God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

So, What? John 3:16 and the Lord’s Prayer

Scripture Zealot reminds us that the usual translation of John 3:16 is wrong. The Greek there doesn’t mean, “for God so loved the world…,” so the line shouldn’t read (NRSV) “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”


Watch my “Exporing the Bible” video about John 3:16.

The translation used to be right, though, when “so” between a subject and a verb meant “in this manner.” The word “so” is meant to translate the Greek outos, and the point of John 3:16 is that “God loved the world like this….” or “God loved the world in this way….” or “This is how God loved the world.” (Don’t confuse “outos,” meaning “so,” with autos, which means something else.)

The word outos appears hundreds of times in the NT, including in the introduction to what has become known as the Lord’s prayer. Most translations get the word right in Matthew 6:9, as for example, “after this manner” (KJV), which is needlessly awkward but still generally accurate; “in this way” (NRSV); “like this” (ESV); variations on “this is how” (NAB, NIV); etc. (Outos doesn’t appear in the introduction to the “short Lord’s prayer” in Luke.)

So John 3:16 should read along the lines of, “for this is how God loved the world…”

The meaning of John 3:16 is not generally a disputed point.

The authors of the KJV knew what outos meant, but in their 400-year-old dialect (it wasn’t 400 years old then — but it is now), “God so loved…” meant “God loved in this way….”

The translators of the ESV knew it, too, and they even added a footnote to John 3:16: “Or For this is how God loved the world.” I can only guess that they didn’t change the KJV because in this case they valued tradition over accuracy.

The current translations are as wrong as it would be to render Matthew 6:9 as “you should pray this much….” instead of “you should pray this way….”

Other versions also seem to prefer tradition over accuracy when it comes to John 3:16, even when they do not adhere to the KJV translation tradition. The NLT rewrites the line, but their rendition, “For God loved the world so much that….” is a rewrite of the wrong meaning. The Message gets it wrong, too, with “This is how much God loved the world….” So does the CEV: “God loved the people of this world so much….” In other words, these three translations rewrote the wrong meaning to make the wrong meaning more accessible.

This pattern is interesting, and, I think, important for understanding the field of Bible translation. We see that in practice Bible translation is not simply translation applied to the Bible (though many people think that it should be).

Cases like these — where the Greek is easy to understand and generally undisputed — show us that even the most knowledgeable Bible translators can have trouble breaking free from their familiar, if wrong, translations.

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February 4, 2010 - Posted by | Bible versions, translation practice | , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

39 Comments »

  1. Excellent post.

    I would add that John seems to always use the word KOSMOS to refer to “the lost community.” And “loved” is aorist. This does not say that God *loves* the lost, but rather that he acted at a particular time in their interest. (AGAPH is not a word that natively, in general Koine usage, suggests any great lasting relation).

    Note also that the purpose and efficacy of the gift of his son rests on faith. The son became the “healing serpent” upon which faith may be exercised, and on the basis of that faith, one may have everlasting [not “eternal”] life.

    Comment by WoundedEgo | February 4, 2010 | Reply

    • Thank you.

      And, yes, there are other translation issues in the verse, such as kosmos, for which “world” isn’t quite right.

      Comment by Joel H. | February 4, 2010 | Reply

      • Or ἀγάπη, which by its textbook definition refers specifically to Christian or spiritual love, some say. Here’s LXX Jeremiah 2:33

        τί ἔτι καλὸν ἐπιτηδεύσεις ἐν ταῖς ὁδοῖς σου τοῦ ζητῆσαι ἀγάπησιν; οὐχ οὕτως, ἀλλὰ καὶ σὺ ἐπονηρεύσω τοῦ μιᾶναι τὰς ὁδούς σου.

        The verse before that also contains κόσμος in the cosmetic context, interestingly.

        Comment by Gary Simmons | February 4, 2010

  2. Thanks for the mention. I thought I’d leave it to someone else to talk about the scaredy cat translations.

    I never knew the beginning of the Lord’s Prayer is similar.
    Jeff

    Comment by Scripture Zealot | February 4, 2010 | Reply

    • It’s the introduction to the Lord’s prayer, not the prayer itself, and I wouldn’t make too much of it, because outos is such a common word.

