ει μη and the Joys of Idioms (Monday with Mounce 51)
Idioms can really be a pain, can’t they? Idioms are phrases in which the individual words don’t bear their normal meaning, but together they have a special meaning. The trick is to learn which words form idioms.
Take for example Mark 6:8. “He charged them to take nothing for their journey except a staff—no bread, no bag, no money in their belts” (ει μη ραβδον μονον, μη αρτον, μη πηραν, μη εις την ζωνην χαλκον). I received a question the other day that wondered why μη ραβδον was not translated “no staff” like the rest of the terms in the list.
The key is the ει, which when combined with μη, forms an idiom translated “except.” So the first four words are properly translated as “except a staff.” NASB explicitly translates μονον as “except a mere staff.”
So how are you supposed to know that ει μη is an idiom?
There are several clues. One is, how would you translate the ει if it were not an idiom? “If” does not make sense here. As a general rule, when the gloss you know for a word does not fit into a context, you should check a lexicon to see if there is another meaning that does fit.
But thankfully, we have a great friend in BDAG (A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, by Danker, Bauer, Arndt, and Gingrich. This is a wonderful Greek lexicon; it is not only the standard in the field, it is almost the only one in the field. There are some shorter lexicons that are cheaper and easier to carry, and there is the mammoth Liddell and Scott, but for basic, serious Greek work you must have access to this text.
BDAG lists idioms near the end of the entry. So if you look up ει, scan to the bottom and at entry 6 you find the rather cryptic “In combination w. other particles, w. the other particles foll.” It means that when ει is used in combination with other particles it means …,” and then BDAG lists those meanings. Entry “i” under ει μη has “except, if not.”
So the moral of the story is first of all to pay attention to common idioms, perhaps keeping a list as you come across them. And when the “normal” translation of a word doesn’t fit (especially if it is a particle followed by another particle), check out BDAG.
William D. [Bill] Mounce posts every Monday about the Greek language, exegesis, and related topics at Koinonia. He is the author of numerous books, including the bestselling Basics of Biblical Greek (third edition coming in 2009!), and general editor for Mounce's Complete Expository Dictionary of the Old and New Testament Words. He served as the New Testament chair of the English Standard Version Bible translation. Learn more and visit Bill's blog (co-authored with scholar and his father Bob Mounce) at www.billmounce.com.
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