A “Misdirected” Translation

John 10:37–38 (NASB, bold mine)–“If I do not do the works of My Father, do not believe Me; but if I do them, though you do not believe Me, believe the works, so that you may know and understand that the Father is in Me, and I in the Father.”

Based on various English translations, the question arises as to the lexical difference between the English words “know” and “understand.” Webster says that to know is “to perceive or understand as fact or truth; apprehend clearly and with certainty” and to understand is “to grasp the meaning of.” Though overlap occurs between these English words, the translations may imply a difference in the depth of lexical meaning, even if slight; and the interpretation and application focal points ties to this perceived difference as long as the lexical meanings becomes the center of attention.

However, based on the Greek text, the the lexical differences between the words translated “know” (γνῶτε) and “understand” (γινώσκητε) are non- existent. The terms have the same root and the same range of meanings. The only variation is in the aspect/“tense” of the verbs. The first word (γνῶτε) is an aorist subjunctive whereas the second (γινώσκητε) is a present subjunctive. The difference is not lexical but syntactical. The translations may have misdirected the meaning of the text, its interpretation and application.

This problem has existed since the early days of the transmission of the New Testament. Recognizing that the words translated know and understand have the same lexical meaning, the copyists of many New Testament manuscripts exhibited a variety of alternative readings—various changes made to the grammatical form of the second word, replacing “know” with “believe,” and even omitting the latter word entirely. Clearly a perceived redundancy appeared to exist in the text by these copyists (see Metzger, A Textual Commentary, 198). However, redundancy would in fact exist if the two words in question represented the same grammatical form, but they do not. The  syntax of the different verbal aspects can account for an understandable duplication of the lexical meaning and lead to a clearer translation, interpretation, and application of the verse as written.

The syntactical differences reflect the different functions of the aorist and present aspects. The aorist is ingressive referring to an entrance into a state; the present is progressive referring to a continuance in a state. Abbott (referenced in Robertson, A Grammar of the Greek New Testament, 850) suggests that John “employs the two forms with great deliberateness of ‘knowing’ and the development of it.” The differences are “beginning to know and continuing to know,” not on “knowing and understanding,” if by “understanding” a deeper intellectual acuity is implied.

The translations may cause one to ask a wrong question, “What is the difference between ‘knowing’ and ‘understanding’?This may lead to a wrong message, “The listeners need to read beneath the surface of the text. ” And the wrong message may result in a wrong application, “There is a deeper practical exhortation growing out of the different word meanings.”

In this passage Jesus invites his Jewish listeners “to begin to know Him” and “to continue travelling with Him,” so to speak, “for further confirmation of the truth of His deity.” Sadly, their response to this invitation was a determination to destroy Him.

A primary contextual and contemporary application for this passage would be for modern-day skeptics of Jesus’ self-proclaimed deity to begin to listen to the Gospel with an open mind, and to continue by evaluating all the accumulating evidences of His deity. May their response differ dramatically from that of the Jewish leaders of Jesus’ day!

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