Out of the mouth of babes

A friend asked me about these two verses, and I don’t believe that we’ve looked at them before:

Out of the mouth of babies and infants, you have established strength because of your foes (Psalm 8:2a, ESV)

And Jesus said to them, “Yes; have you never read, “‘Out of the mouth of infants and nursing babies you have prepared praise’?” (Matthew 21:16b, ESV)

Now as your Bible’s footnotes probably tell you, this is another example where the New Testament has followed the Greek Septuagint rather than the Hebrew text.

Why though did the authors of the Septuagint translate this verse as they did? I don’t know, but maybe you do, and can help explain these strange verses.

It is also worth noting that our many English translations vary quite widely on these verses. Which do you think conveys the meaning best?

Faith does not come by hearing (Rom. 10:17)

A number of English Bible versions translate Rom. 10:17 inappropriately, as, for instance:

  • So then faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God. (KJV)
  • So then faith does come from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ. (NASB)
  • So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ. (ESV)
  • So then faith does come from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ. (REB)

There are several problems with these translation wordings. Taken literally, they claim that when someone hears they come to have faith. Presumably, those who are deaf do not come to have faith. But we know many deaf people do have faith, so something must be wrong with the translation. And here is what it is: in the context of Rom. 10:17, the first Greek noun (akoke) behind the English gerund “hearing” was semantically, but not syntactically, transitive. That is, there was an object of hearing. That is what is meant by a semantic object. But that object could be ellipsized (not physically present) in this context in Greek. The object is implicitly understood. That object is “the word of Christ” (or, “word of God” in some Greek manuscripts). English syntax, however, unlike Greek, does not allow the “hear” to be left implicit in this context. English requires that the object of hearing be stated if there is one. (For those who might wonder if a noun can be transitive or intransitive, the answer is yes; nouns referring to actions can be semantically transitive or intransitive. I realize that this is not the way English is normally taught in school, but it is a sound principle of modern linguistics which can inform how English is taught in school.)

The moral of the story, here, then, is that we must pay just as much attention to the language we are translating into as we do the language we are translating from. If we do not, we create translation problems, including, sometimes, as in Rom. 10:17, inaccuracy. In the original Greek, there was a semantic object of hearing, the word of Christ. Greek speakers could understand that that object was there because it is clearly stated in the context, although it does not explicitly appear as the syntactic object of the verb. But English, which requires that semantic object to be explicitly present, gives us a wrong meaning if that object is omitted, namely, that faith can come about from hearing.

There are English versions which accurately translate the meaning of the Greek while following the rules of English for the syntactic frame of “hear,” for instance:

  • So faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes by the preaching of Christ. (RSV)
  • So faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the word of Christ. (NRSV)
  • Consequently, faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ. (NIV)
  • Consequently, faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word about Christ. (TNIV)
  • So faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the message about Christ. (HCSB)
  • Consequently faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the preached word of Christ. (NET)
  • So then, faith comes from hearing the message, and the message comes through preaching Christ. (TEV)
  • So faith comes from hearing the Good News, and people hear the Good News when someone tells them about Christ. (NCV)
  • So faith comes from hearing the message, and the message that is heard is what Christ spoke. (GW)

I suspect that the Greek of this verse was a particular rhetorical form (something like a chiasm) which Greek scholars have probably given a technical label, but I don’t know what that label is. The form is something like: If A then B, and if B then C. With this form, I suggest, there are not two different (independent) statements being made in Greek, but, rather one single message using the particular rhetorical form.

The NLT translates the meaning of the Greek by having the second clause clarify the first one:

So faith comes from hearing, that is, hearing the Good News about Christ.

The CEV makes the Greek meaning clear in English while reducing the two clauses to the most natural English, a single compressed sentence with one independent clause followed by a dependent clause:

No one can have faith without hearing the message about Christ.

There are also translation problems with the second clause of this verse, as in “hearing by the Word of God.” But those can wait to be discussed in another post.