Translating any text from one language to another faces many challenges. Simplisticly some want one word in language A to match perfectly with language B. Some might be tempted to say this is the most “literal” translation. Interlinear translations follow this technique. However, it doesn’t take more than a couple examples to demonstrate why this approach fails.
Another approach claims a “general gist” of the original work, commonly known as “paraphrases.” These translations remove any semblance of translation (word context). Perhaps the two most common are The Living Bible from the 1970s and The Message of more recent vintage. Neither would be good for serious study.
In between those extremes we have two general groups of Bible translation approaches:
1. Formal Equivalence (sometimes called Word-for-word, but that is a misnomer)
The following translations represent this approach: NAS, NKJV, ESV, RSV, NRSV, HCSB, NET
2. Functional Equivalence (or meaning based)
The following translations represent this approach: GW, NLT
Some translations are difficult to categorize. Probably NIV is the best example. Sometimes the translation follows the Formal Equivalence and sometimes Functional Equivalence. Unfortunately the translators provide no basis to understand which approach is being used in a specific context and why the change. In that sense, NIV fits somewhere between the two groups.
Translation choices and connections made by the reader
This post is specifically about how a translation choice may be acceptable, but cause confusion about the connections between the thoughts of the text. I have chosen 1 Peter 3:21 as an example of where the connection can fail based on translation choices.
Greek: ὃ καὶ ⸁ὑμᾶς ἀντίτυπον νῦν σῴζει βάπτισμα, οὐ σαρκὸς ἀπόθεσις ῥύπου ἀλλὰ συνειδήσεως ἀγαθῆς ἐπερώτημα εἰς θεόν, δι᾿ ἀναστάσεως Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ
I have given several translation choices and grouped the translations based on that word choice.
NKJV: There is also an antitype which now saves us—baptism (not the removal of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God), through the resurrection of Jesus Christ,
NAS: Corresponding to that, baptism now saves you — not the removal of dirt from the flesh, but an appeal to God for a good conscience — through the resurrection of Jesus Christ,
HCSB: Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you (not the removal of the filth of the flesh, but the pledge of a good conscience toward God) through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
ESV: Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ
NJB: It is the baptism corresponding to this water which saves you now—not the washing off of physical dirt but the pledge of a good conscience given to God through the resurrection of Jesus Christ,
GW: Baptism, which is like that water, now saves you. Baptism doesn’t save by removing dirt from the body. Rather, baptism is a request to God for a clear conscience. It saves you through Jesus Christ, who came back from death to life.
NRSV And baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you—not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ
NET: And this prefigured baptism, which now saves you–not the washing off of physical dirt but the pledge of a good conscience to God—through the resurrection of Jesus Christ,
NAB: This prefigured baptism, which saves you now. It is not a removal of dirt from the body but an appeal to God for a clear conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ
NLT: And that water is a picture of baptism, which now saves you, not by removing dirt from your body, but as a response to God from a clean conscience. It is effective because of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
NIV: and this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also—not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a clear conscience toward God
REB: This water symbolized baptism, through which you are now brought to safety. Baptism is not the washing away of bodily impurities but the appeal made to God from a good conscience; and it brings salvation through the resurrection of Jesus Christ
WEB: This is a symbol of baptism, which now saves you – not the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ,
As we look at each of the translations, it is apparent that word choice is not skewed based on the translation philosophy. Formal Equivalence and Functional Equivalence translations fall into the same choice (i.e. NAS and GW, or NIV and NET).
So what is the text in Greek saying? The Greek has ἀντίτυπον, transliterated as “antitype” in NKJV. Thus, something in the Old Testament serves as a “type” and points ahead to a greater fulfillment in the New Testament, the “antitype.” There are several examples:
David the Lord/King (type) —> Jesus as Lord/King (antitype) (Matthew 22:42)
temple in Jerusalem (type) —> Jesus is temple of God (antitype) (John 2:19-21)
Atonement sacrifices (type) —> Jesus is perfect sacrifice (antitype) (Romans 3:24-25; 1 John 2:2; Hebrews 9:23-26)
So, in the context of 1 Peter 3:21, we find that Peter is giving us the type as the saving of people through the water at the time of Noah.
For Christ also died for sins bonce for all, the just for the unjust, so that He might bring us to God, having been put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit; 19 in which also He went and made proclamation to the spirits now in prison, 20 who once were disobedient, when the patience of God kept waiting in the days of Noah, during the construction of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through the water. (1 Peter 3:18-20 NAS)
Thus our diagram would look like this:
Saving of eight people through water (type) —> Baptism now saves (antitype)
So, “Baptism now saves…” and is the antitype, which is a greater thing than the saving of the eight people in the flood. Note this from BDAG: “A Platonic perspective is not implied in the passage.”
So where is the confusion?
The confusion is exemplified by the NIV translation choice (“and this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also.”). But because of the popularity of the NIV it reflects a misunderstanding even for those who use other translations.
The text is often read this way:
Saving in the flood (type) —> baptism, which is a symbol of saving (antitype)
The conclusion is that baptism does not save because it is only a symbol of saving, not the real act of saving. Having taught this passage for the past 30+ years, I found everyone coming from a “baptism is a symbol of my action” background understands the text this way. Of course, there is another problem with this reading of the text, and that is the presupposition of the reader, prior to reading this text. The presupposition is that baptism is “my act showing my faith.” Unfortunately, this presupposition leads to different understanding this specific text, but also Acts 2:38-39; Romans 6:1-11; Ephesians 4:4-6;.
So, in this case a translation choice can easily be misunderstood to support a wrong view of baptism, hence, translating confuses connections.
Baptism really does save.