Word of the Week
March 19, 2022
Slanted Questions: The Woman at the Well
Come, see a man, which told me all things that ever I did: is not this the Christ?
Parents ask questions: Did you clean your room? So do teachers: Have you done your homework?
We all ask questions, because that’s the only way to learn what we need to know.
Sometimes, however, we suspect that we know the answer before we ask the question. We might slant the query, fishing for the answer we expect.
You cleaned your room, didn’t you?
You haven’t done your homework, have you?
The Greek language has a clever way to do the same thing, and you can use that fact to throw fresh light on familiar passages.
Greek uses two different words for “not”:
Ou (pronounced like the ou in soup)
Mē (pronounced like the month of May)
Among their many interesting uses is the fact that they are the key to asking questions when you think you know the answer.
Most questions in the New Testament are simple requests for information. In John 1, the crowds asked John the Baptist, “Are you Elijah?” . . . “Are you the prophet?” (John 1:21) They didn’t express an opinion; they simply wanted to hear John’s reply.
But there were times when a speaker wanted to let everyone what answer he or she expected. They could do this by adding one of the two words for “not” at the beginning of the question.
Adding ou to the beginning of a question shows that you expect a “Yes” answer.
Adding mē at the beginning indicates that you are expecting “No.”
You can see this feature at work in the account of the woman at the well in John 4. Watch how it works!
- John 4:12 – When Jesus offers to give her living water, she asks, “Are you greater than our father Jacob who gave us this well?”
In Greek, she begins her question with mē, showing that she expects No for an answer. We can paraphrase the idea this way: “You are not greater than our father Jacob, are you?” She didn’t think this stranger was anything special – certainly not greater than Jacob?
- John 4:33 – While Jesus is conversing with the woman, His disciples have gone into town to buy lunch. When they return, Jesus surprises them by claiming that He has nourishment that they don’t know about. They ask a natural question: Has anyone brought him something to eat?
They introduce their question with mē, because they are pretty sure no one has been around to pass out sack lunches. They are really asking a question that expects No for an answer: No one has brought him anything to eat, has he?
- John 4:29 – Jesus finishes talking to the woman, climaxing the conversation by revealing that He is the promised Messiah. She heads back into town and excitedly starts sharing her experience with the men at the gate. “Come, see a man who told me all things that ever I did. Is not this the Christ, the Messiah?”
How does she phrase this question? I would have expected her to use ou, pushing for a Yes answer: This is the Messiah, isn’t it? But that’s not what she does.
She begins the question with mē, “This isn’t the Messiah, is it?” The grammar expects a No answer.
What’s going on here? I thought she seemed convinced of Christ’s identity. Why would she phrase her question so negatively?
I am speculating here, but I suspect that she was using a bit of reverse psychology. Just picture the scene. A woman with a soiled reputation swoops into the town gate, announcing to the town elders that the Messiah is out there by the well. Would they believe her? Not likely!
Instead, she phrases the question in a way that doesn’t raise their defenses. I think they would probably reply, “Who are you to say that he is not the Messiah? You are not qualified to have an opinion, so we will go investigate him for ourselves.”
And that is exactly what happened. In verse 42, the townspeople told the woman that they believed in Jesus – not because of her, but because they had heard Him for themselves!
This feature of grammar only comes into play when someone asks a question that can be answered Yes or No. And it doesn’t prove that something is true or false. It merely shows you what answer the questioner expects; they might be wrong!
More on Grammar:
Next week we will go back to word study. I hope this short series on Greek grammar has given you a taste of the possibilities for people who want to delve into that aspect of New Testament Greek.
Interested in the possibilities? You can receive my FREE fact sheet “Myths and Insights: The Most Useful Facts of Greek Grammar.
Just send an email to email@example.com and say, “Send me the fact sheet.”
I’ll send you this list of my 10 favorite grammar hints plus 5 myths to avoid.
Our oldest daughter is named Alicia, which comes from the Greek word for “truth.” Next week we will get better acquainted with that important word.
©Ezra Project 2022
Always very interesting. Thank you!