-person pronoun, “you”. It is often accompanied with a prefixed omega, which is translated simply “O”. The distinction may be rather ordinary; but may be quite significant. Vocative forms appear in Mt.15:28 and 17:17, Ac.1:1, Rom.2:1 and 9:20, James 2:20, and elsewhere. Significantly, it is not used in Heb.10:7, (a fact ignored by translators), implying that ho theos belongs to the subject of the verb, and is not a vocative address, which would have required a different form and an introductory omega, if the popular rendering were correct. The use of the nominative case clearly intends self-identification of the speaker, the Lord Jesus Christ himself.

The genitive case, most commonly indicating possession (“belonging to”), is used just about anywhere that an English speaker would use a phrase introduced by “of”. These uses would include:
*source: as in “Jesus
of Nazareth”, or “John Smith of New York”
*price, or value: Ac.19:19 – the
valueof the books burned by folks who renounced their sorcery
*material or content: Col.1:5 – “the word
of truth”
*comparison: Lk.7:26 – “
more than a prophet”
*partitive: Jn.12:4 – “
one of the disciples
*separation: Mt.13:49 – “
out of the midst of the just ones [righteous]”
*measure of space or time: Eph.1:10 – “the fullness
of time”
All of these are in addition to the most common
possessive, often represented by (‘s) as well as “of” – “Son of God” and “God‘s Son” are equivalent.
The genitive case is also required for the objects of prepositions referring to any of these ideas, especially
source, separation, or departure from. Please see the treatment of prepositions in the Translation Notes.

The dative case, usually including what was classically labeled “locative” (for location in place or time), is used to express an indirect object ; for example, a letter sent to someone, or something provided for someone. Example: I (subject: nominative) gave him (indirect object: dative) a letter (direct object: accusative). In Eph.1:1, it refers to the recipients of the letter.

The dative case has other uses, including:
*agency: Eph.1:13 –
“by the Holy Spirit” (the one who “labels” the faithful as his own)
*manner: Ac.7:60 – “
with a loud voice”
*means: Eph.2:8 – “
by his graciousness”, 2:7 – “by his kindness
cause or results: Eph.2:1 – (death caused) “by deliberate transgressions and failures”
*location in time: Lk.24:1 – “
on the first day; Ac.10:9 – “on the next day”
or place: Jn.19:2 – “
on his head”
*degree of difference: Heb.1:4 –
“by so much more”
*association: friendly – Ac.10:23 – brethren from Joppa went
with Peter
or hostile – Ac.6:9 – (arguing )
with Stephen
Please note that the use of
cause or result refers to consequences, but not purpose. That requires the accusative case.
The dative case is also seen in the objects of prepositions referring to
location, (over, under, beside, in, near, with), but lacks any sense of motion, direction, or purpose. It is primarily static.

The accusative case, on the other hand, is the most active of the cases.
Besides indicating the
direct object of a sentence, (Eph.1:13 – “you heard the word”, it may appear as
subject of an infinitive in indirect discourse: (where it also serves as a direct object of the primary verb): Mt.28:20 – “teaching them to follow….”
subject of an infinitive in purpose clauses: Eph.1:4: “so that we might be …”
extent of space or distance: Lk.24:40 : “a journey of”
duration of time: Mt.12:40: “for three days and three nights”
(Notice that these latter two are
different from similar items on the genitive list, which are only measures.)
It is also used for objects of prepositions denoting
purpose, direction (toward or into), or motion.

These distinctions are basic to accurate translation and understanding of the intended message. Please see Word Study #182, “Of eis and en” for a more detailed illustration.
Careful perusal of the meticulous compilation of the Greek text from literally hundreds of manuscript fragments reveals a
few variations in case endings for nouns, but there are very few, and they are faithfully footnoted, even when thought to be possible copyist’s errors.

Unfortunately, once a “verse” (an artifact added many centuries after the original writing) has been chosen to support a recognized “doctrinal” issue, the accuracy of its translation is no longer open to scrutiny from either lexical or grammatical perspectives. I will conclude by highlighting just one illustration of such an unwarranted manipulation of the text.
One example, among many, of the misunderstanding caused by ignoring (whether deliberately or inadvertently is not mine to judge) issues of grammatical case and lexical accuracy is blatantly obvious in “proof-text” passages like Gal.2:16.

