Tomorrow I’m going to be teaching the letters of John in Gospel Doctrine class. So I start reading 1 John 1, and run headlong into one of the longest, most convoluted sentences in the New Testament, spanning the first four verses (even though the KJV puts a period after verse 3 in English). Here’s what it looks like in our 1979 LDS edition of the KJV:
1 THAT which was from the
beginning, which we have
heard, which we have seen
with our eyes, which we have looked
upon, and our hands have handled,
of the Word of life;
2 (For the life was manifested, and
we have seen it, and bear witness,
and shew unto you that eternal
life,which was with the Father, and
was manifested unto us;)
3 That which we have seen and
heard declare we unto you, that ye
also may have fellowship with us:
and truly our fellowship is with the
Father, and with his Son Jesus
4. And these things write we unto
you, that your job may be full.
This is a passage “more remarkable for energy than for lucidity,” as Loisy has acidly observed. [I am deriving my comments on the grammar here from Raymond Brown’s Anchor Bible volume on the letters.] As the opening letters of a literary work, “they can be described as, formally at least, bordering upon incoherence,” lapsing “into grammatical impossibilities” (Houlden). Dodd observes “The sentence is not good Greek, and it is only by paraphrase that it can be rendered into good English.”
To try to make sense of this, Raymond Brown breaks it down into pieces with a literal translation this way:
1a What was from the beginning [imperf. einai]
1b what we have heard [perf. akouein]
1c what we have seen with our eyes [perf. horan]
1d what we looked at, [aorist theasthai]
1e and what our hands felt [aorist pselaphan]
1f about the word [logos] of life
2a and the life was revealed [aorist phaneroun]
2b and we have seen and testify [perf. horan; pres. martyrein]
2c and we proclaim to you [pres. apangellein]
2d the eternal life
2e of the sort which was toward the Father [imperf. einai]
2f and was revealed to us [aorist phaneroun]
3a what we have seen and heard [perf. horan, akouein]
3b we proclaim also unto you [pres. apangellein]
3c so that you too may have communion with us
3d and indeed our communion with the Father
3e and with His Son, Jesus Christ,
4a and we ourselves write these things [pres. graphein]
4b so that our joy may be fulfilled. [perf. pleroun]
There are in general three problems with this sentence. First, this is all one sentence, made all the more complicated by not one but two parenthetical interruptions (line 1f and the whole of v. 2). Grammatically, line 1e is followed by 3a, but because of the intervening interruptions v. 3 has to summarize what was already said in lines 1b-e. Second, there is a puzzling array of different verb tenses used, leading readers to debate whether these intend subtle shadings of meaning or are simply a stylistic quirk.
The problem I want to focus on here is the placement of the main verb. Can you find it? I’ll give you a moment while you look….
Yes, you finally found it; it finally shows up all the way in line 3b! This means that the reader is left adrift until then; the what-clauses in verse 1 are particularly problematic, because the reader doesn’t know whether they represent the subject or the object of what the writer means to talk about. To solve this difficulty, in his smooth translation, Brown adds a prefatory line that reads: “This is what we proclaim to you:” Can you see what he did there? He basically took the main clause of line 3 and repeated it at the very beginning of the text so that the reader would have a fighting chance of being able to understand what she is reading.
So I flipped open my LDS KJV to see whether there was anything interesting in the footnotes I should know about, and the very first note to the book comes from the JST, reading as follows:
1a JST 1 Jn. 1:1 Brethren, this is the testimony which we give of that which was from the beginning…
I could scarcely believe it! In effect, the ignorant farm boy Joseph had done the same thing as the ridiculously erudite Father Raymond Brown, repeating the thought of the main clause from 3b at the very beginning of the passage so that an English reader can follow the text more easily. He uses the concept of giving testimony, which in this passage is used as a synonym for declare (note how in v. 2 testify [martyrein] and proclaim/declare [apangellein] are used in parallel).
I suspect most people who are reading this passage in preparation for tomorrow’s Sunday School lesson (people do actually read the assigned scripture in advance, right? Right? Hello?) kind of gloss over this and don’t fully appreciate how helpful this little JST gloss is to the modern English reader. Joseph may not have been a scholar, but he certainly had a remarkable feel for the biblical text.