God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

Q&A: Who Are You(rselves)?

Anthony asks on the About page:

I have a question about Heb 3:13. When it says “exhort yourselves,” is the Greek literally saying “you all exhort each other” or “you all exhort your own selves,” supporting Galatians 6:4? Would the expression in question be parakaleite eautous?

Yes, that is the Greek, and it’s a great question.

Let’s ignore the nuances of what parakaleo means (“exhort”? “encourage”? “comfort”? etc.) and focus on eautou. It turns out that the word can be both reciprocal (“each other” in English) and reflexive (“oneself”).

For example, we find the word in Colossians 3:13: “[{3:12} As God’s chosen ones … wear clothes of … patience,] {3:13} putting up with each other [allilon] and forgiving each other [eautois] if you have a complaint against another [tis pros tina — ‘one against another’].” There eautou is pretty clearly reciprocal: the exhortation is “forgive each other,” not “forgive yourselves.” The fact that eautou appears in parallel with allilon and tis…tis — both of which are reciprocal — reinforces the reciprocal reading for eautou. (I understand that there’s a rumor that allilon is always reciprocal and eautou never is. That doesn’t seem right.)

So we see pretty clearly that eautou can be reciprocal.

Equally, eautou can be reflexive. James 1:22 reads, “Be doers of the word, not just listeners deceiving yourselves [eautous].” Romans 6 points in the same direction: “{6:11} so consider yourselves [eautous] dead to sin but alive to God… {6:13}…completely present yourselves eautous to God…”

One of the the things that makes this question interesting is that grammar won’t help us with Hebrews 3:13, because eautous there might mean either “yourselves” or “each other.” In this regard Greek didn’t make a distinction. (At least NT Greek didn’t.)

As a general matter, we expect this sort of pronominal ambiguity. It’s a little like, “please speak to myself…” in English, which I find ungrammatical (because the reflexive pronoun is used where an ordinary one should be), but I know other dialects accept it. Similarly, “they love their mother” (the standard example in linguistics) is ambiguous as to whether “they each love their own mother” or “they all love their collective mother.”

I think eautou is likewise ambiguous.

And while the specific lesson here is about that pronoun, more generally I think we see that linguistics can only go so far when it comes to understanding the Bible.


March 16, 2010 - Posted by | grammar, Q&A, translation practice | , , , , ,

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