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Are Metaphors Inspired? - Mondays with Mounce 292

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I have been thinking a lot about some of the general issues of translation, and one of the points that keeps coming up is the issue of metaphors. I would like your opinion.

Are metaphors inspired?

I am asking if the inspired authors chose to use a metaphor to convey meaning, are we required to use a metaphor?

There are, of course, metaphors that make no sense in a target language. We have no choice with those and must interpret the metaphor. Consider the story of the prodigal son. When the father saw his prodigal son returning, he ran and “fell on his neck” (KJV, Luke 15:20). While that is a word for word translation, it certainly is not what the text means. Even the NASB, the most formal equivalent translation in English, says that the father “embraced” him, with the footnote, “Lit fell on his neck.”

But what about the famous line in the Lord’s Prayer. “And forgive us our debts (ὀφειλήματα), as we also have forgiven our debtors (ὀφειλέταις)” (Matt 6:12, NIV). Jesus is metaphorically picturing our sins (debts) as something we owe. All translations I check use “debts,” but I went to a parochial school that used “transgressions.” See what they have done? They have interpreted the metaphor, which I think loses meaning.

I understand that literary style is outside the scope of this discussion. Greek uses an aorist adverbial participle followed by an indicative to indicate sequence; one thing happens and then the other. We don’t do that in English; we understand two indicative verbs as sequential. And so we translate Matt 2:16, “When Herod realized (ἰδών) that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious (ἐθυμώθη).” We don’t say, “after realizing … he was furious.” Perhaps we do in first year Greek class so the teacher knows that we know ἰδών is aorist, but not in a Bible translation written with proper English style.

So what other metaphors are used in the Bible that you can think of that would be germane to this discussion? Are they part of inspiration?

Professors: Request an exam copy of Mounce's Basics of Biblical Greek here.


Bill is the founder and President of, serves on the Committee for Bible Translation (which is responsible for the NIV translation of the Bible), and has written the best-selling biblical Greek textbook, Basics of Biblical Greek, and many other Greek resources. He blogs regularly on Greek and issues of spiritual growth. Learn more about Bill's Greek resources at

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