The first church

The first church

Here is my translation of Acts 2:36-47. I’m doing a preaching series through the Book of Acts, and I try to translate the passages as I go. Sometimes that isn’t possible! But, for what it’s worth, here is my rendering of Acts 2:36-47, with some technical notes. I don’t claim to be a Greek ninja, but this is a representative effort from me …

Therefore, let the whole house of Israel know without a doubt that God has declared[1] Him to be both Lord and Messiah―this Jesus whom you all crucified. Now,[2] when they heard this[3] they were cut right to the heart[4] and said to Peter and to the other apostles, “Men! Brothers! What should we do!?”

And Peter said to them, “Change your ways and your heart―each of you!― and be immersed in the name[5] of Jesus Christ[6] in order to have[7] forgiveness of sins. Then you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit, because this promise is for you,[8] and for your children, and for those who are far away―as many as the Lord our God calls to Himself.”

And with many other words he urged and pleaded with them, saying, “Save yourselves from this wicked[9] age!” So, then, those who believed and trusted his message were immersed in water. And about 3,000 souls were added [to God’s family] in those days.

They regularly gave[10] themselves[11] to the apostles’[12] teaching and to the community[13]―the breaking of bread[14] and prayer. Fear was coming upon every soul, because[15] many wonders and signs kept being done[16] by[17] the apostles.

All the believers were together,[18] and shared everything they had. They were selling their property and possessions and distributing it all to anyone who had need.[19]

Every day, by mutual agreement, they were meeting at the temple, breaking bread in their various homes[20] and sharing food together with joy and heartfelt sincerity. They praised God and had favor[21] with all the people. And each day the Lord was adding to the congregation[22] those who were being rescued.

Here are some of my friends who helped me with the translation:


[1] I can’t agree that ἐποίησεν here implies God “making” something (e.g. Louw-Nida, 42.29). The sense seems to be that God appointed Jesus to be both Lord and Christ (Louw-Nida, 37.106). The tense-form has a culminative flavor, where Christ’s ascension is the declarative event wherein Jesus assumes His throne (cf. Acts 13:32-33 and the preceding context). It could also be a gnomic aorist, in which case Peter would be emphasizing that Jesus has always been both Lord and Christ.

[2] The conjunction signifies a transition. 

[3] Ἀκούσαντες is an adverbial, temporal participle modifying κατενύγησαν.

[4] τὴν καρδίαν is an adverbial accusative of reference.

[5] The preposition expresses reference; they must each be baptized with reference to Jesus’ name.

[6] Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ is a subjective genitive, but I kept this construction (rather than “Jesus Christ’s name”) because it just sounds … weird … to have it any other way.

[7] The preposition in μετανοήσατε … καὶ βαπτισθήτω ἕκαστος ὑμῶν ἐπὶ τῷ ὀνόματι Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ εἰς ἄφεσιν τῶν ἁμαρτιῶν expresses purpose.

It likely isn’t causal (“because of”), because this use of the preposition is debated. Richard Young (Intermediate Grammar, p. 93) and Dan Wallace (GGBB, pp. 369-371) caution against adopting its usage here. Dana and Mantey argue forcefully for the causal approach (Manual Grammar, pp. 103-104), but Young and Wallace specifically mention Mantey and state he is incorrect. Moulton and Turner (Grammar: Syntax, p. 266) also argue for causal. Even A.T. Robertson warns against hastily imputing a causal flavor to the preposition at Acts 2:38 (Grammar, p. 595). I greatly fear to tread where Young, Wallace and Robertson bid me not to go! I must take a rabbit-trail and point out that Eckhard Schnabel bizarrely claims Wallace is in favor of the causal construction (Acts, in ZECNT, p. 165, n. 22). This is insanity. Schnabel’s research assistant must have been sleep-deprived. Wallace was against it. 

One could argue it expresses reference; that is, they must repent and be baptized concerning the forgiveness of sins. This is odd; it would work with baptism but not with forgiveness. You would have to sever repentance and baptism, and make the “with reference to forgiveness of sins” be strictly about the baptism. You could justify this because the baptism is singular, whereas the demand for repentance is plural. I suppose you could make all this work, but it’s an awful lot of tap-dancing.

It’s simpler to see the preposition express purpose. Repentance + baptism is a unified act―action and symbol. Peter is not saying baptism is an instrument of salvation; he just couples the visible symbol of salvation with the act of repentance (GGBB, pp. 370-371). “Acts 2:38 is saying very little about the specific theological relationship between the symbol and the reality, only that historically they were viewed together. One must look in other places for a theological analysis,” (NET Bible Full Notes Edition, p. 2075, n. Y). See also BDAG, s.v. εἰς, p. 290 4.f.

[8] A dative of benefaction. 

[9] The literal meaning is “crooked,” and this figurative extension of the concept yields something like “wicked” or corrupt.”

[10] Ἦσαν is an iterative imperfect. 

[11] προσκαρτεροῦντες is a periphrastic present participle, and the subjects are the 3000 who just became believers. The word means to “attend constantly” (Abbott-Smith, p. 385), to “continue in, persevere in” something (BDAG, p. 811, §2b). Mounce says it means “to persist in adherence to a thing” (Expository Dictionary, p. 1258). The two datives are objects of the participle.

