by Vern Sheridan Poythress
[Published in Westminster Theological Journal 64/2 (2002): 273-278. Used with permission.]
Acts 1:3 indicates that during the forty days prior to the Ascension, Jesus spoke to the apostles about the kingdom of God. In Greek the key clause runs, λέγων τὰ περὶ τῆς βασιλείας τοῦ θεοῦ. The KJV translates this literally, “speaking of the things pertaining to the kingdom of God.” The NKJV has identical wording, and the NASB is almost the same.1 But the RSV reads, “speaking of the kingdom of God.” The RSV simplifies the English, apparently ignoring the Greek article τὰ. As might be expected, less literal translations follow this trend.2 But, despite the appearance of looseness, the RSV may actually be as accurate or even more accurate than the KJV.
There is not a huge difference between these renderings, but there is some. At first, it may appear that the difference represents a simple trade-off between greater literal accuracy on the one hand (KJV) and smoother English on the other (RSV). But it is not quite so simple. The KJV, NKJV, and NASB render the Greek word λέγω with the English expression “speak of.” But this is not what λέγω most commonly means in the NT. The most common use is with the meaning “say, tell,” followed by an object giving the contents of what is said.3 For example, Luke 5:36 says, ἔλεγεν δὲ καὶ παραβολὴν πρὸς αὐτοὺς, “he told them a parable also” (RSV). We would not translate it, “He spoke about the parable to them.” In English, “spoke about” is followed by an indication of the topic or subject about which one speaks. “Say” or “tell” is followed by the actual contents of what is spoken. The latter, not the former, represents the common pattern with the verb λέγω. The contents that follow λέγω can take a number of forms. λέγω can be followed by direct discourse, with no other connecting word, as in Luke 1:66: “and all who heard them laid them up in their hearts, saying [λέγοντες], ‘What then will this child be?’ ” Or the word ὅτι “that” may be inserted, as in Luke 4:21. Or an infinitive clause may follow λέγω, as in Luke 11:18, “For you say that I cast out demons by Beelzebul.” The forms εἶπον (aorist), εἶρηκα (perfect), and ἐρῶ (future) follow the same pattern. If Acts 1:3 conforms to this pattern, λέγω should not be translated by “speak about,” followed by a topic, but by “say,” followed by contents. It would be translated, “saying things about the kingdom of God.” “Things” then indicates the content of the speech.
The difference here is real. Some of the difference is concealed by the fact that we can use the English word “thing” to designate a very wide range of entities. We can bring the difference closer to the surface by attempting to use the word “topics” rather than “things.” With this change Acts 1:3 in the KJV would run, “speaking of topics pertaining to the kingdom of God.” This is reasonable English. “Topics” designates subject-matter, that about which the discourse speaks. But can we say, “saying topics pertaining to the kingdom of God”? The word “topics” does not fit well here, because the word “saying” in English is normally followed by the contents of the speech, not a designation of its topic or subject-matter.
To make sure of our footing, we must also consider some other types of construction involving λέγω (and εἶπον). Sometimes λέγω is following both by περί plus genitive and by a direct or indirect discourse giving the contents of what is said: “He began to speak [λέγειν] to the crowds concerning John [περὶ Ἰωάννου], ‘What then did you go out to see? …’ ” (RSV). The presence of λέγω with a following περί makes it look as if λέγω by itself might mean “speak about” or “speak concerning.” But of course the word “concerning” renders περί, not λέγω. λέγω still has its ordinary meaning “say, tell,” and has an ordinary object in the form of the following direct discourse, “What then did you go out to see? ….” The περί phrase does not necessarily indicate the main subject-matter of the whole discourse, but introduces an identification of a crucial individual, whose identity must be known in order to understand the discourse as a whole. The same thing happens in Luke 21:5 and Acts 2:29.
Next, there are cases where λέγω occurs without any object, as in Mark 1:30; 7:36; 8:30; Luke 5:14; 7:7; 7:40; 19:32; 20:39; 22:13; 22:67,67; 24:24.4 In some of these cases, it becomes easy to imagine that λέγω might mean “speak about.” But a close inspection of the cases shows that an object is to be supplied in every case from the preceding context.5
Now Simon’s mother-in-law lay sick with a fever, and immediately they told him of her [sc. that she had a fever]. (Mark 1:30 RSV)
And his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. And he charged them to tell no one [sc. what had happened]. (Mark 7:35-36 RSV)
Peter answered him, “You are the Christ.” And he charged them to tell no one about him [sc. that he was the Christ]. (Mark 8:29-30 RSV)
And immediately the leprosy left him. And he charged him to tell no one [sc. what had happened]. (Luke 5:13-14 RSV)
But say in a word [sc. the command], and my servant shall be healed.” (Luke 7:7 KJV)
And Jesus answering said unto him, Simon, I have somewhat to say unto thee. He saith, Master, say on [sc. say it, that is, the "somewhat" that you mentioned]. (Luke 7:40 KJV)
Now BDAG, under λέγω, meaning 3, lists the following cases with the meaning “to inform about / tell of someth.”: Mark 1:30; 7:36; 8:30; Luke 9:31; Acts 1:3; Eph 5:12; Demosthenes 10.27. Superficially, this description might appear to suggest that λέγω can have the meaning “speak about.” But a closer inspection shows that most of the examples deal with other types of cases. Mark 1:30, 7:36, and 8:30 lack an accusative object. They are among the cases above where the object is to be supplied from context. The “about” in “inform about” really comes from the περί in Mark 1:30 and 8:30, not from λέγω itself. Eph 5:12 and Demosthenes 10.27 are both cases where a certain subject is not to be “spoken,” that is, not to be mentioned.
