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Commas, Commas, Commas - 2 Tim 1:3 (Monday with Mounce 136)

Categories Mondays with Mounce

Monday with MounceThe joy of punctuation! It can get the translator out of a real jam, and it can add clarity and reduce misinterpretation. I am wondering why I don’t talk about it more in my grammar.

The basic issue is the difference between how English constructs sentences, and the flexibility allowed by inflection. English has to put related words next to each other: adjectives next to nouns, subjects before verbs, prepositional phrases close the the verb. While there is some flexibility, the further we disconnect related thoughts, the more confusion there is and the harder the reader has to work.

2 Tim 1:3a gives a good example. The Greek reads, Χάριν ἔχω τῷ θεῷ, ᾧ λατρεύω ἀπὸ προγόνων ἐν καθαρᾷ συνειδήσει. In the Greek it is easy to see the basic units of thought. Paul gives thanks to God (Χάριν ἔχω τῷ θεῷ). It is God (ᾧ) whom he serves (λατρεύω). And then you have two prepositional phrases.

ἀπὸ προγόνων is translated something like “as did my ancestors” (ESV), and it is clear that it modifies the verb λατρεύω. Paul serves God, and his ancestors served God.

But that brings us to the second prepositional phrase. Despite his love for his own people, it is highly doubtful that he would say they served God “with a clear conscience.” A quick read of Romans 9-11 would take care of that as a possibility.

In Greek, this isn’t a problem. We see that ἐν καθαρᾷ συνειδήσει tells us Paul serves God with a clean conscience, in a sense skipping over the preceding prepositional phrase. But if you go word for word, you are left with the highly unlikely (I would say impossible; see my commentary) interpretation that the Jewish people likewise served God with a clear conscience. What to do then with Romans 2?

Take for example the KJV: “I thank God, whom I serve from my forefathers with pure conscience.” Not helpful. The NASB changes the phrase order to try (unsuccessfully) to avoid the problem. “I thank God, whom I  serve with a  clear conscience  the way my forefathers did” (see also the HCSB, NKJV, NET). Even the NLT, which normally is able to deal with these issues, does not fix the problem; “Timothy, I thank God for you—the God I serve with a clear conscience, just as my ancestors did.”

I always enjoy watching how the NRSV changed the RSV (and compare it to how we changed the RSV in the ESV). The RSV reads, “I thank God whom I serve with a clear conscience, as did my fathers”; the NRSV has, “I am grateful to God—whom I worship with a clear conscience, as my ancestors did.” The advantage here over the NASB is that the commas set off the final phrase and at least raise the interpretive question.

But like I said, this is not an issue with the inflected Greek. They see the two prepositional phrases, and the most natural reading is to see both going back to the verb “I serve.” At a minimum, the phrase “as did my ancestors” should be set off with commas, or some stronger punctuation used, perhaps, “I continually thank God, whom I serve — as did my ancestors — with a clean conscience.”

This is yet another example of why word-for-word can sometimes be the worst translation. It can lose the structural clues of the inflected Greek, and yet sometimes punctuation can come to the rescue.

Paul affirms that his lineage is one of a people serving God, but the self-assessment of a clean conscience (as opposed to the false teachers in Ephesus whose consciences have been seared by Satan) belongs to him and not to his race.

MouncewWilliam D. [Bill] Mounce posts about the Greek language, exegesis, and related topics at  Koinonia. He is the author of numerous books, including the bestselling Basics of Biblical Greek, and is the general editor for 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 NIVLearn more and visit Bill's other blog on spiritual growth, Life is a Journey, at www.billmounce.com

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