Worship in spirit and truth–John 4:24 (part II).

A frequent prayer of mine, for I don’t know how many years, is, “Lord, make me so I worship you in spirit and truth, whatever that might mean.” I know from John 4:24 that God wants that. If I don’t know what the prepositional phrase means, I want to know what it means in my life even more than I want to know what it means in my head. I want God to know that, too. And I know that God knows the meaning of the phrase. And, whether I understand the phrase or not, I know I’m still deeply dependent on his help to weave that meaning into my life, even into who I am. Still, I’ve wrestled with the meaning for a very long time.

I started out with Worship in spirit and truth–John 4:24 (part I) and I’m heading to this result:

The worship of God by his worshippers must be spiritual and authentic.

How do I get there?

A.T. Robertson, in his BIG grammar says:

[Prepositions were originally adverbs]. This is now so well recognized that it seems strange to read in Winer that “prepositions e.g.often assume the nature of adverbs, and vice versa,” Giles puts the matter simply and clearly when he says: “Between adverbs and prepositions no distinct line can be drawn.”…Brugmann …adds that we cannot draw a sharp line between the use as adverb and the use as pre-verb or preposition. [pg 554]

Essentially, a preposition connects the phrase to something in the sentence adverbially—that is, it modifies it. The intent of using prepositions was to speak and write more clearly, to hone away any misunderstanding. Interestingly, even though he is speaking about Greek prepositions, Robertson points out that the Emperor Augustus was noted for his extensive use of Latin prepositions to increase clarity. He points out that one must first consider the grammatical case, then the preposition, then the context. The order is important.  He says the preposition was used to clarify the case meaning.

It’s when we transfer the result of that process over into English that we get into trouble.  We tend to think we have to “do it with a preposition.”  If the result is adverbial in nature, we have some leeway on our voyage to accuracy.

Generally, grammars convey that this adverbial function carried by the preposition is geometric. Many of us, I’m sure, have seen Machen’s diagram. Therefore, we very easily seek an analysis of ἐν which is always locative. Robertson’s discussion even supports this mindset. So, when considering the John 4:24 clause, we try to make worship occur in spirit and in truth. Therefore we go through extensive mental gymnastics to make sense of that. For me, that has never worked. I’ve tried.

Let’s look at some other examples (English text is from the NASB).

Matthew 11:21: πάλαι ἂν ἐν σάκκῳ καὶ σποδῷ μετενόησαν (“they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.”). Does this repentance occur in the location of sackcloth and in ashes? Not really. The sackcloth and ashes are viewed as highly related to the repentance. This is the dative idea which the preposition strengthens and makes more clear. Compare Mat. 11:21 with the meaning of “repent in a car and the front seat” and you should see what I mean. This later is obviously speaking of location alone. Now, does that mean that the repentant person was not viewed as having put on the sackcloth? No, he or she was viewed that way—even though they might not have actually put on the sackcloth. The emphasis is not on the actual location; it’s on modifying the conceptual implications of the verb.

Luke 4:36: ὅτι ἐν ἐξουσίᾳ καὶ δυνάμει ἐπιτάσσει (“with authority and power he commands”). Is the power and authority in the commanding? Obviously not. The people were stunned by who this Jesus was. The power and authority are highly related to the commanding, but they did not exist in it; they existed in Jesus. Again, this is the dative idea strengthened by the preposition. There’s an adverbial relationship between the objects of the preposition and the verb.  In this case, the translators captured this by using ‘with’.

Luke 21:34: μήποτε βαρηθῶσιν ὑμῶν αἱ καρδίαι ἐν κραιπάλῃ καὶ μέθῃ καὶ μερίμναις βιωτικαῖς (“your hearts will not be weighted down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of life”). Is the burdensome difficulty located in the drunken behavior and anxiety? Again, no. Though with some mental gymnastics you can make that work. It’s better to think of these occurrences in instrumental terms and not locative terms. I think it would be appropriate to translate this clause using ‘by’ instead of ‘with’.

To get a little closer to the words used in John 4, we can consider Luke 1:17: αὐτὸς προελεύσεται ἐνώπιον αὐτοῦ ἐν πνεύματι καὶ δυνάμει Ἠλίου (“he who will go as a forerunner before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah”). This can be easily rendered as, “He will go…with the same spirit and power as Elijah.” If you think very carefully about what you mean when you say, “going in the spirit of” you can see that using the phrase ‘with the same’ means essentially the same thing.

How does one say worship with one’s spirit in English? One can say just that. However, one can say the exact same thing by saying worship spiritually or one can say, the worship must be spiritual. The adverbial nature of the relationship is more clear without the preposition.

There’s still a question of what worshipping spiritually refers to in the real world. I’ll address that in a moment. But, at least we now have a clause that is starting to look like English.

