September 22nd, 2016
20. Does Jesus use bad grammar?
The short answer is “Yes, the Bible does use bad grammar” (at least what some grammarians would consider to be “bad grammar”).
The most dramatic example is Revelation 1:4-5: “Grace to you and peace from him who is, who was, and who is coming, and from the seven spirits that are before his throne, 5and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth.” χάρις ὑμῖν καὶ εἰρήνη ἀπὸ ὁ ὢν καὶ ὁ ἦν καὶ ὁ ἐρχόμενος καὶ ἀπὸ τῶν ἑπτὰ πνευμάτων ἃ ἐνώπιον τοῦ θρόνου αὐτοῦ 5 καὶ ἀπὸ Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ, ὁ μάρτυς, ὁ πιστός, ὁ πρωτότοκος τῶν νεκρῶν καὶ ὁ ἄρχων τῶν βασιλέων τῆς γῆς. The key phrase is “from him who is, who was, and who is coming.” In Greek the preposition from (apo) must be followed by the genitive case, but in our text apo is followed by the nominative case (ὁ ὢν καὶ ὁ ἦν καὶ ὁ ἐρχόμενος) in flagrant disregard for the rules of Greek grammar. Why do Jesus and his apostle John ignore the rules of Greek grammar? It is clear that they know correct Greek grammar. The following phrases, “from the seven spirits that are before his throne, 5and from Jesus Christ,” have the correct Greek case. So why does the first phrase, “from him who is, who was, and who is coming,” use bad grammar? It is because this phrase is a commentary on the Lord’s name I AM as it was revealed to Moses at the burning bush. This name teaches the unchanging nature of the Lord and of his grace. In Revelation Jesus expands that name I AM into the three dimensions of time. Past, present, and future, Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and forever. He does not change, and since Jesus does not change, his name “the one who is and who was and who is coming” does not change, in defiance of the rules of Greek grammar which require it to change. (In a less flagrant departure from grammar Jesus’ titles, “the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth,” remain in the nominative case even though they are in apposition to a genitive, Jesus Christ.)
The Greek version of Revelation 1:4-5 is bad grammar, but it is good theology and good literature. In this case dramatically expressing the unchanging nature of Christ takes priority over the rules of Greek grammar.
There are other cases in which biblical grammar does not meet the standards of classical grammar books, and some would label it “bad grammar.” Sometimes it violates the conventions of “good style.” Teachers tell us do not be redundant. A classic example of redundancy is “freely by grace.” “Freely” means “by grace” and “by grace” means “freely.” To say both is redundant. But here bad style is good theology. The truth of “freely by grace” is too important to say it just once. Paul has to say it twice “freely by grace.”
The point is not that we are free to ignore the conventions of grammar and style, but that good communicators realize that there are times when literary and theological impact over-ride the conventions of grammar and style.