God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

Q&A: On Matthew 5:17-19

Cameron asks via the About page whether “until everything is accomplished” (eos an panta genetai) in Matthew 5:18 could be punctuated as part of Matthew 5:19, the original being unversified and unpunctuated. That is, could the text read:

I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law. Until everything is accomplished, anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments…

instead of the usual:

I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments…

This is really a question for someone who knows more about Greek phrasing than I do, but I believe that the word oun (“therefore”) at the beginning of 5:19 makes it pretty clear, even without punctuation, that the “until” phrase ends in 5:18. (The NIV, which Cameron quotes, doesn’t translate oun here. I don’t know why not.)

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October 25, 2009 - Posted by | Q&A, translation practice | , , , ,

2 Comments »

  1. Hey, thanks a lot for the answer! I agree, it makes more sense for oun to be at the beginning of the “sentence”. I think I had better hold my theory at arm’s length at present.

    If you don’t mind me asking another question, I’m still confused about the two uses of heos (until) in the verse. The first use of heos makes it clear that the condition is until heaven and earth pass away, but the second use of heos gives the condition until all be fulfilled (ginomai), which in my estimation would hearken back to verse 17, where Christ says He is going to fulfill the Law and the Prophets (although the word there is pleroo).

    I am assuming that Christ fulfilled the Law by His death (i.e. “it is finished”, Greek teleo) and the curtain was rent in two, symbolizing that the Law’s power had been broken. Additionally, Paul makes it clear that Christ was the end of the Law and believers are no longer under the Law. (Romans 7:1-6, Ephesians 2:14-15, Roman 6:14-15.)

    So I’m just confused about how this fits into Matthew 5:17-19. At face value with an English translation it looks like in verse 17 Christ says that He has come to fulfill the Law (which means it will have served its purpose fully), in verse 18 He seems to set up a contradictory use of conditionals, and in verse 19 He warns everyone to keep obeying the Law and ties it into His new kingdom message. As such, this passage has given me a headache.

    Verse 18 is what confuses me the most. Is the double use of heos a double conditional? I.e. if either of these conditions are fulfilled, the Law will pass away? Or could verse 18 refer to the Law’s always being contained within the Holy Writ and always being authoritative even if not binding?

    Because in verse 19, Jesus seems to cement that everyone should obey the commandments of verse 18 (the written code of the Mosaic Law) in order to be great in the kingdom of heaven – which makes no sense if the Law is to be fulfilled in the sense that it will reach its culmination and will no longer be binding, as Paul sees it.

    Could Jesus in verse 19 be referring to the commandments He gives directly after verse 20? Maybe a new paragraph between verse 18 and 19?

    Sorry for the lengthy question, I’ve just been struggling with interpreting this passage for a number of days and not getting particularly far.

    Comment by Cameron | October 25, 2009 | Reply

    • I agree that it’s confusing at first glance.

      As a guess, both phrases were meant as hyperbole, so their combined effect is more of emphasis than of logical conjunction or disjunction.

      Comment by Joel H. | October 27, 2009 | Reply


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