As an aside, I’ve wondered whether Matthew 11:21 should be “ash permeated sackcloth”, Luke 4:36 should be “powerful authority”, Luke 21:34 should be “anxiety filled drunken behavior” (recall a primary driver to drunkenness is depression), and Luke 1:17 should be “powerful spirit”. That is, the two joined objects of the preposition should be thought of as a single concept. But, I’m getting off track.  I just bring it up here since it rather surprises me how often it seems to work quite well.

Let’s move on to ἀλήθεια (“truth”). I’ll not spend as much effort here.  As I’ve been mentioning, we have to connect the concepts to the real world.  This intentionally considers the Pragmatic features of the text (that is, it considers the words as they relate to the communication context).  We have to work through the Pragmatics of the original as well as the Pragmatics of the destination.

Conceptually, truth, authenticity, and integrity are related. Truth is thought of as more theoretical, more ethereal, more abstract. Don’t misread me; it can be relied on and in my epistemology, must be. However it is cognitive; it can’t have flesh and bones, it can’t be seen unless embodied in something. However, integrity and authenticity are truth practiced. When truth becomes embodied, it becomes integrity. Integrity and authenticity refer to the pragmatic (ie. practical, not Pragmatic) side of truth. These are when we see truth.

In our language it is more natural to talk about truth in doctrine or to talk of an axiom or thought that is true. However, when we talk about an action or a person, we talk in terms of authentic behavior or having integrity. Even in Bible translation topics, when we talk about an authentic translation, we’re referring not to the doctrine contained in the text.  We’re talking about how faithfully the translation has reproduced the original content in our real textual world, the one we hold in our hands.

Here’s an example of these two types of “truth”.  In their world the two types can be referred to with one word.  In our world, they are different words.

John 8:44: ἐν τῇ ἀληθείᾳ οὐκ ἔστηκεν ὅτι οὐκ ἔστιν ἀλήθεια ἐν αὐτῷ (“[The devil] does not stand in the truth because there is no truth in him.”). Notice the two different phrases. One is “person in the truth.” The other is “truth in the person.” What does it mean to stand in the truth? And what does it mean to have truth in you?

Let me ever so slightly change the wording of the NLT in John 8:42-47 so you can get your mind around a larger context (a conceptual metaphor) within which these phrases are used. My change is underlined:

Jesus told them, “If God were your Father, you would love me, because I have come to you from God. I am not here on my own, but he sent me. Why can’t you understand what I am saying? It’s because you can’t even hear me! For you are the children of your father the devil, and you love to do the evil things he does. He was a murderer from the beginning. He has no authenticity, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, it is consistent with his character; for he is a liar and the father of lies. So when I tell the truth, you just naturally don’t believe me! Which of you can truthfully accuse me of sin? And since I am telling you the truth, why don’t you believe me? Anyone who belongs to God listens gladly to the words of God. But you don’t listen because you don’t belong to God.”

The whole argument here revolves around who is authentic—Jesus or the Jewish leadership. The leadership said they were the authentic children of God. Jesus answers by saying the devil isn’t authentic because he’s a liar, and since the leadership can’t even understand Jesus (who speaks and lives only the truth), that makes them liars, too. Therefore, they can’t be authentic children.

This argument rests on the difference between two expressions: the person who is in the truth and the truth that is in the person. The later refers to one’s understanding of what is true. The former refers to how the person lives out what is true. In our words, the later refers to truth, the former refers to authenticity.

Dealing with such a difficult to translate text deserves a much more thorough explanation. Certainly, it needs more proof. My intent here is to give people some linguistic meat to chew on. We won’t solve all the issues here. I certainly haven’t. However, I think it’s very important to notice a translation which doesn’t communicate. If a translation doesn’t communicate, then any argument that it is accurate falls to the side—how can it be accurate when no-one knows what the translation means? Or, how can it be accurate when it can mean so many different things to different people?

Well, more needs to be done. However, for now I’ve arrived at: the worship of God by his worshippers must be spiritual and authentic.

Ok, I had asked above what it was in the real world that worshipping spiritually referred to. So, you’re probably wondering, what’s the real world referent of πνεύματι?

To clarify that is the preacher’s job. 🙂

Tell you what, I’ll address that in another, very short, installment. It will be short since I’m going to simply express my own view. The reality of it, however, is that spirituality is a big topic. And the disjunction between modern psychology and anthropology and the same of 2,000 years ago is quite substantial. There is simply no way to capture the reorientation via a single word (or two) in John 4:24.  Many Christians disagree what spirituality means (which is why the posting will be short 🙂 )

Lastly, consider what I’ve said above by comparing it to Peterson’s translation in The Message.  Personally, I find it rather satisfying since I hadn’t seen this before I started writing these posts.

