For an Informed Love of God
You are here
Translating the Greek Aorist as the English Past can Miscommunicate (James 2:7)
All interpretations are interpretive; anyone who says differently is selling something. (A slight takeoff of the man in black who said, “Life is Pain! Anyone who says differently is selling something.”)
The question is, “How interpretive should a translation be?” All translation committees struggle with this. When translating words doesn’t convey sufficient meaning, how far should we go to communicate? I just posted a YouTube on this issue in general (gk2.me/translations-overview).
James 2:7 gives a small example that shows how subtle this issue can be. James is asking a rhetorical question about the rich in this church; “Are they not the ones who are blaspheming the honorable name (τὸ καλὸν ὄνομα) by which you were called? (τὸ ἐπικληθὲν ἐφ᾿ ὑμᾶς).”
Some people say this is a reference to baptism and the invoking of the name of Jesus over the person being baptized. This would read the aorist ἐπικληθὲν as punctilear, but I am generally not persuaded by the approach that sees baptismal allusions under ever bush, as it were. However, this does explain some of the translations. The HCSB writes, “Don’t they blaspheme the noble name that was pronounced over you at your baptism?” which was change in the CSB to, “Don’t they blaspheme the good name that was invoked over you?” The NRSV has, “the excellent name that was invoked over you.”
I suspect that the “honorable name” is that of “Jesus,” and the point is that the rich were blaspheming not so much the name but the very character of our God. This reads the aorist as constative, describing the ongoing state of the believer. (Note that the verb is ἐπικαλέω, not the simple καλέω. BDAG gives its second meaning as, “to address or characterize someone by a special term, call, give a surname.” The issue is more our identity in Christ.)
This illustrates the problem of using the English past for the Greek constative. In English, constative and gnomic thoughts are generally expressed with the present tense. So when we read “by which you have been called” (NASB) or “by which you were called” (ESV, NKJV), we hear a past condition and not a present, onging condition. Certainly an example of the problem of slavishly following the Greek aorist and the English past. It miscommunicates, if in fact ἐπικληθὲν is constative.
This explains the NIV (“the noble name of him to whom you belong”) and the NET (“the good name of the one you belong to?”). The point is that the rich are constantly attacking the very name, the very character, of Jesus, the very “name” that identifies the believers. It is not just a past condition but a present, ongoing condition that requires the English present.
All interpretations are interpretive. All are required to take exegetical positions. Those claiming an unbiased literalism are most certainly selling something.