Matthew 4:17, “The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.”

I'd better check the time.

This semester I’m teaching an entire course on this phrase. And essentially I’m teaching the class on one verb in this one verse. The question is how to translate ἤγγικεν.

Mat 4:17 τότε ἤρξατο ὁ Ἰησοῦς κηρύσσειν καὶ λέγειν, Μετανοεῖτε· ἤγγικεν γὰρ ἡ βασιλεία τῶν οὐρανῶν.

KJV From that time Jesus began to preach, and to say, Repent: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.

NIV From that time on Jesus began to preach, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near."

I have my opinions about how this verb should be translated. It needs to take into account Matthew 3:2 and 10:7. You need to look at the 14 occurrences of the verb in this tense and the 42 total occurrences of this verb in the New Testament.

You need to look at how people use English today. I was rather doubtful of the contemporary use of “is at hand” but this video convinced me that it is still very much recognizable English:

So I guess I’ll ask you for help. What did Jesus say? And what did Jesus mean? And how can we best translate this verb to communicate ancient meaning to modern readers?

26 Comments

  1. Posted September 21, 2009 at 11:55 pm | Permalink

    I’ve had my Greek classes struggle with this one a bit in the past. I think the matter is complicated because ἤγγικεν is a perfect indicative. So the idea is, “it has come near” or “has been coming near” with the emphasis on the present reality of it. But how can it be both a present reality and only just “near”?

  2. Posted September 22, 2009 at 12:17 am | Permalink

    “At hand” may be recognizable English, but I think the phrase works in the video only because of the pun.

    When I hear or use “at hand,” I only think of physical proximity, not temporal. And for me “at hand” is static, in that something “at hand” will stay there, as opposed to something that “is coming up,” or “coming closer” etc.

    Romans 13:12 makes it pretty clear to me that the verb can be used temporally. (It’s pretty common for spacial descriptions to assume temporal meanings: “coming up” in English, for example, or “almost here” [instead of "almost now"].)

    One important question is whether this is a fixed idiom. Does it appear outside the NT?

    -Joel

  3. Posted September 22, 2009 at 1:24 am | Permalink

    But are you convinced Jesus said this? Or isn’t it Matthew’s translation that says something here?

    And what about LXX? How do you like the Greek translation of Ezekiel?

    8:1 … καὶ ἐγένετο ἐπ’ ἐμὲ χεὶρ κυρίου [and it came to pass that the LORD's hand was on me] … 9:1 καὶ ἀνέκραγεν εἰς τὰ ὦτά μου φωνῇ μεγάλῃ λέγων ἤγγικεν ἡ ἐκδίκησις τῆς πόλεως καὶ ἕκαστος εἶχεν τὰ σκεύη τῆς ἐξολεθρεύσεως ἐν χειρὶ αὐτοῦ [and he cried into my ear with a loud voice, saying, at hand are the city judges and each one who has weapons of destruction in his hand]

    I’m being silly with my English translation. But my point is that it’s sort of silly to focus always on what Jesus said as though Matthew or other users of Greek have nothing to say.

  4. Posted September 22, 2009 at 9:54 am | Permalink

    In looking at the other uses in Matthew, “is approaching” seems to be the core meaning. JK, I’m not sure I get your last sentence. Granted Matthew is using his vocabulary to express Jesus’ ideas. Whether LXX or Classical Greek have anything to tell us about nuances of Koine I don’t know. The fact that the Jacobian English “at hand” doesn’t work in 21st century global English seems closely analogous to comparing LXX to Koine.

  5. Posted September 22, 2009 at 11:52 am | Permalink

    David, The verb phrase “is approaching” seems precisely to be the core meaning. But it sounds like old Greek, doesn’t it? In other words, although we might get to a core meaning, the phrase may really of have read in the 1st century as a little outdated and stuffy. Matthew has already put Isaiah’s (old Greek LXX) words in John the Baptist’s mouth immediately after the translator has had this new prophet speaking old Greek of his own; he’s talking like one of those prophets of old (i.e., of the Greek old covenant). When Matthew introduces Jesus then, he puts the very same words in the mouth of Jesus. If koine Greek readers miss the oddness, then at least they get that both John and Jesus say the exact same thing, in exactly the same way (thanks to Matthew).

