Do you have life?

The verb for “have” behaves in interesting ways in many languages, including English. And it is often the case that the verb “have” in one language does not match the verb “have” in another language in some important translation contexts. A common mistake made by language learners is to translate the verb “have” in their own language to the language they are learning when it is inappropriate to do so.

For instance, in English I can naturally say “I have a cold.” But in Cheyenne, a language I have studied for 30+ years, there is no “have” when telling someone that I have a cold, Nahe’haa’e, which happens to cover the semantic domain of both having a cold and coughing. This Cheyenne word also has no relationship to Cheyennes words for ‘cold’ (temperature).

In English it is natural to say, “We had a good time.” I’m guessing that few, if any other, languages would use the verb “have” to refer to experiencing pleasure from some activity.

In the Greek of the New Testament the words for ‘have’ (ἔχω) and ‘life’ (ζωήν) often appear together, as in 1 John 5:12:

ὁ ἔχων τὸν υἱὸν ἔχει τὴν ζωήν: ὁ μὴ ἔχων τὸν υἱὸν τοῦ θεοῦ τὴν ζωὴν οὐκ ἔχει.

Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life. (NRSV)

Sometimes when the Greek word for ‘life’ occurs with ‘have’, it is modified by an adjective, as at the end of John 3:16:

ἔχῃ ζωὴν αἰώνιον

have life eternal

This Greek phrase is translated in most English versions as “have eternal life.”

Here, then, are questions for this blog post: Is it natural English to say “have life” or “have eternal life”? Or is it more natural to translate the Greek concept to English as something like “live eternally”?

31 thoughts on “Do you have life?

  1. Gary Simmons says:

    Good question! The Greek ἔχω definitely has its share of idiomatic uses, e.g. “telos ἔχει,” “daimonion ἔχει,” “esxatws ἔχει,” etc. If my hunch is correct, these tend to revolve around states of being. Having life would probably count as a state of being. [Can someone with more experience verify this?]

    We’d be getting ahead of ourselves to talk about concordance between “having the Son” (equally questionable English) and “having life.” It’s also too soon to talk about the implications of having something as an assurance.

    So, in English, is it natural to talk about “having” eternal life, apart from Biblish? No, I do not think that is natural English. To live eternally is more natural.

  2. Daniel Wilson says:

    A couple thoughts: It would seem strange for a doctor to pronounce someone dead saying, “He has no life.” This statement does appear in another context. We commonly say of the couch-potato or of the annoying guy who calls you all the time and invites himself over “He has no life.” We tell him, “Get a life.” This is hardly an appropriate connection to the Greek idiom. However, back to the medical context, we do see a possible connection in the statement, “He doesn’t have much life left,” when a patient is dying of a terminal illness. I think there is enough overlap here to preserve the traditional “have life” or “have eternal life.”
    Another question, perhaps for another post: If the primary readership of Scripture in English is Christian, is Biblish something we want to avoid at all costs? Are there cases in Scripture or contexts where Biblish has become the most natural way of speaking? I know the languages, but I’m pretty green in thinking about this stuff. Please advise.

  3. Peter Milloy says:

    I don’t know yet how I’d translate the verses you mentioned, Wayne, but I’m not yet quite ready to give up the possibility that there’s something in the “have” which we would surrender if we simply said “live eternally.” For example: I’m thinking of some verses near the end of 1 Timothy 6. In v. 16 the author writes that only God “has immortality” (NRSV), and I suspect this may mean more than that God will continue to live without ever dying. It might mean he also has the power to dispense immortality to others. Then in v. 19 the author wants us to “take hold of the life that really is life.” NRSV apparently can’t find a good way to translate that literally, and neither can I; but even though there’s no “have” there, it does sound like life is something you can have in a meaningful way if you take possession of it. Maybe 1 John 5:12 means “Whoever has the Son takes possession of unending life…”

  4. Wayne Leman says:

    In v. 16 the author writes that only God “has immortality” (NRSV), and I suspect this may mean more than that God will continue to live without ever dying.

    How about “God is immortal”?

  5. Peter Milloy says:

    OK, but there’s a simpler way to say that in Greek. I don’t know how to make the Greek characters on my keyboard, but it would be something like “theos monos athansios estin.”