“It’s who you are and the way you live that count before God. Your worship must engage your spirit in the pursuit of truth. That’s the kind of people the Father is out looking for: those who are simply and honestly themselves before him in their worship. God is sheer being itself—Spirit. Those who worship him must do it out of their very being, their spirits, their true selves, in adoration.” [verses 23-24]

Worship in spirit and truth–John 4:24 (Part I)

Worship in [the] [s/S]pirit and [in] [the] truth. John 4:24.


What does that mean? Don’t think of the Greek behind it. What does that “English” mean? Don’t analyze it, just read it. Doesn’t work does it?

Many translations have variations of the above. Some have one or both articles. Some capitalize ‘spirit’. Some provide only one preposition while others repeat it. But, basically, the clause is rendered something like, “Worship in spirit and truth.” But, what does it mean?

The problem is: it isn’t English. That conclusion comes easily to mother tongue English readers when they are asked to read it and then asked, “What are you to do?” Or, “What are you to be?” If the clause uses language that doesn’t connect the reader to the real world, then the clause isn’t using the real world language of the reader. It’s using something else. Ultimately, no author intended change in the reader can take place. By translating poorly—by not communicating clearly—(and to make use of an archaic, religious idiom) “the Word returns void.” To say it more clearly, the text does not achieve its author intended effect.

To me the clause, as translated, says, “Worship, blah, blah, blah, spirit, blah, blah, truth.” For me, it could be translated with all those “blahs” and would communicate the same “meaning” (other than the fact that the incomprehensibility would be, well, more clear with the “blahs”.)

I’d like to take us on a little journey exploring how to translate this clause. I want to focus on the linguistic process which supports the translation.

So, what does the Greek mean? The clause is: ἐν πνεύματι καὶ ἀληθείᾳ δεῖ προσκυνεῖν. Let’s pull it apart and put it back together.

Let’s start with the main verb: δέω (glosses: bind, imprison, compel, restrict, prohibit, cause illness; Louw and Nida; other lexicons offer similar glosses with a core sense of bind). However, when used with an infinitive, it forms a single, verbal, idiomatic construct.

Examples of this use of δέω are as follows (references are NIV):

John 3:7 δεῖ ὑμᾶς γεννηθῆναι ἄνωθεν (“You must be born again.”)
John 3:14 οὕτως ὑψωθῆναι δεῖ τὸν υἱὸν τοῦ ἀνθρώπου (“the Son of Man must be lifted up”)
John 3:30 ἐκεῖνον δεῖ αὐξάνειν ἐμὲ δὲ ἐλαττοῦσθαι (“He must become greater”)
John 4:20 ἐν Ἱεροσολύμοις ἐστὶν ὁ τόπος ὅπου προσκυνεῖν δεῖ (“we must worship in Jerusalem”)

The cognitive metaphor (ie. word picture) presented by the Greek δέω is formed in the mind by the sense of ‘binding’. So, the agent was thought of as bound by the activity expressed by the infinitive. In English we express the same sense by using the word ‘must’. Sometimes we emphasize the requirement by using the phrase “it is necessary that…” English grammars refer to must as an auxiliary verb. Truth is it works more like an adverb pre-positioned to the main verb much like some prepositions are attached to the end of verbs (eg “You brush off my objections too easily.”). ‘Must’ modifies the verb giving it a sense of necessity.

In other words, in English we don’t use a verb to express the activity of “must-ing.” We say, “Agent must action-word.” In Greek it’s a main verb (δέω) coupled with an infinitive. (BTW, there is nothing more Biblical—there is no deeper meaning—obtained by somehow capturing the cognitive metaphor of an ancient language. This observation of the use of δέω simply offers a more certain insight into the original meaning.)

So, that means we need to consider δεῖ προσκυνεῖν together as unit.

Προσκυνέω is the word which refers to “prostrating oneself.” When one prostrates oneself before a deity (or a deity surrogate), the word takes on the sense of “worship.” When used in this latter sense, I don’t think the word loses its core sense of prostration. In English we think of these two senses as unrelated. How do I know that? When was the last time you saw someone prostrate themselves in a typical worship service? We don’t associate prostration with worship. Προσκυνέω (that is, prostrating oneself) was much more common-place in their culture; even used in cases where one simply showed extraordinary respect. They thought of the senses as close together. We think of the them as quite separate. A translator must decide which effect the author intended and translate accordingly.

So, we have “must worship.”

Lastly, δέω is 3rd person, singular. The uses of the verb are almost always singular. Interestingly, here the antecedent is plural. So, did δέω simply gravitate toward its more normal, idiomatic use, or did Jesus (and John) intend a more precise meaning? Since “δεῖ infinitive” is an idiomatic unit, I believe it is highly likely the former is the more true. So, 3rd person plural is the more accurate translation in English.