      My point is brining it up was two-fold. (1) It helps demonstrate that everyone knows that outos means; and (2) using “so much” for outos in the introduction to the Lord’s prayer helps show how misleading the usual translations of John 3:16 are.

      Comment by Joel H. | February 5, 2010 | Reply

  3. […] going back to John 3:16, “I so do my homework…” doesn’t mean “this is how I do my […]

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  4. Perhaps a crucial question spurned from a post like this is: to what extent can translation committees change the words of well-known and cherished Bible passages? To change nothing may run the risk of being unclear about the text’s meaning. However, to change the text may alienate readers who notice that their favorite verses no longer say what they thought it said.

    Comment by Seth Ehorn | February 4, 2010 | Reply

  5. “However, to change the text may alienate readers who notice that their favorite verses no longer say what they thought it said.”

    I believe this is what they are afraid of and they should put ‘accuracy’ over marketing. It has to change sometime. This one is obvious.
    Jeff

    Comment by Scripture Zealot | February 4, 2010 | Reply

  6. I’m in agreement. However, I wouldn’t identify fear as the driving motive. I suspect that a genuine concern for laity to trust their translation (sometimes by means of familiarity) is in play. That, I don’t think involves fear or even “marketing.”

    Comment by Seth Ehorn | February 4, 2010 | Reply

    • It is impossible to evaluate another person’s motives, but either way, the behavior is the same, unacceptable (to my mores) result.

      Comment by WoundedEgo | February 4, 2010 | Reply

      • Consider my post, then, a plea to be charitable to translation committees by not assuming the worst of them before understanding why they did what they did.

        Comment by Seth Ehorn | February 4, 2010

      • The prohibition of John 7:24, “Judge not according to the appearance, but judge righteous judgment.” is, in my understanding, forbidding *inferring* one’s motives from one’s actions. For example, if I see someone with a lot of “bling” and presume that they are greedy, I am “judging [motive] based on a limited, external view, rather than, perhaps, fully appreciating the heart.

        But if someone has translated a text in obvious nonconformity with the text, ISTM quite scriptural to object on grammatical grounds. ISTM, “them’s the rules.”

        I used to presume that Christians had an evil motive in misconstruing “flock animal” as “lamb” until I realized that Jews made the same mistake – obviously with no intention of skewing the Hebrew texts towards Protestantism!

        So I *try* not to jump to conclusions about motives, and instead, be as objective as possible.

        Comment by WoundedEgo | February 4, 2010

  7. […] 4, 2010 Gary Zimmerli Leave a comment Go to comments Jeff at Scripture Zealot and Joel over at God Didn’t Say That have both posted about the translation of John 3:16, and touched on the wording of the Lord’s […]

    Pingback by Changing the Lord’s Prayer??? « The Sundry Times | February 4, 2010 | Reply

  8. Seth, S.Z., and W.E.:

    I would add two more possible reasons for why obviously wrong translations get published.

    The first is that some translators just look at other English editions and rewrite the English. One way to solve this is to make sure that Greek and Hebrew experts are integrally involved with producing a translation. (There’s a great discussion of issues surrounding translation qualifications here on BBB.)

    The second reason is harder to deal with. Scholars who translate the Bible usually also study religion and the Bible. For them (as for anyone who takes religion seriously) the “meaning” of a phrase is only partly dictated by what the words or the phrase means. For example, John 3:16 is a cornerstone of theology much more than it is simply a sentence. So even if the translation means the wrong thing, only a tiny part of the greater meaning of the phrase is lost.

    I think that this type of situation can make it hard for serious religious scholars to notice when translations are wrong.

    Comment by Joel H. | February 5, 2010 | Reply

  9. >>>…So even if the translation means the wrong thing, only a tiny part of the greater meaning of the phrase is lost….

