Bill Mounce

For an Informed Love of God

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Monday, October 22, 2018

Inspiration and Translation (Acts 11:22)

I am delivering a paper at the national ETS meeting in a few weeks, so thought I would get your feedback on a few items.

Verbal plenary inspiration means that all (“plenary”) of Scripture is inspired, and the inspiration extends to the words used and not just general ideas (“verbal”). The question is whether or not a formal equivalent type of translation respects verbal inspiration better than a functional equivalent type of translation.

And just to be clear, I believe in verbal, plenary inspiration (and inerrancy).

The question really does not touch on the aspect of “plenary.” As I have sat on both the ESV and the NIV translation committees, I have seen first-hand how evangelical translators, regardless of the translation theory adopted, agonize over every Hebrew and Greek word. In both committees, we have spent hours trying to determine the best translation of each word understood in context. The fact that some of the words are rarely read makes no difference; I mean, how often do we read, slowly and devotionally, though Numbers 1–7, apart from the Aaronic Blessing (6:24–26)? Nevertheless, all of Scripture is inspired and needs to be translated carefully.

As to the verbal side of the discussion, one point I want to make is that any connection between verbal inspiration and the words used can only apply to the original Greek and Hebrew. God did not inspire the words, “For God so loved the world.” Inspiration extends to οὕτως γὰρ ἠγάπησεν ὁ θεὸς τὸν κόσμον.

In other words, translations are outside the scope of the discussion. No translation is inspired, despite what certain pockets of people think about the KJV. English wasn’t a language until centuries into the second millenium, and the KJV translators certainly never claimed that their work was inspired.

So with those facts stated, does one form of translation theory respect “verbal plenary inspiration” more than another?

Take Acts 11:22 as a test case. In reference to the revival in Antioch, Luke writes that “the report of this came to the ears (ἠκούσθη δὲ ὁ λόγος εἰς τὰ ὦτα) of the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch” (ESV). But let’s pull this translation apart a little.

  1. It dynamically translates λόγος as “report,” not the gloss “word.”
  2. ”Came” is nowhere in the semantic range of ἀκούω.
  3. ”To the ears” is nonsensical English. Yes, you can figure out what it means, but certainly the meaning of God’s verbally inspired verse is much closer to the CSB, “News about them reached.”

Did God inspire Luke to say, “was heard but the word into the ears,” or did God inspire Luke to say that “news of this reached the church in Jerusalem” (NIV)? And does a functional equivalent translation that conveys the meaning accurately in understandable English better respect the doctrine of verbal plenary inspiration than a translation that uses archaic, idiomatic language that makes understanding more difficult? I think so.

What do you think?


I don't see what is wrong with the original "Yet is heard the word into the ears (of the outcalling, the in Jerusalem...)" Don't words literally go into people's ears, and wouldn't anyone understand this as not just "words" but news, report, principle communicated, etc? So, sure, God inspired Luke to say it just like that. It is awkward in English, yet its meaning is unmistakable, translating it so hyper-literally, word for word, as I did above. In any language, when you translate that phrase so literally, I would expect it to make sense to the reader. Then the reader may mentally convert it into his own colloquial language, if he needs to (and if he has to publish a translation, he then agonizes over doing so according to the formal rules of his language), but he does not agonize over what it means. In other words, God providentially inspired the word-for-word such that the meaning would come out.