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Why Do Translations Use Antiquated Terms Like "Gospel"?

Categories Mondays with Mounce

Mondays_mounceSomeone just sent me the following.

I'm particularly interested in communicating Scripture in terms that the average person on the street can understand. So it bothers me that our translations are stuck on a fossilized word like 'gospel,' which means nothing to most people (and even many Christians!). Why not be consistent in translating euangelion as 'good news.' That may at least cause people to ask the question, 'Well, what IS the good news?' As it is, I believe people hear 'gospel' and dismiss it as 'religious talk.'

A couple thoughts. The words "stuck" and "fossilized" imply motive or competence, perhaps unintentionally, which becomes an ad hominem argument, which is never good. It says that there is something wrong with translators who apparently do not know they are "stuck" in the past or they intentionally want to stay "stuck" in the past. We need to be careful at how we word questions and what our words imply.

The fact of the matter is that this is a constant area of discussion, not only in the NIV but also the ESV and I would assume all other translations, especially the NLT. We are all conscious of the role of technical terminology and both its good and bad effects on understanding.

A good example is λαστριον. You can use technical terminology and be specific: propitiation, expiation, atoning sacrifice. In order to understand almost any translation of this word, you are going to have to pick up a dictionary and study. This is not an option for the NLT given their translation philosophy, so in Rom 3:25 they write, "sacrifice for sin," and in Heb 9:5 it is "place of atonement." Of course, even these phrases are unintelligible to someone outside the church (and many in the church).

Or what about παρκλητος? Translations like "Advocate," "Helper," and "Counselor" are all struggling to find the appropriate English word, and none exists to truly translate παρκλητος, so we use the best term we can find and expect that people who want to understand the Bible, like any ancient or truly significant book, will be willing to study. Bible translations can’t be reduced to the lowest common denominator and be expected to meet the needs of the church.

Theology also needs labels. How do you teach or preach without terminology? Every area of discipline has technical terminology that is necessary for communication. In my mind, this is one of the problems of using the NLT; it removes terminology whose meaning is not immediately apparent to the non-informed reader, which may help at first but I think hurts in the long run.

This issue of technical terminology is part of a translation's philosophy. In the ESV the rule was that if someone could figure out what a word meant without being a biblical specialist, we were okay with the word. The Bible is worth studying. In the NIV it is more an issue of clarity of meaning and how we talk today. I address this in some depth in my new seminar on BiblicalTraining. You can check it out here: https://www.biblicaltraining.org/seminar/translations/bill-mounce. The actual discussion is lesson 3 (Principle 2).

Also, I would argue that "good news" seriously under-translates εὐαγγελιον. "Good news" in English is not a technical term. It just means you have some positive information. But the gospel is "the" good news, the best news there has ever been, focused on the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the call to repentance. "Good news" misses the specificity of the kerygma.

Words are important. We hang on them. Preach on them. Communicate with them. This mean we should be careful in how we phrase questions and in how we communicate the wonderful truths of the gospel.

(By the way, I am not just picking on the person who asked the question. This topic comes up repeatedly. Many people love to question what they do not understand. I was talking to someone last week, and they claimed the NIV "skipped" a verse. The fact of the matter is that the NIV didn't "skip" a verse; its translation was different enough from the translation the person regularly used that he didn't see what the NIV was doing. But a translator isn't going to "skip" any of God's words. At least, none that I know.)

 

Mouncew

William D. [Bill] Mounce posts about the Greek language, exegesis, and related topics at Koinonia. He is the author of numerous works including the recent Basics of Biblical Greek Video Lectures and the bestselling Basics of Biblical Greek. He is the general editor of 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, and is currently on the Committee for Bible Translation for the NIV.

Learn more about Bill's Greek resources at Teknia.com and visit his blog on spiritual growth at BiblicalTraining.org/blog/life-journey.

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