    That sounds like it could be *their* rationalization, but still, simply put, “God didn’t say that…!”

    The “tiny parts” are where people go way off course.

    I have a chapter in my book where I discuss, among other things, John 3:16. The title of the chapter is “God Hates the World!” ISTM that John 3:16, wrongly construed, creates a set of blinders to the rest of the scriptures that show that the propitiation was an anomaly. God loathes the world – “the Jew first, but also the gentiles.”

    Whatever AGAPH means, in relation to the lost community, it implies nothing but the one-time impetus to provide to his enemies an opportunity to return to his favor.

    Comment by WoundedEgo | February 5, 2010 | Reply

    • I don’t think it’s a rationalization. I think it’s more like not noticing a typo. They already know what the translation is supposed to mean, and don’t realize that it doesn’t mean that. I’m not saying it’s a good thing (and, in fact, the errors are one of the reasons I wrote my latest book); I was responding to the motive motif.

      Comment by Joel H. | February 5, 2010 | Reply

  10. Regarding the lord’s prayer, isn’t there an issue about “this day” and “tomorrow’s” bread? If I’m not mistaken, the actual text suggests “give us this day tomorrow’s bread” but, due to the force of tradition and acceptability we’ve been discussing related John 3:16, they always translate it “daily bread.”

    Comment by WoundedEgo | February 5, 2010 | Reply

  11. NET Bible note (given below) seems to suggest that it can be read either way, and may in fact have meant both ways. Is this correct?

    1. Or “this is how much”; or “in this way.” The Greek adverb οὕτως (Joutws) can refer (1) to the degree to which God loved the world, that is, to such an extent or so much that he gave his own Son (see R. E. Brown, John [AB], 1:133-34; D. A. Carson, John, 204) or (2) simply to the manner in which God loved the world, i.e., by sending his own son (see R. H. Gundry and R. W. Howell, “The Sense and Syntax of John 3:14-17 with Special Reference to the Use of Οὕτως…ὥστε in John 3:16,” NovT 41 [1999]: 24-39). Though the term more frequently refers to the manner in which something is done (see BDAG 741-42 s.v. οὕτω/οὕτως), the following clause involving ὥστε (Jwste) plus the indicative (which stresses actual, but [usually] unexpected result) emphasizes the greatness of the gift God has given. With this in mind, then, it is likely (3) that John is emphasizing both the degree to which God loved the world as well as the manner in which He chose to express that love. This is in keeping with John’s style of using double entendre or double meaning. Thus, the focus of the Greek construction here is on the nature of God’s love, addressing its mode, intensity, and extent.

    Comment by Jonathan Morgan | February 13, 2010 | Reply

    • There is never a shortage of derelict “expert witnesses” in any trial!

      By the way, I would like to point out that “the world” is, to John, pretty much always “the lost community” rather than “everybody.”

      Comment by WoundedEgo | February 13, 2010 | Reply

    • NET Bible note (given below) seems to suggest that it can be read either way, and may in fact have meant both ways. Is this correct?

      I don’t think so. I think the note is in part a way of justifying the now-common understanding of the line. It’s true that the progression from “thus” to “so much” is a common one — we see it in English and other languages — but I don’t see any evidence for outos meaning “so much.”

      The final part of the NET note — “Thus, the focus of the Greek construction here is on the nature of God’s love, addressing its mode, intensity, and extent.” — may be true in part. However, this is not a fact about the “Greek construction” but rather a more general consequence of what manner includes. Specifically, manner can include intensity, both in Greek and in English.

      So I don’t believe that the verse can be (correctly) read in two ways or that the original is ambiguous. “God so loved the world” is just not the right translation anymore.

      Comment by Joel H. | February 14, 2010 | Reply

  12. ISTM that the same thing is going on in this passage, where it is clearer that what is intended is a specific, visible act:

    1Jn 4:9 In this was manifested the love of God toward us, because that God sent his only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through him.
    1Jn 4:10 Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent [or, “by sending”] his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.
    1Jn 4:11 Beloved, if **God so loved us**, we ought also to love one another.

