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.

February 4, 2010 Posted by | Bible versions, translation practice | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 40 Comments

Review: Sin: A History

Sin: A History. By Gary A. Anderson. (New Haven and London: Yale University Press. Pp. xv, 272. $30.00.)

The Lord’s Prayer — says Gary A. Anderson in Sin: A History — can be understood only in the light of the changing metaphors for sin. So too the practice of almsgiving, as well as important parts of Isaiah, Leviticus, and much more. That’s because all of them depend on different views of sin. Unfortunately, Dr. Anderson notes, “[i]n English, sin has become tethered […] to the word forgive” and that “ubiquitous rendering […] fails to reveal the major dialectal shifts that occurred in biblical language over time” (p.4). In other words, as he repeatedly claims, “sin has a history.”

In his well-researched and pleasantly easy-to-read book, Anderson identifies three different images of sin: first, as a weight to be borne; second, as a stain to be washed away; and third, as a debt to be repaid. In Part One, he traces the transition from the first (sin as weight) to the third (sin as debt). In Parts Two and Three he covers some consequences of the shift, including the now central notion of salvation by works.

Anderson’s initial arguments are largely linguistic, because, as he points out (p. 13), “[h]ow we talk about sin […] influences what will do do about it” (his emphasis). He takes language seriously, and (with few exceptions) presents an accurate picture of how language and metaphor work.

In Chapter 2, Anderson turns to sin in the First Temple period. The most common noun for “sin” in the OT is avon (which he spells `awon — but I’ll stick to easier to read transliterations here), and although three verbs are used in connection with OT “sin,” the idiom “to bear [the weight of]” (nasa), “predominates over its nearest competitor by over six to one” (p. 17). Hebrew speakers during the First Temple period compared “sin” to “weight.” Anderson notes that this imagery is especially and unfortunately lacking from most English translations, so many people who read the Bible remain unaware of this prevalent image. Anderson’s detailed account of sin in the OT is clear, compelling, and fascinating.

Chapter 3 addresses the Second Temple period — some parts of the OT, including Second Isaiah and Daniel. By this time, Anderson claims, another image has taken over, that of sin as debt. He further notes that “the explanation is not difficult to pinpoint: the influence of Aramaic” (p. 27). Here Anderson is on shakier linguistic ground. He runs the risk of having confused simultaneity with cause. But even so, his account of the final outcome is as clear here as it was in Chapter 2.

Particularly convincing is his summary of Aramaic Targum translations of some Hebrew Bible passages on page 28. In Leviticus, the Hebrew “bear the weight of his sin [nasa avono]” becomes the Aramaic “assumes a debt [y’kabel choveh]” (Lev. 5:1). The Hebrew cheto nasa (also “bear the weight of his sin”) in Lev. 24:15 similarly becomes y’kabel choveh in Aramaic. Furthermore, the Hebrew verb “to sin” in Lev. 5:1, techeta, becomes “to be indebted” or “to be obligated” (techov) in Aramaic.

Uncontent to stop there, Anderson provides a detailed analysis of Aramaic financial terms, and shows how they are systematically mapped into the domain of sin.

The stage is thus set for Parts Two and Three of Anderson’s work, which detail the role of sin-as-debt in a variety of biblical, extra-biblical and post-biblical settings.

Anderson starts with Second Isaiah and some late additions to Leviticus, highlighting passages like “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and declare to her that her term of service is over, that the debt owed for her iniquity has been satisfied” (Isaiah 40:2) that evidence the early equation of sin with debt.

Anderson takes the reader through Daniel and then early rabbinic and Christian sources, again making a clear and cogent argument: sin is debt. Furthermore, sin can therefore incur interest and cause default.

For the prophets, exile was the interest on the debt.

The ancient punishment for default was slavery, which explains, for example, Isaiah 50:1: “…and which of My creditors was it//to whom I sold you off?// You were sold off for your sins” (NJPS translation, which Anderson uses; p. 48). Similarly, Romans and central passages from 2 Colossians make sense only in this paradigm: “But I am of the flesh, sold into slavery under sin” (Romans 7:14) and “Christ erased the bond of indebtedness that stood against us” (2 Col. 2:14).

Indeed, “forgive us our debts as we have forgiven our debtors” (Matthew 6:12) makes sense only in the broader context of sin as debt, a fact reflected in the Peshitta (the Aramaic Bible), where Anderson translates the Aramaic verb for “forgive” as “to wavie one’s right [to collect]” and the noun specifically as “debt” (p. 111).

In Part Three, Anderson turns to a final aspect of debt: it can be countered by payments. We should not be surprised to find that the same becomes true of sin.

For example, Anderson cites a well known passage from the Talmud (middle of the 1st millennium AD) — now part of the traditional daily Jewish liturgy — that some good deeds “accrue interest in this world, while the principal remains for the world to come” (my translation; p. 175). Similarly, St. Augustine (also the middle of the 1st millennium) observed: “Give a little and receive on a grand scale. Look how your interest in mounting up! Give temporal wealth and claim eternal interest, give earth and gain heaven” (p. 164).

Is is this context, Anderson claims, that created the notion of salvation by works and that made almsgiving so central. Both are ways of countering the indebtedness of sin.

In his final chapter, Anderson addresses “Why God Became Man,” citing and adding to St. Anselm of Canterbury’s 11th-century Cur deus homo (Why God Became Man). Anderson writes, “In developing [St. Anselm’s] argument, he provides an account of the sin of Adam and the great debt this sin occasioned. The metaphor of sin as a debt, as a result, informs every page of this book” (p. 189).

Anderson’s work is cogent, innovative, clear, and a model of popular scholarship. Anyone interested in the role of sin will gain from reading Sin: A History, as will those who want to learn more about language, metaphor, and the beautiful complexity of biblical theology. For this we are all in Anderon’s debt.

November 9, 2009 Posted by | book review, translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , , | 3 Comments