So, summing up what we’ve done so far, we have “they must worship.” We have arrived at this translation by “substituting” an adverb (auxiliary verb) for a verb and a main verb for an infinitive. We have also replaced the singular suffix with a plural pronoun. In doing these so-called “substitutions” we’ve arrived at an accurate rendering in English of the meaning expressed by the Greek. We’ve supported these “substitutions” with a linguistic rationale.

The rendering of δεῖ προσκυνεῖν is very non-literal (it’s not morpho-syntactic) in nearly all the translations. A rendering which follows the English idiom stands as quite accepted. Even the ASV has “must worship.” Ironically, we will see that the prepositional phrase, the one which is inextricably associated with the phrase we’ve just translated, is not rendered idiomatically.

The next posting will deal with the prepositional phrase. There’s also a followup at Worship in spirit and truth–John 4:24 (Addendum).

In which the jargon takes over

In general I don’t like Biblish – it’s not the language I speak nor is it the language of those I’d hope to introduce to God. Biblish is marked by strange or ungrammatical language choices and is often insensitive to idioms. And it’s vocabulary? Obscure, transliterated, oblivious to polysemy and maybe even archaic.

But over at God Didn’t Say That Peter Bishop made an insightful comment:

If the Greek “baptizo” had been translated as “submerse” from the beginning–or if it were adopted now and became the accepted standard for a few centuries–wouldn’t “submerse” come to have the same technical meaning that “baptize” does today? “Submerse” would start out as a faithful and accurate translation, but after a while it will become incorrect usage for anyone to talk of submersing pickles, just as today it would be incorrect to talk of baptizing them. The technical meaning of the _act_ of baptism is so ingrained in our culture that when _any_ word is wedded to that act, the act will subsume the entire meaning of the word long before the word has had a chance to shed any light on the act.

This got me thinking: how much has Biblish taken over English? How many English words have become technical religious jargon? How many times has the main meaning of a word become that of Biblish, even for those who aren’t fluent in Biblish? And what does this mean for our attempts at Biblish-less translations? (A related question: how should we translate what was clearly jargon to begin with?)

I’m on the look out now for terms which still communicate clearly and haven’t become religious jargon. I thought I’d start with Wikipedia, though I’ve been disheartened to see how few words qualify. Here’s my list for now (note it’s quite subjective, and you may have a different opinion about what is jargon and what isn’t):

  • blood, as in Jesus’ blood
  • end times
  • eternal life
  • proselyte
  • resurrection

Can you think of other words which aren’t Biblish jargon and still communicate clearly? Which Biblish words can you not think of non-Biblish alternatives for?

Have you ever cut a covenant?

I’m checking a translation of Genesis these days. I came across a passage where the translation spoke of God “cutting” a covenant. I had never heard anyone refer to cutting a covenant before, so I had to check to see if the word “cut” was a typo or accurately reflected something in the Hebrew original.

The translation in question is based on the Hebrew words karath b’rith which literally refer to cutting a covenant. The Hebrew words form an idiom whose meaning we normally express in English with wordings such as “make a covenant” or “establish a covenant”. The Hebrew idiom is, as so often, descriptive and powerful, for Hebrew speakers, at least.

In the Bible translation process we are interested in what speakers of the biblical languages understood their idioms to refer to, and we use that information to help us sort through the options for translating the meaning of those idioms to other languages.

If you came across the wording “cut a covenant” in an English Bible, would you have known what those words referred to? If so, how did you learn what those words refer to?

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.

What can you break?

In standard dialects of English we can break things which are hard or brittle, such as a window, a bone, a tooth, a stick, a (crisp, not soggy) piece of celery, a cookie, a cracker.

It is also allowed by the lexicon of English for us to speak of breaking some things which are tensile, such as rope, a string, a rubber band, or a bungee cord.

The English lexicon has a number of figures of speech in which we can “break” things which are neither brittle nor tensile. So, for example, each of the following are good English:

  1. She broke my heart.
  2. They broke the news.
  3. The horse broke into a gallop.
  4. He broke the record at the Olympics.
  5. He’s trying to break his nicotine addiction.
  6. He broke wind.
  7. He finally broke the silence.
  8. That was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
  9. He broke his word.
  10. We broke camp on Saturday morning.
  11. He broke the law.
  12. He broke his fast.

The English lexicon does not allow us to break just anything we can think of. So, for instance, “break” is inappropriate to use in the following sentences:

  1. I broke the tree.
  2. I broke the grass.
  3. I broke the book.
  4. I broke life.
  5. I broke school.
  6. I broke the apple.
  7. I broke my pants.
  8. I broke the day.
  9. I broke liberty.

In the church my wife and I attend we have communion (the Lord’s Supper) on the first Sunday of the month. This last Sunday, as the officiating minister spoke of “breaking bread,” I wondered if the lexicon of the majority of native speakers of English permits them to say and allows them to understand

Today we will break bread.