    Comment by WoundedEgo | February 15, 2010 | Reply

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  16. […] King; Justified=Acquitted and made right) as well as conformation to previous translation styles (John 3.16). Their translation is goaled to ‘bringing the body of Christ together again around the […]

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  19. Today if you ask many people about John 3-16 they will tell you that they will go to heaven because of that verse. That it gives them what I call fire insurance. It is not that the verse is misleading but the reader. It should be the first of many steps in a christians life. Should not, or may not perish is overlooked. Yes as a new christian or baby christian this verse is very important however we should grow as Paul writes through his books. Jesus even states in Revelation you are not hot or cold so I spit you out. This is just the first of many steps to heaven.

    Comment by Rick Neal | March 5, 2011 | Reply

    • The scriptures never promise the believer that they will “go to heaven” (which just means “the sky” – I go there often when I fly to distant places). Rather, it promises unending life. In scripture, that unending life is to be lived in the middle east, where God will make his dwelling place with men.

      Comment by WoundedEgo | March 6, 2011 | Reply

  20. Sorry but it does not promise us unending life. And yes if you fly you are in one of three heavens that are listed in the Bible. And where do you find in the Bible that God will make his dwelling in the Middle East. When I study Revelation it is a New Heaven and New Earth but I could stand to be corrected. Scriptures does promise the believer that they will go to heaven if you would like I can send them to you.

    Comment by Rick Neal | March 7, 2011 | Reply

    • Rick, consider how Abraham looked for a city. Jesus said to pray “Your kingdom come, your will be done on the land as it is in the sky.”

      Revelation graphically describes Jesus as a “Joshua from the sky” leading the holy ones into the city, whacking to death the inhabitants of Jerusalem. After Jesus’ 1000 year reign as king, God himself comes down with his “Jerusalem from above” to replace the old. Jesus steps down and returns to being a nobody, so that God may be “all in all.”

      Comment by WoundedEgo | March 9, 2011 | Reply

  21. […] first three videos mirror blog posts I’ve written (here, here, and […]

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  22. I’ve read that the word translated “in” that is found in John 3:16 is better translated “into.” So, is it more correct to say “believes into him?” If so, how might this change the meaning? Often this “believes in him” seems to be interpreted into an enlightenment type thinking, head or heart belif in Jesus. Could it be saying somethieng different?

    Comment by Ryan | April 4, 2011 | Reply

    • I’m not sure what “believes into him” would mean in English. Can you try to explain the two possibilities in more every day language?

      Comment by Joel H. | April 6, 2011 | Reply

  23. […] first three videos mirror blog posts I’ve written on God Didn’t Say That (here, here, and […]

    Pingback by Exploring the Bible Videos « Joel M. Hoffman, PhD | April 15, 2011 | Reply

  24. Please take note that one could argue that while the point form John 3:16 might be a direct mistranslation, it still carries the thrust of the verse. That is, even if we translate it as “for this is how God loved the world” that still implies the point made by “for God so loved the world,” namely that God loves you enough to send his son to die for you.

    Comment by Mike. Y. | October 15, 2011 | Reply

    • I heard this argued before and the case for “so” (as opposed to “in this way”) does seem to have some evidential support. I think the jury is still out.

      However, contextually, isn’t hOUTOS referring back to the serpent raising?

      Comment by bibleshockers | October 15, 2011 | Reply

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  26. I’m beginning to suspect (and find) that parts of the Bible have not been translated into English as accurately as they could in terms of actual Greek to English verbage and cultural context. I’m interested in finding “something” that will help give me better translation and understanding as it was understood in the context of of the day.

    And I have some questions about John 3:16. For instance what is the actual translation and meaning of certain key words in the verse like”begotten Son”, “believe in Him”, “perish” , and “everlasting life”. I’m interested in the literal Greek translation and cultural context rather then a traditional pat “church” answer.

    Thanks,

    Danny

    Comment by Danny Watson | March 24, 2013 | Reply


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