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In this verse Jesus is relating the story of a rich man whose life suddenly and unexpectedly ended. According to Greek text, we read the following.

Luke 12:20 (NA28)
28 εἶπεν δὲ αὐτῷ ὁ θεός· ἄφρων, ταύτῃ τῇ νυκτὶ τὴν ψυχήν σου ἀπαιτοῦσιν ἀπὸ σοῦ· ἃ δὲ ἡτοίμασας, τίνι ἔσται;

Although the word is in the active voice third person plural, most modern translators render «ἀπαιτοῦσιν» in the impersonal passive third person singular; that is, translators prefer “your soul is required” instead of the literal rendering, “they require your soul,” which is third person plural. Modern scholars offer various explanations for using the impersonal passive based on nuanced idiomatic uses of Greek.

However, when we look at the very earliest translations of the New Testament, we see the opposite. That is, the earliest translations of the Greek New Testament preferred the literal translation of the active voice third person plural. For example, the Peshitta/Syriac (2nd Century) is active voice third person plural (“ܬܴ݁ܒ݂ܥܺܝܢ”); the Vulgate (4th Century) is active voice third person plural (“repetunt”); and finally, the Coptic/Sahidic (6th Century) is active voice third person plural (“ⲤⲈⲚⲀϤⲒ”), but future tense.

Were these early translators of the Greek New Testament unaware of “the impersonal passive based on nuanced idiomatic uses of Greek” in the way that modern scholars now recognize? Or perhaps was Jesus referring to the “they” (some heavenly council as found in the Book of Job) that nominates the timing of those who will die?

  • See also Matthew 18:34. – Lucian Aug 11 '17 at 9:02
  • To what passage in Job are you referring? – Ruminator Aug 13 '17 at 13:02
  • Since Jesus often referred both to his Father and to the Holy Spirit as "he," are we unwarranted in saying that Jesus in Luke 12:20 was referring to the Father AND the Holy Spirit as "they"? Earlier in the passage, Jesus demurred when the man requested that Jesus arbitrate his family dispute. He demurred because his mission on earth was not to be a judge but to be a Savior. Jesus knew that one day he would BE the man's judge, but at the moment of the man's request Jesus focused on the questioner's avarice, for which he needed forgiveness and from which he needed deliverance. – rhetorician Aug 14 '17 at 2:35
  • @WoundedEgo - In the Book of Job, the ten sons and daughters of Job die suddenly and unexpectedly because of the discussion that occurred among the "sons of God" in heaven with the Lord. That is, the sons and daughters of Job were nominated to die suddenly and unexpectedly in order to test Job, since Satan had said, "Take everything away from him..." and the Lord then gave him permission as a result of the discussion. – Joseph Aug 14 '17 at 3:45
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The following commentary on Luke 12 says that this is a rabbinic construction:

  1. Fool! says God. A man’s life is an uncertain thing at best and no-one has the assurance that he will live the years he would like. The really stupid thing was the rich man’s easy assurance that the future was in his control. God said to him This night (first for emphasis) your soul is required of you. The verb is literally ‘they require’, a construction common among the rabbis to denote an action of God (SB), i.e. ‘God requires your soul’. A man whose life hangs by a thread and who may be called upon at any time to give account of himself is a fool if he relies on material things.

Morris, L. (1988). Luke: an introduction and commentary (Vol. 3, p. 231). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

The commentary refers to SB, which is identified as this source:

Herman L. Strack and Paul Billerbeck, Kommentar zum neuen Testament aus Talmud und Midrasch, 6 vols. (C. H. Beck’sche Verlagsbuchhandlung, 1922–56).

As to the idea that God delegates the appointment of the day of people's deaths to "death panels" it seems to fly in the face of Matthew's assertion that not even a sparrow dies without God's involvement:

BSB Matthew 10: 28Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Instead, fear the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell. 29Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father. 30And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered.…

And if God is on the alleged death panel then he would not use the third person but the first person plural: "we will demand of you".

In Deuteronomy Yehovah claims responsibility:

NASB Deut 32: 39 See now that I, I am He, And there is no god besides Me; It is I who put to death and give life. I have wounded and it is I who heal, And there is no one who can deliver from My hand. 40 Indeed, I lift up My hand to heaven, And say, as I live forever, 41 If I sharpen My flashing sword, And My hand takes hold on justice, I will render vengeance on My adversaries, And I will repay those who hate Me. 42 I will make My arrows drunk with blood, And My sword will devour flesh, With the blood of the slain and the captives, From the long-haired leaders of the enemy.’ 43 Rejoice, O nations, with His people; For He will avenge the blood of His servants, And will render vengeance on His adversaries, And will atone for His land and His people.

  • I have read this argument before. It is very problematic. First of all, the Mishna is a lot later than the NT, and the Talmud is later still. They cannot really be taken as evidence for the teaching of "the rabbis" at the time of Jesus. Second, if "they require" (3rd pers. pl.) means "God requires", then why does the sentence begin with "God said" (3rd pers. sing.)? – fdb Aug 13 '17 at 12:38
  • @fdb The language argument might apply but the historical ones are flawed. Too often scholars demand a precedent, failing to appreciate the insight Christ brought to nascent concepts. When Jesus opened the minds of His disciples to what was written, He did not rewrite Scripture. Rather gave insight to what was already written. Given the Jewish birth of Christianity later writings in the Mishna and the Talmud could be taken from a Christian explication of the OT. – Revelation Lad Aug 13 '17 at 16:00
  • According to both Rabbinic Judaism and the New Testament (Acts 7:53; Galatians 3:19), the Law was given by God to Moses on Sinai through Angels. In both Christian and Islamic traditions, it is Angels that accompany the souls of the departed to face divine judgement. – Lucian Aug 15 '17 at 11:49

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