First things first

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.

26 thoughts on “First things first

  1. David Ker says:

    First, welcome! And thanks for a great post.

    I’ll play devil’s advocate (can you do that talking about the Bible?!?) and posit that perhaps this is temporal: Seek first the kingdom and (second/as a result) all these things will be added. However, I think Matt. 5:24 and 7:5 which include τότε (then) are examples that support your position.

  2. Jon says:

    Saying “seek first” is in no way confusing. Maybe if it’s the only verse one reads in the bible – but that’s not a realistic situation. Maybe it could be a little more direct. But frankly, the benefits all these new translations with normal English are far outweighed by translator bias. NIV to TNIV was bound to happen. Yes ESV, NKJV, etc – all have their own level of translator bias as well, but much less so. I’d rather struggle with the bibblish than having to eye a new translation with suspicion. I don’t have time for it.

    It’s better to incrementally improve an existing translation that has stood the test of time.

    Bibblish isn’t that bad. Folks will figure it out eventually.

  3. Gary Simmons says:

    I’m not so convinced that people will “figure it out eventually;” I’m a bit more pessimistic than that. People still need instruction beyond a translation itself.

    Dannii, I find it interesting to note that the adverbial use of first only covers a subset of the semantic range of the adjectival use. That’s all well and good, but most native English speakers don’t consider whether an occurrence of “first” is adjectival or adverbial. I’m now 24 and I’m trying to think back over the past ten years. I inherently understood that “first” modified “seek,” but I never misunderstood this as temporal and not referring to priority — at least I don’t think I did. However, that’s no guarantee that others will not make that mistake. I had an NIV Study Bible, and many don’t have/utilize the footnotes.

    Let’s keep in mind that there is a cause-effect relation between seeking these things — all these things being added. That relation is temporal, and we must distinguish that from discussing about the non-temporal use of “first” here.

  4. Dannii Willis says:

    Hey Dave, yeah I know I left out the proof that my interpretation is the right one! I don’t know if I could prove it, my Greek probably isn’t up to it. But two things: I’ve never heard anyone interpret it the other way, and in its immediate context a temporal interpretation doesn’t make sense. Verse 34 says that we should care at a constant level for each day as we come to it, whereas a temporal interpretation of 33 would suggest we have a time of intense seeking for God’s kingdom afterwhich we don’t need to care for the things of the world again.

    Jon, you’re right that “seek first” isn’t confusing… that’s because it has a clear meaning. The problem is that meaning is the wrong one for this verse. Perhaps if someone is familiar with Biblish they will understand the correct meaning, but people who aren’t familiar with Biblish will not. Why should most people today need to learn a obscure dialect of English when we could instead simply translate the text into standard English?

    Also, this is a small incremental change. It could probably be changed to “desire most” keeping the rest of the words intact.

    Gary, we all grasp very little of how our own language works. It only occured to me recently that this verse was weird and it took me longer still to realise the problem was the limited subset of senses that adverbial first allows. We rarely analyse how language works, we just use it. So normally when we read this verse we won’t be thinking about the differences between adjectives and adverbs or the subset of senses, we’ll just think this first is temporal because that’s all English allows. I’m glad you didn’t misunderstand it, but that’s probably because you’ve been reading Biblish for a long time. 🙂

    There is a cause-effect relationship, but I think the effect is concurrent with the cause. “Seek first … and … will be …” is a very similar construction to the “first … then …” that David mentions. It means that the effect comes after the cause.

  5. David Ker says:

    “Bibblish isn’t that bad. Folks will figure it out eventually.”

    Jon, I’ll heartily disagree with you on that. “Seek first” has several problems. First, it sounds gnomic or like Yoda-speak when it’s perfectly mundane language in Greek. Second, think about the idea of “folks will figure it out eventually.” To me that means, people will misunderstand it at first but someone will after a while explain what it really means.” Why not skip the misunderstanding and allow them to understand it from the beginning.

  6. Wayne Leman says:

    Bibblish isn’t that bad. Folks will figure it out eventually.

    I disagree. I have heard many sermons preached based on a wrong understanding of a verse, because the verse was in Biblish which even the preacher did not understand.

  7. J. K. Gayle says:

    Of the three English Bible translations in progress, only the CEB gets this right.

    “Instead, desire first and foremost God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness…” – CEB

    compare: “But more than anything else, put God’s work first and do what he wants.” – CEV

    And I like this one, because it keeps the sense of Matthew’s verb Ζητεῖτε:

    “Make your priority to go running after Heaven’s Realm, as well as seek his justice…” — Ann Nyland, Greek classicist, Aussie

    Matthew translates Jesus speaking again with the imperative ζητεῖτε (in Mt. 7:7). For that in English, CEB has “Search, and you’ll find”; CEV has the less conversational “Search, and you will find”; and Nyland has “seek and you will find.”

    Good post, Dannii!

  8. J. K. Gayle says:

    But first is also used about things which have no special place in time but are prominent for other reasons.

