What About the Time Texts, Part 4

By Samuel M. Frost, Th. M.

The Greek verb, mello (μέλλω) has been conveyed in a variety of ways when it comes to translating it into English.  We will explore several of these examples.  We will also explore the many syntactical forms in which the verb is used (as it occurs in action with the Subjunctive, Indicative, Participle, etc.).  Following on this, the context will be noted in which it occurs also noting the variety of syntactical forms.  No word can be considered apart from its contextual aspect (Aspekt) Finally, we will conclude the following thesis: mello is emphatic of future contingencies in terms of giving absolute assurance that the subject matter will most certainly occur.  It does not say anything concerning ‘when’ (Zeitpunkt der Aktion) the subject will occur.  Whether the action (Aktionsart) is ‘about to’ happen, or simply ‘will’ or is ‘going to’ happen is supplied solely by the context (Kontext) in which the verb occurs. 

Mello means that an action is certainly going to happen in the future.  That is its basal meaning.  As such, it is found in the Future Active Indicative (FAI).  Mt 24.6 has “you will hear of wars…” (RSV); “you will begin to hear of wars…” (YLT); the majority of translations follow the RSV and use the simply future, “will.”  This is followed by the Infinite in the Present Active form, to hearMello is often followed by an Infinitive form of a verb.  “You are going to hear” or “you will hear” are both acceptable.  For our point, mello is found in the Future Active Indicative form which, one would think, already state the fact that something is to happen in the future.  Why, then, would mello be used if it, too, is a verb rooted in a future aspect?  Because it adds emphasis to the certainty.  Jesus is not saying that at any moment they are ‘about to’ hear rumors, as if after he was done speaking someone would be overheard saying, “Hey, did you hear that Rome is going to invade Gaul?” That may have in fact happened!  Or, it may be that in a few years they would hear such things.  Either way, they were definitely going to hear it!

The Future Active Indicative by itself as a form is what grammarians call ‘vague’ or ‘ambiguous’ in terms of whether or not something will take place.  It does not deny that it will, or will not, or maybe it will or will not.  The focus is on the type of action that is said to occur in the future.  This will happen.  With mello, the sense is this will definitely happen.  The Future Indicative has that meaning as well, but mello sharpens it.  Hence, it is emphatic. 2 Pe 1.12 is another occurrence of mello in the FAI.  “Therefore I intend always to remind you of these things…” (RSV); “So I will always remind you of these things…” (NIV); “remind” is in the Present Infinitive, to remind.  This is an emphatic statement.  Peter could have simply written, “I will remind you” using the FAI for the verb remind.  It would have meant the same thing to the author. But, to add emphasis to the fact that he is going to constantly (“always” which is supplied in the text) remind them; doggedly remind them, is conveyed.  Bank on it.

It is pertinent at this point to work within the Grammars and Lexicons of Koine Greek and what they have to say about mello.  First off, we will consider Liddell and Scott, the classical Greek Lexicon.  There, the verb is shown to have a great multitude of usages in Pindar, Homer, Herodotus, Thucydides, etc.  It is used poetically and in prose.  What is also noted is that mello “differs from the simple future just as Latin facturus sum from faciam” (A Greek-English Lexicon, Liddell and Scott, American Book Company, 1882).  The translations are, to intend doing, think or mean to do, to be about to do.  Several examples are given.  Also, ‘to denote a foregone conclusion’; Strong probability; destined.  It also simply means, by itself, the future; I have found this to be the case in my recent readings in Pindar’s Odes, where it is simply used of the “future” time, whether or not “in the coming moments” or in the far away time.  That is supplied by the context, not the verb.  For example, “He soon overtook his brother, noble Hector, about to leave the place where he’d talked with his wife” (Iliad 6.515) where “about to” is followed by a Future Infinitive.  The action of Hector dictates the translation “about to” or “on the verge of”.  “As he spoke, Dolon raised his large hand, though about to touch Diomedes’ chin to beg for mercy” (Iliad 10.454).  The action is obviously taking place at the moment.  Several examples in Classical Greek can be shown.

A Greek professor pointed out to me that in Lexical entries for Greek words, the English translations are English idioms in the way that English use the term.  Hence, the English definitions of a particular term are just that, English!  It may seem obvious to us, but it is important to realize this often missed point.  In English, the idiom “about to” carries with it that something is on the verge of happening then and there.

