Do You Ever Leave a Translation Meaningless? (Hebrews 13:3) – Mondays with Mounce 331

Bill Mounce on November 12th, 2018. 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.

I am reading a paper this week at the national meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society. It is entitled, “Do formal equivalent translations reflect a higher view of plenary, verbal inspiration?” Because of my research, I am particularly sensitive to the claims of formal and functional equivalent translations and the relationship between words and meaning.

Hebrews 13:3 provides an interesting test case. The ESV (see also the NASB) writes, “Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them, and those who are mistreated, since you also are in the body (ὡς καὶ αὐτοὶ ὄντες ἐν σώματι).”

“In the body”? What does that mean? In the church, the body of Christ? This is a good example of when a slavish following of the Greek produces meaninglessness. The CSB has, “as though you yourselves were suffering bodily.” See also, “as though you yourselves were being tortured” (NRSV), and “as though you too felt their torment” (NET).

The Greek lays out pretty nicely. The author is encouraging the recipients of the letter to remember two things, both indicated by genitive constructions, and both of which have modifiers introduced by ὡς.

μιμνῄσκεσθε
τῶν δεσμίων
ὡς συνδεδεμένοι,
τῶν κακουχουμένων
ὡς καὶ αὐτοὶ ὄντες ἐν σώματι.

Everyone but the NIV translates μιμνῄσκεσθε with the simple “Remember.” The problem with this is that it implies the recipients are not currently remembering. I doubt that is accurate (although we are limited in our understanding of the historical background), and I think the NIV is correct to bring out its imperfective force, “continue to remember.”

I have no idea why the ESV, which values concordance so highly, did not keep the concordance of the two occurrences of ὡς, “as though … since.”

συνδεδεμένοι is a typical compound form with σῦν, the biblical author leaving out who the others specifically are, but contextually it is clear that the author sees a union between his recipients and those in prison.

Parallel to that is our phrase, ὡς καὶ αὐτοὶ ὄντες ἐν σώματι. Given the context, it is easy to see what the author is saying. They are “with” those in prison, and it is as if (ὡς) they are bodily (ἐν σώματι) suffering “with” them. Given the obvious meaning of the phrase, I am not sure why you would leave the meaningless phrase, “in the body.”

All translations are meaning-based; there is no such thing as a “literal” translation. (Come to ETS and find out why.) Even if it requires a little interpretation, as almost all of Scripture does, you still interpret so that the translation conveys something that has meaning.

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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.

  • Dennis R. Kuhns 2 months ago

    A most interesting discussion. I am reminded of a time in Brazil while visiting an aboriginal tribe in the jungle. New Tribes missionaries were working to write the language an to then translate the Bible into that language. One thought I had and it made me realize how much Bible translation involves interpretation as well–it was this how will they translate a verse such as “though you sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow…. (Isa. 1:18) when there is no word for snow in their language and they have absolutely no conception of snow? How much of the Bible has paraphrased for us because we have no conception of certain cultural or linguistic equivalents? Bible teaching and interpretation should be done with humility.

  • John 2 months ago

    Someone needs to talk to the guy who was the New Testament chair for the ESV and find out what was going on. Oh wait . . .