Was Paul hard to understand?

I’ve wondered for quite a long time whether 2 Peter 3:16 means what we think it means. The Greek word (“hard to understand”, δυσνόητος) is unusual; Peter, curiously enough, could have used a simpler to understand expression.

The verse is very often used to support an objection to clear translation. I’ve come to the opinion that this verse can’t be used to support such an objection.

The word only occurs once in the NT. It also occurs in Lucian’s “Alexander the Oracle-Monger” (Para 54).

I laid a good many traps of this kind for him; here is another: I asked only one question, but wrote outside the packet in the usual form, So-and-so’s eight Queries, giving a fictitious name and sending the 120 drachmas [~13.6 troy ounces of silver]. Satisfied with the payment of the money and the inscription on the packet, he gave me eight answers to my one question. This was, “When will Alexander’s imposture be detected?” The answers concerned nothing in heaven or earth, but were all silly and meaningless together.

The phrase of interest is the very last one. “Silly” translates δυσνόητος. The entire tone of this section, indeed, the entire book, will not allow for “unable to understand.” Lucian is making fun of Alexander. It’s not that Alexander’s reply was “hard to understand.” But, the answers were just stupid or infantile. It’s as if Lucian is saying, “Gosh, a person with a brain could have done better.” (if you think I’m overstating, go here (http://www.epicurus.net/en/alexander.html) and read the first paragraph.

Here’s what I’m thinking. The definition of δυσνόητος should be something like: “refusal to cognitively accept. The word does not refer to an inability caused by lack of intelligence or knowledge, or to the difficulty of the content, but has more to do with how one disparages the value of the content that actually is communicated.

2 Peter 3:16 (NIV) says:

He writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction.

Keep in mind that Peter refers to Paul to bolster the importance of what he himself writes. It seems odd to me that Peter would commend Paul for wisdom and do that in a context where he immediately adds, “Well, you can’t understand him half the time anyway.” And, furthermore, where then is the culpability for the “ignorant and unstable” if Paul is hard to understand to begin with?  Such “logic” doesn’t work for me.

I suggest:

“His letters contain content which some find silly, which the ignorant and unstable distort, …”

What are your thoughts?

16 thoughts on “Was Paul hard to understand?

  1. Seth Knorr says:

    I think the key in verse 16 is 
    “as also in all his (Pauls) letters, speaking in them of these things…”

    From this I would gather Peter is referring to the doctrines of Eschatology that Paul wrote, that not necessarily hard to understand but instead, these doctrines where mis-taught by others, especially referencing 2 Thes.

    1 Thessalonians 4:13 (NASB)
    13But we do not want you to be uninformed….

    2 Thessalonians 2:2 (NASB)
    2that you not be quickly shaken from your composure or be disturbed either by a spirit or a message or a letter as if from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord has come. 

    My impression would be, with this verse and the rest of what Paul wrote; my interpretation of it would be more like….

    “as Paul has wrote in his other letters, speaking in them about eschatology, in which some things  have been CONFUSED, BECAUSE (false teachers) untaught and unstable have distorted these passages, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures.”

    It would seem that from the context of Lucian’s writing, CONFUSED could be a possible translation instead if silly as well.

  2. Iver Larsen says:

    I agree with Mike that this text cannot be taken in support of producing translations that are hard to understand in the linguistic sense.

    I also agree with Seth that Peter is probably talking about the passages where Paul teaches eschatology and quite likely 1 and 2 Thessalonians.

    But I cannot see that words like “silly” or “confused” are better than “difficult to understand”. I might suggest “not easy to grasp” as a clearer translation that I think is easier to understand.

    The Greek word can apparently be used to describe either the speaker’s words (silly answers) or the cognition of the reader/hearer. I would put Lucian’s text in the first group and Peter’s text in the second.

    It is similar to how Bible translators deal with the book of Revelation. It is usually considered easy to translate and it is not difficult to understand the words (although the names of precious stones is always a challenge). However, it is not easy to understand the eschatological significance of the book.

  3. CD-Host says:


    I checked 3Peter since it has a very long section where he insults Paul and his followers and I suspected the earlier version might shed some light on the subject. I’ll throw this in, in case it is helpful but the earlier version from 2Peter doesn’t seem to me to shed any light one way or the other.

