God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

The Letter of the Text

Bill Mounce has a post about gramma in Romans 2:27 and 2:29. He’s responding to a question about the ESV’s translation of the word as “letter” in 2:29, but “written code” in 2:27. (Dr. Mounce defends the decision.) Let’s look at how gramma is used.

The word gramma refers most basically to letters (of the alphabet), but also metonymically to collections of letters (“words,” “texts,” etc.) and to mastery of letters (“learning”). Interestingly, the English “letter” works almost exactly the same way, referring to a letter of the alphabet (“the letter A,” for example), but also correspondence (“a business letter”), more generally that which is written (“the letter of the law”), and — in some dialects, though not my own — to knowledge (“man of letters”).

For example, in John 5:47 we find the contrast, “but if you do not believe his grammas, how will you believe my rimas.” (We don’t have a good way to translate rima, which refers both to that which is spoken — “word,” but, more generally “statement” — and that which is spoken about — “thing.” The English “word” is close, but not quite right, because “word” seems to refer equally to spoken and written words, while rima was [primarily?] oral.)

The contrast between gramma and rima there is twofold. It is between a building block (letter) and a whole unit (word), but I think more importantly in John 5:47, between the written and the oral. The NRSV therefore translates, “But if you do not believe what he wrote, how will you believe what I say?” The ESV opts for “writings” and “words” here, but that pair doesn’t seem to capture either contrast.

In Luke 16:6 and 16:7, the word refers to what we would call a “bill.” (I think The English word “bill” comes ultimately from the Latin for “seal,” that is, the thing that was used to seal a private letter of correspondence.)

In Acts 26:24, the word refers more generally to study.

In Acts 28:21 the word refers to letters of correspondence.

Romans 7:6, Romans 2:29, and 2 Corinthians 3:6 explicately contrast gramma with pneuma (“spirit”). Romans 2:27 is part of the same theme.

So I think the question is whether the English “letter” can be used, like gramma, to indicate “that which is written,” and I think the answer is yes. I don’t see any reason not to use “letter” in Romans 2:27. (By the way, Romans 2:27 is nice place to practice your Greek syntax.) I think “written code” is the point, but spelling out the the point of imagery is usually a translation mistake.


October 26, 2009 - Posted by | translation practice | , , , ,

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