Friday, February 24, 2006

A Sample of More Literal Translations

Here below are some sample more literal translations of key verses in Romans. What makes them more literal is that issues like whether a phrase involves an objective or subjective genitive (such as the phrase 'the faith/faihtfulness of Christ') is left as a decision for the reader and student of the text. It is not decided by the translator in advance. Furthermore, by offering two possibilities of highly debated translation decisions the reader is once more alerted to the fact that they need to check the commentaries as either translation is possible.

Romans 1.16-17: For I am not ashamed of the good news, for it is the power of God for salvation of all those believing-- to Jews first, and to Greeks; for the righteousness of God has been revealed in it from faith/the Faithful One to faith, just as it is written 'But the righteous from faith/faithfulness shall live'

Romans 3.22-26: But the righteousness of God through the faith/faithfulness of Jesus Christ, to all those believing, for there is not a differentiation/ distinction, for all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, being righteous freely of his grace through the liberation which is in Christ Jesus whom God intended/set forth publicly as a means of propitiation through [his] faithfulness, in his blood as a proof/indication of his righteousness through the overlooking of previously commited sins, in the tolerance of God for a proof of his righteousness in the present time, unto his being righteous and making righteous those from the faith/faithfulness of Jesus.

Romans 8.28-29: But we know that for those loving God everything works together for good, to those being called according to choice/purpose because those he knew beforehand he also destined before hand for sharing of the form of the likeness of his Son, unto his being first born of many brothers.

It is my theory that the more convoluted the Greek and the more dense the theological or ethical concepts, and this certainly charactertizes these examples to one degree or another (especially Romans 3.22ff) the more cautious and conservative and literal one needs to be with the text. I have left run on sentences as run on sentences to indicate the flow of continuous thought. I do adjust the word order in places to better suit English word order so as to be at least intelligible.

I would like to hear from any of you who are interested as to whether these verses
actually are intelligible and make sense to you. Would a more literal translation be helpful or more confusing?


Suzanne McCarthy said...


A few thoughts. I am interested in seeing these examples.

Wayne Leman said...

Sorry, Ben, but they don't make much sense to me. Gimme that old time religion, but please give me a Bible that is written in some form of standard English, so I can understand it. I think that Paul expected his letter to the Romans to be understood, although he may have realized it would take some time to wrestle with the concepts. But I don't think he intended the ideas themselves to be difficult to pull out of the wordings. That's my take on it, anyway. And if I'm right, then I don't think we should translate to English that has a different quality from what the Greek had for Paul and his audience.

Suzanne McCarthy said...

Ah well, Ben, there you see a difference between us co-bloggers. I like it, though, I definitely like it.

Wayne Leman said...

Ben, you said:

It is my theory that the more convoluted the Greek ...

My question: How do we know if Greek like that from Paul was convoluted? Can we reasonably say it was from comparing Greek from other authors, who did not write as Paul did, such as John Mark or Luke? And maybe also from study of extrabiblical Hellenistic mss.?

And were Paul's run-on sentences truly run on in terms of Greek composition?

I guess what I'm trying to ask is: Are we applying our own standards of sentence complexity based on our own familiarity with English to Greek, when Greek writers might have had other standards? Could it be that what seems convoluted to us in Greek (and I totally agree with you that it does) was not to Greeks?

James Gregory said...

I think it works, and I find it clearly understandable, although I am a student of Greek (perhaps that helps me understand it?). I like your methodology. Just a few notes:

Romans 1:16-17::I think it is good, but I would put ek pisteô after zêsetai so that it would read, "but the righteous one will live from faith/faithfulness"

Romans 3:22-26::clear as a whistle; no comments

Romans 8:28-29::same

perhaps put the options in parentheses as follows, for example: 'But the righteous from (faith/faithfulness) shall live." Prompt in some sort of preface for the reader to make a decision when he or she comes to the parentheses, or, put your own translation in the text, but as a footnote, make the option readily available, thus making the text easily understood, but for those interested in making up their own minds give them the goodies in the footnotes.

what prompted this form of translating?

James Gregory said...


although Paul may have run-ons, it is still perfectly good greek, but he does have many run-on sentences, in fact at times he loses his train of thought and goes on a tangent but then never returns to his original thought

at times, Paul is very difficult to follow, and it requires diagramming his sentences during such times to better put together his thoughts

contrast his writing to Hebrews, which is very well-organized and well-written, a literary masterpiece. thus, the answer is, "yes," because by comparing the two from relatively the same time period we see that Paul is filled with convoluted structured sentences, and we do not have to compare his Greek texts with our English grammar to determine this

i hope that answers your question

poserorprophet said...

