Bill Mounce

For an Informed Love of God

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Monday, September 26, 2016

At what point does interpretation run counter to biblical intention?

This morning in church the pastor read Acts 27 out of the NLT, and I was bothered. I understand that the NLT’s policy to to make the text readable and understandable, and I applaud the desire. I read the NLT often, not so much to know what the biblical writers say but what the NLT committee understand what the writers meant. And since all translation involves interpretation, I am okay with this.

But I am not too sure any more. Some examples.

V 1. “And when it was decided that we would sail for Italy, they delivered Paul and some other prisoners to a centurion (ἑκατοντάρχῃ) named Julius, of the Augustan Cohort (σπείρης Σεβαστῆς).” The NLT reads, “When the time came, we set sail for Italy. Paul and several other prisoners were placed in the custody of a Roman officer named Julius, a captain of the Imperial Regiment.

A “centurion” is not a “captain.” And while “Imperial Regiment” may be more understandable (unless you just watched Star Wars as I did last night), there is a significant loss of meaning from “Cohort.”

What made this really stick out in my mind was Luke’s emphasis on the historicity of the account. As you take away specifics like “centurion” and “cohort,” you lose specificity that runs counter to Luke’s intentions.

V 4. “Putting out to sea from there, we encountered strong headwinds that made it difficult to keep the ship on course, so we sailed north of Cyprus between the island and the mainland.” The Greek says, “passed to the lee (ὑπεπλεύσαμεν) of Cyprus.” ὑποπλέω means specifically, “sail under the lee” (BDAG). The NLT is telling where the leeward side, but Luke is using nautical terms, which is important I think in terms of historicity.

V 9. “The weather was becoming dangerous for sea travel because it was so late in the fall.” The Greek says, “the voyage was now dangerous because the fast (τὴν νηστείαν) had already gone by.” (The NIV moves beyond the Greek as well and identifies the fast as “the Day of Atonement.”) Again, a loss of historical specificity in the NLT.

The sailors feared that the ship would run aground on “Syrtis” (Σύρτιν, v 17); the NLT injects, “the sandbars of Syrtis off the African coast.” Isn’t this level of interpretation the job of study Bibles, commentaries and preachers? Not translations.

The sailors threw four anchors off the “back of the ship” (v 29) while the Greek uses the nautical term “stern” (πρύμνης). Likewise, the sailors were going to drop the anchors in the “front” of the boat (v 30) while the Greek has “bow” (πρῴρης). And while this is an issue of consistency, in v 40 the NLT uses the technical term “foresail” (foresail) and in v 41 they do use “bow” and “stern” (same Greek words).

Let me emphasize that I like the NLT. Especially in the Old Testament it helps me understand the meaning conveyed by the words, but the freedom displayed in translating Acts 27 is disturbing. There is so much interpretation going on, so much lack of specificity, that it runs counter to Luke’s desire to give clear, technical, historical data, which I imagine was important since one of Luke’s goals is to produce documentation for Paul’s trial.


How many people in a normal congregation would know what a centurion is or a cohort? So I'm a little sympathetic with their dilemma.