When are people not a people?

1 Peter 2:10a is worded as “Once you were not a people” in several English versions. It strikes my ears as odd English to say that a group of people were “not a people”. How does it strike your ears?

Can we ask someone, “Are you a member of a people?” or “Are you part of a people?”

How might this clause be worded so that it is both accurate and sounds better in English?

36 thoughts on “When are people not a people?

  1. Kenny says:

    This sounds a bit stilted but perfectly grammatical and comprehensible to me. In case that’s just because of my familiarity with ‘Bible English’, perhaps we could say ‘nation’? Some people will surely complain about losing the contrast between ethne and laos. Also, ‘nation’ to most people today means ‘nation-state’ as opposed to the original meaning of ‘nation’ in English. Still, I think ‘nation’ may well be the closest English equivalent, if some speakers have trouble understanding ‘people’ in this usage, or find it unnatural.

  2. Damian says:

    Yes, it’s certainly comprehensible. But if we had to render it better, perhaps to go dynamic, something like:

    “Once you were apart, but now you are one.”

    To try and communicate the difference in the Greek?

  3. Chaka says:

    Isn’t the idea that they were not-God’s-people before, but now they are God’s people? (I’m assuming Peter alludes to Hosea.) Rather than the idea in Damian and Kirk’s suggestions, that they were just separate individuals.

  4. Wayne Leman says:

    Here are some other versions which sound good to me:
    At one time you were not God’s people, but now you are his people; at one time you did not know God’s mercy, but now you have received his mercy. (TEV)

    Once you were not God’s people, but now you are. Once you were not shown mercy, but now you have been shown mercy. (GW)

    “Once you were nobody.
    Now you are God’s people.
    At one time no one
    had pity on you.
    Now God has treated you
    with kindness. (CEV)

  5. Kenny says:

    I do think part of the idea of ‘once you were not a people’ is ‘once you had no shared national/ethnic identity.’ The NLT seems to capture this better than most of the other proposals here. On the other hand, there is likely a reference to Hosea 1 intended, and LXX translates the name of the child at 1:9 as ou laos mou, so it is possible that Peter just left off the mou and so does intend ‘once you were not God’s people’ rather than ‘once you had no identity as a people.’ I think, however, that in Peter’s application of this verse to the Church the later is a very appropriate interpretation.

  6. codepoke says:

    “A people” is completely recognizable to me, and I don’t believe it’s biblish. As a worker with Native American tribes, don’t you commonly hear of indigenous people groups and a given group being, “a people?” I’m pretty sure I do. There are 1.8 million Google hits for [“a people” native american], and several of them make perfect sense.

    Given this, the verse makes perfect sense as written. Peter is identifying his listeners as part of a larger tribe, indigenous to a heavenly realm, united by their spiritual nature. He is making them “a people group,” separate within the group of all people.

    (Hey. It’s REALLY nice to be able to get here. My company blocks blogger, but not wordpress. The new site is cool, but just being able to get here is really nice. Thank you.)

  7. Don says:

    The relation to Hosea should be brought out in the translation, as that is what Peter is referring to, methinks.

  8. Tim Bulkeley says:

    I really like CEV:
    “Once you were nobody.
    Now you are God’s people.”
    Seems to capture what I assume the passage is about with its reference to Hosea… and like the original it is terse too, always worth bonus points in my book.

  9. Dru says:

    I hate to say this in such august company, but I think the classic translation is better and no less clear or normal English than any of the more dynamic alternatives.

    Dru

  10. Wayne Leman says:

    Thanks for your comment, Dru. Might you be able to locate “a people” found in any composition written by a native speaker of English? If so, please share it here. We love data.

  11. Peter Kirk says:

    Bob, the Québecois are not native speakers of English, which is in fact the essence of their claim to be a people.

    I think these days we refer more often to “people groups”, so how about “Once you were not a people group, but now you are the people group of God”? Well, maybe not!

  12. Damian says:

    A ‘people group?’, Peter? I’ve never heard of the term.

    How about, ‘One God was not your shared identity, but now He is?’ I think that the harder we try, the less it works. Maybe Dru is right!

    Perhaps we are focusing on the wrong thing here. Could ‘Once you were an individual with no God, but now you are a nation under God?’ work? Or perhaps ‘Once you were not a nation under God, but now you are a nation under God?’

