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Monday, July 16, 2012

Redemptive Ambiguity: Mark 6.11

Yesterday morning at church, the daily reading was from Mark 6.7-17, the sending out of the Twelve and the beginning of Herod's path to beheading John the Baptist. Since I had a Greek New Testament with me (which I kind of always have with me), I thought I'd check it out. And I found something interesting. Here's the phrase I'm working on from v. 11: "ἐκπορευόμενοι ἐκεῖθεν ἐκτινάξατε τὸν χοῦν τὸν ὑποκάτω τῶν ποδῶν ὑμῶν εἰς μαρτύριον αὐτοῖς."

The usual way of translating the last few words is, "in witness against them." Now here's the thing. That last word there, αὐτοῖς (autois), is a form of the word "he, she, it" (as a pronoun) or "self" (as an adjective). The particular form it takes is called a dative, which is usually an indirect object.

An indirect object kind of receives the action from a verb, but also kind of doesn't. If someone says, "I threw him the ball," what was thrown? One would hope the ball was being thrown, and the person was just catching it, right? Technically, this sentence is a bit ambiguous; it's not perfectly clear what is being thrown. But if we rearrange the sentence a bit and add a preposition, it clears right up: "I threw the ball to him." Now we know we're not throwing him, but the ball. The αὐτοῖς from above would be "to them, for them, with them," etc. It's an indirect object.

So here's my question: why is this often translated as "against them"? Given the context, this witness deals with hospitality, which is a big deal to Jews. In Genesis 18, Abraham is spending time with God, but apparently blows him off to take care of complete strangers. It has been said that the primary sin of Sodom was inhospitality, which was also the final straw. It was mostly inhospitable to treat strangers in such a way, rather than sexual sin (see also Judges 19, which seems like a retelling of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah). So when Jesus sends out the Twelve, they are to rely on the hospitality of others.

There is no reason αὐτοῖς cannot be "against them," given the context of Jewish hospitality traditions and the grammatical category of a dative of disadvantage (Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics, 142-144). If someone asks something of you, you give it to them. This likely extends to visitors making use of your home. Thus it makes sense that the testimony, the witness presented with reference to its receiver (its indirect object, as it were) be a negative witness, a "witness against them." If they are in a cultural norm of hospitality, and they withhold that, that puts them in the seat of the defendant, the prosecuted, the hot seat that no one wants.

But what if the naked dative, this standalone indirect object word, is intentionally ambiguous? If it were absolutely to be translated "against them," there are words which could indicate that. Sometimes εἰς, which does in fact precede the αὐτοῖς, can mean "against." However, it seems to be paired with μαρτύριον (marturion; witness, testimony). So can the same preposition be applied to two different words in a sentence and take on two different meanings? Probably not. It seems most likely that αὐτοῖς is in fact a naked dative.

Let's then assume this dative does stand by itself. Could an alternate translation be "to them"? What if the Twelve are not just testifying "against them," against the inhospitable people, but are also witnessing "to them"? Is there even the slightest chance that this could be an offering of redemption?
In Matthew 5.38-39, turning the other cheek is introduced to the reader. This is a beautiful act of redemption which doesn't really seem like one to Westerners. To "turn the other cheek" in our culture means simply to ignore given abuse. But let's view it like first-century Jews for a moment. If you slap someone, you do it with the back of your hand. This is seriously offensive to the person being backhanded. If that person turns his other cheek, however, then the hand that just did the slapping cannot reach the cheek he slapped. The palm of the hand can reach that side of the face, but the back can't. If you place the palm of your hand on their face, you are forgiving them and yourself. If you turn your cheek, you give the slapper the opportunity to regain some of his humanity, to act as God would have him act, with "mercy, not sacrifice," with forgiveness in the face of wrath, with a new beginning despite destruction and chaos.

So what if this witness, this testimony, is an act of redemption? What if the ambiguity of the dative is intentional, so that it can be "against" and "to/for" at the same time? Can this judgment against them be also a testimony to them, an opportunity for them to regain some of their humanity? I think it can.


  1. Your thoughts here echo the heartbeat of the Christ. Thanks for leading me to think with you this way. - Ethan Brown

    1. I think there's something to be said about imaginative interpretation, especially with regards to translation. Creating a word-for-word translation is common; but the exploration of possibility in that particular realm of study needs some attention, in my opinion. Thank you for your kind words, Ethan.