Philippians 4 (BET)

“Ben’s English Translation” is my personal attempt to translate portions of the New Testament into natural English. You can read a little more about my translation philosophy here. Here is my take on Philippians 4.

So stand firm in the Lord, my dear brothers and sisters. You are my joy and my crown. I love you and miss you. 

Euodia and Syntyche, I plead with you, submit to the Lord and work out your disagreement. And you, my trusted partner, help these women. They fought by my side for the gospel, along with Clement and my other colleagues, whose names are all written in the Book of Life. 

Always rejoice in the Lord. I say it again: rejoice! Let everyone see your gentleness. The Lord is coming soon! Don’t worry about anything. Instead, pray about everything. Ask him for what you need with thankful hearts, and God will give you a peace that transcends your understanding, a peace that will protect your hearts and minds because you belong to Christ Jesus. 

One last thing, brothers and sisters. Keep your minds fixed on anything that is upright or worthy of praise – things that are true, respectable, right, pure, delightful, or admirable. Do everything you learned and received from me through my teaching and example, and the God of peace will be with you. 

The Lord has brought me great joy that your care for me has blossomed once again. Not to say that you ever stopped caring. You just lacked the opportunity to show it. Nor am I saying that I am in need. I have learned to be content in any circumstance. I have lived in need and in abundance. I have learned the secret of living in any situation, whether my belly is full or empty, whether I have more than I need or not enough. I can face anything with Christ. He is the one who gives me the strength. 

Even so, you did a good thing to share with me in my troubles. In fact, you Philippians are well aware that when I left Macedonia after I first brought the gospel to you, no other church partnered with me through their giving. You were the only ones. Even when I had only gone so far as Thessalonica, you sent help more than once. I am not suggesting that I want even more from you. No, I want the blessing to fall back on you. I have received everything I need, and more! I am fully supplied by the gifts you sent with Epaphroditus. They are a fragrant offering, a sacrifice that God happily accepts. And God will meet all of your needs too, with the glorious riches he gives us in Christ Jesus. 

May our God and Father be glorified forever and ever! Amen. 

Greet all of God’s holy people in Christ Jesus. And those who are with me are greeting you. All of God’s holy people send you greetings, especially those in Caesar’s household. 

May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with you. Amen. 

Applying Translational and Scriptural Clarity

In my last post, I explored the difference between two notions of clarity: what I called “translational clarity” and “Scriptural clarity.” The former is an evaluative concept stemming from dynamic equivalence, and suggests that the reader of a translation can experience the text the way the original author intended. The latter is a theological concept describing the nature of Scripture, suggesting that God speaks clearly through his word, even if we have to work hard and depend on the Holy Spirit to achieve understanding. I suggested that in the realm of Bible translation, these two concepts are in tension with one another. Translational clarity pushes the translator to make the text as clear as possible to ensure immediate understanding, while Scriptural clarity eases that pressure, allowing room for the Holy Spirit to work, and for the reader to wrestle with the text. In this post, I want to explore an example from some recent consultant checking I did with some Nigerian translators, and how keeping these two concepts distinct helped us in our decision making. 

An example from Titus

As I worked with these Nigerian translators, we reached Titus 1:15. The translators walked me through the meaning of their translation, which corresponded closely to the ESV: 

ESV: “To the pure, all things are pure, but to the defiled and unbelieving, nothing is pure.” 
Nigerian language: “All things are pure to those who have a pure heart, but, nothing is pure to the unbeliever whose heart is dirty.” 

All the components of the verse were there. The words they chose to represent the concepts of purity and defilement were adequate in my assessment. And yet, I wondered how this statement would really be understood. I asked the translators, “How do you understand this verse?” 

They replied, “It means that if a person’s heart is pure, then all things are pure to them, but if a person’s heart is dirty, then nothing is pure to them.” 

“Yes,” I replied, “That’s what the verse says, but what does it mean?” 

The translators struggled to give me an answer. We were all clear on the semantic meaning, but the pragmatic meaning seemed to be largely hidden. There are some important details that the text itself doesn’t supply in words, but in context. 

First, Paul is talking about two different kinds of purity. When he says “to the pure,” he is referring to people who are morally pure, but when he says “all things are pure,” he is referring to ritual or ceremonial purity. The translation made an attempt to convey the idea of moral purity by saying “pure heart,” but even that did not seem to be enough to sufficiently drive this point home. 

Second, the nature of Paul’s opponents is crucial here. We don’t know much about Paul’s opponents in this book, but they are probably combining Jewish food laws with ascetic practices based on a proto-gnostic rejection of material things. [1] Paul’s opponents assumed that ritual purity achieved through adherence to food laws and asceticism could produce moral purity, when really it was the other way around. [2] The gospel teaches that purity works from the inside out as Christ purifies our hearts (Matt. 15:11, Mk 7:14-20, Lk. 11:41). In essence, this verse is saying that these outward practices are not really what makes us pure. As the very next verse tells us, reliance on these practices only serves to deny God, as it subverts the gospel of Christ.

Paul’s opponents assumed that ritual purity achieved through adherence to food laws and asceticism could produce moral purity, when really it was the other way around. The gospel teaches that purity works from the inside out as Christ purifies our hearts.

What makes this verse especially hard to understand is that none of the necessary background information is provided in the immediate context. This is the first verse in Paul’s letter to Titus that mentions anything like purity or ritual purity. 

Is the translation clear?

So, is this verse as rendered by these Nigerian translators “clear?” The answer is yes and no. 

According to the dynamic equivalence notion of clarity, a translation is clear if the reader understands the text the way that the author intended. Is full understanding possible in this Nigerian language the way it has been translated? Apparently not, given the translators’ own uncertainty about the meaning of the verse. Even when it was explicated that one purity is that of the heart, they still struggled to explain it. It seems that they simply don’t share enough of Paul’s cognitive environment and the context in which he spoke to make all the right inferences. Equivalence has only been partially accomplished. And yet, this Nigerian translation is not alone. I have yet to see any other Bible version that communicates more fully.

