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Words, and the Word of God—γαρ (Monday with Mounce 49)

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I want to continue the conversation from last week when I was talking about verbal, plenary inspiration but this time from the formal side. The question is whether functional translations betray a lower view of Scripture since they don’t translate every Greek word.

Let’s take a passage from the NIV that has long been an issue of debate, and that is the “absence” of translating all the occurrences of γαρ.  Here are the relevant parts of Rom 3:9-19 (NIV’s paragraphing). Paul begins by expressing his thankfulness for them and then says:

(8) First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is being reported all over the world. (9) γαρ God, whom I serve with my whole heart in preaching the gospel of his Son, is my witness how constantly I remember you (10) in my prayers at all times; and I pray that now at last by God’s will the way may be opened for me to come to you.

(11) γαρ I long to see you so that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to make you strong …. (13) I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that I planned many times to come to you (but have been prevented from doing so until now) in order that I might have a harvest among you, just as I have had among the other Gentiles.

(14) I am obligated both to Greeks and Non-Greeks, both to the wise and the foolish. (15) That is why I am so eager to preach the gospel also to you who are at Rome.

(16) γαρ I am not ashamed of the gospel, because (γαρ) it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. (17) For (γαρ) in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.”

(18) γαρ The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness ….

The charge can be made that the NIV does not translate the γαρ in vv 11, 16, and 18, and in some people’s minds this raises the issue of verbal, plenary inspiration. “If God inspired the biblical writers to say γαρ, then we should translate every one of God’s words.” The argument is that γαρ is an explicit indicator of a causal relationship that should likewise be explicit in the translation.

  • Paul is thankful for the Romans because God witnesses to his prayerful thankfulness.
  • Paul wants to come to Rome because he wants to be mutually encouraged.
  • Paul is eager to preach in Rome because he is not ashamed of the gospel.
  • The truth of Paul’s affirmation, “The righteous will live by faith,” is seen to be true because God’s wrath is just punishment for the sin of the world.

Is it fair to conclude that the translators have a lower view of Scripture? I don’t think so. It is an issue of semantic range and translation theory.

1. γαρ has a meaning somewhat less emphatic meaning than a full strength “because.” BDAG gives these three meanings/glosses.

  • marker of cause or reason, for
  • marker of clarification, for, you see
  • marker of inference, certainly, by all means, so, then

The third meaning is weaker than the first, and the second weaker than the third. In other words, γαρ does not always mean “for” in the sense of “because.” As you look at v 9 this is readily apparent. Any kind of causal relationship is forced and “for” can be seen as too strong a word. Schreiner says that it “introduces the next major theme” (page 49), which ”for” does not.

Once this semantic range is seen, it helps explains why the NIV does not always translate it. The γαρ in v 11 introduces reasons for why he wants to come to Rome (v 10). γαρ could have been translated here, but this introduces the issue of how English links concepts. English, and perhaps other noninflected languages, uses series to logically connect ideas. When we hear “A” and it is followed by “B,” it is natural for us to see that there is a connection between the two, and we determine the connection by context. Anyone reading v 11 in context will understand the connection and, it can be argued, an explicit translation of the γαρ is unnecessary.

However, I do not understand why the γαρ in v 16 is untranslated.

And finally, the γαρ in v 18 is problematic. Vv 18ff. are a justification of the theme verses of vv 16-17. God’s justified wrath against all people (who do not follow justification by faith) is evidence that there is no justification apart from faith. And to make things worse, most translation put a section heading before v 18, since 1:18 - 3:20 is a major section in Paul’s thought. More and more I don’t like headings since they break so many connections.

So what is my point? You don’t have to agree with the exegesis, but hopefully you can see how not translating every word does not necessarily indicate a person’s view of inspiration. Even the ESV and NET don’t translate every word; just skim the footnotes on the NET Bible to see all the occurrences of δε that went untranslated.

There is not an exact equivalence between the Greek and English words, and sometimes an explicit translation is too strong, and the sense of the Greek is carried over in context or by punctuation. But nowhere in this discussion is there a justified criticism on a person’s view of verbal plenary inspiration.

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 www.billmounce.com.  

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