Friberg’s, Analytical Lexicon of the Greek New Testament (2000, Trafford Publishing), by Barbara and Timothy Friberg, offers us more or less the same definition: will certainly take place, will come to pass.  It lists in entry (b) that with the Aorist Infinitive it may mean, be on the point of, be about to, be destined to, be inevitable.  In entry (c) with the Present Infinitive, be about to, be going to, begin to; or as a future or as a periphrasis for settled futurity, will, be going to.  The Participle in the Present Indicative is simply, what is coming in the future with an ‘absolute’ sense.  Why all of these choices?  What would decide for the translator the choices listed above?  Context.  There is nothing in these Lexicons, including the Bauer, Ardnt, Gingrich and Danker (A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 2000) that states that mello means, in and of itself, ‘about to’.  These various interpretative translations are based on context – which tells us whether or not the subject in question is on the verge of happening –as the English idiom is used – or not.

Louw and Nida (LN) place mello under the semantic range of ‘time’.  Mello can be used for action which occurs ‘at the same time’ (67.62, from Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains, 1988).  Again, under no listing is any verbal form given.  “About to” can occur as a translation with the Present Infinitive, the Future Infinitive, or the Participle.  An example give by LN is Mt 20.22, “the cup I am about to drink” – with the action being ‘closely related’ in terms of time.  Here the Present Active form with the Present Infinitive follows.  However, in the majority of the major Bible translations, “the cup I will drink”; “I am to drink”; “I am going to drink” – are given.  Jesus was fated to drink the cup.  It was of absolute necessity, and certainty that he drink it.  In the parallel Mk 10.38 the Present Active Indicative is used instead of mello showing that the action of his drinking is something that was upon them (the cup being in reference to the suffering he was to undertake within the week of his uttering these words).  Some refer to this as the Futuristic Present because it was “regarded as so certain that in thought it may be contemplated as already coming to pass” (Dana and Mantey, p. 185, see below).

The Grammar Dana and Mantey (A Manual Grammar of the Greek New Testament, Macmillan, 1957) notes that the verb mello “is  more emphatic in force, and contemplates the action as more imminent” (p.191).  They add a further citation from A.T. Robertson’s A Grammar of the Greek New Testament in Light of Historical Research (Hodder and Stoughton, 1914), page 870.  There, to compliment the idea of Dana and Mantey, Robertson pointed out an example by way of harmonizing Mk 9.31 with Mt 17.22.  In the former, “the son of man is being delivered” using the verb in the Present Passive Indicative.  Of course, the time of this being handed over to the authority was some weeks away.  In the latter, “the son of man is about to be delivered” where the verb (“delivered”) is used periphrastically with mello in the PAI and the main verb in the Present Infinitive.  Robertson then adds that the Futuristic Present “gives the sense of certainty” (p.870).  Hence, it can be used for mello, or in place of, because of the fact of something to happen with certainty.  It is fated.  To bring out this idea in translation, scholars will use the English idiom “about to” in the same force of that idiom.  Note that the construction here is the verb mello in the Present Active Indicative with the Present Infinitive following.

Let me illustrate this point by way of an example in my own life.  The date of this paper is February 5th.  My niece, Taylor, has asked me to preside over her wedding which is February 28th.  This wedding is going to occur.  It is about to occur.  It is a few weeks away.  In fact, the other day I used this very statement to a friend saying that “I am marrying my niece” using a Present Tense.  The event is certain.  However, I have known about this for over a year, and I would not have said a year ago, “the wedding is about to occur.”  Rather, feeling quite at ease, I had plenty of time to prepare.  Now, presently, I don’t!  It is the context of the situation that a translator would use “about to” for something that is seen as occurring within a very short period of time.  However, the verb mello itself does not mean ‘about to’ – it means that an event is certainly going to happen.  Like the Futuristic Present, it “gives the sense of certainty.” When mello does give this sense within a context that we know upon reading was to happen within a few weeks, a week, a day or even right at that moment, “about to” is a perfectly good conveyance of the way in which “about to” expresses the certainty of the event.  And, when this is done, the verb is usually – but not always – in the Present forms of Infinitive or Indicative with a Present Infinitive following.  We now can turn to several other examples.

