Bill Mounce

For an Informed Love of God

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Monday, May 7, 2018

When Bibles do, and don't, follow the Greek. A Couple Examples.

Paul tells the Colossians church, "My goal is that their hearts may be encouraged (ἵνα παρακληθῶσιν αἱ καρδίαι αὐτῶν) and knit together in love (συμβιβασθέντες ἐν ἀγάπῃ), so that (καὶ εἰς) they may have all the wealth of full assurance of understanding, for knowledge of God’s mystery, which is Christ (εἰς ἐπίγνωσιν τοῦ μυστηρίου τοῦ θεοῦ, Χριστοῦ)" (2:2).

There are a couple things worth noting. The first is the value of keeping dependent clauses dependent. The text doesn't say "encouraged and knit together." παρακληθῶσιν is the main verb in the purpose clause, and συμβιβασθέντες is a dependent construction (adverbial participle) telling us something about how they are encouraged. Paul is not saying that he wants the Colossians to be encouraged and to be knit together. He is saying he wants them to be encouraged by being knit together.

At first glance, it may seem petty, but I don't think so. By making συμβιβασθέντες an independent construction, it diminishes the force of the single goal of being encouraged. It's also not what the Greek says (contra the NIV, CSB, NRSV, NLT) and is better translated by the ESV and NASB. The NET interestingly flips the order of the clauses to make their relationship clear: "My goal is that their hearts, having been knit together in love, may be encouraged."

The second point is that once again this verse can't be translated word-for-word, and the claim that "literal" Bible translations reflect the structure of the Greek just isn't true. As I have often said, almost every verse in the Greek Testament has had to be altered to get it into English.

Word-for-word, the last phrase is "into (the) knowledge of the mystery of God of Christ" (εἰς ἐπίγνωσιν τοῦ μυστηρίου τοῦ θεοῦ, Χριστοῦ). Of course, that makes no sense and hence the final genitive (Χριστοῦ) has to be interpreted, and translations do it rightly as an example of apposition: "and the knowledge of God’s mystery, which is Christ" (ESV).

The point is not that the ESV and other translations get it wrong. My point is that all translation requires interpretation, and none truly show the underlying structure. If you don't know Greek well enough to read Greek, then you don't know when the translations are having to be (properly) interpreted.