    2.1 ἵνα γοῦν τὸ ὅμοιον καὶ παρ’ ἡμῖν γένηται, τοῖς ἑβδομήκοντα ἡμῶν ἀδελφοῖς τὰς βίβλους μου τῶν κηρυγμάτων δὸς μετὰ τοῦ ὁμοίου τῆς ἀγωγῆς μυστηρίου,
    2.2 ἵνα καὶ τοὺς βουλομένους τὸ τῆς διδασκαλίας ἀναδέξασθαι μέρος ἐφοδιάζειν ἐφοδιάζωσιν·
    2.3 ἐπεὶ ἐὰν μὴ οὕτως γένηται, εἰς πολλὰς γνώμας ὁ τῆς ἀληθείας ἡμῶν διαιρεθήσεται λόγος.
    2.4 τοῦτο δὲ οὐχ ὡς προφήτης ὢν ἐπίσταμαι, ἀλλ’ ἤδη αὐτοῦ τοῦ κακοῦ τὴν ἀρχὴν ὁρῶν.
    2.5 τινὲς γὰρ τῶν ἀπὸ ἐθνῶν τὸ δι’ ἐμοῦ νόμιμον ἀπεδοκίμασαν κήρυγμα, τοῦ ἐχθροῦ ἀνθρώπου ἄνομόν τινα καὶ φλυαρώδη προσηκάμενοι διδασκαλίαν.
    2.6 καὶ ταῦτα ἔτι μου περιόντος ἐπεχείρησάν τινες ποικίλαις τισὶν ἑρμηνείαις τοὺς ἐμοὺς λόγους μετασχηματίζειν εἰς τὴν τοῦ νόμου κατάλυσιν,
    2.7 ὡς καὶ ἐμοῦ αὐτοῦ οὕτω μὲν φρονοῦντος, μὴ ἐκ παρρησίας δὲ κηρύσσοντος. ὅπερ ἀπείη.
    2.8 τὸ γὰρ τοιοῦτο ἀντιπράσσειν ἐστὶ τῷ τοῦ θεοῦ νόμῳ τῷ διὰ Μωυσέως ῥηθέντι καὶ ὑπὸ τοῦ κυρίου ἡμῶν μαρτυρηθέντι περὶ τῆς ἀιδίου αὐτοῦ διαμονῆς.
    2.9 ἐπεὶ οὕτως εἶπεν· «Ὁ οὐρανὸς καὶ ἡ γῆ παρελεύσονται, ἰῶτα ἓν ἢ μία κεραία οὐ μὴ παρέλθῃ ἀπὸ τοῦ νόμου». τοῦτο δὲ εἴρηκεν, «ἵνα τὰ πάντα γίνηται».
    2.10 οἱ δὲ οὐκ οἶδα πῶς τὸν ἐμὸν νοῦν ἐπαγγελλόμενοι, οὓς ἤκουσαν ἐξ ἐμοῦ λόγους, ἐμοῦ τοῦ εἰπόντος αὐτοὺς φρονιμώτερον ἐπιχειροῦσιν ἑρμηνεύειν, λέγοντες τοῖς ὑπ’ αὐτῶν κατηχουμένοις τοῦτο εἶναι τὸ ἐμὸν φρόνημα, ὃ ἐγὼ οὐδὲ ἐνεθυμήθην.
    2.11 εἰ δὲ ἐμοῦ ἔτι περιόντος τοιαῦτα τολμῶσιν καταψεύδεσθαι, πόσῳ γε μᾶλλον μετ’ ἐμὲ ποιεῖν οἱ μετ’ ἐμὲ τολμήσουσιν;
    3.1 ἵνα οὖν μὴ τοιοῦτόν τι γένηται, τούτου ἕνεκα ἠξίωσα καὶ ἐδεήθην τῶν ἐμῶν κηρυγμάτων ἃς ἔπεμψά σοι βίβλους μηδενὶ μεταδοῦναι μήτε ὁμοφύλῳ μήτε ἀλλοφύλῳ πρὸ πείρας,
    3.2 ἀλλ’ ἐάν τις δοκιμασθεὶς ἄξιος εὑρεθῇ, τότε αὐτῷ κατὰ τὴν Μωυσέως ἀγωγὴν παραδοῦναι, καθ’ ἣν τοῖς ἑβδομήκοντα παρέδωκεν τοῖς τὴν καθέδραν αὐτοῦ παρειληφόσιν,
    3.3 ἵνα οὕτως τὰς πίστεις φυλάξωσιν καὶ πανταχῆ τὸν τῆς ἀληθείας κανόνα παραδῶσιν, ἑρμηνεύοντες τὰ πάντα πρὸς τὴν παράδοσιν ἡμῶν,
    3.4 καὶ μὴ αὐτοὶ ὑπὸ ἀμαθείας κατασπώμενοι, ὑπὸ τῶν κατὰ τὴν ψυχὴν στοχασμῶν εἰς πλάνην ἑλκόμενοι, ἄλλους εἰς τὸν ὅμοιον τῆς ἀπωλείας ἐνέγκωσιν βόθυνον.
    3.5 καὶ τὰ μὲν ἐμοὶ δόξαντα καλῶς ἐσήμανά σοι, τὸ δὲ σοὶ δοκοῦν, κύριέ μου, πρεπόντως ἐπιτέλει. ἔρρωσο.

