Sunday, July 29, 2012

The Collective Singular in John 8:31-36

In chapter 8 of John, there are ongoing exchanges between Jesus and the "Jews" (NIV) during the Feast of Tabernacles in Jerusalem.  Some of them "believed" him.  Nevertheless, Jesus statement in this particular passage (verses 31-36) is the subject of considerable contention between him and the people:

31 To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. 32 Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
33 They answered him, “We are Abraham’s descendants and have never been slaves of anyone. How can you say that we shall be set free?”
34 Jesus replied, “I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave to sin. 35 Now a slave has no permanent place in the family, but a son belongs to it forever. 36 So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.

The word  that the NIV translates "descendants" is more literally translated in KJV (but not NKJV) as "seed," a collective noun.  It could mean either plural or singular.  The Greek noun is also a collective, sperma.  Brown, in his Anchor Bible translation on page 352, translates sperma as "descendant" not "descendants."  He has the Jews saying, "We are descendant from Abraham," a little awkward, but the point of singularity is conveyed,  Here is what Brown says in his note to verse 33 (page 355):

In the mouth of "the Jews" this phrase may mean, "We are the descendants of Abraham."  But it is not impossible that John, like Paul in Gal iii 16, is playing on the singular word to indicate Jesus is the real descendant of Abraham.  We have tried to leave this nuance possible in our translation.

Here is Galatians 3:16 (NIV):

16 The promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. The Scripture does not say “and to seeds,” meaning many people, but “and to your seed,” meaning one person, who is Christ.

In this Galatians passage, the NIV translates sperma as "seed."   What were the "promises [that] were spoken to Abraham and to his seed?"  From Genesis 17:

19 Then God said, “Yes, but your wife Sarah will bear you a son, and you will call him Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his descendants after him.

Again, the Hebrew word that the NIV translates as "descendants" is a collective noun.  KJV translates it "seed" once more.  That word in Hebrew is זָ֫רַע or zera: a sowing, seed, offspring.  See also Psa 132.11, Mic 7:10, Lu 1:55, Rom 4:13 and 16, Rom 9:8, Gal 4:28. 

Whether a collective noun is to be translated to refer to a group or to a single person depends on the context.  When we view the collective noun in question from the perspective of the Cross, we see that it refers to Messiah in cases where the relationship is to Abraham, perhaps not always to the exclusion of the collective, but very central in meaning.  In the NT, where the collective is included, in the mouths of the witnesses the collective is the Church. The same could also be said of the OT as to faithful Jews, a part of the same Church.

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