God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

John 3:17 and a Translation That Might Work

I think John 3:17 (like John 3:16) shows us three things: potential traps in translation, typical patterns of some of the common Bible translations, and the importance of paying attention to detail.

The point of John 3:17 is pretty simple (even if the theology is deep): God didn’t send Jesus into the world in order to condemn it, but rather in order for the world to be saved through him.

To me, the line contrasts two possibilities: (1) God sent Jesus to condemn the world; and (2) God sent Jesus for the world to be saved through him. John 3:17 explains that it’s the second one.

And the line presents two aspects of the second possibility: the world will be saved — we can call this (2a) — and, furthermore, the world will be saved through Jesus (2b).

Yet I haven’t found any translation that conveys (1) versus (2a) and (2b) accurately.

The ESV, NRSV, and NAB (and others) translate the second half as, “…in order that the world might be saved through him.” I think that when most English speakers hear “the world might be saved,” they think, “maybe the world will be saved, maybe not.” But that’s not the point of the Greek, or — I don’t think — what the translators wanted their English to mean. In other words, these translations change point (2a). Instead of God sending Jesus so that the world will be saved, these translations have God sending Jesus so that maybe the world will be saved.

I think what happened here is that the translations mimicked the Greek too closely (in this case trying to find an English equivalent of the Greek subjunctive), and what resulted is a translation that’s either misleading or that uses odd syntax. This is typical of the ESV, and to lesser extent of NRSV and NAB.

By contrast, the NLT gives us the straightforward, “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn it, but to save it.” This has the benefit of being easy to understand. And unlike the previous translation, it doesn’t introduce uncertainty where there was none in the original. But the English ends up overly simplistic, and that’s a big drawback.

The part about “though him” is just missing in the NLT. So right off the bat the NLT mis-conveys point (2b).

Furthermore, the Greek doesn’t actually say that “his Son will save the world,” but rather that “the world will be saved.” It’s not the same. The NLT added a new concept (explaining who will save the world) and missed one that’s in the original (the world will be saved through Jesus).

So here the translators strayed too far from the Greek in order to come up with a simple translation. And this is typical of the NLT. It’s easy to understand, but it misses the depth and nuance of the original.

The CEV moves even further away from the original, with: “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn its people. He sent him to save them!” The switch to “the world…its people” makes for better English reading (maybe), but John doesn’t introduce the people until the next verse (3:18). The CEV destroys the progression.

And this is typical of the CEV. In rewriting the English to help make it more readable, it often misconveys the force and sometimes even meaning of the original.l

The Message strays even further yet from the original, giving us: “God didn’t go to all the trouble of sending his Son merely to point an accusing finger, telling the world how bad it was. He came to help, to put the world right again.” In this case, the English has both missed part of the Greek and also added so many new ideas (it was a lot of trouble; the world used to be right; etc.) that I think the English is better considered a commentary than a translation. And this, too, is typical of The Message. It tends to be well written, but it tends not to match up with the original nearly so closely as other translations.

The NIV corrects the ESV’s shortcoming, offering “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” This also corrects one of the two problems we saw with the NLT. But the second problem still remains: The NIV tells us who’s doing the saving while the Greek does not.

There are other issues to attend to.

The Greek says merely “the son,” not “his son.” Why not capture this fact in English? (The NRSV gets it right.)

The word “world” appears three times in Greek. Again, why not do the same in English?

The Greek is nicely parallel, with ina krini (“in order to condemn”) starting what I called (1) above, and ina sothi (“in order to be saved”) starting what I called (2) above. The NLT “to condemn it but to save it” captures the parallel structure, but, as we saw, at the expense of the meaning. Is there a way of doing both?

For that matter, “condemn” for krino isn’t quite right, and “world” for kosmos isn’t a perfect fit, either, though in these two cases I don’t think we have anything better.

I would offer: “God didn’t send the Son into the world in order to condemn the world, but in order for the world to be saved through him.” It gets everything (I think) except the exact parallel syntax.

Beyond the actual English rendering, I think this teaches us a general lesson about the complexity of translation, and specific lessons about what different versions tend to miss.

