Imperative or Indicative?
By the Trinitarian Bible Society
Search the scriptures; for in them ye think ye have eternal life: and they are they which testify of me.
This article considers the question of the correct translation of John 5.39, which in the Authorised (King James) Version begins with the imperative, ‘Search the scriptures’, but in the vast majority of modern versions with the indicative, ‘You search the Scriptures’.1 So which is correct, the imperative or the indicative? Is our Lord exhorting the Jews to perform a duty, or is He acknowledging that they were already performing that duty, albeit to no good effect?
It is noteworthy that all the Reformation-era translations, both English and foreign language—for example, Tyndale, Luther, Coverdale, Geneva, Authorised Version, French Olivetan, Spanish Reina-Valera, Polish Gdansk, Dutch Statenvertaling, Italian Diodati—begin John 5.39 with the imperative. But since the time of the English Revised Version (1885), the indicative ‘you search’ has been the uniform choice of English translators. Most modern commentators also are of the opinion that the verse should be understood as beginning with the indicative.2 This very great change in opinion regarding John 5.39 from the Reformation era to modern times is quite remarkable. But are the modern versions and modern commentators correct in their opinion? This article contends that they are not correct but on the contrary quite mistaken, and that the Reformation-era understanding of the verse has all along been correct.
The question of the correct translation of the beginning of John 5.39 cannot be decided simply from the form of the Greek verb ἐρευνᾶτε, with which the verse begins. This is because the verb has exactly the same form in the imperative ‘search!’ as in the indicative ‘you search’.3 We must therefore look beyond the word itself and examine carefully the Greek of the verse and then also the context.
The Greek of the Verse
The original Greek of John 5.39 is as follows:
ἐρευνᾶτε τὰς γραφάς, ὅτι ὑμεῖς δοκεῖτε ἐν αὐταῖς ζωὴν αἰώνιον ἔχειν, καὶ ἐκεῖναί εἰσιν αἱ μαρτυροῦσαι περὶ ἐμοῦ·
This is rendered in our Authorised (King James) Version as:
‘Search the scriptures; for in them ye think ye have eternal life: and they are they which testify of me’
The following may be observed regarding the Greek of this verse. Firstly, the verb ἐρευνᾶτε stands as the very first word in the verse, exactly where one would expect for an imperative. Secondly, the verse contains no connective words (e.g. και, δε, μεν) linking it to the previous verse, so that the verse appears abruptly, just as one would expect if the verse begins with an imperative. And thirdly, there is actually no positive evidence from the Greek of the verse that favours ἐρευνᾶτε being the indicative, such as, for example, a pronoun subject appearing alongside the verb.4 Hence, ἐρευνᾶτε has every appearance of being an imperative and no real appearance of being an indicative.
This point may be expressed another way. We may ask: ‘If the Holy Spirit had intended the imperative, is there any clearer way that that could have been expressed?’ The answer must be, ‘No, there is no clearer way. If the imperative had been intended, then the Greek would look exactly as it does’. We may further ask: ‘If the Holy Spirit had intended the indicative, is there any clearer way that could have been expressed?’ The answer is, ‘Yes, the indicative could more clearly have been expressed by the verb not appearing first in the verse, or by including some connective word, or by the pronoun subject appearing alongside the verb’.5 So how are the modern translators and commentators so sure that the word is indicative? On the contrary, the presumption must be that it is an imperative, unless some convincing evidence for the indicative may be presented from the context.
But before passing on to consider the context, one further point may be made regarding the verse itself. A personal pronoun subject, ὑμεῖς (you), does appear in the verse, though not with ἐρευνᾶτε but with the next verb, δοκεῖτε (you think). When the personal pronoun subject of a verb is explicitly expressed in Greek along with the verb, an emphasis on that subject is intended, so the meaning will be, ‘you, for your part, think’. Now, if ἐρευνᾶτε is to be understood as the indicative, then we will have ‘you search the scriptures, for in them you, for your part, think you have eternal life’. But this does not make good sense, for there is no reason to expect an emphasis on δοκεῖτε when the preceding verb, ἐρευνᾶτε, is without any such emphasis. If our Lord is indeed conceding to them that they search the Scriptures, then the personal pronoun should have appeared with ἐρευνᾶτε, since it would be quite natural for the emphasis to lie on the first verb of the verse and from there to be also conveyed to the next verb, δοκεῖτε: ‘you, for your part, search the scriptures for in them you think you have eternal life’.
On the other hand, if we take ἐρευνᾶτε as the imperative, the personal pronoun ὑμεῖς before δοκεῖτε makes perfectly good sense. We then have: ‘Search the scriptures, for in them you, for your part, think you have eternal life’. The exhortation to search the Scriptures is supported by an appeal to the fact that they could not reasonably object to such a searching, for they themselves believe that in those Scriptures they have eternal life. Thus the position of the personal pronoun ὑμεῖς next to δοκεῖτε gives a very good sense with ἐρευνᾶτε as the imperative, but no good sense as the indicative.
