SHALL we translate John 5:39 "ye search the
Scriptures," as almost all modern versions make it, or "Search the
scriptures," as it is in the " Authorized?" The difficulty lies in the
fact that the Greek word search may be either
YE-ARE-SEARCHING or BE-YE-SEARCHING. There
are not many passages like this, for the forms in the original are usually
clearly defined. Here however, ereunate may be either indicative or
It is customary, in cases like this, for the translator
to appeal to his interpretation of the context, and translate accordingly.
The question arises whether the concordant method may not supply a safer
clue to the proper rendering, which is not colored by the special
exposition of the context to which a translator may be committed. Can we
settle it by an appeal to grammar and the usage of words in such a way as
to evade our opinion of the passage? Can the concordant principle be
applied so precisely as to decide whether "Search the scriptures" or "Ye
search the scriptures" is correct? Or, perhaps, we may discover a closer
rendering than either of these.
First, let us note that search is in the incomplete
tense, and denotes an action under way at the time. The force of this
tense is evident, not only from the thousands of cases throughout the
Greek Scriptures, but from the words in this passage. The Jews were
actually "supposing" (John 5:39) at the time He was speaking. They were
"willing" not to be coming to Him. These activities were in actual
operation while He was addressing them. But were they searching the
scriptures at that time? We have no reason to think so. We need not
hesitate to say that they were not searching the Scriptures. If we
cleave closely to the tense of the original, and do not change to the
indefinite in translation, the indicative cannot be true.
Had the affirmative been intended, our Lord would have
said "Ye search [not, ye are searching] the Scriptures." He would have
referred to the fact rather than the act. English versions are practically
compelled to ignore this distinction by the idiom of the language. This is
what leads us astray. He was not speaking of the fact that they made
amazing investigations into the literary form of the sacred text, but of a
present activity in which they were not engaged, but which should have
been their occupation. Instead of criticizing His acts, they ought to have
been delving into the holy writings at that very time in order to find out
the truth about Him. Hence we cannot translate "Ye are searching," but
must render it "Be searching."
Only those who have actually considered the thousands
of occurrences of the incomplete tense and have compared them with the
thousands of cases of the indefinite, will feel the force of this
conclusion, or are competent to pass upon its merits. If they will do this
they will find that the incomplete present always refers to an act in
course of operation. It never refers to a fact, the action of which occurs
at other times. This is reserved for the aorist, or indefinite. Thus the
concordant method, in grammar, often supplies delicate distinctions which
indicate the path of truth. This should be conclusive, but it may not seem
so to some. We have a right to expect that there will be complete harmony
with the context. Collateral concord should confirm it. The following
considerations may be more conclusive.
The modern rendering clashes with the conjunction and
which introduces the following verse. "You are searching...because...you
are supposing...and you will not be coming to Me..." Were they searching
because they will not be coming to Him? As this mistranslation demands an
adversative conjunction, Weymouth, Rotherham, and the Diaglott insert
"yet" after "and" without any warrant. Moffatt boldly alters the "and" to
"but." In order to translate "Ye are searching" we must mutilate the link
which binds on a succeeding sentence. This is enough to condemn it.
No discord is created by the alternate rendering.
"Search ...seeing that you are supposing...and you will not be coming."
Why search the Scriptures? For three coordinate reasons, (1) in them you
are supposing you have eonian life, (2) and those are they which are
testifying concerning Me, (3) and you will not be coming to Me that you
may have life. Kai in Greek as well as and in English does not connect
adversative sentences. Note carefully that our Lord does not say that they
will not come [at any time], but they are not willing to be coming [at
that time]. He uses the incomplete, not the indefinite. Later thousands of
the priests believed, and among them may have been some who heeded His
Another reason for putting this into the imperative
mood is the depth of meaning indicated by the word search in the Greek.
In English we may not object to the statement that these religious zealots
"searched" the Scriptures, for it may be that many of them had memorized
the Law, which we call the Pentateuch, and could repeat it verbatim. They
speculated about it in many curious ways. But they seldom searched into
the heart of it. The Lord had just intimated that God's Word was not
remaining in them! (John 5:18). If it had they would have believed in
Him. So, also, if they had really searched the Scriptures they would
have come to Him. It was because they fell short of real searching that
they did not receive Him.
