Can a word be a punctuation mark? (Matt 1:18) – Mondays with Mounce 270

Bill Mounce on July 5th, 2016. Tagged under ,,,.

Bill Mounce

Bill is the founder and President of BiblicalTraining.org, 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 BillMounce.com.

This is perhaps a little picky post, but it does illustrate why a word-for-word translation is not always helpful.

Matthew begins with his genealogy, and then moves into the story of Jesus’ birth. “Now (δέ) the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way” (ESV and most). Along comes the NIV and does not represent the δέ. “This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about” (also HCSB and, as you might expect, the NLT).

Are they leaving out a word of Scripture? Of course not. That charge is often made against the more dynamic translations like the NIV and NLT, but in truth it could be leveled against all translations in one place or another. What it does betray is a lack of awareness of how language works in general, and the meaning of δέ in particular.

BDAG defines δέ as “used to connect one clause to another, either to express contrast or simple continuation.” In grammars we often give the glosses “and” and “but,” but “but” (I enjoyed writing that) is too strong. When Greek means “but,” it generally uses ἀλλά. When δέ does represent a slight adversative, it is so soft that often we cannot find the right word.

However, in our passage you need to ask what δέ is doing; and if it is adversative, in what sense is it adversative? Here it is pretty clear. Matthew has been giving us the genealogy, and now he wants to turn to a different topic, Jesus’ birth. How do you signal a change in topic? δέ.

So in this case, how do you indicate the change? Remember, in the early manuscripts there was no spacing, punctuation, or paragraphing, and that is the clue. The NIV and NLT use the (somewhat) modern invention of the new paragraph to indicate exactly what δέ is indicating in Greek, a change in topic. The second entry in BDAG says precisely this; “2. a marker linking narrative segments, now, then, and, so, that is.

In fact, you could argue that translations like the ESV double translate the δέ, since they have both “now” and a new paragraph.

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William D. [Bill] Mounce posts about the Greek language, exegesis, and related topics on the ZA Blog. He is the author of numerous works including the recent Basics of Biblical Greek Video Lectures and the bestselling Basics of Biblical Greek. He is the general editor of Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary of the Old and New Testament Words. He served as the New Testament chair of the English Standard Version Bible translation, and is currently on the Committee for Bible Translation for the NIV. The Mounce Reverse-Interlinear™ New Testament is available to freely read on Bible Gateway.

Learn more about Bill’s Greek resources at Teknia.com and visit his blog on spiritual growth at BiblicalTraining.org/blog/life-journey.

  • Nicolas Thomas 3 years ago

    Hi Bill,

    Thank you — I really enjoy and learn a lot from your Monday mornings!

    This idea of words acting as spaces or paragraph markers is interesting.

    The one I’ve been wondering about for a while is the “gar” in Mark 9 : 49 “For everyone will be salted with fire”.

    The NIV misses out the word “for” at the beginning. Would they have thought it redundant?

    My feeling is that the gar really means to connect that sentence with the preceeding verses.
    “All” — both those who are perishing, and those being saved — all are involved in a difficult purification process — either in this world (resisting sin, which is far better) or in the next world (dealing with their indulgence, which is far harder).

    The commentary in ESV’s Study Bible is very good on this passage, and I think their number (3) is the best.