Bill Mounce

For an Informed Love of God

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Monday, December 3, 2018

When does “No” become “Never”? (Mark 10:15)

It is often said that translators are traitors. They are traitors because they either over- or under-translate the meaning of the original text. Either they say too much in an attempt to convey the full meaning of the Greek, or they say too little and leave some of the meaning untranslated.

A typical example is the Greek construction of οὐ μή and the aorist subjunctive. It coneys an emphatic negation, not just “no” but “no no no” (as one of my children used to say when he was little). Of course, you can’t say “no no no” in translation, and we do not have a grammatical construction in Engish similar to οὐ μή plus aorist subjunctive. So are we to try and bring the emphatic nature of the negation into English, or do we leave it out?

A good example is Mark 10:15. “Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter (οὐ μὴ εἰσέλθῃ) it” (NIV, also CSB, NET, NRSV, NLT). In general, the use of “never” is too strong a translation (over translating) since that is not what the emphatic negation is saying. Think of Jesus saying v 15, and either pounding a fist or stamping his foot or raising his voice. That’s οὐ μή plus aorist subjunctive. However, the reason “never” works in this verse is that as long as a person does not become like a child, he or she will absolutely not enter God’s kingdom (hear my fist pounding). The statement is always true and hence the use of “never” works.

The ESV simply does not translate all the Greek: “shall not enter it” (also the KJV, “he shall not enter therein”).

The NASB uses italics, but to my mind in an incorrect way. They write, “Truly I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it at all.” Why do they put “at all” in italics since it is their translation of οὐ μή plus aorist subjunctive? “At all” is an explicit translation of two Greek words; why give the impression that it isn’t?

I keep coming back to a hobby horse (which is why it is a hobby horse) about the myth of “literal” translations reflecting the Greek. If you read the ESV, it simply omits some of the Greek. If you read the NASB, it implies that there is no Greek behind the “at all” even though there is.

I was speaking to a couple Mormon missionaries the other day, asking them what they thought it meant to be a Christian. They answered that a Christian was someone who did what God expected them to do (i.e., works). I answered that I agreed that a Christian lives within the limits of a covenantal relationship, but how do you enter into the relationship in the first place? “You have to really want it,” they replied.

I answered that this is why we would never agree. I (gently) said that their Christology was wrong, and that as long as they thought Jesus was a created being and the brother of Satan, they would never be able to call him “Lord.” And all the “wanting” to enter into a covenantal relationship would never be successful. They have to accept Jesus’ work on the cross with the faith of a child.

They were very nice young men who offered to come back and weed our flower bed. But they will never enter God’s kingdom until they understand the nature of justification by a child’s faith.