  6. Mitchell Powell says:

    Sometimes I wonder if we overemphasize the need for idiomatic translation. The Bible deals in some rather complex metaphors, which are jolting to the reader, and make us rethink things in new ways. Besides, theology is so intimately connected with the way words are arranged that I think we do ourselves a disservice if our attempt to make the sound of phrases match common use strips them of their meaning. To “have eternal life” seems to imply the possession of a gift in a way that “live eternally” fails to convey. I propose we keep it, as unusual as it may be to the reader unfamiliar with the New Testament.

  7. SimonPotamos says:

    Echoing M. Powell’s comment: I don’t think idiomatic English (or whatever vernacular) should be the first priority. This is especially the case when the text is not idiomatic Greek (in the case of the NT). Take και εγενετο or εν χριστω. I mean, is it natural, idiomatic Greek to say that someone is in Christ. It sure ain’t natural or idiomatic in English; but remove the idiomatic wrinkle, and pop goes the point of the expression, too.

    In fact, one of my bones of contention with the venerable AV is that the English is too good. I mean, if you wanted to render the Greek, for example, faithfully, it would be a great deal less eloquent and beautiful in somewhere like Mark or Revelation than the AV and many others after it make it.

    By analogy, anyone translating Alan Paton’s Cry the Beloved Country into another language would be expected to replicate the change of style between the three parts of the book, as Paton’s English shifts from ‘black’ to ‘white’ to ‘black’ again with the change of narrative perspective. Leave that out, and you will lose a great deal of the literary impact of the book.

    If that’s sensible translation policy with other books, surely it’s sensible translation policy with the Bible. After all, the NT itself is full of Biblish. Only scholars call it ‘Hebraism’, which sounds much more posh.

  8. Wayne Leman says:

    To “have eternal life” seems to imply the possession of a gift in a way that “live eternally” fails to convey.

    I think we would need to know more about Koine Greek to know whether “have eternal life” in Greek means something different from “live eternally.”

  9. codepoke says:

    Ah Wayne. Your last comment is the most telling of all, for me.

    You see, I’m painfully aware of my ignorance of Koine Greek relative to all of the people who frequent this site, so I have to ask exactly the question you put to Mitchell.

    Before I can ask the question, “What is natural, accurate English,” I must first ask, “Was this natural, accurate Greek?”

    Since I am already alive, and since I’m going to somehow be more alive when I’m in Christ (sorry, couldn’t resist), it strikes me as plausible that Paul *could* have been making a referential allusion to we who possess two lives instead of one. But how would I know whether he were doing such a thing?

    The first question is whether it’s even possible. Paul is almost certainly an intuitive thinker, and given to saying things in evocative ways. On that basis alone, I think it’s always reasonable to question whether Paul is trying to fit two or three meanings into any of his phrases. That Paul is refering to the second category of life, spiritual life as opposed to physical life, is clear. So it’s at least possible that Paul was intentionally implying something beyond singly being alive.

    The second question is whether the Greek supports such a construction. If it doesn’t, then all the possibilities in the world won’t change reality. And here I’m lost as a ball in high weeds. I have to rely on you’ze guys. Is the phrase “have life” a common Greek idiom, or is it more or less unheard of? If it’s common, then I think we have to tranlate it into a common English idiom. If it’s an uncommon Greek construction, then we probably need to translate it into an uncommon English construction. Accuracy is not helped by biblish, but we do want to ensure all the ambiguities Paul built into his letter make into our (the Greekless masses) hands.

  10. jkgayle says:

    For me, there’s always the question of whether the author is stringing a particular word through a text. If so, how do we translate so as not to lose the interplay? For example, how would we translate into Cheyenne the following English sentence (from a letter found in Mary Mapes Dodge’s book, St. Nicholas)?

    “I have no pony, or dog, or donkey; but in Spain I had fleas, and now I have a cold.”

    Whether the writer intended to play with have or not, English readers can certainly catch the interplay. Wayne, you say, “I think we would need to know more about Koine Greek to know whether ‘have eternal life’ in Greek means something different from ‘live eternally’.” And I think we all could agree that “have a cold” in English means something different from “came down with a cold” or “catch one’s death of cold” or “have the sniffles, flu, etc.” Certainly, to “have” a pony or fleas is much different from “have” a cold.