For it is shameful even to mention what the disobedient do in secret. (Eph 5:12 NIV)
The strongest necessity that a free man feels is shame for his own position, and I know not if we could name a stronger; but for a slave necessity means stripes and bodily outrage, unfit to name here, from which Heaven defend us! (Demosthenes Philippica iv 27 [10.27], Loeb translation by J. H. Vince)6
The avoidance of which these passages speak is not primarily avoidance of the subject-matter as a whole, for Eph 5:12 and Demosthenes 10.27 both have as their subject-matter the very things that they say one must not mention. Not the subject-matter, but the saying of specific contents, is objectionable.
To these passages we may also add Luke 6:26 and Acts 23:5, which involve the expressions λέγϖ καλῶς (“speak well”) and λέγϖ κακῶς (“speak ill”) respectively. These passages seem to involve specialized usages, and do not give us liberty to think that λέγϖ means “speak about” in perfectly general contexts.
Next, there are a handful of passages where λέγϖ has an accusative object designating the reference intended in a preceding speech. For example, 1 Cor 10:28-29 says,
(But if someone says to you, “This has been offered in sacrifice,” then out of consideration for the man who informed you, and for conscience sake–I mean his conscience, not yours–do not eat it.) [RSV]
The words “I mean his conscience” translate λέγϖ with an accusative object: συνείδησιν δὲ λέγω οὐχὶ τὴν ἑαυτοῦ ἀλλὰ τὴν τοῦ ἑτέρου. It is possible to translate this as “I speak of his conscience.” Is the accusative object “his conscience” the topic of the preceding pronouncement? It would be more accurate to say that the preceding verse has as its topic the issue of eating food when someone has already indicated that it has been offered to an idol. “His conscience” is not the topic, but a clarification of the referent of one key item in the preceding verse. “Mean” is a good translation of λέγϖ here. John 6:71 and 8:27 are similar.
There remains one other passage, Luke 9:31, which runs as follows:
καὶ ἰδοὺ ἄνδρες δύο συνελάλουν αὐτῷ, οἵτινες ἦσαν Μωϋσῆς καὶ Ἠλίας,
9.31 οἳ ὀϕθέντες ἐν δο&#xi;ῃ ἔλεγον τὴν ἔ&#xi;οδον αὐτοῦ, ἣν ἤμελλεν πληροῦν ἐν Ἰερουσαλήμ.
“And behold, two men talked with him, Moses and Elijah, who appeared in glory and spoke of his departure, which he was to accomplish at Jerusalem.”
Here the accusative object, τὴν ἔ&#xi;οδον αὐτοῦ, “his departure,” seems to designate the subject-matter, not the contents of the speech. On the other hand, it is possible that this case belongs with the immediately preceding cases, in which an accusative object clarifies the referent. Perhaps Moses, Elijah, and Jesus referred obliquely to the events of Jesus’ crucifixion, and John undertakes to clarify the referent. But without having the contents of the speeches, we cannot tell. Given the information that we have, it seems more logical to interpret “his departure” as an ordinary designation of subject-matter or topic.
But now we may wonder whether this usage is exceptional. As far as I can see, it is the only case of its kind out of a total of some 2291 occurrences of forms of λέγϖ and εἶπον in the NT.7
Is this one exception the clue to the proper interpretation of Acts 1:3? It seems unlikely. As we have seen, the “things” concerning the kingdom of God, represented by the Greek article τὰ, might possibly be interpreted as either the content (“things said about the kingdom of God”) or topic (“the matters concerning the kingdom of God”). The structure of Acts 1:3 by no means forces us, as does Luke 9:31, to adopt for λέγϖ the unusual meaning “speak about.”
But there is still another difficulty with interpreting the λέγϖ of Acts 1:3 as meaning “speak about.” The literal result of this option is to produce the translation “speaking about matters about the kingdom of God.” “About” gets duplicated.
