Oct 23, 2008 David Lang

Studying the Optative, Part 3

In my previous few posts, I've been using Accordance to study the optative mood in Greek. For those of you who are starting to wonder why I'm so fixated on the optative; I'm really not. I'm merely using the optative as a sort of case study to show you how you can use Accordance to answer the kinds of questions I asked in my initial post.

I answered the first three questions in my first follow-up post, in which I used the Search All window and the Hits Graph to explore the use of the optative in the Greek New Testament and extrabiblical Greek texts. In my next post, I explored Paul's use of the optative in greater detail. In this post, I'll focus on the remainder of my original questions about the optative.

First, "what is the meaning of the optative mood?" We've examined its usage, but we have yet to look it up in a Greek grammar. Fortunately, the Scholar's Standard and Premier levels include several grammars. Stevens Greek is an introductory grammar included with the Scholar's Standard. By opening it and searching the Titles field for "optative," I'm immediately taken to the chapter on the optative. Stevens is a great place to go for quick information because his grammar is neatly structured in outline form, with quick summaries followed by more detailed discussion. Stevens summarizes the optative as follows:

The Latin verb opto means "I wish." The English designation optative derives from this Latin root. The contingency behind the idea of "wish" helps the English student see that the optative mood is a weaker form of the subjunctive. In degree, though, the optative still is a slightly stronger potentiality than the imperative.

The optative, then, is a mood of wish. Conventional use at the time of the writing of the New Testament included prayers and benedictions. For this reason, the optative shows up in these formal settings on a regular basis in the New Testament. However, the optative mood in all occurs just sixty-eight times in the Greek text, so optative forms, in reality, are not encountered that often in translating the New Testament.

Stevens' summary accords well with what we discovered about the usage of the optative from the searches we did in the previous two posts. We saw that it only occurs sixty-eight times, that it tends to be used in benedictions and prayers, and that it often is translated using the English word "may," indicating a hope or wish. Stevens goes on to discuss the meaning of tense as it relates to the optative mood, to describe the endings which form the optative, to discuss translation and usage of the optative, and to contrast the optative with the indicative, subjunctive, and imperative moods. He also briefly discusses Paul's use of me genoito, which leads me to the fifth set of questions I asked in my initial post:

"Why is Me genoito translated variously as "God forbid!", "Absolutely not!", "Not at all!", or "By no means!"? What does it literally mean? Which translations, if any, give that literal meaning?

Stevens answers those questions as follows:

Seventeen of sixty-eight optatives in the New Testament are as genoito, usually as me genoito. All but three of these are in Paul's letters, so quite clearly, this was a characteristic style of Pauline rhetoric. In the negative, the expression might be translated something like "May it never be!"

Stevens then adds in a footnote:

Using "God forbid!" is not recommended, being too close to slang.

Okay, so this expression literally means "May it not (or never) be." Presumably we can understand other translations like "God forbid!" and "By no means" as attempts to substitute common English forms of strong denial for a more literal translation which may sound weaker in English than it was in Greek. Are there any translations which give a literal translation of me genoito?

To find this out, I'll simply select me genoito in Stevens' grammar (since that is what I'm reading at the moment), then choose GNT-T (the tagged Greek New Testament) from the Resource palette. This will open a window showing every occurrence of me genoito in the GNT-T. Now all I need to do is put one or more translations in parallel. If I wanted to view a bunch of translations at the same time, I would simply open numerous panes and view them side by side. In this case, I'm more interested in looking at a series of translations to see how they translate me genoito, so I'll just open one additional pane and then change the text displayed in that pane using the Display text pop-up menu at the top of the pane. That way, I'll be able to look at the same general area of the screen and see how each translation renders me genoito.

By the way, for those of you who like shortcuts, here's a little trick that will save you going to the menu each time you want to change the translation in a pane. The keyboard shortcut control-plus will change the Search text pop-up menu to the next translation in the list, and any panes containing that translation will be updated as well. So starting with my window containing the GNT-T, I'll add a pane containing an English Bible, then change the search text to that same English Bible. I can then use control-plus to cycle through various English translations to see how they render me genoito. In doing so, I quickly see the following. HCSB tends to use "Absolutely not!" NIV uses a wide variety of expressions: "May this never be," "Not at all," "certainly not," "By no means," etc. NASB consistently renders it with the literal "May it never be." KJV uses "God forbid," while NKJV changes this to "Certainly not!" ESV favors "By no means," but uses other expressions in some contexts. NLT tends to use "Of course not!"

From this brief survey, it is striking how only one translation consistently renders me genoito literally. Most others choose from a wide variety of ways to express an emphatic no in English.

In this post, we've consulted an introductory Greek grammar to learn the meaning of the optative, and examined the various ways me genoito is translated into English. My next post will be the last in this series, and will focus on exploring a question we raised in an earlier post: namely, why does the optative appear so much more often in the textus receptus than in the Nestle-Aland text?

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Archived Comments

Gary Thuveson

January 27, 2009 3:13 PM
I appreciate your study and looking into the optative mood. I have recently been working on a sermon and came across this use in Thessalonians. An article I found really helpful in this area and addresses some of the concerns you have brought out in your articles is: The Classification of Optatives: A statistical Study by James L. Boyer. The article can be found at this web address: http://faculty.gordon.edu/hu/bi/Ted_Hildebrandt/Ne-w_Testament_Greek/Text/Boyer-Optatives-GTJ.pdf Trust this will be helpful for others who are trying to wrap there head around what the optative mood is and what it offers in light of understanding specific passages of Scripture. Take care.

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January 02, 2012 7:20 PM

David, I am obviously late to the party, but have been enjoying these optative mood posts the past few days. I cannot find the final post, alas!


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January 02, 2012 11:42 PM

Mark: I don't think David had a chance to complete the series, with the release of version 8 and the busy holiday season. This was back in October 2008! Thenaks for the question, though, maybe it will prompt him to answer that interesting question, even after so many years.