Matthew 24:2 The Subjunctive in Greek Grammar

It seems that the openness proposal faces a serious dilemma. Either reject the inerrancy of Scripture and admit that God can only give us probabilities about the future, or reject the openness proposal… In fact, Pinnock seems to adopt the first option when he states: “We may not want to admit it but prophecies often go unfulfilled… despite Jesus, in the destruction of the temple, some stones were left one on the other (Mt. 24:2).[1]

One of the controversies, in the continuing debate between Open Theists and Calvinists is the controversial verses of Mathew 24. Is this a real dilemma?  Are there only two options, believe Piper or reject inerrancy?  There are at least five options.  How does Clark Pinnock interpret Mathew 24:2?  He offers Jesus’s words as an example of unfulfilled prophesy. Another solution is hyperbole where an event is exaggerated for effect.
John 21:25 (NKJV)
25 And there are also many other things that Jesus did, which if they were written one by one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that would be written. Amen.

The world can hold a lot of books, but this is an example of hyperbole an exaggeration for effect.  Jesus was imagining what could happen in the destruction of Jerusalem and used the exaggeration to engage the listener in his sorrow devoid of any consolation.  There is a fifth solution, maybe Jesus was only expressing deep sorrow on what might happen in the future? This “might” expresses the subjunctive mood in the Greek that is unexpressed in the English.

The first solution “reject inerrancy” would throw such persons out of the evangelical circle of theology.  Piper’s solution, hold to the prophetic fulfillment even though some stones are still standing is foolish.  Pinnock’s solution, “this is an unfulfilled prophecy,” has some merit. However, I disagree with the term prophecy.  Jesus was only expressing a probable event not making a prophecy.  Hyperbole is a possibility but the last solution is more appropriate to the context and the obvious emotional nature of Jesus’ statement.  This satisfies inerrancy, respects the archeological evidence and the context of the event,  and does not depend upon unfulfilled prophecy.

John Piper loudly disagrees with Pinnock’s solution but does not offer any real counter arguments apart from personal attacks on the character of his opponents. He quotes Josephus but he ignores the stones still left standing one upon another that are clearly seen in any walk around the Old City of Jerusalem.  His philosophy, “believe what I tell you and not on what you see with your eyes” seems to work with most evangelical Christians.

First, it is clear, that many stones are left one upon another at the Temple Mount. The First Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians in the sixth century before Christ. The Second Temple was built in the time Ezra and Nehemiah, but this second temple was again rebuilt by King Herod and his successors in the first century. This rebuilt Second Temple would be temple Jesus and his disciples were observing in Matthew 24:2.

One of the features of this building is the type of stones used by the Herodian builders called ashlars. The Temple ashlars were unique in design with smooth sides that were framed with recessed borders. These ashlars are clearly observed on the Western Wall, the Southern Wall, and even on sections of Eastern and Northern walls. These stones are have not been moved since construction and are still sitting in their original positions.

These four walls acted as retaining walls for the Temple Mount. These walls rest on solid bedrock. The height of the wall is about 107 feet high and 12 feet thick at the bottom to about three feet thick at the top. Although Rome in 70AD and 135 AD tore down the temple some stones were left standing. Today these large ashlars can be seen along the bottom of the wall.

Are these stones part of the original Temple in Jerusalem?  These walls are retaining walls and are clearly a part of the temple. When Jesus cleared out the temple of money changers, the Temple area included the court of the Gentiles.

Matthew 21:12

Then Jesus went into the temple of God and drove out all those who bought and sold in the temple, and overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves.

The Temple included much more than the inner building which housed the Holy of Holies.  It also included the walls around the temple courts.  The temple walls were made without concrete.  As can still be observed today some stones on the southwest and southeast corners of the Temple Mount, weigh over 80 tons, and are still over  are still 100 feet above the foundational stones.  The foundational stones rest on bedrock as a weak foundation of soil would be disastrous.  It is very likely the outer wall of court of the Gentiles utilized these retaining walls for their foundational support.