Is “break bread” limited to the lexicon of church (Bible) English? Or do you think it is an expression understood by most English speakers today, regardless of whether they are familiar with church English? If it is not, what are the implications for a translation team that wishes their translation to communicate accurately and clearly to the most number of English speakers?

What is natural English?

A recent visitor to this blog asked the important question: “What is natural English?” Since I advocate so often and so strongly for using natural English in English Bible versions, that question deserves an answer. I’ll try to answer it.

Natural English is English which is normally spoken or written by native speakers of English at any particular time in the history of the English language. There can be a variety of natural Englishes (the plural is a technical term for different English dialects), depending on factors such as what speech community a person belongs to, the educational level of the speaker/writer, and the register of what is said or written.

Unnatural English consists of wordings which, although they may be technically “grammatical,” would never be spoken or written in any normal situation by a native speaker of English. The following instructions, typical of some English I have read in appliance manuals, is unnatural English:

When finish the program look the Exit button. After push the button, there will Desktop again. At this moment, choose of another program.

Natural English is found (I hope!) in each paragraph of this post, except the block quote preceding this sentence. It is also found in correspondence, newspaper articles, and novels written by native English speakers. Natural English is used by native English speakers in their conversations with each other. Natural English is used by native English school teachers when they speak to their classes.

Do not confuse natural language with common language. Common language is a technical term for language that is spoken in common by almost every member of a speech community. An older, now outdated term for common language is “vulgar” language, as when we refer to the Latin Vulgate, which was intended to be written in the commonly understood language of those who spoke Latin.

A technical paper written by a scientist may be written in natural English of the scientific community. But it would often not be written in common language.

OK, but don’t we encounter unnatural English in some poetry? Absolutely. One of the gifts that poets bring to us is a new way of seeing the world through unique, unnatural word combinations, such as an anthropomorphism that speaks of “trees sighing.” Or Dylan Thomas challenging his dying father, “Do not go softly into that dark night.” Thomas uses the unique (and unnatural, but poetically beautiful) wording “dark night” to refer to death. So poets sometimes do use unnatural language. Not all poetry is natural language. We can expect that some poetry in the Bible may have some unnatural language wordings.

I cannot recall ever reading any unnatural English in a post or comment on this blog, except when someone is quoting or imitating the dialect of English which is based on literal versions of the Bible. This dialect is sometimes referred to as Biblish. Few, if any, infants and toddlers are taught Biblish by their parents in the first few critical years of language learning.

There may be some passages in the Bible where, for one reason or another, a Bible translation team feels it is necessary to use unnatural English to translate some wording in the biblical language texts. These are difficult judgement calls for translation teams. For most Bible passages, however, there is no reason to translate them using unnatural English. It may take more work and creativity to find natural English equivalents for some biblical language wordings. But the result will be a translation which communicates original meaning more accurately and clearly to translation users.

This last week, as I checked 1 John 2:16, in an Asian language, I realized that the use of the little preposition “of” in the traditional wording of the verse I grew up with is unnatural English:

For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world.

No native speaker of English ever refers to “lust of the flesh” or “lust of the eyes” or “pride of life”. We just don’t talk or write like that, *unless* we are trying to sound, well, biblical. Furthermore, using unnatural language can lead to other problems. For instance, “lust of the flesh” has an ambiguity introduced in its translation workding which did not exist in the mind of the biblical author or his audience: we cannot tell from the English if it refers to lusting after flesh, perhaps bare skin seen on the beach, or lust that is produced by flesh. (Note that the intended meaning of “flesh” is another instance of unnatural English).

The unnatural English of 1 John 2:16 is the result of translators retaining the forms of the genitive case of the original Greek, but not the author’s intended meaning of those forms. Native speakers of English can express each of the concepts in 1 John 2:16 using natural English.

And that brings us to your assignment for the comments to this post: what are some natural English wordings that accurately express the intended meaning of any of the “of” phrases of traditional translations of 1 John 2:16?

Different Languages Wear Different Formal Attire

Perhaps a couple of formal pictures should go with this posting: A Three-piece Suit, a Grand Boubou, a Hakama. They are all radically different–foreign to one another. And yet they all mean about the same thing.

Structured text has form. And ancient languages utilize forms that are quite foreign to us. Just like a foreign word is not understood by someone, larger linguistic structures are also not understood. Or, sometimes, it’s worse. Sometimes they are misunderstood.

We use indentation and space between our paragraph units. It’s the form we use. People who lived and breathed the original languages were different. They used no space—even between words. They tie their paragraphing more tightly to the semantics of the paragraph. We rely more heavily on syntax. One such paragraphing technique they used was the chiasmus. I’ll use this specific formal structure to illustrate a point in just a moment.

