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The Myth of “Literal Translations” (1 Tim 4:13) - Mondays with Mounce

Have you ever noticed that when you see something, perhaps something new or different, all of a sudden you start seeing it everywhere? You see a yellow car, and all of a sudden there are yellow cars everywhere? That’s how I’m feeling about the common belief that formal equivalent translations are better because they show the underlying Hebrew and Greek structures. My point is that in almost every (if not all) verse in the New Testament, the Greek has been altered in some way, and the only way to know when a verse reflects the underlying Greek is to know the Greek.

I came across another “yellow car.” Paul tells Timothy, “Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching” (ESV). The NASB is similar except for the italics: “Until I come, give attention to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation and teaching.”

The NASB shows the failure of the ESV at this point to be “essentially literal.” The ESV adds “public ... of Scripture.” There is no Greek behind those words, not even a hint. My guess is that the ESV just kept the RSV at this point, and saying only “reading” would not make sense. Reading what? Is this Timothy’s private devotional time or public ministry? All this requires interpretation.

Other translations like the NLT that don’t make any claims of being “literal” are free to make the meaning of the verse clear and accurate. “Until I get there, focus on reading the Scriptures to the church, encouraging the believers, and teaching them.”

The CSB is a little uncharacteristically confusing. “Until I come, give your attention to public reading, exhortation, and teaching.” Is Paul talking about exhortation and teaching in a public or private setting?

Not only are the formal translations adding words, they are also leaving them out, specifically the definite article. Paul more “literally” says, “Until I come, be devoted to the (τῇ) reading of Scripture, to the (τῇ) exhortation, to the (τῇ) teaching.” We don’t always translate the Greek article, but certainly here the obvious repetition of the article means something. If you check my commentary, you will see the argument that the repetition of the article is pointing to three distinct parts of the synagogue service that were brought over into Christian worship: the time of public reading, the time of exhortation to follow its teachings, and the time of doctrinal instruction on the theology of the passage. This is what is signaled by the somewhat awkward repetition of the article.

The only way you can know if the English reflects the Greek structure is to know Greek. If you know Greek, the English is irrelevant. If you don’t know Greek, why would you say it is important for your English Bible to reflect Greek structure? Why would someone who does not know Greek say this is important?


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Basics of Biblical Greek 1 Instructor: Dr. William D. Mounce
Part of a two-course series, Basics of Biblical Greek 1 will introduce you to the vocabulary and grammar of New Testament Greek, so you can begin studying the New Testament in its original language.
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