Jesus even referred to the destruction of the entire city of Jerusalem in the same words “not one stone left upon another.”  This language is employed in Luke 19 which refers to the destruction of the entire city not leaving one stone upon another.[2]

A Calvinist or an Augustinian theologian believes God looks upon future events as present realities, this is called the “eternal now.”  Therefore it is impossible to interpret any of Jesus’ statements as probable and not actual events. However, Jesus often used the subjunctive in his statements and these statements are never translated in deference to the subjunctive mood of the Greek language in English translations. The suspicion is the translators are more interested in theology than in the correct translation of the New Testament.

Here are the controversial verses:

Matthew 24:2 (NKJV)

2 And Jesus said to them, “Do you not see all these things? Assuredly, I say to you, not one stone shall be left here upon another, that shall not be thrown down.”

2 ο δε αποκριθεις ειπεν αυτοις ου βλεπετε ταυτα παντα αμην λεγω υμιν ου μη αφεθη ωδε λιθος επι λιθον ος ου καταλυθησεται

Luke 19:41-44 (NKJV)
41 Now as He drew near, He saw the city and wept over it…44 and level you, and your children within you, to the ground; and they will not leave in you one stone upon another, because you did not know the time of your visitation.”
44 και εδαφιουσιν σε και τα τεκνα σου εν σοι και ουκ αφησουσιν λιθον επι λιθον εν σοι ανθ ων ουκ εγνως τον καιρον της επισκοπης σου
Luke 21:6 (NKJV)
6 “These things which you see—the days will come in which not one stone shall be left upon another that shall not be thrown down.”
6 ταυτα α θεωρειτε ελευσονται ημεραι εν αις ουκ αφεθησεται λιθος επι λιθω ωδε ος ου καταλυθησεται

Mark 13:2 (NKJV)
2 And Jesus answered and said to him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone shall be left upon another, that shall not be thrown down.”
2 και ο ιησους ειπεν αυτω βλεπεις ταυτας τας μεγαλας οικοδομας ου μη αφεθη ωδε λιθος επι λιθον ος ου μη καταλυθη

Using the subjunctive mood Mark 13:2 would be translated:

2 And Jesus answered and said to him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone may be left upon another, that would not be thrown down.”

The verbs for “left upon” and “shall be thrown down” are in the subjunctive mood. [3]
In the Greek of the New Testament, each verb has a mood which relates to actuality: indicative, subjunctive, optative, and imperative. The indicative refers to reality and the remaining three are references away from reality. The subjunctive mood indicates probability, the optative indicates a wish and the imperative is a command. The distinctive feature of the last three moods is the action being referenced is a reference to what may happen or one which one wants to happen.

The indicative Mood is the mood of reality. The verb is referring to events that are happening, have happened or will occur in the future.

The subjunctive mood is the mood of probability. These events are probable to happen, but it is not certain if the events will occur.

The optative mood expresses a desire or a wish. This is farther removed from the actual than the subjunctive mood.

The imperative mood is dependent on the actions of whoever is being commanded. The uncertainty is dependent on the one being directed by the command. The event may happen or not happen depending on the obedience of the subject.

The Subjunctive

Archibald Thomas Robertson’s book A Grammar of the Greek New Testament In the Light of Historical Research is the authoritative biblical Greek grammar of the 20th century has this to say of the subjunctive. A.T. Robertson was an inerrantist, Baptist Professor with unimpeachable credentials in Greek grammar. He writes this about the subjunctive while citing favorably the most influential Greek grammarians of his day.
1)         Delbrück is clear that “will” is the fundamental idea of the subjunctive…

2)         Goodwin denies…that a single root-idea of the subjunctive can be found. He cuts the Gordian knot by three uses of the subjunctive (the volitive, the deliberative, the futuristic).

3)         W. G. Hale1 identifies the deliberative and futuristic uses as the same.

4)         Sonnenschein2 sees no distinction between volitive and deliberative, to which Moulton3 agrees.

5)         Stahl sees the origin of all the subjunctive uses in the notion of will. The future meaning grows out of the volitive.

