post of realization

In my preceding post I asked blog readers to suggest natural English translations for a Hebrew phrase in Isaiah 53:3. Alert readers pointed out that I had chosen a phrase embedded in Hebrew poetry. That gave us some good lessons in translation of poetic language. But it didn’t give us much of an opportunity for translating non-poetic language which was my goal when I gave that particular assignment.

So, let’s try again. There is a phrase which occurs twice in the New Testament, in John 17:12 and 2 Thess. 2:3. It has the same form as the poetic example of Isaiah 53:3, namely, “[NOUN] of [NOUN]”. The phrase in Greek is:

ὁ υἱὸς τῆς ἀπωλείας

Formal Equivalent proponents who have translated the form of this phrase to English have typically translated it as “the son of perdition” or “the son of destruction”.

“Son of” is often used in the Bible as a Semitic form which has no relationship to actual sonship. But native English speakers usually do not normally use the form “son of ” to refer to anyone other than when it has the meaning that they are the biological, adopted, or social son of some specific person. Sometimes native speakers use the form “son of” with the name of a place, such as referring to George W. Bush as a “son of Texas.” The phrase then means that GWB comes from Texas. Texas is his home. He belongs to Texas.

As I try to word your assignment this time, I hope I have used a non-poetic example which will restrict us to standard, natural, normal (“unmarked”) forms of English. If any of you think of some “marked” (non-standard) forms which come from book titles or other writing which uses literary license, would you please humor me by not referring to such marked (non-standard forms). Please try to suggest answers which native speakers of English would think of when they are speaking or writing to a wide range of other people, including truck drivers, nurses, carpenters, school teachers, checkout people at the grocery store, et al.

OK, here is the assignment:

“Please suggest ways that native speakers, such as friends of yours, and your neighbors and people who work at jobs, such as those listed in the preceding paragraph, would express in their own words the meaning of the Greek phrase ὁ υἱὸς τῆς ἀπωλείας.”

Think about whether or not most native speakers of English would use the words “son of” for the meaning it had in the two John 17:12 and 2 Thess. 2:3, where there is no biological or adoptive sonship.

22 thoughts on “post of realization

  1. Yancy Smith says:

    Brilliant question. Since the relationship between a head noun and a genitive can really only be defined by the probable assumptions the reader can guess about the author, a translation like this is a sort of Rorschach test. No matter. From my perspective, the phrase “son of perdition” refers to someone whose loss cannot be helped, for whatever reason. So, in common parlance I would suggest,

    “While I was with them, I kept them safe by the power of your name—the name you gave me. I protected them. And only one of them was lost—the one who was sure to be lost. This was to show the truth of what the Scriptures said would happen.”

    The strength of a translation like this is that it leaves the reasons for Judas’ lostness undefined, and it leaves room to ask questions while being meaningful at the same time.

  2. Wayne Leman says:

    Thanks for your good comments, Yancy. Thank you, especially, for providing a translation in “common parlance.”

    You also wrote:

    Since the relationship between a head noun and a genitive can really only be defined by the probable assumptions the reader can guess about the author, a translation like this is a sort of Rorschach test. No matter.

    I think the meaning of head noun plus genitive in biblical texts is usually clearer than a Rorschach test. I don’t think we have to do much guessing about the author, either. We often just need to think a bit about the possible semantic relationships between the head noun and genitive and which of those relationships are more likely in the real world. We do this kind of semantic inference all the time when we communicate and much of the time (but, of course, not always) we have understood correctly.

    Let’s think about the semantic relationships in some of these genitive phrases:

    1. “sons of Jacob” (from common knowledge we know that Jacob is a man’s name; it is quite reasonable to assume that this phrase refers to biological (or adopted) of a man named Jacob)

    2. “sons of the prophets” (we know what prophets are; our default assumption would be that these must be biological (or adopted) sons of the prophets; of course, anyone who has studied the Semitic “son(s) of” knows that actual sonship is often not being referred to; so then we have to think of some other meaning; we won’t find it in English, but will find it among the form-meaning pairings (tagmemics alert!) in the Hebrew language toolbox. As far as I know, the only other possible meaning option in that toolbox would be “disciples, followers.” If someone knows something about the Hebrew language and the semantic range of its uses of “son(s)” it’s not too difficult to get to the right meaning for this one. I don’t think this one is as fuzzy as a Rorschach test, either.)

