Sunday, July 13, 2008

Bible translation: Ebonics and the aorist tense

Ebonics is the term for black English, what used to be called "Jive". The aorist tense is a verb tense that doesn't exist in standard English to indicate actions that are ongoing. "The river is flowing through the valley" gives an example of the sort statement that would be rendered in aorist, a river was flowing, is flowing now and will flow in the future. The NET bible has a great description of the aorist its notes:
The aorist tense is characterized by its emphasis on punctiliar
action; that is, the concept of the verb is considered without
regard for past, present, or future time. There is no
direct or clear English equivalent for this tense, though it is
generally rendered as a simple past tense in most translations.

The events described by the aorist tense are classified into a
number of categories by grammarians. The most common of these
include a view of the action as having begun from a certain
point ("inceptive aorist"), or having ended at a certain point
("cumulative aorist"), or merely existing at a certain point
("punctiliar aorist"). The categorization of other cases can
be found in Greek reference grammars.

The lack of this tense in standard English creates all sorts of mistranslation and misunderstanding issues when translating the bible.
Romans 6:8 Now if we have died (aorist) with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him.
When did we die with him? At the time with of his crucifixion? Paul in Greek indicates it is an ongoing process we die with him at all time or outside of time, but this is not apparent in English. So why not borrow from Ebonics the aorist tense? They have one, and the dialect is understandable to most English speakers (even if it sounds less refined). To use it you use the verb to-be followed by an -ing verb. Many standard English speakers don't recognize this construction as being aorist but it is understandable and with very little effort they can learn the meaning with respect to time easily. In both standard English and Ebonics we do a similar thing with the verb "have" to adjust the temporal nature, so for example "had taken" is the past perfect for to-take in standard English. The past perfect indicates the "taking" happened at an indefinite time in the past and may be ongoing, as contrasted with "took" which is completed by the present.
I had taken (past perfect) the train many times.
I took (past simple) the train last week.

Using the Ebonics aorist tense will sound ungrammatical but it is accurate. The English reader can then identify the tenses in the Greek. So we would translate the above as:
Romans 6:8 Now if we be dying (aorist) with Christ, we believe (present simple) that we shall live (future simple) with him
This cuts into the snob appeal but frankly I think accuracy is far more important than snobbery. Anyone agree or disagree?


After this post was made Sepia Mutiny (in a post entitled Brown Man's Bible) seemed to agree with this assessment in their review of the NCB.


tc robinson said...

I like the Ebonics reference. But how do we know for certain that Paul's use of the aorist is to convey ongoing action?

"Cumulative aorist" seems to fit his theology best. Just my $.02.

CD-Host said...

TC --

I would actually argue he is using the aorist to indicate the action is timeless. In other words I don't think Paul sees the crucifixion as meaningfully having happened over a stretch of 10 hours on a Friday during Passover around 30 C.E. If he did he could have just used the simple past and been done with it. I just had a conversation about Eph 5:25 where his giving himself for us was aorist, and it seemed to me he saw this as occurring in his present.

But not to take us too far afield. Regardless of whether I'm right or wrong about why Paul uses the Ebonics it does strike me that it is too important an aspect of the text not to capture.

tc robinson said...


Are you saying that we keep on dying with Christ? How is that at all possible?

CD-Host said...

The act of dieing with Christ is timeless it doesn't take place at a particular material time and place but rather takes place in eternity and is reflected and certain place materially. That is it takes place in a spiritual realm outside of time.

The same way 2+2 = 4 always and forever but is able to reflect itself into certain material realities at specific times and places: This morning I wrote 2 replies to this blog and then 2 to your blog for a total of 4 replies.

And it because of the timelessness the joining we can die with him even though we weren't born when it happened materially.

Clay's Blog said...

we be dying is a great way to put it. by the way the word is dying not dieing, which is not a word.

CD-Host said...

Clay --

Thank you for the correction. In a whole post about grammar it was a bit ironic that I made a grammar error. I've edited the original to fix that.