6)         Mutzbauer finds the fundamental meaning of the subjunctive to be the attitude of expectation.[4]

Many other grammarians are cited but finally we are graced to Robertson’s own analysis:

It is the mood of doubt, of hesitation, of proposal, of prohibition, of anticipation, of expectation, of brooding hope, of imperious will.[5]

The mood of the subjunctive is one of will. This is related to the future use since most future events are the result of the will of someone in bringing future events to pass. A person expects an event to happen because the subject deliberates to bring the event to pass. It is not a statement of reality. The reality is unknown until the event happens. The reader judges by the subject, is it the king or is it God, who will make the event happen. The certainty of the event is controlled by the integrity and the power of the subject.

John 3:16 (NKJV)
For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.

The verbs for “perish” and “have” are in the subjunctive. The subjunctive is volative meaning the event has not yet happened but is dependent on the will of the one making the promise. We can be sure that Jesus will save all who believe, not because, he looks into the future and sees the act of salvation, but because, he has the power and the will to make that salvation happen.

Emphatic Negative Subjunctive

..the subjunctive denies a potentiality. The negative is not weaker, rather, the affirmation that is being negatived is less firm with the subjunctive. Ou mh rules out even the idea as being a possibility. [6]

This is a quote from Daniel B Walker who authored arguably the most used Greek grammar in today’s  Christian colleges.  He imagines that a double negative or emphatic negative changes the subjunctive mood to the indicative.  Contrary to all ancient and modern Greek grammarians he imagines the negative negates the mood, the potentiality or the volitional nature of the subjunctive.  He has completely ignored Greek grammar for a theological intrusion on the Scripture.  To believe in inerrancy is to respect the way the language is used and the rules grammar that form that language.  Daniel B. Walker and sadly even some of his contemporary grammarians have little respect for these verses in the subjunctive in Scripture.

In contrast to Mr. Walker, we will pay respect to Greek grammar and the historical development of the Greek language rather than force our theology on the New Testament. In many respects the theology of Calvin has a philosophical and not a Scriptural flavor.  This philosophical intrusion on the Word of God will not be ignored.

How should Matthew 24:2 be interpreted under this idea?

Matthew 24: (NKJV)

2 And Jesus said to them, “Do you not see all these things? Assuredly, I say to you, not one stone shall be left here upon another, that shall not be thrown down.”

The verbs for “be left” and “thrown down” are in the indicative in the English translation but the Greek places the verbs into the subjunctive. Beyond all principles of grammar and interpretation, Mr. Wallace believes the emphatic negation Ou mh seems to convert the verb from the modal subjunctive (may be left and may be thrown down) to the extreme indicative.

This magic transformation from the subjunctive to the indicative is explained

One might think that the negative with the subjunctive could not be as strong as the negative with the indicative. However, while οὐ µή + the indicative denies a certainty, οὐ µή + the subjunctive denies a potentiality.[7] The negative is not weaker; rather, the affirmation that is being negatived is less firm with the subjunctive. οὐ µή, rules out even the idea as being a possibility.[8]

Mr. Wallace will explain the emphatic statements are found in the sayings of Jesus and occurs only rarely outside of Scripture. His review of Scriptural sources leads him to the conclusion that emphatic negation is an extreme form of the indicative. His real intentions are explained:

Outside of these two sources it occurs only rarely. As well, a soteriological theme is frequently found in such statements, especially in John: what is negatived is the possibility of the loss of salvation.[9]

This is a theological and not a grammatical analysis of the subjunctive. According to Mr. Wallace our assurance of salvation rests on his analysis of the subjunctive. This is not true. Our assurance of salvation rests in the character, the promise and the will of Jesus Christ. John 3:16 is an assurance of salvation based on the character of Jesus Christ and not the eternal now of Plato. The Augustinian believes God exists in the eternal now and sees the future as existing now. This is a Platonist concept not in the Scripture.

Emphatic Negation Subjunctive

But the root-ideas of the subjunctive changed remarkably little in the millennium or so separating Homer from the Gospels

James Hope Moulton, A Grammar of the New Testament (Edinburgh: T. & T. CLARK, 1908) 186

Even grammarians of Modern Greek have similar ideas about the subjunctive mood. They call the subjunctive mood ἡ διστακτικὴ ἔγκλισις , “the mood expressive of doubt.” The indicative mood is called ἡ ὁριστικὴ ἔγκλισις , “the definitive mood.” The function of the subjunctive mood has been very consistent in the history of the Greek language.