Interestingly, this is a place where the traditional KJV is actually more accurate than modern “evangelical” counterparts, although understanding has been seriously skewed by eager interpreters. The passage in question reads (KJV): “Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith OF Jesus Christ, even we have believedIN Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith OF Christ ….”
Both the NASV and the NIV translators (unaware that “of” indicated possession?) changed both occurrences of “of “ to “in”, conforming it to evangelical dogma, but completely ignoring grammatical accuracy. In both places, there is no preposition, and the older version at least correctly translated the genitive case. There is simply NO construction in which “in” is a legitimate rendering of a genitive case.

The phrase (in all three) “believed IN” is likewise incorrect, since the text uses eis with its required accusative object (see W.S.#182). Giving the translators the benefit of any possible doubt, one may assume this was because they could find no convenient way to express the proper use of the accusative case while maintaining their (also incorrect) translation of pistis as “faith” and pisteuo” as “believe”. (Please see Word Study #1). In neither instance has the erroneous translation of pistis or pisteuo been addressed. A more “literal” rendering of the prepositional phrases would be “became loyal / faithful to / toward Jesus Christ”, with the genitive (possessive) cases correctly acknowledging our dependence upon the Lord’s faithfulness, rather than the achievement of some sort of “spiritual gymnastics” erroneously labeled “faith” on our part.

Romans 3:22 contains the identical error, in both “evangelical” versions, even though their revered KJV maintained the correct genitive possessive translation there as well.
There are many such passages. Please understand: this is not a sales pitch for the KJV. It has other problems. ALL translations need to be subject to scrutiny!

The dilemma, of course, is how to help an earnest student who has not had the privilege to study the Greek language, to discern and correct such errors.
First of all, it should be incumbent upon anyone who presumes to teach, to become knowledgeable about the language, in order to be aware that there actually are problems to be addressed.

As noted in several of my word studies (notably 142 and 182), using an interlinear Greek text with an analytical lexicon can be enormously helpful while acquiring that ability, once a student has a basic understanding of the value of grammar in accurate communication.

It would also be helpful if works of “scholarship” were vetted for linguistic integrity at least as carefully as they are for “doctrinal” acceptability. Ideally, of course, the latter should be contingent upon the former – but try getting that past institutional adjudicators!

Unless/until serious seekers after faithfulness demand this integrity of their gatekeepers, we who consider it important to ask “But what does the text say?” will remain lonely voices in the wilderness.

May we help each other into faithfulness!

A Plea for Linguistic Honesty in Biblical Translation

April 10, 2014

A recent discussion concerning the proper understanding of a handful of “proof-texts” which are loudly trumpeted as normative to “Christian doctrine” (see study #47) motivated me to offer in a more organized form several principles of translation which are vital to the discipline of linguistics, quite apart from anyone’s “systematic theology.”

As noted in an earlier essay, “The Task of a Translator”, honest, responsible translation requires the rendering of the intent of the original writer or speaker as precisely as possible, into the “target language”. This is requisite in business and political contexts: why, then, is such precision not required of Biblical translators?
Accurate translation has (or should have) absolutely NO room for influence by the political, sociological, philosophical, or theological perspective of the translator. An honest translator of ANY text, is NOT an editor. He must make every effort to serve only as a conduit of what has been said or written by another.

This assignment becomes more difficult as the distance – whether of language, culture, or history – between the original text and the target audience increases. Consequently, when the text of the New Testament writings is the translation in question, there are a number of essential historical and cultural details that are usually ignored, much to the detriment of accurate results. Here are a few:

1.The earliest New Testament manuscripts are uniformly written in Greek. There are “scholars” who insist upon Aramaic, but they have produced NO manuscript evidence prior to the third or fourth centuries. I have been privileged to see fragments of New Testament manuscripts in legible Greek that have been dated to the first century. In the words of a dear brother / teacher / mentor years ago, “the closer you are to the source, the clearer and better is the water.”