  6. Posted September 22, 2009 at 3:23 pm | Permalink

    It is perfect active indicative, right? So why is it translated passively? Just because the D.O. is unapparent doesn’t mean we should take it as an intransitive, does it?

    In all seriousness, why isn’t the Kingdom drawing [us] near?

  7. Posted September 22, 2009 at 3:39 pm | Permalink

    I know I’m revealing my ignorance here – and partly looking to get schooled, to be sure – but can’t there sometimes be an implied direct object? In that case, the Kingdom itself might be taking action here. That should not be out of the question. (Or is it?)

  8. Posted September 22, 2009 at 4:17 pm | Permalink

    I think it’s a mistake to rely on the grammatical form of the verb too much, because we regularly find unexpected variations in verb forms.

    For example, in French, tu me manques, literally, “you to-me miss,” means “I miss you.” From this we learn that verbs in foreign languages can arrange their objects differently than English ones.

    In Modern Hebrew, halachnu, literally, “we left,” means “shall we go?” This Modern Hebrew past-tense construction is primarily limited to verbs of motion, from which we learn that tenses can behave idiosyncratically for subclasses of verbs.

  9. Chad
    Posted September 22, 2009 at 5:54 pm | Permalink

    Here’s my opinion. “At hand” works perfectly with what I think Jesus is saying.” I think Jesus is saying the Kingdom is right here, right now, and you can reach out and grab it if you want it. Repent, for God’s reign and ways and promises and benefits and judgements are right here, within reach, if you’ll reach out and lay hold of it by faith. Great message! And I think it is still His message today.

  10. Posted September 23, 2009 at 1:35 am | Permalink

    @Bill: Yes, it is a perfect active, but you are asking about why the verb is treated “intransitively.” (It is not a matter of being treated as a “passive.” It’s like the verb “rise.” It simply does not take a direct object.) So, the “dominion of God has drawn near” is an active voice statement. There is no direct object, and the simple sense is that the dominion of God is drawing near under its own power.(A passive would be, “the dominion of God has been drawn near by…”)
    @Chad: To be “at hand” does not imply that one should take it “in hand.” To reach out and grab the dominion of God sure sounds like Matthew 11.12, and it’s not a good thing. The dominion of God comes to us. We do not move it, acquire it, or keep it.

  11. Chad
    Posted September 23, 2009 at 3:57 am | Permalink

    I understand that many translators (I’m no translator for sure) consider “has come near” to be a good rendering.

    I hope you guys don’t mind my joining in. I think this topic is super interesting. Am I right in thinking that translation should be done without using one’s theological filter? In this case (re-read the above discussion as an example), the translator or student’s personal theology is one of the reasons why this is a tough passage to deal with. By reading just this short little article and a few posts I can feel the wrestling match between whether a literal rendering matches with what we assume Jesus means.

    In considering using other scripture to help with interpreting the scripture “at hand”: I actually think that Mathew 11:12 is a positive example of exactly what Jesus meant by “repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand(has come near)”.

    This is my first time to post here, so if my thoughts are outside of the scope of this site (being about translation and not what one believes the Bible teaches) please let me know.

  12. Posted September 23, 2009 at 5:29 am | Permalink

    @Mark: Thanks very much. “drawing [itself] near” makes sense to me now and helps explain what confused me (way back when) about translating certain intransitive verbs – when something does something to itself, the rendering often felt ‘passive’, effectively. For example, I mistook “is approaching” for an idiomatic rendering of “being drawn near”. That may not make sense to others, but it got stuck in my head that way long ago. (Hate to say my prof in 94 wasn’t strict enough on grammar. Now I’ve got to start making up for it.)

