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A New Game: Supply the Missing Word (Monday with Mounce 114)
When we are speaking our native language, we have such an intuitive feel for it that we often leave out words. This certainly is true in English, in Greek, and I would assume in most languages.
I was raised in Minnesota, and one of the peculiarities of the region is our willingness to end a sentence in a preposition, especially if it is connected with a verb. My favorite expression is, “Do you want to go with?” Terrible English, odd sounding to non-Minnesotans, but perfectly clear to me. Obviously, I am asking, “Do you want to go with me?” But why clutter up a sentence with unnecessary words? At least, that is my rationalization.
What was amazing to me years ago when I was learning Greek is how often filling in the missing word would so often explain a strange construction. The grammatical term for this is “ellipsis.” One of the most common culprits is ἐστίν, omitted often in proverbs, impersonal constructions, questions, and exclamations (see my Biblical Greek: A Compact Guide,, and BDF #127).
Words are also often omitted in parallel constructions. Peter says to Jesus, “Though they all fall away because of you, I will never fall away” (Matt 26:33). Obviously he intends us to add the missing words “from you” to the end of the sentence.
But I came across another example today. The verb is ἀναλύω. It occurs twice in the New Testament, three times if you count variants.
As a transitive verb, it means loose, unite. See the v.l. in Acts 16:26. As an intransitive verb, it means depart, return. (Strange isn’t it that the same word can mean two significantly different things?) In Luke 12:36 the master “comes home” from the wedding.
But in Phil 1:23, it is used idiomatically. Paul writes, “I have the desire to depart (εἰς τὸ ἀναλῦσαι) and be with Christ.” “Into the departing.” Weird. But if you look deeper into BDAG, you will find this. “Fig., depart (sc. ἐκ τοῦ ζῆν) euphemistic for die.” In other words, the assumed words ἐκ τοῦ ζῆν give a not so weird meaning of departing from life. I am sure you can think of many similar English euphemistic expressions for dying.
“Sc” is shorty for the Latin scilicet meaning, “one may understand, supply.” The Greek words that follow in BDAG are the proposed missing words.
So there are two morals to this story. When you come across words or expressions that don’t make sense, spend some time in BDAG; they often will supply answers. And don’t be surprised when you have to add words into your translation to make sense of the Greek.
William D. [Bill] Mounce posts about the Greek language, exegesis, and related topics at Koinonia. He is the author of numerous books, including the bestselling Basics of Biblical Greek, and is the 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, and is currently on the Committee for Bible Translation for the NIV. Learn more and visit Bill's blog (co-authored with scholar and his father Bob Mounce) at www.billmounce.com.
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