    3. “son of iniquity”: This one makes no sense to native English speakers, *unless* they have, again, studied the semantics of Hebrew genitives with “son of [NOUN]. It’s doesn’t make sense to think of a person as a biological son of iniquity, unless “Iniquity” is the name of someone. But I don’t think many parents would name their son Iniquity! 🙂 So then, once again, we work our way through the Hebrew toolkit for “son of” genitives. It might make a little sense to think of someone as a disciple of iniquity, but it strikes me as odd English. Ah, yes, here we go, there’s another form-meaning pair in the toolkit which would make sense. It is, as you well know, since you’ve studied these things already–I’m just trying to lead us through the inference process to see if an author’s meaning can be discerned without having to go to something like a Rorschach test–that “son of” plus [NOUN] can have the meaning that the person has the characteristics of the genitive noun. And, of course, semantically that makes a lot of sense when we think that actual sons often adopt characteristics of their fathers. I sure did.

    Well, there’s three of some of the most common “son of” + [NOUN] genitive forms in the biblical language texts. There is often pushback when someone refers to authorial intent. But determining such intent is usually much more than a fuzzy guess. If we are willing to use the same inferencing strategies we use as we normally use our own language, we often can figure out what the biblical authors meant. Often, not always. There are well-known genitives, as well as other biblical language forms, where we really don’t know which of the possible meanings of the form the author intended. What to do in such cases is a topic we have discussed previously on this blog and can discuss again. One solution is to select an option which seems to make sense in context but footnote any other option(s). Another solution is to leave the translation in a genitive form, IF the target language has a genitive form (many languages do not). If a genitive form exists in the target language, we simply leave the form for readers to try to figure out, unless they have Bible teachers who are trained in the meaning ranges of Hebrew and/or Greek genitives, and can ask them. My own preference is to put in the translation and its footnotes the options, so that people can read the Bible and understand its *language* as much as possible on their own. Of course, as I always remind us, understanding the language is one thing. Understanding the concept that the language is trying to express is sometimes not nearly so easy, and sometimes impossible this side of eternity.

  3. J. K. Gayle says:

    I think the meaning of head noun plus genitive in biblical texts is usually clearer than a Rorschach test.

    I completely agree with you here. Especially in 2 Thess. 2:3, there’s a Hebraic-Greek parallelism, an appositive, which even the most dynamic of the dynamic equivalent (or paraphrastic) English translations try to retain.

    ὁ ἄνθρωπος τῆς ἀνομίας,
    ὁ υἱὸς τῆς ἀπωλείας,

    Eugene Peterson, for The Message, for example, has

    the Anarchist,
    a real dog of Satan.

    J.B. Phillips seems the most liberal in using commonplace English of “a wide range of other people, including truck drivers, nurses, carpenters, school teachers, checkout people at the grocery store…. friends of yours, and your neighbors”; Phillips has:

    the lawless man.

    I myself think I could go so far as this:

    the unruly human,
    the ruinous son


    the human who breaks laws,
    that son who wreaks havoc

  4. Yancy says:

    Well, we might add “sons of the bridechamber,” a famous translator’s pitfall. The Rorschach-iness is rather evident to me, however in your no. 3, which remain [foot]notable despite the Hebrew toolkit. For example, some might see “son of perdition” to be a reference to divine predestination, while others would resist that notion and express that resistance in translation (“one destined for destruction” vs. “person who choses to destroy himself”). Similar Rorschach responses on a scale of anti-semitism might be notable in translations of “sons of hell.”

  5. Dannii says:

    Wayne, I think you write too strongly, as I suspect that many English speakers would understand “Son of iniquity”. But they’d understand it wrongly. If I had to guess what it meant, I’d guess that it meant someone who was born from and as a result of iniquity. “A child of rape” means someone born from an act of rape, not someone who rapes or someone destined for rape.

  6. Donna says:

    For this phrase, I think Philips has “He is the product of all that leads to death,” (“The lawless man” refers to the previous phrase.)

