Thursday, September 25, 2008

Watch Your Pronouns! Especially These and Those!

I've been teaching students in a course on expository preaching the value of careful observation in Bible study. This is important for everyone, not just those who are preparing a sermon or Bible study lesson. It was said of Calvin's preaching that "Every word weighed a pound." Well, Calvin was great, but if that's true, then we should say that when it comes to Scripture, every word weighs a ton! Sometimes the meaning of a text (yes, I used the singular "meaning"; it only has one) rises and falls on a single word, and in many cases it is a word with which familiarity has bred contempt. We all have a tendency to look at the big words of a text. The ones that have technical, theological meaning. And we tend to glance rather quickly past the articles, the adjectives, prepositions, and pronouns, etc. But we must NOT do that.

Here's an example. In Mark 13, the Olivet Discourse, Jesus gives his fullest treatment of eschatology in Mark. And most of us are aware that the debate rages between scholars over whether the events He speaks of took place in and around 70 AD, or whether they are yet future. Well, the answer is yes. Both are correct. How do we know? We know by the use of demonstrative pronouns.

In everyday English, we are familiar with the concept of near and far demonstrative pronouns, even if we aren't familiar with those labels. If we are speaking of a book close to us, we say "this book", and if it is far away, we say "that book." If there are more than one book, we say "these books" to indicate nearness, and "those books" to indicate distance. These same categories are found in Greek. Consider the following from Wallace's Basics of New Testament Syntax:

"A demonstrative pronoun is a pointer, singling out an object in a special way. The three demonstrative pronouns used in the NT are outos, ekeinos, and ode. (This last one is rare, occuring only ten times.) Outos regularly refers to the near object ("this"), while ekeinos regularly refers to the far object ("that"). ... The near-far distinctions of outos and ekeinos can refer either to that which is near/far in (a) the context, (b) the writer's mind, or (c) the space or time of the writer or audience." (pp 144-145)

Now in Mark 13, we can detect where Jesus shifts from speaking of the things that are "near" His own day (those that will occur in and around 70 AD), and those which will occur at the eschaton, the end of all things, by the use of these pronouns. In v4, the disciples, having heard Jesus speak of the destruction of the Temple, ask when this will take place. In their minds, they must associate the destruction of the Temple with the end of the world, which they assume will take place shortly. They say, "Tell us, when will these (tauta, plural of outos, the near pronoun) things be, and what will be the sign when all these (tauta) things are going to be fulfilled?" The rest of the chapter is Jesus' answer to those two questions. But whereas they used tauta to indicate both the destruction of the Temple and the eschaton, Jesus does not. In vv5-13, His discussion is seasoned with the use of tauta ("these", near pronoun) in v8: "These things (tauta) are merely the beginning of birth pangs." So the fall of the Temple, the rise of imposters, the wars, rumors of wars, natural disasters, and persecutions, are "not yet the end" (v7), but the beginning of birth pangs. They indicate that the process of last things will begin very shortly (they are near), but they are not yet the eschaton.

Jesus' words in vv14-27 are seasoned by the repetition of various forms of ekeinos, the far pronoun. In v17, He says "Woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing babies in those (ekeinais) days." In v19, He says, "For those (ekeinai) days will be a time of tribulation such as has not occurred since the beginning of the creation which God created until now, and never will." While those living in Judea during the years around 70 AD may have thought that the things they experienced fit this description, we have the privilege of hindsight and can tell that, although those things were horrendous and perhaps unprecedented (?), there have been worse calamities to befall the world and the nation of Israel since. So 70 AD does not fit the criteria of Jesus' words "and never will." Then in v24, He says, "But in those (ekeinais) days, after that (ekeinen) tribulation, the sun wil be darkened ...." So, these events foretold in vv14-27 are not near, but far. They are not the beginning of the end, as the events in vv5-13 are, but the ultimate end, the eschaton.

Then we come to verses 28-31, and the pronoun usage switches back to tauta. In v29, "when you see these (tauta) things, recognize that He is near, right at the door." He is not yet coming through the door (the eschaton), but is near, and even at the door. The end has begun (v8), but it has not fully arrived. He says in v30, "This (aute) generation will not pass away until all these (tauta) things take place." So some in the generation of Jesus' day would see the near things occur. Of those who asked the question, we know at least John saw the day come. He didn't see "those days" but he saw "these things."

And then we come to v32, in which Jesus says, "But of that (ekeines) day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone." Here He once again shifts from near things to the far distant event of the eschaton.

So, in the Olivet Discourse, is Jesus speaking of 70 AD or the far distant future? Yes. Both. And we can distinguish the two by the use of the demonstrative pronouns in the text. The good news is that these pronouns have been handled well by the English translations, so you don't have to be a Greek scholar to detect the shifts that occur in the passage. The bad news is two-fold. First, the translators have obscured the distinction by inserting words that are not representative of the Greek text, indicated by italics. They have, for instance, inserted the words "those" and "that" in v7 of the NASB. That obscures the distinction for the English reader, but remember that those words are not original. The italics are a give away. If you remove the italicized demonstrative pronouns from the text, the distinction remains bulletproof. And second, to return to my primary point, words like "this, that, these, and those" do not catch our eye in a cursory reading. We deem them to be unimportant and insignificant. But as I have sought to demonstrate, nothing could be further from the truth. The meaning of this text is wrapped up in the usage of those words.

Every word weighs a ton, and we must be very careful to observe how the words in the text function. Otherwise, we will miss important indicators of the text's meaning and get it wrong every time.


Anonymous said...


I LIKE it. Very well demonstrated. I'm an economist by training, so my language for Calvin's comment is: "There is tremendous economy in the Word of God. No word is superfluous and no word is missing".

I may not understand every word, but that does not negate its criticality to God. Your presentation of "these-those" clearly drives this point across.

I was fortunate to have taken a 21 week class in inductive Bible Study several years ago and that truly has helped me slow down and see most of the words. I'd like to say "all", but i still get surprised by my biases and my "contempt".

But as you suggest, "slowing down" is one of the special treats and needed traits of effective understanding of His word.

thanks for sharing.

john vv

Anonymous said...


I LIKE IT. Very well said and a powerful demonstration of the key principle.

I'm an economist by training, so my way of sharing Calvin's concept around each word ways a pound has been: "There is tremendous economy in the Word of God. There is not one word too many and not one too few". Now i may not understand them all at any given point in time, but their criticality to God is certain.

I was fortunate to have taken a 21 week class on inductive Bible Study several years ago and learned, more, the value of "slowing down". I still don't slow down enough, cause i get "surprised" by words that, as you stated, i've shown "contempt" for. But it has been a fun learning process and has truly enlivened His love letter.

Thanks for sharing.

John VV