  13. asiabible says:

    I tried several times this morning to comment on Wayne’s response to Dru, I just love a challenge. But it was no challenge, search Google (or your favourite competing brand), Wayne, for “a people” ignore “A People’s…” and the rest will give you all the examples you want 😉

    BUT I still like the CEV:
    “Once you were nobody.
    Now you are God’s people.”
    Because I am not sure I understand what “not a people” means in English, and Hosea and those who quote/refer to his words was assuming a load of theological baggage, CEV cuts to the heart of this in simple English, and even keeps it showing up if you do a concordance search for “people” as a small bonus!

  14. asiabible says:

    PS the problem with comments that vanished into nowhere was because when I tried this morning I was a nobody (not logged into WordPress, but now I am a somebody (a WordPress person) so it preserves my priceless words for posterity 😉

    How do strangers and aliens comment?

  15. Bob MacDonald says:

    Peter – I, I myself, then wrenched their Phrench into English. They say it that way in English also.

    People is not a synonym for nation, nor for tribe. It is that Israel was God’s people, God’s child.

    Now, Peter your namesake says the Gentiles were not a people but they now are. This is a critical and subversive usage of the metaphor of Israel. Critical in that it mirrors Hosea’s dismissal of Israel’s claim, subversive in that it affirms that same claim for both Jacob and the Gentiles. Not that the Gentiles are ‘part of’ God’s people, but that they are a people – called by God out of darkness into his marvelous light. It is that light that creates a people.

    There is a tendency in some teachers to oversimplify the creativity of the use of language and to say there are rules when there are not.

  16. Peter Kirk says:

    Damian, perhaps “people group” is sociological and anthropological jargon (which would make it unsuitable for a general purpose Bible translation), but haven’t you heard mission groups talking about “unreached people groups”?

  17. Damian says:

    Peter – now that you mention it, I might have heard it in that context. But I guess I always assumed it was odd language use. But I certainly don’t think it’s in general usage.

    I think agree with Bob that, as the metaphor – even if it extended to Gentiles – began with the Nation of Israel, ‘nation’ is probably the best translation.

  18. codepoke says:

    Japan: Images of a People
    A people torn: Liberians in Minnesota
    Ancient Australians Were a People Apart
    A People United
    Wolastoqiyik – Portrait of a People
    “A people that values its privileges above its principles soon loses both.” – Dwight D. Eisenhower
    Barack Obama the prophet wins a people’s faith: Sketch – Telegraph
    Iran: A People Interrupted is a history book
    How Hollywood Vilifies a People.
    “A Land without a People for a People without a Land” – Middle …
    What is a people group? For evangelization purposes, a people group is the largest group within which the Gospel can spread as a church planting movement …
    A People at War brings to life the full humanity

    I really liked Bob MacDonald’s very clear phrase:
    This is a critical and subversive usage of the metaphor of Israel.

    Exactly.

  19. Wayne Leman says:

    Thanks for the examples, Codepoke.

    Can I followup up on these? The translation example of 1 Pet. 2:10a is of Greek that indicates something that was not the case at one point in time, but now is the case.

    Are the examples you gave in which “a people” is used about some entity (people?) who once were not people (or something else?) but now are?

    In other words, is “a people” in your examples equivalent in meaning to what is being discussed in my post?

    What were the people Paul was addressing before they were “a people”?

  20. codepoke says:

    Wayne,

    I hope you don’t mind, but I will probably spread my answer across this and the “hearing” post.

    The burden of proof you require is inequitable. You present no proof that the original reading is cryptic, except your own opinion, then require I ascend a vastly higher standard. That is not the way of proper debate. You are making a proposition, and I am defending the status quo. The burden of proof is on you.

    You asked for examples of “a people” in common use, and I provided them. Then you ask that those examples be examples of a group that was not a group coming into existence. That’s not Hoyle. “A people” is a noun, and I have proven that such a noun exists in common English. This is the part where you say, “Oh. I see. This is common English.”

    Here are your two requests:
    + Are the examples you gave in which “a people” is used about some entity (people?) who once were not people (or something else?) but now are?

    No, but they don’t need to be. I should not need to find examples of a leg being spontaneously generated to prove that “leg” is a commonly used noun.

    + In other words, is “a people” in your examples equivalent in meaning to what is being discussed in my post?

    Peter specifically, directly, explicitly states that “A people” is generated from people who were never before “a people,” I find examples of peoples in common use in common English, and you question the examples because they don’t contain ALL the grammatical meaning of the original Greek of Peter’s sentence. I’m driven to distraction here.