    Discourse linguists sometimes focus on untranslatable particles that signal turns in a narrative; but sometimes they get at repeated lexical items (like the verb have above, and perhaps the verb, ἔχω, in John’s gospel).

    Here’s a bit of a run through the gospel (with various translations of ἔχω into today’s more or less “natural English”):

    2:3 – Jesus’ mother said to him, “They don’t have any wine!” [Ann Nyland, “have” for ἔχουσιν]

    2:25 – … he had no need to have anyone testify about a person [Willis Barnstone, “had” for εἶχεν]

    3:15 – … everyone who believes him has eternal life [Nyland, “has” for ἔχῃ; and in a fn Nyland says, “The present tense for ‘has (eternal life)’ signifies that from the second the person believes Jesus, from that time on they have eternal life.”]

    3:16 – … may have the Life of Ages [Weymouth, “may have” for ἔχῃ]

    3:29 – The bridegroom is the one who has the bride. [Nyland, “has” for ἔχων]

    3:36 – The one who believes in the Son has eternal life. [NET Bible and ISV, “has” for ἔχει]

    4:11a – “But sir, you don’t have a rope or a bucket,” she said [NLT, “have” for ἔχεις]

    4:11b – “Where do you have this living water?” [Barnstone, “have” for ἔχεις]

    4:17 – “I don’t have a husband,” the woman replied. Jesus said, “You’re right! You don’t have a husband” [NLT, “have” for ἔχω both times]

    4:18 – “You’ve had five husbands, and the man you have now isn’t your husband.” [God’s Word, “‘ve had” for ἔσχες, and “have” for ἔχεις]

    4:32 – “I have food to eat that you do not know about.” [NASB, “have” for ἔχω]

    4:44 – …Jesus himself testified that a prophet has no respect in his own native land. [Nyland, “has” for ἔχει]

    4:52 – So he asked them exactly which hour it was when he’d first had some comfort. [my translation, “‘d … had” for ἔσχεν]

    Codepoke,
    You ask: Is the phrase “have life” a common Greek idiom, or is it more or less unheard of?

    So, I’m asking does it matter, given the way John’s narrative plays with ἔχω? But, there are examples of the use of the verb with the noun ζωὴ. Here’s from Plato (“Sophista” 249a9 and “Phaedrus” 245c7, ):

    Ἀλλὰ δῆτα νοῦν μὲν καὶ ζωὴν καὶ ψυχὴν ἔχειν [“Then shall we say that it has mind and life and soul?” – translated by Harold N. Fowler]

    ἔχει ζωῆς. [“has a soul” fn: “has life” – translated by Robin Waterfield]

  11. Mitchell Powell says:

    I think we would need to know more about Koine Greek to know whether “have eternal life” in Greek means something different from “live eternally.” (Wayne Leman)

    That’s true. And although knowledge of Greek is fairly literalistic and not too strong on knowing what sounds “natural” in Greek, maybe this will help a little. In John 6:54, we are told that whoever “eats of this bread will live forever.” So at the very least we can know that there is at least a literal distinction in Greek between “live forever” and “have eternal life.” So that would lead me to think that there is some sort of difference between the two, but maybe someone with a better knowledge of what is natural in Koine Greek can weigh in.

  12. Wayne Leman says:

    Here’s a bit of a run through the gospel (with various translations of ἔχω into today’s more or less “natural English”)

    But isn’t calling these citations from translations “more or less ‘natural English'” assuming the conclusion without answering the question the blog post raises: Is it natural English to say “I have eternal life”?

    Wouldn’t we determine whether or not something is natural English by studying corpuses (corpii? corpses?!) of English which were known to have been naturally uttered by native speakers of the language?

  13. SimonPotamos says:

    But isn’t calling these citations from translations “more or less ‘natural English’” assuming the conclusion without answering the question the blog post raises: Is it natural English to say “I have eternal life”?

    What about the question that has been raised subsequently: was it natural Greek? It seems that the original question is at a dead-end until we have an answer to that one. Unless it’s a merely academic question, which I doubt.

