What Did Pilate State in John 19:22?

In reading any common English translation of John 19:22, one finds Pilate saying, “What I have written, I have written.” This is certainly not incorrect, yet I have a feeling some readers may not quite comprehend the significance of this statement, in part, because they are unaware of distinctions in English verb tenses.1 Some may erroneously think “What I wrote, I wrote” conveys the same meaning. In addition, there is a theologically important connotation in the larger context that readers of the English versions would most likely not perceive.

Below is the Greek of Pilates’s quote, under that is its transliteration (exchanging each Greek letter for English equivalents), and underneath that is a corresponding working English translation:

ὃ γέγραφα γέγραφα
ho gegrapha gegrapha
What I have written I have written

The first word is the relative pronoun who/which/what, appropriately translated “what” in this context. Following that are two verbs, the second an exact duplicate of the first. We’ll reserve the final translation until after our investigation. All Greek finite verbs encode person and number (1st person singular, I; 2nd person singular, you; 3rd person singular, he/she/it; etc.), though not gender (male, female, or neuter). In the above, each verb is 1st person singular, and they obviously refer to Pilate. Because every finite verb encodes person and number, each may form a subject-verb sentence, depending on context. For instance, Jesus’ final word on the cross is tetelestai (John 19:30), translated “It is finished.”

The verb gegrapha is in the perfect tense-form (of graphō) in the active voice and the indicative mood. The indicative is the most common mood, expressing facts, false statements assumed to be true, false statements as if true, opinions, or questions. The active voice presents the subject performing the action (Jon ate lunch)—the passive voice is used when the subject receives the action (Lunch was eaten by Jon).

The precise meaning indicated by the Greek perfect tense-form is in dispute, though there are a number of theories proposed in recent scholarly literature. Specific discussion of any of these theories is not necessary, however, as some of the older Greek grammars address the issues relative to Pilate’s statement, and we can apply them here. While the Greek perfect tense-form has a wide range of applications, for our purposes it is easiest to conceive it as similar to the English present perfect tense. This is what is reflected in all the English translations at the above hyperlink (have written). It may be helpful to briefly explain/review the English present perfect as well as a few other English tenses.

Some Tense Explanations in English

Verbs in the English present perfect tense express past verbal actions that retain some sort of connection to the present. If I were to state I have written over 100 blog posts, you would rightly infer that all 100+ posts are still available for reading on this blog. They are all in a state of having been written, a state of ‘written-ness’, and available for viewing.

Alternatively, had I constructed the same sentence but in the English simple past tenseI wrote over 100 blog posts—you might infer that the posts were written at some point in the past yet are no longer available for viewing. The difference between these two English tenses can be found in their respective names. The simple past refers to verbal actions in the past with no further implication of present relevance. The “perfect” in present perfect means “complete”, denoting the past (completed, perfected) portion of the verbal action, while “present” in present perfect indicates the verb’s relevance in the present. The “present” portion of the present perfect tense is formed by using the appropriate auxiliary verb for the present tense, matched by person and number: I have (1st person singular), you have (2nd person singular), she/he/it has (3rd person singular). The “perfect” (past) portion is formed by using the appropriate past participle of the main verb (I have written, you have written, she/he/it has written).

Though the simple past tense does not imply continuing relevance, this does not necessarily mean there is no connection to the present. The simple past is merely silent regarding current relevance. Comparatively, a verb in the English present perfect always implies something about the present. Thus, the context will determine which one is more suitable. Let’s make a comparison:

I lost my marbles yesterday.
I have lost my marbles! (and I am frantically trying to find them)

In the first instance, reflecting the simple past tense, this is a simple narrative statement, implying no continuing relevance. The second instance reflects the present perfect tense, of course. If it took ten minutes to find my marbles, then that would have been ten minutes I was in a state of having lost my marbles, frantically trying to find them. Upon finding the marbles I would be in a new, much happier (and more lucid) state of having found my marbles. At that point I could exclaim—again using the present perfect tense—“I have found my marbles!”, illustrating this new state.

I could recount the episode by using the past perfect tense: “I had lost my marbles yesterday”. The past perfect indicates a past action that had subsequent relevance in the past following that action (without commenting on present relevance). After finding my marbles yesterday I could have put the two sentences together, stating: “I had lost my marbles, but after a frantic search I have found them!”. Thus, had lost (past perfect) reflects the past action + its subsequent past relevance, while have found reflects a past action + present relevance.

Context will determine which verb tense is best to use:

Francois made dinner last Thursday. He might even make dinner again next month.
Mom has made dinner. (and dinner is now ready to eat)
Myrna has watched all the Die Hard movies three times, and she plans to watch them all again.
Jacob had washed the towels. He has now placed them into the dryer. (they are currently drying)
Johnny has listened to the train coming into the station every day for the past three years.

