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

DanO 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.

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?

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 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.



opinionated 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.