  14. J. K. Gayle says:

    Wayne, I agree that “have eternal life” isn’t especially natural English and understand that you’ve asked whether it is “more natural to translate the Greek concept to English as something like ‘live eternally’?” The former phrase gets about 5,590,000 hits on google but the latter about only 166,000. In google books from January 2001 to present, “have eternal life” is found in works 1,287 times while “live eternally” is found only 746. In google scholar this century so far, there are around 5,130 instances of “have eternal life” in publications and approximately 1,160 instances of “live eternally.” An essay in Trends in Ecology and Evolution (2001) has this sentence: “Despite having no impact, taxonomic publications have eternal life and one cannot ignore old descriptions simply because they are old.” The Managing Care Reader (2003) has this sentence: “The shared fantasy between doctors, the public and the media seems to be that we could have eternal life, if only there were unlimited health funds.” These are the top two hits on google scholar. And I still wonder whether “have eternal life” is really that “natural” or is necessarily “more natural” than “live eternally.”

    When we come to translating John’s Greek, your question seems to be whether turning the noun ζωὴν into an English verb (i.e., “live” isn’t more natural than the traditional rendering of the verb ἔχω somehow into English as a verb. Even if a reliable corpus of natural English utterances showed a strong preference for “live” (vs. “have life”), isn’t some lost from the Greek that uses the Greek verb in a discernible pattern in the gospel? What do you think of my translation “had some comfort” for κομψότερον ἔχειν in Jn 4:52? The NET Bible translators call the Greek phrase an “idiom” and translate it with perhaps more natural English as “condition began to improve.” But their English robs John of his Greek verb and his pattern of using it through his gospel. (Wayne, I do appreciate what you’re after in avoiding biblish and in bettering translations with natural English. But I’m not always sure what “natural” English is or whether it necessarily gains much in reflecting the Greek meanings accurately).

  15. J. K. Gayle says:

    SimonPotamos,

    How can we know what Greek was “natural”? Is Plato’s Greek natural? Is John’s repetition of the verb ἔχω? When these two writers collocate ἔχει and ζωῆς in the same phrase, how would we know how natural that is?

  16. SimonPotamos says:

    J.K. Gayle,

    A good question. And, as you point out to Wayne, the same question can be applied to English, with an equally equivocal answer.

    My point isn’t that we should be trying to determine what is natural and what isn’t. But, to the degree that it is possible, we should be sensitive to the nuances of the language we are translating. And so if we have a Hebraism in the text, it is in my view perfectly defensible to replicate or imitate (or something) that Hebraism or an equivalent, because then the text will come across more like it the original does. We can have some idea of what sorts of uses of language were unusual, or downright unique, or peculiar to LXX-influenced Jews, or whatever. So why not make use of that knowledge to try and produce a translation that does justice to the original, as well as modern usage?

    In short, I think we agree.

  17. mgvh says:

    In these Johannine instances, I think the tense of εχω is significant. Look at the John 3.16 verse:
    …ἵνα πᾶς ὁ πιστεύων εἰς αὐτὸν μὴ ἀπόληται ἀλλ᾽ ἔχῃ ζωὴν αἰώνιον.
    Note that ἀπόληται is quite sensibly an aorist, but ἔχῃ is a present. (Ie, the use of the present is intentional here and not the default.) I don’t think, therefore, that the idea is “… may have eternal life {at some time in the future].” Rather, it is “may be having eternal life {starting now}.” Hence, I think a possible idiomatic rendering would be, “… may be EXPERIENCING eternal life.”
    A similar idea works for the 1 John text

  18. Wayne Leman says:

    Hence, I think a possible idiomatic rendering would be, “… may be EXPERIENCING eternal life.”

    Yes, that works for me to get at the present experience of eternal life without using “have”, IF “have” is not natural English. I haven’t seen enough examples in natural English corpuses to know whether or not it is natural.

  19. Wayne Leman says:

    Kurk asked:

    What do you think of my translation “had some comfort” for κομψότερον ἔχειν in Jn 4:52?

    To be honest, it sounds very unnatural to me. I don’t think it is something that a native speaker of English would naturally say or write. If we check our own English language intuitions and those of others, and sometimes consult English idiom dictionaries, we will find that it is natural English to say “take comfort” in something, but not natural to say “have comfort” in something.

    But I’m not always sure what “natural” English is or whether it necessarily gains much in reflecting the Greek meanings accurately).