    Anyway, Mark, for some reason, your gracious, simple explanation clicked really well with me, so I can’t thank you enough.

    –Embarrassed, but enlightened :-)

  13. Posted September 23, 2009 at 9:21 am | Permalink

    Chad, you’re on the right track. This translation problem is theologically constrained.

    Thanks all for the interesting comments.

  14. EricW
    Posted September 23, 2009 at 2:44 pm | Permalink

    Glad to see you here, Chad! :^D

  15. Charles
    Posted September 23, 2009 at 6:09 pm | Permalink

    Interesting to me, that this is what I call Carlos Santa theology, especially to the people carrying the signs……”You better change your evil ways, baby!” rather than the message of grace.

    A contrasting approach popped up on my Google bible verse of the day,

    2 Corinthians 12:9-10 But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

    I prefer the latter approach, although sometimes I think I’m slip sliding away into the reformed movement….oh well

  16. Posted September 23, 2009 at 6:12 pm | Permalink

    From some of your comments it sounds like you might be intimidated to throw out some ideas. I hope you’ll know that everyone is welcome to comment (remembering the guidelines) on this blog and the interaction of professionals and amateurs is enriching to everyone.

  17. Chad
    Posted September 25, 2009 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

    So if our theology is a major reason why this passage is difficult to translate, how is our theology impacting our thoughts about the translation of this passage?

    I stated above that “at hand” works with what I believe the Bible teaches about the Kingdom of God. I believe that “has come near”, “has drawn near”, and “has drawn itself near”, all phrases mentioned above, work as well. I don’t think “is approaching” works with what I think the Bible teaches in other scriptures.

    That’s how my bias is impacting me. I’m interested in what various theological perspectives are constraining the translation of this phrase. What is it about this passage, theologically, that presents a challenge in it’s translation?

  18. Posted September 25, 2009 at 4:44 pm | Permalink

    In a nutshell, theologians want to know if the kingdom of heaven arrived at the onset of Jesus’ ministry or was it drawing near and only fully revealed at his death/resurrection/Pentecost/second coming/etc. So a simple verb carries a lot of theological weight. Other more theologically attuned readers might be able to give a more nuanced answer.

  19. Shan
    Posted September 26, 2009 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

    Very interesting discussion. I have a few observations, but probably no answers. Matthew also uses ἤγγικεν in 26:45-46 to denote what is near both temporally and physically. The event in question is in process but not finished. Also interesting is Mark’s parallel in 14:41-42, where we find ἦλθεν in verse 41, and not ἤγγικεν. So both verbs have some semantic overlap, and there is nothing inherently significant in the perfect tense that cannot be conveyed with the aorist tense. Context will have to determine the best way to translate any single word.

    I will certainly agree that it is difficult to distance oneself from any presuppositional bias when translating. Although it might be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on whether or not you are correct. Translating does require interpretation, so I don’t see how it can be totally avoided. Mark Strauss, during a recent interview on The Expanded Bible, described every translation as a mini-commentary. And I know for me, it is very easy to interpret what any translation “says” by what I already believe.

  20. Posted September 27, 2009 at 7:52 am | Permalink

    Shan, I like the way you made your case showing other uses of this word by Matthew and the parallel passage in Mark. I’d want to answer the question of why does the perfect get used here. Was it a fossilized expression or a citation. Since it’s direct discourse I don’t think that the surrounding verbal clues are going to be helpful.

  21. Margaret Katranides
    Posted September 28, 2009 at 8:41 pm | Permalink

    Jumping in with no education or credentials: In modern Greek, the word aggizei, which I take to be a descendant of iggiken, means “it touches.” Could it be that even in koine times, iggiken meant “it has touched us”?

  22. Brad Laird
    Posted October 6, 2009 at 11:04 pm | Permalink

    Whether or not it meant that then, Margaret, for those authors or for Jesus, this is my experience now.