Contrary to the claims of Mr. Wallace the emphatic negative when used with the subjunctive mood has been analyzed and is much more common than claimed.

One of the most used and authoritative grammars in the study of ancient Greek is “Greek Grammar” by Herbert Weir Smyth (1857-1937). His comprehensive grammar of ancient Greek is the standard reference in the academic world since its publication in 1920. He comments on the emphatic negation as follows:

1801. Doubtful Assertion.—The present subjunctive with μή may express a doubtful assertion, with μὴ οὐ a doubtful negation. The idea of apprehension or anxiety (real or assumed) is due to the situation…“μὴ οὐκ ᾖ διδακτὸν ἀρετή” virtue is perhaps not a thing to be taught” P. Men. 94e…

1804. From the use in 1801 is probably developed the construction of οὐ μή with the aorist (less often the present) subjunctive to denote an emphatic denial; as ““οὐ μὴ παύσωμαι φιλοσοφῶν” I will not cease from searching for wisdom” P. A. 29d, ““οὐκέτι μὴ δύνηται βασιλεὺς ἡμᾶς καταλαβεῖν” the king will no longer be able to overtake us” X. A. 2.2.12.[10]

H.W. Smyth, Greek Grammar

In his quote from classical Greek literature, the interpretation is not “virtue will not be taught” as a most certain reality but is an emphatic doubtful assertion “should not be taught.”  Mr. Smyth interprets the “οὐ μὴ”  construction as an emphatic denial “I will not cease from searching for wisdom.”  Of course the reality of the “search” depends on the will and the ability of the philosopher.  It is not a statement of certain reality.  Using emphatic denial as an interpretation of Matthew 24:2 what does this mean?

Matthew 24: (NKJV)

2 And Jesus said to them, “Do you not see all these things? Assuredly, I say to you, not one stone may (shall) be left here upon another, that may (shall)  not be thrown down.”

Jesus looks upon the walls and the buildings of Jerusalem. The whole point of the context is the compassion Jesus has for Israel and Jerusalem. He knows it is likely the Jews will not be converted and believe but will revolt against his message.  The perpetrators of the future events are fallible humans and the will and the ability of the perpetrators makes the statement a doubtful assertion.

Although Jesus realized the real possibility of the destruction of Jerusalem by the Gentiles there is still some hope in the repentance of Israel and the commencement of the final week of the seventy week prophecy of Daniel.

Acts 3:19-21 (ESV)
19 Repent therefore, and turn back, that your sins may be blotted out, 20 that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send the Christ appointed for you, Jesus, 21 whom heaven must receive until the time for restoring all the things about which God spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets long ago.

It was still possible that Israel may repent and this would bring in the end times. This did not happen. This has not happened for 2000 years. Instead the times of the Gentiles would be placed in between the end times and the fall of Israel until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled. (Romans 11:25)

Jesus is saying “Assuredly I say to you, not even one stone may be left upon another that may not be thrown down.” Jerusalem will be left to the mercies of the Gentiles. They may or may not throw each stone down but it certainly appears from all evidence known at the time that the destruction will be immense. Contrary to John 3:16 where Jesus in is control of the future and what he promises will be happen because he has the power to do it, the Gentiles will have the freedom to do what they want to Jerusalem. They may or may not throw down every stone. Jesus foreseeing the obvious, that the recalcitrant Jews will rebel and bring down the wrath of Rome. The point of the verses is to show his sorrow at the coming event.

William Watson Goodwin a renown Greek grammarian of the nineteenth century agrees with Mr. Smythe and offers this explanation of the subjunctive.

