Graphic: Cindy Buckshon
Beyond Words

Translating the Gospel

Part 9 and 10

Hart Wiens

Editor’s Note:This is part of a series of 14 articles reflecting on the verse John 3:16 word by word. The series illustrates some of the challenges Bible translators face as they seek to present God’s Good News in every language spoken on earth. 

Part 9: Lexical Equivalence

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” (John 3:16)

The little Greek word pas (πᾶς) is represented by the two English words “everyone who.” The translators of the King James Version, writing in an older form of the English language, were able to use just one word, “whosoever.” The Canadian Oxford Dictionary labels this word “archaic.” More recent versions such as the New International and the Revised Standard have also tried to retain one-word equivalence, with “whoever.” Unfortunately, in contemporary usage this has become a rather flippant slang expression for the youth culture in the same domain as “whatever.” This contemporary usage of the term tends to diminish its appropriateness to convey the meaning intended by the original Greek term.

"Jesus made it clear that He came to earth to love and rescue all people, regardless of their origins. That’s Good News!"

The term used in the Greek actually means “all” or “every.” In this grammatical construction it means “everyone who.” This is exactly the rendering that the New Revised Standard Version and other meaning-based versions such as the Good News Translation and the Contemporary English Version have chosen. The term extends the invitation as widely as possible. Using the word “everyone” challenges our human tendency to be ethnocentric.

The early followers of Jesus were Jewish. They had grown up with the view that they were God’s chosen people and therefore superior to the Gentiles, who, according to them, lived outside of God’s blessing and providence. They held this view even though, in the covenant God made with their ancestor Abraham, He had specifically indicated His intention to cause them to “be a blessing to all nations on earth” (Genesis 22.18, CEV). This sense of superiority is a natural part of our human nature. We tend to define God in our own image and to believe that He cares about us more than He does about others. Jesus challenged these assumptions. He made it clear that He came to earth to love and rescue all people, regardless of their social, religious or ethnic origins. That’s Good News!

 The Good News that Jesus brought has a universal implication that motivates His followers. They go to great lengths to ensure that this message is made available to all people in the language and style of communication that speaks to them most clearly. This is why the Canadian Bible Society, along with its many partners such as Wycliffe Bible Translators, focuses significant resources on the support of Bible translation in Canada and around the world. People speaking several thousand languages still lack the ability to hear this Good News in a language they can really understand. We rely on your prayers and support to change this situation.

Part 10: Key Terms

This word “believes” is a “key term” because of the critical role it plays in communicating the message of the Bible. In the gospel, belief is the channel through which salvation by grace comes to people (Ephesians 2:8). The Greek root is translated in English as “believe” or “faith,” depending on the version and context. This core word occurs 240 times in the New Testament.

The translator’s challenges are to first understand the concept in the Greek, and second, to express it in the language receiving the new translation. It’s critical to go to the source text for key terms, ensuring faithfulness to the original.

“'To believe' carried a deeper meaning of acceptance, not just at the head level, but also in the heart."

There is a problem with our English verb “to believe.” For those not very familiar with the gospel, its meaning may be limited to a dictionary-level understanding of simply accepting something as true. That is belief at the intellectual level. In the context of the gospel, the original term carried a deeper meaning of acceptance, not just at the head level, but also in the heart. Whenever the original Greek term is used in conjunction with the preposition “in” or “into” as it is in this verse, it carries the meaning of faith or confidence in a person to the extent of acting on that faith.

We struggle for the right word to translate key terms such as “believe.” Sometimes a language has a unique word that captures the full meaning. The common word for believe in Kalinga is “manuttuwa.” It goes back to the word for truth, which in Kalinga is “tuttuwa.” When used as a verb, this term is commonly used to mean “believe” as well as “obey.” The Kalinga understand intuitively that to believe in Jesus means to obey His teaching. This does not make the road to discipleship any easier for them. However, it does bring their understanding of the gospel more directly in line with the teachings of our Lord’s brother James, who maintains in his letter that faith without works is dead.

Translation is never easy. Often it seems downright impossible to simply and accurately convey some of the teachings of the Gospel in other languages. But at other times we experience the serendipity of finding concepts in a new language that convey the message about Christ with a clarity that almost transcends the original. There is always something to be learned by reading or hearing the message in a new language. 

Reprinted with permission from the Canadian Bible Society’s “Translating the Gospel” article series, written by Hart Wiens, CBS director of Scripture translation. Hart and his wife Ginny served with Wycliffe Canada in a Bible translation project among the Kalinga people in the Philippines for 19 years. More recently, Hart has been a Wycliffe Canada board member.

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