Translating the Word but Missing the Context (Mark 5:4) – Mondays with Mounce 302

Bill Mounce on November 13th, 2017. 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.

Mark 5:4 has an interesting construction with διά, and provides an example of why we need to watch the larger context when translating. Verses 3–4 are as follows.

“This man lived in the tombs, and no one could bind him anymore, not even with a chain. For he had often been chained hand and foot (διὰ τὸ αὐτὸν πολλάκις πέδαις καὶ ἁλύσεσιν δεδέσθαι), but he tore the chains apart and broke the irons on his feet (καὶ διεσπάσθαι ὑπ᾿ αὐτοῦ τὰς ἁλύσεις καὶ τὰς πέδας συντετρῖφθαι). No one was strong enough to subdue him” (NIV).

Notice that διὰ goes with three accusatives, each with its own infinitive.

  1. αὐτὸν … δεδέσθαι
  2. διεσπάσθαι … ἁλύσεις
  3. πέδας συντετρῖφθαι

But this is where the context comes in. Why was he not able to be bound? In other words, how are you going to translate διά?

The NASB and CSB have “because.” Do you see why that is a poor translation? It says that he could not be bound because he had often been bound, which of course makes no sense. The CSB somewhat fixes this by translating καί as “but”: “but had torn the chains apart.”

Much better to recognize that the reason he could not be bound was because he kept breaking the bonds, and translating διά … καί as “for … but,” as does the ESV, NIV, and NRSV. The NLT typically ignores the Greek (losing the explicit connection between result, v 3, and cause, v 4) but gets the sense right. “Whenever he was put into chains and shackles—as he often was—he snapped the chains from his wrists and smashed the shackles.”

So the point is to be careful at looking too closely at a single word and not translating it in context.

Professors: Request an exam copy of Mounce’s Basics of Biblical Greek here.

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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.

  • Lindsay Stafford 2 months ago

    Context is always paramount, whether in translation or just simply in hermeneutics. A phrase that I heard in my seminary days I still try to apply 40 years later. “A text without a context is a pretext”.
    On a similar note, I have been unable to find a reasonable explanation for the translation of ζηλοῦτε, in 1 Cor 12:31 (ζηλοῦτε δὲ τὰ χαρίσματα τὰ [x]μείζονα. καὶ ἔτι καθ’ ὑπερβολὴν ὁδὸν ὑμῖν δείκνυμι.)as 2nd person plural imperative when context seems to demand indicative, particularly when 1 Cor 13:1 is included in the context.