  23. Dr. Halle
    Posted June 4, 2010 at 12:08 am | Permalink

    I must say I am enjoying the dialog here. While I am not a Greek scholar, I have engaged in some study of church dogma and doctrine through the years, as well as the philosophies and practice of various other religious traditions, including some eastern ones.

    At bare minimum, I would suggest we consider–and perhaps meditate upon–Jesus’ words, in the absence of preconceptions. In my experience, churchmen will often go through all variety of contortions to force His words into conformation with (pre-existing) dogma. Next, ‘twould be wise to compare similar passages in the various gospels.

    In Luke 17:21 we read:

    The Kingdom of Heaven is within you. (KJV)(Luke 17:21)..or..

    For behold, the kingdom of God is in your midst.” (NASB) Luke 17:20-21

    While in Matthew 4:17, we read “The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.”..or..The KOH is nigh/near.

    Before proceeding, I will say that I think it not inappropriate to consider “Kingdom of Heaven” (KOH) and “Kingdom of God” (KOG) as equivalent.

    I can understand the exceedingly common tendency to view these words describing a kind of spiritual dominion to come in the afterlife, but I think it would be a mistake to limit the meaning to this.

    Please allow me to digress for a moment. In Matthew 18:20, we read..”For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them.”

    I do not think it any huge leap to see a common thread here, and to consider that the KOH/KOG tends to materialize (let us say), a) were Jesus bodily to be among us…b) were there to be a “spiritual presence” among us as we gather together to share in prayer, healing and sharing the Eucharist.

    Now, to return to Luke. When we look at the entire passage in Luke 17, we read,“The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or, ‘There it is!’ For behold, the kingdom of God is in your midst.”

    This suggests to me that there is something a bit magical or miraculous..and–also–unpredictable about the process. Spiritual reality is unlike “New York Times,” hard and fast, utterly predictable, “nail it down” reality. As we engage in spiritual practice, transformation tends to occur. We could say that this is characteristic of the spiritual realm, or that this is by the “grace of God,” or that, under these circum-stances, Jesus’ Presence (or the Holy Spirit) tends to manifest.

    This is not to deny that our physical death might not occur at any time..and/or that the entire cosmos might not be wiped away at any time…and…Behold, heaven doth appear!!..but, in my view, ’tis a big mistake to limit our reading of these passages to this interpretation.

    Respectfully.

    –Dr. T.C.Halle
    Los Angeles

  24. Posted July 18, 2010 at 4:56 pm | Permalink

    First off, let me say that the absence of hostility in this environment is incredibly refreshing and encouraging. I love that. Let it also be known that I hardly have any credentials in the subject, and am just speaking my thoughts as an “average” Christ-follower. Te expand on Shan’s comment, I think it might be helpful to look at Matthew 26:45-46 (I’m going off the ESV):

    Then he came to the disciples and said to them, “Sleep and take your rest later on. See, the hour is at hand, and the Son of Man is being betrayed into the hands of sinners. Rise, let us be going; see, my betrayer is at hand.”

    “Is at hand” is used twice in this passage. “The hour is at hand”, means that the hour has come, it is currently here. The same can be said about the latter use. “See, my betrayer is at hand.” We know that Judas was physically there in Gethsemane when Jesus said this, because verse 47 says “While he was still speaking, Judas came…” Jesus hadn’t even finished his sentence before Judas walked in. That indicates very close physical proximity.

    I don’t see why the phrase “is at hand” would mean something different in the context of Matthew 4:17 and 10:7. Based on the my conclusion about the Gethsemane text, I believe that Jesus is saying that the Kingdom of Heaven is currently here.

    Any thoughts on this?

  25. Dr. Halle
    Posted July 19, 2010 at 1:45 am | Permalink

    It appears to me that a reasonable translation of “at hand” is “present right now” or ” is imminent” (i.e., there is a denotation of temporal or spatial proximity). This is somewhat akin to the 1920’s slang expression of “the jig is up!!”..which means the police are outside the door…or pretty damn close, so “move it, Buster!!”