While the simple past tense of  Francois’ dinner in this context implies this was a one-time only or rare occurrence, the present perfect tense of Mom’s dinner implies that dinner is now ready to eat. As for Myrna, the present relevance of the present perfect tense is the fact that this apparent Bruce Willis fan enjoys these movies so much she wishes to watch all them yet again. The past perfect tense had washed represents the necessary prerequisite for Jacob’s currently drying towels, the latter implied by the present perfect has placed and the adverb “now”. In the final example, it is reasonable to infer that Johnny will listen to the trains yet again tomorrow, given the daily recurring (“every day”) has listened, i.e., present perfect tense.

With this brief review of a few English verb tenses completed, we are ready to proceed to the Greek.

Some Tense Explanations in Koine  (New Testament) Greek

This idea of a past action with continuing relevance in the present in the English present perfect tense is the primary thrust of the Greek perfect tense-form. Smyth provides a basic definition: “a completed action the effects of which still continue in the present”.2 Dana and Mantey use a broader outline:

The significance of the [Ancient Greek] perfect tense in presenting action as having reached its termination and existing in its finished results lies at the basis of its uses. Emphasis, as indicated by context or the meaning of the verb root, may be on either the completion of the action or on its finished results. This possible difference in emphasis lies at the basis of the variation in the uses of the perfect tense.3

Going back to the previously mentioned tetelestai, “it is finished” in John 19:30, like the twinned verbs in 19:22 this one is in the perfect tense-form. Yet here the verb is in the 3rd person singular and the passive voice. Note that, with the exception of Young’s Literal Translation, common English versions do not read it has been finished. This is because, though the larger context implies completed actions leading up to the culmination point, translators deem that it is the state of completion that is the emphasis in the immediate context: It is finished.4

Similarly, in Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, He answers the Devil’s commands/temptations with gegraptai, “it is written” (Matthew 4:4,7,10, and parallels)—the “it” referring to Scripture. This verb has the same root (graphō) as our subject verse John 19:22, and it is in the same perfect tense-form. The only difference is that here it is a 3rd person singular in the passive voice. The common rendering “it is written” reflects the primary focus on its state of having been written, not on the fact that Scripture was written. As A. T. Robertson comments on its usage in these contexts, “It was written . . . and still is on record.”5 Just like my example of the blog, both the past action and the present results are encoded, but here it is the latter that is understood as the main point: It is written.

Now going back to English for a few moments, let’s say you have a report that needs to be written by 5 o’clock today. At 4:15 your nosy coworker asks if you will meet the deadline. Given that you typically set out to finish a task at least an hour before the deadline (you do, right?), if you express your answer with the verb finish or write, you could say:

I have written the report. (active voice, present perfect)
I have finished the report. (active voice, present perfect)
The report has been written. (passive voice, present perfect)
The report has been finished. (passive voice, present perfect)
The report is written. (passive voice, ___________?)
The report is finished. (passive voice, ___________?)

Though the last two are unquestioningly passive, there is cause to question whether these convey the same meaning as the middle two sentences. To better illustrate, below is a new sentence, stating it in the English present perfect, first in the active voice, then in the passive, followed by a sentence in the same format as the last two above.

Sally has written the book.
The book has been written by Sally.
The book is written by Sally. (?)

To alleviate any possible confusion, observe that the second sentence contains the same exact verb form (has been written) as the passive example further above regarding the report that was due at work. Note the difference between “has written the book” here and “have written the report” above. The different auxiliary verb (has vs. have) reflects the difference between the 3rd person (Sally has) and the 1st person (I have). With this clarified, we’ll resume.

Recall that the English present perfect reflects a completed (perfected) action with relevance in the present. The first two sentences certainly are present perfects. But the third one is an attempt at illustrating the state following the verbal action, in order to focus on the result over against the past action. But is this an accurate way to convey this? Let’s take the same basic sentence just above and put it into the English simple past tense, then the simple present tense, both in answer to the question “Who is the author of this book?”

Sally wrote this book. (active) >> This book was written by Sally. (passive)
Sally writes this book. (active) >> This book is written by Sally. (passive)

Notice how the bolded sentence above is identical to the third one in the previous set. Thus, that sentence, like this one, is in the simple present. Speaking on this specific issue, Smyth writes, “When the [Greek] perfect marks the enduring result rather than the completed act, it may often be translated by the [English] present.”6 Did you notice what I did in the previous sentence? I prefaced the Smyth quotation with writes, the English simple present, mirroring the first of the second pair of sentences just above (Sally writes the book.). My objective was to signify the enduring words in Smyth’s grammar book. This is typical English convention—that is, substituting the English simple present for the English present perfect when the verb’s enduring result is the emphasis in a given context as opposed to the verb’s completed action.

Yet this convention does not work as well in the 1st and 2nd person for the English present perfect in the active voice. We can quickly deduce that each sentence on the right below cannot be understood to say the same thing as the one on its left:

I have written the document. >> I write the document. (?)
I think you have written this note! >> I think you write this note! (?)

