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Monday, January 29

How can you “Answer” when there is no Question? (Matt 14:28)

(Note: you can also watch this blog post on my YouTube channel. )

Translation is a trade-off. Often you will find different key policies in conflict with one another.

One policy may be that you keep concordance, so you try to translate a Greek word with the same English word. Another policy may be that the translation actually makes sense and does not confuse the reader.

Those two policies come into conflict in Matt 14:28. The gloss for ἀποκρίνομαι is “I answer,” and so the more formal equivalent translations try to use that translation whenever possible. But in English, “to answer” means that someone actually asked a question. Right?

In this story, Jesus is walking on the water toward the disciples. When they see him, they are fearful and Jesus responds, “Take courage, it is I! Do not be afraid” (Matt 14:27).

The next verse reads in the ESV, “And Peter answered (ἀποκριθεὶς) him, ‘Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.’” What’s the problem? It doesn’t make any sense. It keeps concordance, but in this context it makes no sense because Jesus did not ask a question. You read the same in the CSB, NRSV.

Even the overly wooden NASB sees the problem and drops concordance in favor of meaning. “Peter said to Him” (also the NET). As you would expect, the NIV ( “Lord, if it’s you,’ Peter replied, ‘tell me to come to you on the water.’”) and the NLT (“Then Peter called to him, ‘Lord, if it’s really you, tell me to come to you, walking on the water.’”) see the problem and fix it.

Yes, ἀποκρίνομαι generally means "to answer," but not always. It must fit the context, and its semantic range is larger than the English "to answer" (see BDAG, which interestingly combines "answer" and "reply" into the same section).

I do understand that we can use the verb "to answer" in the sense of "to respond," but the point of good and effective communication is clarity. Using "answered" here makes the reader stop and process the verb since there was no question; good writing style tries to reduce that pause, and "respond" is within the semantic range of ἀποκρίνομαι.

This verse also illustrates the myth of “literal” translation. What is the “literal” meaning of ἀποκρίνομαι? Its gloss may be “to answer,” but obviously that is not its “literal” meaning in Matt 14:28. Words have glosses, primary way(s) in which they are used, but they don’t have a “literal” meaning (see my YouTube video). If words don’t have a “literal” meaning, then there can be no such thing as a “literal” translation, as the phrase is commonly used (see my other YouTube video on this topic in general).