Bill Mounce

For an Informed Love of God

You are here

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Is the Bible a Modern or Ancient Book? (Rom 13:3)

I heard my nephew preach this morning on Romans 13. It was fun watching him work to make the main point and not let politics deter people’s thinking. Authority structures are God-given and are to be obeyed — unless they “clearly” contradict God’s moral law.

Davy (he goes by “Dave,” but uncles have special privileges) preaches out of NIV 1984, and I was following in the 2011. V 3 caught my attention.

The 1984 reads, “For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you (ἕξεις ἔπαινον ἐξ αὐτῆς).” This is how I am used to hearing the verse. If you do what is right, the person in power will commend you.

What surprised me was the 2011. “Then do what is right and you will be commended.” Who does the commending? Politicians? Other people? The verse felt strangely vague when the Greek is explicit.

I am sure the reasoning was two-fold. (1) Is there a way to express the same thought without using “he”? (2) Context should show that the one doing the commending is in fact the one in authority.

The problem, of course, is that I didn’t hear that. I only heard a vague statement about someone commending the law abiding citizen. The reason I didn’t see it right away is because v 3a and v 3b are making two different points, and I was looking at v 3b in isolation.

The other thought I had was that the rulers in Paul’s day were male, so when the referent is a man it is easier to use words like “man” and “he.” But I hear the argument that today both women and men are rulers; and for the text to have its accurate meaning today, it should reflect that gender shift.

As I thought about that, it reminded me of one of the issues for translators, and it is not one that is easily solved. Is the Bible an ancient or modern book? When I read the ESV, the Bible sounds like an ancient book, which of course is exactly what we intended. When I read the NLT, it reads like a modern book, everyone speaking like we speak today.

Which is the right view? I am going to be post-modern here and say, it depends. If the goal of the committee’s translation philosophy is to have the modern reader meet the text in the same way as the ancient reader met the text, if the goal is for a modern reader to hear the message in the same way as the ancient reader, then you are viewing the book as a modern book, lifted from the pages of history and thrust into the modern world.

But if you want a translation that reflects the realities of ancient culture, then you don’t consider the gender shift in modern society and you can comfortably say that the authority is a “he.”

The HCSB (also the NRSV and NET) takes a slightly different tack. They write, “Do you want to be unafraid of the authority (ἐξουσίαν)? Do what is good, and you will have its (αὐτῆς) approval.” They view the “its” as the concept of “authority” (feminine antecedent) and not the person holding the authority. The NLT shifts to the plural: “Would you like to live without fear of the authorities? Do what is right, and they will honor you.”

I just recorded my three hour seminar on translation philosophy at the Solid Rock church in Portland. The point of the seminar is that different Bibles have different translation philosophies. You may enjoy learning more about this at


It would be helpful to me to have a Bible that gave a brief description of the culture before each book, and then to translate the way that it was "spoken" (written) to the readers at that time. In a verse such as this, a footnote of explanation could be given. It seems that this would be the heart of the writer, and that's what I want to know.

That is what study Bibles do, so I would check out one of them.

Thanks for the blog post, it's interesting to look at the different translation philosophies. And I hate to put this in a blog post but I've been trying to email you for some time now about wanting to study greek in academia and am not sure how else to contact you. Please send me an email if/when you get a chance! ([email protected])