    For lurkers (English):

    2 — Misrepresentation of Peter’s Doctrine.

    In order, therefore, that the like may also happen to those among us as to these Seventy, give the books of my preachings to our brethren, with the like mystery of initiation, that they may indoctrinate those who wish to take part in teaching; for if it be not so done, our word of truth will be rent into many opinions.

    And this I know, not as being a prophet, but as already seeing the beginning of this very evil. For some from among the Gentiles have rejected my legal preaching, attaching themselves to certain lawless and trifling preaching of the man who is my enemy.

    And these things some have attempted while I am still alive, to transform my words by certain various interpretations, in order to the dissolution of the law; as though I also myself were of such a mind, but did not freely proclaim it, which God forbid! For such a thing were to act in opposition to the law of God which was spoken by Moses, and was borne witness to by our Lord in respect of its eternal continuance; for thus he spoke: “The heavens and the earth shall pass away, but one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law.” And this He has said, that all things might come to pass.

    But these men, professing, I know not how, to know my mind, undertake to explain my words, which they have heard of me, more intelligently than I who spoke them, telling their catechumens that this is my meaning, which indeed I never thought of. But if, while I am still alive, they dare thus to misrepresent me, how much more will those who shall come after me dare to do so!

    3 — Initiation.

    Therefore, that no such thing may happen, for this end I have prayed and besought you not to communicate the books of my preaching which I have sent you to any one, whether of our own nation or of another nation, before trial; but if any one, having been tested, has been found worthy, then to hand them over to him, according to the initiation of Moses, by which he delivered his books to the Seventy who succeeded to his chair; in order that thus they may keep the faith, and everywhere deliver the rule of truth, explaining all things after our tradition; lest being themselves dragged down by ignorance, being drawn into error by conjectures after their mind, they bring others into the like pit of destruction.

    Now the things that seemed good to me, I have fairly pointed out to you; and what seems good to you, do you, my lord, becomingly perform. Farewell.

  4. aubee91 says:

    Wouldn’t “unintelligible” fit the context just as well for a translation of δυσνόητος in Lucian? And how about “letters contain content unthinkable to some, which the ignorant and unstable distort…” for 2 Peter 3:16?

  5. Joe Rutherford says:

    The Apostle Peter, along with the rest of the eleven, had an extremely awesome understanding of how the words from God are simply not understood by the lost. In the Gospels, examples prove how often the words of Jesus were misunderstood. Jesus told the Apostles that the understanding of truth was given to them, but was hidden from the unbelievers. Peter warned the Church that false teachers were twisting Pauls letters. Peter did not want the saints to be led into error by false interpretations of Pauls letters. Peter knew there was the issue of difficulty of understanding. He had seen many people twist the truth many times since Jesus first called him and the others into the kingdom.

  6. J. K. Gayle says:

    As if my opinion also is important, I would agree with Iver, who says: “I agree with Mike that this text cannot be taken in support of producing translations that are hard to understand in the linguistic sense.”

    Mike, You do suggest that the use of this rare Greek word in 2 Peter 3:16 makes the reading of this word, whether in the original text or in translated text, somewhat difficult. So we can’t be sure exactly what the text is saying about Paul’s writings.

