Bill Mounce

For an Informed Love of God

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Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Metaphors (Matt 11:19)

Part of the human side of the inspiration process is the author’s use of metaphors, figures of speech, and all the other tools for making the language robust and descriptive. The authors of Scripture could have written in plain, third grade level, boring Greek. But they didn’t.

Unfortunately, often translations tend to flatten the language. Take for example Romans 6:4. In the ESV we wrote, “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (also in the KJV and NASB). “Walk” is a well-known metaphor to describe how we live. It paints a picture that communicates both the words used and the meaning intended.

It is somewhat surprising, then, to find the metaphor interpreted in other translations as “live a new life” (TNIV, cf. NLT). Even the NET Bible follows the pattern, although the metaphor is explained in the footnote.

I find myself wondering why they did this? Do they feel the metaphor is too difficult to understand? Hard to imagine. What grade school child today doesn’t know the expression, “Walk the walk, and talk the talk”?

The other day my son Tyler pointed out a problem in the ESV. When I checked out 1 Cor 13:5, I realized that I had missed a metaphor that had been obscured in the RSV. It says, love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful. The Greek for the last clause is ou logizetai to kakon. Word for word it means does not reckon [a bookkeeping metaphor] an evil” (i.e., a bad act). This is why the NASB reads, does not take into account a wrong suffered, and the NIV it keeps no record of wrongs. (This metaphor has been filed for further review by the ESV.) You can see what was loss by not translating the metaphor.

This brings us to another, more basic discussion, and that is the role of inspiration and translation. I have heard both sides of the formal / functional debate claim that their translation theory adheres to a high view of Scripture, and I am not about the question them, especially those I know and have read. But let me ask the question this way: if God inspired the author to convey his truth through a metaphor, isn’t the form of the truth part of its meaning?

I know this can be taken to extremes. If God inspired the author to use a participle, shouldn’t we use a participle? I don’t think so, at least not necessarily. However, metaphors are something different. They convey truth in a memorable form. As long as it is understandable, shouldn’t the form be conveyed in the translation?