Dr. Witherington,

I wholeheartedly agree with your thoughts on this topic, and I am especially drawn to the way in which you provide a double translation when it comes to the "faith/faithfulness of Christ" debate. I read scholars like Hays and Hooker, Dunn and Fee (who recently presented on this topic at my school), and I wonder if we can really discern which Paul meant. In this particular instance, I wonder if contemporary hermeneutics can only establish a limited number of meanings that we can draw from the relevant texts. Certainly this is less than ideal (it would seem better to know the meaning of the passage) but it may be all that we are left with 2000 years after Paul. I'd be curious to hear your thoughts on this.

However, getting back to your original question, I think that an English translation that follows the guidelines you are establishing here would be immensely helpful.



Christopher said...

I liked the translation. I would suggest bracketing the objective or subjective genitives just to let the reader know where the issue starts and stops, that would just make it a bit more readable.

Ben Witherington said...

Thank you one and all for the comments. Thus far the majority opinion is that this would be readable and helpful.

To Wayne I would simply say that I have studied all kinds of Greek, including Xenephon, Thucydides and a host of others over the many years, and it is an absolute fact that Paul often has incomplete and run on sentences. His style is often convoluted and this has nothing to do with applying sensibilities about English syntax to Greek, A good contrast would be with most of 1 John which is very simple and direct Greek, almost Greek 101, which is why so often in learning NT Greek the handbooks start with some of this material.

You need to understand that the Greek of the NT was meant to be understandable as heard, not as read today as though it were a modern text. We are dealing with transcripts of oral communication for the most part. Furthermore, our facility with NT Greek is probably about one fourth of the facility of most ancients who spoke the language. They didn't need to carry around lexicons like we do. If you want to get a sense of complex Greek from another sources look at Thucydides and he is writing history, not theology!



Ben Witherington said...

Maybe I will just call this the Blogger's Bible, posting bits from time to time and test driving them. Then do revisions upon the basis of the suggestions.

I can envision blurbs for the dustcover like-- "Paul sure is difficult to read, but then when I started saying his words out loud trying out different rhythms and emphases it made much better sense"

Or "It looks like inspiration applies to the contents of the words because the form of the Greek in the NT ranges from eloquent to messy to simple"

Or "My wife is now annoyed because I refuse to read the Bible quietly at home any more but insist on reading it out loud to get the proper effect and understanding of an oral text" :)

Dan McGowan said...


As I read/was reading this entry of, yet, another/a different/a varied version of God's Word/Bible/God's written Word/God's Inspired Word, I found myself wondering/pondering/giving thought to/thinking about how such a version might actually warp/mess up/diminish/wreck/ruin/destroy/dillute/
hinder/bottoms up/muck up my reading and enjoyment of all God has to say/share/teach.

But, of course, I'm juse one man/fellow/guy/human male/homo-sapian/erect mammal.

davebeals said...

So are we saying that God inspired run on sentences or are we saying that he allowed Paul's run on sentences to be used in the mysterious process of inspiration? Seems to me that our understanding of the finer points of the inspiration process re: word choice, syntax, etc. needs to be kept flexible and I think this blog discussion makes that clear. Dave

Ben Witherington said...

I would assume that we cannot go with a literal dictation theory of inspiration, expect perhaps when we are dealing with verbatim transmission of an oracle from God in prophetic voice. I am assuming God allowed Paul the flexibility to express the truth in his own style and vocabulary, while maintaining a providential supervision of the truth content. Does that make sense?

davebeals said...

Yes Ben...It makes a lot of sense. I wish you would write a relevant, scholarly, readable book on what Scripture is. I feel an A+ work on this subject for our day has yet to be written. Think about it. Dave

Ben Witherington said...

Thanks Dave:

I understand this need. I find Achtemeier's treatment o.k., but not fully helpful, and the same applies to the recent book of Wright where he tries to divert the discussion to a discussion of God's authority rather than the Bible's authority. Surely, they are interconnected.


Wayne Leman said...

Thanks, Ben and James, for answering my question about whether Paul's Greek sounded convoluted to Greek speakers. That was the info I needed. I suspected that that was the answer, but wanted to have an answer that was based on empirical evidence, not just our own analytical perspective.

Marc Axelrod said...

Have you see Young's literal translation? It's one of those good Greek, bad English translations, but he gets it right quite often, and his translation of Philippians 4:13 is the best one I have seen in a Bible so far.

Believe it or not, Peterson gets icthuo right in the Message, a Bible I could otherwise do without.

Ron Short said...

Isn't translation about making interpretive judgments? Anyone can simply list the possible meanings of words and phrases: just look at the amplified bible, a bible that does more harm than good in my opinion because it teaches people to look for a "deeper," or "broader" meaning in the text, when in reality, there is one meaning-the meaning intended by the author.
Like it or not, most readers of the
Bible will never learn Greek, and they will never consult technical commentaries. They are expecting us, their teachers, to do the work of translation, which means we must choose one meaning and stick with it. If they want another opinion, they can check another translation.

Ben Dubow said...

I love it. I think it would be a great tool for people. It may not be the transaltion I would use every day, but it is great stuff!

Ben Witherington said...


I do not know the Young translation. Where do I find it?