    Kurk, natural English is grammar and word selections that are naturally uttered or written by native speakers of English, as they are communicating with other native speakers of English, and not using a jargon subset of the language. (A jargon subset of the language, such as medical terminology, is natural English for that subset of the population of language speakers.)

    Naturalness gains much in reflecting Greek, Aramaic, or Hebrew meanings because natural English most clearly communicates to native English speakers. That which clearly communicates can most accurately communicate (if the parameter of accurateness is paid just as much attention to as is the parameter of naturalness). Interdisciplinary studies between cognitive science, linguistics, and, I suppose, English literary analysis supports these claims, I would suggest. Cognitive studies of how our brains process language demonstrate repeatedly that natural language is processed more quickly, more efficiently, and allows for greater memory retention and content understanding.

    There is nothing wrong with translating biblical language forms more literally. But I suggest that we not call that process translation. It is, rather, some form of transliteration of the biblical language forms. These transliterations are interesting, informative, and valuable for scholars who are unable to read the original languages themselves but who wish to get as much of their original flavor as possible. Of course, these scholars must also have access to reference tools so that they can have the transliterated forms further translated to their own natural English so that they can understand what those transliterated forms mean. Scholars like yourself who have been working with the biblical language for so many years have an advantage in this regard over most native speakers of English. You can more quickly translate the transliterated forms. And a blessing on your house for it. Mazel tov!

  20. Wayne Leman says:

    Simon asked:

    Take και εγενετο or εν χριστω. I mean, is it natural, idiomatic Greek to say that someone is in Christ.

    I’ve been asking that question for years, Simon. I would like to know the answer. I don’t think we can determine that it is *not* idiomatic because its literal English translation is not idiomatic English. That would be circular reasoning, wouldn’t it?

  21. Wayne Leman says:

    What about the question that has been raised subsequently: was it natural Greek? It seems that the original question is at a dead-end until we have an answer to that one. Unless it’s a merely academic question, which I doubt.

    Whether or not something was natural Greek does not determine whether or not it should be translated into natural English. In terms of stylistics, if the original was quite unnatural, then there would be some value in translating with an English style which reflects that. But we always need to assume that the original biblical authors intended to communicate something which they considered important. Whether or not they used natural language, they were still intending to communicate just as well as if they had used natural language. It is that authorial intention, I suggest, that determines the quality of English we translate to.

    I am *not* suggesting at all that we gloss over stylistic differences among the biblical authors. In fact, I am a strong proponent for reflecting their stylistic differences in English translations. But I don’t think we gain much, if anything, by using unnatural English to do so. English is a rich language, with many ways of reflecting different styles, including ones which are not “standard” or a bit out of the mainstream.

    Much of the time the unnatural English of many English Bibles has little to do with translation of idioms or theologically significant words. I suggest that the majority of unnatural English in English Bibles has to do with translators not understanding what the English translation equivalents are of the biblical language forms. The English in many English Bibles is often rather odd, even when no idioms or theological language is involved. There is no need for this. It communicates the idea that God is not powerful enough to help translators use natural English (or other target language) grammar and word combinations.

    The problem with most English Bible versions is not inadequate exegetical scholarship. That is often quite good. The problem is lack of adequate training in how to translate from the biblical languages to one’s own mother tongue, English. I’m not making this up: Some exegetes, such as Dan Wallace, have said close to the same thing:

    At the same time, since those responsible for this new translation are primarily exegetes, our perspective is often so entrenched in the first-century world that we are blind as to how the English reader would look at the text today. Exegetes tend to produce a wooden translation without realizing it.

  22. J. K. Gayle says:

    we should be sensitive to the nuances of the language we are translating.

    SimonPotamos, Yes – I think we do agree!

    natural English is grammar and word selections that are naturally uttered or written by native speakers of English, as they are communicating with other native speakers of English, and not using a jargon subset of the language.

