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Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Luke 2:16 How many were in the manger?

The Gospel reading at our church this last Sunday was Luke 2:1-20. I noticed during the reading that the pew Bible (NRSV) had the traditional wording of verse 16:
So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger.
With this wording there is potential ambiguity: It can sound like there were three people lying in the manger. The translators try to get readers to avoid this understanding by placing a comma after Joseph, but not all readers notice the comma and not all who notice the comma pause long enough at the comma for it to signal that there was only the baby lying in the manger.

Other traditionally worded versions with this potential ambiguity are the KJV, RSV, and ESV.

Dynamic equivalent translations avoid the problem by restructuring the English a bit. The meaning remains exactly the same as Luke intended it with his Greek, but the problem of the ambiguity in English over how many were in the manger, is removed because the DE translations do not follow the form of the Greek. Notice, for instance, how the God's Word translation removes the ambiguity:
They went quickly and found Mary and Joseph with the baby, who was lying in a manger.
The TEV makes explicit the verb "saw" which is semantically implicit in the Greek:
So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph and saw the baby lying in the manger.
There is, by the way, no ambiguity of number in the original Greek which has a particle te preceding the names of Mary and Joseph. That particle means 'both' which limits the first conjoined noun phrase to Mary and Joseph, and leaves 'the child' (or 'the baby') as the subject of the participle keimenon 'lying.'

Essentially literal translations can also avoid the ambiguity. The NASB avoids the problem of ambiguity with its translation of the Greek participle phrase:
So they came in a hurry and found their way to Mary and Joseph, and the baby as He lay in the manger.
The NIV and TNIV--in this verse essentially literal translations--avoid introducing ambiguity by translating the participle clause as "who was lying ..." which requires a singular subject--and the only preceding singular noun is Greek brephos 'child, baby':
So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger.
The HCSB, another essentially literal translation, does the same, and is, in my opinion, an even more precise translation, since it explicitly translates the Greek particle te as 'both':
They hurried off and found both Mary and Joseph, and the baby who was lying in the feed trough.
Better Bibles are translated in ways which do not introduce ambiguities which are not in the original biblical languages.

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At Wed Dec 07, 10:30:00 AM, Blogger Stephen C. Carlson said...

The choice between "feed trough" and "manger" is also pretty interesting and better conveys Luke's point. For years as a kid, I thought that a manger was some primitive kind of baby furniture that used straw instead of cushions that happened to found in barns, or something like that.

At Wed Dec 07, 11:20:00 AM, Blogger Funky Dung said...

What I thought was farther off. I thought the manger was the structure, not the "bed". I think most Christians have the same mistaken belief. Folks selling "manger scenes" don't help.

At Wed Dec 07, 06:29:00 PM, Blogger Joe said...

I used to use this verse to make my youth group think. We'd play with various ways of thinking of it.

Nice to know that the Greek was unambiguous.

At Wed Dec 14, 10:37:00 AM, Blogger Jeremy Pierce said...

I don't see the ambiguity. Someone who doesn't know proper punctuation might misinterpret the sentence as ambiguous, and perhaps someone hearin it spoken if it's not accented properly might think so, but the sentence as it stands is not ambiguous. It cannot mean that all three were lying in the manger. The sentence as it stands is:

So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger.

If it were as follows, it would be ambiguous:

So they went with haste and found Mary, Joseph, and the child lying in the manger.

In the second version, 'lying in the manger' could modify 'the child', or it could modify the whole noun phrase. In the first version, it can't. The ungrammatical comma in the first version separates 'Mary and Joseph' from the phrase 'the child lying in the manger'. I don't see how someone who looks at how it's punctuated could take it the way you suggest is possible. It's still wrong to put a comma between two parts of a noun phrase the way they did, but I don't think it's ambiguous.


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