    Regardless of what 2 Peter 3:16 means, or how English translators now must translate it, the fact is that some readers of Paul’s Greek today find it extremely challenging and not always so very clear to general readers. If that is truly the case, then is it the English translator’s job to make simple what is complex, to make clear what is unclear?

    Literary experts including C. S. Lewis (after he became a theist and then a Christian) and George Steiner (who has a somewhat different theological lens through which to read the New Testament) have together noted how difficult Paul’s letters are. Interestingly, both Lewis and Steiner bring up how difficult it is to understand Paul in the context of discussion how difficult it is to understand Jesus.

    Lewis writes (in Reflections on the Psalms, page 113):

    [Jesus] uses paradox, proverb, exaggeration, parable, irony; even (I mean no irreverence) the “wisecrack”. He utters maxims which, like popular proverbs, if rigorously taken, may seem to contradict one another. His teaching therefore cannot be grasped by the intellect alone, cannot be ‘got up’ as if it were a ‘subject’. If we try to do that with it, we shall find Him the most elusive of teachers. He hardly ever gave a straight answer to a straight question. He will not be, in the way we want, ‘pinned down’. The attempt is (again I mean no irreverence) like trying to bottle a sunbeam.

    Descending lower, we find a somewhat similar difficulty with St. Paul. I cannot be the only reader who has wondered why God, having given him so many gifts, withheld from him (what would to us seem so necessary for the first Christian theologian [albeit a formidable Jew]) that of lucidity and orderly exposition.

    Steiner writes (in Grammars of Creation, page 96):

    Jesus’ discourse in parables, his statements of withdrawal from statement–of which the episode in which he writes in the dust and effaces his writing is the emblematic instance–give to linguistic verticality, to the containment of silence in language, a particular impetus. As do the constantly polysemic, stratified techniques of semantic motions in the Pauline Epistles. It is these parables and indirect communications, at once more internalized and open-ended than are the codes of classical rhetoric, which beget the seeming contradiction of enigmatic clarity, the “comprehendit imcomprehensible esse” celebrated in Anselm’s Proslogion. In turn, from these dramatizations of manifold sense, evolve the instruments of allegory, of analogy, of simile, of tropes and concealments in Western literature (though here also there are obvious and indispensible classical sources).

    It seems that what may be established, then, is that you find the use of δυσνόητος in 2 Peter not to be so clearly what centuries of English translators have agreed it likely means. And C. S. Lewis and George Steiner find that Jesus and Paul both are not so clear. And so we are left by these observations to wonder what the translator from Greek to English is to do.

  7. Mike Sangrey says:

    If Peter would have wanted to convey, “Paul’s not linguistically clear”, that is, “the text is poorly worded,” I would have thought Peter would have used μὴ κατάδηλά. That phrase pretty much means, “not visibly clear.”

    Peter uses a cognate of the word νοητός, which is an adjective describing mental perceptibility. Interestingly, and as an aside, apparently according to Plato, its opposite was ὁρατός, which means ‘visible’. And therefore ὁρατός is in the same semantic domain as δῆλος, from which we get κατάδηλος. Apparently, the mental world and the visible world were thought of as two, distinct, even opposite, worlds.

    So, I suspect the Greek model of linguistic comprehension cleanly separated how the linguistics on the page interface to the mental faculty of comprehension. Our modern English model (our cognitive metaphor for linguistic cognition) doesn’t do a very good job of that. When we say, “He’s not clear” it’s quite ambiguous as to whether we mean, “The concept is difficult for me to get my mind around” or “Gosh, that’s poorly written.”

    I’m coming to the place where I think it’s not accurate to translate δυσνόητος as silly as I had suggested above. I’m starting to think a better definition has to do with “having difficulty wrapping one’s mind around the concepts.” I think that could easily be used in a pejorative way (as in Lucian’s writing) as well as what I perceive as nearly complimentary in Peter’s.

    To come at this from another direction: There’s a fundamental difference between a text that would describe how to build a model house out of Legos(TM) and a text describing the particle and wave properties of light. The difference in degree of conceptual complexity between the two is quite significant. The one concept is easily grasped by my 9 and 11 year olds. The other is difficult for me to understand. However, both texts could use relatively easily parsable English lexicon and grammar. I think one could do either with Basic English. I think we would need to allow the technical terms of wave and particle to be defined in the text. But, the point is: wrapping one’s mind around how a photon could exhibit both wave properties and particle properties is quite difficult. But, the English would be rather straight-forward.