    Wayne, thanks for your thoughtful replies. You have been arguing for “naturalness” in degrees: “… is it more natural to translate the Greek concept to English as…?” So, “jargon” is not “natural,” but there is a whole other range of English that is “natural.” Given your definition of “natural,” I’m wondering if you think the following sentence is natural or not: “I have no pony, or dog, or donkey; but in Spain I had fleas, and now I have a cold.” I think you’d agree with me that it’s not a jargon subset of English (i.e., “medical terminology”). Also, I wonder if you think Chomsky’s famous sentences are natural: “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously” and “Furiously sleep ideas green colorless.” I think you’d agree that Chomsky’s sentences are contrived. This was exactly Chomsky’s point: “in any statistical model for grammaticalness, these sentences will be ruled out on identical grounds.” Just on grammar alone, statistics prove how unnatural the sentences are. But isn’t the sentence ending “and now I have a cold” a bit contrived too? Now, if you were to translate this sentence into Cheyenne (forget Chomsky’s sentences), then how would you do it?

    You’re suggesting that I am transliterating Greek, that I am making the case to “translate the transliterated forms,” and you “suggest that we not call that process translation.” (I am quite sure you’re using unnatural hyperbole to call what I do “not translation” and rather merely “transliteration” of “literary” forms alone. But really, what translation process would you use to translate into “natural” Cheyenne the English sentence, “I have no pony, or dog, or donkey; but in Spain I had fleas, and now I have a cold”? And then, if you were to back translate from Cheyenne into “natural” English, would the resulting English be more “natural” than the original? I am asking a serious straightforward question (not a rhetorical question).

  23. Wayne Leman says:

    Kurk asked:

    Given your definition of “natural,” I’m wondering if you think the following sentence is natural or not: “I have no pony, or dog, or donkey; but in Spain I had fleas, and now I have a cold.”

    It sounds natural to me, Kurk. And as a punster myself, I like your repetition of “have”.

    Also, I wonder if you think Chomsky’s famous sentences are natural: “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously” and “Furiously sleep ideas green colorless.” I think you’d agree that Chomsky’s sentences are contrived.

    You think right, Kurk. These famous sentences from Chomsky only use natural syntax. But language is much more than just syntax. I prefer the richer approach to language that Pike advocated, and that many linguists today advocate, working with real language data, corpuses uttered and written naturallly by native speakers.

    But isn’t the sentence ending “and now I have a cold” a bit contrived too?

    I think it depends on the intentions of the author. If the intention is to be humorous, playing off the parallelism of the “have” verbs, then, yes, it is contrived. Language play is contrived. But most of language (to my chagrin) is not language play, nor is most of the biblical language texts. There *is* language play, especially in the Hebrew Bible, but most of what the authors wrote was not intended to be ambiguous nor linguistically playful. Too high an amount of playfulness with language tends to decrease how seriously people take us. I know, as someone who sometimes overdoes it with my spontaneous punning.

    If, however, the author’s intention is simply to inform, then the sentence is not contrived.

    Now, if you were to translate this sentence into Cheyenne (forget Chomsky’s sentences), then how would you do it?

    I don’t know, Kurk. It can’t be done *if* the author’s intention was to highlight the parallelism of the English verbs “have”. Some linguistic phenonema are language-specific. Idioms are. Many metaphors are. They simply do not translate word-for-word from one language to another without losing their original meaning.

    You’re suggesting that I am transliterating Greek

    No, I was suggesting that many English Bibles translations have transliterated Greek. I wasn’t referring to your work at all.

    But really, what translation process would you use to translate into “natural” Cheyenne the English sentence, “I have no pony, or dog, or donkey; but in Spain I had fleas, and now I have a cold”?

    I would need to know the author’s intention first. If it was to simply to *inform*, I can easily translate that sentence to Cheyenne.

    And then, if you were to back translate from Cheyenne into “natural” English, would the resulting English be more “natural” than the original?

    I don’t understand your question. Translation can be both accurate and natural. So I don’t know what you are asking. I suspect I’m missing a piece of your logic.

  24. codepoke says:

    Hello Wayne,

    > Whether or not they used natural language, they were still intending to communicate just as well as if they had used natural language.

    This statement doesn’t compute for me. Your underlying principle appears to be that when the final translated output is transparently clear the mission is accomplished. On top of that foundation you seem to build in allowance for authorial style and intent, but I’m not sure that’s the right “stack.” It seems to me intent should be foundational, clarity next, and style last.

    A lot of my understanding of God is built on the unnaturalness of the rendering, “you have eternal life.” It seems to me the entire bible refers to that new life we receive in Christ as a separate thing from what we usually mean when we say “you’ll live forever.” I understand those two statements to be radically different.