Is this then a deficient translation? Not necessarily. I suspect that with reflection and prayer, the Holy Spirit can help readers of this translation gain a better understanding of this verse. As they sit under teachers and preachers in the church, they will learn some of the necessary background, see how it fits within the fuller biblical context, and come to see the underlying principles in play. While the verse may not easily be understood on the first reading, it at least exhibits clarity in the theological sense.  If there is one improvement they could make, it would be to render “all things/nothing” with a little more specificity. But beyond that, there is not much that can be done without resorting to very loose paraphrase. These translators are aiming for a meaning-based, clear translation, but they are also looking to the NIV as the type of translation they want in their language. With all of these factors in mind, we felt that this verse was clear enough. And sometimes, “clear enough” is okay.

[1] Köstenberger, Andreas. 2006. “Titus.” The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Ephesians–Philemon (Revised Edition). Ed. Tremper Longman III and David E. Garland. Vol. 12. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
[2] Arichea, Daniel C., and Howard Hatton. 1995. A Handbook on Paul’s Letters to Timothy and to Titus. UBS Handbook Series. New York: United Bible Societies.

Translational Clarity v Scriptural Clarity (Perspicuity)

Our doctrine of Scripture has a tremendous impact not only on how we read and interpret the Bible, but also on how we translate it. We don’t – and shouldn’t –  translate the Bible like any other book. Because the Bible is God’s inspired, authoritative word to us, translation is a very serious endeavor. It can and often does leave translators shaking in their boots, because the stakes are high. God’s inerrant truth is on the line, and we do not want to be responsible for adding to or subtracting from it.

One of the things we believe about Scripture is that is it clear. And as many translators seek to adhere to the highest standard, clarity has become one of the key evalutaive concepts that we use to determine the benchmark for a good translation. But I have observed that clarity as a theological concept is not at all the same as the clarity we talk about in the domain of translation. In Bible translation, it is easy to blend these two conceptions of clarity together as we are dealing with both translation and Scripture at the same time. But I will suggest here that it is quite helpful to keep them separate, to approach them as related, but distinct concepts. Remembering the clarity of Scripture as a theological concept may in fact serve to ease some of the burden that translators feel to communicate the full message of Scripture. 

We will first need to explore and compare these two types of clarity. I will refer to them as translational clarity and Scriptural clarity.

Translational versus scriptural clarity

Translational clarity is a concept linked to the theory of dynamic equivalence developed by Nida and Taber in the 1960s. The communication model underlying this theory assumes that meaning that can be objectified and encoded in linguistic forms which can be reliably transmitted to a recipient (the conduit metaphor). According to this theory, translation is a matter of capturing the author’s meaning using equivalent linguistic forms in another language, so that the meaning can be understood by a new recipient. A translation is successful if the response of the recipient is equivalent to that of the original audience. [1] Clarity means that this transmission has taken place without hindrance or confusion. The message can readily be understood, and the reader has no doubt about the author’s intended meaning. (In the years since dynamic equivalence was first introduced, the conduit model of communication has been supplanted with newer, more sophisticated theories, but the notion of clarity has retained its popularity and is still emphasized today.)

On the other hand, Scriptural clarity (also called perspicuity), is born out of theological disputes on the nature of Scripture. The Reformation’s emphasis on clarity was a response to the Roman Catholic church, which insisted that Scripture was not clear, and therefore people must rely on the church as an infallible interpreter. [2] The reformers emphasized that the Scriptures are clear because God is clear. He speaks to be heard and desires for people to know him. [3] He has chosen to reveal himself to people through his Word by his Spirit without the need for an intermediary interpreter. (And remember, the reformers were also very engaged in Bible translation, and would have described the translated Scriptures as clear in this sense!) An important clarification is necessary though: this concept applies to Scripture as a whole, and does not mean that every statement or verse in Scripture is immediately clear in itself. The apostle Peter himself said of Scripture, “There are some things in them that are hard to understand” (2 Pet. 3:16). This does not mean that they cannot be understood, but that they may not be immediately clear. Clarity often comes through hard labor. [4] Our understanding is also very dependent on the Holy Spirit’s work in illuminating our minds and helping us to overcome our sinful biases and prejudices. [5]

Both of these types of clarity revolve around a text’s ability to be understood, and yet even these brief and incomplete treatments of these concepts reveal some crucial distinctions between them. First, translational clarity is a concept that characterizes translated texts, while Scriptural clarity characterizes the inspired Word of God. The blending of these concepts is only natural as most of us engage primarily with Scriptures that have been translated. The text(s) that most of us approach as Scripture are translations, and so we could describe the same text as clear in two different senses of the word. Therefore, we need to take care to specify which type of clarity we are referring to when we use it in the context of Bible translation. 

The text(s) that most of us approach as Scripture are translations, and so we could describe the same text as clear in two different senses of the word.

A second distinction is that translational clarity applies narrowly to individual statements (as read in context), whereas Scriptural clarity applies to Scripture as a whole. This means that if a particular statement in a Bible translation is translationally unclear for whatever reason (grammatical ambiguity, complex theology, unstated background information, etc.) we do not necessarily need to be concerned that the translation does not measure up to the standard of a clear (perspicuous) Scripture. 

A third important distinction between these concepts revolves around the effort a reader must make to understand the text. According to translational clarity, the reader can understand the meaning with little effort. This would agree with the principle of relevance offered by relevance theory, a communication model that has supplanted the conduit model. In layman’s terms, the principle of relevance suggests that when a person speaks, they intend for the recipient to understand the message with minimal mental processing. The recipient, therefore, in assessing the various interpretive options, will conclude that the correct interpretation is that which involves the least effort. If a text is translationally clear, the audience will arrive at the correct interpretation with little effort. 

On the other hand, Scriptural clarity does not necessarily involve minimal effort. Granted, it is true that many, even the most important, parts of Scripture can be readily understood. As the Westminster Confession states, “those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation are so clearly propounded, and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them.” [6] However, this does not mean that everything in Scripture is plain. Often, the reader will have to work very hard to gain clarity, reading a passage in light of the rest of the Bible so as to let Scripture interpret Scripture. They will have to rely on the Holy Spirit to overcome sinful thinking. They will seek to learn from those who have come before them and from the church community they are a part of, with its teachers and preachers.     

