Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Matt. 8:7-8 and the issue of lexical overlap

Some teachers & commentators like to make a big deal about the interplay of the verbs for love based on agape and phileo in John 15. I am not convinced that there is much (if any) exegetical significance in this interplay, as the objects also change in this passage, and more importantly there is a lot of evidence that agape was taking over the usage of phileo in the 1st century.

I think that astute students of scripture rightly take note of interesting lexical changes like this, especially when such shifts aren’t reflected in the English translation. Potentially, such nuances of the Greek might shed some interesting insights into the passage’s meaning. However, while there is this important possibility, we also need to exercise care and not assume that this is always the case (viz. Carson's "Exegetical Fallacies"). I think John 15 is a good example of this problem… the lexical evidence just doesn’t support anything exegetically significant.

After all, we are all instinctively aware that people use the same language in vastly different ways. My boss uses far more pronouns in a sentence than I ever would, and my wife regularly will casually use a word that I’ve never even heard of. There is something to our own personal expression of our selves that also involves how we phrase and word our ideas.

I came across a good example of this today while reading Matthew. In Matthew 8, Jesus is approached by a Centurion appealing to Jesus to heal his servant. Jesus responds in v. 7 with “I will come and heal him”, (which, it appears that it’s actually a question: “Should I come and heal him?”, probably due to the fact that Jesus is a Jew and this is a Gentile military leader). Jesus uses the verb therapeuo.

However, the Centurion replies that he isn’t worthy for Jesus to be in his house, and adds “but only speak the word, and my servant will be healed”. The Centurion however uses a different word for heal, iaomai. Jesus then responds in praise for the Centurions faith, and lamenting Israel’s lack of such faith. The narrative then adds, that the Centurions servant was healed (iaomai) that hour.

Therapeuo is a common word in the NT (43x), and Matthew uses it a lot (17x). Iaomai is less frequently used in the NT (26x), and even less frequent in Matthew (4x, two of which are in this passage). BDAG lists both words with similar senses of “to heal, to restore”, (although therapeuo can also be used as “service”, which doesn't fit this context).

Should we make a big deal of this? Doubtful. It looks like the evidence is pretty clear that this is just a stylistic change in vocabulary. Luke also echoes the Centurion’s use of iaomai, so I’m guessing it is either a more “proper” word fitting for his class, or it was just a stylistic difference. It is interesting that both Luke and Matthew echo the Centurion’s word for heal in describing the actual healing of the servant, but again this seems hardly exegetically significant.

In any case, in our quest for interesting exegetical nuggets, I think we have to be careful not to let our ambition for presenting the text in a fresh or new way to overplay the evidence. Good exegesis doesn’t always result in “newness”, after all most of us pale in comparison with the great exegetes who came before us.


Rustyknight said...

Hey John,

This may sound weird, but I love to forget to check this blog then rediscover it again when I surf through my favorite blogspots. That is a compliment ;-) I have a favor to ask if you have the time or the inclination. In your studies of scripture and the expirience of living your faith, what frustrates you about the intigration of both? If there ever was a hermeneutical boogey man stalking your reason and logic, where would he attack? What can I say, these things interest me. I realize this isn't the oppropriate forum, so hit me up with an email( if you fancy to take on such things. Hope all is well for you and yours.


thec0keman said...

Thanks! I didn't even know people read it... I think I have like 5 readers, and at least 3 of them are family. But hey, that's better than none!

Let me think about that question for a few days, I'll get back to you