Bill Mounce

For an Informed Love of God

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Sunday, July 15, 2012

“All” What? (Jn 12:32)

I was asked why John 12:32 is always translated as “when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all (people or men) to myself” rather than simply I will draw “all” to myself.

This is a common issue in translation. The Greek uses the simple adjective πᾶς. “I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people (πάντας) to myself” (NIV). All translations add “people” (or “men” if it is an older translation) because to just say “all” leaves the reader asking, “All what?” All things? All people? It is poor English to make the reader work to understand your meaning.

If you read it in context, there is little doubt as to what the “all” refers to, although it is a tad confusing since Jesus has just talked about the “prince of this world.” But it is doubtful you would think of all the princes of this world being drawn to Jesus.

This does bring up a point I have been wanting to raise, though, for some time. The KJV italicizes “men” to indicate that there is no corresponding Greek word, that it has been added. But that assumes proper translation is always word for word, which it is not. The assumption is that if there are 6 Greek words, there should be 6 English words, but if English requires 7 then we need to italicize the “added” word. Interestingly, the NASB, which follows this same procedure, does not italicize this use of “men.”

This simply is not how language or translation works. Adjectives are used substantivally; they are used as nouns. This is true in Greek and in English, although perhaps more frequently in Greek. It is not as if “people” is being added. πᾶς is being used as a noun, and the only way for English to express this is to make explicit what is implicit in the construction. Jesus will not draw all things to himself. He will draw all people to himself.

The other problem is that it cannot be done consistently. Take for example Rom 12:2. “And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing (τῇ ἀνακαινώσει) of your mind,” The word “by” is not italicized but there is no explicit word meaning “by” in the Greek. Of course, “by” is a possible meaning of the dative that is implicit in the context, so we add it to make sense. But no one italicizes it.

By the way, “all men” does occur repeatedly without italics in the KJV when translating πάντες οἱ ἄνθρωποι. Interestingly, in my copy of the KJV, Luke 3:15 is not italicized even though there is no ἄνθρωποι.

I appreciate the desire of the KJV to be transparent in their translation, but in John 12:32 πᾶς and πάντες οἱ ἄνθρωποι have the same meaning.