Bill Mounce

For an Informed Love of God

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Sunday, March 18, 2012

Commas, Commas, Commas (2 Tim 1:3)

The joy of punctuation! It can get the translator out of a real jam, and it can add clarity and reduce misinterpretation. I am wondering why I don’t talk about it more in my grammar.

The basic issue is the difference between how English constructs sentences, and the flexibility allowed by inflection. English has to put related words next to each other: adjectives next to nouns, subjects before verbs, prepositional phrases close the the verb. While there is some flexibility, the further we disconnect related thoughts, the more confusion there is and the harder the reader has to work.

2 Tim 1:3a gives a good example. The Greek reads, Χάριν ἔχω τῷ θεῷ, ᾧ λατρεύω ἀπὸ προγόνων ἐν καθαρᾷ συνειδήσει. In the Greek it is easy to see the basic units of thought. Paul gives thanks to God (Χάριν ἔχω τῷ θεῷ). It is God (ᾧ) whom he serves (λατρεύω). And then you have two prepositional phrases.

ἀπὸ προγόνων is translated something like “as did my ancestors” (ESV), and it is clear that it modifies the verb λατρεύω. Paul serves God, and his ancestors served God.

But that brings us to the second prepositional phrase. Despite his love for his own people, it is highly doubtful that he would say they served God “with a clear conscience.” A quick read of Romans 9-11 would take care of that as a possibility.

In Greek, this isn’t a problem. We see that ἐν καθαρᾷ συνειδήσει tells us Paul serves God with a clean conscience, in a sense skipping over the preceding prepositional phrase. But if you go word for word, you are left with the highly unlikely (I would say impossible; see my commentary) interpretation that the Jewish people likewise served God with a clear conscience. What to do then with Romans 2?

Take for example the KJV: “I thank God, whom I serve from my forefathers with pure conscience.” Not helpful. The NASB changes the phrase order to try (unsuccessfully) to avoid the problem. “I thank God, whom I  serve with a  clear conscience  the way my forefathers did” (see also the HCSB, NKJV, NET). Even the NLT, which normally is able to deal with these issues, does not fix the problem; “Timothy, I thank God for you—the God I serve with a clear conscience, just as my ancestors did.”

I always enjoy watching how the NRSV changed the RSV (and compare it to how we changed the RSV in the ESV). The RSV reads, “I thank God whom I serve with a clear conscience, as did my fathers”; the NRSV has, “I am grateful to God—whom I worship with a clear conscience, as my ancestors did.” The advantage here over the NASB is that the commas set off the final phrase and at least raise the interpretive question.

But like I said, this is not an issue with the inflected Greek. They see the two prepositional phrases, and the most natural reading is to see both going back to the verb “I serve.” At a minimum, the phrase “as did my ancestors” should be set off with commas, or some stronger punctuation used, perhaps, “I continually thank God, whom I serve — as did my ancestors — with a clean conscience.”

This is yet another example of why word-for-word can sometimes be the worst translation. It can lose the structural clues of the inflected Greek, and yet sometimes punctuation can come to the rescue.

Paul affirms that his lineage is one of a people serving God, but the self-assessment of a clean conscience (as opposed to the false teachers in Ephesus whose consciences have been seared by Satan) belongs to him and not to his race.


Dr. Mounce, Could you share with me what might be the basis for taking ἀπὸ as "as" in this vese? Keeping in mind that reality precludes the meaning of ἀπὸ from being that Paul has served God since his forefathers were around (he's not that old!), it seems to me ἀπὸ here is something like "apart from", so a translation like "whom I serve - differently from [my] forefathers - with a clean conscience". This approach matches fully your concerns that Paul is not equating his way of serving with that of his forefathers. It seems the use of "as" for ἀπὸ in this verse would confuse the issue. Thanks for any comments you can offer.

Good question. Watch for my next blog.  --Bill

How about something like "I thank God, whom I  serve the way my forefathers did and with a  clear conscience"?

That works as well, although I tend to liker commas a little more, such as after "did."

I always find it intersting to look at what you can keep and what you must let go in translating a passage. Of course, as you illustrate above, there is never just one solution. Do you keep, as in the above problem, the structure (i.e. two prepositional phrases) and try to hint at their relationship, or do you try something less literal that gets at the idea in a fashion that is clearer to your reader? Too often, I suspect, the temptation when the Greek is a little obscure is to "make it clearer" by imposing one's own interpretation on the passage. There are some occasions where that is almost inevitable, but this should surely be avoided in a more literal translation (whereas it is probably preferable in a translation that is designed to be used for evangelism or new disciples). In this particular case, it seems to me that one is not making a decision between interpretations if one gets wordier. One is explaining what is clear in the Greek, not trying to interpret what the author might have meant. Thus, perhaps, something more like the following would not be too cumbersome or inaccurate: "I give thanks to God, the God my fathers served and whom I now serve with a clear conscience."

Thisis actually very good. As a default, good English is shorter English, the less words the better, but your translation works.

Thanks for the post; very interesting. But to better understand the grammar, how would the Greek sentence look if the idea were, "my ancestors worshiped with a clear conscience"?

It could look just like it is.

So, context, context, context!

So, the Greek could be read either way, but < I said, this is not an issue with the inflected Greek. They see the two prepositional phrases, and the most natural reading is to see both going back to the verb “I serve.”> Would it be safe to say, then, that as a general rule, when a verb is followed by two prepositional phrases the most natural reading is to see them both as pointing back to the verb (purely grammatically speaking, without getting into the context)?

That would be true.  --Bill

Hello! I totally agree with you that punctuation plays a significant role in any language. In English, due to the strick word order in the sentences it is not so difficult to input commas, the meaning of the phrase is always understandable. But the Greek language provides more problems concerning the rules of punctiation and these rules should be memorized in order to avoid mistakes. Naomi Pratt