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Words, and the Word of God (Monday with Mounce 48)

Categories Mondays with Mounce

Monday With Mounce buttonOne of the interesting issues that come up in discussions of translation theory is what I would call the mixing of the idea of a “word” and the “Word of God.” Some say that because Scripture is the Word of God, then we are required to translate word for word.


I believe in verbal plenary inspiration. This means that God’s inspiration extends to all (“plenary”) the words (“verbal”) of Scripture. But I do not think that this mandates the type of translation theory.


A charge from the formal against the functional camp is that the latter cannot believe in verbal plenary inspiration since they “leave out” words. Take, for example, the translation of και, especially in John.

και can one of the more difficult words to translate. It indicates a slight continuation (“and”). And in keeping with Hebrew, the Gospel of John begins many of his verses with και, words often omitted in more functional translations. Why? Because starting verse after verse with “and” is poor English grammar, and by using poor English grammar you are saying something about the Greek that is not true.


Does the omission of an English word for every και signal a weakened view of inspiration? No. It means that in their translation philosophy, English grammar and readability rank a little higher than in a formal equivalent translation.


Besides, there are ways to translate words without using words. How? With punctuation. When you end an English sentence with a period, and start a new sentence in the same paragraph, what is the punctuation (both the period and the paragraph) saying? It is saying that the second sentence expresses ideas that are a continuation of the ideas in the first sentence. Is the και translated? Yes, with the punctuation.


But are there dangers of not translating every word? Absolutely. Matt 5:2 can function as an example of the importance of each word. At the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, the text says Jesus “opened his mouth and taught them, saying ….” (ESV). Mark Strauss in his paper at ETS last year says that the ESV “missed the Greek idiom, which does not indicate two actions, but one.”


But the ESV does not “miss” the idiom; we knew that the text is describing one event. In fact, many functional translations “miss” the fact that there is meaning in “opened his mouth.“ The phrase indicates the solemnity of what Jesus is going to say. D.A. Carson comments that the expression is “found elsewhere in the NT (13:35; Acts 8:34; 10:34;

18:14) and reflecting OT roots (Job 3:1; 33:2; Dan 10:16). It is used in solemn or revelatory contexts” (Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 8:129). The phrase “opened his mouth” was kept in the ESV because it is part of the meaning of the passage: Jesus is about to give what has become the greatest sermon ever given.


The expression is somewhat like the English, “He took a deep breath and said.” These two verbs expressing one basic thought, with an emphasis on the solemnity of the occasion.

Now, certainly the ESV and all other translations “miss” things; no one is perfect, but One. But this is one of the dangers of the functional approach to Bible translation; there may be more in the words than we at first recognize. If the functional translator doesn’t see the nuance, it is possible that they will skip over the word. On the formal side, there is safety in holding fast to the Greek and Hebrew words since sometimes there is more in a word (or phrase) than a translator recognizes.


But does that mean translators of functional equivalent Bibles don’t believe in verbal plenary inspiration. I do not believe so. I don’t yet know all the people on the CBT (Committee for Bible Translation, the NIV translators), but those I do know have a high regard for Scripture, and I am sure Mark totally endorses verbal plenary inspiration. We are back to the issue of translation philosophy.


I am going to continue this theme in next week’s blog, but here is what I am trying to say. Just because we believe in verbal, plenary inspiration does not necessarily dictate which translation philosophy we follow. The Word of God is true. The Word of God is expressed in words and sentences and grammar and punctuation. But to equate “Word” and “word” is not accurate. None of us, for example, would translate every “word” in John 3:16 as it is written.

In this way for loved the God the world that the son to only gave so that each the one believing into him not perish but have life eternal.

We omit some words since they perform grammatical functions (“the only”) or are used differently in a different language (“the God”). We move the words around to make sense. None of this means one translation camp has a higher or lower view of Scripture.


MounceWilliam 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  

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