Bill Mounce

For an Informed Love of God

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Monday, February 7

The Myth of “Literal Translations” (1 Tim 4:13)

Have you ever noticed that when you see something, perhaps something new or different, all of a sudden you start seeing it everywhere? You see a yellow car, and all of a sudden there are yellow cars everywhere? That’s how I’m feeling about the common belief that formal equivalent translations are better because they show the underlying Hebrew and Greek structures. My point is that in almost every (if not all) verse in the New Testament, the Greek has been altered in come way, and the only way to know when a verse reflects the underlying Greek is to know the Greek.

I came across another “yellow car.” Paul tells Timothy, “Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching” (ESV). The NASB is similar except for the italics: “Until I come, give attention to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation and teaching.”

The NASB shows the failure of the ESV at this point to be “essentially literal.” The ESV adds “public ... of Scripture.” There is no Greek behind those words, not even a hint. My guess is that the ESV just kept the RSV at this point, and saying only “reading” would not make sense. Reading what? Is this Timothy’s private devotional time or public ministry? All this requires interpretation.

Other translations like the NLT that don’t make any claims of being “literal” are free to make the meaning of the verse clear and accurate. “Until I get there, focus on reading the Scriptures to the church, encouraging the believers, and teaching them.”

The CSB is a little uncharacteristically confusing. “Until I come, give your attention to public reading, exhortation, and teaching.” Is Paul talking about exhortation and teaching in a public or private setting?

Not only are the formal translations adding words, they are also leaving them out, specifically the definite article. Paul more “literally” says, “Until I come, be devoted to the (τῇ) reading of Scripture, to the (τῇ) exhortation, to the (τῇ) teaching.” We don’t always translate the Greek article, but certainly here the obvious repetition of the article means something. If you check my commentary, you will see the argument that the repetition of the article is pointing to three distinct parts of the synagogue service that were brought over into Christian worship: the time of public reading, the time of exhortation to follow its teachings, and the time of doctrinal instruction on the theology of the passage. This is what is signaled by the somewhat awkward repetition of the article.

The only way you can know if the English reflects the Greek structure is to know Greek. If you know Greek, the English is irrelevant. If you don’t know Greek, why would you say it is important for your English Bible to reflect Greek structure? Why would someone who does not know Greek say this is important?

Comments

¶ Your last paragraph is very profound: "The only way you can know if the English reflects the Greek structure is to know Greek. If you know Greek, the English is irrelevant. If you don’t know Greek, why would you say it is important for your English Bible to reflect Greek structure? Why would someone who does not know Greek say this is important?" ¶ I find it amazing that people who do not know any Greek at all (or, at most, rely on Strong's brief word definition glosses to explain all) will recommend a particular translation as being "closer to the original Greek" or, even worse, that something like the Amplified Bible (AMP) or Wuest Expanded Translation (WET), or some such thing, "reveals" the original Greek meaning, when those "amplified/expanded" "translations" are just liberally embellishing by adding copious words and phrases that are not in the original. So, I would add to that the question, "How can someone who does not know Greek recommend a particular translation (or amplified/expanded" one) as better "revealing" the "underlying" Greek? How are they in any position to judge such a matter?" ¶ I just do not see what the big deal is just learning Greek. It's Koine ("Common") Greek, the Greek of the common folks back then, simple and straightforward grammar, only about five and a half thousand words (if you go by Strong's numbering system) in the New Testament, compared to something on the order of a hundred thousand words we need to know and use in English, it's far less ambiguous or full of exceptions and inconsistencies as compared to English, and even someone like me can learn it, a career electrical/computer engineer who has historically struggled with poor language skills, and no formal, post-secondary, academic training in language, particularly not classical languages. ¶ All the time people invest comparing translations, agonizing over commentaries by theologians, and so on, could be better put to use just learning the original language. With twenty-first century computer tools, available for a reasonable to no cost, having point-and-click convenience and the ability to search through the entire Bible for something in a fraction of a second, you don't even have to memorize and keep memorized all the paradigm tables and lexicons anymore, or go back to a home or other library to flip through a bookshelf full of hardcover texts. I mean, I've got the NA28/LXX/BHS texts with parsing and critical apparatus, lexicons, interlinears, etc., split-window sync'ed to the English translations, Danny Zacharias iGrεεk app if I need it, etc., etc., all in my shirt pocket on my smartphone, that I can reference, do look-ups, searches, etc. anywhere I happen to physically be, and it cost me a lot less than a bookshelf full of hardcopy books, certainly nothing to break the bank.