Clarities in tension

While translational and Scriptural clarity agree on some points, they appear to be in tension with one another. This is reflected in some treatments of clarity in translation resources. Take for example Katy Barnwell’s discussion of clarity in her handbook for mother-tongue translators. [7] She begins with some evaluative questions that can be used to assess the clarity of a translation:

“Does the translation communicate the meaning? Do people understand what the translation means? Is what they understand in fact the original meaning that the author intended?”

Barnwell is talking about translational clarity, which is concerned with readers readily understanding the meaning the author intended. But then she continues with a caveat:

“It should, however, be recognized that there are some parts of the Bible that are hard to understand because of the content of the message. Spiritual insight, given by the Holy Spirit, is needed. There are also some parts where further teaching and background knowledge is needed before the message can be fully understood.”

Now she is talking about Scriptural clarity. She is not explicitly distinguishing between these two types of clarity, but she recognizes the tension between both realities. She then concludes with this statement:

“For the translator, the important thing is that there is nothing in the wording of the translation that makes the message difficult to understand. The kind of language used should be that which makes the message as clear as possible.”

This conclusion is fine, but it raises some questions. For example, in trying to be as clear as possible, it is possible for us to err in making the text too clear, explicating meaning that even the original readers would have struggled to understand? And if so, by what criteria do we determine whether we have taken translational clarity too far?

Easing the burden

Translational clarity alone could drive us to an extreme, making translators feel the need to convey every nuance of meaning, every relevant detail of the historical or situational backdrop, every sliver of implied information. In my work I have seen translators so bent on achieving translational clarity that the result ends up resembling commentary, using at least twice as many words to transmit every ounce of meaning in its attempt to explicate everything. Scriptural clarity helps us to apply the brakes lest we take translational clarity too far. Readers don’t have to understand everything about the text all at once. They can grow into their knowledge of Scripture, and Scripture is only one part of that process.

Scripture becomes most clear to us when we use it in the context of community.

Only one part of that process? Some may ask, what about sola Scriptura? If God intends to be clear, shouldn’t Scripture (his Word) alone be enough for us to understand him? The answer is both yes and no. The notion of sola Scriptura has often been misrepresented by the idea that there is no authority but Scripture. While it is true that the reformers resisted the authority of the Roman Church, they did not hold to nuda Scriptura, a rejection of all authority outside of the Bible. Sola Scriptura means that the Bible is our final authority. We may submit to others (churches and their leaders, creeds and confessions), but only insofar as they agree with Scripture. [8] What does this have to do with the clarity of Scripture? Scripture becomes most clear to us when we use it in the context of community. Matthew Barrett makes this point well:  

“God never meant for us to read and interpret Scripture on our own. This is a caricature of sola Scriptura and looks more like the nuda Scriptura of the radical reformers…while the voices of tradition do not play a magisterial role, they do have a ministerial role. We are to read Scripture in the community of the church, always standing on top of the shoulders of others as opposed to reinventing the wheel each time we approach a passage. Where we are blind, others can see, and it is often necessary to borrow their hermeneutical light.” [9]

This should cause translators to breathe a big sigh of relief. How reassuring it is to know that the weight of full understanding doesn’t fall on us! Our work can be, translationally speaking, “clear enough.” We should certainly strive to do our best and remove unnecessary roadblocks, but God brings us to the fullest understanding of his Word through the working of his Holy Spirit in the context of the church. 

To be continued…

For the entirety of this post, my head has been in the theoretical clouds. In my next post, I plan to provide a concrete example from Scripture to demonstrate how keeping these two types of clarity in mind can help translators as they wade through difficult texts.

[1] Wilt, Timothy. 2002. Bible Translation: Frames of Reference. St. Jerome Publishing. pp.7-8.
[2] Barrett, Matthew. 2016. God’s Word Alone—The Authority of Scripture (The Five Solas Series). Grand Rapids: Zondervan Academic. p. 306.
[3] Ibid., 303, 306.
[4] Ibid., 314.
[5] Ibid., 316-320.
[6] The Westminster Confession of Faith, 1.7.
[7] Barnwell, Katharine. 1986. Bible Translation: An Introductory Course For Mother-Tongue Translators. Dallas: SIL International. Chapter 5.
[8] Barrett, God’s Word Alone, 22.
[9] Ibid., 324.

“Overcoming” a Translation Problem in Revelation

“Overcomer” has lately become something of a Christian buzzword, no doubt in large part to its place as the title of a popular CCM song, and now a Christian film. I am not aware of any Bible translations that use this exact word, but the concept is not foreign to the Bible. Most notably, the letters to the seven churches in Revelation 2-3 make repeated reference to “him who overcomes” (Rev. 2:7, 11, 17, 26; 3:5, 12, 21; and later in 21:7).

The English language seems perfectly happy using the word “overcomer” or “overcome” without specifying the thing being overcome. The word itself implies some kind of struggle or adversity, and the precise nature of the struggle is often either supplied by context or is unimportant. Other languages do not always work this way. As I worked through Revelation with some Nigerian translators, it became evident that their equivalent word for “overcome” could not naturally stand on its own. It required an object, an explicit reference to the thing being conquered. This seemingly minor detail proved to be a real problem, one that we did not easily (ahem) overcome.

A brief word study

The Greek word underlying “overcome” is νικάω (nikao). It essentially carries the idea of victory, whether in military conquest, battle against a foe, athletic contests, or even legal scenarios. [1] As it can be used in so many different semantic domains, there is a wide variety of personalities or entities that may be overcome. In the New Testament alone we see people overcoming an armed intruder (Lk. 11:22), the entire world (Jn. 16:33), evil (Rom. 12:21), and the Evil One (1 Jn. 2:13-14), also known as the dragon (Rev. 12:10). It is not only evil that can be overcome. In Revelation, the saints and the two witnesses are both overcome by the beast (Rev. 11:7, 13:7), but in the end the forces of righteousness prevail, and the beast himself is overcome.

