John 2:4, Supposed Semitisms, and the Usefulness of TLG

Commentators on John 2:4 almost universally hold that Jesus here employs a Semitism or Hebraism with antecedents in the OT. In this post, I question this consensus by adducing a generally unnoticed parallel from Epictetus.

John 2:4
Here’s the text

: καὶ λέγει αὐτῇ ὁ Ἰησοῦς· τί ἐμοὶ καὶ σοί, γύναι;

The supposed Semitism is the question, τί ἐμοὶ καὶ σοί; which, translated word-for-word is “what [is there] to me and to you?” Some being verb has to be supplied to make sense of it. It seems pretty clear from the text and context that this is a distancing formula.

LXX Examples
Several LXX texts have the same phrasing:

  • Judges 11:12 καὶ ἀπέστειλεν Ιεφθαε ἀγγέλους πρὸς βασιλέα υἱῶν Αμμων λέγων τί ἐμοὶ καὶ σοί ὅτι ἦλθες πρός με τοῦ παρατάξασθαι ἐν τῇ γῇ μου
  • 1 Kings 17:18 καὶ εἶπεν πρὸς Ηλιου τί ἐμοὶ καὶ σοί ἄνθρωπε τοῦ θεοῦ εἰσῆλθες πρός με τοῦ ἀναμνῆσαι τὰς ἀδικίας μου καὶ θανατῶσαι τὸν υἱόν μου
  • 2 Kings 3:13 καὶ εἶπεν Ελισαιε πρὸς βασιλέα Ισραηλ τί ἐμοὶ καὶ σοί δεῦρο πρὸς τοὺς προφήτας τοῦ πατρός σου καὶ εἶπεν αὐτῷ ὁ βασιλεὺς Ισραηλ μή ὅτι κέκληκεν κύριος τοὺς τρεῖς βασιλεῖς τοῦ παραδοῦναι αὐτοὺς εἰς χεῖρας Μωαβ
  • 2 Chronicles 35:21 καὶ ἀπέστειλεν πρὸς αὐτὸν ἀγγέλους λέγων τί ἐμοὶ καὶ σοί βασιλεῦ Ιουδα οὐκ ἐπὶ σὲ ἥκω σήμερον πόλεμον ποιῆσαι καὶ ὁ θεὸς εἶπεν κατασπεῦσαί με πρόσεχε ἀπὸ τοῦ θεοῦ τοῦ μετ᾽ ἐμοῦ μὴ καταφθείρῃ σε
  • Similarly, elsewhere in the NT we find it said by a demon: Mark 5:7 καὶ κράξας φωνῇ μεγάλῃ λέγει· τί ἐμοὶ καὶ σοί, Ἰησοῦ υἱὲ τοῦ θεοῦ τοῦ ὑψίστου; ὁρκίζω σε τὸν θεόν, μή με βασανίσῃς. Cf. Lk 8:28

The LXX texts are a word-for-word translation of the Hebrew (מה־לי ולך). This, I think, is what led scholars to call this a Semitism.

Semitism or Not?
But, is it? A quick search of the Thesaurus Linguae Graecae turns up two hits in Epictetus, whom we would hardly expect to speak a Semitized Greek. Here are the texts:

1.27.14 εἶτα τὸ τελευταῖον, ὅταν μήτε τὰ πράγματα μεταθεῖναι δυνηθῶ μήτε τὸν ἐμποδίζοντα ἐκτυφλῶσαι, κάθημαι καὶ στένω καὶ ὃν δύναμαι λοιδορῶ, τὸν Δία καὶ τοὺς θεοὺς τοὺς ἄλλους· εἰ γὰρ μὴ ἐπιστρέφονταί μου, τί ἐμοὶ καὶ αὐτοῖς;

2.19.19 οὐχὶ θάνατός ἐστι τὸ κινδυνευόμενον ἢ δεσμωτήριον ἢ πόνος τοῦ σώματος ἢ φυγὴ ἢ ἀδοξία; τί γὰρ ἄλλο; μή τι κακία, μή τι μέτοχον κακίας; σὺ οὖν τίνα ταῦτα ἔλεγες;’ ‘τί ἐμοὶ καὶ σοί, ἄνθρωπε; ἀρκεῖ ἐμοὶ τὰ ἐμὰ κακά.’

Here, again, the phrase is a distancing formula. What we must notice however, is that it is perfectly at home on the tongue of a native Greek speaker. It appears to be completely normal Greek, though perhaps a more casual spoken style, since it occurs in the midst of a dialogue. Thus, it seems to be a distancing formula that was common to many (or, at least, more than one) ancient languages.

The Bottom Line
The lesson to be learned here is caution in pronouncing something a Semitism. Better, perhaps, to say that up till now we have not found any parallels in extant Greek literature. (BTW, the same can be said for claims that a NT author has coined a word simply because it appears nowhere else in our extant Greek literature.)

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About Daniel R. Streett

Associate Professor of Biblical Studies at Houston Baptist University
This entry was posted in LXX Texts of Note and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to John 2:4, Supposed Semitisms, and the Usefulness of TLG

  1. Barry Hofstetter says:

    This is good work, Daniel (not that you need me to tell you that). I think of Deissmann and the many examples thought to be “special” biblical Greek that he showed to have parallels in the non-literary papyri.

  2. Corey B says:

    For what it’s worth, Smyth’s Greek Grammar (p341, #1479) lists this idiom along with somewhat similar idioms from the speeches of Demosthenes. (Translations below from Smyth’s text)

    τί τῷ νόμῳ καὶ τῇ βασάνῳ (what have the law and torture in common?) D.29.36

    ἀλλὰ τί ταῦτ᾽ ἐμοί; (But what have I to do with this?)

    • Corey, thanks, that’s very helpful. That shows us that the idiom is good Attic, too. I think the first example is more of a parallel. The second is lacking a second dative that would supply the meaning of “having in common.” But, I think the second example shows us the basic construction upon which our idiom was built.

  3. Matt Frost says:

    Also, external parallels or not, this is another reminder that we do an injustice to the text and its translators/interpreters when we assume that LXX is “translation Greek,” and that its colloquialisms and idioms are novel simply because we lack corroboration. We do better to remember the fact that these were Hellenistic Greek speakers themselves, possibly more native in Greek than Hebrew. Their choices may be constrained by the Hebrew, but they may also tell us about the Greek.

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