Bill Mounce

For an Informed Love of God

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Thursday, March 29

Common Sense in Translation (Acts 7:18)

There is no substitute for common sense in translation. Sometimes when you read the Greek, it is so obvious that it can’t mean what it says. The question is, what is a translator to do?

Stephen says in his speech, “But as the time of the promise drew near, which God had granted to Abraham, the people increased and multiplied in Egypt until there arose over Egypt another king who did not know Joseph (ὃς οὐκ ᾔδει τὸν Ἰωσήφ)” (Acts 7:17-18, ESV).

Of course he did not know Joseph. Joseph had been dead for centuries.

Some translations of course are willing to leave such a silly notion in the text and expect the reader to figure it out (ESV, NKJV, HCSB). 

But watch the other translations try to spell out the specifics of the abbreviated Greek.“Who knew nothing about Joseph” (NASB, NLT). “To whom Joseph meant nothing” (NIV). “Who had not known Joseph” (NRSV). I do like the NET on this one: “who did not know about Joseph.” The simple “about” makes the implicit clear and understandable.

A simple reminder that all translation involves interpretation, and sometimes a word for word translation leaves us with something nonsensical.


Dr. Mounce, Appreciate very much your regular "Monday with Mounce."  They always make me think.  Very often strengthen my understanding. Your posts are a very important part of my fight to "keep my Greek."  I originally began teaching Greek with your first edition in my home - always in my home and usually to somone aspiring to enter seminary and having a need to already have completed first year Greek and the ability to demonstrate adequate proficency in the same.  Thrilled to find another method of learning and memorizing the various forms within your text.  I love your noun rules and case ending charts and explanation of how changes within the word take place as inflections and endings are added.  In fact so much so, I also purchased and consult your book on Morphology.    Currently, I now own your third edition and am taking a new group of students through it while also using your video course.  Also, your explanation of even English Grammar is very helpful - something not found in older grammars. I'm wondering with todays example regarding Acts 7:18 if the interpretation offered by the Net bible is correct.   Previously I had understood the verse not to be saying that the King did not know "about" Joseph.  But rather he had no appreciation for him, he did not care for the benefit Egypt derived from the hand of God through him. Rather, the verse reflecting upon the character of the king.  Certainly the Jews in Egypt knew of Joseph - still having his bones waiting for the day when they would leave Egpypt bringing them along in the Exodus.  And there may yet have been at that time buildings commerating Joseph.   But this King/Pharoh cared not for him, nor his work and the great benefit centuries past he was to them and thus put the Jews in slavery.    Jesus said one day it will be said to some "Depart from me for I never Knew you."  But of course Jesus would have known "about" them.  But the connection, the union, is not there.  He knows all about them but he does not know them as his own.  I had understood the wording in Act 7:18 to speak along that line as opposed to simply, "the king did not know about Joseph."  The king may have known about Joseph but had no regard, cared not for him and so he sought to destroy the Jews.   The verse in in the original Greek could be understood either way.  But once the "about" is added this other interpretation would be prohibited and one would assume only that the new King was ignorant of his own history.  Also, as you pointed out the importance of interpretation in proper translation, are you saying that the original words mean "know about" more than the English Translation can show?  Or do you think even in the original there is a kind of poorness of speech that must be corrected?  It seems like you intimate that when you refer to " th text"  saying, "Some translations of course are willing to leave such a silly notion in the text." Looking today, there are at least a few commentators who also understood these words as I have described.  From Barnes' Notes: "It can hardly be supposed that he would be ignorant of the name and deeds of Joseph; and this expression, therefore, probably means that he did not favour the designs of Joseph; he did not remember the benefits which he had conferred on the nation; or furnish the patronage for the kindred of Joseph which had been secured for them by Joseph under a former reign. National ingratitude has not been uncommon in the world, and a change of dynasty has often obliterated all memory of former obligations and compacts." And also John Gill: "he made himself as if he did not know him'' "he dissembled, he pretended ignorance of him, because he would show no respect unto his people." A.T. Robertson: "Joseph’s history and services meant nothing to the new king. “The previous dynasty had been that of the Hyksos: the new king was Ahmes who drove out the Hyksos” (Knobel)." Samuel Bloomfield in his Recensio Synoptica observes sentiments similiar to what I have expressed but then renders a different take altogether understanding the text to be saying "was ill-disposed"  but he does fully deny the possibility of "know about": "Many Commentators render, knew not. But that the new king should not know Joseph and his actions is very improbable, in a country where historical events were carefully recorded by the priests ; nay the very appearance of the Israelites would effectually perpetuate the memory of Joseph. Kuinoel explains the words thus: "Cared not for, had no regard to Joseph or his merits (and indeed we have a similar idiom in our own language, namely, neither know nor care); for examples of which signification he refers to 1 Thess. 4, 4. 5, 12. and to Abresch. on ^Eschylus. I prefer, however, with others, to render " was ill-disposed towards :" a sense found in Matt. 25, 13. and many places of the New Testament. He was (in fact) ill disposed towards the Israelites, whose rapid increase of population made them appear formidable to the King; and hence he could not be otherwise disposed towards Joseph, who had been the means of introducing them into Egypt." Thanks again, truly, Dr. Mounce.   Keep 'em coming. These articles are truly helpful to us struggling to dig deeper into our Greek and handle carefully and fearfully the word of God.