    Dannii – perhaps “many” is too strong. For the reason that, I’m not sure many English speakers understand “iniquity” – I tend to equate it with “inequality” which is only a portion of the meaning.

    Regarding translation of this phrase, if it refers to where he is going: “the one who is going to be destroyed”, or “the one headed for destruction”.
    If it refers to where he has come from, then I like pragmatic impossibility of “the product of destruction.”

    If it refers to where the person “belongs” as Tiffany suggested, then I like her phrase, or perhaps “the one who deserves to be destroyed”.

    If combination of those perspectives is appropriate then something like “the one who deserves to be destroyed, and will be!”

    I’m just throwing out some ideas, but I don’t really understand this phrase very well so I’m interested in what your translations might be Wayne.

  7. Theophrastus says:

    Wayne, I must say that this is a much better example for you to make your point.

    Besides the poetry/prose distinction between Isaiah 53:3 and John 17:12, there is another difference — the register difference between the Hebrew Bible and the Greek New Testament.

    This was a difference noted by one of the greatest 20th century Bible translators, Bruce Metzger, when he wrote about the NRSV:

    Another aspect of style will be detected by readers who compare the more stately English rendering of the Old Testament with the less formal rendering adopted for the New Testament… appropriate in rendering a document that embodies what may be termed the classic form of Hebrew, while the New Testament … reflects the more colloquial nature of the koine Greek used by most New Testament authors….

  8. Theophrastus says:

    I might further note that Metzger makes good on his promise, translating those terms “the one destined to be lost” (John 17:12) and “the one destined for destruction” (2 Thes 2:3).

  9. Wayne Leman says:

    Theo, thanks for your comments. It’s important to keep Metzger’s observations in mind as we translate. He was a true biblical scholar.

    Donna, I like Metzger’s translations in the NRSV.

    I’d also be happy with “the one headed to hell,” which has a startle impact for English speakers (or at least used to)–I assume that what Jesus called his betrayer had quite the startle impact on Jesus’ disciples. But I don’t know how much the concept of hell was formulated at Jesus’ time. Needs further study. I also like the alliteration of the h’s in “headed to hell.” I think being concise here, esp. for John 17:12, is helpful.

  10. Mike Sangrey says:

    Well, Wayne, along the lines of your number 3…

    I think I would express the meaning as, “one who is totally lost.”

  11. Iver Larsen says:

    Wayne said:

    Another solution is to leave the translation in a genitive form, IF the target language has a genitive form (many languages do not)

    The more tricky problem is when both languages have genitive forms, but use them differently.

    One example: The phrase “love of God” is often cited as ambiguous. Is it God who loves somebody or is it somebody who loves God? In English you have two forms of the genitives: “God’s love” and “love of God”. In Danish we only have the first one: “God’s love”, and it can only mean that God loves somebody.

    My point is that even if both languages have genitives, you may not be able to translate a particular genitive with another genitive.

  12. Donna says:

    Regarding the genitive in “love of God”. I’ve also heard said that it’s ambiguous, but in my dialect of English (Australian English – as it seems to me that people use it!) it doesn’t usually refer to the love someone has for God NOR the love God has for someone.

    For the former I’d say “love for God” for the latter I’d say “God’s love”. You can only say “love of” to mean the former when the object is inanimate (“love of football” for instance).

    I wonder if other native English speakers agree with me? (apologies if this subject is too far removed from the original post!)

  13. Refe says:

    I was going to suggest “the one destined for destruction” or “the one destined to be destroyed” but it looks like Metzger got there first. Not a big surprise ;). My only hesitation is that I don’t like using the word ‘destiny’ in Bible translation. I feel that it is too wrapped up in extra-Biblical connotations.

  14. Peter Kirk says:

    Refe, I think people would wonder what the evidence is that Judas was an ordained minister – or use this verse to argue that all ordained ministers are going to hell! 😉

  15. Rick Ritchie says:

    I wondered if perhaps “son of”, taken more impersonally could mean “effect.” I looked up some synonyms. “Product” looked like a good contemporary word. Then looking at “perdition”, I thought of this as being something rejected. Waste. So “Product of waste.” Waste product. I could take that further to something like “sewage.”

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