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I was reading today's gospel from the Roman calendar and noticed this in Luke 12:20:

dixit autem illi Deus stulte hac nocte animam tuam repetunt a te quae autem parasti cuius erunt

I was struck by the use of the 3rd-person plural active verb repetunt here. It mirrors the Greek version:

ειπεν δε αυτω ο θεος αφρων ταυτη τη νυκτι την ψυχην σου απαιτουσιν απο σου α δε ητοιμασας τινι εσται

The RSV translates it this way:

But God said to him, `Fool! This night your soul is required of you; and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?'

Other English translations also translate repetunt as a singular, passive verb.

Can anyone explain the use of the 3rd-person plural active here?

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    I was very interested in your question and looked it up online. Professor Carl W. Conrad from Washington University wrote an answer to this very question: lists.ibiblio.org/pipermail/b-greek/2003-September/026415.html. Looks like ἀπαιτοῦσιν is a case of the impersonal third-person plural. The English translation you cite simply substitutes the passive for the impersonal plural. It's not surprising that the Vulgate retains the same choice as the Greek. – ktm5124 Oct 18 '16 at 4:13
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    Welcome sixty4bit, and thanks for the question. @ktm5124 That sounds like a great answer! – Nathaniel is protesting Oct 18 '16 at 11:07
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I think it helps to look at two different commentaries on this verse. First we'll reproduce the Greek, and then the commentaries on the Greek.

εἶπεν δὲ αὐτῷ ὁ θεός Ἄφρων, ταύτῃ τῇ νυκτὶ τὴν ψυχήν σου αἰτοῦσιν ἀπὸ σοῦ· ἃ δὲ ἡτοίμασας, τίνι ἔσται;

Westcott and Hort 1881

The first commentator is A.T. Robertson.

Thou foolish one (aprwn). Fool, for lack of sense (a privative and prhn, sense) as in Luke 11:40 ; 2 Corinthians 11:19 . Old word, used by Socrates in Xenophon. Nominative form as vocative. Is thy soul required of thee (thn psuchn sou aitousin apo sou). Plural active present, not passive: "They are demanding thy soul from thee." The impersonal plural (aitousin) is common enough ( Luke 6:38 ; Luke 12:11 ; Luke 16:9 ; Luke 23:31 ). The rabbis used "they" to avoid saying "God."

Robertson's Word Pictures of the New Testament

The second is Henry Alford.

αἰτοῦσιν, not strictly impersonal; there are those whose business it is, even the angels, the ministers of the divine purposes: see ch. Luke 6:38 and note. The merely impersonal sense may be defended: cf. Luke 12:48 : but this saying seems so solemn, as to require something more.

Henry Alford's Commentaries on Luke 12

The two commentators agree that the verb αἰτοῦσιν could be a case of the impersonal third person plural. Robertson gives a good description of this idiom. He notes that it has at least a few other occurrences in Luke. He claims that it allows the author to avoid having to say "God", in the same way that the passive would, but keeping the active voice.

This is one possible answer. That the Greek verb αἰτοῦσιν is impersonal, and thus the Vulgate's choice of repetunt is a way of copying the idiom into Latin. But Alford allows that it could be otherwise, explaining that it could possibly refer to angels. For this reason, I hesitate to say definitively whether repetunt is impersonal. I think it's a matter of interpretation.

It's also worth mentioning how the Douay-Rheims bible, an early and more literal translation of the Vulgate, keeps the third person and the active voice.

And I will say to my soul: Soul, thou hast much goods laid up for many years take thy rest; eat, drink, make good cheer.

But God said to him: Thou fool, this night do they require thy soul of thee: and whose shall those things be which thou hast provided?

Luke 12:19-20 Douay-Rheims

  • Good answer! Let me check that I got the conclusion right: Here repetunt means Deus repetit, and the impersonal third person plural was chosen to avoid the D-word. It does not mean homines repetunt or similar as the impersonal third person plural usually would. Right? – Joonas Ilmavirta Oct 18 '16 at 19:38
  • Thanks for the comment! I substantially edited the post to make my conclusion clearer and more accurate. To answer your question, I think the subject of repetunt is probably either God or his angels — depends on your interpretation. – ktm5124 Oct 18 '16 at 20:30
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    I'd say it's impersonal even under Alford's reading, at least under one plausible definition of the term: impersonal doesn't necessarily mean no one is performing the action, it can simply mean that the agent is not explicitly expressed, which is definitely the case here. – TKR Oct 18 '16 at 20:32

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