There comes a point in studying Greek where one begins to wonder the purpose of it all. What does it matter that the verb Paul uses here is in the imperative mood rather than the indicative? Why do I need to know the difference between the active and passive voices? Jesus didn’t speak in Greek, so why should I?! These are all questions that come to mind late at night when the my mind can no longer handle participles, subjunctives, accusative nouns, and so on and so forth. But yesterday’s in-class quiz provided a moment where, even though I was (and still am) extremely fatigued, I saw exactly why studying Greek is crucial.
John 19:21-22 was the short passage we were asked to parse and translate. Being two-thirds of the way through the second semester of Greek, almost everyone in the class is at a point where we can begin translating as we read. But writing out the parses of every word helps us not to mistranslate by reading into the text a meaning that is not inherent to the text (a process called “eisegesis”). As I began writing out the English words, I started remembering the particular passage we were translating. Resisting the urge to put down the English words I had committed to memory, I kept going until I had a full translation. From the outset, nothing was really noticeably different. But when we were asked to make an observation of textual features, several things stood out.
But first, here’s the Greek with my own translation:
ἔλεγον οὖν τῷ Πιλάτῳ οἱ ἀρκιερεῖς τῶν Ἰουδαίων μὴ γράφε ὁ βασιλεὺς τῶν Ἰουδαίων, ἀλλ᾽ὅτι ἐκεῖνος εἶπεν βασιλεύς εἰμι τῶν Ἰουδαίων. ἀπεκρίθη ὁ Πιλᾶτος ὃ γέγραφα, γέγραφα.
“Then the rulers of the Jews were saying to Pilate, ‘Do not write “The King of the Jews,” but that “That one said, I am a king of the Jews.”’ Pilate answered, ‘Whatever I have written, I have written.’”
Several observations are as follows:
- ἔλεγον (lit. “they were saying”) begins the sentence rather than follow its subject (“The rulers of the Jews”). Not only does this place an emphasis on the conversation between the rulers of the Jews and Pilate, but it speaks to the frequency with which these rulers were speaking to Pilate about this issue (calling Jesus “The King of the Jews”). With this word being in the imperfect tense (“were saying”), it is suggesting two things: 1. It is on-going and 2. It is in the foreground, “in your face” as we might say. In the English translations, we picture this scene as happening once and only once, but the Greek indicates it was a repeated action from the Jews – to pester Pilate about what he had written on the sign above Jesus. But a second observation works with this one.
- μὴ γράφε (lit. “do not write”) is one among several styles of prohibitions. Whenever there is μὴ plus a present imperative (which is what γράφε is), there is a sense that it is a prohibition against an action currently in progress or a continuous action. In either case, there is a sense of interruption – that the Jews were interrupting Pilate in his continuous action of having the sign made up or stopping it after it had started. This is all setting the stage for what Pilate winds up saying.
- ὁ βασιλεὺς (lit. “the king”) is in the nominative case, which means it is the main subject of “the King of the Jews.” What is significant is that it is coming from Pilate, a Roman governor. Rather than letting Jesus hang from the cross like any other criminal, Pilate goes out of the way to make an example of Jesus – “Here is the king of the Jewish people, hanging on one of our Roman crosses.” Pilate is inflicting a deep sense of humiliation and shame – not unlike the exilic experiences of old. But notice the difference between this and observation #5 below.
- ἐκεῖνος εἶπεν (lit. “that one said”), as noted in the footnotes, gets translated as “this man” or “this one,” but neither translation speaks to the degree of insult this word carries. For one thing, it removes Jesus’ name. For another, it distances the Jewish leadership from Jesus in essence saying “That one there is not one of us.” Here the Jewish leadership was seeking to qualify the statement in order to preserve some sense of Jewish integrity. Combining this with rest of what the Jews had told (not asked) Pilate to write, one gains a fuller sense of the insult against Jesus.
- βασιλεύς εἰμι τῶν Ἰουδαίων (lit. “a king am I of the Jews”) – not “the King,” but “a king.” Nothing about what the Jewish leaders told Pilate to write says that they saw him as their king. It almost seems as if they were attempting to make Jesus out to be a lunatic – as if he had made a ridiculous claim about himself. What is most important from this text, though, is that Jesus never made such a claim. In fact, when questioned by Pilate in the Synoptics, Jesus replies, “You say so.”
- ὃ γέγραφα, γέγραφα (lit. “whatever I have written, I have written.”) – What is interesting about Pilate’s response is that he uses the perfect tense (“I have”). In this tense, there is a sense of finality to the action, but with on-going effect. Pilate definitively named Jesus the Jewish King, so that all Jews would be humiliated by Jesus’ death on the cross.
What I find most interesting when all of these pieces are put together is the presence of a political opportunity for Pilate and a nationalist move by the Jewish leadership. Pilate seeks to obtain favor from Rome, so he declares Jesus “The King the Jews,” even though in his conversation with Jesus (as noted above), Jesus did not confirm Pilate’s question. With this sign for Jesus hanging above him as he hung on the cross, Jews passing by would be humiliated – their king has received the worst punishment Rome could deliver. One can see why the Jews were persistent about changing what Pilate had written.
Learning Greek and Hebrew have been difficult enterprises, no doubt. Yet such a discipline has allowed me to see that the Biblical text is so much more astonishing in its original languages. Literary allusions, puns (yes, even puns!), and connotations all become clearer, which gives a stronger sense of the various contextual environments, as shown above. So even as the semester reaches its peak with all its papers and projects coming due, I have a vivid reminder as to why all of it matters.
 Both the ESV and NRSV translate ἐκεῖνος (which literally means “that” or “that one”) as “this man.” My focus here is to go as literal as possible because what is missed in English translations is how this was actually an insult against Jesus.
 William D. Mounce gives an explanation about the difference in his Basics of Biblical Greek, 3rd Ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009), 314-317. Cf. Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar, Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996), 485, 714-17.
 Cf. Matt. 27:11; Mark 15:2; Luke 23:3; John 18:33-38a.