Rarely do our translations translate these forms. They leave the larger formal structures largely untouched. When dealing at the word level, translations replace the original forms with ones appropriate to the destination language. But with the larger linguistic structures, at best, we do this replacement poorly.

The results are many: general misunderstanding of what the text says, a sense the text has a special, even secret, meaning, an unfounded assumption that the reason the text can be trusted is because it sounds special (in a novel way), the reader is not impacted by the text because he or she simply can’t understand it, the reader deems the text as irrelevant, they are frustrated, or they may even feel guilty. I think we could come up with more unwanted results.

The text of John 3:31 illustrates this. I’ve explicitly formatted it to show the original, formal structure.


ὁ ἄνωθεν ἐρχόμενος ἐπάνω πάντων ἐστίν

ὁ ὢν ἐκ τῆς γῆς ἐκ τῆς γῆς ἐστιν


ἐκ τῆς γῆς λαλεῖ

ὁ ἐκ τοῦ οὐρανοῦ ἐρχόμενος ἐπάνω πάντων ἐστίν

ASV (I pick this translation since it provides for easier analysis to the English reader):

He that cometh from above is above all:

he that is of the earth is of the earth,


of the earth he speaketh:

he that cometh from heaven is above all.

As many of our readers will readily see, the structure is a chiasmus. Even those who do not know Greek, with a little effort, can pick out the repetition of various phrases. I’ll also point out that each Greek line ends with a verb. This is a very structured text. It reads quite nicely if you put in your Greek brain. It’s even quite amenable to analysis, even in literal English translation. However, to the English mind, it doesn’t read well.

While English has a form of chiastic structure, it is more stylistic than semantic. In the Greek New Testament and the Hebrew Bible the authors use chiasm to convey characteristics of meaning such as emphasis, contrast, conjunction, and even to explicitly state the topic of a paragraph (or larger) unit of text. They utilize the symmetry to convey meaning. I’ve seen cases where the main referent of a paragraph can be easily seen in the central, hinge-point of the chiasmus which formed the immediately preceding paragraph. It’s as if the apex of the paragraph forms the jumping off point for the next paragraph. With our more linear processing of the Biblical text, I think we too often miss these observations. The English formal structures don’t use symmetry for semantic effect. So, we quite naturally don’t “see” the semantics of the larger text.

In the above example, as it folds around the middle, we can see that οὐρανός (“heaven”) makes more explicit the ἄνωθεν (“from above”). The first and last clauses form a strong and explicit statement that there is someone who has come from heaven. The folding of the text is as if the repeated text overlaps the text it repeats, and it therefore becomes bold.

The middle clause—in fact, two clauses joined with the conjunction καὶ (“and”)—appear to be in contrast to its wrapper. This contrast becomes much clearer when the bolded “from heaven” statement is placed along side the truism in the text: “that which is from the earth from the earth is.”

This structure forms a common chiasm with its semantic symmetry, in this case, a contrast. The semantic symmetry focuses the attention on the meaning intended by the author. In this case, the paragraph talks about one person who is both from heaven and from earth, but the one from earth speaks. The formal structure intertwines the contrastive concepts into one holistic statement. A statement which is both coherent and dialectic at the same time. It’s clever how John has formed it–even elegant.

Recently, I was somewhat surprised by the incarnational meaning of the text. I hadn’t seen it before. A small group of us men were going over the above text. And I saw the chiasmus. When that happened the incarnation jumped from the page. I suddenly realized that the next sentence, when connected with the chiasm just read, should be understood as saying, “What He [the one who is of the earth] has seen and heard [which can only be seen and heard by one who is from heaven], of that [these heavenly things] He testifies; and no one [on the earth] receives His testimony” (NASB). So, it turns out that John 3:31-36 is a recapitulation of John 3:11-18 and also, somewhat more abstractly, to John 1:1-18 and John 1:51. And note that the first “he” naturally refers back to the subject at the center of the chaismus–“he, the of-the-earth one” is the one who testifies.

Why was I surprised? I hadn’t seen it before, that’s why. You would think the meaning would have been obvious. In fact, I’m now a bit embarrassed to admit I hadn’t seen it before. And yet, that is unfair of me to judge myself like that. The formal structure in all of our translations is not an English form. How could I readily understand it? It takes quite a bit of processing until one arrives at the obvious. And then I went through this halting, second-guessing routine since the formal structure sounds so special. Well, it is special to the English mind–it’s Greek, it’s not English. The syntax sounded profound. But it’s the semantics which was (indeed, is) profound. Something that is so profound can’t sound simple! Can it? Sure it can!

Why does profound truth have to sound like I can’t understand it? What if profound truth really is simple? What if the profound beauty of heaven can be stated in simple “of this earth” language? Following Christ as our example, I think it not only must be done, but it can be done. That’s Jesus’ point, isn’t it? He speaks plain, human language and people just don’t get the concepts. There’s something profoundly broken about we human beings when we miss the concepts plainly stated. But what if our translations obscure the meaning by using non-English forms? Should we not make the profound clear?