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February 25, 2010 - Posted by | Bible versions, translation practice | , , , , , , , , , , , ,

15 Comments »

  1. >>>…I would offer: “God didn’t send the Son into the world in order to condemn the world, but in order for the world to be saved through him.”…

    I would offer a few comments:

    * the capitalization of “Son” is inappropriate here and anywhere else except the start of a word as it does not reflect anything of the source language;

    * KOSMOS is pretty much exclusively used by John (and often by Paul) as specifically referring to the lost community, and I prefer “the lost community” in translation to reflect that;

    * “condemn” has been corrupted in Christian society to mean “criticize” and should not be used. The word is ruined. A more accurate translation might be “pass a death sentence” as in “God did not send the son to the lost community so he might pass a death sentence on the them, but rather so that the lost community might be *rescued* through him”;

    The emphasis is in the word order, and should be present.

    Comment by WoundedEgo | February 25, 2010 | Reply

    • Some thoughts on your comments.

      1. If “THE Son” is monadic (see my response to John), then a capital S is appropriate.

      2. I wonder how this relates to Genesis 6. The earth itself and all creation was corrupted by human violence. God didn’t use laser snipers to get rid of the human lost community while preserving the rest of creation, which had become corrupt also; rather, God sent the flood on everything corrupt. While kosmos does view the human lost community, it’s more than just human society in view — at least in my opinion.

      3. You’re spot on that condemn is misunderstood today. I dunno what we should do about it, though. Perhaps “to damn” appropriately would convey the shock value.

      Comment by Gary Simmons | February 27, 2010 | Reply

  2. Not that I have any authority, but I really don’t like how translations use the word ‘might’ in this way. I don’t think it should have been used this way within at least 2-3 decades any. Not that the Bible should sound just like we talk, but who talks or writes like that?

    Another question: can the Bible have a nice literary quality without using archaic words?
    Jeff

    Comment by Scripture Zealot | February 25, 2010 | Reply

  3. >>>…Another question: can the Bible have a nice literary quality without using archaic words?…

    Modern-speak has reduced most things down to “uncool” or “kewl.” (Note the intentional misspelling).

    Even 3CPio and Obi Wan Kenobi speak the King’s English, because that was the apex of language.

    Comment by WoundedEgo | February 25, 2010 | Reply

  4. I argue that “his son” is actually accurate. Very often Greek uses an article where English has a pronoun.

    I further suggest that an English active is not necessarily introducing a concept not in the Greek. It’s just that Greek prefers passive verbs.

    Comment by John | February 26, 2010 | Reply

    • I’m not arguing with you about either of these observations, but I wonder if you can present any evidence for either of these assertions.

      Comment by WoundedEgo | February 26, 2010 | Reply

      • My Wallace grammar is in my Alabama home, and I’m in my Florida home, so could you please cite Wallace’s description of the monadic use of the definite article? I would think that there would be some contextual marker, such as in:

        Act 21:38 Art not thou that [hO] Egyptian, which before these days madest an uproar, and leddest out into the wilderness four thousand men that were murderers?

        I don’t see any such indication here.

        Comment by WoundedEgo | February 27, 2010

    • John, I would side with Joel on this one.

      “The Son” could be possessive, sure, meaning “his son.” However, it can instead be monadic,as in saying of a celebrity, “you’re THE Moses? Like, from the Bible?” Both uses of “the” in that sense are monadic.

      What if the idea of uniqueness, the monadic “THE son” is what is meant? Considering the use of monogenes earlier, that seems to fit the context better. If we simply translate it as “his son,” then that element is lost. (Unless that element was completely unintended and John did simply mean “his.”)

      As to the second statement: yes, English dislikes passives and Greek has no problem with them. However, the passive in Greek makes it unclear whether God, through Jesus, is saving the world, or whether Jesus is saving the world. Changing this to an active voice verb in English will introduce clarity where the author did not intend it. Doing so would prioritize clarity over faithfulness/accuracy.

      Comment by Gary Simmons | February 27, 2010 | Reply

      • >>>“The Son” could be possessive, sure, meaning “his son.” However, it can instead be monadic,as in saying of a celebrity, “you’re THE Moses? Like, from the Bible?” Both uses of “the” in that sense are monadic.

