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Monday with Mounce 4: Quotation Marks and Translation by William D. Mounce

Categories Mondays with Mounce

Passage: Romans 3:27

I’ve been musing on the role of punctuation in translation, and last week we looked at the dash in Romans 3:25. In v 27 there is an excellent illustration of another effective use of punctuation: quotation marks.

Paul has been talking about righteousness coming not through law but through faith. He writes, “Where, then, is boasting? It is excluded. Because of what law? The law that requires works? No, because of the 'law' that requires faith" (TNIV). Notice the second use of law is in quotation marks. What’s going on?

Even dynamic translation theory sees the value in what is called “concordance.” (The terms change for “dynamic.“ Currently it is called “functional equivalence.”) Concordance is the practice of using the same English word for the same Greek word throughout a passage.

Concordance is not always possible. No one English word has the same range of meaning as one Greek word; and when the meaning of a single Greek word varies within the passage, dynamic translations alter the English. Combine this with the fact that English style generally views the consistent use of the same word as poor style, it is common to find paragraphs where the same Greek word is translated by several different English words. This is not bad translation. If you accept the dynamic translation philosophy, it is good translation as it translates meaning and not words.

The problem of course with not following concordance is that often a theme is missed in the English.

Case in point: Romans 3:27. The Greek word nomos is used in both the phrase “The law that requires works” and “the ‘law’ that requires faith.” The TNIV is somewhat dynamic in its translation theory; they generally do not feel the need to follow concordance. That’s part of their philosophy.

But here they see the need for concordance. nomos is used in both phrases, and to translate the second nomos as something like “principle” actually obscures meaning, something the TNIV definitely does not want to do. However, the problem is that Paul is certainly using the second nomos in a way that is different from the first use. So by simply translating both as “law,” they are also obscuring meaning. Welcome to translation. It seems we are constantly having to make a decision between over- or under-translating.

(It is even more complicated than this. As Moo clarifies in his commentary--and Doug is on the translation committee for the TNIV--there is a question as to whether the “law of faith” is another way of looking at the Mosaic law, a way that is different from the “law of works,” or whether there is no allusion to the Mosaic law at all in the second reference. Anyone who thinks that translation can be done in a totally neutral sense apart from interpretation needs to struggle with this passage.)

What is especially interesting is that this is a change from the NIV, which translates, “Where, then, is boasting? It is excluded. On what principle? On that of observing the law? No, but on that of faith.”

Quotation marks to the rescue. By changing from “principle” to “law” they kept the concordance and helped the reader see the flow of thought, but by putting the second “law” in quotation marks they help the reader see that Paul is using the word in a somewhat different manner. Impressive translation.

As we stand before Christ, all boasting is excluded. We did nothing to earn our salvation, to merit his righteousness. The “law of works,” the sinful notion that we can earn God’s favor through partial obedience to the laws of God, would only result in our sinful death. There would be no boasting. So justification is sola fide, we do nothing to merit it, it is all of faith, and so there is no boasting before God.

One of the dangerous trends in the Christian life is reflected in the words of Paul. “After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort?” (Galatians 3:3). It is so often the case that we come to the cross empty-handed, fingers separated, palms up. We bring nothing but a cry for God’s mercy and grace. But the trend is to forget how we began, to start thinking that some of the things we do in some way merit God’s favor, even his prior favor in saving us. We start to boast in what we are doing, in how good we are, and how much better we are than others. In fact, the boasting develops a stranglehold on us, excusing our sin in other areas of our life.

This is the essence of legalism: thinking that obedience in some areas earns favor with God and excuses sin in other areas. To all who are in this state, the words of Paul ring loud and true. There is no boasting. There is either works and death, or faith and life.

William D. [Bill] Mounce posts every Monday 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 served as the New Testament chair of the English Standard Version Bible translation. Visit for more info or read his blog (co-authored with scholar and his father Bob Mounce) at

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