    After my complaint here, does requiring this degree of proof from the status quo position seem appropriate to you? Does the lack of proof presented in favor of your proposition seem appropriate to you?

    Thank you for your kind returns to my many questions.

  21. Wayne Leman says:

    Wayne,

    I hope you don’t mind, but I will probably spread my answer across this and the “hearing” post.

    That’s just fine, Codepoke.

    The burden of proof you require is inequitable. You present no proof that the original reading is cryptic, except your own opinion, then require I ascend a vastly higher standard.

    I did not suggest that the original reading was cryptic. I’m sorry I wasn’t clearer about that. Another commenter said it was, and I replied, with the logic of “for the sake of argument, if it is …”

    That is not the way of proper debate.

    I fully agree.

    You are making a proposition, and I am defending the status quo.

    I don’t understand.

    The burden of proof is on you.

    I’m missing something here.

    You asked for examples of “a people” in common use, and I provided them. Then you ask that those examples be examples of a group that was not a group coming into existence. That’s not Hoyle. “A people” is a noun, and I have proven that such a noun exists in common English. This is the part where you say, “Oh. I see. This is common English.”

    Sorry I wasn’t clearer in my initial request. The Bible verse in question refers to “a people who once were not a people but now are a people”. I should have asked for examples where the phrase “a people” is used of people who were not a people at one time but now are a people. There is an important semantic difference between being “a people” (I accept now–with your examples putting the nail in the coffin of my original claim which was too far-reaching–that that is acceptable, although it is somewhat marginal in my dialect) and being a people who didn’t used to be a people.

    You have properly answered the question I asked, which was not adequate enough. You have demonstrated with your examples that “a people” is in common enough usage that I cannot say it isn’t. If it seems that I am slipping away a little from my initial claim, it may be. I have been known to learn on the job. My wife tells me she knows I’m an extravert because I think on my feet. I learn during dialogue and often come to a different conclusion by the time I have finished talking with someone who helps me see something from a different point of view, or from a slightly revised point of view. Some people, like my wife, think all these logical steps through in the privacy of their own minds. I do it out in the open, in a public process. I like learning things, being corrected (well, it’s not always fun, but it’s necessary), and getting closer to the truth)

    Here are your two requests:
    + Are the examples you gave in which “a people” is used about some entity (people?) who once were not people (or something else?) but now are?

    No, but they don’t need to be. I should not need to find examples of a leg being spontaneously generated to prove that “leg” is a commonly used noun.

    + In other words, is “a people” in your examples equivalent in meaning to what is being discussed in my post?

    Peter specifically, directly, explicitly states that “A people” is generated from people who were never before “a people,” I find examples of peoples in common use in common English, and you question the examples because they don’t contain ALL the grammatical meaning of the original Greek of Peter’s sentence. I’m driven to distraction here.

    I can see why. I would be also, if I had not been given clear enough directions (my error) and then dismissed your examples based on what I actually should have asked. It was not fair of me, and I apologize.

    After my complaint here, does requiring this degree of proof from the status quo position seem appropriate to you? Does the lack of proof presented in favor of your proposition seem appropriate to you?

    I don’t understand the legal or logical language of these two sentences, but I hope that I answered you above.

    Thank you for your kind returns to my many questions.

    You’re welcome, Codepoke, and thanks for being honest and direct with me. That’s what makes this blog a good place. We are learning together.

  22. Peter Kirk says:

    You may well find examples of “once not a people, now a people” in Marxist literature, although perhaps more commonly with “nation” rather than “people”. It is part of Marxist teaching that people groups only become nations when they reach certain levels of development. I discovered this when a translator who had studied Marxism questioned calling Egypt in Genesis a nation, because according to Marxism ancient Egypt was not. But she didn’t take much persuading that Egypt actually met the basic conditions for being a nation and it was only Marxist dogma that it wasn’t.

  23. codepoke says:

    > If it seems that I am slipping away a little from my initial claim, it may be. I have been known to learn on the job.

    Thank you, Wayne. This helps me understand what’s happening.

    > There is an important semantic difference between being “a people” (I accept now–with your examples putting the nail in the coffin of my original claim which was too far-reaching–that that is acceptable, although it is somewhat marginal in my dialect) and being a people who didn’t used to be a people.

    Please help me understand why this question is important to you.

