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Clarity or Ambiguity? (John 1:13) - Mondays with Mounce 278

Categories Mondays with Mounce

This is another way of asking the age old question, do you err on the side of word-for-word translation or on the side of meaning? Do you want clarity of meaning, or do you want to stay closer to the Greek and be less meaningful and more ambiguous?

You can’t have it both ways. Period.

Look at John 1:13. My interlinear reads that children of God “were born (ἐγεννήθησαν), not from human stock or from a physical impulse (οὐδὲ ἐκ θελήματος σαρκὸς) or by a husband’s decision (οὐδὲ ἐκ θελήματος ), but by God.” But even that is moving toward clarity.

If you really want transparency to the Greek and to be as little interpretive as possible, you would write, “who were born not out of bloods nor out of (the) will of flesh, nor out of (the) will of a male [or is it ‘man,’ or ‘the man,’ or ‘husband’?], but out of God.” The problem with this, of course, is that it is meaningless, and after all what is the purpose of translation? Is it not to convey the same meaning from one audience to another?

The ESV is pretty close to this. “Who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.” But after first glance, you can see that it too is moving away from word-for-word toward clarity. “Blood” (αἱμάτων) is plural (“bloods”) and the ESV had to make a decision for translating “man”.

The NIV moves a little further away from the ambiguity of the Greek and more toward meaning. “Children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.” They made sense of the meaningless phrases “not out of bloods” and “nor out of (the) will of flesh.” And they view ἀνήρ as “husband” and not “male,” a more natural interpretation since ἀνήρ primarily carries the idea of “male.”

The NLT naturally goes even further. “They are reborn—not with a physical birth resulting from human passion or plan, but a birth that comes from God.” But note the inexcusable translation of ἐγεννήθησαν as “reborn.” Nowhere in the semantic range of γεννάω will you find the idea of “re-,” and John 3 is two chapters away.

My point is that if you want to be clear, you have to be more interpretive. If you want to be less interpretive, you will be less clear and more ambiguous. You simply can’t have it both ways.


William D. [Bill] Mounce posts about the Greek language and exegesis on the ZA Blog. He is the president of, a ministry that creates and distributes world-class educational courses at no cost. He is also the author of numerous works including the bestselling Basics of Biblical Greek and a corresponding online class. 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.

Learn more about Bill's Greek resources at

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