    Dannii, You’re making a compelling argument for translating Matthew’s adverb πρῶτον in Mt 6:33 with some English that conveys “first principles” or “first priority.”

    But aren’t Matthew’s other uses of the word (πρῶτον) all temporal (showing a “first” order “in time”? See Mt 5:24, 7:5, 8:21, 12:29, 13:30, 17:10, 17:11, 17:27, and 23:26. Are you saying there’s something special and unique about the phrase Ζητεῖτε πρῶτον (as a transitive imperative verb phrase in Greek) that points to a meaning that is not necessarily temporal? If so, I would agree.

    When Rich Rhodes posted on this Greek phrase in Matthew, it made me think of Plato’s use of similar language. “Matthew’s readers sure do get Greek baggage,” is what I was trying to say then. Matthew was using Plato-style Greek perhaps to translate what Jesus was saying (in Hebrew Aramaic likely). The point is that there’s always baggage for readers of the L2 (i.e., the translation language). Did Matthew’s translation sound “ancient”? If so, could his readers figure that out? Sure, we all prefer our Bibles not to sound biblish (or strangely Christianese-ish). But can’t an English translation sound “old” without being biblish sounding? Can’t the English tap into traditions that Jesus might not have been tapping into? After all, we are all just conjecturing that Jesus sounded contemporary to his listeners (when he himself may have been tapping into some old tradition of Hebrew scripturish lingo to make some reversal of tradition). The crux of the issue, I think, is whether biblish is so far isolated from readers’ experience that what Matthew is doing with language and/ or what Jesus might have been doing with it gets completely lost. The danger in only using what Wayne calls “natural English” is, likewise, the risk of losing the rhetorical plays between old and new language (and even between Hebrew Aramaic and its translation into Greek).

  9. Glenn says:

    I sometimes think it is only linguistics students/Profs etc that have a problem with half this language.

    I found it hard at first to understand how you could have had a problem with this simple concept.

    Speaking for myself I have always understood “Seek first the kingdom….” to mean ‘in all things do this first and keep on doing it first’.

    Maybe I am just too simple to see all this complication and confusion.

  10. Wayne Leman says:

    The danger in only using what Wayne calls “natural English” is, likewise, the risk of losing the rhetorical plays between old and new language (and even between Hebrew Aramaic and its translation into Greek).

    Current English (which is also natural English, if it is spoken by native speakers) is a rich language, fully capable of reflecting rhetorical and stylistic differences. Each stage of the history of English has had a rich language with all the capabilities. It is not necessary to use an artificial dialect to try to reflect the word plays, authors’ idiosyncrasies, and other variety within the biblical texts.

    Bible translators need to drop Biblish as one of the dialects into which English Bibles are translated. Current English can do everything Biblish can do, and can communicate more accurately and clearly to more English speakers as it does so.

    I think that there is a misunderstanding that Biblish somehow more closely resembles the biblical texts. It does not. I wish I had the time to illustrate that, but I’m rushing off to a second Christmas celebration with our family.

    Natural, current English is the language that we all use everyday, whether at a low register (as at the cash register!!) or higher registers (in the academy) of the language. Novelists, journalists, scientists, and even some theologians demonstrate that current English is capable of expressing whatever they wish to say.

    Natural English is now dumbed down or colloquial English. It is the language of our parents, teachers, professors, mentors, favorite authors. It is the language that J.K. Gayle uses to write his blog posts and talk to his colleagues at the university.

    Gotta go!

  11. J. K. Gayle says:

    Natural, current English is the language that we [native speakers and learned writers] all use everyday, whether at a low register (as at the cash register!!) or higher registers (in the academy) of the language…. It is the language that J.K. Gayle uses to write his blog posts and talk to his colleagues at the university.

    🙂 I’m nearly speechless. Wayne, now we remember what you said, that biblish is English “usually only spoken by church people.” Hope you have another good Christmas party, and thanks! 🙂

  12. David McKay says:

    I agree with Glenn. I wonder how many people seriously thought that it meant that after seeking God first, we could go on to seek other people/things second?

    Also, I think we should be careful to say a translation has got it wrong, because I understood the translations of Matthew 6:33 to be telling us that God’s kingdom should always be our priority from reading the KJV, RSV, ESV, NIV, etc and maybe that’s what those translators also understood.

  13. Dannii Willis says:

    Hey David M! There are many ways I guess. I like the CEV that J.K. (Kurk) just posted. It doesn’t even seem overly simple like the CEV often does.

    Kurk, my primary argument here is that the translation does not mean what any interpretation of this verse that I’ve ever heard means. Perhaps everyone has been wrong and it should be interpreted as its been translated… but I doubt that. I don’t know enough Greek to be able to show what Matthew meant conclusively.