With all the foregoing, we are prepared (finally!) to get back to Pilate’s statement. The first instance of gegrapha is best rendered “I have written”, just like the typical English translation.7 This reflects the past action of inscribing JESUS THE NAZARENE, THE KING OF THE JEWS (19:19) as well as the present results reflected in those words as they appear on the sign. We could paraphrase this first part of Pilate’s statement (ho gegrapha):

“What I wrote and currently appears on the sign…”

The enduring relevance of this first verb began at the point at which the inscribing of the inscription had been completed (19:19) and continued until the time Pilate responded to the chief priests (19:21-22). In other words, the duration was relatively short.

But what does the second occurrence of gegrapha mean and how should it be translated? The Jews were unhappy with Pilate’s phrasing of the sign, strongly suggesting he amend it. But Pilate was resolute—he wasn’t going to change it. So, what is the best way to translate this second Greek perfect-tense verb? Strictly speaking, “I have written” is correct, and we may well leave it that way. Yet this second gegrapha focuses on the then-present enduring result of the sign’s ‘written-ness’. Since we cannot use the passive voice (“it is written”, “it stands written”) because this verb is in the active voice, and we have determined that the active voice in the English simple present (“I write”) does not adequately convey the results of a present perfect (“I write”), we may phrase it something like:

“What I wrote and currently appears on the sign, I shall keep recorded.” (I shall not change)
“What I wrote and currently appears on the sign, I shall retain.” (I shall not change)
“What I wrote and currently appears on the sign, I stand by.” (I shall not change)

The last sentence above may be the best, since it does not use a future auxiliary verb (shall) as do the others. To be sure, the future enduring results are implied, but it’s the present enduring results that are specifically encoded by the Greek perfect tense-form here. Then again, the state of ‘written-ness’ should be understood as remaining unless and until some further action brings about a new state. With none specified in the larger context, it is safe to assume this state will continue on.

Thus, to capture the overall meaning here—though it’s not as pithy and as catchy as “What I have written, I have written”—I might render John 19:22:

Pilate replied, “What I have written, I stand by.”

Pilate’s inscription JESUS THE NAZARENE, THE KING OF THE JEWS remains written. What does this signify theologically in its context? The next part will elucidate.

____________________________________________

1 I am taking the words in the Greek text of John as the words of Pilate, whether or not these reflect his very utterance. The words may well be John’s own rendering in service of a larger theological motif. More on this later.

2 Herbert W. Smyth, Greek Grammar, Gordon M. Messing, rev. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1956 [1920]), p 434, § 1945.

3 H. E. Dana & Julius R. Mantey, A Manual Grammar of the Greek New Testament (NY: Macmillan, 1955), p 201 § 184.

4 Of course, one must concede that because of the verb root itself—complete, finish—the past necessarily recedes in favor of the state of completion. In other words, it cannot be ‘unfinished’. Note Marianne Meye Thompson’s objection to this rendering (John: A Commentary, New Testament Library, C. Clifton Black, et al eds. [Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2015]), “…Jesus’ last words from the cross, tetelestai, ‘It is finished!’ (19:30) surely means ‘it has been accomplished’ or ‘it has been completed’ with reference to completing God’s mission and work” (p 395). I have to agree.

5 A. T. Robertson, A Grammar of the Greek New Testament in the Light of Historical Research (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1934), p 895.

6 Smyth, Grammar, p 434, § 1946.

7 Some grammars and commentaries claim this first γέγραφα is “aoristic”, functioning as if an aorist tense, akin to the English simple past wrote. Entailed in this position is that the second γέγραφα is construed as an English present perfect have written, with a focus on the enduring result. Robertson makes a strong case that the perfect never functions ‘aoristically’ in the NT, though it does later (A Grammar of the GNT, pp 898-902; cf. 895 [β]).

4 Responses to What Did Pilate State in John 19:22?

  1. Jim says:

    Anticipation is building for the next ‘so what’ article Craig 🙂

  2. Craig says:

    Yeah…that’s my intention!

    Actually, though I had the basic sketch for it, as I dug further I found more connections. It’s been a very fruitful endeavor!

    That’s why I love John’s Gospel. It is very deep–and the Greek is relatively easy compared to other books.

    I hope to have it finished in a day or two.

  3. Craig says:

    Jim,

    Part of my delay has been the amount of time it took to translate some 1st century Latin texts (you’ll see why this was needed once the conclusion is posted). I came across one that is very touching. It is from Roman poet (and satirist) Martial: “Yet more is what you glean from this brief epitaph: ‘Knit in the sacred bond of life with an honored reputation rarely known: they were friends’.”

  4. Pingback: What Did Pilate State in John 19:22?: Conclusion | CrossWise

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: