Bill Mounce

For an Informed Love of God

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Monday, October 9, 2017

The Line between Translation and Commentary

Every once in a while you read a verse that obviously cannot mean what it says. Whether you are working with a formal or a functional equivalent translation, both are going to just translate the words and leave the exegesis up to the reader (and the commentaries). But if you are reading a natural language translation like the NLT, they will often try to help the reader. A couple examples.

John writes a short letter, and at the end says, “Though I have much to write to you, I would rather not use paper and ink” (2 John 12, ESV, see most translations). Do you see the problem here? He has just used “paper and ink” for eleven verses. Contextually, we understand that what he means, even though it is not what he says, is that he has more to say but he wants to say it in person. So the NLT adds, “I have much more to say to you, but I don’t want to do it with paper and ink.” The TEV reads, “I have so much to tell you, but I would rather not do it with paper and ink.” The NJB has a clever way to say this as well; “There are several things I have to tell you, but I have thought it best not to trust them to paper and ink.”

In Jesus’ tirade against the religious leaders, he attacks their arrogance, specifically, their desire for titles that separate them from the regular folk (23:5-6). He says that they are not to be called “Father” (πατέρα), “for you have but one Father, and he is in heaven” (23:9). Obviously, Jesus doesn’t mean what it says. I call my dad “Dad” or “Father,” I don’t know anyone who would fault me for that. What he actually means is spelled out in the last two verses. “The greatest among you will be your servant. And whoever will exalt himself will be humbled, and whoever will humble himself will be exalted” (Matt. 23:11–12).

V 9 obviously does not mean what it says; it is Jesus’ typical way of expressing truth by overstating it to drive the point home. The real issue is pride and arrogance, the desire to set yourself above others. But there is no way to translate that without moving across the line into commentary.

I listen to people speak all the time, including myself. I enjoy finding English examples of grammar where the words do not mean what we want to communicate, and yet the meaning is perfectly clear. Being from Minnesota, I often end a sentence in a preposition, but the lack of an object for the preposition does not hide its meaning. “Do you want to go with?” Context makes it clear that the object is something like “me” or “them.”

My favorite, however, is the use of the superlative for the comparative. I never grow tired of objecting to sports announcers when they say something like, “That’s the best catch I have ever seen.” Really? Why do you say it repeatedly throughout the season? Is each one really better than the last, or better than any catch last season? Of course not. It is just the undisciplined misuse of grammar to create excitement.

Words contain meaning, but sometimes the meaning is only seen in the larger context, a context that often a translation cannot deal with.


This really opens a wide topic. In this case I think "I would rather not use paper and ink" is as clear to a modern reader as it was to John's contemporary audience: That is, some would understand and others, either slower, or more literal, or less literary, would need help. Much of Lattimore's English translation of the Illiad would be incomprehensible to many people I hold dear, yet it is still a treasure to me after 40 years. Would I want "strong-greaved Acheans" or "great-hearted Achilleus" or "spear-far shadowing" rendered so as to satisfy their understanding? No, and No, and one thousand times NO! This came to mind when I noticed that all modern translations, as against the KJV, in the prophetic passage Matt 24:29 render αυτη as the neuter when referring to the moon's light. Is this necessary? Well, it seems to me it depends on the audience. I was greatly offended by it, not out of allegiance to the KJV, but because of the condescension of the translators. My limited experience with Greek is already engendering in my the thought that there might ought to be an English Translation for those who love literature.

(just for fun) translate using dynamic equivalence: “I have a lot more to say, but it is best to pass on text messages, and speak face to face.”

Now that would be a truly natural languague translation.

Thank you for another good read... communicating cross-culturally keeps you on your toes for similar reasons. How careful we need to be to convey the essence... blessings...!

Great commentary; albeit I've got lots of pens & paper, I simply want to say: Bill, thank you.

In verses 7-9 I see the writer using ellipsis of repition back to verse 3. Jesus was teaching his followers/disciples not to call the scribes and pharisees 'rabbi, [a] father, or leading ones, because they were not fulfiling those roles. Jesus considered almost all of them as actors/imposters (hupokritēs) (Mat. 23:13-14). The way I read the Greek text shows no evidence of Jesus referring to the earthly biological fathers of his disciples. Jesus taught his disciples that the religious leaders shouldn't be called by honorable titles when most all of them had no honor. See John 8 too, especially verse 44. Here's how I read the Greek (UBS4): Mat. 23:6 But (de) they love (philousin) the (tēn) first recliner4411 (prōtoklisian) in (en) the (tois) dinners (deipnois), and (kai) the (tas) first seats4411 (prōtokathedrias) in (en) the (tais) synagogues (sunagōgais),   Mat. 23:7 and (kai) the (tous) greetings (aspasmous) in (en) the (tais) marketplaces (agorais);   and (kai) to be called aloud (kaleisthai), under (hupo) [authority, AE] of the (tōn) mortals (anthrōpōn), 'rabbi' (rhabbi)!   Mat. 23:8 But (de) you (humeis), do not call aloud (mē klēthēte) [the writers and the pharisees, v2, ER] 'rabbi' (rhabbi).   Because (gar) one (heis) is (estin) the (ho) teacher (didaskalos) of you (humōn).   But (de) you (humeis) are (este) all (pantes) brothers (adelphoi).   Mat. 23:9 And (kai) do not call aloud (mē kalesēte) [the writers and the pharisees, v2, ER] upon (epi) the (tēs) land (gēs) [a] father (patera) of you (humōn).   Because (gar) one (heis) is (estin) the (ho) Father (patēr) of you (humōn), the (ho) heavenly one (ouranios).   Mat. 23:10 But (de) do not call aloud (mē klēthēte) [the writers and the pharisees, v2, ER] leading ones (kathēgētai), because (hoti) one (heis) is (estin) the (ho) leader (kathēgētēs) of you (humōn), the (ho) Christ (Christos).   The ellipsis of repition may actually be inserted in verses 2 through 6 as well, before the verbs. I used "they" because the verbs are plural. Brother Hal Dekker

Bill I might suggest that "Father" in this context specifically refers to the title for religious teachers (as opposed to ancestors as used in Acts7, etc.) a la the vaticanist titles which, accordingly, they ought not do. And, yes, with a Masters in Teaching English as a Second Langue - I enjoy the great "flexibility" of grammar - including grammar in the NT, e.g. diehards (usually with an axe to grind) who live on the grammar that pronoun must refer to nearest noun therefore in 1Jn5:20 Jesus is the only God - despite the fact that the context clearly indicates otherwise - and Jesus specifically tells us otherwise (Jn17:3). I see exceptions in English grammar all the time - quite to be expected actually once we simply pay attention to the vast fluidity of language.