Bill Mounce

For an Informed Love of God

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Wednesday, October 21

Can a word be a punctuation mark? (Matt 1:18)

This is perhaps a little picky post, but it does illustrate why a word-for-word translation is not always helpful.

Matthew begins with his genealogy, and then moves into the story of Jesus’ birth. “Now (δέ) the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way” (ESV and most). Along comes the NIV and does not represent the δέ. “This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about” (also HCSB and, as you might expect, the NLT).

Are they leaving out a word of Scripture? Of course not. That charge is often made against the more dynamic translations like the NIV and NLT, but in truth it could be leveled against all translations in one place or another. What it does betray is a lack of awareness of how language works in general, and the meaning of δέ in particular.

BDAG defines δέ as “used to connect one clause to another, either to express contrast or simple continuation.” In grammars we often give the glosses "and" and "but," but "but" (I enjoyed writing that) is too strong. When Greek means “but,” it generally uses ἀλλά. When δέ does represent a slight adversative, it is so soft that often we cannot find the right word.

However, in our passage you need to ask what δέ is doing; and if it is adversative, in what sense is it adversative? Here it is pretty clear. Matthew has been giving us the genealogy, and now he wants to turn to a different topic, Jesus’ birth. How do you signal a change in topic? δέ.

So in this case, how do you indicate the change? Remember, in the early manuscripts there was no spacing, punctuation, or paragraphing, and that is the clue. The NIV and NLT use the (somewhat) modern invention of the new paragraph to indicate exactly what δέ is indicating in Greek, a change in topic. The second entry in BDAG says precisely this; “2. a marker linking narrative segments, now, then, and, so, that is.

In fact, you could argue that translations like the ESV double translate the δέ, since they have both “now” and a new paragraph.