Grammar and Logic – Boring But Invaluable

Oh, it would be but so very wonderful and great if the books of the Bible had been written recently in my language by someone in my family. I would understand it much more easily. I would understand all of the colloquialisms, the grammar, the jokes, and all the other nuances of language that affect the meaning of things written.

I am adding a section called Grammar and Logic because, alas, the above is not true. In fact, it is very complicated. The writings that tell us about ancient Christianity were written thousands of years ago in a distant part of the world in dialects that are no longer spoken. What that means to the Bible student, the student of ancient writings in general, is that the current rules of grammar do not apply, rather the rules of grammar that apply are the ones that were in effect when the writings were written. For example, in modern English, the order of the words is very important. The position of a noun in the sentence tells you whether it is the subject, object, or perhaps indirect object. But, in Koine Greek, the order of the words is irrelevant. It is a mistake to think that the first noun in a sentence written in Koine Greek is the subject. The case, tense, gender, and other grammar information are communicated via the word endings.

One of the interesting elements of any language are figures of speech. For example, if I were to say to you, Fred had a real dilemma, he was looking for a needle in a haystack, would you think that Fred is really looking for a needle in a big stack of hay? No, of course not, you would know that the dilemma that Fred was facing was extremely difficult. That’s what the colloquialism, “needle in a haystack” means. That is just one example of a figure of speech, and there are many figures of speech.

It is also a mistake to think that you can just apply common sense to everything in the Bible. First of all, I’m not exactly sure what “common sense” is! Often, when people say is common sense is nothing more than their opinion based on their very limited experience, or the current attitudes in a person’s culture. We saw that big-time with slavery. It was perfectly logical, it was just common sense that people of color were less than human, less capable, less intelligent, and less everything then the race of the people in power. With such a powerful prevailing attitude in white society, then arguments could reasonably be found to substantiate that viewpoint with certain references from the science of the times and even the Bible.

Another mistake is to substitute the logic of one discipline for another. An area where I have seen this kind of mistake is in the fields of mathematics and languages. For example, some people read the word “is” and ascribe to that word the mathematical definition of “equals”. In mathematics, as most people know, the transitive principle says that if A =B and B =C, then A =C. If C =7, then A = 7. However, language is rarely as precise as mathematics. Let’s apply this same transitive principle to language. Jesus is the rock. A rock is a “mass of hard consolidated mineral matter”. Therefore, Jesus is a “mass of hard consolidated mineral matter”. I think you can see the point. That conclusion doesn’t make sense. Using the transitive principle of mathematics wherever you see the word “is” is a slippery slope.

On the other hand, not everything in the bible is complicated. “Jesus wept” is not complicated unless you start adding meaning beyond what the words say. Look at these verses, which, if you just read the words and don’t read more into the words, are fairly easy to understand:

In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, (Matthew 3:1)

Now when the Pharisees gathered to him, with some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem, they saw that some of his disciples ate with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed. (For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands properly, holding to the tradition of the elders, and when they come from the marketplace, they do not eat unless they wash. And there are many other traditions that they observe, such as the washing of cups and pots and copper vessels and dining couches.) And the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?”  (Mar 7:1-5 ESV)

Here the Pharisees are asking Jesus why his disciples do not follow the washing traditions and other traditions of the elders.

Jesus’ response was that they were teaching their doctrines, not God’s.  It is fairly simple and straightforward.

There are many sections in ancient writings that are easy to understand as long as you read what is written and avoid reading into verses things that are not there.

In fact, the reason that the Bible uses figures of speech, parables, images, and other communication tools is to make the passage more easy to understand. Look at this parable:

And the scribes and Pharisees brought to Him a woman taken in adultery. And standing her in the midst, they said to Him, Teacher, this woman was taken in adultery, in the very act. Now Moses in the Law commanded us that such should be stoned. You, then, what do you say? They said this, tempting Him so that they might have reason to accuse Him. But bending down, Jesus wrote on the ground with His finger, not appearing to hear. But as they continued to ask Him, He lifted Himself up and said to them, He who is without sin among you, let him cast the first stone at her. And again bending down, He wrote on the ground. And hearing, and being convicted by conscience, they went out one by one, beginning at the oldest, until the last. And Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst. (John 8:3-9)

(Before continuing, I need to add that this parable is in all modern texts but is missing in a number of early texts.   That means that although teachers for many centuries have taught this parable it may have been added.  It does bring up some issues.  As I have discussed in other posts Jesus was accused of breaking the law, but in fact, only broke the pharisee’s incorrect interpretation of the law.  Here the law is simple and correctly applied.  If someone is caught in adultery they are to be stoned according to Leviticus 20:10. Despite the fact that this is in every modern text I have seen, because this text is missing in early manuscripts and because it appears to be teaching that Jesus is advocating breaking the law by not stoning I do not believe this text is part of this gospel.)

This parable is about judging other people. A woman was caught in adultery. The law prescribed the death penalty for that sin. The scribes and Pharisees asked Jesus what they should do with her. His response was “let him who is without sin cast the first stone”. He knelt down, he wrote on the ground, and one by one, each one left, “being convicted by conscience”.

Jesus’s message was “he who is without sin among you, let him cast the first stone”. Guilty people shouldn’t condemn other guilty people. That’s the simple message here.  The principle was set in a parable that was easy to follow.

Now, what does the parable not say?  That is why I bring up the passage here.  I’ve heard pastors teach that when Jesus knelt down, he wrote down the sins of the woman’s accusers. Do we know that? I’ve heard the teaching that Jesus, being God, had the knowledge of each and every one of their sins. It is possible he was writing their sins. It’s a viable guess. But do we know that absolutely from this verse? No, we don’t.  That is what I mean by reading into the verse. If we don’t know it from the verse, or from the context, then it is poor interpretation to read things into it.

So, the point is we should rejoice and learn from what the verse actually says, and absolutely avoid reading into the message. “He who is without sin among you, let him cast the first stone” is the message and not that Jesus wrote down each man’s sins because he had perfect knowledge of them. And to increase our understanding of the ancient writings we need to hone our understanding of grammar and logic.

© copyright 2011-2019 Mark W Smith, all rights reserved. Revised 2019

Scroll to Top