    I think its conceptual complexity that Peter refers to in this text. And, please keep in mind that Peter says, ἐν αἷς ἐστιν (“among which is”). In other words, it isn’t that Paul is characterized by being obtuse. It’s simply that there are some Pauline concepts which people then had difficulty getting their minds around. Not much has changed. Frankly, that makes sense (and I don’t think the difficult texts had to do with Eschatology). It’s not every day that a highly trained Jew claims that a peasant, construction artisan is the ruler of the world; that he is the one, true God, who died, and rose from the dead; and that he did so in order to offer a permanent life to anyone–Jew and non-Jew–who would simply commit in faith to follow him. Conceptually, that’s a bit difficult to get one’s mind around. But, to state it, doesn’t need difficult English (even though it’s an extraordinarily long sentence).

    And that brings me to mention two other thoughts which are in tension with each other.

    1. I think there’s some truth to saying there is some Bible translation activity which seeks to minimize conceptual complexity. I think it appropriate to assess an audience’s capacity to grasp the concepts and therefore to translate accordingly. However, I personally think we need to be more careful here. I think we’re selling translations to a broad audience which don’t do justice to what the Bible is really saying.

    I think there must be a better way through this, but I don’t have the answer. There’s a lot of hidden snares on this path. Frankly, I think conceptually constrained translations would be beneficial. I’d prefer such translations be understood, on the one hand, to be true translations (because I think they are). And yet, on the other hand, to be labeled as abridged, condensed, reduced, or some other such label. Obviously, marketing such a translation would require an Herculean effort (therefore marketing would fail). I also think such a translation could use expanded text for certain audiences with the intent of “spanning the gap”. Such translations would, of course, bring accusations and attacks of “You are adding words to the Holy Text.” I won’t answer that here and now–there’s too many wrong assumptions in the accusation, and so it would take us too far afield.

    2. I think our model for understanding the Biblical text has been extensively skewed by analytical exhaustion. We’ve built up entire theological points from single phrases. Whole books have been written discussing a single use of a single word. Entire denominations have infrastructures in place to guard the perceived sense of a verse or a given word. We listen to speakers spend 30 minutes explaining what the original audience heard in 30 seconds. And universities have brands to protect.

    Given such a context, it’s extremely difficult to convincingly show that, just perhaps, just maybe, if we simply let the Bible say what it says, many of the Biblical concepts really are quite straight-forward. The hard (extremely hard) activity, then, is to translate those straight-forward concepts in a way that have some hope of being accepted by an audience already metastasized with the expectation of complexity.

    In other words, we have an extremely hardened shield protecting Paul from being understood, even when he spoke in relatively straight-forward Greek. I think we, myself included, are the ones who have the problem. Not Paul.

    How does one translate accurately, clearly, and naturally when given such a conundrum? I don’t know. But, that’s only half the question. The other half is, “How do you change the audience so that it would accept an accurate, clear, and natural translation?” That’s a much more difficult question to answer. Gosh, a guy could probably get killed for asking it.

  8. J. K. Gayle says:

    It’s not every day that a highly trained Jew claims that a peasant, construction artisan is the ruler of the world; that he is the one, true God, who died, and rose from the dead; and that he did so in order to offer a permanent life to anyone–Jew and non-Jew–who would simply commit in faith to follow him. Conceptually, that’s a bit difficult to get one’s mind around. But, to state it, doesn’t need difficult English (even though it’s an extraordinarily long sentence).

    Whew! That’s quite a non-difficult English statement for a concept “that’s a bit difficult to get one’s mind around.”

    So back to the Greek word of 2nd Peter: it seems you’re onto something now reading δυσνόητος as more like “concepts which people then had difficulty getting their minds around.”

    You can find that way of thinking about this word in the context of Book IX of the 2nd century CE astrological work, Anthology. The author, Vettius Valens, in his section describing Ἀγωγὴ περὶ χρόνων ζωῆς πρὸς τὰ ἀπογώνια (or “A Method for the Length of Life Using the Apogonia”), suggests his concepts are easy. He writes to explain: “I have set a table rich in learning and I have invited guests to the banquet.” But he also describes — using various other metaphors and analogies — how difficult some learners, reading, will make getting his concepts. You can’t just breeze through this stuff, he suggests, if you’re going to get your mind around it.