Those who argue for the indicative against the imperative, appeal very much to the context as favouring their view. They point out that there are indicatives both before and after verse 39 and that it would be an abrupt change for verse 39 to begin with an imperative.6
But this is not a convincing argument. It is based on the formal structure of the passage, without taking any account of its meaning, presuming ἐρευνᾶτε to be indicative because it is preceded and followed by indicatives. If such an argument were valid, how could an imperative ever appear amongst indicatives? It would lead to the absurd result that a speaker could never interject an imperative among indicatives, even if it was his purpose to do so.
Proponents of the indicative also argue that the indicative agrees better with the rest of the verse, the verse expressing a great wonder and a reproach: that while the Jews searched the Scriptures they saw not Christ in them, though those very same Scriptures spoke of Him.7 But this gives a meaning to the Greek word ἐρευνᾶτε—that it refers to a superficial and ineffectual attention to the outward form of Scripture—which is not, as we shall see, consistent with its Scriptural usage.8 It also conveys a notion concerning the use of the Scriptures which is contradicted by the rest of Scripture,9 that is, that the diligent ‘searching’ of the Scriptures is not a sufficient outward and ordinary means for the attaining of saving faith or for determining any other article of true religion. Here the anti-Protestant tendency of the indicative argument is apparent.
But before embarking on a full discussion of the question of which mood of the verb10 best fits the context, weighing the argument for the imperative against that for the indicative, it is necessary to define more precisely the meaning of the Greek verb ερευναω (the lexicon form from which ἐρευνᾶτε is derived). Obviously, whether the imperative or indicative best fits the context will depend on the precise meaning of the verb. In order to determine that precise meaning we must examine how the verb is used elsewhere in Scripture.11 It is used in five other places:
John 7.52: ‘Search, and look: for out of Galilee ariseth no prophet’
Romans 8.27: ‘And he that searcheth the hearts knoweth what is the mind of the Spirit’
1 Corinthians 2.10: ‘for the Spirit searcheth all things, yea, the deep things of God’
1 Peter 1.11 ‘Searching what, or what manner of time the Spirit of Christ which was in them did signify, when it testified beforehand the sufferings of Christ, and the glory that should follow’
Revelation 2.23: ‘And I will kill her children with death; and all the churches shall know that I am he which searcheth the reins and hearts’
From these verses it is evident that the Greek verb ερευναω does not signify any superficial and ineffectual inspection of something, but on the contrary signifies an exhaustive, thorough and effectual examination of it. So then, is it more probable that our Lord was exhorting (imperative) the Jews at John 5.39 to such a ‘searching’ of the Scriptures? Or was He merely acknowledging (indicative) that this was something they already did?
If we look at the immediate context, we note that in the previous verse, Jesus says of them that ‘ye have not his word abiding in you’. If the beginning of verse 39 is understood as the indicative, and hence as an acknowledgement that they did exhaustively, thoroughly and effectually search the Scriptures, how is this consistent with verse 38 saying that they have not God’s Word abiding in them? If they have taken such great pains over the study of the Scriptures, thereby using the divinely appointed means to obtain the true knowledge of God, how may it be still said of them that His Word does not abide in them? But if verse 39 begins with the imperative, then our Lord is prescribing to them the cure for the Word of God not abiding in them and their consequent unbelief. Thus, the imperative makes very good sense.
We may also note that at the end of verse 38 Jesus plainly says that the problem with the Jews is that they did not believe Him, and in the last part of verse 39 He says equally plainly that it is the Scriptures ‘which testify of me’. What then must be the cure for the unbelief of the Jews? Surely it is those same Scriptures that testify of Him. From where else should they seek a cure? Hence, an imperative at the beginning of verse 39 makes perfectly good sense. Jesus is exhorting them to do exactly what would cure them of their unbelief.
But an indicative at the beginning of verse 39 creates a problem, for then we have an acknowledgement in the first part of verse 39 that they do already exhaustively, thoroughly and effectually search the Scriptures; however, the last part of verse 39 says those same Scriptures testify of Him and yet according to verse 38 they remain in unbelief. So what remedy is proposed to cure them of their unbelief? None is ever mentioned in the text. Apparently their unbelief is incurable, for though they were using the appointed means to cure it, yet it is not cured!
On the other hand, with the verb as an imperative, the verse points exactly to the problem of the Jews. It was their lack of ‘searching’ that was the problem; they did indeed ‘read’ the Scriptures (Acts 15.21), but they did not ‘search’ them. Therefore, Jesus is commanding them to perform this duty as the remedy for their ignorance and unbelief.
The implication of the indicative at John 5.39 is also contrary to the more remote context of Scripture which plainly indicates that the diligent searching of the Scriptures is the appointed outward and ordinary means for belief in Christ. The Bereans ‘searched the scriptures daily’12 and as a consequence of using the divinely-appointed means ‘many of them believed’ (Acts 17.11–12). And Paul laboured ‘mightily’ to convince the Jews ‘by the scriptures that Jesus was Christ’ (Acts 18.28). Thus he used the Scriptures as the divinely-appointed means to engender belief, consistent with Romans 10.17, ‘So then faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God’.
It is also evident from the numerous interactions between our Lord and the religious leaders of His day that ‘searching’ the Scriptures in this exhaustive and thorough way is exactly what they generally did not do. When, for example, Jesus asks the Pharisees in Matthew 22.43–46 why David in Psalm 2.1 calls his Son ‘Lord’, they are unable to answer Him. They had evidently never carefully considered the meaning of that Scripture.
In Matthew 19.3–8 Jesus corrects the Pharisees’ faulty understanding of marriage and divorce by correcting their misunderstanding of Moses’s writing of divorcement. The Pharisees had apparently never weighed Moses’s provision with regard to divorce against the original institution of marriage in Genesis. If they had thus ‘searched’ the Scriptures, they would never have come tempting Jesus by asking the question on divorce.
We may also note how the people are ‘astonished at his doctrine: for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes’ (Matthew 7.28–29). If our Lord’s doctrine was astonishing to the people, it must have been quite different to the doctrine of their regular teachers. This can only be because He rightly understood the Scriptures, whereas their regular teachers poorly understood them or misunderstood them. Our Lord often reproves the religious leaders of His day for their very obtuse understanding of the Scriptures. Thus He says to Nicodemus: ‘Art thou a master of Israel, and knowest not these things?’ (John 3.10). He calls the Pharisees ‘blind leaders of the blind’ (Matthew 15.14) and He says of the Sadducees that they erred ‘not knowing the scriptures, nor the power of God.’ (Matthew 22.29).
Given this key difference between our Lord and the religious leaders of His day, that is, His own clear understanding of the Scriptures in contrast with their poor understanding of them or misunderstanding of them leading to unbelief, it is not surprising that He should seek to correct this their fault at John 5.39 by exhorting them to a searching of those Scriptures. Our Lord says many times to them ‘have ye not read…’ (Matthew 12.3,5, 19.4, 22.31; Mark 12.10,26; Luke 6.3) or ‘have ye never read…’ (Mark 2.25; see also Matthew 21.16,42). He is evidently prodding them to a searching of the Scriptures and an intelligent reflecting upon them, this being the cure for their misunderstanding of them.
But if they were indeed already ‘searching’ the Scriptures, as the indicative at John 5.39 would imply, how are we to explain this continual refrain upon Christ’s lips? And is it not entirely consistent with the decayed state of the church at the time of Christ that He directs them to a ‘searching’ of the Scriptures to recover them from that decayed condition? In the same way, the Reformers also directed a decayed Roman Catholic Church of their own day to a diligent study of the Scriptures.13
Thus, the imperative fits the context better than the indicative, both the immediate and the more remote context.
The Doctrinal and Practical Consequences of the Imperative vs the Indicative
We should not overlook the fact that there are significantly different consequences, doctrinal and practical, of taking the beginning of John 5.39 as an imperative, rather than an indicative. With the imperative ‘Search the scriptures…’, the Reformed doctrine of sola scriptura is clearly implied in the text.14 Jesus directs the Jews to the Scriptures, and He directs them to no earthly testimony beside those Scriptures to decide the critical point of their believing upon Him. But if the beginning of John 5.39 is to be taken as the indicative, the implication of sola scriptura is no longer evident. The verse will then imply that an exhaustive, thorough and effectual examination of the Holy Scriptures is not sufficient to determine any doctrine or duty of true religion. Something extra is required which must be added to the testimony of Scripture. This is directly contrary to the Reformation and Protestantism.15
There is also a practical duty implied by the imperative, but absent with the indicative. That duty is the duty to search the Scriptures; a mere reading of them leading only to a superficial acquaintance with them is not sufficient, nor consistent with, that supreme love to God, which includes a loving Him ‘with all thy mind’ required in ‘the first and great commandment’ (Matthew 22.37–38). The Word of God is that by which a man shall ‘live’ (Matthew 4.4), that by which he is ‘nourished’ (1 Timothy 4.6), and is thus called ‘the sincere milk of the word’ as the means by which we are to ‘grow’ (1 Peter 2.2).
Of course, it may be argued that both the doctrine of sola scriptura and our duty to search the Scriptures are taught elsewhere in Scripture (Isaiah 8.20, 34.16; 2 Timothy 3.16–17) and therefore, as we are not dependent on the evidence provided by John 5.39, we need not overly insist on the imperative at that place. It is certainly true that we are not utterly dependent on John 5.39 for evidence of the doctrine and the duty. But given the importance of both the doctrine and the duty, why should we easily part with the evidence so clearly tendered for them by this verse, especially if no necessity demands it, but quite the contrary? And if the doctrine and the duty are both of great importance, as is evident by the Reformation, is it not reasonable to suppose that the Lord should provide abundant, rather than sparse, evidence for them in His Word?
We conclude that the Reformation-era understanding of the imperative at John 5.39 has all along been correct. There is clear reason from the Greek of the verse and from the context for maintaining that the verse begins with the imperative, and not with the indicative. There are also significantly different consequences, doctrinal and practical, of adopting the imperative as opposed to the indicative, consequences reaching as far as to divide between Protestantism and Popery.
We have here another instance of the Authorised (King James) Version proving itself superior to the modern English Bible versions available today. It is a staggering fact that no modern English Bible16 renders John 5.39as the imperative, but all uniformly render it as the indicative. Even the New King James Version and the Modern English Version, both of which purport to be revisions of the Authorised Version carried out in the same spirit as the original, comply with the anti-Protestant spirit of the times to render the verse as the indicative. The fact that the Authorised Version has the imperative at John 5.39 clearly marks it as a genuinely Protestant Bible, and none of its modern competitors can justly lay claim to the same title while they all fall short at that verse. All English-speaking peoples should give profound thanks to God for the inestimable gift of so faithful a translation of the Holy Scriptures.
2 For example, L. Morris, in The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids, MI, USA: W. B. Eerdmans, 1979), p. 330, remarks, ‘We should almost certainly take it as indicative’. Lenski is a notable and refreshing exception amongst modern commentators in arguing for the imperative (R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. John’s Gospel [Minneapolis, MN, USA: Augsburg Publishing House, 1961], pp.413–415).
3 In English, we distinguish the imperative from the indicative by the omission of the pronoun subject of the verb. Thus, ‘search’ will be imperative, while ‘you search’ is indicative. But in Greek the imperative and indicative cannot be so easily distinguished in this way because the pronoun subject is already indicated by the form of the verb ending and hence does not need to appear alongside the verb. The first word in the Greek of this verse is ἐρευνᾶτε, which has a second person plural ending, that is, ‘you’, and so the meaning may be either the imperative, ‘search’ with the implied subject, ‘you’, or the indicative, ‘you search’. The context must be used to decide between these two.
4 In Greek the subject of the verb is expressed in the verb ending and does not, as in English, need to be separately expressed. When it is separately expressed in the Greek an emphasis is intended and it is also much more probable that the mood of the verb is indicative.
6 See, for example, C. Ellicott, A New Testament Commentary for English Readers, 8 vols. (London, England: Cassell & Co., 1897), 1.422; H. W. Meyer, Handbook to the Gospel of John (New York, NY, USA: Funk & Wagnalls, 1895), p. 191.
8 Ellicott says that the word is ‘just the expression for the literal spirit in which the Rabbis treated their Scriptures’. The problem here is that while we may suppose that the word aptly describes how the Rabbis ‘treated their Scriptures’, if we have no evidence from Scripture to support that meaning of the word, it must remain merely a supposition. The scriptural testimony alone on the use of a word is authoritative.
11 Ellicott tries to ward off the fatal consequences to the indicative argument of this approach by saying that ‘the argument from the meaning of the Greek word must be pressed only within strict limits when we remember that it represents in translation a late Hebrew original’. However, this is quite inadmissible since it is contrary to the Reformed doctrine of Scripture. It is the meaning of the inspired Greek word in the text that is authoritative, not the supposed underlying word of which the Greek word is supposed to be a translation.
13 Thus the various expressions of the doctrine of sola scriptura contained in Reformed Confessions, such as the First and Second Helvetic Confessions Ch. 1, Belgic Confession Article 7, Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion Article 6, Westminster Confession of Faith Ch. 1, London Baptist Confession Ch. 1.
15 It is not surprising therefore that both Roman Catholics (www. sedevacantist.com/van_noort_ infallibility.html) and Seventh Day Adventists (text.egwwritings.org/ publication.php?pubtype=Book &bookCode=RABV&lang=en §ion=all&pagenumber=78) generally favour the indicative at John 5.39.
Written by L. Brigden, Senior Editorial Consultant. This article first appeared in the Quarterly Record, issue number: 619 — April to June 2017