Bill Mounce

For an Informed Love of God

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Saturday, August 30, 2008

Semicolons (Romans 9:4; 1 Timothy 3:2)

In a world of dwindling sentence length and complex sentence structures, the semi-colon has fallen on hard times. It is too bad. It has the ability to stop the reader ever so slightly, and indicate that while there is some sequence of thought (much like a comma), there is also a stop (but of less strength than a period).

Case in point is Romans 9:4. Paul is expressing his deep desire for the salvation of the Jewish nation. In reciting their privileges he says, “They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises” (ESV). It reads as a sequence, a series of privileges given to the Jewish nation.

But note the TNIV translation and the effect of a semi-colon. “… the people of Israel. Theirs is the adoption; theirs the divine glory, the covenants, the receiving of the law, the temple worship and the promises.” The semi-colon marks the national “adoption” as a primary privilege, and extending from that adoption they receive glory, covenants, etc. Whether you agree with the interpretation or not, you can see the value of punctuation in translation, albeit a nuanced value in this case.

Someone might say that this is being overly interpretive. Perhaps, but look what happens if you undertranslate it. If you think that “adoption” is the head term and the others extend out from it, and if you simply use commas, you are misleading the reader. Sequence in English doesn’t allow for the first in the sequence to be the head term.

Let’s look at another example perhaps closer to home. Paul tells Timothy that an elder “must be above reproach (anepilempton), the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, etc. (1 Tim 3:2). What is the relationship of these qualities? Are they all equal? If so, what does ”above reproach” mean?

What adds to this question is the observation that Paul appears to start every list of leadership qualifications with a general term. Deacons and their wives (or female deacons) are to be “dignified” (3:8,11, ESV). Paul tells Titus that elders are to be “above reproach” (anenkletos, Titus 1:6, ESV). The suggestion is that the primary quality of church leadership in 1 Timothy 3 is that they are to be above reproach, and then the following qualities fill out what that means. It doesn’t mean they have to be perfect or that no one can have made a charge against them. In means that in an overall sense, they must be irreproachable.

So how do you translate that? Because the ESV is committed to simplicity and transparency, I did not even think to argue for a semi-colon after “reproach.” Almost every translation follows suit, even though almost every commentary accepts this interpretation.

The lone exception is the TEV, which does use a semi-colon. The NLT shortens the verse into several sentences, but it is hard to know if they did so because they wanted short sentences or because they saw “above reproach” as the head quality. “For an elder must be a man whose life cannot be spoken against. He must be faithful to his wife.…” (see also the New Jerusalem).

The leaders of the church “must have an impeccable character” (New Jerusalem). This means they are faithful to their wife, self-controlled, restrained, hospitable, able to teach, gentle, and so forth. One of the mistakes I made in my commentary was to accept a standard interpretation at this point. Some authors use this as “evidence” against Pauline authorship. They say that the requirements are so minimal, barely above those of secular society, so devoid of common Pauline themes of righteousness and Christian virtues, that Paul could not have written these words. I accepted their critique that these were minimal standards and yet argued for Pauline authorship on other grounds.

And then I became a pastor of a young church. We found ourselves looking and searching for people whose lives measured up to these “secular” standards, and were constantly wondering where were the future leaders of the church. We couldn’t find them. The fact of the matter is that the standards are very high. To be a person of impeccable character in all areas of his life — marriage; personal restraint; relationships with others; interaction with conflict; finances — and then on top of this to be able to teach the truth and refute error (Titus 1:9), and to be courageous enough to lead — this indeed is a rare find. This is why in most churches these future leaders must be encouraged and taught; they don’t grow on trees. But then again, Paul says that a church leader “must” be above reproach. No exceptions for any church that wants to be biblical.

All of this from a semi-colon, showing that “above reproach” is a general quality defined by following terms.


I'm involved in Bible translation in North India, and exactly this issue of 'general qualification' followed by 'specific examples' in Paul's writing has created quite a problem. In 1 Tim 2:9, Paul says that women must be "modest and proper" (general qualification), "not wearing gold and pearls" (specifics). But the glitch is that women in N. India cannot be "modest and proper" if they aren't wearing at least *some* gold. Without a gold necklace, for example, she presents as an unmarried 'girl' and if she has children, it's a scandal! And sadly, some of the 'outside' pastors (who are from a culture where the gold isn't necessary) really 'go to the mattresses' with Paul's specifics to the point that they've alienated the believers from their neighbors and contribute to the general accusation of Christianity being a 'foreign religion'. All for the sake of majoring on the details, which arguably could be considered a cultural outworking of the previously stated general principle ("modest and proper"). [We had to translate it along the lines of "not *too much* gold... not drawing attention to yourself...(purpose)" to give the same meaning]. Secondly, I recently created a presentation for a translation consultant development workshop on the fact that Greek is a 'head-first' language (Levinsohn) and consequently, the 'head position' (i.e. earlier in the sentence, rather than later) is the more focal position in the sentence. But when translating into 'head last' languages (as in N. India), the focal position is at the end of the sentence before the verb. So very often when translating from the Greek, we need to reverse the order of items in a list, so that the proper focal point is kept as the proper focal point. So, for example, in the Delhi metro, they have an announcement in English, "Please give up your seat for the handicapped, the elderly and women." (where the most focal position in the sentence is immediately after the verb and in order of decreasing focus going to the right (i.e. so 'handicapped', who are the most deserving of a seat, should have more consideration given than the 'elderly' and then 'women'). In the Hindi translation of this sentence, they rightly (IMHO) translated it as (literal order): /women, elderly, and handicapped for seat give.up/ (where 'handicapped' remains in the most focal position just before the verb and decreasing in order of focus going backwards in the sentence). So often times the order of constituents in Greek ought to be translated as the mirror image in 'head last' languages. [technically, English is also a head-first language, so I'm not sure such cases need to be reversed when translating from Greek to English].

Thank you for sharing your challenges and insights concerning translation issues. I learned a lot from this.

I'm learning a lot from these blog post about translation that I've never knew before!

Since you use Romans 9"4 as an example here, I'd like to ask your thoughts on the term "adoption" as a term for "uiothesia." To me it is a horrible interpretation that is not present here or elsewhere in Paul. Thanks for your thoughts, Tawnya

I have never seen the important of a semicolon until now. It does affect how I read and interpret the scripture.

I am confused. In my college English courses, a list is introduced by either a colon or a dash. A semicolon is used to separate elements of a list when one or more of those elements contains a comma within itself.