    And right in the middle of all of that, he uses the same word 2Peter does. Both the astrological Anthology and the epistle of 2 Peter seem to get at the difficulties of grasping the concepts of texts by “reading” them. Things in Paul’s letters are not easily grasped by readers who are unlearned.

    (And so C. S. Lewis would complain that God “withheld from [Paul the gifts] of lucidity and orderly exposition,” but George Steiner would caution Lewis that he’s just not yet grasped Paul’s “constantly polysemic, stratified techniques of semantic motions.” And I think all of us would want an English translator to make these things as clear as possible, both Paul’s difficult concepts and his complex Greek language for doing so. You can’t just breeze through this stuff – unlearned – if you’re going to get your mind around it.)

    Here is classic scholar Mark Riley’s translation of Vettius Valens(with the Greek word and the Greek sentence it’s found in embedded):

    All of the preceding methods are effective and easily understandable to those who study them, and they result in the same answer i.e. the same degree-position, but not the same number of years. Consequently those who wish to discover the must approach the calculation with all eagerness and zeal, because the one who is willing to work gets what he desires. Toil and constant thought accompany every business, whether good or bad: royal, governing, or ruling affairs; matters of wealth and poverty; and the arts and sciences as well. Moreover, neither pleasure nor enjoyment directs matters in a way that lacks care and grief. Rather these two lead to decline, conceit, and endless mental pain. I have set a table rich in learning and I have invited guests to the banquet. Let those who wish to feast act with the physical assistance of the body, which helps them to use the nourishment not in a greedy or insatiable way, but only in so far as the victuals can provide reasonable pleasure. (What is consumed beyond the bounds of nature usually causes harm.) Now if any of the guests should wish to continue living unharmed, let him eat one or two courses, and he will be happy. To make a comparison: when small scraps of wood come in contact with fire, they make a great, towering blaze which is very overpowering and bright, but which falls in on itself rapidly and becomes dim. The glow of the fire is quenched, and a billowing, thick smoke and a strong, tear-producing stench surrounds the bystanders. A thick haze surrounds those who are farther off. In the same way, if anyone spends some time on one or two of the preceding methods, he will find his goal to be easily grasped, and he will spend his time in pleasure and delight and will enjoy great repute.

    εἰ δέ τις εἴη μὲν ἐκ τοῦ ἀναγινώσκειν δυσνόητος, θέλοι δὲ εἰς μίαν ἡμέραν δύο καὶ τρεῖς βίβλους διεξιέναι, τὴν μὲν ἀλήθειαν οὐκ ἐξιχνεύσει,

    If, however, anyone is slow to understand what he reads, yet wishes in one day to run through two or three books, he will not discover the truth. Instead, he will be like a storm-fed river, rolling its burden along, worthless and profitless to the onlookers, and sinking back quickly to its useless state. Nor does a racehorse running in a desert place, outside of a stadium or a battle, win any prizes. If the river carries profitable loads, men will readily leap into it to win the profits, even if the river is swift and dangerous. Or again, a ship running swiftly on course gives great joy to its sailors. The horse who runs with determination delights in the praise , attracts many admirers, wins much attention, and gains prizes by his labor. It is just so for those who enter these mysteries with keen intelligence: they are worthy of the prize, and they do gain pleasure and profit for themselves. On the other hand, those who enter perfunctorily rapidly come to jeer at this art, because fate has not granted them ready understanding and immortality.


  9. J. K. Gayle says:

    The verse is very often used to support an objection to clear translation.

    I’m not sure who is objecting to “clear translation” based on their reading of 2 Peter 3:16. But I do want to assert that Mike T. Riley’s translation of the Anthology of Vettius Valens is a good one that has done us all a service. Riley rightly notes how difficult the Greek text is, and I believe his translation actually conveys that difficulty (and the entire text can be read via the link above). In another place, Riley says of the Greek text:

    The Anthologiae of Vettius Valens presents us with the longest, and at the same time the most difficult, text surviving from the astrological literature of antiquity. Valens’s exotic methods, many unparalleled in other astrological works, and the vicissitudes of the text itself … make interpretation of this work difficult. The Anthologiae is, however, important for the study of ancient astrology.


