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The Difference a Comma Makes - Acts 5:18 (Monday with Mounce 129)
We all know that commas are not part of the biblical text, and yet they are required by English. To someone just starting their Greek career, it may not seem that commas deserve much attention; but Acts 5:18 gives a good example of why a comma can make all the difference.
I was reading the NIV the other day and came across this verse. “Then the high priest and all his associates, who were members of the party of the Sadducees, were filled with jealousy.” What is the relationship between the “associates” and the “Sadducees”? In English, there are two.
1. It is possible that Luke is writing that the high priest has some associates, and those associates were part of the Sadducee party. What this interpretation permits is that there were Sadducees who were not associates of the high priest. I suspect this is the most natural reading of the NIV, implying that we are dealing here with a subgroup of the Sadducee party, a doubtful interpretation.
2. If you read the comma differently, you could understand that all the Sadducee party were the associates of the high priest. This is what the NASB is trying to convey with the parentheses. “But the high priest rose up, along with all his associates (that is the sect of the Sadducees), and they were filled with jealousy” (see also the ESV, NRSV, KJV, NET).
The HCSB neatly sidesteps the awkwardness of the parentheses by translating, “He and all his colleagues, those who belonged to the party of the Sadducees, were filled with jealousy,” but it does leave the same ambiguity as the NIV. (Parentheses are generally considered poorer English, and writers tend to rewrite the sentence so they are not needed, unlike what I am doing right now.) Likewise, the NLT translates, “The high priest and his officials, who were Sadducees, were filled with jealousy.”
The Greek is actually a little awkward. Ἀναστὰς δὲ ὁ ἀρχιερεὺς καὶ πάντες οἱ σὺν αὐτῷ, ἡ οὖσα αἵρεσις τῶν Σαδδουκαίων, ἐπλήσθησαν ζήλου. Word for word it reads, “But standing up, the chief priest and all those (πάντες οἱ [masculine plural]) with him, the-being-sect (ἡ οὖσα αἵρεσις [feminine singular]) of the Sadducees, were filled with jealousy.”
ἡ οὖσα αἵρεσις τῶν Σαδδουκαίων is a nominative appositional phrase that further identifies the “all those with him.” The plural verb, ἐπλήσθησαν, then, goes back to the compound subject, “the high priest and all those with him.” Appositional phrases, by their very nature, stand apart from the rest of the grammatical flow of the sentence, and if you drop it out the sentence makes good sense.
The singular feminine ἡ is unexpected but required by the feminine singular αἵρεσις. Because it is a nominative appositional phrase and in a sense stands apart from the sentence, Luke can get away with the irregularity (if that is the right word) of a feminine singular contextually referring back to the masculine plural πάντες.
Given the historical context, I strongly suspect that the πάντες means allthe Sadducees were filled with jealousy, and we need to be careful of a comma suggesting only some of them were associates of the high priest.
Amazing, isn’t it. Miracles were being done everywhere. Peter’s shadow had healing power. And yet the religious rulers were filled not with awe and thankfulness, but with jealousy. The sad fact of life is that almost everything in this world is about power, and their power was threatened.
I have been reading a fascinating book about the life of William Tennent (The Vision that Changed a Nation, by John F. Hansen). It was Tennent’s conviction that the ruling religious authorities had failed to understand the necessity of a new birth, and so formed his “Log College,” teaching students not only the rigorous of a classical education but also teaching the necessity of passion and conviction and the work of the Holy Spirit and sin and conversion. Guess how the Sadducees of his day responded? With jealously and the wielding of social and financial power. Tennent had strong connections with the Great wakening, and 60 (yes, sixty) of his students went on to found new colleges that would continue his dream.
Hansen summarizes Tennent’s core belief by quoting the poet William Butler Yeats (1865-1939): “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.”
Some things never change, and there will always be religious authorities who want to fill pails and throw water on fires. The question is, what will you do?
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 other blog on spiritual growth, Life is a Journey, at www.billmounce.com
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