Listening to Greek Syntax: Heb 2:9

I've gone back to working on Hebrews—I had left off because I got distracted by working on my dissertation proposal, of all things. Priorities, right? Anyways, I'm attempting to run these two projects in parallel now since I don't have any classes or teaching responsibilities at present. And dealing with the complex syntax of the higher-level Greek of Hebrews has me thinking about what is natural to the hearer.

It's all well and good, looking at a text and thinking of it strictly as a text, to handle reference loosely, on the assumption that your eye can follow the chain of reference. But in an oral-aural context in which the text is manuscript, decoding requires that the reader think as a listener. Which demands a model of the listener, of sorts. I'm not there yet, but I am certainly working on it. I have the practice, but not the theory. So you're welcome to follow me down this rabbit-hole and see where it goes!

Case in point: Heb 2:8c-9
νῦν δὲ οὔπω ὁρῶμεν αὐτῷ τὰ πάντα ὑποτεταγμένα · τὸν δὲ βραχύ τι παρ’ ἀγγέλους ἠλαττωμένον βλέπομεν Ἰησοῦν διὰ τὸ πάθημα τοῦ θανάτου δόξῃ καὶ τιμῇ ἐστεφανωμένον, ὅπως [] ὑπὲρ παντὸς γεύσηται θανάτου.
Not the simplest passage, but not ridiculous, either. It presents a nice sample of the problems encountered in translating Hebrews. Let's break it down.

First, for context, you should know that this follows a lengthy citation of Psalm 8. And we'll hit pieces here that are in fact references to that citation, but you'd have just translated that, so you'd know it already if you were doing the work. And if you were listening, you'd have just heard it.

So let's take it piece by piece. The first piece, up to the colon, is easy enough:
νῦν δὲ οὔπω ὁρῶμεν αὐτῷ τὰ πάντα ὑποτεταγμένα
The nun de is a discourse marker, and signals a shift to the present from a consideration of the past—in this case, the Psalm text.

It's followed by an adverb and verb: [ not-yet we-see ], or "we do not yet see." Verbs of sight are most often transitive; we see something. So the verb sets us up to see whatever comes next.

In this case, what comes next is a situation with its own verb. And the syntax here is important to note. It won't surprise a German, but it will mess with the English-speaker. What do we not yet see? [ to-him the everything having-been-subordinated ]. Indirect object, direct object, and then the verb (in this case, a participle) dead last. The verb here is an accusative participle because it is an object of the verb of sight. We see the action. Or, more to the point in this case, we do not yet see it, but the verb and its context are what we should expect to see from the Psalm text. And we reach across all of that context to get to the verb that makes sense of it.

So, all together, we have the following syntax: [ now * not-yet we-see to-him the everything having-been-subordinated ]. This translates into English as, "But at present, we do not yet see that everything has been subordinated to him."

What follows the colon is harder. This is where listening comes in. What is the first thing we hear? We hear ton de, an article and a discourse marker. Think of de on its own as a sort of all-purpose bullet-point. As a postpositive, it always appears after the start of whatever you're hearing, as though to remind you that this thing you've started to hear is a point of its own. And the thing we've started to hear is an accusative singular something, either masculine or neutral. Basically, we're listening for the rest of the "-on" to match the ton and complete the object—and then we're looking for the verb that it's an object of.

Ah, but we don't get it right away. So we're still waiting, while we hear a bunch of other words. For your scrolling convenience, let's copy down what we're listening to:
τὸν δὲ βραχύ τι παρ’ ἀγγέλους ἠλαττωμένον βλέπομεν Ἰησοῦν διὰ τὸ πάθημα τοῦ θανάτου δόξῃ καὶ τιμῇ ἐστεφανωμένον
So the next thing we have is a neutral singular accusative modifier, brachu, "brief" or "briefly." That helps, but we need more. Then we have ti, an all-purpose word of sorts, also neutral singular accusative. This starts to sound like an adverbial construction because of the neutral usage: "somewhat briefly." Of course, we just had this in the Psalm text, which reads ἠλάττωσας αὐτὸν βραχύ τι παρ’ ἀγγέλους, "you diminished him somewhat briefly with respect to the angels." And sure enough, the citation continues with par' aggelous, but we don't yet have our object.

Where does the ton find its ground? In the participle! We finally get a word that ends with -on, which tells us we have an object. So the object is ton elattomenon, "the one who has been diminished," which means that we waded through the stuff in the middle because it belongs to this object: "the one who has been diminished, somewhat briefly, with respect to the angels." And, because of the enclosure made by the article and the participle, we know that this is a completely-described object construction, self-sufficient in that it contains everything that belongs to it. Now, we need a verb.