    The best English translators of ancient Greek texts do well to keep them difficult. What 2 Peter suggests of the difficulties of Paul’s letters and what Vettius Valens suggests of the difficulties of his Anthology must be struggled over and wrestled with by readers (whether in Greek or in good English translation).

  10. Mike Sangrey says:

    If a person does not know a concept, and he or she reads a clearly written text, then the concept might still be difficult for that person to get their mind around (δυσνόητος).

    If, however, a person knows the concept, and reads the same clearly written text, then that person will find the reading easy.

    On the other hand, if the text itself is written unclearly, then whether the person knows the concept or not, grasping whatever concept the text is meant to convey will be difficult.

    In the latter, the text is at fault.

    In the former, it’s simply the concept that is challenging.

    That’s the difference we need to get our minds around.

  11. Mike Sangrey says:

    I wonder if δυσνόητος could be thought of as either:
    1. “a person is not willing to understand…”
    2. “content is not acceptable to the understanding.”

    Those two ways, which transpose agent and object, say essentially the same thing.

    The Lucian text then becomes:
    The answers concerned nothing in heaven or earth, but were all unacceptable to the understanding and meaningless together.

    The Vettius Valens text becomes:
    If, however, anyone is not willing to understand what he reads, yet wishes in one day to run through two or three books, he will not discover the truth.

    And 2 Peter 3:16 (modified NIV) becomes:
    He writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are unacceptable to the understanding, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction.

    Each of those translations fit the context quite well and, IMO, give remarkable consistency to the meaning across all occurrences of the word. I would suggest the Vettius text actually becomes clearer.

  12. elnwood says:

    In the Shepherd of Hermas (Sim. IX, xiv, 4), δυσνόητος clearly means “hard to understand.”

    “Now, sir,” I said, “explain to me why the tower is not built on the ground but upon the rock and the door.” “Are you still,” he said,“ stupid and senseless?” “I am obliged, sir,” I said, “to ask you about everything, for I am absolutely unable to comprehend (νοέω) anything at all; for all these matters are awesome and glorious, and difficult for men to understand (δυσνόητος).”

    Michael William Holmes, The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations, Updated ed., 495 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1999).

    δυσνόητος is paired with νοέω, which has a well-attested meaning of “understand, comprehend.” δυσνόητος cannot possibly mean “silly” or “unacceptable” or “unthinkable” in the context because the same thing is described as “awesome and glorious.”

    It seems to me that if “difficult to understand” works in 2 Peter 3:16 and is required in the Shepherd of Hermas, we should stay with that. Is there any reason to prefer Lucian over the Shepherd of Hermas?

  13. Mike Sangrey says:

    Thank you elnwood for that additional citation. The more data we have the better.

    I’m still seeking a better translation for δυσνόητος.

    In at least one way the Hermes’ quote underscores the point I’m making in this post.

    Let me come at it this way: Why was it that the learner had difficulty understanding? Was it because the way the matters were communicated caused the difficulty? Or, was it because the matters themselves were difficult to “get one’s mind around?” Obviously, from the quote, it’s the latter.

    You see, one point I’m trying to make clear is that the expression “difficult to understand” is ambiguous. And, when we use it in the Petrine context, we flip back and forth between the two. Also, I think, it’s ambiguous in a way the original actually wasn’t. So, I’m trying to find a way of wording it so the wrong meaning isn’t communicated.

    The English expression can mean either, “content communicated poorly” or “content contains somewhat esoteric concepts.” The former faults the writer, Paul in this case. The later faults the reader/hearer, which is what Peter actually does. They were “ignorant and unstable.”

    Let me see if I can make that distinction real.

    Here’s a syllogism:
    1. Mary is the sole beneficiary in John’s will.
    2. John dies.

    Now, what’s the conclusion? What follows?

    The answer is obvious, Mary gets the inheritance. But, you’d be wrong. Mary did NOT get the inheritance! “Why not!”, you ask. “I don’t understand,” you object.

    Because Mary died first.

    The point is that, on the one hand, it is very difficult to understand how one arrives at the conclusion given the information one has ready at hand–one’s interpretive environment. And yet,on the other, as soon as that interpretive environment is filled in with the needed detail, all becomes clear. But, the thing I want people to see is the grammar and lexicon of the syllogism are very natural, very clear, and very accurate.

