“Conjunction Junction, What’s Your Function?”

Why is it that I remember a ditty from Sesame Street from like 90 years ago?  I don’t know, but it certainly does demonstrate the power of a catchy phrase set to music, doesn’t it?  The point of the song was to remind children [and perhaps adults need it even more] that a conjunction in the English language [and I assume every other language] has a function or purpose and it behooves us to understand what that purpose is.

I am fascinated by Greek conjunctions because they are used so ubiquitously and can have a broad range of meaning.  They are easy to skip over in the text, but one misses a lot of nuance if one does.  Take John 6.36 for instance, here is how the ESV translates the verse:

“But I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe.” (John 6:36, ESV)

This seems pretty straight forward doesn’t it?  Unfortunately, it doesn’t [and really cannot] capture the nuance of the Greek language.  Here is the same verse in the Greek with a couple of conjunctions highlighted:

John 6.36

The Greek conjunction καί is an interesting little word.  It can mean five different things depending on the context in which it is used.  Here it is used twice in the verse, but with two different meanings.  The second καί is perhaps the most frequently used meaning.  It can be translated “and” or “and then.”  It basically signals a sequence of related events.

It’s the first καί that I’m more interested in.  Louw-Nida [super awesome Greek lexicon] says that the conjunction as used in that instance has a meaning of “a marker of emphasis, involving surprise and unexpectedness.”  So what Jesus is saying here is that his Jewish listeners have seen him, and that they should believe in him because they have seen him, but surprisingly, they do not believe in him [By the way, the “but” conjunction at the start of the verse is a marker of strong contrast.  Jesus in essence emphasizes that word].

Let’s read how different English translations render this verse to see if they capture the nuance of Christ’s statement:

  •  “But I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe.” (ESV)
  • But as I told you, you have seen me and still you do not believe. (NIV)
  • But you haven’t believed in me even though you have seen me. (NLT)
  • Now, I told you that you have seen me but will not believe. (GNT)
  • But I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe.(NRSV)
  • I have told you this explicitly because even though you have seen me in action, you don’t really believe me.(The Message – A paraphrase)
  • But I said unto you, That ye also have seen me, and believe not.(KJV)
  •  But as I told you, you’ve seen Me,  and yet you do not believe.(HCSB)

I like the NRSV or HCSB best.  This, by the way, is why it is very useful to compare a lot of English translations if you are doing Bible study and can’t read Greek.  It helps you get a feel for the meaning of the text by seeing how people have translated it.

The upshot of the verse is that Christ expresses surprise [not for his sake—he certainly wasn’t surprised, for the sake of his listeners] that his listeners did not believe in him.  They should have, because of both his works and his words, but they did not.

We have conjunctions to thank that we understand Christ’s point.

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2 Responses to “Conjunction Junction, What’s Your Function?”

  1. Matt says:

    Schoolhouse Rock… not Sesame street…

    I see this verse as a precursor to the passage in Matthew (23:37) where he laments Jerusalem. He would have gathered them to him, but they wouldn’t believe.

  2. murfmonkey says:

    Impressive that you know that!

    Agree. It’s all the more striking in that a. they had just seen him feed 5000+ people with five loaves and two fish, and b. the contrast between his reception among the Samaritans at Sychar (first and really ONLY “revival” in Christ’s ministry) and his own people.

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