Bill Mounce

For an Informed Love of God

You are here

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Are Metaphors Inspired?

I have been thinking a lot about some of the general issues of translation, and one of the points that keeps coming up is the issue of metaphors, and I would like your opinion.

Are metaphors inspired?

I am asking if the inspired authors chose to use a metaphor to convey meaning, are we required to use a metaphor?

There are, of course, metaphors that make no sense in a target language. We have no choice with those and must interpret the metaphor. Consider the story of the prodigal son. When the father saw his prodigal son returning, he ran and “fell on his neck” (KJV, Luke 15:20). While that is a word for word translation, it certainly is not what the text means. Even the NASB, the most formal equivalent translation in English, says that the father “embraced” him, with the footnote, “Lit fell on his neck.”

But what about the famous line in the Lord’s Prayer. “And forgive us our debts (ὀφειλήματα), as we also have forgiven our debtors (ὀφειλέταις)” (Matt 6:12, NIV). Jesus is metaphorically picturing our sins (debts) as something we owe. All translations I check use “debts,” but I went to a parochial school that used “transgressions.” See what they have done? They have interpreted the metaphor, which I think loses meaning.

I understand that literary style is outside the scope of this discussion. Greek uses an aorist adverbial participle followed by an indicative to indicate sequence, one thing happens and then the other. We don’t do that in English; we understand two indicative verbs as sequential. And so we translate Matt 2:16, “When Herod realized (ἰδών) that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious (ἐθυμώθη).” We don’t say, “after realizing … he was furious.” Perhaps we do in first year Greek class so the teacher knows that we know ἰδών is aorist, but not in a Bible translation written with proper English style.

So what other metaphors are used in the Bible that you can think of that would be germane to this discussion? Are they part of inspiration?


One of the best discussions that I have read is in the book "Translating the Word of God" by Beekman and Callow. See chapter 8-9 where one must distinguished between whether it is a live metaphor or a dead one. A live metaphor is understood by a native speaker after some attention has been given to the primary sense of the words used. A dead metaphor is understood directly.(p. 131,133) It has been over a year since I read that so would need to review but this is a great spot to start for those who wish to dive into this! PS Dive is not to be taken literally or else you might break your neck.

Having been a New Testament translator for some years, it is obvious to me that it is not possible to completely and accurately translate first century Greek into 21st century English. That said, the translator must constantly make choices about what to focus on in the translation. Does one focus on proper word-for-word translation (NASB), OR does one prefer to prioritize based on the emotional appeal of the original text (The Message), OR does one prefer to focus on the contextual meaning (NIV), or does one prefer to focus on...? Your question about translating metaphors is just another example of something the translator must decide on relative to the compromises he is willing to make--and we wouldn't want all translators to make the same decision about this, otherwise we would not be able to discern the meaning using multiple translation comparisons. This is why it is important for a translator to decide on a strategy he will using, which includes a clear understanding of his priorities of focus, and stay consistent with that (and probably explicitly state it up front in his final published document).

I don't think metaphors themselves are inspired. My reason is that when Paul says "All Scripture" in 2Timothy 3:16, he refers to the LXX, that is, a kind of translated edition of the Scripture. So, I believe that our Bibles, which are also translated editions, are inspired, too. This leads us to think that translated words in our Bibles are inspired as far as they convey correct meanings of the text.

Respectfully, you have missed the point of 2 Tim. 3:16. Paul is not referencing a cannon of scripture, but is actually explaining what constitutes scripture. He says it is "God-breathed," from "theopneustos." In other words, Scripture is profitable for doctrine, reproof, etc., because it is breathed out by God. This is not only the OT, but all what God was "breathing out" in Paul's day, including the very letter Timothy was reading. It too was God breathed.

I think it's ok if you keep it in a footnote. The reader should know because the author did not use literal lanagusge but chose a metaphor that connotes certain imagery. Therefore it is best to let the reader know both the metaphor and how it was used, and let them think through it. But you lose something the author wanted to convey. When I read fell upon his neck as a youngster it got me thinking, and I gained a sense of the description of hugging in a way lost if we try to substitute a modern metaphor. I prefer keep the metaphor and explain, though I'm ok with saying in a footnote the literal metaphor as to not confuse the reader.