Subjunctive with μή and μὴ οὐ in Cautious Assertions. 265

In Herodotus v. 79 we have ἀλλὰ μᾶλλον μὴ οὐ τοῦτο ἦ τὸ μαντήιον, but I suspect rather that this may prove not to be the meaning of the oracle. This is the first example of a construction, very common in Plato, used also by Aristotle, and found once in Demosthenes, in which μή with the subjunctive expresses a suspicion that something may be (or may prove to be) true, and μὴ οὐ with the subjunctive a suspicion that something may not be true; the former amounting to a cautious assertion, the latter to a cautious negation. [11]

Contrary to Mr. Wallace’s statements the double negative in the subjunctive (Outside of these two sources it occurs only rarely) those scholarly grammarians who study ancient Greek provide evidence of the common use of the emphatic double negative.  The double negative is a suspicion that something may not be true.  This is in direct contrast to Mr. Wallace (Ou mh rules out even the idea as being a possibility.)  The negative never changes the mood of the Greek and certainly the negative never negates the mood, the negative changes the positive assertion like “I think there will be need of taking into account” into a negative assertion  “I think there will be no need of taking into account.”

There is a need to seriously consider the use of the subjunctive in the translation of the Greek New Testament.  Many statements assumed to be prophecies by Jesus are in the subjunctive.  The subjunctive is a mood of possibility which depends on the ability and the will of the subject.  If Jesus or God the Father were making an assertion about their future actions then the subject would have both will and the ability to bring about a future event.  However if Jesus was talking about the future actions of free individuals then there is an uncertainty in the exact fulfillment of the future event dependent on the will and the ability of the third person.  These statements by Jesus are not future prophesies but expectations which may or may not happen depending on future events.

 

[1] John Piper, Justin Taylor, and Paul Kjoss Helseth, Beyond the Bounds: Open Theism and the Undermining of Biblical Christianity (Wheaton, Illinois, Good News Publishers, 2003) 267-268
[2] Luke 19:41-44 (NKJV)
41 Now as He drew near, He saw the city and wept over it…44 and level you, and your children within you, to the ground; and they will not leave in you one stone upon another, because you did not know the time of your visitation.”
44 και εδαφιουσιν σε και τα τεκνα σου εν σοι και ουκ αφησουσιν λιθον επι λιθον εν σοι ανθ ων ουκ εγνως τον καιρον της επισκοπης σου
[3] ἀφεθῇ shall be left V-ASP-3S 2647 [e]
καταλυθῇ shall be thrown down V-ASP-3S

[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Daniel B Wallace, Greek Grammar, Beyond the Basics (Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 1996) 468

[8] Daniel B. Wallace, The Basics of New Testament Syntax: An Intermediate Greek Grammar (Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 2000) footnote 14
[9] Daniel B Wallace, Greek Grammar, Beyond the Basics (Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 1996) 468
[10] H.W. Smyth, Greek Grammar (rev. ed; Cambridge:Harvard University Press, 1984)
[11] William Watson Goodwin, Syntax of the Moods and Tenses of the Greek Verb, Rev. 7th ed. (Boston: Ginn and Heath, 1877) 92.

The extended content is provided below: Examples from Plato are:-

Μὴ ἀγροικότερον ἦ τὸ ἀληθὲς εἰπεῖν, I am afraid the truth may be too rude a thing to tell. Gorg. 462 ε. Μὴ ὡς ἀληθῶς ταῦτα σκέμματα ἦ τῶν ῥᾳδίως ἀποκτιννύντων, I suspect these may prove to be considerations for those, etc. Crit. 48 C. Μὴ φαῦλον ἦ καὶ οὐ καθ’ ὁδόν, I think it will be bad and not in the right way (i.e. μὴ οὐ ἦ). Crat. 425B. Ἀλλὰ μὴ οὐχ οὕτως ἔχῃ, ἀλλ’ ἀναγκαῖον ἦ εἰδότα τίθεσθαι (i.e. μὴ ἦ). Crat. 436B. Ἀλλὰ μὴ οὐ τοῦτ’ ἦ χαλεπὸν, θάνατον ἐκφυγεῖν, but I suspect this may not be the hard thing, to escape death. Ap. 39A. Ἡμῖν μὴ οὐδὲν ἄλλο σκεπτέον ἦ, I am inclined to think we have nothing else to consider. Crit. 48 C. Μὴ οὐ δέῃ ὑπολογίζεσθαι, I think there will be no need of taking into account, etc. Crit. 48D. Μὴ οὐκ ἦ διδακτὸν ἀρετή, it will probably turn out that virtue is not a thing to be taught. Men. 94E Ἀλλὰ μὴ οὐχ οὗτοι ἡμεῖς ὦμεν, but I think we shall not prove to be of this kind. Symp. 194C [Note]

See also Aristotle, Eth. x. 2. 4, μὴ οὐδὲν λέγωσιν (v. l. λέγουσιν), there can hardly be anything in what they say. ( crossSee 269.)

