Bill Mounce

For an Informed Love of God

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Sunday, January 15, 2012

A No Win Scenario (Acts 2:11)

There are some times in which there simply is no good way to translate a verse. No matter how hard you try, there will always be some ambiguity.

I am reading through the NIV looking for what I call “NIVisms,” phrases that stand out as a little unusual. Every translation has them. I suspect that sometimes these NIVisms are the result of hours of debate, and there simply was no easy solution.

In the story of Pentecost, when the plethora (I love that word) of people heard the disciples speaking in tongues as evidence of the newly bestowed Holy Spirit, they were bewildered because “each one heard their own language being spoken” (2:6). Here is an example of our decision to use “their” as an indefinite, referring back to one or more than one. I think this works fine here, even though you have the singular “one,” then “their,” and then the singular “language.”

But when you get to v 11, it gets stranger. The NIV reads, “we hear (ἀκούομεν) them (αὐτῶν) declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues (ταῖς ἡμετέραις γλώσσαις)!” The reason this sounds unusual to me is a confusion of number, but the confusion is in the Greek.

I am curious. What do you hear by “our own”? I hear one person claiming to hear the gospel in “his own (singular) tongues (plural),” Except for people who are motherly bilingual — one of the greatest gifts to give to a child — there is no such thing as my (singular) own tongues (plural). But certainly this is not what Luke is saying.

Certainly this is the voice of the crowd (plural). Each person has his or her own native tongue, and each are stating in bewilderment that each one of the disciples was speaking in a language native to someone in the crowd. And so we understand “them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues” to mean that each one of the disciples was declaring the wonders of God in a language native to someone in the crowd.

Kind of torturous to say it clearly, which is why the NIV I assume left it as they did. Or perhaps the committee didn’t hear it the way I do.