Indeed, footnotes are indispensable.

Great question - really appreciated. As well as the bit on aorist participles (not sure why we don't simply translated "Realizing he had been fooled .....) I am wondering how many other parts of the text are subject to such a question. Here is a good one - parenthetical notes. Why is that BOTH Matt and Mark have the SAME parenthetical note.... Does that look like inspiration? Or does that look a lot more like they both copied the same text (or Matt copied Mark verbatim). Seems pretty obvious...:-).

I think this raises a great point. I think where idioms are concerned it makes sense to translate the idiom into a form that the target language would convey the same meaning. I think you see this at times for example in proverbs, where the proverb would have no meaning to our modern sensibilities. A concrete example escapes me at the moment, but I know there are a few in the past that have caused me to scratch my head. To answer your question, I see metaphors as inspired in that they are conveying a message or tenet that should understand, but I don't think that means that we have to communicate it using the same words in another language if the meaning is lost by doing so. I would differentiate this from allegorical interpretations which I have seen people use VERY loosely. Paul uses certain allegories at times, as was common for early church patristic writings. An example would be referring to the crossing of the red sea as baptism. Peter does the same thing where he refers to Noah's survival of the great flood as an allegory for baptism. But I have seen people take such methods way too far. The gnostics were pretty famous for this. I guess the point is that we want to take the same message and communicate it in a way that is understandable to the reader without bending the message out of context and introducing foreign ideas to the text. If doctrine is changed by our interpretation/translation that should give us cause for concern.

Romans 12:20, where Paul quotes Proverbs 25:22, has always been an interesting metaphor. There have been a few times in my life when I would have liked to heap a pile of hot coals on someone's head, but then had to repent for missing the entire meaning of this passage!

Hi Dr. Mounce, At first I didn't understand what "fell on his neck" could mean. I thought it meant the father fell on his own neck. Then I realized it must mean in his embrace of his son, his arms fell on his son's neck. It seems to obscure the meaning by translating it literally but one thing I wonder when it come to inspiration is (and this seems to be along the lines of what you're getting at), how much is something a common expression or a function of the language, and how much is something in thetext meant for us to think of in that specific way? I think it's beautiful to think of the father's arms dropping in his son's neck. It seems to suggest more than an embrace. But if it's a common expression for an embrace, I could be pushing the words too far.

I Peter 1:13 is certainly strange to a modern western mind: Διὸ ἀναζωσάμενοι τὰς ὀσφύας τῆς διανοίας ὑμῶν, νήφοντες............

My favorite example of this is 2 John 2:12. The ESV translates "I hope to come to and talk face to face." but literally speaking, John wants to speak with them "mouth to mouth." If metaphors are inspired, and we are required to use them then its time to start talking mouth to mouth!

Yes. That is a great example. Thanks.

I think its important to translate the metaphors and idioms into meaningful English - perhaps noting the actual idiom in a footnote - obviously in an Interlinear you would do it the other way round so the reader can see the construction in the original language. Need to be careful though not to replace with, or introduce idioms or metaphors of our own that can be anachronistic - like the absurdity if the Living Bible rendering the Hebrew idiom " to cover the feet" i.e to urinate, as " to go to the bathroom" / I would also think it important as in the debts example you use to try to ensure that we are not loosing out on the nuance involved in the choice of a particular metaphor - that one, as Myers points out in "Binding the Strong Man" has particular socio-political overtones that would have carried real meaning for the audience - trespasses or transgressions does not carry the same nuance and imports a very personalised and apolitical reading of the text which softens and obscures the radical edge of the message then and now.

Not sure whether this is a metaphor or an idiom (I'd tend to the second) but it is very like your referenced one in the parable of the prodigal: 2 John 1:12 where John says "Instead I hope to come to you and talk face to face" except that he actually says "mouth to mouth".