2.There are those who insist that the “theological” words in the New Testament Greek manuscripts must be traced back to their Hebrew antecedents in the LXX. These well-meaning people forget (or ignore) the historical fact that the LXX was commissioned because the Jews of the Diaspora, after many generations away from their homeland, no longer understood or spoke Hebrew! They had become acculturated to the Greek world in which they lived.

3.A corollary to the foregoing is the observation that most Old Testament quotations in the New Testament documents correspond more closely to the LXX than to the Old Testament as we know it. The LXX was the “Scripture” that most first century folks knew.

4.Most of the New Testament was written to individuals or churches composed largely of Gentile converts – at least Luke/Acts, most of Paul’s letters, and the churches mentioned by John in the Revelation. These folks would have had Greek background, and consequently a classical Greek understanding of the vocabulary and grammar. Any trained linguist is aware that usage, both historical and contemporary, is the key to understanding both vocabulary and grammar in any language, and this is no exception.

5.Perhaps the most obvious, and certainly the most accessible evidence lies in the Acts 15 record of the Jerusalem conference, which was convened to figure out how (or whether) to incorporate Gentile converts into the Christian brotherhood. NOBODY – even the most ardent of the “Judaizers” – is recorded to have insisted that these “alien” brethren learn Hebrew, study the Law and/or the Prophets, or adopt any of the other trappings of the Old Ways (except circumcision, which was voted down). They were required ONLY to abandon all of their former idolatrous practices: blood or strangled sacrifices and various sexual perversions were inherent in idol worship. They were assured, “If you keep yourselves from these things, you do well.” (Ac.15:29). If an understanding of the intricacies and assumptions of the Old Covenant (many of which had been copied from pagan neighbors) had been essential, surely these would have been imposed upon the newcomers. But they were not.

Moving to more recent history, one must also be aware of the basic error (mentioned in #2) of assuming even the existence of “theological words.” To be sure, “theology” has developed its own very precise and highly defined vocabulary: but the source of that vocabulary is NOT the New Testament!

Please remember that the vast majority of New Testament writings are devoted to the effort to encourage and teach committed followers of the Lord Jesus “the Way” of life together as citizens of his Kingdom. They WERE NOT, and ARE NOT, a list of principles that anyone was required to”believe”, or with whose veracity one was required to argue or to agree.

That all happened later, as in the second and third centuries, a hierarchy (which Jesus himself had flatly forbidden – Mt.23:8-10) emerged, and with it the need to force “ordinary” (“lay”) people into subjection to their authority. You need a codified “doctrine” if you are going to exclude (or execute!) heretics for deviation! But you CAN’T FIND THAT IN THE NEW TESTAMENT!!!
There are instructions for restoring someone whose behavior has necessitated discipline, but NONE for regulating thought. That all came later.

Officially codified and proof-tested “doctrines” came much later, by more than a thousand years, as Councils, Reformers, Counter-reformers, and heresy-hunters of various stripes threw the brotherly attitude of the Jerusalem Conference to the winds and angrily consigned one another to the flames – both figuratively and literally.

With similar (although usually less violent) attitudes, virtually every “official” translation into a “modern” language has been done in the last few hundred years by a person or group whose purpose was to advocate or challenge a particular “theological” perspective. Read the introduction (called the “Epistle Dedicatory” ) of the venerable King James Version, if you doubt this – a treatise on royalty and its privilege!

Others carefully specify the “theological pedigrees” of those chosen to do the “translating” (so that you may be sure their work is “safe”) – see introductions to the NAS and NIV.

Some, to their credit, at least admit that they have made changes to cater to a particular bias (new RSV).

Still others fail even to distinguish between paraphrase and translation (Amplified, Living, Good News, Message), and end up being quoted as if they were equivalent to translations. They are NOT.

It is entirely in order that people should write, for the benefit of others, the insight they have derived from their study of Scripture, and the life to which we have all been graciously invited.

It is NOT appropriate, however, to represent the insight or observation as if it were an integral part of the New Testament text, and certainly not to require assent to such conclusions as a test of faithfulness.

Our favorite teacher’s favorite question is still the only one that really matters:
But what does the TEXT say?”
We must find out, if we are to follow faithfully.