    But can’t an English translation sound “old” without being biblish sounding?
    Indeed, I think they can! I think most native English speakers have what I’ll call the fake-KJV register. The main difference is that it has the words Thou and Shalt… otherwise it’s basically the same as Standard English. You can see this from the many hymns which have been written in the last century which (inexplicably) use outdated pronouns. But it’s still perfectly understandable because the rest of the grammar and vocab is current. Biblish on the other hand uses archaic grammar and vocab, or language which has never been part of Standard English.

    If there are parts of the Bible which were written to emulate older forms of Greek, or maybe the Septuagint, I wonder what a translation using the fake-KJV register would sound like.

    Hi Glenn, would you mind clarifying what “in all things do this first and keep on doing it first” means to you, but without the word First?

  14. Wayne Leman says:

    I’m nearly speechless.

    Why are you nearly speechless, Kurk?

    I’m back from our second family Christmas party. All of us in Spokane were able to be at this one.

    My mother is dying and before the weekend is over she will probably will get her wish to graduate from this earthly life. I am being updated from her nursing home room in Alaska. My wife and I and probably some of our children will fly to Alaska for her funeral. Now, I know you consider the human factors in translation to be important, so I’m glad I can say that my mother was one of the best translations of the Bible I have ever witnessed. She didn’t just read the Bible, she lived it out. My dear mother! Our children adore her.

  15. Gary Simmons says:

    ημεις οιδαμεν οτι μεταβεβηκαμεν εκ του θανατου εις την ζωην οτι αγαπωμεν τους αδελφους. Wayne, I’ll be praying. You’re very proud of your mother, and that’s the way to be. May God’s peace and praise be present in this hour.

  16. J. K. Gayle says:

    Now, I know you consider the human factors in translation to be important, so I’m glad I can say that my mother was one of the best translations of the Bible I have ever witnessed. She didn’t just read the Bible, she lived it out. My dear mother! Our children adore her.

    Beautiful! Blessings to you Wayne, to your children, your Dad who knows she loves him to the end, and to your mother now!

  17. Dannii Willis says:

    One disadvantage with this blog is that all of our readers will have some familiarity with Biblish. It would be great to field test this verse on people unfamiliar with Biblish, and maybe even some ESL readers too. I may just do that…

  18. sidleejr says:

    All you high and mighty guys!

    From 1611 to 1987 (NIV) there was never a word, “first” in the verse, Matthew 7.7.

    But all of you felows are in a dither about the “Mythical” word, “first.”
    Some of you even recorded it twice. [I guess that is “double-depravity.”]

    Please inform me, “Who introduced the mythical ‘first’ into this verse, and when did he introduce his mythical word?’

    “He who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exAlted.”
    This period of time (after 1978) is described by the Lord Jesus, “Satan loosed a little” – Rev 20.3.

  19. sidleejr says:

    David McKay:”I’m confused.”

    Sid: “You are not the only one!”

    Flip Wilson, a television comedian, had his favorite quote, “The Devil made me do it.”

    I wish to apologize to all the readers for the sins of slander and unrighteous judgment in my last post. I have never been humiliated publicly like this before.

    Today, I feel like I have committed suicide, and that my name will never be taken seriously again. Paul wrote, “Pray without ceasibg,” and usually this is my life style — but not last night.

    I am petitioning all you good people for forgiveness; maybe I can even hope for forgiveness from the Living God.

    Although this is not intended as an excuse for my sinful behavior, some of you may be interested to know how this came about.

    The web site was junping up and down like a yo-yo on a string. I would scan down to the article, and the web site would jump up 20 lines. I would scan down again, and the web site would jump down 20 lines. I should have quit. But fool that I am, I committed the sin of pride, that I could work through the problem.

    And that is how I got Matthew 7.3 confused with Matthew 6.35.

    I was in a state of extreme frustration and mental instability.
    And so I slandered and commited unrigteous judgment.

    I know not if there is any hope for me but I beg your forgiveness,

    sid

  20. David McKay says:

    G’day Sid
    Welcome to the forum.
    Everyone makes mistakes; especially me!
    I don’t think anyone on this forum would think you have done anything wrong. You simply made a mistake.

    Look forward to learning some more about you.

    Where are you posting from? How did you become interested in Bible translation?

  21. Wayne Leman says:

    David encouraged Sid:

    I don’t think anyone on this forum would think you have done anything wrong. You simply made a mistake.

    Very true, David. I think all of us have made mistakes about a Bible reference at one time or another.

  22. sidleejr says:

    Thank you, Wayne;

    Your forgiveness has made me feel better.

    Out of curiosity’s sake, “How did you translate, “the Spirit breathers’?” – John 3.8.

  23. Wayne Leman says:

    Sid wrote:

    Your forgiveness has made me feel better.

    I didn’t forgive you, Sid. You didn’t need forgiveness. It was a mental error. You sinned against no one nor any teaching of God.

    Out of curiosity’s sake, “How did you translate, “the Spirit breathers’?” – John 3.8.

    There are no Spirit breathers in that verse, but this is off-topic for this post and we try to follow our blog guidelines for commenting on the topic of each post. See blog guidelines in the upper right corner of this blog.

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