    Let’s say we substitute the noun “spiritual Israelite” for the noun “a people.” Then the sentence becomes, “Once you were not spiritual Israelites, but now you are spiritual Israelites.” The sentence has meaning. Maybe I can hear the issue you hearing if I try this substitution.

    “Once you were not league members, but now you are a league.”

    That creates a certain uncoordinated sound, and I think communicates what Peter was trying to say. But then again, I think this is clear English:

    “Once you were not a league, but now you are a league.”

    The repetition of the object is awkward, but clear. And so, I think once “a people” is established as a widely known noun, the sentence stands as written.

  24. Wayne Leman says:

    Codepoke asked:

    Please help me understand why this question is important to you.

    It’s important because it determines whether or not the translation of this verse is accurate in English or not.

    I can tell that I still haven’t communicated the problem that there is in the traditional wording of this verse. I wondered if might be the case after my last comment. Let me try again:

    There is an important semantic difference between:

    “Once you were not a league, but now you are a league.”

    and

    “Once you were not a people, but now you are a people.”

    They have the same logical form, but the meaning issue is different (different from just substituting “league” for “people”).

    Here’s the difference. Not everyone is part of a league. But everyone is people. We can’t take peoplehood away from people, because people are people, by definition.

    Now, if the word “people” has a special meaning in this verse which is different from the ordinary, most common meaning of the word “people,” then we might be able to get some sense out of the traditional translation wording. For instance, if “a people” in this verse is actually referring to a people group, then the verse would make sense. Or if if refers to a unified people, then the verse would make sense. Perhaps it refers to a group of people who have some kind of solidarity or sense of unity, something like a family.

    I don’t know how else to try to express the fact that it doesn’t make sense in English to say:

    “Once you were not a people, but now you are a people.”

    or

    “Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people.”

    Again, the only way for these to make sense is if “people” in this context doesn’t mean ‘people,’ as people usually think the meaning of “people” is.

    So, it’s a matter of accuracy. If the traditional wording of this verse does not make sense to me, and also does not make sense to millions of other English speakers (we would find out by field testing), then Peter’s intended meaning is not being expressed accurately in English.

    And that is why I am so concerned about it.

    If this were just some minor editorial quibble that had nothing to do with accuracy or meaning, I wouldn’t bother to blog about it.

    What understanding are you getting now, Codepoke, from how I have tried to clarify my concern about the traditional translation of this verse?

    Please don’t give up on this issue or on me, because it really is an important point. If I am still not communicating the issue clearly enough for you to understand my concern, then we’re going to have to do more thinking about how to express the issue here. Maybe one of the other co-bloggers can help out, as well.

    Perhaps we are talking past each other. You may understand what “a people” means but maybe the problem is that I don’t fully understand what it means. I know that phrases is not part of my ordinary vocabulary. Perhaps you can help me out by trying to express what you believe “a people” refers to in this verse. What is the relationship between “a people” and “people”?

    In any case, I do think that if we field tested the verse with a wide variety of native English speakers, we should be able to find out if they, like me, don’t really understand what “a people” refers to. If they don’t, then I suggest we should use a more understanding wording that accurate conveys Peter’s intended meaning.

  25. codepoke says:

    You are a patient man, Wayne. I commend you. I will try to match your grace.

    This is difficult knot to untie, and I’m sure we’re getting closer to the knottiest part. And therein lies one of the difficulties in our communication. I’m pretty sure knottiest is a word, but I don’t really care whether it is. My personality type lends to a certain inexactitude in everything I do. (INFP.) I consider the seat of my pants a perfectly wonderful navigation system, and that can make me difficult to follow in technical discussions. I declare a problem to be “knottiest,” chuckle at the pun with naughtiest, and go on assuming you’ve heard at least my intended meaning. I’ll try to do that less as we go. Talking past each other is really not fun.

    > Again, the only way for these to make sense is if “people” in this context doesn’t mean ‘people,’ as people usually think the meaning of “people” is.

    You have stated this very well, and it makes perfect sense the way you say it. I agree that you express the dilemma well here.

    > What is the relationship between “a people” and “people”?

    This is the core question. I see from your discussion above that you expect there to be a tight relationship between these two terms. To my ear the relationship between these two terms is peripheral.

    I would say:
    People is to A People as Members is to Set

    I suspect you would say:
    People is to A People as Members is to [undefinable … maybe, “A Members”, “A Membership”, “A Membership List”]

    I intentionally include the ambiguity in the suspicion I have of what you might say, because I hear you saying you are not clear what, “A People” means, even to the point of not being entirely sure it has a meaning of its own.