So, how should we translate this text? Why don’t we replace the original form with a form suitable for the English reader?

I think the chiasmus needs unwrapped in order to bring it over into English. The formal structure of the original needs replaced with an English formal structure which accurately conveys the meaning. The meaning needs gently lifted from the original and masterfully molded into English.

I make no claims of master craftsmanship; but, might I suggest something like:

Even though the one who comes from above is from heaven and is above all, he is also of the earth and so speaks as one from the earth.

What a beautifully simple verse! And such power! The one who is from heaven speaks to me as if he were from earth. He takes what is beyond and packages it for me here. He speaks human.

Shouldn’t a good translation be characterized by the same?

Bible translations unto the pain of their translators

Each day I check on BBB hoping to see a new post by one of the other bloggers. I’ve been busy lately, not the least part of my busyness has been wrestling with a kidney stone for 1 1/2 weeks. I even got to take my first ride in an ambulance to go to an ER to lower my pain. I’ve never had pain that bad before. And if I weren’t taking pain pills, the pain would still be intense. We men are told that if we want to know what the pain of childbirth is like, get a kidney stone. But taking pain pills can decrease one’s ability to think as clearly as one would like!

Well, by now, many of you may be glad that I haven’t posted any other BBB essays recently! This is going to be one of those “throwaway” posts, done when I feel the necessity for a post but my brain isn’t working well enough (it’s hard to multitask with pain or fuzzy brain) to write something more interesting. But at least maybe I can write something which can tweak your interest a bit.

Was there any word in the title of this blog post which stood out to you as not being a word that you commonly use? If so, I suspect it was the word “unto.” We can all spell “unto.” Perhaps we can even recite some memorable phrase from the past which contains the word “unto.” But I suspect that it has been several years since most of us have read or written any sentence with the word “unto” in it.

I suggest that words like “unto” which are not commonly used by people who we hope to use our Bible translation should not be used in our translation. Such words may be accurate, if we determine accuracy by dictionary definitions without regard to usage. They may have been used commonly at some time in the past. But use of even a word as short and simple as “unto” can communicate to users of a translation a message that we may or may not intend to communicate, namely, that the message of the Bible itself is out-dated, irrelevant for issues we face today, that the Bible itself is a piece of classical literature, not intended to be written with words which are used by most elements of a society. Now at this point, let’s not get sidetracked by a common detour that often comes up at this point in many BBB blog posts that have to do with word usage in Bible versions. Please note that I am not suggesting that we avoid all “educated” or more difficult words of a language; I am now only addressing the issue of whether or not a word is used and understood by all levels of a society for whom we intend a translation to be used.

When is the last time that you composed a sentence with the word “unto”?

What are some words besides “unto” which are used in some English Bibles which you believe are not used by enough elements of English-speaking society to justify their use in a Bible version?

The Garden of Oilpress

It’s somewhat surprising how sentences like the one in Matthew 26:36 arrive so quickly at the heart of some hard and yet simply stated translation questions. In Greek the original sentence is, τότε ἔρχεται μετ’ αὐτῶν ὁ Ἰησοῦς εἰς χωρίον λεγόμενον Γεθσημανί. In English it is, “then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsamane.”

Gethsamane means oil-press. Should one translate it? Or transliterate it?

The US, just like everywhere else, has place names which rarely, if ever, bring the “original” meaning to mind. The locals around here rarely, if ever, think of a person named Landis when we refer to Landisburg. The newness of a port does not come to mind when we talk about Newport. Actually, as far as we’re concerned, there’s no port there. The town certainly isn’t new.

And like everywhere else, we also have place names which excite associated meaning in the hearer even though when we use the word we don’t necessarily intend that other meaning.

I live in Pennsylvania. We have some unique names. Many years ago we moved from an apartment into a house, and I needed to notify a magazine of the change of address. So I called their offices located in California. An apparently young woman (her voice sounded young) answered the phone and I told her what I wanted to do. She replied that it would be easy and we proceeded.

“Name?” “Mike Sangrey”
“Can you spell your last name?” “Sure,” and I did.
“Street?” “Well, it’s actually mailed to a box number,” and I gave that to her.
“City?” “It’s a small town.”
I paused.


She giggled.

“Really?” she said. I replied, “Yep, that’s the name.”
“Ok. What’s your new address? I need the street first.” I gave her the street name.
“And having left Intercourse where did you move to?”

I could tell there was a smile behind the question. It was at this point in time I realized this was going to be a bit funny.

“Well, ummmmmm…”
I paused.


Her previous giggle was now laughter.