        The function of the definite article is not to imply that the subject is:

        “1 a : unit, one b : atom 1 c : an elementary individual substance which reflects the order of the world and from which material properties are derived”

        nor that it is

        “2 : a flagellated protozoan (as of the genus Monas)”

        Rather, it identifies that this particular “son” is the “the son under consideration at the moment.” “The son” that John is referring to is “the same one as I mentioned in the previous verse.”

        In the previous passage, he is identified as “the son of man” and “God’s unique son.”

        Jesus is a “monad” in the sense that he is uniquely born. But God is Monad because he is The One True God.

        Neither can be a monad, if they are both in the same class. That’s why the posers speak of a “Trinity” rather than a “Monad!”

        Comment by WoundedEgo | February 27, 2010

      • You’re misunderstanding me. WoundedEgo, the way I’m using “monadic” has nothing to do with your dictionary definition of it. Look at Wallace’s intermediate grammar, page 223f. You’re describing the deictic use, but I’m saying it’s more than that here (at least possibly).

        When I say monadic, I mean a one-of-a-kind thing that needs no further identity. Please don’t throw a general audience dictionary at me. It insults my intelligence, and I do not appreciate it.

        Comment by Gary Simmons | February 27, 2010

  5. […] the opening of the latest post: I think John 3:17 (like John 3:16) shows us three things: potential traps in translation, typical […]

    Pingback by “God Didn’t Say That” « The Empty Path | February 27, 2010 | Reply

  6. Sorry I’m so talkative today! In any case, here’s my tentative translation of 3:14-17.

    “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so also must the Son of Man be lifted up,

    so that any who believe in Him will have eternal life.

    God, actually, did show love to the world: he gave his One and Only Son, so that any who believe in Him, instead of perishing, will have eternal life.

    For God did not send the Son to the world to judge the world, for the world to be saved through Him.”

    I tried to get the repetition across in 15 and 16. I admit that “will” for subjunctive feels awkward. However, I believe here the subjunctive indicates (previously) unactualized purpose rather than merely possible outcome. “Might” or “should” in English refer to possibility rather than purpose. The Greek uses subj here because hina plus indicative is not exactly common. (I think…?)

    I said “did show love” in order to avoid saying “did love,” because that implies “did, but doesn’t any longer.”

    Comment by Gary Simmons | February 27, 2010 | Reply

    • Correction on verse 17: “but for the world to be saved through Him.” I forgot the conjunction.

      Comment by Gary Simmons | February 27, 2010 | Reply

    • >>>…I admit that “will” for subjunctive feels awkward…

      And well it should! The force of the subjunctive here is clearly the **intention** of God, rather than the accomplishment of God. In John’s writings, there is no inevitability of the nations being saved.

      >>>…I said “did show love” in order to avoid saying “did love,” because that implies “did, but doesn’t any longer.”..

      I don’t think it implies anything about the future. The scope of the aorist, and the context, is a specific, finite act. The aorist leaves the edges undefined. An ingressive aorist might, contextually, speak of an event that naturally leads into a condition, such as “they married,” but I don’t see that usage in view here.

      There is such a thing as translation that aspires to right too many things – things that the text was not designed to do.

      Comment by WoundedEgo | February 27, 2010 | Reply

  7. >>>1. If “THE Son” is monadic (see my response to John), then a capital S is appropriate.

    In which sense are you using this word? Sense 1? Or sense 2?

    http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/monadic

    >>>2. I wonder how this relates to Genesis 6. The earth itself and all creation was corrupted by human violence. God didn’t use laser snipers to get rid of the human lost community while preserving the rest of creation, which had become corrupt also; rather, God sent the flood on everything corrupt. While kosmos does view the human lost community, it’s more than just human society in view — at least in my opinion.

    I see it being used by John almost as a synonym or alias for “the nations.”

    >>>3. You’re spot on that condemn is misunderstood today. I dunno what we should do about it, though. Perhaps “to damn” appropriately would convey the shock value.

    IMHO, “damn” is religious jargon these days, contaminated with a Miltonesque image of “Hell.” The term John used was a common Greek word, used with regard to forensics in common Greek society. The opposite, to John, of everlasting life, is “death” and “perishing.”

    Comment by WoundedEgo | February 27, 2010 | Reply


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