In Acts 11.28 the Prophet named Agabus predicted a famine throughout the world.  Luke adds that this happened during the reign of Claudius Caesar.  Claudius ruled from 41-54 CE, and this places Agabus’ prediction, therefore, during that time.  According to the historians (Cassius, Suetonius, Josephus), four famines happened during his reign in 42 or 43 in Rome, another in Greece in 50, and yet another in Rome in 51.  Josephus mentions a famine in Judea in 45 CE.  However, this famine was after the death of Herod Agrippa, and the context of Acts 11-ff makes it clear that Herod was still alive when Paul and Barnabas arrived in Judea.  Either way, the form of mello here is in the Present Infinitive followed by the Future Infinitive of eimi: “there is going to be famine.”  None of the major translations reflect the idea of “about to”, thus resolving any issues with what exact famine Agabus had in mind.  It may be that Agabus’ prophecy concerned several and spoke generally – without any sense of when other than in the future – that famine(s) were coming, not specifying any provinces within the Empire.  Acts 24.15 and 27.10 contain the last of the three occurrences of mello in the Present Infinitive with the Future Infinitive following.  Robertson noted that with these three examples, the Future Infinitive in regards to “time relation is only relative, as with all infinitives, not absolute as in the indicative” (p. 877, op. cit.).

Robertson continues to note that mello expressed either in the Present Indicative or the Present Infinitive is meant to convey that which the Future Indicative lacks.  It is meant to firmly express the “durative” nature of a future event (p. 889). It is not so much when an event happens, but that it will happen.  Mello occurs in the Imperfect (past) Tense several times and denotes the present condition upon which certain things are to take place before the event in question.  A good example here is mello in the Imperfect Indicative followed by a Present Infinitive: “When the seven days were almost completed…” (Acts 21.27).  The context of a week of days coming to a close is obvious.  ‘About to’ would be appropriate.  Again, of the three uses of mello with the Future Infinitive to follow, we find in Acts 27.10, “Sirs, I perceive that the voyage will be with injury.”  The great majority translate this verse with the verb “will” or “going to”.  The action is obviously something going to happen within the immediate time of the voyage they are about to embark on.  In the example of Acts 24.15 Paul mentioned that he has the same hope of resurrection that “will be” (as attested by the vast majority of the translations) – the certainty of resurrection without any regard as to when other than in the relative future.  Again, context determines, not the verb itself, whether or not the English idiom ‘about to’ can be utilized.  However, in every example where mello occurs (109 times in the NT) it is not necessary to translate it with ‘about to’ at all.  The several examples of where translations vary, some using ‘about to’ where others use ‘going to’ or ‘will’ highlight our point.  These are translational values that are expressed as such in the context.  When the action of the verb is seen within the context as occurring within the contextual time, the idea of its certain performance in the relative future is guaranteed.  If the action is something clearly happening ‘right then and there’, the English translation, ‘about to’, captures the force of the certainty of the action occurring in the future.

Herod was “about to” seek the child (Mt2.13); Festus was about to go to Paul (Acts 25.4); they expected that Paul was about to swell up (Acts 28.6); Paul was about to be killed (Acts 23.27); and several other examples show us action that is ‘on the verge of’ happening, not years away.  And, in each of these example, ‘about to’ is not necessary, either.  We know of the action from the context.  “Paul was going to be killed” (the Jews were going to definitely kill him); Festus was going to visit Paul; they expected that Paul was going to swell up, etc.  The sheer variety of ways in which this verb has been translated demonstrates the point that ‘about to’ is not the meaning of the term, but may be the equivalent of the English idiom, ‘about to’, depending on the context of the action, and not the verb itself.  The verb itself denotes certainty, definiteness, fate, destiny, it’s going to happen, bank on it.  Mello does not express that something might happen, but that something is going to happen; that the speaker or writer using the term is expressing certainty.  As such, knowing that I am going to preside over my niece’s wedding in a couple of weeks, I am within the contextual permits to say that I am about to marry my niece to her husband to be.  If the wedding was years away, such a comment would be entirely out of keeping with the English expression.  The same is true for translators of this verb in our English Bibles.