What To Me And To You?

Posted By on April 25, 2012

While doing some reverse interlinear work a few days ago, I came across Josh 15:18. The verse concerns Caleb’s newly-won bride:

18 When she came to him, she urged him to ask her father for a field. And she got off her donkey, and Caleb said to her, “What do you want?”

My interest was drawn to the question: “What do you want?” The Hebrew literally reads: “What to you?” This is a fairly common Semiticism that I have run across a number of times before. And each time the idea pops into my head that I ought to write an article on it — since it is the idiomatic expression behind the statement/question Jesus says to his mother Mary in John 2:4. Jesus says, literally, “What to me and to you, O woman?” (“woman” is in the vocative case for direct address.)  Many readers mistake the question as a statement of irritation on Jesus’ part, and some translations don’t do much to avoid that misapprehension.

In Josh 15, Caleb is portrayed as wanting to be kind to his new bride. He is not irritated; he wants to do something for her to make her happy. This is the pretty clearly the case in some of the other 18 occurrences of the precise phrase found in Josh 15:18. Some examples (to my eye anyway) are: 2 Sam 14:5; 1 Kings 1:16; Esther 5:3. My point is that the phrase is at times clearly a gentle one.

The similar phrase (“What to me?”) also occurs in the Hebrew Bible, at times in combination with “to you,” as in John 2:4. The most generic way to capture what the full statement (“What to me to you?”) means is “what is there that concerns me and you?”  Context should steer the translator to word choices that move the translation from this neutral meaning to something that captures the situation, whether it is adversarial or congenial.

There is no reason to see John’s use of this idiomatic expression as indicative of irritation, or that his mother had become insufferable to Jesus. When Jesus says to Mary, “What to me to you?”, he isn’t saying “What is it now, lady?” He’s basically asking his mother, who brings a concern to him, “What can I do for you?”

Anyway, just a bit of a hobby-horse issue for me that I periodically run into. On to weightier things.

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10 Responses to “What To Me And To You?”

  1. Rick Brannan says:

    I know I’ve seen other LXX passages with Greek similar to Jn 2.4. I think 4 Kingdoms and maybe even Esdras A.

  2. Here is a thought for translate. “What can I do for you” might be fitting. It seems to be directing the question towards the person in the form of a request. Although the literal translation of Jesus’ is a mind bender for some, I can’t help but here him saying “Is there something that I can do for you?”

  3. Jason Slater says:

    Would you say something towards the often said idiom by Jesus “you say so” it seems to be along the same lines as your example and seem like a cryptic answer, especially when questioned about who he is in terms of Messiahship or Kingship… Is this also difficult to translate due to lost idioms and culture ?

  4. kennethos says:

    Interesting! I’ll have to remember this for future sermons….

  5. Richard Brown says:

    I know Greek isn’t precisely your expertise, but I would love to see you [MSH] tackle a list of the toughest passages in the NT, especially the gospels as all of them have deep influence/input from Hebrew/Aramaic idioms & terminology. Luke 14:26 is one that seems to have eluded the best apologists … I could think of 50 more such difficult ones. This particular one was punted to me by a relatively new believer, a lady who is highly studious and voraciously reading her Bible and several other books pertinent to her newly rekindled faith [raised R. Catholic]. I hate offering conjecture in place of real scholarship…. nice platitudes don’t cut it.

    • MSH says:

      I’ll look it up. Have you read any sources like Kaiser’s “Hard Sayings in the Bible” (mixed value there) or scholarly commentaries?

  6. Shaun says:

    ” On to weightier things”
    Actually, little nugets of knowledge like this are wonderful.

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