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Monday, February 11

What’s wrong with “a Jew”? (John 3:25)

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We all know that Greek does not have a specific word for “a,” the indefinite article. But Greek does have several ways to approximate the same meaning. For example, εἷς normally means “one,” but it can mean “one” in the sense of “someone.” An articular participle can also have an indefinite thrust, as in John 3:16 (ὁ πιστεύων).

But normally we use “a” when translating an anarthrous Greek noun, but even then there can be ambiguity. Take John 3:25 for example. “Now a discussion arose between some of John’s disciples and a Jew (μετὰ Ἰουδαίου) over purification” (ESV, see also NASB, CSB, NRSV; the KJV follows a plural variant reading, “the Jews”).

So why do several translation says, “a certain Jew” (NIV, NET, NLT)? Because in today’s polite speech we don’t say “a Jew,” just like we don’t say “a ____” about any ethnic group. It feels pejorative to say this. This is not being politically correct; it is being polite. So “certain” softens the affect of the words.

In fact, this is a good example of why word-for-word translations can miscommunicate. Although John often refers to “the Jew” and he means “the Jewish leaders” and there is some intended hostility, that is not the case here. John is simply relaying a conflict between some of John’s disciples and an unknown Jewish person, and “certain” does this.

However, using “certain” introduces a whole new problem. To me “a certain Jew” is anything but indefinite. It is signaling a very specific person and it feels like I should know who he is. He is not just any Jewish person, but a specific Jewish person, a certain Jewish person.

I think people are getting used to the word “people,” even though it is an ugly word since it begins with a plosive, “ugly” in the sense that it is not a pleasing sound and is generally avoided in speech. But the best I can come up with for John 3:25 is, “a Jewish person.” It is an indefinite construction without being pejorative.

English is a rapidly changing language, and not just its use of gender language. Being sensitive to how words are heard by different groups of people is a good thing, as long as it doesn’t paralyze our speech or is used to advance political and social agendas. My mom was a McTavish and I don’t mind begin called “Scottish” or “a Scot.” But there is not the same history behind being Scottish as there is with being Jewish, Polish, etc. Good translations are aware of how words are heard by multiple groups of people, and blindly translating word-for-word can create unintended consequences.

Comments

I was taught that the definite/indefinite terms for articles are better understood in terms of “knowness”. The definite article indicates that the speaker assumes that the reader knows who or what he is referring to. The indefinite indicates that the speaker assumes that the reader does not know who or what he is referring to. As in, “I read the book last night” as opposed to “I read a book last night.” Specificity is not the issue. Both are specific. I think Greek does the same thing. You indicated that when you said “it feels like I should know...”. Thanks, John

Again, I have always understood the word to really mean "Judean." "Jew" is a modern interpretation identifying religion. So, I would naturally assume that John 3:25 is being specific that the discussion was between John's disciples and a Judean, in other words and in this case a local, as opposed to a Galilean or a Samaritan, etc., since verse 22 says they just "came into the Judean land" (ηλθεν εις την ιουδαιαν γην). John happened to also (και) be there (assuming Aenon/Salim was in the vicinity of Jericho). The disciples of Jesus, of course, were Galileans. But they were what *we* would call "Jews" as well. The thing is, the disciples of John *were* Jews, as we have defined the term in English. So, how does it make any sense for it to be written that a "Jew" would have a discussion with "a Jew" (or "a certain Jew," or "a Jewish person")? Jesus and his disciples, who were "Galileans" from Galilee, were Jews as well, according to the English definition of "Jew." In conclusion, if the word was translated "Judean," as it should have, then the whole discussion of "perjorative" vs. "polite" language would be moot. This would also force people to ask, "What exactly is a Judean?" From reading the Old Testament, of course, they would know that this was a region that corresponded to the land given to the tribe of Judah, where what *we* call the "Jewish" religion was preserved, even after the Babylonian captivity, as contrasted to Samaria, which was identified with the remnant of the ten tribes of "Israel" in the days of the divided kingdom, which fell to the Assyrians, and so on and so forth. You have a minor typo, by the way. In the first sentence of the sixth paragraph, you say, "I think people are getting use to the word..."

Are you thinking of something particular about the word “people”? There are thousands of plosives in English, bilabial, apicoalveolar...voiced, voiceless.

Nothing in particular. Just an initial plosive.

Again, you have a minor typo. In the first sentence of the sixth paragraph, you say, "I think people are getting use to the word...." It should be "...used...."

Yes, I make that mistake a lot. That's why God created editors.