Now that I’m older and a bit more mature…well, maybe not…I’ve thought about what drives the best way to translate this conversation into non-English. Would it be best to translate the names or to simply transliterate them? I think the answer to that question is obvious. One would have to translate it, or the laughter makes no sense (and yet, even that isn’t perfect). But, the real question is: What is it in this conversational situation which drives the answer to the translate vis-a-vis transliterate question?

The locals don’t think there is anything odd about living in a town called Intercourse. Sometimes there were conversations about how it use to be named Crosskeys. In a previous life, it formed the intersection between two main thoroughfares—two courses—tying the “west” of that time to the east. One course went from Lancaster, to the West, to Philadelphia, in the East, and the other went from a major town in Delaware, to the South-East of Pennsylvania, to North-Western Pennsylvania and a city named Erie. These two “highways” intersected in Intercourse.

Today Intercourse is a popular tourist site (many Amish live in the area). The town sign, maybe 18 inches long and a foot high, sitting on a 8 foot pole at the edge of town is one of the more photographed spots in the area. I suppose you understand why it’s photographed so much, but the sign is hardly photographic. Reminds me of semiotics. Amateur photographers use semiotics; though they wouldn’t know that. Some professionals know. The sign signals meaning—well, multiple meanings as the case might be.

But, where is the meaning? We can see the sign. But, where’s the meaning? It is the answer to this question that ultimately decides whether or not we translate or transliterate.

Words are signs. For the locals, Intercourse signalled the place where they live. For many others it signalled…well, it signalled one of the other meanings. The one you’re thinking about. You are thinking about it aren’t you? You see, the meaning is in the mind. It is not in the text, not really.

Words do that. They signal, they don’t mean.

Though they only signal when used in context. And, they’re always in context. If I use a word seemingly all by itself, it still brings to mind a context within which it is interpreted. However, the vast majority of word usages, especially those used in text, are within a literary context. In other words, they are within a dynamic, author developed context. (Dynamic in the sense that the context develops as the reader reads through the text.)

This author developed context imperfectly causes the author intended, specific meaning to be selected within the reader’s mind. All of the raw meaning the author has to work with is in the mind of the audience member. He or she adds to it, manipulates it, grows it. But, it’s all there in the mind.

There’s other meanings, too, than just the one meaning typically selected by the word-context pair. These other meanings wait in the wings of the focal thought, apparently partly turned on. However, nearly always, meanings which are sometimes associated with the word are not even thought of when the word is used in a specific context. These associated meanings might be more readily accessible at the moment of use; but, generally they are not accessed. Unless forcefully brought to mind through analysis, they stay mute. After the word is used, these other meanings simply and quietly power down over a short span of time—never thought of. The author doesn’t make use of them; neither does the reader.

When I used the signal Intercourse on the phone, I had an entire context within which the word obtained its meaning. There was an entire history surrounding the term. So, for me, this otherwise highly energetic (cognito-linguisticly speaking, of course) signal was simply the name of a place. To the California girl, there was no placeness associated within her mind for this signal to trigger. For her it signalled…well, you know what it signalled. It’s that meaning in your mind that was just signalled (and, interestingly, signalled again even without the use of the word! You really should be more careful. Authors can do this to you and you’re relatively helpless to prevent them).

So, in order to accurately communicate meaning, where is the place within which an author should be interacting? It’s in the audience’s mind, isn’t it? Well, then, let me rephrase that question: in order to accurately communicate meaning, where is the place within which a Bible translator should be interacting?

The reader’s mind provides the canvas and the colors with which the author can paint his or her painting. In the case of the Bible, the Author uses the reader’s canvas and colors to paint a self-portrait. But, I digress to the true purpose of Bible translation.

If the meanings an author has to use are in the mind of the reader, then shouldn’t the author use the naturally occurring lexis and grammar that is within the mind of that reader?

I think so. And I think that makes a much Better Bible. It makes it effective because it communicates to that reader in ways that persuade, that grab, that speak authoritatively. It gets the reader to think the way the reader needs to think. That’s the beauty of good, high quality English in Bible translations.

So, back to the original question. For Matthew 26:36, should we select Gethsamane or Oilpress?

The originally intended meaning has little if anything to do with pressing oil. So, Gethsamane seems quite adequate. However, when you put the word into an expression such as, “to a place called…” the possibilities open up a bit. The fact that the expression has the word “place” gives “oil press” a placeness it would not normally have. Additionally, capitalizing and concatenating the expression “oil press” into one word further turns it into a place name.

So, why not, ”then Jesus went with them to a place called Oilpress”? It seems to me that is quite accurate. And, it communicates well.

But, perhaps the answer to the “why not” is because the modern English audience expects Gethsamane. It’s just as accurate. And the sentence is good English. It’s really just the name of a place, isn’t it?

And, isn’t that what your mind was thinking it meant?