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John 5:2 and the Date of the Fourth Gospel ... again

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Nov 6, 2006

J. C. Hawkins, Horae Synopticae: Contributions to the Study of the Synoptic Problem, 2d ed. rev. (Oxford: Clarendon, 1909) 143-49, lists all 253 historical presents in the synoptics and Acts. I have found an additional 162 in John, bringing the total to 415. All are in the third person, in narrative, surrounded by secondary tenses, and εἰμί is not on the list. These are four features that are not found in Rom 7:14-25, rendering any arguments for historical presents in that passage suspect on the grounds of lack of sufficient parallels. Cf. also R. L. Shive, “The Use of the Historical Present and Its Theological Significance” (Th.M. thesis, Dallas Theological Seminary, 1982) 67-70, 74, for a critique of the historical present view in Rom 7:14-25. C. E. B. Cranfield, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans (ICC), vol. 1: Introduction and Commentary on Romans I-VIII, 344-45, has the right instincts against these verbs being historical presents, but his argument could have been strengthened had he been aware of the semantic situation.

It is equally surprising to see some exegetes call ἔστιν in John 5:2 a historical present (so R. Schnackenburg, The Gospel according to St John [New York: Crossroad, 1982] 2.460, n. 9; D. A. Carson, The Gospel according to John (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991] 241; I. Knabenbauer, Commentarius in Quatuor S. Evangelia, vol. 4.: Evangelium Secundum Ioannem [Paris: Lethielleux, 1898] 188; A. J. Köstenberger, John [ECNT] [Grand Rapids: Baker, 2004] 178), since the equative verb is never used as such in the NT and perhaps not anywhere else either, because it apparently does not fit the semantic requirements of the historical present (D. B. Wallace, “John 5,2 and the Date of the Fourth Gospel,” Bib 71 [1990] 197-205). Köstenberger objects to this pattern, arguing that in John 10:8 and 19:40 the present tense of εἰμί is used as a historical present. Köstenberger is to be applauded for marshaling evidence in behalf of this view, rather than just dismissing the alternative cavalierly (which most exegetes seem wont to do), but he does not make out a sound case. In John 10:8 we read πάντες ὅσοι ἦλθον [πρὸ ἐμοῦ] κλέπται εἰσὶν καὶ λῃσταί. Surely this better fits the category of “extending from past present.” Those who were thieves are still thieves, even if they can perhaps best be described in English as those who “were thieves and robbers” precisely because πάντες ὅσοι ἦλθον governs the passage and shows that their behavior was no different in the past. Fanning suggests that every extending-from-past present “always includes an adverbial phrase or other time-indication” (B. M. Fanning, Verbal Aspect in New Testament Greek [Oxford: Clarendon, 1990], Verbal Aspect, 217). The πάντες ὅσοι ἦλθον even without the textually disputed πρὸ ἐμοῦ is a sufficient time indicator to show that an extending-from-past present is in view. In John 19:40 we read ἔλαβον οὖν τὸ σῶμα τοῦ ᾿Ιησοῦ καὶ ε)δησαν αὐτὸ ὀθονιοις μετα˝ τῶν α˙ρωματων καθω˝ς ε)θος εστὶν τοῖς ᾿Ιουδαιοις ενταφιαζειν. But Köstenberger finds English translations that render the εστίν with a simple past tense as sufficient grounds for arguing that it, too, is a historical present. Such translations are unnecessary, of course, unless the practice was no longer true at the end of the first century (when Köstenberger dates John). Further, the Vg, ASV, KJV, RSV, NKJV, NLT, and ESV explicitly retain the present tense, while other translations render the clause without supplying a temporal marker (NAB, NET [though the NET note on literal translation gives the present tense], NJB, NRSV, REB, TEV). His two exceptions to the rule that ἐστίν is never a historical present thus remain unconvincing. Most likely, the reasons for the “was” in some translations in John 19:40 is more due to stylistic considerations to link the burial of Jesus with a custom that was then in place. But the present tense argues that it continued to John’s day, as many translations recognize. At bottom, neither text adduced by Köstenberger is really parallel to John 5:2, and thus, neither text dislodges the grammatical argument that ἐστίν is other than a historical present. Further, if we were to apply the same criteria that Köstenberger used to see historical presents in John 10:8 and 19:2 to John 5:2 (viz., the citation of translations), we would note that ἐστίν there is translated as a present tense in the vast majority of translations, including Vg, KJV, NKJV, ASV, Luther, NAB, NET, NIV, TNIV, NJB, RSV, NRSV, REB, SEGR, and TEV. Of the many translations I checked, only the NLT (which is more a paraphrase than a translation) had a past tense here. But, of course, translations only give us a hint; they are not final arbiters in the matter, especially since they are not written to resolve disputes of this nature. Thus, that Köstenberger could produce some translations that render the present tenses in a couple of verses as past tenses really does not do anything to prove that they are historical presents. The context, semantic situation, and other factors must be weighed. In the end, our judgment seems (for now, at least) to be unshaken: “Since εἰμί is nowhere else clearly used as a historical present, the present tense [in John 5:2] should be taken as indicating present time from the viewpoint of the speaker” (D. B. Wallace, Greek Grammar beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996] 531). To sum up: Köstenberger’s method of trying to find exceptions to the rule is essential if one is going to overthrow the prima facie meaning of John 5:2. But until genuine examples of this sort are produced, I believe that exegetes would do well to not neglect what seems to be the obvious indication as to the time of writing of this Gospel. In the least, it will not do to argue, as many have, that too much weight cannot be put on the present tense. That is a judgment that can only have force if it is demonstrated that the present tense here could have a variety of forces, any one of which could plausibly view it as referring to past time. Until that happens, I would urge exegetes to take the ἐστίν more seriously in John 5:2 as a significant factor in the dating of John’s Gospel.

Related Topics: Introductions, Arguments, Outlines