Bill Mounce

For an Informed Love of God

You are here

Monday, May 2, 2022

Does anyone say “unto” anymore? (Luke 2:11)

Every once in a while I come across a phrase that makes no sense in English, even in the NIV. I expect it more with translations like the NASB and ESV, but not the NIV. When this happens, it is often in a traditional and well-known passage.

When the angels announce Jesus’ birth to the shepherds, Luke writes: “Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord” (NIV, also NRSV). What does “to you” mean? Forget the fact that you probably know from context, but think of just the phrase in English. What does “to you” mean? How would someone who doesn’t know the Christmas story understand it, or not?

As far as I can see, it doesn’t mean anything other than perhaps as an indirect object (turned into a prepositional phrase), which in this verse it is not. The Greek is the simple dative ὑμῖν. So what category of dative is this?

Clearly, it is a dative of advantage, so how would you say that the birth of the Messiah is to the advantage of the shepherds? The best that English can do is “for,” which is used by the NASB and the CSB. The NET turns it into an adjective: “your Savior,” and the NLT turns it into an indirect object, “ bring you good news.” I think these last two are grammatically not possible.

The ESV sticks with antiquated language: “unto you,” which is likewise barely understandable. “Unto” is not part of our active vocabulary.

I have been pleasantly surprised with the revision of the 2020 NASB. They appear to have made an attempt to make their translation more readable.

When we translate, let’s use current, active vocabulary so that people outside the church can understand the message.


I think it's also kind of interesting that the ESV uses "unto" in this verse, but in the cross-referenced verse of Isaiah 9:6 they say "to". ("For to us a child is born, to us a son is given...")

Acts 13.48 This passage reminds me of two things. One, be careful about reading too much into what the English grammar says, because it is not the original Greek. Two, be careful what I believe the Greek is saying, because I (less than an amateur) can only try to understand what the Greek grammar is actually saying. Bill -- your thoughts on the other side’s interpretation of the implications of the Greek?