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Why can “the” mean “some”? — Mondays with Mounce 226
ὁ has got to be one of the most flexible words in Greek. When I first saw the 85 pages Wallace commits to the article, I remembered being shocked there was that much to say. But of course there is that much to say, and Matt 28:17 is a good example.
The disciples see the risen Christ and Matthew remarks, “And when they saw him, they worshiped him, but some hesitated (οἱ δὲ ἐδίστασαν).”
It is an interesting question as to why some “hesitated.” διστάζω means “to have doubts, to waiver; to be uncertain, to hesitate (in doubt) (BDAG). Carson comments that διστάζω “does not denote intellectual disbelief but hesitation.” Did they not recognize Jesus? Were they not sure how to respond? Did it take just a bit for those present (who probably were not part of the Eleven) to move from disbelief to faith? Or were the “some” a group who would not believe even in the face of a resurrection?
But back to the question of where does the translation “some” come from? We all know that ὁ does not just mean “the.” It has a wide range of uses, and the entry in BDAG is torturously long and complicated.
But we need to be careful to note not only what the word means, but what it means in conjunction with other words. In 1.b of BDAG, we find the construction οἱ μὲν . . . οἱ δέ meaning “some … others.” As you read down the entry, you see “also without such a relationship expressed τοὺς μὲν ἀποστόλους, τοὺς δὲ προφήτας, τοὺς δὲ εὐαγγελιστάς Eph 4:11.” The NRSV properly brings out the relationship using “some”: “The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers.” The ESV’s use of “the” doesn’t really convey the meaning: “And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers.”
So the lesson learned is that while words have meaning when used by themselves, they can also have a specialized meaning when used with other words. In the singular, ὁ δέ can be the indefinite “the other.” In the plural, οἱ δέ can be the indefinite “some.” This is such a common construction that it should be memorized.
William D. [Bill] Mounce posts about the Greek language, exegesis, and related topics at Koinonia. He is the author of numerous works including the recent Basics of Biblical Greek Video Lectures and the bestselling Basics of Biblical Greek. He is the general editor of 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.
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