Good question but since the Bible is the inspired word of God, this means that the metaphors are also inspired. EG: in 1Pet 1:13, God through the apostle Peter said, "gird up the loins of your mind". When we change this to "prepare your mind for action" we become commentators rather than translators. since it is in fact impossible to produce a fully understandable word-for-word English translation, people will never be in complete agreement as to just how "literal" an English translation should be. Robert Clark

"If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters - yes, even his own life - he cannot be my disciple. (Luke 14:26)" is a wording that is hard to reconcile with the edict "to love one another as I have loved you". There seems to be a less intense use of the word "miseo" as meaning "put second" which is better in some contexts, another one being John 12:25.

I don't know. I would think that only the original is inspired. So all copies and translations are not inspired. Therefore, it doesn't matter whether a metaphor was inspired in the original document. We don't have the original document. So the question just goes back to how do we best communicate what we do have? I kind of like "Optimal Equivalence". If the metaphor works in English, great. If it doesn't then it has to go. :)

Dr. M., I believe you answered the question when you highlighted the fact that some metaphors don't make sense in a target language. Specifically, we ought to be as faithful in translating metaphors as we are with the rest of God's Word. If a metaphor communicates the message that the inspired author intended then we are obligated to use it. If the metaphor conveys something else or less in the target language, even English, then we change the metaphor without affecting the meaning. This insures we are faithful to both the idea and the message of the author. Tim

I think of the word "heart" as an inspired metaphor to capture the thought of the mind or inward man. I suppose many would disagree, but I think Bullinger was correct when it comes to the use of "pneuma hagion" as metaphor (metonymy) for "power" and not simply the Person of Deity.

Metaphors are perhaps the most powerful mechanisms we have to communicate complicated ideas in a language. This is especially true when we consider that many, perhaps most, words in a language come through the metaphor making process. Many words in a language start as a metaphor where the comparison is apparent, but through time this comparison is lost and only the new meaning remains. The word "groom" used as a verb is an example. At one time only used to groom a horse, it is now used to groom a politician. When using the term, many do not even consider the original connection. (I recommend Metaphors and Symbols: Forays into Language by Roland Bartel for a more thorough discussion of this concept.) Many metaphors in scripture have not reached this point where the original connection has been lost. I don't think we should just disregard the difficulty of the original use of a metaphor in scripture when we may be losing a whole array of meaning. The whole point of a metaphor is for us to consider a concept from a new perspective. So should we dummy down a metaphor just to make the reading more palatable?

" we also have forgiven our debtors." Sequential? ESV Study Bible note: "Believers are justified forever from the moment of saving faith (Rom. 5:1,9; 8:1; 10:10). Rather, this is a prayer for the restoration of personal fellowship with God when fellowship has been hindered by sin. Those who have received such forgiveness are so moved with gratitude toward God that they also eagerly forgive those who are debtors to them." I find myself asking, "Which came first, the chicken or the egg?" My late husband once counseled a parishioner that she must take the initiative to forgive another person before expecting God to forgive her for the estrangement. Oh well, now it's time for me to ponder METAPHORE.

Yes, if anything is inspired, it would be a metaphor. Take the three kingdom motifs Paul employs in 1 Cor. 3--the plant, the body, the building motifs--they reach all the way back into the OT and keep building up until Jesus and His apostles, Peter and Paul, creatively, inspiringly, treat them.

I think that so many years reading the Bible in our own languages in the words old translations have used, had allowed modern readers to understand clearly the biblical metaphors. There are a lot of old commentaries that explain about imaginery on the Bible in all biblical languages. Even if modern languages are diferent in style, why to change the meaning of the metaphors if they are understood with the same words that were originally used? Can a tanslator change the style without changing the symbolism inside the metaphor, even if they have to use modern words that mean the same?

I would want the translator to try and convey the nuance of the text. If an idiom, I'd like to see parallel idiom if one existed in the target language. Same thing with a metaphor. I think that we lose a sense of the inspiration when we literalize the text rather than convey it in its nuanced and artistic expression. I am blown away by the structure and literary genius of common fishermen and other unscholarly authors which leads me to experience their inspired writing rather than just believe it as a point of faith.