Saturday, March 18, 2017

The Most Ambiguously Translated Verse In The Entire New Testament

TWH: Ambiguity in Bible translation isn't necessarily a bad thing. I've discussed this on a number of occasions. If you're interested in reading some of my thoughts on so-called "literal" and "word-for-word" translations, you can read my post "On The Expressions 'Word-For-Word' And 'Literal' Dealing With Translations" (click here). Ambiguity in translation allows room for study and teaching.  It means there is less interpretation involved than there would be if there was less ambiguity. One example of ambiguity, in case you're curious about what I mean, is "for us" in Rom. 5:8. By ὑπὲρ ἡμῶν Paul could be referring to Jesus' substitutionary death (i.e., he died in place of the sinners). I believe that's how Paul is using the phrase here. But that's not the only way that the expression could be understood. It's also found in Rom. 8:31, but there it is what is known as a genitive of advantage (i.e., "for us" = the opposite of "against us"). So, let's say someone didn't believe Paul was highlighting Jesus' substitutionary sacrifice in Romans 5. It would be very difficult for them to use a translation that went ahead and offered a translation that brought out that aspect of his death. Therefore, translators have opted for the ambiguous translation, which opens the translation up to a broader audience.

Someone asked me the other day about what I consider the most ambiguously translated verse in the entire New Testament. That was a great question. And I didn't need long to think about it at all. It just so happens that the verse I consider the most ambiguously translated verse is also one of the most significant verses in the entire New Testament. That's at least part of the reason for the ambiguity. Even translations that are not way on one end of the spectrum like the ESV and NASB use a fairly standard translation when it comes to the verse I'm about to mention.

Here's how I would translate/paraphrase 2 Cor. 5:18-21:
"Now all of these things are from God the Father, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation. When we say that God the Father was reconciling the world to himself by Christ, we are saying that God the Father stopped holding their trespasses against them. And he's given to us the message of reconciliation. What's that mean? Well, it means we are ambassadors for Christ. We go out representing him. When we go out and talk to people, it's as if God the Father is going out and making an appeal through our words and actions. We say what he would say! We go where Jesus wants us to go, and we beg people on his behalf. What would he say? 'Be reconciled to God the Father!' God the Father treated his Son Jesus Christ as if he had committed every single sin in the history of the world, even though he never committed a single sin; and God the Father did that so that he could treat those of us who believe in his Son as if we had never committed a single sin, even though we had committed them all."
Pay attention to the last verse––v. 21, which I've italicized. Paul says this is the message of reconciliation. How can someone be reconciled to God the Father? The answer to that question is believing the message that Paul explains in v. 21.

Now here are some of the many translations (though some I include are considered paraphrases) of this passage:
NIV: "God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God."
ERV: "Christ had no sin, but God made him become sin so that in Christ we could be right with God."
ESV: "For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God."
NASB: "He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him."
HCSB: "He made the One who did not know sin to be sin for us, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him."
ISV: "God made the one who did not know sin to be sin for us, so that God’s righteousness would be produced in us."
MSG: "How? you ask. In Christ. God put the wrong on him who never did anything wrong, so we could be put right with God."
I actually have to go to Spanish to find a translation that looks closest to my own: "Cristo nunca pecó. Pero Dios lo trató como si hubiera pecado, para declararnos inocentes por medio de Cristo" (TLA). In English that is, "Christ never sinned. But God treated him like he had sinned, so that he could declare us innocent through Christ."

What makes this so interesting is this verse is "the message" that God uses to reconcile people to himself. But if this message is unclear or ambiguous, where then is its power to accomplish that purpose that Paul says it has. Ambiguity has its place. I agree with that. I benefit from an ambiguous translation on a regular basis, but it also means that I need to recognize ambiguity in translations. Sometimes people don't recognize the ambiguity. Sometimes they just settle for it. I see this in churches that I visit around the world. 2 Corinthians 5:21 is one of those very important verses in the New Testament. This verse that actually contains "the message" will almost never show up in an evangelism resource. Other verses are pulled together to build the message. There's nothing wrong with that per se. But I think the reason has to do with the ambiguity in the translation. If it weren't the norm, I think this verse would show up in more discussions on the gospel, not just those that are more theological in nature.

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