Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Ambiguity and Literal Translation

"Therefore from now on we recognize no one according to the flesh; even though we have known Christ according to the flesh, yet now we know Him in this way no longer." (II Corinthians 5:16 NASB)

"From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way." (II Corinthians 5:16 NRSV)

As a young man, I struggled with the great New Testament scholar Rudolf Bultmann's negative assessment of early Christian memories of the details of the life of the historical Jesus. Bultmann argued that only the resurrected Christ - a cosmic being beyond human description - concerned the early Christians. The biographical details of the life of a particular Palestinian Jew from the backwaters of the Galilee were of no enduring interest to the primitive Christian community. For Bultmann, Paul clearly states this principle in II Corinthians 5:16 where he affirms that he (and, by implication, other Christians) no longer concerned themselves with knowledge of Jesus' life "according to the flesh."

But this reading of II Corinthians 5:16 betrays the ambiguity that often accompanies overly literal translation. Compare the literal translation of this passage in the New American Standard Bible (NASB) and the "dynamic equivalence" translation of the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV). The more literal translation leaves ambiguity in the meaning of the Greek propositional phrase "kata sarka" ("according to the flesh").

The literal NASB translation seems to read this propositional phrase adjectivally referring to the noun "Christ". The result (similar to Bultmann's view) is that Paul no longer concerns himself with the details of the "fleshly" biography of Jesus of Nazareth.

The dynamic NRSV translation sees the phrase "kata sarka" adverbially, modifying the verb "know". Thus, Paul states that "from now on" - that is, since the radical transformation to new life that he has experienced in Christ - he can no longer know Christ in the old (mistaken) way he did before. Christians know Christ through "transformed" eyes, no longer from the "human point of view" they had previously known.

Regarding "kata sarka", the esteemed Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (TDNT) interprets this phrase in the context of II Corinthians 5:16 as knowing "qualities which are only on the surface" and having "regard only to what is seen and what counts to men." For the TDNT, the phrase "according to the flesh" is used as an adverb and modifies the verb "know', denoting "a knowledge of Christ which judges by human standards" - a knowledge which Paul explicitly states he can no longer maintain.

[It is interesting to note that even Bultmann (in his Theology of the New Testament) acknowledges that "kata sarka" is best understood as an adverb in II Corinthians 5:16. But he nevertheless held to his position that this grammatical reality makes no difference - "means nothing" in his own words - in light of Paul's obvious lack of interest in the life of the historical Jesus. Many contemporary scholars would strongly disagree with both Bultmann's interpretation of II Corinthians 5:16 and his view that early Christians showed no interest in the memory of the historical Jesus.]

In conclusion, while it may seem that the most literal translation of a biblical text is the one that is most faithful to its true meaning, this is often not the case. "Words have usage, not meaning," my old Greek professor, Roger Greene, reminds us.

The goal of biblical translation is to communicate words (and the ideas behind them) across barriers of language, culture, and time and, in turn, to allow these words (and ideas) to speak to our situation today. This is not always an easy task. A well-meaning commitment to the most literal translation of a text possible may sound the most faithful to the original text when in fact such literalism can cloud rather than clarify the text's meaning.


  1. Excellent post, Joe, on the idiomatic translation of 2 Co. 5:16. Indeed, I use this very passage with my Greek students to demonstrate the importance of changing Greek idiomatic language into appropriate English idioms. Of course, dynamic equivalencies have their own dangers, both since the reader without knowledge of Greek and Hebrew cannot tell when the translator is using them and because the dynamic equivalency lends itself more easily to eisegesis. The reader must trust the translator's expertise and that he or she is offering a responsible rendering. On the other hand, not to use idiomatic language, as you pointed out, can lead to inappropriate conclusions, especially when a Greek phrase, such as this one in 2 Co. 5, can be very easily misunderstood by an English reader. Some dynamic equivalencies are more-or-less obvious, such as, the concluding references in 2 and 3 John about meeting the believers "mouth to mouth" (stoma pros stoma). Even the KJV, which is not given to dynamic equivalencies, uses one here ("face to face"). On the other hand, an example of an irresponsible dynamic equivalency comes in the Good as New Bible, published not many years ago in Great Britain. For 1 Co. 7:1-2, which in Greek says, "Now concerning the things about which you wrote...let each man have his wife and each woman her own husband." The GNB, in an effort to be more homosexually friendly, has mistranslated this as, "My advice for everyone to have a regular partner." This is an egregious mistranslation and unworthy of any serious and unprejudiced scholar, but the average English reader is not to know this without prior knowledge of Greek.

  2. Very good reminder, Dan, that dynamic equivalence translations can also reflect the prejudgments and shortcomings of all human translators.