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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 use 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.

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