What does it mean in Rev. 2-3?

With this in mind, what is the contextual meaning of νικάω in the seven letters of Revelation? Without a specified object, is it possible to discern what people are overcoming? Commentators have posited a number of ideas: the forces of evil, unbelief and sin, and the specific sin of failing to testify about Christ (as lampstands, the churches are to be a light). [2] All of these options are reasonable attempts to explicate the verb’s object, and all fit the context to some degree.

Overcoming the problem

As I looked into this with the translators, we concluded that the author’s vague language encapsulates all of these more specific ideas. If he had been thinking more specifically, he would have written more specifically, supplying an object for the verb. Therefore, we wanted the translation to communicate as generally as the author did. The problem was that because their word for “overcome” required an object, any object we chose would improperly narrow the meaning. 

After much discussion, we decided that the only way to communicate the more general meaning was to abandon the word “overcome” altogether and express the same idea in a different way. We agreed with Mounce, who says, “The overcomers in Revelation are not those who have conquered an earthly foe by force, but those who have remained faithful to Christ to the very end. The victory they achieve is analogous to the victory of Christ on the cross.” [3] Expressing this idea in terms of faithfulness to Christ leaves room for the whole range of interpretations suggested by commentators. 

“The overcomers in Revelation are not those who have conquered an earthly foe by force, but those who have remained faithful to Christ to the very end.”

Robert H. Mounce

Fighting a losing battle?

Our solution in this particular language ended up as “He who endures with me.”  While this was acceptable in our thinking, it also left us with a measure of dissatisfaction. We captured the general idea, but in the process we lost the metaphorical imagery of victory over a foe. In this language, retaining the metaphor would have limited the fullest meaning of the text, but retaining the fullest meaning meant losing the metaphor. Either way, we felt like we were losing something. This is not uncommon in translation. There are times when we feel we are fighting a losing battle. We simply cannot capture everything we see in the source text, because the receptor language does not allow it. We can only choose between a number of imperfect options. 

Nevertheless, translation can be successful even with these inherent limitations. Footnotes or other supplementary helps can fill the gaps. Many of us, even those who speak the minority languages I work with in Nigeria, have access to other translations in a majority language that can be used for comparison. We have churches, preachers, and teachers who are faithful in explaining the meaning of the text. We can overcome these kinds of difficult translation problems when we recognize the limits of translation, leverage other resources to help fill the gaps, and understand that the Bible was meant to be read in community where we can help one another to go deeper in our understanding of God’s Word. 

[1] Bauer, Walter, Frederick W. Danker, William F. Arndt, and F. Wilbur Gingrich. 2000. A Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament and other early Christian literature. Third edition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 
[2] Trail, Ronald. 2008. An Exegetical Summary of Revelation 1–11. 2nd ed. Dallas, TX: SIL International.
[3] Mounce, Robert H. 1997. The Book of Revelation. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. The New International Commentary on the New Testament.

Philippians 3 (BET)

“Ben’s English Translation” is my personal attempt to translate portions of the New Testament into natural English. You can read a little more about my translation philosophy here. Here is my take on Philippians 3.

So brothers and sisters, have joy in the Lord. I don’t hesitate to repeat these things to you; it is in your best interest. Keep an eye out for those dogs who do evil, who insist on circumcision. They are only mutilating themselves. We are the true circumcised people of God, because we worship him through his Spirit. We take pride in Christ Jesus instead of relying on our own human efforts, although there is plenty that I could personally boast about – more than anyone else, in fact. I was circumcised on the eighth day after I was born. I am an Israelite, born into the tribe of Benjamin. I am a bona fide Hebrew! I strictly kept the law as a Pharisee. I was so passionate that I persecuted the church. I perfectly followed the law to achieve my own righteousness. 

I once thought these things would pay off. But now I consider it all as loss in light of Christ. It is loss, plain and simple, compared to the incredible worth of knowing Christ. I have lost everything for him, but it was all garbage anyway. Instead I get Christ. I get to be united with him. My righteousness doesn’t come from faithfully following the law. It comes through Christ’s faithfulness to me. It is a righteousness that comes from God when we trust in him. I get to know Christ and experience the power that raised him from the dead. I also get to join him in his suffering, emulating him in his death, so that one way or another, I too can be raised from the dead. 

Don’t get me wrong. I haven’t already achieved all this. I am not perfect yet. But I strive to take hold of it, because Christ has taken hold of me. No, brothers and sisters, I haven’t arrived, as I see it. But here is what I do: I press on without looking back. I run straight for the finish line so I can win the prize. God has called us heavenward in Christ Jesus for this very purpose. Those of us who are mature should have this mindset. And if your thinking is different, God will make it clear to you. But we must live up to the standard we have already reached. 

Brothers and sisters, follow my example together, and pay close attention to those who live the way that we modeled for you. I have told you this many times, and I say it again with tears in my eyes, that there are many who oppose the cross of Christ by the way that they live. Their prize is destruction. They worship their own appetites, and they are proud of things that should shame them. Their mindset is worldly. But we are citizens of heaven, where we have a Savior, our Lord Jesus Christ. And we can’t wait for him to return. He has the power to bring everything under his control, and he will transform our humble bodies to be like his glorious body. 

Polygamy and the Pastoral Epistles

Polygamy is a touchy subject in Nigeria. Imported Christian teachings have clashed with traditional values, causing not only fierce debate, but hardship as churches wrestle with the application of monogamy as God’s design in a context where polygamy is already practiced. In many Nigerian churches, people cannot be baptized, become members, or hold leadership positions if they are polygamous. Some churches are telling people that they cannot even be saved without first sending away all but their first wives.

I spoke with a man last month who recounted the tremendous damage he has seen done to women, families, and households in the name of monogamy. These “extra” wives are treated as dispensable. When they are sent away, they are essentially abandoned, no different from a widow with no one to care for them. This man, deeply saddened by this injustice, is searching the Scriptures to understand God’s true design for marriage.

People like this man are asking these questions as they read Scripture, and so this issue is very relevant as translators seek to faithfully communicate God’s word in contexts where polygamy is practiced. In this post I want to look at a few verses in the pastoral epistles that are often understood to mean that husbands should only have one wife. Do these verses explicitly condemn polygamy? How do we best translate them in a context where people are looking for answers to the question of polygamy?

Looking at the text

We are looking at four verses in 1 Timothy and Titus. I am including several English versions here as each conveys a distinct meaning:

1 Tim. 3:2
Greek: μιᾶς γυναικὸς ἄνδρα (man of one woman)
NIV 1984: the husband of but one wife
NIV 2011: faithful to his wife
CEV: faithful in marriage

1 Tim. 3:12
Greek: μιᾶς γυναικὸς ἄνδρες (men of one woman)
NIV 1984: the husband of but one wife
NIV 2011: faithful to his wife
CEV: faithful in marriage

Tit. 1:6
Greek: μιᾶς γυναικὸς ἀνήρ (man of one woman)
NIV 1984: the husband of but one wife
NIV 2011: faithful to his wife
CEV: faithful in marriage

1 Tim. 5:9
Greek: ἑνὸς ἀνδρὸς γυνή (woman of one man)
NIV 1984: faithful to her husband
NIV 2011: faithful to her husband
CEV: faithful in marriage

The first three verses occur in the context of qualifications for elders and deacons in the church, and they are nearly identical. In 1 Tim. 3:12 “men” is plural, and the case of ‘man/men’ varies according to where this phrase fits into the sentence grammatically. But the basic pattern is the same: literally, “man/men of one woman.” The fourth instance, written with reference to widows, presents the same idea but with the genders swapped: ‘woman of one man.’ 

A look at the renderings of various English translations demonstrates a range of meaning and focus. The phrasing employed by the NIV (1984) suggests a limit to the number of wives a man can have. Its use of the word “but” appears to emphasize the number “one,” as if to say that husbands should have one wife, and no more. Interestingly, when looking at the reverse statement in 1 Tim. 5:9, it does not say “wife of but one husband,” but “faithful to her husband.” I find this peculiar. Why emphasize the number “one” in the first three verses, and remove the number entirely when the subject turns to widows? I will come back to this question. 

NIV (2011) changes its tune, bringing all four verses in alignment with the same rendering: “faithful to his wife/her husband.” Here, marital fidelity is in focus, yet the singular ‘his wife/her husband’ still assumes one spouse. CEV removes any explicit or implicit number of spouses altogether and the focus is entirely on marital fidelity. 

In summary, we see two emphases in play here: faithfulness in marriage, and the number of spouses a man should have. Translations tend to emphasize one or the other, and NIV (1984) is inconsistent. The question, then, if we want to evaluate these translations, is this: what was Paul’s focus? To what extent is Paul speaking to the number of spouses a person should have?  

Are these verses about polygamy?

In saying “one woman,” we can conclude that Paul was certainly excluding polygamy, but I would argue that this was not his primary focus. Polygamy was practiced among some 1st century Jews [1], but there is no evidence that Paul saw it as a problem in the church. He is merely assuming monogamy as the definition of marriage.

Polygamy was practiced among some 1st century Jews, but there is no evidence that Paul saw it as a problem in the church. He is merely assuming monogamy as the definition of marriage.

The statement about women in 1 Tim. 5:9 provides some additional evidence that Paul was not primarily talking about polygamy. If “man of one woman” is a response to polygamy (of which there is at least some evidence), then it would be logical to take the reverse “woman of one man” as a response to polyandry. Yet polyandry is completely unattested during this time [2]. Perhaps this is why the NIV (1984) did not render the phrase about widows as “woman of but one husband,” but as “faithful to her husband.” It is more probable that Paul did not use this phrase with two meanings in mind, and the newer NIV seems to agree.

If Paul had only one meaning in mind, and the phrase applies equally to men and women, then its force must be more general in nature. I believe that marital faithfulness is the primary force of this phrase. For the churches in this time, adultery was a far greater problem than polygamy, and an adulterous relationship would be a clear violation of the “one woman” rule. Paul is advocating marital fidelity in a culture where adultery is rampant, while assuming a definition of marriage as monogamous. 

Translating in a polygamous context

We cannot assume that a rendering that works for an American context will also work for a Nigerian context. We must consider our audience. I established above that a literal rendering “husband of one wife” may convey a clear limit to the number of wives a person may have, but to an American, that may not mean polygamy. Since polygamy is not common in the experience of most Americans, many might take it to mean “only married once,” thereby excluding men from eldership if they have been divorced and remarried. This is in fact an interpretation that has been commonly argued [3]. We interpret through the lens of our own experience. 

But in Nigerian contexts, a literal rendering like “husband of but one wife” would certainly be understood as a direct and obvious prohibition against polygamy. While this may be a convenient option if we see polygamy as unbiblical, it does not accurately capture Paul’s focus. Therefore, a nonliteral rendering may be necessary. The CEV’s “faithful in marriage” gets the main idea, but in the process the assumption of monogamy is entirely removed. NIV (2011) strikes a good balance with “faithful to his wife/her husband.” It maintains Paul’s focus on faithfulness, while also keeping monogamy in the backdrop by use of the singular phrase “his wife/her husband.”

Cultural accommodation?

As I have dialogued with others on this issue, some have expressed concern that keeping polygamy out of the spotlight in this verse is a case of cultural accommodation. That is, polygamous cultures would be offended by a prohibition against polygamy, and so a rendering focusing more on faithfulness is only serving to accomodate the preferences of the receptor culture. 

But this is a misunderstanding of the motivation behind such a decision. I suppose a rendering like “faithful in marriage” could be used to hide Paul’s assumption of monogamy in an attempt to make the text more acceptable to a polygamous audience. And that is why I would not recommend that particular rendering. But our real motivation is to be true to Paul’s meaning. Even if we agree that polygamy is unbiblical, we should not make it the primary issue of these verses simply because it is an issue for the audience. If we do, we are performing a sort of reverse cultural accommodation – distorting the text not to remove offense, but to cause offense and conviction where we think it should.

Why is this important?

While African evangelical churches generally uphold monogamy as an ideal, there is great disagreement regarding its application for polygamists who convert [4]. There is no easy answer, and this has caused some to question monogamy as God’s design altogether. Even in the West I expect this issue to become more prominent as ripples from the sexual revolution continue to spread, calling into question the very definitions of categories and institutions like gender and marriage that have long been considered fundamental and basic to human society.

As we respond to these challenges, we need to be able to stand firm on the truth of Scripture.  It would be convenient to have a single verse or passage to settle this issue once and for all. But if I am being honest, these verses do not fit the bill, as polygamy is merely assumed as part of Paul’s cultural backdrop. This does not mean, however, that Scripture is unclear on the matter. There are plenty of other arguments for monogamy, although I admit that making my case with the man in my office was more difficult than I expected. These verses do have something to say about polygamy, but we don’t need to rely on them as a smoking gun prooftext. In translating them, faithfulness to the meaning of the text should be our utmost priority.

[1] Knight, George W. The Pastoral Epistles: A Commentary on the Greek Text. Grand Rapids, MI; Carlisle, England: W.B. Eerdmans; Paternoster Press, 1992. New International Greek Testament Commentary. (See entry on 1 Tim. 3:2.)
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Adeyemo, Tokunboh. Africa Bible Commentary. Nairobi, Kenya; Grand Rapids, MI: WordAlive Publishers; Zondervan, 2006.

“At the Name of Jesus” in Philippians 2:10

For those of us involved in translation work, it is not uncommon for the text to surprise us as we wrestle with its meaning. At times, careful study shows us where familiar translations have led us astray. We find ourselves caught off guard, yet marveling at the truth of what the text is really saying. 

This is exactly what happened to me as I worked to produce my own translation of Philippians 2. Verse 10, toward the end of the Kenotic Hymn, struck me in a fresh way and challenged my previous understanding. Here it is in a few different versions, including my own (BET stands for Ben’s English Translation).

Greek: ἵνα ἐν τῷ ὀνόματι Ἰησοῦ πᾶν γόνυ κάμψῃ
NIV 1984: that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow
BET: And since Jesus bears that name / Every knee will bow before him

Most English translations mirror the NIV here almost word-for-word, even most of the meaning-based versions I surveyed. So why have I bucked tradition and gone with something so different? Because I believe that by its adherence to form, the traditional rendering communicates the wrong meaning on multiple levels. (At least, it has done so for me.)

What’s in a name?

When I read the phrase “at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,” a mental picture quickly forms in my mind. The name “Jesus” sounds forth, and because that name carries so much power, every knee bows in response. This understanding is sequential in nature. Knees bend when they hear the name of Jesus. For me, this has always been the plain meaning of the verse, until recently.

I have become convinced that there is no overt sequential element here. This line is not telling us when every knee will bow, but why every knee will bow. One English translation that, while not perfect, gets this particular detail right is the Good News Translation, which says, “In honor of the name of Jesus.” It is providing the reason that every knee will bow.

The Greek phrase underlying “at the name of Jesus” is more often rendered elsewhere as “in the name of Jesus.” It was common in antiquity for people to act “in the name of” someone important. This was usually an appeal to that person’s power and authority, or spoken in the context of proclaiming or obeying that person. The name was invoked in association with an action or event, whether baptism (Acts 2:38), exorcism (Acts 16:18), healing (Acts 3:6), teaching (Acts 4:18), blaspheming (Rev. 13:6), believing (John 1:12, 2:23, 1 John 3:23), receiving life (John 20:31), and being forgiven (Acts 10:43).

The name was not just a label but represented the personality of the one who bore it. An action performed in someone’s name was done in association with that person, with reference to their status and authority. Believing in the name of Jesus is essentially believing in Jesus. Teaching in the name of Jesus is proclamation of him, with an appeal to his authority. And in Phil. 2:10, to bow down “in/at the name of Jesus” is to submit to him because of his status and authority, evidenced by the name given to him. 

The name was not just a label but represented the personality of the one who bore it. An action performed in someone’s name was done in association with that person, with reference to their status and authority.

If the invocation of a name is more about the person than the name of the person, then there is no reason to attach a sequential meaning to the prepositional phrase “at the name of Jesus” in Phil. 2:10. Every knee will bow not because some magical name was uttered, but because of the absolute authority of the one who bears that name. 

What is the name?

This does not mean that the name itself is irrelevant. As I have said, the name tells us something about who that person is, and what aspects of their character we may be appealing to. So what name is being invoked here? 

In my natural reading of the phrase “in the name of Jesus,” I take the name to be “Jesus.” In Greek, this would be what Daniel Wallace calls a genitive of apposition. For example, in the phrase “the land of Egypt,” we would not be talking about a piece of land that Egypt owns or controls. The land is Egypt. Likewise, “the name of Jesus” can be understood as a reference to the name “Jesus.”  

There are in fact many places where the phrase “in the name of Jesus” is used in this way. (See the examples I listed above). But Phil. 2:10 is telling us something different. Jesus is not the name in reference. Rather, “the name of Jesus” refers to another name that Jesus bears (perhaps it is here a genitive of possession). If we look back to verse 9, we read, “Therefore, God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name” (NIV 1984). It would be incongruous to say that God gave him the name “Jesus” only after his crucifixion, death, and resurrection. But if not Jesus, then what name did God give him?

Other references to Jesus’ exaltation offer us some clues. Eph. 1:20-21 echoes Phil. 2: “…he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come” (ESV). Here we see the same truths echoed: Jesus’ position at the right hand of God is higher than any other position in heaven and on earth. His title outranks any other title that one could be given. In his exalted state, Jesus is Lord over all other lords (Rev. 19:6, 17:14). “Lord of lords” is a title reserved for God himself (Deut. 10:17, Ps. 136:3, 1 Tim. 6:15).

The name that Jesus bears and that God has given him in Phil. 2:9 is “Lord.” And this is precisely why in verse 11, “Every tongue will declare that Jesus Christ is Lord.” All creation will recognize him as Lord because of the very fact that that is who he is. It may seem redundant to say that because Jesus has been named Lord, every tongue will confess that he is Lord. But this reflects the very definition of lordship. No one can resist the one with the ultimate power and authority over everything. Every knee will bow whether they like it or not, because they will be under his lordship. 

Since Jesus bears that name…

For these reasons, I chose to abandon tradition in my rendering of Phil. 2:10. I chose to avoid the wrong impression that in this verse speaking the name of Jesus evokes a certain response. I chose not to explicate the name “Lord” itself, but I removed the ambiguity inherent in the phrase “name of Jesus,” and I would expect the name “Lord” to be inferred in light of verse 11. 

This verse and the others that speak of acting in the name of Jesus have sometimes resulted in some strange application. When some say there is power in the name of Jesus, they are referring to the name itself. In prayers, people sometimes invoke the name of Jesus as if the name itself carries magical power. This is nothing new. The seven sons of Sceva in Acts 19 assumed that the name of Jesus must have magical properties, so they tried to add it to their own formulas in exorcising a demon. But the evil spirit replied in v.15, “Jesus I know, and Paul I recognize, but who are you?” The name had no power on its own. They had not submitted to the Lordship of Jesus. 

I believe that moving away from a form-based translation in Phil. 2:10 would helpfully clear up confusion and rectify some commonly held misunderstandings and misguided practices with regard to the name of Jesus. Not only that, but it will also serve to magnify Jesus by bringing out the true power underlying the name – the reality that Jesus Christ has defeated death and now sits in glory at the right hand of God as Lord of all creation.

Philippians 2 (BET)

“Ben’s English Translation” is my personal attempt to translate portions of the New Testament into natural English. You can read a little more about my translation philosophy here

I tremendously enjoyed translating Philippians 2, particularly the Kenotic Hymn. I set out to preserve its poetic nature by abandoning typical sentence punctuation and using common English poetic conventions. I observed a chiastic structure in it as well, and brought that out by grouping and indentation of lines. Enjoy!

Do you have encouragement in Christ? Does his love comfort you? Has the Spirit joined with you in fellowship? Do you have the same affection and compassion he showed you? Then make me even happier by having the same mindset, showing Christ’s love to each other, and being unified in your thinking and purpose. Don’t let selfishness or false pride guide you. Instead, be humble and think of others as better than yourselves. Don’t just look out for yourself, but look out for others too. Have the same attitude toward each other that Christ Jesus had:

He was inherently God
But he did not think of equality with God
As something to exploit
He gave up his rights
Becoming a servant
Becoming a man

As a human being 
He humbled himself
He obeyed to the point of death
Even death on a cross

So God raised him up
To the highest position
He gave him the name
With authority over every other 

And since Jesus bears that name
Every knee will bow before him
In heaven, on earth, and under the earth
And every tongue will declare
That Jesus Christ is Lord
To the glory of God the Father 

My dear friends, you were always obedient when I was with you. So keep putting your salvation to work, obeying with a reverent fear. It is even more important now that I am away. But remember, God is the one at work, giving you the desire and ability to please him. 

Do everything without complaining and arguing. Then you will be blameless and pure, God’s perfect children, shining like stars in a crooked and perverted world as you cling to the life-giving message. And on the day when Christ returns, I will be proud that all my striving and working were not wasted. Even if it kills me, my life will be an offering poured out over your own sacrifice of faithful service, so I will be glad and rejoice with you. And you too should be glad and rejoice with me. 

Hearing about you would encourage me, so I hope that the Lord Jesus allows me to send Timothy to you soon. He is the only one who genuinely cares for you the way I do. All the others are thinking only about themselves, not Jesus Christ. But you know Timothy. He has proven himself by working with me to spread the gospel, like a son with his father. So I hope to send him as soon as I see how things turn out for me, and I am trusting the Lord that I will come to you soon myself. 

For now, I think it is time to send Epaphroditus back to you. He is my brother, colleague, and fellow soldier. But he is also the messenger you sent to take care of me, and he misses you. He was very distressed that you heard he was sick. (He was actually so sick that he almost died. But God had mercy on him, and on me as well, in sparing me even more heartache.) So I am very eager to send him back to you. You will be happy to see him again, and I won’t be so worried. Welcome him warmly as a brother in the Lord. People like him should be highly honored. He almost died working for Christ, risking his life to come and serve me in person, something you were unable to do. 

The Word’s Role in Creation in John 1:3

Confusion at family devotions

Not long ago, a friend of mine was reading the Bible with his family. His kids had picked out some new Bibles – New Living Translations – so he brought home another copy he had at the office so they could all be on the same page. He started reading from John 1, but he didn’t get far before red flags began to fly. In verse 3 he read, “He [the Word] created everything there is.” Wait a minute, he thought. That goes against what I believe about creation and the distinctive roles of the members of the Trinity! The confusion only grew as his kids chimed in, “Daddy, that’s not what mine says!” (Their NLT said, “God created all things through him.”) My friend decided to check his Greek New Testament, and discovered that the word θεὸς did not even occur in this verse. What was going on here? Why were these two NLT versions so different from one another and from the other English versions he knew? And most importantly, do these differences reflect arbitrary translation choices, or are they theologically significant?

John 1 is indeed a treacherous passage to translate. Our understandings of the Trinity, Christ, creation, and more depend to a large extent on the words contained in these verses. And as this anecdote illustrates, translations are not entirely in agreement. In this post, I’ll be looking at John 1:3 in the Greek, ESV, and two NLT versions (there are in fact more than two editions, but the 1996 and 2004 editions are most significantly different.) I will briefly assess the theological significance of these variations. Here are the versions:

Greek: πάντα διʼ αὐτοῦ ἐγένετο
ESV: All things were created through him
NLT (1996): He created everything there is
NLT (2004): God created all things through him

Theological considerations

Our understanding of this verse largely hinges on how we understand διʼ αὐτοῦ (“through him”). The preposition with the genitive is most commonly understood here as agency, but does this mean that the Father (not stated explicitly in Greek, as the verb is passive) created everything through the agency of the Logos, or that the Logos was the sole agent? These prepositions are slippery little creatures, and from a linguistic standpoint, both options are possible.

We know from elsewhere in Scripture that the pre-existent Christ was active in creation. In Heb. 1:10, God says about the Son, “In the beginning, O Lord, you laid the foundations of the earth, and the heavens are the work of your hands.” In Col. 1:16 we read, “For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth.” (Most English versions render ἐν αὐτῷ as ‘by him,’ though interestingly, NLT 2004 prefers “through him.”)

It is entirely appropriate to suggest that Christ created the heavens and the earth, but this is not the whole picture.  The Father clearly had a prominent role to play in creation as well (Gen 1:1, 1 Cor. 8:6, Heb. 1:2). Even the Holy Spirit was there at the beginning, “hovering over the face of the waters” (Gen. 1:2). The entire tripartite Godhead was there at creation bringing the universe into existence. 

It is entirely appropriate to suggest that Christ created the heavens and the earth, but this is not the whole picture.  The Father clearly had a prominent role to play in creation as well.

Is it then contradictory to suggest that the Father created the world, while at the same time affirming that Christ created the world? Not at all. In his Systematic Theology, Millard Erickson uses the helpful illustration of building construction to demonstrate how various people in different roles can all be called “builders.” The contractor, the construction worker, or even those paying for the work can all claim to have “built” a house. This is the theological reality we see in Scripture. While we may see the members of the Trinity playing distinct roles in creation, they can all be said to have “created” the heavens and the earth. They are distinct persons, but they are all fully God, and worked together in fashioning all creation.

This is the picture we see in Scripture. But what is John saying in 1:3? What is his particular angle? Is he saying that the Logos created the world, or that God created the world through the Logos? In his commentary on John, D.A. Carson suggests that it may be preferable to render this verse, “all things were made by him.” He backs this suggestion by arguing that the pre-existent Christ as creator is a common theme in the New Testament. 

Leon Morris takes a different approach. He agrees that “John is saying that everything owes its existence to the Word,” but he advocates a “through him” rendering for theological reasons: “This way of putting it safeguards the truth that the Father is the source of all that is.”

Both Carson and Morris appeal to theological arguments to justify their preferred renderings. I would venture to say that the three English versions presented above are also theologically motivated. I have not seen any compelling case for one rendering over another from a purely linguistic standpoint. This verse illustrates well that we cannot separate translation from theology. To do translation is to do theology.


Are the differences between these versions theologically significant? They are certainly distinct, but they are not all that different. They all point to the same truth, albeit from different angles. They do not contradict one another, and none contain blatant theological error. But the question remains: can we understand precisely what John intended here? I’m still mulling this one over, but one thing is clear: the Logos is front and center in John’s mind. We can attribute the creation of the world to his hand. The Father’s role in this event is in the background of John 1:3, if it is in mind at all. 

“To the Praise of his Glory” in Ephesians 1 – Exhortation, Result, or Purpose?

Ephesians 1:3-14 opens with a statement full of blessing. God is blessed (εὐλογητὸς), and he has blessed us (εὐλογήσας) with every spiritual blessing (εὐλογίᾳ) in Christ. The ways Christians are blessed in this passage are numerous and worthy of attention, but here I want to examine the way God is blessed, which is through praise (ἔπαινον). We see variations of the phrase “to the praise of his glorious grace” in verses 6, 12, and 14:

Eph. 1:6, 14
Greek: εἰς ἔπαινον δόξης τῆς χάριτος αὐτοῦ / εἰς ἔπαινον τῆς δόξης αὐτοῦ
ESV: to the praise of his glorious grace / to the praise of his glory
TEV: Let us praise God for his glorious grace / Let us praise his glory

Eph. 1:12
Greek: εἰς τὸ εἶναι ἡμᾶς εἰς ἔπαινον δόξης αὐτοῦ τοὺς προηλπικότας ἐν τῷ Χριστῷ.
ESV: so that we who were the first to hope in Christ might be to the praise of his glory.
TEV: Let us, then, who were the first to hope in Christ, praise God’s glory!

Some English translations render these three verses as exhortations for the audience to praise God, as illustrated by the TEV above. Some translation helps suggest this kind of approach, and I have seen it used by translators where I work. Does this kind of rendering adequately capture the meaning in these verses? I will argue here that translating these statements as explicit exhortations does not capture their full meaning.

Each of these three verses makes use of the preposition εἰς. Verse 12 adds a second εἰς with the infinitive εἶναι. In this kind of context, εἰς and the εἰς + infinitive construction are usually understood to indicate purpose or result. If we interpret these verses as indicating result, then we understand that praising God for his glory and grace is the result of his redemptive work. But when is this praise to occur? A rendering that uses clear exhortation may limit this result to an immediate response, while an indicative clause describing the result would more naturally include both an immediate response and praise of God into the future. We can clearly see a forward-leaning focus in verse 14, which looks ahead to the final redemption of those who belong to God. Therefore, a rendering inclusive of all future praise of God’s glory is preferable to one that focuses on the now.

I would take it even farther, however, and argue that this usage of εἰς is indicating purpose – that is, an intended result. It is undeniable that the events in this passage have been meticulously planned out by God. Verse 4 tells us that he chose us ‘before the creation of the world.’ God’s predestination, or choosing beforehand, is mentioned twice (1:5, 11). His will and his purposing and planning of events are at center stage (1:5, 9, 11), along with the assertion that God succeeds in carrying out his plans (1:11). Therefore, when εἰς is used with ‘praise of his glory’ in this passage, I understand that praise is an outcome intended and achieved by God.

In summary, we could outline three ways to render these εἰς phrases, each based on a unique interpretation:

1. Exhortation: God [did these things]. Let us praise his glory
2. Result: God [did these things], and people will praise his glory.
3. Purpose: God [did these things] so that people will praise his glory.

The third option is best, because it not only preserves God’s intent to bring praise to himself, but it also includes the meaning presented in the first two options. If God’s purpose was for people to praise him, then praise is the inevitable result. And when the Ephesian church read this letter, they certainly would have responded to these words in praise, making such a statement as effective as a direct exhortation.