[Geek alert: This post might appeal to geekazoids, so if you’re not one, you might find it boring. You’ve been forewarned]
With the magic of Logos Bible Software I’ve taken the text of John 4.7-26 and marked up all the verbs in the present tense IN THE GREEK! Yes, that’s correct, I’ve marked up the English text where it is the present tense in the Greek language. [It’s the magic of what they call the reverse-interlinear. All the English words are tied to the Greek words (and verb tense/voice/mood) behind them. You just tell the ESV to mark up all of the verbs in the present tense and voila! you’re a Geekazoid genius.
However, marking all of the present tenses in this passage actually tells us something important. Look closely at the passage, especially anywhere that the ESV says: Jesus said or the woman said. Do you notice anything funny? Jesus said is the past tense and yet Logos marks it as a present tense in the Greek! (vs. 7, 16, 17, 21) What is going on here? I thought the ESV translation was supposed to be super accurate!?! The literal translation should read: Jesus says, not Jesus said [vs. 13 uses a different word for “said” than vv. 7,16,17,21].
Note: It’s not only Jesus said either. Notice vs. 7, A woman of Samaria comes is the literal translation.
John and the ESV are at odds because John is “marking” the text for something important and the ESV translators are trying to make the text “readable” to the average English reader. When we refer to someone in the past we say, “Little Johnny said he would take out the trash.” Makes perfect sense to you, right? Actually the Greeks did the exact same thing! John should write, Jesus said here, but instead he writes (referring to the past) Jesus says.
John does this for a reason and of course in the English text we completely miss it. John jumps suddenly to what biblical scholars call “the historical present” because he wants to mark what is said (or done) by that person as very important. He does not want us to miss it, so he sets it, as it were, in the present to make it immediate and powerful to the reader. It’s too bad the English texts miss this, but I guess they figure that it would take too long to explain it and wouldn’t make any sense if not understood.