    And I think that clear communication coupled with the difficulty to grasp illustrates the problem with those Peter refers to. It wasn’t Paul’s writing that needed fixed. It was the ignorant readers that needed to get some truth into their interpretive environment. There’s something worse about these readers, but they were at least ignorant.

    It’s the same today. If we had a perfect translation, people would still need to get some information, get their thinking changed, so as to understand some of what Paul says. Much of this information has to do with a fuller understanding of history, culture, and what is referred to as the “socio-linguistic” data. Some of these people today twist the Scriptures. Some do not. Some are deeply committed to an extra-Biblical agenda, Some are not. The problem, however, wouldn’t be with the perfect translation.

    Also, so I’m clear, I don’t think Paul was mystical in the Gnostic sense. Quite the contrary. I believe the incarnation was absolutely fundamental to Paul’s theology. Paul put a lot of effort into meeting his audiences where they were at. This was much the same as the Son of God meeting us where we are at.

  14. elnwood says:

    Hi Mike,

    I re-read your posts, and I figured out that your view has been shaping throughout this discussion, and is no longer what you shared in the original post. Thank you for clarifying where you are at now.

    You stated that “difficult to understand” is ambiguous. As it stands alone, I suppose it is; however, it is often, but not always, distinguished in English based on whether it modifies the person or the content. “Bob is difficult to understand” usually means that Bob communicates poorly, whereas “Bob’s teaching is difficult to understand” usually means that the contents of Bob’s teaching is difficult to grasp. There’s some ambiguity, however, since “Bob” can be a metonymy, say for Bob’s writing if Bob is a writer.

    Based on that, I would say that the most natural reading of “His letters contain some things that are hard to understand” (NIV) is that it is the content that is difficult to understand.

    That said, there needs to be a certain inherent ambiguity in the phrase “difficult to understand.” Why? Because if you don’t understand, you cannot know if you don’t understand because the content is communicated poorly, or if the content is difficult to grasp. You don’t know if the communicator or the receptor is at fault. If the concept itself is ambiguous as to who is at fault, it’s logical to have an expression that is ambiguous as well/

    You wrote that “it’s ambiguous in a way the original actually wasn’t,” but I’m not convinced that the Greek did not also have this ambiguity. How are you able to demonstrate that δυσνόητος does not have this ambiguity?

  15. Don says:


    Sorry for the bump but I stumbled upon this conversation looking for info on the HCSB.

    Peter is referring to the new musterion revelation given to Paul by Christ (Rom 16:25; Eph 3:8-9), a body of doctrine not found anywhere in the Old Testament but which had been ‘hid in God’ from eternity past. The mysetry included the Gospel of the grace of God, which Paul repeatedly called “my gospel” because it was not the same Kingdom gospel focused on the redemption of Israel predominantly that comprised the so-called Great Commission (I say ‘so-called’ only because the term G.C. is not found in Scripture). Proof that this gospel was new is evidenced by the fact that Paul tells us in Galatians that he had to communicate his gospel to Peter and the others precisely because it was something entirely new and previously unrevealed…and no doubt unexpected by the Jerusalem apostles, but the Holy Spirit verified Paul and his message.

    A big part of what probably still semi-puzzled Peter was the fact that Israel would not (for now) be redeemed into the nation of priests as had long been foretold. This would now not happen (yet) because – as Peter well knew – Israel as a whole refused to repent. Paul now informed Peter and the others that Israel, nationally, was now set aside by God with Jews now counted wholly in unbelief along with Gentiles, with no distinctions between them.

    All of this would have stunned Peter and the others when they learned of it, for it is 180° from what they’d been told by Christ to expect to happen…yet here was Christ, through Paul, overriding His prior instructions with the mystery revelation.

    It is for this reason Peter and the others agreed – by inspiration of Christ – to confine their further ministry to “the circumcision” of saved Jews (see to whom all their letters are addressed) while Paul would go forth with the Gospel of grace for unsaved Jews and Gentiles alike. This also explains why Peter never ventured outside of Israel, as far as Scripture is concerned.

  16. davidbrainerd2 says:

    “Unintelligible” seems like the best translation both in 2nd Peter 3:16 and in the quote from Lucian, and also fits better etymologically than any of the other suggestions.

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