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Play on Words (Monday with Mounce 16) by Bill Mounce

Categories Mondays with Mounce

1 Timothy 1:8

One of the literary devices that is difficult to bring into English is puns, a play on words. Rarely will the target language be able to replicate the nuances of this construction.

Perhaps the best known pun in John 3:8. "The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit" (ESV). The footnote on "wind" in the ESV reads, "The same Greek word means both wind and spirit." We could have also added a footnote on "sound"--the same Greek word means both sound and voice. While the ESV as a general rule stayed away from explanatory footnotes, this one was necessary since without it too much meaning is lost.

But there are other less known puns. Take, for example, 1 Timothy 1:8.

Timothy’s opponents in Ephesus have been placing an undue and inappropriate emphasis on their peculiar understanding of the law. While Paul is going to differ with them, he points out that they share at least point of agreement; the law is good — but it must be used as it was intended to be used.

The ESV reads, "Now we know that the law (nomos) is good, if one uses it lawfully nomimos." The meaning is clear. The law is good; that is not the question. However, it must be used lawfully.

What does that mean? It means the law must be used as the law was intended to be used. In line with our translation philosophy, we determined that the metaphor was sufficiently transparent and not open to misunderstanding, so we left it as is.

The TNIV, on the other hand, has a different translation philosophy. It wants to remove the added step of interpretation and make the meaning of the verse clear. So it reads, "We know that the law is good if one uses it properly."

Translation is compromise. The TNIV lost the pun but they have interpreted the pun properly and made the passage more readable.

(Interestingly, both translations accepted the Greek word "if’; however, does that mean the goodness of the law is contingent upon our use of it? Isn’t the law good in and of itself? It is what the Greek says, but one wonders if it is what Paul meant. Perhaps the contextual meaning of ean would have been more accurately conveyed with "although.")

Is there a right and wrong? This is where the debate often goes. It could be argued that Paul, under inspiration, used a pun to communicate God’s message. It could also be argued that that point of translation is to convey the meaning of God’s message. Is one right and another wrong?

Debates on verbal inspiration do not help. We all know that meaning, for the most part, is conveyed in larger units of words, in phrases, as any word-for-word translation of the Greek text shows. Of course it is the meaning that is most important, but, as the debate continues, meaning is conveyed through words. And around and around we go.

The fact of the matter is that for the foreseeable future, there will be multiple translations, each with its own translation philosophy. Perhaps instead of arguing that one is "right" and the other "wrong," we should have a clear awareness of the goals set for each translation and read them in light of those goals.

When I read the ESV, I know I am getting something that is as transparent to the original as we could get and yet is somewhat interpretive, as all translations must be. When I read the TNIV, I am getting a more interpretive reading that reflects the understanding of the translators, and I enjoy reading it largely because I know and trust the translators. When I read the NLT, I know that I am moving further and further away from the words, and more and more into the translators’ understanding of the meaning of the text.

Let’s enjoy the different translations, recognizing the limitations and the benefits of each.

Mounce 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 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. Learn more and visit Bill's blog (co-authored with scholar and his father Bob Mounce) at

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