Our first hop on the path to appreciating Biblical Greek was Seeing Double. You must read the Bible in two versions and learn to analyze the different choices made by the translators. Two things normally happen. Either you see that the two versions are saying the same thing in different ways. Or that they are saying different things because they don’t agree on what the meaning of the original is. That’s where things get fun. Then you might decide to dig deeper and look at the Greek behind the translations.
Our second hop, Grasshopper, is Letting Go. Letting Go means letting go of the expectation that we can always perfectly understand the original language. The Bible comes down to us through the centuries from a different language and culture. God’s message to us is plain but there are less essential points that we can’t always expect to understand. Let me illustrate with an example from Ephesians 1:4-5. My two translations for seeing double this time are RSV and TNIV. I’ve listed the footnotes for each version since they are key to our discussion.
RSV 4 even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. 5 He destined us in loveb to be his sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will,
b Or before him in love, having destined us
TNIV 4 For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In loveb 5 he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will—
b 4,5 Or sight in love. 5 He
There is an ambiguity in this verse. Does in love refer to us or to God? Both translations footnote the problem and show an opposite way of reading this section.
It’s at this point that we have to let go of the notion that we can know with complete certainty what every passage in the Scriptures is talking about. One of the quickest ways to zero in on interesting translation problems is through the footnotes in your Bible. I checked this passage in several versions. These versions footnoted the problem: RSV, NIV, TNIV and CEV. All showed the alternative way of rendering this passage. These versions didn’t show the problem: KJV, NASB and NLT.
This process gets really interesting in the Old Testament. The footnotes for the CEV are full of this statement: “One possible meaning for the difficult Hebrew text.” This isn’t just a case of having to choose between two possibilities but in fact the translators had to make a best guess at what the original author was saying!
Letting go means being able to acknowledge that we can’t always understand what we’re reading! But that is a good thing because it makes us more curious and inquisitive. If all the translations we check say basically the same thing then there’s no justification for cooking up some new interpretation. That’s the case with the example above. All the versions I have checked except CEV say that God is the one “in love.”
Now, if you think it is strange to say God is “in love” you are right. Our two translations above are misleading for the simple reason that “in love” in English refers to romantic love between starry-eyed lovers. Let me give you two translations that get this passage right:
CEV 4 Before the world was created, God had Christ choose us to live with him and to be his holy and innocent and loving people. 5 God was kindb and decided that Christ would choose us to be God’s own adopted children.
b 1.4,5 holy and innocent and loving people. 5 God was kind: Or “holy and innocent people. God was loving 5 and kind.”
NLT 4 Long ago, even before he made the world, God loved us and chose us in Christ to be holy and without fault in his eyes. 5 His unchanging plan has always been to adopt us into his own family by bringing us to himself through Jesus Christ. And this gave him great pleasure.
There’s no talk in either of these versions about God doing something “in love.” Rather NLT says “God loved us” and CEV interprets this as referring to us: “loving people” which are both natural ways of expressing the original Greek.
Speaking of the original Greek, would you like to see just a little bit of it? The phrase “in love” comes from the Greek ἐν ἀγάπῃ. Cool, eh? Transliterated it would be en agape.
A classic case of Letting Go is also found in Ephesians 4:11-12:
RSV 11 And his gifts were that some should be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, 12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ,
TNIV 11 So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, 12 to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up
Here’s the KJV, and the source of our dispute:
KJV 11 And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; 12 For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ:
The question before us, Grasshopper, is no less than deciding who in the body of Christ should be involved in ministry! Your answer depends on the placement of a single comma. Look closely at verse 12 in the KJV. After the word saints there is a comma. Now compare that to the RSV. After the word saints there is no comma! Startling isn’t it? But that one little mark makes the difference between interpreting this passage as “God gave apostles, prophets, evangelist, pastors and teachers to be engaged in works of service” and “God gave pastors and teachers to equip his people for works of service.” Who in the body of Christ is called to minister? The decision rests on a little comma. I think all modern translations in English have chosen the route of RSV and TNIV. But the truth is, the KJV reading is perfectly acceptable1. Modern conceptions of “ministry” are leading to a preference in leaving out the comma. Greek scholars will argue convincingly for both readings but you, Grasshopper, are just letting it go.
Hop on over to Better Bibles Blog and chew on a very enlightening discussion of footnotes used in the TNIV Bible translation: 1 Cor. 12:13. Can we know for sure or do we just need to let go?
1In fact, I think the KJV rendering is more accurate to the Greek. But a lot of translators much wiser than I have decided on the other reading.