Bill Mounce

For an Informed Love of God

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Sunday, November 11, 2018

Do you ever leave a translation meaningless? (Heb 13:3)

I am reading a paper next week at the national meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society. It is entitled, “Do formal equivalent translations reflect a higher view of plenary, verbal inspiration?” Because of my research, I am particularly sensitive to the claims of formal and functional equivalent translations and the relationship between words and meaning.

Heb 13:3 provides an interesting test case. The ESV (see also the NASB) writes, “Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them, and those who are mistreated, since you also are in the body (ὡς καὶ αὐτοὶ ὄντες ἐν σώματι).”

“In the body”? What does that mean? In the church, the body of Christ? This is a good example of when a slavish following of the Greek produces meaninglessness. The CSB has, “as though you yourselves were suffering bodily.” See also, “as though you yourselves were being tortured” (NRSV), and “as though you too felt their torment” (NET).

The Greek lies out pretty nicely. The author is encouraging the recipients of the letter to remember two things, both indicated by genitive constructions, and both of which have modifiers introduced by ὡς.

    τῶν δεσμίων
          ὡς συνδεδεμένοι,
     τῶν κακουχουμένων
          ὡς καὶ αὐτοὶ ὄντες ἐν σώματι.

Everyone but the NIV translates μιμνῄσκεσθε with the simple “Remember.” The problem with this is that it implies the recipients are not currently remembering. I doubt that is accurate (although we are limited in our understanding of the historical background), and I think the NIV is correct to bring out its imperfective force, “continue to remember.”

I have no idea why the ESV, which values concordance so highly, did not keep the concordance of the two occurrences of ὡς, “as though ... since.”

συνδεδεμένοι is a typical compound form with σῦν, the biblical author leaving out who the others specifically are, but contextually it is clear that the author sees a union between his recipients and those in prison.

Parallel to that is our phrase, ὡς καὶ αὐτοὶ ὄντες ἐν σώματι. Given the context, it is easy to see what the author is saying. They are “with” those in prison, and it is as if (ὡς) they are bodily (ἐν σώματι) suffering “with” them. Given the obvious meaning of the phrase, I am not sure why you would leave the meaningless phrase, “in the body.”

All translations are meaning-based; there is no such thing as a “literal” translation. (Come to ETS and find out why.) Even if it requires a little interpretation, as almost all of Scripture does, you still interpret so that the translation conveys something that has meaning.


THanks so much for that reminder sir! I am producing a Bible study for next Lent for our Diocese here (LIchfield, England) and I am doing the exegetical/historical approach. Good and encouraging to see the historical/exegetical link made in your article. Shalom

You make an interesting point when you write, “there is no such thing as a ‘literal’ translation.” The question suggested by your statement that “all translations are meaning-based” is, “Can God use a translation of his Word to convey His meaning?” I am very thankful for people like yourself who are gifted with languages and attentive to detail when translating God’s Word into contemporary English. (English is probably a chore all by itself considering how badly the language seems to be misused by generational and cultural pockets of our culture.) But what about God? Can God use a bad translation? Would He even allow one to exist? Well, obviously if some translators are messing with God’s gender then God allows bad translations to exist. But can He use them to convey His meaning? Looking at how the Pharisees and other Jewish leaders found themselves at odds with Jesus, I would have to say that being able to read God’s Word in the original language(s) does not guarantee that a person will understand them. (You wrote about this last week in, “Why do we learn?”) This suggests to me that it is God Himself, through his Holy Spirit, that conveys the meaning to his chosen people. They are the ones who are able to have eyes that see and ears that hear. They are the ones who allow God to work in their heart. I am not suggesting that quality translations are not important. They are. What I am suggesting is that meaning is not only conveyed by the written word, but also by God Himself.