“Sacred” texts Pt 1: Challenge of Translating

By “sacred” I mean those texts that are the most familiar to Christians. For some people, it doesn’t matter which translation you use, “as long as you don’t mess with____.” This can be challenging for any new translation or even a revision. The text is not only familiar but is so much part of a person’s Christian fabric that to change the text is to affect the deepest emotions, “my sacred text” overrides anything else. Our first “sacred” text is John 3:16.

John 3:16

NIV 2011

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

ESV

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”

HCSB

“For God loved the world in this way: He gave His One and Only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him will not perish but have eternal life.”

GW

God loved the world this way: He gave his only Son so that everyone who believes in him will not die but will have eternal life.

Context

As a starting point, let’s see how this verse sets within the context of John 3. Is Jesus saying this or is this John’s comment? As you look at the above translations, we see those two options:

1) ESV and HCSB affirm that the words are spoken by Jesus (also KJV, NKJV, NRSV, NAS 95, NLT, CEV, CEB, NIV 1984, NJB)

2) For NIV 2011 and GW, Jesus stops speaking at the end of v. 15 and this begins a commentary by John (also, NAB, NABRE, ERV, NET)

So, there is considerable discussion among translators on whether it belongs to Jesus’ speech or John’s comments. For the purposes of this overview, this isn’t a huge issue—after all, it is all God’s Word, whether spoken by Jesus directly or commented on by John.

The infamous “so”

How do we translate οὕτως (“so“ in KJ tradition or “in this manner” in HCSB/GW)? The word can be translated in several ways. According to BDAG:

“1. referring to what precedes, in this manner, thus, so… (ex: Matt. 6:30 and John 3:8)

2. pert. to what follows in discourse material, in this way, as follows… (ex: Luke 24:24 and James 2:12)

3. marker of a relatively high degree, so, before adj. and adv.… (ex: Gal. 3:3 and Rev. 16:18)

4. to the exclusion of other considerations, without further ado, just, simply” (ex: John 4:6)

BDAG places John 3:16 into the second category. While in the KJV style, “so” can be understood in that same way, in contemporary English “so” fits more with #3, “relatively high degree.” The footnote in the NET study edition contains the following that combines #2-3:

With this in mind, then, it is likely (3) that John is emphasizing both the degree to which God loved the world as well as the manner in which He chose to express that love. This is in keeping with John’s style of using double entendre or double meaning. Thus, the focus of the Greek construction here is on the nature of God’s love, addressing its mode, intensity, and extent.

Given this cross-over of meanings, it might be best to consider “in this way, so much.” But that doesn’t really help because no translation takes the double meaning.

But we might consider where else it is used in John’s Gospel. (Here is PDF of John3,16)

Use of houtos in John’s Gospel

As can be seen, there is no consistency even within the same translation. Of course, it would be helpful to look at 1 John at least. But this at least gives a sense of what is going. I see advantages with both translations, but given the parallel with 3:14 where “in this way” makes more sense, I tend to favor “in this way” in 3:16.

This is only scratching the surface of one “sacred” text, perhaps next to Psalm 23, the most sacred of all.

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About exegete77

disciple of Jesus Christ, husband, father, grandfather, great-grandfather, teacher, and theologian
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2 Responses to “Sacred” texts Pt 1: Challenge of Translating

  1. I’m more concerned about monogene being translated the way it is in this passage. There is a difference between being “one and only” and being only “genetic” only begotten” son.
    You and I are both adopted sons, but we are not begotten of the Father. Yet we are still sons. This is a creedal matter as well – and affects both the two natures of Christ and the our life – given to us in our baptism. The influence here of higher critical (yes even in GW) is gravely concerning.

    Thanks for the study though.. it’s interesting. I am thinking of doing a similar one, with my favorite translations and paraphrases this fall/

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    • exegete77 says:

      And it is interesting that the ESV does the same as GW. And of course, it isn’t only 3:16 that enters into this discussion. John 1:14 (and context), Hebrews 11:17, etc.

      I realized soon after beginning I could only address so many issues. In this specific case, the memorization of John 3:16 seems more affected by changing to “in this way.” The issue of “only Son” vs. “only begotten Son” is more than just a sound issue. Further checking with BAGD (1979 ed.) notes that “only” or “unique” may be sufficient for a translation in John, because in all of the Johannine literature, the word μονογενης is only used for Jesus, no one else. But others see others see the heightened sense in John based on 1:13 and the use of ἐγεννήθησαν; they advocate “only begotten.” The latter corresponds to Romans 8:29 and Col. 1:15.

      Thanks, Dustin.

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