And we get one, right away—and it's a verb of sight. It's a different one than the last, blepo rather than orao, but it still says "we see." Only it doesn't stop there. The speaker says blepomen Iesoun, "we see Jesus." The verb has an object already—but this doesn't faze us. We speak Greek, remember? And a moment's reflection tells us that the participial construction doesn't conflict with the noun. We hear [ the * briefly somewhat with-respect-to the-angels diminished-one we-see Jesus ], and we identify Jesus as the one who has been diminished. These objects are one. The speaker has managed to tell us that the Psalm text describes Jesus without having to devote a separate sentence to say that. Now he can say more about this messianic Jesus.

And so the speaker keeps speaking. The object is followed by a prepositional phrase, dia to pathema tou thanatou, "through the suffering of death." This ... just hangs there. As readers of a text, we might be tempted to attach it to something that came before, and suggest that perhaps the suffering of death has to do with Jesus' being diminished. And, in fact, it looks like the scribe of Papyrus 46 thought just that from the reading marks and division of the text.

Now, even as listeners, if the sentence ended with this phrase, we might have to use it as an explanation of the way that Jesus is the one who has been diminished. But as listeners, we also know that there are no gaps to be filled in what we've already heard. The object of blepomen has been neatly tied up between that first, enclosed participial phrase, and the noun Jesus. And so we don't jump to the conclusion that some commentaries also have, that Jesus has been diminished with respect to the angels by suffering death. The enclosure of the participial phrase, as a substantive wrapped around its own modifiers, means that there is no verb there that we could still be modifying.

And, as listeners, we also know that the speaker isn't done speaking yet, so we don't need to take that implication as though the prepositional phrase were a gloss on the equation of these two objects. So instead we hold on to this "through the suffering of death" phrase, and wait for what it does belong to. We have a verb of sight, and we have an object. We see the messianic Jesus. But we might have a situation in which we see this messianic Jesus, a situation with its own verb to which this suffering of death might belong.

And the speaker does keep speaking, and drops a couple of datives on us: doxe kai time, "with glory and honor," and we know what comes next because it was in the Psalm text already. Here comes the verb! And when we get it, we find that it's another accusative singular participle, estefanomenon. Just as with the first verb of sight in this passage. We see (primary verb) the action (secondary verb, conjugated as an object of sight).

So what did we just hear? [ ... we-see Jesus through the suffering of death with-glory and with-honor having-been-crowned ]. We have the verb, again dead last, to which all of the modification leading up to it belongs. We have already seen the one who has been diminished somewhat with respect to the angels: Jesus. Now we see this same messianic Jesus, who has been crowned with glory and honor through the suffering of death. The prepositional phrase belongs to the verb "crown" just as the dative indirect objects do. It tells us of the Psalm text's messianic coronation in terms of Jesus' actuality. It tells us, not that the crucifixion is the low point, but that it is his triumph as messiah.

Ah, but the sentence still isn't done. There's more:
ὅπως [] ὑπὲρ παντὸς γεύσηται θανάτου.
(I'm leaving out two troublesome words that, taking Frederick Bruce's evaluation, don't belong in the text, as well as the whole scholarly kerfluffle over whether this is therefore "by the grace of God" or "apart from God". The whole thing actually coheres better without them.)

Here we have a purpose clause. We've heard who Jesus is, and what God has done for him, and what the moment of his triumph is, but we haven't heard why. And hopos tells us why. So we have another prepositional phrase, huper pantos, "for all" or "on behalf of all," and a verb and its object, geusetai thanatou, "he should taste death." The reason that the Son became human, and so became lower than the angels, and the reason Jesus dies on the cross, and the reason that it is his moment of triumph, and that God therefore crowns him with glory and honor, elevating the Son above the angels and placing all creation subject to him, is "in order that he should taste death on behalf of everyone."

And here we've come to a key theological point of the epistle. And we've come to it in some hopefully reasonable facsimile of the way the original Greek listener would have received the point. Of course, the native listener doesn't go through all this, any more than you do—you just hear it, and your adult, linguistically enculturated brain does the work for you. But a translator doesn't have that luxury when she's not a native-speaker trained in two sets of grammar and syntax.

So what did I do, and what didn't I do? What might we take as the rules? And what should I have done that I didn't, or vice versa?


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