    Is not the operative word also sometimes rendered as “in our midst?” If so, this would suggest to me that what we are considering–such as the KOH or KOG (respectively, Kingdom of Heaven and Kingdom of God), may already be here, but for our lack of vision or spiritual development. I will say that this resonates somewhat with me. Jesus, surely, was an activist and gadfly in some respects. He, not infrequently, would frame a message in extreme terms, or would approach an issue in such a way to shake up the world of his listeners.

    He would say things like (a paraphrase), “If you could but wake up and see what I see!! Listen–you fools–and wake up to who you really are, and to what the universe is really about!!”

    Of course, there are also the famous lines in Luke 17:21, “The kingdom of God does not come visibly, nor will people
    say ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of
    God is within you.” ..which tends to support this idea. If the KOH is within one, it is certainly not (exclusively) “way out there,” “a couple miles down the road,” “tomorrow,” or “only after one’s death.” ; )

    This is consistent with much of the mystic tradition, which proposes that “spiritual reality” is not the same as everyday, what I like to call “New York Times reality,” and that enlightenment may be nurtured by spiritual practice, fellowship, and good acts…along with faith, but comes in its own time, and frequently unexpectedly. According to God’s grace, one might say. Still, many of us catch glimpses of this every so often, during fellowship with other worshipers, after a personal experience that especially touches our heart or during prayer. At other times too. I remember how, after watching a particularly moving film in the nineties, I was moved to tears. As I was a little embarassed, I left the theater and made it back to my car. Having some background as a therapist, I knew that to hold in tears would probably be a mistake, so I let loose. Man, what a deluge!! Obviously, something in the film touched me…probably related to an early life experience.

    Afterwards, I felt real relief and a kind of healing, so the experience that day was therapeutic..and who knows but that Spirit might have played in this, though it had not been OSTENSIBLY a religious experience?

    Thus, to my mind, the KOH/KOG may have something to do with the afterlife, but it may also be something we might experience most any time..alone, or with others. Every once and awhile, it might appear “in our midst,” or–if not–at least be, “right at hand,” ready to occur, at a moment’s notice. And, this is a pretty exciting prospect, no?

  26. Posted July 19, 2010 at 4:36 am | Permalink

    We’re not really trying to debate the meaning of “Kingdom of Heaven” on this blog so much as point out issues in translation. One of which is the difficulty of translating ἤγγικεν. It does not mean “in your midst.” That’s a different Greek expression. It also does not mean “touch,” even if that’s what its Modern Greek equivalent means. I’m trying to think of a false cognate pair that doesn’t come from Joel Hoffman, but I’m at a loss.

    Essentially, we’ve got two possible ideas.

    1. It’s near — it’s right here.
    2. It’s near — it’s coming and will be here soon (and very soon).

    So, what should we do to translate this word, hopefully in an unbiased way? That’s the question this thread addresses.

    I would not translate it as “at hand.” This makes me think of an item that is handy and at my disposal. I do not believe that is a thought that ἤγγικεν gives, so I am against that rendering. Maybe I’m just quirky for brushing this rendering out-of-hand (pun intended).

    I also would not translate it “has drawn near.” For one thing, the tense gives the impression that the movement has stopped. This precludes interpretation 2, thus introducing bias that can be avoided without too much difficulty. What’s more, the present perfect tense really feels too awkward for that dramatic declaration. The only instance I can think of for emphatic declarations in that tense is for emphatic (and offended) denials: “I have never claimed to be a [democrat/republican/Mets fan]!”

    Instead, perhaps the best choice is to translate it as “is near,” and have a text note that explains the two options for interpretation I just mentioned.


Post a Comment

Required fields are marked *

*
*

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 197 other followers

%d bloggers like this: