“You Said It” – Assent or Ambiguity?

“You said it.” Jesus gives this peculiar answer to a number of yes/no questions in the gospels. Most of them occur in response to questions about his identity, although one is a response to Judas asking if he will be the one to betray him. Jesus’ answer to Pilate occurs in all four gospels. His answer in Matt. 26:64 contrasts with the parallel Mk. 14:62, where Jesus answers with a clear affirmative, “I am.” There are some variations in the wording. Sometimes the verb is aorist, other times it is present. Two of them restate part of the question asked. Nevertheless, the basic pattern is consistent.

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Assent or Ambiguity?

Is this type of answer to be taken as a clear affirmation, an ambiguous, dodging the question kind of answer, or something else? Some would argue that this was a common Rabbinic or Jewish formula indicating clear assent. The focus on you would have the sense of either affirming the person’s words as correct, or possibly drawing attention to the fact that it was that person who forced the answer. Others argue that in some cases this is a “qualified” affirmation. For example, Jesus is telling Pilate that he is a king, but not the kind of king that Pilate is thinking of. A third option is that the lack of an explicit yes indicates ambiguity. In all of these verses this would amount to a veiled affirmation. Nowhere is this a possible denial. The real answer is clearly yes, but Jesus appears reluctant to give an explicitly positive answer.

One clue as to the intended meaning comes from the way people responded to this kind of answer in the text. In Matthew 26:25, Jesus’ response to Judas appears to be ambiguous – a veiled affirmation. Judas would have understood, but the other disciples show no evidence of comprehension. In Lk. 22:71 and Matt 26:65, the elders, chief priests and scribes clearly take Jesus’ words as an affirmation that he is indeed the Son of God. Luke’s account reads, “What further testimony do we need? We have heard it ourselves from his own lips.” However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that Jesus’ answer itself was clear. These people had already shown that they were looking for a way to trap him in his words so they could accuse him of a crime. For them, an ambiguous or veiled answer would be just as useful as a clear one. In Lk. 23:3 it is not clear how Pilate understands Jesus’ response, but either way he does not see it as enough to convict Jesus of a crime worthy of death.  The parallel John 8:37 contains a similar answer, which in its own context comes across as more clearly affirmative, with Jesus’ mention of “my kingdom” in v.36.

The evidence within the text is very limited, but of the possible interpretive options a veiled or guarded affirmation seems most likely. Many commentators argue for the “qualified affirmative,” although I don’t see much direct evidence for it in the text. True, Jesus was not the kind of king Pilate had in mind. He made this clear in John 18:36. But is this what Jesus was calling attention to in his response, or did he simply want to avoid giving a direct answer? I am sure that a review of extra-biblical texts would provide more information to go on, and would also allow me to assess the credibility of the theory that this kind of answer is a Rabbinic or Jewish formula for clear assent.

Translating a Veiled Affirmative

Most English translations agree with my tentative conclusion, avoiding a clear yes answer in their renderings. NIV84 is one exception. For example, Matt 27:11 is rendered, “Yes, it is as you say.” However, the 2011 edition has changed it to the ambiguous “You have said so.” However, in other languages, a literal you said it answer may or may not work. Even in English, I think it would most often convey clear affirmation. For all we know, speakers of other languages could take a you said it response as a no answer, along the lines of you said it, not me. I wouldn’t say that. Translators must consider how they would naturally respond affirmatively in a “veiled” way to a yes/no question, if this is the interpretation they are following. In English, I think of the rather formal sounding, “I can neither confirm nor deny…” that you might hear when someone wants to conceal the truth about something. I rather like the Message’s “If you say so.” Both of these options might be too noncommittal, though I suppose they could be construed as a yes answer by some. In any case, this is a good example of why translators need to give priority to considering what people will infer from a statement over the translation of individual words or propositions.

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