I understand that the Greek word (ἐραυνᾶτε) for "search" in John 5:39 (ESV) can be taken as imperative or indicative. In Greek, is there any possibility that both can be meant here, or only one has to be taken as the most probable?

John 5:39 (ESV):

You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me,

I read on page 274 of The Fourth Gospel by Edwyn Clement Hoskyns and edited by Francis Noel Davey the following comment:

an imperative lurks behind the indicative, for the Saying encourages the steady investigation of the Scriptures.

Here is the context of the comment above from pages 273-274:

vv. 37, 38 do not, therefore, as Chrysostom supposed, refer to the voice from heaven at the Baptism of Jesus (Mark i. II and parallels), but to the Old Testament Scriptures, and by implication to such passages as Ps. ii. 7, which forms the basis of the Evangelical narrative of the Baptism. The Greek verb in v. 39 translated search reproduces the Hebrew word darash: 'It is necessary to examine every passage containing the word "saying"' (Akiba, Sifre Num. 2), 'Thou knowest how to read, but not how to search' (Jerusalem Talmud Berakhoth 4d); it is frequently used by Philo for the investigation of the meaning of scripture (for illustrations see Schlatter, D.E.J.). The verb here may be an indicative, Ye search the scriptures (R.V.), or an imperative, Search the scriptures (A.V., R.V. mg.; see Field, Notes on the Translation of the New Testament, pp. 88 sqq.). Chrysostom and most of the Fathers took it as an imperative, but the argument, as Cyril saw, requires the indicative, 'We will then not read it as an imperative.' And yet, when this is said, an imperative lurks behind the indicative, for the Saying encourages the steady investigation of the Scriptures. What is discouraged, and indeed condemned, is every form of Old Testament study that proceeds on the assumption that there is such a thing as 'The Religion of the Old Testament' or 'The Religion of the Prophets of Israel'. For the Torah in the Rabbinic Literature as the source of salvation and life, indeed as itself the Tree of Life, see Strack-Billerbeck on Rom. iii. I: 'This is the book of the commandments of God and the Law that endureth for ever. All they that hold it fast are appointed to life, but such as leave it shall die' (I Baruch iv. 1, 2); 'If food, which is your life but for an hour, requires a blessing before and after it be eaten, how much more does the Torah, in which lies the world that is to be, require a blessing' (Rabbi Ishmael, c. 135, quoted by Strack-Billerbeck); 'He who has gained for himself words of the Law has gained for himself the life in the world to come (Aboth ii. 7).

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    The indicative mood makes a statement; the imperative mood makes a command. If indeed it is the indicative (that is, factually, they were searching the scriptures), there is no need for the imperative (that is, to command them to search the scriptures). Would you command someone to do something they were already doing? Certainly not, if you knew they were already doing so.
    – user862
    Oct 27, 2016 at 19:24
  • So two 20th century English clergymen are saying that a Greek (Chrysostom) did not understand his own language?
    – user15733
    Oct 31, 2016 at 0:17

2 Answers 2


I would render John 5:39 this way: enter image description here

The context makes it unmistakably clear that ἐραυνᾶτε is Jesus' observation about the current occupation of those to whom he is speaking, not his instruction for them to go and be so occupied.

One has to be careful not to coerce the scriptures to support personal points of view. I don't have a copy of Edwyn Clement Hoskyns' work, so I can't read the context of the comment the questioner has given, however, based on the snippet being presented, it looks like the author is using this verse to encourage diligent study of the word.

Surely, the verse is better suited as a cautionary teaching to those who would use the scriptures as a checklist of reasons that eternal life is their due. It seems pretty clear to me that this is the vibe of Jesus' words here -- in regard to the searching of scripture.

Additional Comments - based on the added context for the Hoskyns' quote in the question.

Hoskyns' words capture, precisely, the problem that Jesus saw in the Jewish view of the scriptures.

I call heaven and earth to record this day against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing: therefore choose life, that both thou and thy seed may live: That thou mayest love the LORD thy God, and that thou mayest obey his voice, and that thou mayest cleave unto him: for he is thy life, and the length of thy days: that thou mayest dwell in the land which the LORD sware unto thy fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give them.
-- Deuteronomy 30:19-20

Moses made it clear that the source of life was not the Torah, but GOD: "for HE is thy life".

The purpose of keeping the Law was to advertise the goodness of God.

Behold, I have taught you statutes and judgments, even as the LORD my God commanded me, that ye should do so in the land whither ye go to possess it. Keep therefore and do them; for this is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the nations, which shall hear all these statutes, and say, Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.
For what nation is there so great, who hath God so nigh unto them, as the LORD our God is in all things that we call upon him for? And what nation is there so great, that hath statutes and judgments so righteous as all this law, which I set before you this day?
-- Deuteronomy 4:5-8

The blessings that came via the Law were supposed to be the empirical evidence that proved God's existence in the midst of his people -- the means by which those outside could see God inside, and thus be drawn to Him.

Eternal life can't be found in the Torah, because it is just a bunch of words in a book, on a scroll or parchment, in this language or that. Eternal life can only be found in THE ONE the words testify about, which Jesus has just informed his listeners, was him.

So, in an indirect, but powerful way (providing additional evidence for the Jewish view of the scriptures), Hoskyns contribution lends support to the indicative alone.

  • I added the context of the comment above.
    – E. Cardona
    Oct 30, 2016 at 14:50

From the point of view of grammar ἐρευνᾶτε can be either present indicative (“you search”) or imperative (“search ye”). Both options make sense. The Syriac Bible (both Vetus Syrus and Pshitta) have the 2nd person plural imperative ܒ݁ܨܰܘ (byaṣ), as does the KJV (“search the scripture…”). The Latin Vulgate has scrutamini, which has the same two meanings as the Greek. But I feel that the indicative reading makes marginally better sense in the light of καὶ οὐ θέλετε ἐλθεῖν in the next verse: “you search the scriptures, for in them you think you have eternal life …. and you do not wish to come to me, that you might have life”.

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    (+1) and if it were my question I would have accepted this as an answer.
    – user10231
    Dec 18, 2016 at 23:05

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