God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

All in All Not Much of a Conversation

All in All

Dannii at BBB has a post about “all in all” as a translation for panta en pasin in 1 Corinthians 15:28. The full verse is (NRSV):

When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to the one who put all things in subjection under him, so that God may be all in all.

I think this is an excellent demonstration both of what can go wrong in Bible translation and how hard it can be to talk about Bible-translation issues.

Dannii read “all in all” and “almost made the mistake of thinking the Bible taught pantheism.” Therefore, for Dannii, the NLT’s “[God] will be utterly supreme over everything everywhere” is “a much better translation.”

In a comment, Marshall Massey replies that, “Personally, I’d rather have a mechanically literal translation of this verse than a translation ‘corrected’ to fit someone’s preconceived notions of what the Bible can and cannot teach. If a verse appears to teach pantheism, then let the readers wrestle with that fact!”

Another comment agrees: “Others are saying it better than me, but I’ll weigh in against this theological filtering.”

Gary Simmons then suggests that modern audiences are “less capable of interpretation” than Paul’s audience and “[i]f our audience is less capable of working through interpretation, then clarity becomes a prominent issue.” So a translator has to take obscure Greek and clarify it in translation.

Peter Kirk notes that “all in all” isn’t a literal translation at all, because “it misses the significant fact that in Greek both ‘all’s are plural, and the first is neuter, whereas the second could be any gender.”

John Hobbins then raises the issue of consistency: “It also makes sense to translate a neologism [such as panta en pasin] in the same way across all of its occurrences,” suggesting that the “ESV among recent translations is the way to go. It’s as simple as that.”

Four Conversations

At this point, we have four conversations going on:

1. What did the Greek mean?

2. How do we judge the success of a translation?

3. Which English best applies the right answer to (2) to the right answer to (1)?

4. Which published translation best represents the right answer to (3)?

(J.K. Gayle rightly notes three of these, in a different order: “1. the Greek; 2. the English; and 3. what translation means and does.”)

I think one common source of frustration is when people appear to be engaged in dialog but in fact they are having different conversations.

For example, Marshall pits literal translations against translations that are corrected. For him, this is a conversation about the second question: he prefers accuracy over emended theology. But for me, this is a combination of the 1st question and the 3rd. I agree that accuracy is important, but I don’t think that “all in all” accurately represents the Greek. So even though I disagree with Marshall’s conclusion that “all in all” is a good translation, fundamentally, at least on this, I agree with him.

Dannii seems primarily to address the third question, without first having answered the first and the second (but with the caveat: “I won’t say the NLT is necessarily correct, but at least they tried.”).

Peter is apparently addressing question 3 (“is this really a literal translation?”), though I don’t believe that he is in favor of literal translations in the first place.

Gary’s point concerns the second question.

John seems to address the second and fourth questions. I agree with John that consistency is important, though I disagree that the ESV achieves it. The same Greek phrase appears in 1 Corinthians 12:6, but there the ESV translates, “all in everyone.” (I don’t know of any translation that offers consistency here.)


I think this expanded view of what’s going on is important for two reasons:

1. This is typical of how Bible translations are debated.

2. When we aren’t clear about which question we’re addressing, fundamental agreement (e.g., “a translation should be accurate”) ends up looking like disagreement.


April 7, 2010 - Posted by | Bible versions, translation theory | , , , , , , ,


  1. Thanks for this. Indeed I am not in favour of a literal translation. My point was really that translators need to look at your question 1, what the Greek means, before jumping to a translation, literal or otherwise.

    I like the way you used the English idiom in your title. Perhaps we should understand the literal English translations to mean “… so that, all in all, God may be.” 😉

    Comment by Peter Kirk | April 7, 2010

  2. […] Joel blows away the smoke: All in All Not Much of a Conversation […]

    Pingback by Best writing by faith bloggers | lingamish | April 7, 2010

  3. Thanks for the links, and for both clarifying and expanding the conversation!

    Your point here is quite important, and shouldn’t get overlooked:

    “4. Which published translation best represents the right answer to (3) [i.e., (3) what the Greek meant and how our judgment of a successful English translation relates to it]?”

    Theophrastus rightly suggests Barnstone’s translation as one of the best published:


    Comment by J. K. Gayle | April 7, 2010

  4. Great stuff, Joel, as usual, but let’s cut to the chase. Admit it, you like NRSV’s “so that God may be all in all.”

    Comment by John Hobbins | April 7, 2010

    • Admit it, you like NRSV’s “so that God may be all in all.”

      The first half is true. I think that the NRSV is generally unsurpassed. But in this case I think they blew it.

      Comment by Joel H. | April 8, 2010

  5. So what do you propose?

    Comment by John Hobbins | April 8, 2010

  6. I rendered it thusly (“that God may be all things in all people”), not sure if that’s much of an improvement.

    Comment by usotsuki | April 14, 2010

  7. I think the fact that #1 hasn’t been answered is the whole problem. Don’t know if it helps at all or is anywhere near being accurate, but I think sometimes we can’t get out of the box because we haven’t opened it yet. 😉

    The thrust of the passage in question is that one thing after another is put into a larger box, so to speak; things have been happening in a sequence and it had to be so. And the end result is that, if I may put it this way, God is the biggest box. Then I would express “all in all” as “everything is contained in God” or “everything winds up at God”. I know this doesn’t exactly fit the grammar, but to use another expression, “How’s that working out for you?” 🙂 I just prefer putting context first I guess.

    Comment by Paula | April 16, 2010

  8. I think the sense is, “God alone will rule, and God will rule alone.” The contrast is to God ruling by representation (ie: through Jesus). Jesus will be retired as lord. God, who temporarily tasked Jesus with the bloody task of subjugating his enemies, will terminate that office (once completed) and run things directly from the seat in the revamped Jerusalem. God’s dwelling place will be among men and he will be face to face with his people.

    Comment by WoundedEgo | April 18, 2010

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