In this day there is an immense amount of diligent
"Bible study" which does not seem to lead to a vital recognition of
Christ. The reason for this is quite the same as in the case of the Jews.
Creedal tradition and superficial "helps" have thrown a thick veil over
the sacred text. It is seldom supposed to mean what it says. Only a few
days ago a man was quite bewildered when I said that I believed a passage
of Scripture rather than its "explanation." He did not suppose anyone was
quite so fanatical as that. Since I have taken a stand against the words
of man's wisdom, I have been severely condemned by religious leaders, who
are praying for my repentance. Today men search the "helps," the "topical
indexes" and other misleading aids, but very few really search the
Scriptures as the living Word of God.
The following are all the passages where this word is
used. We give the Authorized Version renderings:
John 5:39 Search the
scriptures, for in them
Search, and look: for out of Galilee
Rom. 8:27 and he that searcheth the hearts
1 Cor. 2:10 the Spirit searcheth all things
1 Peter 1:11 Searching what, or what manner
Rev. 2:23 I am he which searcheth the reins
Here is no superficial, fantastic investigation. Always
the action is thorough and deep and effective. It implies all that the
Jews had failed to do. If we enter into the Hebrew Scriptures as He
searches our hearts, or as the Spirit searches the depths of God, we
certainly will find Christ and come to Him. We can understand that He
urges them to search, but it is impossible to believe that they had done
so in the full sense which this word demands.
We are convinced that modern versions have not improved
on the Authorized Version in this instance. Rather they have made the
matter worse. The only improvement possible is to render it in the
incomplete tense. "Be searching" is not as idiomatic as "Search," but we
hope that it will be appreciated by all who prefer truth to sound.
This opens up an interesting question. The real reason
why this change is being made is not seen upon the surface. It is a
friendly attack on the Word of God itself, for it rejects the thought that
the Scriptures contain life. The argument is this: You are searching the
Scriptures, supposing that you will find life in so doing. But that is not
the way to life! Make it imperative and we get the exact opposite. Be
searching the Scriptures, for you will find Me in them if you do, and I
will give you life.
Everywhere the Scriptures are being wounded in the
house of friends. We are continually urged to forsake the letter and
cling to the spirit. But no one can receive or hold to the spirit except
through the letter. It was not the Pharisees who spoke of the jots and
tittles of the law, but our Lord Himself.
Let us cling to the great fact that the word of God is
living and operative. Let us urge saints and sinners to search it. It
will not return to Him void. And when some part is not plain, let us not
seek to line it up with our apprehension, but with the facts on its face.
It should never be translated so as to disturb the relations established
between the various statements in its context, when these are fixed for us
by well known links. We should never translate so that and must have the
sense of but.
An instructive lesson lies in the light this rendering
sheds upon the methods of modern translators. Weymouth plainly stated that
his effort was a running commentary. It is based on his interpretation.
These translations are largely interpretations. That is why they differ
so. The only escape is the concordant method. Instead of translating to
accord with our understanding of a passage we transfer the facts and base
our interpretation on them.
The American Revision is a notable exception, even
though, in this passage, it follows the interpretive method. Its value
lies in the fact that some of the members of the committee were fully
convinced that mere variety in translation is misleading. They made an
effort to have all the parallel passages in the gospels made uniform when
they were the same in the Greek. They would have done much more along
concordant lines had they not been hindered by the necessity of convincing
two-thirds of their colleagues, besides differing from the English
The CONCORDANT VERSION labors
under a severe handicap, so far as its popularity is concerned, because it
refuses to follow human interpretations. Often a prospective purchaser
will turn up a pet passage and is not pleased if it does not pander to his
prejudices. Open minds and honest hearts will be eager to get the facts
and change their opinions accordingly.
We close with the exhortation with which we began, "Be
searching the Scriptures." It will not keep anyone from Christ. On the
contrary, those who really search the living oracles will discover Christ
suffusing all, and, seeing Him, will find the life abundant. And what
safer, saner, more satisfactory assistance to our search can we find than
a method which leads us face to face with the inspired text and passes by
the opinions, not only of the translator, but of ourselves also? God grant
that the reader may indeed be searching the Scriptures and secure the
satisfaction of a close acquaintance with God through His Word!