Beyond Words

Translating the Gospel

Part 13 and 14

Editor’s Note: This is the final in 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 13

Rhetorical Figures

“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 phrase “may not perish” is part of a bold rhetorical figure which the writer uses to highlight the ultimate destiny of the person who believes in Jesus. The figure profiles the desirability of that destiny by first emphasizing what it is not.

In the original Greek, this phrase consists of the word for “not’ followed by the word ἀπόληται, which is translated in some English versions as “perish.” The primary meaning of the Greek word actually has to do with destruction and is glossed in Greek lexicons as “to destroy” or “to ruin.” In The Message, Eugene Peterson has “be destroyed.” 

Other recent versions such as Good News, God’s Word and The Contemporary English Version try to capture the fact that what is being dealt with here is a life and death matter, so the Greek word is translated into English as “die.”

The variation that we find in our English versions illustrates the difficulty of translating rhetorical figures in a way that fully and accurately captures the meaning of the original. Peterson is certainly right to translate this verse in a way that shows that believing in Christ keeps us from destruction. However, his rendering is so general that many readers will have difficulty knowing what type of destruction is being referred to. Older and more literal versions tend to use the English word “perish,” which is accurate, but also archaic because many contemporary Bible users do not use “perish” to mean “to die” anymore. By making this a life and death issue, newer versions are more easily understood, but people may take these translations too literally as referring to physical death.

Our UBS Translators Handbook warns translators that this verse has frequently “been misinterpreted to imply that if people simply believed in Jesus that they would never experience physical death.” 

The Contemporary English Version tries to avoid this misinterpretation by saying that those who have faith in Jesus will “never really die,” implying that there is a kind of death other than physical death from which they will be spared.

Ultimately, as translators we must recognize that in the case of difficult rhetorical figures such as these, our work is not enough. The work of the translators must be supplemented by the work of teachers and preachers. The Bible Society is keenly aware of the need for partnership with the Church. The work of Bible teachers, preachers, and even parents and Bible study leaders is critical for followers of Jesus to understand the Bible so they may grow and become true disciples in the Kingdom that Jesus came to bring.

Part 14

Limitations to Translation

“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)

One of the reasons Christians love this verse so much is its promise of life—eternal life. According to this verse we have this life through a combination of what God has done and our response to it. God sent his Son to save us and the anticipated response on our part is faith that results in action.

The original Greek text is ζωὴν αἰώνιον. The first Greek word is the source from which we derive our English word “zoology.” It is generally translated in English as “life.” The second word is most frequently translated into English as “eternal.”

We get our English word “eon” from this Greek root. Unfortunately in our English translation, as in many languages, the focus in a word like “eternal” tends to be on the length of time—time without end. However, in Greek and in the context of the Jewish culture in which the Gospel was written, the focus is as much on the quality of life that is promised as on the length of time. The Jewish people looked forward to a time when the Messiah would come and rule—the messianic age. Could that be what John had in mind when he wrote about eternal life in this verse?

Those of us who just read this verse in our English translations without understanding the context in which John lived and wrote, will tend to think of a time after death when the part of us that does not die goes on to live forever in heaven. However, for Jesus, and for his early followers, that time had already begun with the coming of Jesus, the long-awaited Messiah. 

Everything that Jesus did and taught was intended to demonstrate that the messianic age (the “Kingdom”) had come near. So perhaps what John is telling us here is that by believing in Jesus—by believing that he is indeed God’s Messiah—we are ushered into a whole new quality of life.

This life does not just begin at our physical death and then go on forever after that. It begins here and now, and goes on after our bodies die. It begins as soon as we recognize and place our trust in the Messiah—the one and only Son of God whom God sent into this world because He loves us so much.

The inadequacy of translations to capture the full range of what Scripture is trying to communicate profiles the importance of sound biblical teaching to help convey the depth of meaning that cannot always be captured in translation. As Bible translators, we work in partnership with the Church to bring the powerful good news of the gospel to transform people’s lives.

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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