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  • Writer's pictureKristina Trott

Strange uses of the negative in the New Testament

I’ve always been fascinated by linguistics and midlife I did quite a bit of research in linguistics. So, I was amused by a little linguistic anomaly in this morning’s reading (and I admit, I may be the only person in the world who’d find this odd).

Meanwhile, as Simon Peter was standing by the fire warming himself, they asked him again, “You’re not one of his disciples, are you?” He denied it, saying, “No, I am not”. (John 18:25).

As it would read to an English speaker, Peter was actually affirming that he was a disciple of Jesus. You see, in English, when you are faced with a negative question like “You are not a disciple”, if you agreed with that you would say “yes”. So, when Peter replied in the negative he was actually saying, “No, that is not true. I am a disciple!”

Other gospel records don’t include the negative question so English speakers are not left confused as to what actually happened — Peter denied being a disciple of Jesus.

Different languages have different approaches to agreeing with the negative question. I remember telling East Asians that agreeing with the negative question would get the opposite response to what they were wanting. “You don’t want a biscuit, do you?” and if they said “No”, the biscuit would be promptly whisked away from them before they made a selection.

You see, English and French have a polarity-based system of responding to a negative so that if you disagreed with a negative question you would respond in the negative. In a a truth-based answering system, also called an agreement/disagreement system, as in Chinese, Korean, Japanese and Greek, a negative question is answered with ‘yes’ to confirm the negation.

So let’s look at another odd linguistic construction with negatives in the New Testament — a statement with 5 negatives - 2 double negatives and another standalone negative.

“[Be] without covetous behaviour, being content with the things present, for He has said, “No, I will not leave, no, nor forsake you.”( Heb. 13:5 Literal Standard Version).

In this one verse the double negative occurs twice and there’s one standalone negative. Literally it would read: “I will (1) never (2) ever leave you, (3) no, I will (4) never (5) ever  forsake you.”

Here are 5 negatives that give us the message in the very strongest way possible —- God promises to look after us and be with us forever.

It’s a lovely thought to go away with today, knowing that just as God cares for the birds, He cares for us even more strongly and  has promised to continue to care for us forever.

Look at the birds. They don’t plant or harvest or store food in barns, for your heavenly Father feeds them. And aren’t you far more valuable to him than they are.” (Matt. 26:6).

All quotes unless otherwise stated are from the NLT.

Photo of an Australian white faced heron at Mooloolaba 30/5/24

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