Hi! Welcome to the new year. For those who don’t know me, I’m Dannii, an Australian linguistics student. I’ve guest posted here once before. But for my first official post on this first day of a new year, I thought what could be better than to write about the word first? Specifically that favourite verse of many: “But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” (Matthew 6:33, ESV)
Rich Rhodes blogged previously about this verse, focusing on seek‘s formal usage in modern English and its unsuitability for this very ordinary Greek verse. Today we’ll look at first, which unfortunately does not mean what the ESV team, and many other translation teams, thinks it means.
We all understand the basic meaning of first, but to define it with a more obscure word, it’s all about primacy. There are many contexts where first is used, but two of the most common are time and prominence.
First is very often used to talk and compare things or events in time. We’ll say we liked the first movie more than its sequel, or that the first person to finish the race will get the prize. We start driving in first gear and there are a whole lot of churches named “First …” (though I think that’s an American thing.)
But first is also used about things which have no special place in time but are prominent for other reasons. Mathematical first principles are generally neither the principles first discovered, nor the first principles taught to maths students, but are instead the foundational principles that everything else is build upon. When safety is called a first priority it doesn’t mean that after safety is achieved we move on to other priorities, but that at all times safety must be practised.
It’s this second meaning that applies to Matthew 6:33. Jesus does not mean that seeking God’s kingdom is our first goal after which he will give us others, but that at all times we must be focused on the kingdom. But there’s a catch. All the examples of first I just gave are adjectives but in our verse it is an adverb!
Adjectives and adverbs are very similar: they’re both modifiers and many words can be used as both parts of speech. First is one of these. But… the senses each part of speech allows are limited. I don’t know how it was in Englishes past, but modern standard English usually only allows the adverb first to have the sense of time. You can check this yourself with the Corpus of Contemporary American English. I admit I didn’t check all 25671 times when first follows a verb, but I think it’s quite clear that aside from the idiom first and foremost, first in this context has a temporal meaning.
What does this mean for Bible translation? Well quite simply that the ESV has it wrong, as do many other translations. Of the three English Bible translations in progress, only the CEB gets this right. I already submitted a revision suggestion for the NIV, I guess I now have to do that for the ISV too (which is even worse than the ESV at this verse.) I just hope no one will get confused and think that seeking God’s kingdom is a completable goal based on this mistranslated verse.
But this is only a single verse. I have no idea how many other times mistakes like this have been made throughout the rest of the Bible. And more generally, it shows a major flaw with the word-for-word principle. That first may match well the meanings of the corresponding words in the original languages isn’t enough. The full range of meanings that the adjective has are almost irrelevant when the adverb has a limited subset of them. Word-for-word cannot be the dominant translation principle as contexts matter too much.