Brother Short, it is of course true that decisions about meaning of words must be made in translation. There is however another step in interpretation which is far more interpretive and is not necessary.

For example, the Greek word dikaiosune means righteousness. It does not mean 'justification'-- one might say there is no justification for rendering it or its cognates that way.

And I don't think we need to encourage laziness in the readers of the Bible by doing their interpreting for them. We should tease their minds into active thought.

I am not suggesting that there not be more and less interpretive translations. My only question is whether a truly more literal rendering would be a useful tool among many translation choices. I think the answer to that question is yes.



Mark Traphagen said...

I'm curious as to the basis upon which you are able to derive "choice" as one of the alternatives for prothesin in Rom 8:28. I can't find anything that would suggest that in my Greek lexicons.

Overall though, I love your idea. Now that I've studied Greek and Hebrew, I find myself very frustrated with the straight jacket put on the text by most English translations.

jean said...

I have always preferred the more literal translations. Tell me what it says and let me figure out what it means!

Are we too prone to make a distinction between faith and faithfulness? Are we trying to separate what God would keep together?

To James Gregory--the contrast you point out between Paul's letters and Hebrews is one of the strongest arguments that Paul did not write Hebrews. None of Paul's writings begins with those jaw-breaking participles as does Hebrews.

Having compared a lot of English translations of various sorts, as well as reading NT Greek to some extent, I have come to the conclusion that the passages that give translators fits in English do so because they are confusing in Greek. The Bible is a divine/human project, and that is part of the humanity of it.

Jesus Christ is also a divine/human project. Isn't that neat?

Ben Witherington said...

In regard to Rom. 8.28, I went back to John Chrysostom, one for whom the language of the NT was still a living language and one who knew Paul's letters upside down and backwards. He is very emphatic that the word in question can mean either choice or purpose, and he is equally emphatic that we should not read the adjective 'his' into the text, as so many translations do--- reading 'according to his purpose'. The word pro-thesis, from pro-tithemi is an interesting word. The verb clearly means 'to set before one' including 'to set a choice before one'.


Ben W.

Mark Traphagen said...

Thanks, Ben. I will definitely need to look into some Chrysostom. I saw you mention him in an inteview with Christianity Today.

Brian said...

You can download Young's Literal Translation at e-sword (along with e-sword) for free.

I like the way you translated the verses. I think there would be quite a few people who would read such a translation. It wouldn't be something suitable for the masses mind you. However, think of it as a better amplified Bible or a general Bible commentary. A lot of people buy Bibles with some commentary (looking for more meaning on each verse).

The target market would be those that don't really want to learn Greek but wanted a deeper insight into the English meaning of the Greek.

Perhaps you could just do an eletronic version as you stated in one of your comments.

Just my .02


Brian said...


Young's literal translation is not easy to read but it is very literal.

I like to reference it sometimes for English translation.

I am pasting the verses you translated below for comparison.

Romans 1:16-17 YLT
(16) for I am not ashamed of the good news of the Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation to every one who is believing, both to Jew first, and to Greek.
(17) For the righteousness of God in it is revealed from faith to faith, according as it hath been written, `And the righteous one by faith shall live,'

Romans 3:22-26 YLT
(22) and the righteousness of God is through the faith of Jesus Christ to all, and upon all those believing, --for there is no difference,
(23) for all did sin, and are come short of the glory of God--
(24) being declared righteous freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus,
(25) whom God did set forth a mercy seat, through the faith in his blood, for the shewing forth of His righteousness, because of the passing over of the bygone sins in the forbearance of God--
(26) for the shewing forth of His righteousness in the present time, for His being righteous, and declaring him righteous who is of the faith of Jesus.

Romans 8:28-29 YLT
(28) And we have known that to those loving God all things do work together for good, to those who are called according to purpose;
(29) because whom He did foreknow, He also did fore-appoint, conformed to the image of His Son, that he might be first-born among many brethren;

BP said...

There is no such thing as a "literal translation". Language separated by 2000 years and culture makes it impossible to have a "literall translation" For instance, there is no textual evidence for the word "her", so how do we come to the conclusion of actually using the word "her" in many of the translations that we have?

Brian said...


You are taking things to the point of ridiculousness (overanalyzing).

When people do this it is counterproductive IMO.

We all know there can be a "literal" translation (as literal as it can be).

I mean if you take things to the extreme (and become nonsensical) you might as well not believe the Bible has meaning at all...or meaning that anyone could ever understand that is.

This is definitely not the case. In the same light, having a literal translation for all practical purposes and application is plenty feasible. We do the best we can with what we have.

Another thing that happens quite a bit is that we try to read too much into the Scripture and make passages deeper than they really are. I think much of the Scripture is as simple as it first appears (and it is meant to be that way).


BP said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Josh said...


If a a person who was previously a Mormon joins a UM Church and they believe they trusted Christ in thier Mormon baptism, should they still be rebaptized?