An often-overlooked fact of biblical eschatology
As a child I enjoyed a series of biblical cartoons that were very well done, both for their artistic quality and for their respectful adaptation of the biblical text. These cartoons re-created various stories from the New Testament. Now that I am a father, I still find myself watching these Bible lessons from time to time with my children.
One of the stories included in this animated series is the well-known parable of the 10 virgins (Matt. 25:1-13). Toward the end of the parable, when the bridegroom addresses the foolish virgins, we hear an answer that in many ways captures the spirit of the biblical text: “If you are my friends, why didn’t you come when I announced it? . . . I don’t know you; I’m sorry.”
In what follows, I focus briefly on some linguistic nuances of the Greek text of Matthew 25:11, 12, more specifically, on the significance contained in the expression “I don’t know you.”
The scene described in Jesus’ parable is characterized by deep solemnity. This can be seen in the use of the present tense in the original language when narrating a past situation. Scholars call this linguistic feature “historical present,” a temporal shift that adds a vivid sense to a scene.¹ Readers notice the emphasis, wonder what is happening, and pay closer attention.
Additionally, verse 11 contains the double mention of the word “Lord” as part of the plea of the five virgins who missed the coming of the bridegroom: “Lord, Lord, open to us.”
The literal translation of the beginning of verse 12 is, “But answering, he said.” This is the way how Hebrew people spoke. It doesn’t reflect the typical language use of Classical or Hellenistic Greek. The bridegroom’s response uses the solemn formula, “Assuredly, I say to you,” or “Truly, I tell you,” followed by a form of the Greek verb oida (“know”), which, in this context, attests to the absence of a significant bond between the bridegroom and the five foolish virgins.² The verb stresses the bewilderment that seems to overwhelm the bridegroom.
CATCHING THE TONE
The translation “I don’t know you,” provided by most modern Bible translations, is appropriate. As is sometimes the case, however, this translation does not fully reflect the strong force of the statement in the original language.
Some modern translations offer helpful alternatives. “I do not know you [we have no relationship],” translates The Amplified Bible.³
The more recent Passion Translation suggests this equivalent: “Do I know you? I can assure you, I don’t even know you!” (TPT).⁴ Both translations help us to catch the emphatic wording of the original Greek text of Matthew 25:12.
Ellen White’s comments on the parable echo the strong statement contained in the Greek text: “They do not know God. They have not studied His character; they have not held communion with Him; therefore they do not know how to trust, how to look and live. . . . In this life they have not entered into fellowship with Christ; therefore they know not the language of heaven, they are strangers to its joy.”⁵ Later in the chapter she adds: “We cannot keep Christ apart from our lives here, and yet be fitted for His companionship in heaven.” ⁶
The tenor of the groom’s statement therefore does not rest on a stubborn indifference of the bridegroom or on his alleged inability to identify the missing virgins because of the darkness of the night. The foolish virgins are not victims of circumstances, but heirs and unavoidable protagonists of their own decisions. They are architects of their unfortunate reality, because of a lack of an intimate and cherished connection with the One who has to be the essence of every celebration.
The language used in the Bible cartoon offers an unappealable verdict given the complete lack of a close bond with the bridegroom that justifies their participation in the wedding: “If you are my friends, why didn’t you come when I announced it? . . . I don’t know you; I’m sorry.”
Between a prophetic indifference and a last-day frenzy lies the need to deepen our bond with our beloved Master. Matthew 25:12 is a timeless reminder of the vital importance and eternal significance of our daily walk with Jesus.
¹ Some scholars even argue that Matthew’s use of the “historical present” points to key moments in the narrative. See, for instance, S. Wolfgang, “Das Präsens Historicum als makrosyntaktisches Gliederungssignal im Matthäusevangelium,” New Testament Studies 22, no. 4 (1976): p. 475.
² See W. Bauer, W. F. Arndt, F. W. Gingrich, and F. W. Danker, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, third ed. (University of Chicago Press, 2000), p. 693.
³ From The Amplified Bible, copyright © 1954, 1958, 1962, 1964, 1965, 1987, 2015 by The Lockman Foundation. All rights reserved. Used by permission.
⁴ See www.thepassiontranslation.com/scripture-search/?query=Matt+25%3A12. Bible texts credited to TPT are from The Passion Translation. Copyright © 2017 by BroadStreet Publishing Group, LLC. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
⁵ Ellen G. White, Christ’s Object Lessons (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1900, 1941), pp. 411-413. 6 Ibid., p. 414.