    “Living forever” refers to the condition Adam would have been in had he eaten from the Tree of Life after eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, and it’s a condition God went to great pains to prevent. “Having eternal life” is what happens when we become a new creature and God went to great pain to make that possible.

    (Please don’t chide me for getting theological. I’m only trying to establish that the “natural” English translation you propose constitutes a major erasure of meaning to me.)

    When you erase a distinction Paul seems to make intentionally, I need to understand why. It seems you’re suggesting we should adopt a more natural rendering because Paul “meant to communicate” just as well as if he’d used natural language.

    Natural English is not necessarily equipped to convey unnatural things, and what could be less natural than having a second life? If we confine ourselves to expressions receivable by a natural target language, don’t we make it impossible write spiritual things?

  25. Wayne Leman says:

    If we confine ourselves to expressions receivable by a natural target language, don’t we make it impossible [to] write spiritual things?

    I don’t think so. A tenet of translation theory is that any concept can be expressed (I assume, naturally) in any language. Relativity is a complex concept. But it actually can be expressed in natural English.

    I agree with you that eternal life is a gift we receive from God. But it is not necessary to use to noun in English to refer to that gift *if* using a noun is not natural English. We just have a think a little longer to figure out how to express some concepts in natural English.

    And now I will say something else deeply heartfelt, and I think using natural English(!):

    Have a wonderful, JOYFUL WEDDING this weekend, Kevin! You are marrying a special woman and I understand from her that you are a special man. My interactions with you have given me no reason to question her assessment. May God give you many years of learning to love each other more and more deeply.

  26. Bob MacDonald says:

    I thought I would tune in to this conversation eventually. I, like codepoke, have taken the haves in John’s writing to represent real possession. I have no connection to the adjective ‘natural’. It provides zero grounds for any decision I make with respect to verbal communication or translation. So for me, all John’s haves stand and are counted to me as life. For me, we have been obtained, beloved by Beloved. We have been possessed and given such a possession. So it is in this getting and possessing that we _have_ life, and that in abundance. What is this eternal life? In John it is “that they might know thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou has sent”.

    If this knowledge is not ours to have, then we must, I think, strive for it and refuse, as Ruth refused, to be discouraged by the bitterness of her mother-in-law, or to insist on such a gift as did the importunate widow to the grumpy judge. Such knowledge is won for us by a great work of creation and redemption and we have the comfort of the same even in our known transient dust and ashes as Job confirms. Let it not be that I never knew you.

  27. Peter Kirk says:

    Sorry to come in late on this one …

    Codepoke, you try to make a theological distinction between living for ever and having eternal life. I could debate the theology with you, but here is not the place. But I would like to suggest that what has to come first is to establish that the authors intended a real distinction in meaning here.

    You claim that there is “a distinction Paul seems to make intentionally”. But what evidence can you give for that? The only distinction I can immediately remember (I am away from my reference books) is between “live for ever” in the Hebrew of Genesis 3:22 and “have eternal life” in John 3:16 etc. There are many ways to reconcile the tension between these verses other than to make a distinction between the two types of life, although maybe that is how they are reconciled in some theological frameworks.

    If any of the biblical authors make a more immediate distinction between “have eternal life” and “live for ever”, I would be interested to see it.

  28. codepoke says:

    Thank you, Wayne, for your kind wishes. I’m a happier man today than I was this time last week. 🙂

    > We just have a think a little longer to figure out how to express some concepts in natural English.

    I’m all for thinkng a little longer and working a little longer. I look forward to hearing more on the subject. If the specific reassurances for which I ask are not available, I’ll probably feel safer with more literal translations and still happily enjoy the more natural translations.

  29. codepoke says:

    Peter,

    My question was and remains, “Was this natural, accurate Greek?”

    > You claim that there is “a distinction Paul seems to make intentionally”. But what evidence can you give for that?

    Um. You’re asking me to prove a question? If Paul is using a natural bit of idiomatic Greek then that influences my thoughts on Paul’s meaning. Presumably there are a couple idiomatic ways of saying someone might live forever. If Paul avoided those idioms, then the chances are he’s trying to distinguish the thing he’s talking about from simply living forever.

