To Metaphor, or not to Metaphor? (Monday with Mounce 61)
That is the
question of Galatians 3:24. I was reminded of this question this morning as I
listen to my nephew preach a good sermon on Galatians 3.
from the NIV, so in v 24 he read, “So the law was put in
charge to lead us to Christ that we might be justified by faith.”
“Put in charge” is a colorless phrase that conveys a very basic meaning of
authority, but it does convey meaning to almost any reader.
The NASB (also
NKJV and ASV) has “become our tutor,” which defines a little more closely what
the NIV means by “charge.” It is probably meant to reflect the KJV
“schoolteacher.” The problem is that the Greek term παιδαγωγος evidently does
not contain the sense of “teacher.” BDAG defines the word as, “the man, usu. a
slave … whose duty it was to conduct a boy or youth … to and from school and to
superintend his conduct.” They offer the gloss “one who has responsibility for
someone who needs guidance, guardian, leader, guide” and
specifically states that the word does not include the nuance of “teacher.”
The RSV had
“custodian,” which was changed to “guardian” by the ESV (also in the NET); I am
sure “custodian” sounded too much like the person cleaning the halls of a
school after the children have gone home. The NLT typically splits the
difference by including both, using “guardian and teacher.”
As you can see,
the word is hard to translate. The NJB (New Jerusalem Bible) has what may sound
at first like an odd translation: “serving as a slave to look after us,” but in
fact it is getting much closer to the actual meaning of παιδαγωγος.
Boice defines the
παιδαγωγος as this. “The pedagogue was a slave employed by wealthy Greeks or
Romans to have responsibility for one of the children of the family. He had
charge of the child from about the years six to sixteen and was responsible for
watching over his behavior wherever he went and for conducting him to and from
In other words,
Paul is using not a general term for someone in charge, or a tutor, to define
the relationship of the law to the Jewish people. He is using a very specific
social role with very specific meanings and nuances that the native readers of
the epistle would immediately understand.
George adds even
more background to our understanding in his New American Commentary. “No doubt
there were many pedagogues who were known for their kindness and held in
affection by their wards, but the dominant image was that of a harsh
disciplinarian who frequently resorted to physical force and corporal
punishment as a way of keeping his children in line. For example, a certain
pedagogue named Socicrines was described as a “fierce and mean old man” because
of his physically breaking up a rowdy party. He then dragged away his young
man, Charicles, 'like the lowest slave’ and delivered the other troublemakers
to the jailer with instructions that they should be handed over to ‘the public
executioner’ ” (pp. 265-266).
And hence the
problem of translation. If you are committed to translating metaphors, or
perhaps it is better to call this an issue of historical backgrounds, then
“guardian” is too hard to process. But if you are committed to trying to
reflect ancient customs and requiring your readership to study the Bible, then
using a colorless phrase like “in charge” significantly under-translates Paul’s
use of παιδαγωγος.
The law was not a
gentleman who kindly led its children into the ways of God. It was a harsh
taskmaster, almost cruel, who identified sin and enticed the Jewish people to
sin, and then by grace pointing them to the coming Christ, the only one who
could make them right with God.
The Law was truly
“holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good” (Rom 7:12). But it
was not a tutor, and the Jewish people did not simply function under its
Which brings us
to the final question, and that is when does a translation stop being a
translation and become a commentary? And what side of the dividing line do you
want your Bible to stand?
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 (third edition coming in 2009!), 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 www.billmounce.com.
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