Of course we can soften the English somewhat by altering the prepositions, “speaking of matters pertaining to the kingdom of God.” But at a deeper level a problem still remains. According to this interpretation, there exist in Greek not one but two separate times when the subject-matter or topic is introduced. First the topic is introduced by λέγϖ, because λέγϖ means “speak about.” Following “speak about,” one expects the topic of speech immediately to follow, and to be designated by the accusative. If the topic is the kingdom of God, one would according to this reasoning expect the accusative τῆν βασιλείαν τοῦ θεοῦ. Instead, one gets only the accusativeτὰ. But then the topic is introduced again by περί plus genitive, since the topic is indicated by whatever genitive phrase follows περί. To introduce the topic twice does not make sense; the doubling looks superfluous.
In reply, one might claim that some minimal extra meaning is achieved, because “matters concerning the kingdom of God” is broader than “the kingdom of God.” And indeed this is partly right. “Matters concerning the kingdom of God” suggests a discussion where a whole series of various kinds of statements are made about the kingdom of God. Inevitably, through these whole statements in their variety, the kingdom of God is brought into relation to other topics. But when we say “speaking about the kingdom of God” we achieve the same thing. The kingdom of God is indeed a topic in the discourse, but if Jesus is “speaking about” it, over a period as long as forty days (!), he is inevitably speaking about it using many whole sentences. He would thereby bring the kingdom of God into relation to the things that it affects and that are effected by it. The word “about” inevitably suggests an expansion, because the kingdom of God is not the sole, all-consuming content of the whole discourse, but is a subject about which one will speak within a larger discourse. Hence, in the expression “speak about matters about the kingdom of God,” either one of the “about’s” accomplishes the expansion into the larger field where the kingdom of God will be related through whole statements to other items. Both “about’s” together do not really accomplish more than a single one.
Thus it seems implausible to insist that we do have an actual double occurrence of “about” here. It is especially implausible because there is a reasonable alternative, in keeping with the more common use of λέγϖ. Namely, we take λέγϖ to mean “say, tell,” and translate, “saying things about the kingdom of God.”
The RV and the ASV may perhaps have sensed some of the difficulty here. Both translate Acts 1:3 with the expression “speaking the things concerning the kingdom of God.” The phraseology of “speaking of” or “speaking about” has disappeared, and been replaced with a single word, “speaking.” In the process, the English has become a little more awkward. But one wonders whether the RV and the ASV mean essentially the same thing as the wording “saying things concerning the kingdom of God,” where “things” now represents the content rather than the topic.
But if this rendering is right in substance, it is still the case that “saying things” is weak English. We achieve nearly the same meaning if we phrase it, “speaking about the kingdom of God”—essentially the solution of the RSV and the NIV.
The skeptic may wonder what has happened now to the article τά in Greek. It appears to have been irresponsibly eliminated. But that appearance is a product of differences between Greek and English. As we have seen,λέγϖ in Greek regularly has a direct object, either actual or inferred from context.8 λέγϖ typically means not “speak (about),”9 but “say, tell,” with the object provided by the accusative in Greek. “Speak” in English (as opposed to “say”) actually translates not λέγϖ, but λέγϖ τά. Thus, nothing has really dropped out. The translation is legitimate. In fact, it is superior to the KJV, because the effective doubling of “about” has been eliminated.
1 NASB reads “speaking of the things concerning the kingdom of God.”
2 NIV: “spoke about the kingdom of God”: GNB: “talked with them about the Kingdom of God.”
3 So BDAG meaning 1a.
4 There are other such cases in the NT; these may serve as a sample.
5 There are also cases where two verbs of saying share the same object, in imitation of the Hebrew style with לֵאמֹר . See BDAG λέγω meaning 1 θ א .
6 J. H. Vince, trans., Demosthenes I (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1962), 285.
7 A search of the entire NT also turned up the following passages with λέγϖ where the accusative object might conceivably be interpreted as the topic rather than the contents of the utterance: Mark 10:32; John 3:12(2); 4:29; 4:39; 6:71; 8:27; 8:54, Rom 4:6; 1 Cor 10:29; and Phil 3:18(2).
Let us take these one at a time. John 6:71, 8:27, and 1 Cor 10:29 have already been discussed above.
Mark 10:32 is best interpreted as content. Jesus did not tell the Twelve “about” what was going to happen to him, as if they already knew the events and only needed more information about the details. Rather, he told them what was going to happen to him. John 4:29 and 4:39 are similar.
Next, John 3:12 says, “If I have told you earthly things ….” This verse could be interpreted either way. Perhaps Jesus is saying that he tells about earthly topics. But it is equally plausible to interpret the utterance as meaning that Jesus is telling earthly truths. The truths are the content, as distinct from the topic.
John 8:54 and Phil 3:18 are similar to the use of λέγϖ with the double accusative with the sense “call, name” (BDAG meaning 4).
Rom 4:6 could be rendered, “David speaks about the blessing of the person …,” but it could also be rendered, “David declares the blessing of the person ….” This accusative might therefore be understood as either topic or contents.
8 I have found no clear exceptions in the NT.
9 That is, “speak” plus an expectation that what follows will indicate the topic.