[12] τῶν ἀποστόλων is a subjective genitive. 

[13] We often think of “fellowship” as eating together. The real idea is much broader. Mounce declares it means, in this context, a “mutual interest and sharing of members in the community of faith,” (Expository Dictionary, p. 247). BDAG says much the same thing (p. 552, §1). Louw-Nida adds a very good twist when it says “an association involving close mutual relations and involvement,” (34.5; emphasis added).

So, I went with “community” as my translation. I think it’s best to emphasize the “involved” aspect of real community in the exposition, rather than the translation. The sense here is the “oneness” of the group, based on their shared brotherhood based on faith in Christ. Henry Alford also prefers the rendering “community” in his translation and commentary (The New Testament for English Readers, Acts 2:42).

[14] An objective genitive. This last bit is epexegetical to further define “fellowship,” chiefly because there is no coordinating conjunction. There is dispute over whether this is simply a shared fellowship meal, or the Lord’s Supper. As A.T. Robertson puts it, “Perhaps there is no way to settle the point conclusively here,” (Word Pictures, Acts 2:42).

[15] ἐγίνετο could be a descriptive imperfect which, in A.T. Robertson’s words, presents “a sort of divine panorama, a ‘moving-picture show,’” (Grammar, p. 883). But, it may well be iterative in the sense of “fear kept on coming upon every soul because signs and wonder kept being done,” (Robertson, Word Pictures, Acts 2:43). It’s a cycle. I split the difference by keeping the first verb descriptive, making the conjunction καὶ explanatory, and rendering the second ἐγίνετο as iterative.

[16] For the translation, see Abbott-Smith, s.v. “γίνομαι,” §3, p. 92. This is another descriptive imperfect.

[17] The preposition expresses personal agency.  

[18] The pronoun is reflexive, and the preposition expression space or association.  

[19] This was likely an ad hoc response to a situation in Jerusalem. A.T. Robbsertsson remarks, “It was not actual communism, but they held all their property ready for use for the common good as it was needed (4:32). This situation appears nowhere else except in Jerusalem and was evidently due to special conditions there which did not survive permanently. Later Paul will take a special collection for the poor saints in Jerusalem,” (Word Pictures, Acts 2:44).

Henry Alford adds, “No trace of its existence is discoverable any where else: on the contrary. St. Paul speaks constantly of the rich and the poor, see 1 Tim. 6:17; Gal. 2:10; 2 Cor. 8:13, 15; 9:6, 7; 1 Cor. 16:2: also St. James, 2:1–5; 4:13.—And from the practice having at first prevailed at Jerusalem, we may partly perhaps explain the great and constant poverty of that church, Rom. 15:25, 26; 1 Cor. 16:1–3; 2 Cor. 8:9; also ch. 11:30; 24:17.—The non-establishment of this community elsewhere may have arisen from the inconveniences which were found to attend it in Jerusalem: see ch. 6:1,” (New Testament for English Readers, Acts 2:44).

[20] I believe this refers to fellowship meals, not the Lord’s Supper. I also take the preposition in κατʼ οἶκον to be distributive of space (Bock [Acts, in BECNT, KL 4177],and Barrett [Acts, in ICC, p. 170) rather than an idiom suggesting they held circuit meals of some sort.  

[21] The phrase means “favor” or “goodwill,” (Abbott-Smith, s.v. “χάρις,” §2a, p. 479; Louw-Nida 25.89). It basically means the people respected them (cf. Phillips translation).  

[22] The personal pronoun is functioning as a switch-reference device, referring back to the company of believers Luke mentioned at 2:44. The “believers” there were plural, but now Luke refers to them as a singular group, to which new folks are being added.

What does “only-begotten” even mean?

What does “only-begotten” even mean?

Older English translations used the phrase “only-begotten” at John 1:14, 18; 3:16 and 1 John 4:9. Newer translations don’t use that. Don’t take my word for it; just look at your bible of choice. Newer translations use “unique,” “one and only” or “only,” (etc.) depending on the context.

The phrase “only-begotten” is tied up with the doctrine of eternal generation. Eternal generation is built on a conceptual framework that tries to explain how Father and Son can be distinct from one another, and yet have the very same essence/being. It is perhaps a great misunderstanding of the Nicene-Constantinople Creed to interpret it to mean Jesus and the Father each share the essence of “god like-ness.” That isn’t what it means. It says Jesus is “consubstantial with the Father” or “the same essence as the Father” (ὁμοούσιον τῷ Πατρί).

Eternal generation says that:

  1. the Son was generated by the Father,
  2. in a non-physical way (“begotten, not made”)
  3. and in a timeless way (“begotten of the Father before all worlds”)
  4. in a way we can’t ever understand
  5. but this does not imply subordinationism, temporal priority or that the Son was created

This doctrine is confusing to many non-confessional Christians. It’s likely most of these have never heard of the doctrine. It’s also quite likely few non-confessional seminary professors and even fewer seminary-trained pastors could coherently explain it. For proof, ask your pastor, “what does it mean that Jesus is the only-begotten Son? Does this mean Jesus came into being after the Father?” If your pastor does not reply by describing eternal generation, then he does not understand the doctrine. This doesn’t mean your pastor is a terrible person! It does mean he likely did not receive training in classical theology proper. I certainly did not!

Be that as it may … I say all that to tell you that the translations of John 1:14, 18; 3:16 and 1 John 4:9 are inseparably bound up with this doctrine. It’s a third rail. The past several years have seen extraordinary pushback from certain theologians advocating a return to “Nicene orthodoxy.” Specifically, to the “same essence” doctrine that Nicea taught. Jesus and the Father do not simply share the same essence, like you and I share “humanness.” No, they share the same, identical essence. They are the identical, same being. Part of this pushback is a quest to re-capture “only-begotten” as a valid rendering at John 1:14, 18; 3:16 and 1 John 4:9.

Are they right? How should the passages be rendered? What does μονογενὴς mean? Let’s see …

Lexicons

The lexicons conclude μονογενὴς has a range of meanings that do not require one to posit a timeless, non-physical derivation of divine essence from the Father to the Son.

  • BDAG: (1) “the only one of its kind within a specific relationship, one and only, only” or (2) “the only one of its kind or class, unique[1]
  • Abbott-Smith: only, only-begotten; of sone and daughters and of Christ[2]
  • Moulton and Milligan: “is literally ‘one of a kind,’ ‘only,’ ‘unique,’ not ‘only-begotten’ … the emphasis is on the thought that, as the ‘only’ Son of God, He has no equal and is able fully to reveal the Father.”[3]
  • Louw-Nida: “pertaining to what is unique in the sense of being the only one of the same kind or class—‘unique, only.”[4]
  • LEH LXX: “the only member of a kin, only-begotten, only (of children) Jgs 11,34; id. (of God) Od 14,13; alone in its kind, one only Wis 7,22[5]

Septuagint Usage[6]

Here, I survey every use of the word in the LXX.[7] The basic sense in the LXX is special, unique, one and only. These are very close synonyms for one another, but they convey the same force. The one outlier is Psalm 24:16, which gives the sense of alone or lonely.

Judges 11:34: And Jephthah went to Mizpah to his house; and behold, his daughter was going out to meet him with drums and dancing. She was his only begotten; there was not another son or daughter to him.

The sense here is “unique, one and only.” The girl is Jephthah’s precious daughter, which makes the consequences of his vow more serious.

Psalm 21:21: Rescue my soul from the sword, and my unique one from the hand of a dog.

Again, the sense is “unique, special, one and only.”

Psalm 24:16: Look upon me and have pity on me, because I am alone and poor

The sense here is different; more like monos than monogenes.

Psalm 34:17: O Lord, how long will you observe? Restore my life from their wrongdoing, my unique life from lions.

Unique, one and only, special.

Wisdom 7:22: … for the artisan of all teaches me wisdom. For in her is a spirit that is intelligent, holy, unique, manifold, gentle, movable, clear, undefiled, distinctive, invulnerable, loving goodness, sharp, unhindered, beneficent …

Unique, one of a kind. This is in the midst of Solomon’s recounting of his ordinary origins, and the blessing of wisdom he received because he sought higher things than earthly accolades (Wisdom 7:6-7).

Tobit 3:15: … and neither have I defiled my name nor my father’s name in this land of my captivity. I am an only child to my father, and neither is there to him a young child who will become his heir, nor a close relative.

One and only. Sarah, the woman whom Tobit’s son eventually marries, is lamenting her misfortune. An evil demon has, in turn, killed her seven successive husbands and she is now without any hope.

Tobit 8:17: Blessed are you because you have shown mercy on two only-begotten children! Show them mercy, O Master, fulfill their life in health with gladness and mercy!”

One and only. Sarah’s father gives God praise because Sarah and Tobit’s son, her new husband, have lived through the night. The demon has been defeated!

Psalm of Solomon 18:4: and your love is upon the offspring of Abraham, the children of Israel. Your childhood is upon us like a firstborn unique son

One and only, special, precious.

New Testament Usage

The usage here tracks with the evidence from the Septuagint. There are no surprises.

Luke 7:12: As he drew near to the gate of the town, behold, a man who had died was being carried out, the only son of his mother, and she was a widow, and a considerable crowd from the town was with her

One of a kind, as in “an only child.”

Luke 8:42: And there came a man named Jairus, who was a ruler of the synagogue. And falling at Jesus’ feet, he implored him to come to his house, for he had an only daughter, about twelve years of age, and she was dying.

One of a kind, as in “an only child.”

Luke 9:37-38: On the next day, when they had come down from the mountain, a great crowd met him. And behold, a man from the crowd cried out, “Teacher, I beg you to look at my son, for he is my only child!

One of a kind, as in “an only child.”

Hebrews 11:17-18: By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was in the act of offering up his only son, of whom it was said, “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.

One of a kind, as in “an only child.”

Usage Related to Jesus

With this foundation in place, from the LXX and every citation in the New Testament, we’re in a good place to determine how to take the word in reference to Jesus. Basically, the usage here fits perfectly with what we’ve seen in the LXX and the remainder of the New Testament.

John 1:14: And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth

The sense is uniqueness, a special “one of a kind-ness.” Jesus has a very special glory, a glory that can only come from someone in the closest possible relationship with the Father (v. 18). They share the same glory. To find implications about an eternal generation here are speculative and depend on an a priori determination to “find” the doctrine in the passage.

John 1:18: No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.

Again, context suggests uniqueness, one of a kind-ness. Jesus, as the one “in the bosum of the Father,” has the closest possible relationship with Him. Thus only Jesus, the very special, one and only God (or “Son,” if you prefer the variant reading) can truly make the Father known to the world.

John 3:14-16: And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes fin him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life

The force of the passage is God’s love. He has so much love that He sent His unique, special, one and only Son to die for His people’s sins. Abraham’s would-be sacrifice (the emotional force of giving your only son’s life) prefigures this event. Again, finding eternal generation here is eisegesis.

1 John 4:9: In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him

See the comments at John 3:16 (above).

Apostolic Father’s Usage[8]

There are no new surprises here.

1 Clement 25:2: For there is a bird which is called the Phoenix. This bird, being the one and only of its kind, lives five hundred years

Self-explanatory

Martyrdom of Polycarp 20:2: And to him who is able to bring us all in his grace and gift, to his heavenly kingdom, by his one and only child, Jesus Christ, be glory, honor, power, and majesty ⌊forever⌋. Greet all the holy ones

One and only. Older translation used “only-begotten” (e.g. Lake), but there is no need for this. A theological presupposition about eternal generation would have to drive this interpretation.

Diognetus 10:2: For God loved humankind, for whom he made the world, to whom he subjected all things, the things in the earth, to whom he gave reason, to whom he gave mind, to whom alone he allowed to look above to him, whom he made in his own image, to whom he sent his one and only son, to whom he promised the kingdom in heaven and will give it to those who love him.

This is an allusion to John’s usage (John 1:14, 18, 3:16; 1 Jn 4:9), and the same comments apply here.

So, What’s It Mean?

Charles Irons argues there is a “directional flow” in the lexical evidence to see the meaning of μονογενὴς expanding in “ever-increasing” figurative ways … ways that allow one to interpret it to imply Jesus’ metaphysical derivation from the Father (“A Lexical Defense of the Johannine ‘Only-Begotten,'” in Retrieving Eternal Generation, ed. Fred Sanders and Scott Swain (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2017), p. 111). Indeed, Irons contends it is a human metaphor to express an eternal timeless, non-physical derivation from Father to Son (Ibid, p. 115). He states “the importance of the Johannine monogenēs for the construction of the doctrine of the eternal generation of the Son cannot be underestimated,” (Ibid, p. 116).

Irons is arguing for interpretation, not pure translation. In fact, if one took his approach to its logical implication for bible translation, the result would be a dynamic equivalent rendering so interpretive it might make even Eugene Peterson blush. Only an a priori commitment to the doctrine of eternal generation would make you render μονογενὴς as “only-begotten. This doesn’t mean eternal generation isn’t real. It just means the word should not be translated as “only-begotten.”

It would be as if I, when encountering Καὶ ὁ λόγος σὰρξ ἐγένετο at John 1:14, rendered it as “and the Word kept His divine nature and added a human nature, and thus became fully God and fully man.” I smuggled a whole host of good stuff in there, but it isn’t what John wrote. He actually wrote “and the Word became flesh.”

In the same way, John did not write that Jesus is “only-begotten” in the sense that He derives His essence from the Father in a timeless, eternal manner. “Only-begotten” means nothing, in and of itself, when it comes to Jesus. It only engenders confusion. You may wish to guard the sanctity of eternal generation. Have at it, but support a rendering that communicates more than it confuses. Talk about the doctrine in exposition. Don’t smuggle it crudely into your translations.

The controversy about the meaning of μονογενὴς isn’t as difficult as some would like you to believe. Set aside the lexical essays. Just look at every usage of the word in the literature for yourself. It isn’t difficult. But, like so much else, it’s become difficult because of the freight the various interpretations pull with it.


[1] BDAG, p. 658.

[2] Abbott-Smith, p. 296. 

[3] Moulton and Milligan, pp. 416-417. 

[4] Louw-Nida, §58.52.

[5] Johan Lust, Erik Eynikel, and Katrin Hauspie, A Greek-English Lexicon of the Septuagint : Revised Edition (Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft: Stuttgart, 2003).

[6] The LXX citations here are from Rick Brannan et al., eds., The Lexham English Septuagint (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2012).

[7] I do not include Ode 14, because it is clearly a Christian composition of some maturity. It is not properly a citation from before the time of Christ.

[8] My citations here are from Rick Brannan, tran., The Apostolic Fathers in English (Bellingham: Lexham Press, 2012).

The shepherds didn’t hear it first

The shepherds didn’t hear it first

The people who heard the first Christmas announcement weren’t the shepherds, keeping watch in their fields at night. It was Zechariah and Elizabeth’s neighbors and relatives in the rural Judean hill country. This Sunday (20 December 2020), in my congregation’s fourth Advent sermon (Luke 1:57-80), Zechariah tells us the first Christmas story.

I’ve supplied my own translation of the entire text, along with translations of some cross-references from Luke 1 that are important to understand the story.

Luke 1:13-17

Why the focus on Elizabeth and their baby? Because they were an elderly couple who never had children; a righteous and ordinary couple (Lk 1:6). Not simple as in “stupid” or “blue-collar.” But, “simple” as in honest and good people. Luke tells us what happens when Zechariah goes into the temple to perform his duties:


But the angel said to him,

Zechariah! Don’t be afraid, because your prayer has been heard, and your wife, Elizabeth, will bear a son for you and you will call his name ‘John.’

And the boy will be a joy and a great delight to you, and many people will rejoice because of his birth

For he will be mighty in the Lord’s eyes, so he will never drink wine or strong drink. Instead, he will be filled with the Holy Spirit—even from his mother’s womb!

And he will turn back many children of Israel, to the Lord their God

And he will go forth before the Lord comes, with Elijah’s spirit and power

to turn back the father’s hearts to their children, and the disobedient to a righteous way of thinking—to prepare people to be ready for the Lord!”

Luke 1:24-25

Now, Luke tells us what happened with Elizabeth after this:

Now after those days, his wife Elizabeth conceived and kept herself hidden away for five months. “Look what the Lord has done for me!” she would say. “These past months, He cared enough about me to remove my public shame!” 

Luke 1:57-80

This is the great account of John’s birth, and Zechariah’s prophesy:


Now, the time came for this woman Elizabeth to give birth, and she gave birth to a son. Then the neighbors, along with her relatives, heard that the Lord had shown such wonderful mercy to her, and they were rejoicing with her.

And it happened that, on the eighth day, they came to circumcise the boy and they were calling him after the name of his father, Zechariah. Then the mother spoke up and said, “No, instead he must be called John!”

And they said to her, “There isn’t anybody from your family who is called that name!” Then they were signaling to the boy’s father to find out what he wanted him to be called.

And he asked for a little writing tablet and wrote, saying “His name is John!” And they were all amazed.

Then, immediately, Zechariah’s mouth was opened along with his tongue and he began to speak, praising God over and over.

And fear came upon all who lived near them, and throughout the whole Judean hill country this event was being discussed by everyone. And all the people who heard this stored it in their hearts, saying “So, what will this child be!? It’s obvious the Lord’s hand is with the boy!”

And Zechariah his father was filled by the Holy Spirit and prophesied, saying

Praise to the God of Israel, who is Lord! Because he came to help, and has now rescued His people.

And He’s raised up for us a mighty salvation, through the family of David, His Son

Just as he promised by the mouths of His holy prophets, so long ago: ‘Rescue from our enemies and from the power of all who hate us!’

To show mercy to our fathers, and to remember His holy covenant —

the oath that He swore to Abraham our father, to grant us deliverance from the power of enemies

so we can serve Him in His presence without fear, in a holy and righteous way, all the days of our lives.

And now you, my son, will be called a prophet of the most high, because you will lead the way before the Lord’s arrival, to prepare His path

To grant knowledge of salvation to His people, through the forgiveness of their crimes

Because of our God’s compassionate mercy, the rising light from on high will come to help us!

To shine light upon those sitting in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet onto the peaceful path.

So, the boy kept growing and becoming strong in spiritual things, and he stayed in the wilderness until the day he revealed Himself to the people of Israel.   


Here is the sermon:

Authorized: An Interview with Mark Ward

wardThis year, Mark Ward published his book Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible (Bellingham, WA: Lexham, 2018). In this book, he makes the argument that Christians deserve a Bible translation in their own common, everyday language – they deserve a vernacular translation:

The KJV beautifully rendered the Scriptures into the language of turn-of-the-seventeenth-century England. Even today the King James is the most widely read Bible in the United States. The rich cadence of its Elizabethan English is recognized even by non-Christians. But English has changed a great deal over the last 400 years—and in subtle ways that very few modern readers will recognize. In Authorized, Mark Ward shows what exclusive readers of the KJV are missing as they read God’s word.

In this interview which I conducted for the website SharperIron.org, Ward explains what his book is about, and why this issue of a vernacular translation is a critical, but often overlooked part of the “bible version” debate that has raged for so long in some Christian circles.

 

The End of Everything

Here is my rendering of the next passage in my journey to translate and teach my way through the Book of 1 Peter:

Now, the end of everything has now drawn near, so be sensible and self-controlled for the sake of [your] prayers. Above all else, always keep [your] love for one another constant, because love always covers many sins. Be hospitable to one another without complaining. To the degree that each [of you] has received a gift, use it to serve one another, like good servants of God’s multifaceted grace. If someone speaks, [do it like he’s speaking] God’s [very] words. If someone serves, [he must do so] from the strength that God always supplies, so that God will be glorified in all things through Jesus Christ. To him [belongs] the glory and sovereignty for ever and ever! Amen (1 Peter 4:7-11).

These is some very good advice! Actually they’re a series of commands, which flow from that enigmatic statement at the very beginning:

1 pet 4

Here are some questions to consider from the passage:

  1. What is the “end of all things?” What is Peter referring to? How does this relate to the list of commands in this passage?
  2. Why should Christians be sensible and self-controlled? Where else in this letter did Peter say something similar about how your behavior is linked to how God hears your prayers?
  3. What does Peter mean when he says “love always covers many sins?”
  4. What did “hospitality” look in Peter’s day, in his culture? What does it look like, today, in our culture?
  5. Why does Peter call God’s grace of bestowing gifts to Christians as “multifaceted,” or “manifold” or “varied?”
  6. What are some of the gifts the New Testament identifies believers have?
  7. Who does Peter want you to use your gifts for? What does this tell us about the congregation being a local community of believers?
  8. What does Peter suggest about how gifted you are in a particular area?
  9. What kind of “speaking” is Peter referring to?
  10. Where does the strength come from to serve others in the church? What does this tell us about motivation for service?
  11. What is the reason and motivation for Christians to use their spiritual gifts for each other?

I’m looking forward to going through this passage over the next few weeks.

“Let it Go” and Bible Translation Philosophy

Many people are looking for a “formal equivalence” translation of the Bible, even if they don’t use that nerdy term. They want a Bible that translates the Greek and Hebrew into English as accurately as possible, following the original intent of the original words as closely as possible. That’s good.

But, how do you do this?

People have different philosophies of translation, and we see that in Bible translations. Some folks try to stick very close to the structure of the original language (e.g. the NASB), while others try to catch the flavor and meaning, even if they have to use a bit of creative license (e.g. NET, NEB, NLT).

Some well-meaning pastors and bible teachers passionately defend a “formal equivalence” translation philosophy. I get what they’re saying, but I don’t agree. But, first, here’s a good definition so we understand what we’re talking about:

Formal equivalence: a theory of translation that favors reproducing the form or language of the original text, not just its meaning. In its stricter form, this theory of translation espouses reproducing even the syntax and word order of the original; the formula word for word translation often implies this stricter definition of the concept.

Leland Ryken, Understanding English Bible Translation: The Case for an Essentially Literal Approach (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2009; Kindle ed.), KL 186-188.

I like this definition. It has good motives. The main drawback is that this kind of translation philosophy will often produce cardboard English; a stilted, artificial, and extraordinarily formal text. That’s why the NASB isn’t very elegant.

I could go on … but I have an example for you. It’s not a Bible verse; it’s something entirely different. I want you to watch (and read) the subtitles for Disney France’s official version of the mega-hit single “Let it Go,” from the movie Frozen. The subtitle function in YouTube uses a formal equivalence translation philosophy when it renders the French lyrics into English. Listen, and tell me what you think!

You know the real lyrics to this song; they’re colloquial and make intuitive sense. When we speak and listen, real meaning isn’t so much in the individual words, but in the vernacular words, phrases and contemporary context which shapes and gives meaning to this speech.

You either know or hate this song. But, I know you’ve heard it. Read the subtitles, and learn what a formal equivalence translation philosophy can do to a poetic work. Here’s a preview of the first chorus:

Liberated! Delivered!
I will never lie again
Liberated! Delivered!
It’s decided! I’m leaving!
I left my childhood in Summer
Lost in winter
The cold is my price for freedom

Consider why some pastors, translators and bible students are less than sold on a full-throated, formal equivalence translation philosophy.

Here it is (if closed captioning isn’t already on, turn it on) …

A Word About Bible Translation Philosophies

montoyaIf you’re a Christian who has paid attention, you’ve probably heard strong opinions from Pastors or other Christians about various English Bible translations. Maybe you’ve heard the NIV is a “liberal translation,” because it’s “gender-neutral.” Perhaps you’ve heard the NLT is a paraphrase. And so it goes.

There’s nothing wrong with the major English Bible translations. I don’t care which one you read and use; KJV, ASV, RSV, NIV, NRSV, NEB, REB, NASB, MEV, LEB NET, Phillips. Take your pick. In the end, most disagreements come down to what you believe about (1) translation philosophy and (2) which printed, Greek New Testament text is the best. I wrote a long article about bible translations a while back to briefly address some of these concerns.

Today, I want to talk about translation philosophy. If you ask an informed Christian, she’ll probably tell you there are two camps:

  1. Formal equivalence, or “word for word” translations. This approach tries, as much as possible, to retain the original word order in Greek and Hebrew.
  2. Dynamic equivalence, or “thought for thought” translations. This philosophy seeks to convey the meaning of the word or phrase, and isn’t as tied to the original word order.

This is all wrong. Wrong. Not right. Wrong.

Most Christians in America aren’t fluent in a second language, and haven’t studied languages. I understand, and I’m not blaming anybody. But, the result is that Christians who say these things are usually repeating what others have told them. They often really don’t know what they’re talking about. This kind of argument works best as an abstraction, as a pie in the sky philosophy. When you put the fancy ideas away, and actually try to translate a Bible passage yourself, life gets tough.

Here’s a simple example …

What does “bless” mean?

The Apostle Peter is wrapping up his discussion of the so-called “household” or “station codes,” and he wrote this to sum up every Christian’s responsibility to live in a holy way in a pagan world (1 Peter 3:8-12). Here’s one excerpt from that section:

Finally, all of you, have unity of spirit, sympathy, love of the brethren, a tender heart and a humble mind. Do not return evil for evil or reviling for reviling; but on the contrary bless, for to this you have been called, that you may obtain a blessing (1 Peter 3:8-9, RSV).

Tell me, what on earth does “bless” mean, in this context? I want you to explain it to me. I want you to consider the context, consider why the phrase repeats in the same sentence, and tell me what “bless” and “blessing” mean. I’m waiting …

Still waiting.

Well, I’ll go first. Here’s one thing you should always remember:

  • There is no such thing as a “literal meaning.” Literally (heh)! 

Every word and every sentence depends on context for clarity. Words have tons of different meanings, but the context tells you which meaning is right. You already know this, instinctively. You don’t even realize you know it, but you do.

Think about the word “tons” (which I conveniently put in bold so you’d see it). What is the “literal meaning” of that word? You don’t know, do you? You’re thinking on it now, and you’re realizing it all depends on how the word is used, aren’t you? Merriam-Webster’s dictionary says:

  • The word could refer to a metric unit of weight, or
  • It could mean a large quantity of something, or
  • Various quantities of storage capacity for maritime shipping

So, there is no literal meaning for a word or phrase – context is everything. Now, when you look at a dictionary, you get what linguistic nerds call a gloss. This is a generic definition that covers a lot of ground, but doesn’t even begin to explain the word well. For example, you could say the gloss for the word ball is “a rounded mass or shape.” But, that really doesn’t tell you much. There are tons of ways (see what I just did!?) to use the word ball in the English language.

  • “George and I went to the ball last night! He looked so handsome in his tuxedo!”
  • “We left the kids at home last night, and went out on a date. We had a ball!”
  • “Hey, Jeff, wanna play some ball with the guys this Saturday?”
  • “For the last time, Sherri – you’ve got to keep your eye on the ball! What’s wrong with you, lately?”

When you come to the Greek participle εὐλογοῦντες, the normal gloss means bless. Yay. How wonderful. What on earth does this mean? Well, when you consider how the word is used in the New Testament and contemporary Greek writing, you have two basic options:

  1. It can mean something like “be kind.”
  2. It could also mean “to invoke God’s blessing upon.”

Which one is it, here? Because Peter goes on to say Christians were called to inherit blessing (i.e. “divine favor”) from God, it makes sense to understand the participle to have the same sense, here.[1] That is, it seems Peter is using the term “bless” in the same way both time he uses it, in 1 Peter 3:9.

Once again, here is Peter’s argument – consider which usage best fits the context:

Do not return evil for evil or reviling for reviling; but on the contrary ——–, for to this you have been called, that you may obtain a ——–.

Is Peter telling them to be nice to hostile unbelievers? Or, is he telling them to invoke God’s favor upon these hostile outsiders? Christians have been called to do this, whatever it is. As a result of God’s calling, Christians will obtain … whatever this is. It seems obvious the second option is the one we want; to invoke God’s divine favor.

But, how should we translate it? Should we render it as bless? 

The rendering “bless” is standard Biblish in our Christian vocabulary. It’s meaningless. You’re used to seeing it, because it’s comforting and familiar. But, does the word bless here actually communicate anything at all? What does it mean?

We’ve just found out that, in this context, it means a Christian shouldn’t return insult for insult, or evil for evil. Instead, the Christian should ask for God’s favor on the offender. So, perhaps we should just translate it that way! This is what my translation looks like:

You must not make it a habit to repay evil for evil, or insult for insult. But, instead, you must always repay by asking for God’s favor on the person, because you were called to all this, [and] as a result you’ll obtain God’s favor!

We shouldn’t be captive to glosses that don’t explain what the word actually means. Deliberate ambiguity isn’t a virtue when the context is rather straightforward.

Some critics would say my translation philosophy here is dynamic equivalency. I reply – I love you, but you really don’t know what you’re talking about.[2] A dynamic equivalency translation would actually go one step further, and ask the question, “what does it mean to ask for God’s favor on the person?” The answer, I believe, is to pray for the person’s salvation. So, a true dynamic equivalent translation would render this something like, “you must always repay the person by praying for his salvation …” So, there.

In this context, the participle εὐλογοῦντες means “to invoke God’s blessing upon” someone. This isn’t a tenuous interpretation; it’s pretty straightforward and I can make a very, very good case for it. Shouldn’t a translation seek to bring this across?

Don’t take my word for it. Listen to Bill Mounce, the author of the most popular first-year Koine Greek textbook in America. He wrote this in a short article, entitled “The Myth of Literal Translation:”

May I encourage you not to be deceived by this idea of choosing an English Bible so that you can see the underlying Greek structure. You will be led astray on every verse. If you want to get that close to the Greek, I know of a couple Greek textbooks that will help you get there (grin). If not, then understand that all translations have to smooth out the Greek to make it understandable English, and read it with that in mind.

Keepin’ it real

I could say a whole lot more, nuance my position a bit, and offer up all the appropriate caveats about translation philosophy.  But, I won’t bother here. I’ve said enough to make my point, and any theologians reading this already know what those caveats are anyway.

Let’s recap:

  1. Don’t take a simplistic stance on a Bible translation philosophy – it’s complicated.
  2. Most Pastors or leaders you listen to either never learned Greek, or have allowed themselves to forget most of it. Even if they use it, many of them don’t do much beyond word studies. It’s very rare to have a Pastor who actually does translation himself, and can interact with exegetical commentaries and argue syntax in  meaningful fashion. So, the chances are the person who’s giving you information about bible translation philosophies is well-meaning, but really doesn’t know what he’s talking about.
  3. There is no such thing as a “literal meaning” of a word. I mean that literally. Get it?
  4. A bible translation shouldn’t be afraid to ignore a gloss and render the clear meaning of a word or phase, if the context is clear and straightforward.

So, don’t be afraid of the NLT. Don’t be afraid of the NIV. Don’t be afraid of the KJV or the RSV. They’re good translations.

Notes

[1] Actually, there is real disagreement about how to translate the last bit of 1 Peter 3:9, but I won’t bother to go into that here!

[2] Any interested Christian should read Leland Ryken’s book, Understanding English Bible Translations – An Essentially Literal Approach. With some caveats, I appreciate his approach to the issue and agree with his “essentially literal” philosophy.

My Translation of Micah 5:1-3

The prophet Micah wrote a wonderful prophesy about Jesus Christ, the One who would come forth for God to be the ruler par excellence in Israel. I’ve spent some time translating the passage from the Septuagint; the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures which Jesus and the early Christian used. I plan to write a bit about this passage soon. For now, I’ll just leave you with the translation.

There are some differences from the English translation in your Bibles, because they’re translated from Hebrew, not Greek. The verse numbers from the Septuagint are also different, sometimes. This is one of those times. In your English Bibles, this passage will be Micah 5:2-4. Here, it’s Micah 5:1-3:

Micah 5(1-3)You can find more of my pitiful translations from the New Testament, the Septuagint and an ancient creed or two here.

Real Advice for a Messy Life

messyLife is messy. The Apostle Peter understood that. And, because he wrote what God wanted him to write, that means God understands it, too.

In theory, a Christian shouldn’t marry a non-Christian. Doesn’t always work out that way. Never mind why it doesn’t – we can all agree that, sometimes, it doesn’t happen that way. What if one person becomes a Christian when she’s already married? Should she pack up and hit the road? Not at all.

These are the gritty questions of real life. Life is messy. Life is hard. Life isn’t neat and tidy. As I said, Peter understands that. He has some practical advice for us on that score (1 Peter 3:1-6; from my own translation):

In the same way, you wives must submit yourselves to your own husbands, so that even if some are being disobedient to the word, they might be won over without a word by your way of life when they see your holy conduct, along with your respect towards God.

Don’t let your beauty be simply external, like the braiding of hair and wearing of gold, or putting on [fancy] clothes. Instead, let your beauty be [from] the inner person, from the heart, through the immortal [character] of a gentle and peaceful spirit, which is very precious in God’s eyes. Because this is also how the holy women from the past who hoped in God made themselves beautiful – by submitting themselves to their own husbands. That’s what Sarah did; she obeyed Abraham by calling him, “Sir.”

You’ve now become her daughters! So, do what’s right and don’t fear any husband who is intimidating.

Why does Peter call the Christian spouse to stay in the relationship? So that the believer might win the unbeliever to Christ. He tells the Christian not to lord it over the spouse, not to be filled with self-righteousness. He tells the believer to be patient and, if necessary, not say anything at all – to let her Christ-like way of life and holy conduct speak for itself.

There’s much more to be said. I’ll get there in Sunday School . . . in about two months or so!

Following the Leader

follow leaderYou household slaves:

Always submit yourselves to [your] masters in a very respectful way; not only to the good and kind, but also to those who are cruel. Because God is pleased if, because a man is mindful of Him, he endures sorrows while suffering unjustly.

Here’s why I say this – how is it to your credit if, when you slaves are committing sin and being roughly treated, you endure it? Instead, this is favor with God: if, when you’re doing right and suffering, you endure it – this is why you slaves were called to salvation!

You see, even Christ suffered for you slaves to leave behind an example for you, so you’d follow in His footsteps. He didn’t break God’s laws, and no lies were found in His mouth. Although He was viciously insulted, He didn’t insult [them] back. Even though He suffered, He never threatened to make them suffer in return. Instead, Christ kept entrusting [Himself] to the One who judges right.

He Himself carried our sins in His body to the cross, so that we believers would first be freed from the power of these sins, and then live for righteousness. By His wounding you were healed. What I mean is that, like sheep, you were wandering away, but now you’ve been returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.

  • 1 Peter 2:18-25 (my translation)