    I was taught that Paul meant something unique and unheard of.

    You want me to provide biblical sources for my thoughts on the distinction about which I ask. Is there any value in this exercise? Only the first Adam was confronted with the possibility of living forever to his own detriment. The rest of us only have one way to live forever (thanks to that angel with his flaming sword), and that’s to receive God’s life. But if we’re talking about receiving God’s life, then that’s something we can “have,” right? It’s something we didn’t have, and then that we received, no?

    As a matter of fact, there was some fun in looking at John in this regard. I personally found it pretty persuasive, but I doubt it’ll do as much for you. 🙂 It seems natural to me to say I “have” a thing I’ve been “given.”

    Jhn 4:14 …the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life.
    Jhn 5:26 For as the Father hath life in himself; so hath he given to the Son to have life in himself;
    Jhn 6:33 For the bread of God is he which cometh down from heaven, and giveth life unto the world.
    Jhn 6:53 Then Jesus said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you.
    Jhn 10:28 And I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any [man] pluck them out of my hand.
    Jhn 17:2 As thou hast given him power over all flesh, that he should give eternal life to as many as thou hast given him.

  30. Peter Kirk says:

    Codepoke, it was not your basic question that I was questioning, but the statement which you took as given in this sentence, written to Wayne:

    When you erase a distinction Paul seems to make intentionally, I need to understand why.

    Previously you had written about the same thing:

    I understand those two statements to be radically different.

    For a start, I assume you mean John (i.e. the author of the gospel and letters of John) rather than Paul (unless you were still talking about 1 Timothy 6:16 – but that’s about God’s life, not ours). But did John make a distinction between “have eternal life” and “live for ever”? This is a separate, although linked, matter from the question of whether “have eternal life” is an idiom. After all, if it is an idiom it might mean the same as “live for ever” or might mean something subtly different.

    If you were in fact talking about John, you could of course have referred me to the distinction between John 6:54 “have eternal life” and 6:58 “live for ever”. So John uses the two different expressions in a similar context. We then need to consider, does he intend something different by the two, or does he have the same meaning, expressed in different words perhaps for stylistic variation? My own understanding of this passage is that he means the same thing here. If there is a theological framework within which 6:54 and 6:58 are taken to have “radically different” meanings (e.g. that bread/flesh only allows you to live for ever but you need blood/wine for true eternal life), it is not one I have heard of (and it’s not for that reason that I object to communion in one kind!)

    To get theological for a bit, the statements about this which are indeed “radically different” are in Genesis and in John. The difference is not between the expressions but between the Old and New Testaments. The author of Genesis, writing before the time of Christ, sees living for ever (eternal life) as something not available to fallen humanity, separated from it by an angel with a flaming sword. But John, from a Christian perspective, sees the way to this life for ever opened up in Christ. Indeed in Revelation 22:2 (cf 21:25) he (or another John??) writes of how in the kingdom of God the tree of life is in the middle of a city whose gates are never shut and so whose fruit and leaves are available for healing for all, so that the servants of God will not only live but reign for ever (22:3-5).

  31. codepoke says:

    I see, Peter. I really don’t know how I could have phrased the questions I was asking any more as a question than I did, but there you have it. My question does arise from things I’ve believed for years, and so I have to give context to my question, but no sweat.

    The lack of distinction you find between 6:54 and 6:58 of John is an interesting addition to the discussion. I don’t see a compelling point there, but you’re right that the radical distinction I see is at least blurred there. The passage as a whole seems to make the distinction powerfully (hence, I quoted vss 33 and 53) in that it portrays eternal life as an external gift which we can take into ourselves. That the phrases are used interchangably should factor into any final answer we might reach. Thank you.

    Thank you, also, for your thoughts on the Tree of Life. I wrestled pleasantly with those pictures for quite a while (adding in a third image of the Tree of Life when Jesus calls Himself the True Vine.)

    You’ve moved me from thinking the distinction of the phrase is hard and fast to remembering it’s just a hint. I think, in the end, I’m probably more satisfied with my new thought that “having live” applies naturally to since it was “given.” With so much going on in my life these days, I hope this little bit of study sticks with me and I don’t end up having to do all this research again in another few months just to remember what we thought. 🙂

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