Bill Mounce

For an Informed Love of God

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Monday, September 20, 2021

When is Tribulation only Affliction?

How do you translate θλῖψις? If you translate it as “tribulation,” does that bring in foreign ideas in some contexts? This is a tricky one. I wasn't planning on blogging while on vacation in Switzerland, but my brother-in-law asked a good question.

BDAG gives the following glosses for θλῖψις: “oppression, affliction, tribulation.” The word occurs 45 times in the Greek Testament. It is used of affliction in general and also the suffering that will occur at the end of the world. Even a translation like the ESV that values concordance properly uses several different English words for the one Greek word.

The issue is that the word “tribulation” is tied in our minds to the “Great Tribulation” at the end of time. When the Gospels are referring to that event, “tribulation” is a great translation (Matt 24:21, 29, so ESV, NASB). But when it is used of distress in general as in the Parable of the Sower (Matt 13:21), a word like “distress” is much better. Interestingly, the CSB uses “distress” when the Gospels refer to the “Great Tribulation,” and the NRSV and NET use “suffering.” Unfortunately, the ESV uses “tribulation” when referring to suffering in general (e.g., Matt 13:21).

Where it gets interesting is in Revelation. See how they translate θλῖψις.

1:9 tribulation tribulation affliction persecution suffering
2:9 tribulation tribulation affliction affliction afflictions
2:10 tribulation tribulation affliction affliction persecution
2:22 tribulation tribulation affliction distress suffer
7:14 tribulation tribulation tribulation ordeal tribulation

The problem with using “tribulation” throughout Revelation is that it confuses the persecution and suffering experienced by the seven churches (Rev 2:9–2:22) or John in particular (Rev 1:9) with the Great Tribulation of 7:14. While there is value to concordance, I think it is improperly applied here (contra the NASB and ESV). The variation of the CSB and NIV are to be preferred. I am not sure why the NRSV chose the vanilla “ordeal” (“the great ordeal”).

The other problem with using “tribulation” for suffering in general is that it is an old word that almost no one uses anymore.

In translating, we always have to be aware of the theological connections people might improperly make by our choice of words.