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Friday, February 2

The Myth of Literal Translation (2 Thess 2:3)

I know I have been beating this drum pretty hard recently, but it is so easy. I keep coming across example that clearly illustrate the problem.

The claim is that a translation can be at least somewhat literal, and that by doing so the translator reduces the amount of interpretation (often true) and the informed reader can see the Greek structure behind the English.

Frankly, the “informed” reader should be reading Greek if he or she is able to learn anything of significance from the English structure. But more importantly, I doubt there is even one verse in the English Bible that actually, clearly, reveals the Greek structure underlying it. The languages are just too different.

I am helping my friend Martin read Greek, and we looked at 2 Thess 2 last Wednesday. In the ESV v 2 reads, “Let no one deceive you in any way. For that day will not come, unless the rebellion comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of destruction.” What Greek lies behind “For that day will not come”?


The phrase “For that day will not come” was inserted to help the reader understand. It is an acceptable practice, but not one that could possibly be called “literal.” The CSB does the same thing, although it has invented another phrase for its translation method: “optimal equivalence” (not formal or functional).

The NASB is more transparent (also KJV). “Let no one in any way deceive you, for it will not come unless the apostasy comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of destruction.” The italics show the inserted words.

The more dynamic translations all insert “for that day will not come/arrive” (NIV, NET, NRSV, NLT), but this is to be expected of these types of translations.

The problem is that Greek has an ellipsis. Paul encourages the Thessalonians not to be deceived since they had heard that the Day of the Lord had already come (v 2). He continues by saying, “that unless the rebellion comes first” (ὅτι ἐὰν μὴ ἔλθῃ ἡ ἀποστασία πρῶτον). In other words, the sentence that ends in “that day will not come” (there is a comma following this in the ESV and a period in the Greek text) begins with a dependent ὅτι clause. In Greek, the sentence ends at the end of v 4, but it is not a proper sentence since there is no verb outside of the dependent clause, not even a main clause.

Inspiration does not require proper grammar. I have heard some people object to this, but anyone who has read Greek very long knows grammar can be ignored for various reasons, as here. Paul knows the Thessalonians will hear his dependent clause and fill in the missing parts.

So do we. But if you think a “literal” translation should be used because it reveals the underlying Greek structure, you are going to be led astray on every verse of the Bible to one degree or another.

I was in a debate a while back at a university over this whole issue of underlying Greek structure. One of the professors said that he wanted a “literal” English Bible — I was arguing there is no such thing — because he could use it in class to explain the Greek behind the English. The obvious answer is that if the purpose of translation is to give Greek teachers a tool for Greek classes, then his argument may be valid. But that is hardly what any translation is really about.

May I encourage you not to be deceived by this idea of choosing an English Bible so that you can see the underlying Greek structure. You will be led astray on every verse. If you want to get that close to the Greek, I know of a couple of Greek textbooks that will help you get there (grin). If not, then understand that all translations have to smooth out the Greek to make it understandable English, and read it with that in mind.