REVELATION’S HEBRAIC GRAMMAR

HebrewPMT 2014-049 by Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr.

This is the second in a four-part series on Revelation’s Hebraic character. Rev’s intensely Jewish style comports well with a focus on the events associated with Christ’s judgment on Israel and the closing of the old covenant order in AD 70. In this study I will note its extremely Hebraic grammar.

Beginning at least as early as Dionysius of Alexandria (cf. Euseb., Eccl. Hist. 7:25:26–27) Christian scholars comment on John’s awkward, Semitic-influenced grammar. Schlesinger cites E. C. Selwynn’s complaint regarding John’s grammar: it would be a “disgrace” to an “English fifth-form school-boy” because it involves “hopelessly bad Greek.” Schlesinger notes that “the solecisms of the Apocalypse remain virtually indetectable to the English reader. English translations smooth out the awkward grammar of the apocalyptist so that the reader of the English is never ‘stopped in mid-course and confounded.”

As Maier puts it: “a reading of contemporary translations of the Apocalypse [does] not reveal [its] complexity. The Book of Revelation translated in modern English Bibles reflects a cleaned-up Greek text and, especially when it comes to translation of verb tenses, a far more orderly account of the things John heard and saw than the original suggests.”

To cite but just a couple of examples, in 1:4 John incorrectly uses the nominative prepositional phrase ho ōn kai ho ēn kai ho erchomenos with the preposition apo, though grammatical rules call for the genitive. We also see total syntactical disagreement in 5:12. There legontes is a nominative masculine plural participle (“saying”) whereas its antecedent is phōnē (“voice”), an accusative feminine singular noun. These type of problems appear repeatedly in Rev.


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Because of this many have noted what Ozanne argues: rather than providing evidence of John’s unfamiliarity with Greek, his expressions are “a deliberate device assumed for a particular purpose” (cp. Caird; Poythress; Strand; Ruiz; Lohse; Paulien; Maier; Brighton).

But for what purpose would John intentionally use such awkward, Hebraicized Greek? Maier cites the groundbreaking research of J. E. Hurtegen and A. D. Callahan that study “the social function the idiosyncrasies of the Apocalypse’s grammar might have for its audience,” noting that they call John’s method “relexicalization” or “overlexicalization.” They see this relexicalization aimed at Rome and establishing a counter discourse in protest.

But as Mazzaferri argues, John “archaises his style to mimic classical biblical Hebrew, often at the expense of the precise rules of Greek expression. As his words were read aloud they would ring prophetically, and in their own identity [sic] John as a prophet in classical OT style.” Thus, John was a “Jewish-minded person . . . who identifies himself as a prophet” while reflecting a distinct prophetic style (Smolarz). He was “clearly — and boldly! — locating his work within the same tradition of Israelite prophecy” (Boxall).


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Thus as Callahan observes, John uses “the language of the Septuagint to weave a biblical texture for his text.” This also would serve John’s purpose of prophetically declaring the coming judgment upon the people who are familiar with such a language, the Jews. John even employs Hebrew words from time to time: amen, Abaddon, Har Magedon, Satan, and hallelujah (1:7; 9:11; 12:9; 16:16; 19:1, 3–4, 6; 20:2).

(To be continued.)

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