    If I’m correct about my understanding of your “is to … as” statement, then it’s entirely logical that we should be having trouble with this discussion. I believe the meaning of “A People” is very solid and fixed. A people is (not “are”) a *set* of persons (to awkwardly avoid overloading the word in my definition) who self-identify as a group with (usually) high loyalty to each other. “People” are any identifiable aggregation of persons. “A People” is any set of persons who self-identify as related. So, to me “people” and “a people” are categorically different, even to the degree of one being singular and the other being plural when identifying exactly the same aggregation of persons.

    I would accept the following sentence as good, understandable (if maybe optimistic) English:
    “Throughout the history of the world 10 billion people were saved, and those people were a people.”

    That sentence says more than just that there were 10 billion people in heaven. It says those 10 billion people were also a single, self-identifying entity.

    So, it eventually wiggles down to which of us correctly understands what “a people” means to most people. Or so it would seem to me.

    I stick at the point for exactly the reasons you list above.
    > If this were just some minor editorial quibble ….

    I agree. This is not a minor point.

    I believe there’s a stronger relationship between believers than one of simple mutual belief. I believe it’s stronger than even the relationship of one pure-blooded son of Abraham to another. I believe there’s a real relatedness between us as brothers in Christ that is stronger than the relatedness that would be between us if we shared a mother and father and all that brotherhood culturally implies. When I call a man brother in Christ, I declare a bond more real and stronger than that between the pair of hydrogens and the oxygen that make up water.

    This possibility is obscured if we downrate “you are a people” to say something like, “Now you are God’s people.” Yes, it’s wonderfully true that we are God’s people, but the context of the verse cries out to me that Peter was intentionally trying to say that we are an intimately related, self-identifying family of people. And specifically, as Bob MacDonald said so clearly, that we are a more intimately related family of people than physical Israel ever was. I would be happy if someone made this verse to say, “Now you are God’s ‘a people’,” but even my head would explode if I actually read that somewhere. 🙂

    I surely hope I’ve correctly heard the point of confusion here. And if not, I look forward to hearing your further clarification.

    Thank you, Wayne

  26. Wayne Leman says:

    You are a patient man, Wayne. I commend you. I will try to match your grace.

    You did, Codepoke. Thanks.

    My personality type lends to a certain inexactitude in everything I do. (INFP.) I consider the seat of my pants a perfectly wonderful navigation system, and that can make me difficult to follow in technical discussions.

    I often use the seat of my pants, also, but as an ISFJ, I don’t trust my seat to give me reliable enough data! 🙂

    “A People” is any set of persons who self-identify as related.

    Great, that’s what I suspected (seat of the pants!), but I needed to be sure (explicit data!).

    And I say Amen to everything else you wrote in your comments.

    Now that I understand the meaning you understand “a people” to have (and I agree with you), then the next step would be to field test “a people” in a translation of this verse to see what percentage of native English speakers get that same meaning from “a word.” If there is not a high enough percentage, then we need to weigh the pros and cons of using “a people” or another term that is in current usage by English speakers and which communicates the same meaning.

  27. Rick Ritchie says:

    My first inclination is to equate this with ‘people group’ as Peter did above.

    I wonder, though, whether a common ancestor might not be in view. Something that would make the picture jarring, since you cannot under normal circumstances have ancestors added in the present day.

    Perhaps for that, “Once you had no ancestry…”

  28. Wayne Leman says:

    I can ask for no more.

    Oh, wow, and we had such a great thing going there. And now it must stop. Well, to every thing, thing, thing, thing, there is a … I guess there is a time for stopping as well.

    But we’ll have to try this again on some other translated passage.

  29. Wayne Leman says:

    Rick asked:

    I wonder, though, whether a common ancestor might not be in view.

    Thanks, Rick. Yours is a reasonable suggestion. In this case, however, I think it is more likely to refer to a group of people that had not previously been recognized as a group. They didn’t have an identity, didn’t belong. They were just individuals without a sense of group-ness.

    Notice that we might say in English, “We didn’t used to recognize them as a people, but now we do.”

    “A people” is still a little unfamiliar for me, but I can recall hearing things like that. It’s not part of my common vocabulary, however. It has helped me to have this discussion.

    One of the greatest blessings that a teacher or blogger gets is learning from others, learning during the sharing process.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s