In DEM. i. 26 we have μὴ λίαν πικρὸν εἰπεῖν ἦ, I am afraid it may be too harsh a thing to say.

The present subjunctive here, as in dependent clauses of fear cross(92), may refer to what may prove true.

266

In these cautious assertions and negations, although no desire of the speaker to avert an object of fear is implied, there is always a tacit allusion to such a desire on the part of some person who is addressed or referred to, or else an ironical pretence of such a desire of the speaker himself.

267

The subjunctive with μή in this sense is sometimes found in dependent clauses. E.g. Ὅρα μὴ ἄλλο τι τὸ γενναῖον καὶ τὸ ἀγαθὸν ἦ τοῦ σῴζειν καὶ σῴζεσθαι, see to it lest (it prove true that) these may be different things, etc. PLAT. Gorg. 512D. The common translation, see whether they may not be different, gives the general sense, but not the construction, which is simply that of μὴ ἄλλο τι ἦ cross(265) transferred to a dependent clause.

268

In a few cases Plato has μή with the subjunctive in a cautious question with a negative answer implied. As μὴ ἄλλο τι ἦ τοῦτο means this may possibly be something else, so the question μὴ ἄλλο τι ἦ τοῦτο; means can this possibly be something else? The four examples given by Weber are:-

Μή τι ἄλλο ἦ παρὰ ταῦτα; can there be any other besides these? Rep. 603C. Ἆρα μὴ ἄλλο τι ἦ θάνατος ἢ τοῦτο; is it possible that death can prove to be anything but this? Phaed. 64C. So μή τι ἄλλο ἦ ἤ, κ.τ.λ.; Parm. 163D. Ἀλλὰ μὴ ἐμὴ περιεργία ἦ καὶ τὸ ἐρωτῆσαί σε περὶ τούτου; but can it be that even asking you about this is inquisitiveness on my part? Sisyph. 387 C (this can be understood positively, it may be that it is, etc.).

In XEN. Mem. iv. 2, 12 , the same interrogative construction occurs with μὴ οὐ: μὴ οὖν οὐ δύνωμαι ἐγὼ τὰ τῆς δικαιοσύνης ἔργα ἐξηγήσασθαι; do you suspect that I shall be unable to explain the works of Justice?

In PLAT. Phil. 12D we have πῶς γὰρ ἡδονή γε ἡδονῇ μὴ οὐχ ὁμοιότατον ἂν εἴη; for how could one pleasure help being most like another? Here εἴη ἄν takes the place of ἦ, and πῶς shows that the original force of μή is forgotten.

 

 

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One Response to Matthew 24:2 The Subjunctive in Greek Grammar

  1. Scott Taylor says:

    Craig, thanks for a very interesting and detailed study. Upon your first mention of this explanation of Jesus’ statement in the Facebook Group “God is Open” the fast pace, narrow confines of communication the force of your argument did not get through to me. The facts of the retaining wall of the Temple and their history was enlightening and something that I’ll have to look further into.

    My first response was to cite the uncertainty of what was the exact vista that laid before the Lord and his declaration of the immanent destruction of Jerusalem and the beloved Temple or House of God. That still poses enough uncertainty, in my mind, to even the staunchest proponent of unfocused fideism.

    Your argument has merit. And though I have a very high regard for Dr. Daniel Wallace and his scholarship, I have found another area where traces of a limp were apparent in the practice of inerrancy exegesis.

    In the end I believe we both view the “eternal now” theological presupposition as an interloper into Theology and believe that what ever the Lord Jesus meant in his prophecy he still will not be taken by any of those who attempt to “take him in a word.”

    Thanks again for a fine study.

    Warmest Christian Regards,
    W. Scott Taylor

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