Better Bibles Blog has moved. Read our last post, below, and then
click here if you are not redirected to our new location within 60 seconds.
Please Bookmark our new location and update blogrolls.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Sometimes literal is the best translation

Yesterday I was reading John 1 in the NLT and came upon this wording:
As they approached, Jesus said, "Here comes an honest man – a true son of Israel." (John 1:47)
My translator antennae tune in whenever I read "son of ___" in an English translation since biblical text "son of ___" often does not have the same meaning as English "son of ___." With the NLT wording, most English readers can reasonably assume that Jesus was saying that Nathanael was the son of someone named Israel. But Jesus was not saying that Nathanael's father was named Israel. Instead, he was saying that Nathanael had the qualities of someone who truly acts as a "descendant of the man named Israel," that is, an Isrealite. (Biblically literate readers are taught that extended meaning, "descendant of ___" for biblical text "son of ___.")

I checked a number of other English versions and found that all except one other simply translate the underlying Greek word here, Israelites, as "Israelite," which is exactly the intended meaning. The other version which does not use the word "Israelite" is the CEV which is worded:
Here is a true descendant of our ancestor Israel.
Clearly, the CEV translators are trying to express the same meaning as "true Israelite."

It seems to me that those versions which literally translate (actually, transliterate) Greek Israelites to English "Israelite" are both accurate and clear. I see little reason to use any other English wording. In this case, a literal translation is probably the best translation, since it accurately and clearly communicates the original meaning to English readers. In many other cases, a literal translation does not accurately communicate the original meaning, but that is a topic for other posts.

Categories: , ,


At Sat Jan 21, 03:00:00 PM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Wayne, I suspect that you are being a bit hard on NLT here. They are not using "son" here just because it is a biblical idiom - because the Greek text does not use any word for "son". Rather, they are using an English idiom, "true son of ...". Here are some examples which Google turned up:

MATTHEW WEBB a true Son of Shropshire, was born at the height of the Industrial
Broadside ballad entitled 'A True Son of Erin's Lament for Ireland'.
Another True Son of Pittsburgh Putting Pittsburgh Back on The Right Track.
Remembering A Great Singer And True Son Of the West.
He was a true son of the Island.
Delroy Anthony Armstrong a true son of the Jamaican soil.
A True Son of Finn MacCool.
he will be a true son of the Buddha.
A true son of Hermes, he carries himself with the aristocratic grace and charming
innocence of Antoine de Saint Exupery's "Little Prince".

This idiom seems to be followed by most often by a reference to a place, not to a person, and mean something like "representative and faithful inhabitant of". But my last few examples show "true son of" with the name of an ancient (possibly mythical) person. So the NLT rendering of this verse should surely be understood in terms of this English idiom, which can very appropriately be understood as "representative and faithful follower in the tradition of Jacob/Israel".

At Sat Jan 21, 03:53:00 PM, Blogger KAT said...

There's always been something about Jesus' estimation of Nathaniel that I've found sort of amusing in a non-direct way. He finishes the statement off with saying, "in whom there is no deceit!"

"Look, a true son of Israel, in whom there is no deceit!"

Who was Israel? Jacob -- A man, as we know, who was of much deceit (albeit, still blessed).

I much prefer the translation "Israelite", because it makes it clear that it's referring to the national/religous status of Israel. "Son of Israel" puts a lingering thought in my mind that Jesus is saying that Nathaniel comes in the spirit of Israel/Jacob in some extended sense...Which is unlikely...

At Sat Jan 21, 04:13:00 PM, Blogger KAT said...


Then again, maybe Jesus really was trying to make a joke and give the statement a double meaning. It's a possibility, but I don't really think that's the case myself. I think that he was merely calling him a good Israelite.

However, there is evidence that he used the title "son of" in the sense of "in the spirit of" as well. He called James and John "the sons of thunder".

Additionally, he called Simon "bar Jonah" -- son of Jonah.

Both of these examples at least demonstrate that he was inclined to use the phrase "son of" in multiple ways.

At Sat Jan 21, 05:21:00 PM, Blogger Mike Sangrey said...

I like what the NLT did here. This text has got to make strong connections to Jacob in order to be interpreted correctly.

Straylight notices there is something funny going on here, but then drops it. Straylight, in my opinion, you should keep pushing the oddness. There's a great deal of irony going on here.

I believe what is going on in this little narrative about Nathaniel is simply that John is presenting Nathanael as the cynic examplar. He is an "Israelite with integrity" (ἀληθῶς Ἰσραηλίτης). When he is called that his response is, "Ummmmmm...really? And how exactly do you know me?" That's the right response for a cynic. Note that Jesus uses the 'deceit' (δόλος) word, and that (I think) it occurs only once in LXX Genesis. This sets in the text a very strong connection to Jacob.

Jesus' response is humorous. He refers to a rather common practice--meditating under a fig tree. (See Morris on John). That would be a lot like today if we said, "O! I saw you sitting on the porch."

Nathanael's response is, "Great! You have just gotta be the King. Really! That settles it for me!!!"

Jesus continues the humor (and irony) and says, "You believed rather easily! You'll see even greater things."

Then John does this little linguistic thing that is truly intriguing--he pauses the discussion by inserting the phrase "and then he said to him" (καὶ λέγει αὐτῷ). Why the pause in what Jesus says? Because Jesus then gets very, very serious (note the AMEN, AMEN (ἀμὴν ἀμὴν) It was this linguistic pause that convinced me of the preceding irony. He makes a very, very strong allusion to Jacob. Again!

Only, this time it is when Jacob turns from his deceitful ways and worships God because God has revealed that He wants a relatonship with people. The ladder metaphor, and the messengers traveling back and forth on it, is the picture of a relationship between two different "countries". This is exactly what John is presenting in John chapter 1 as he presents the incarnate God.

One other bit of interesting information. Nathanael is presented as a cynic here at the beginning of the gospel and then is not mentioned again. Ummmmm...till the very end (21:2)

Interesting! Nathanael must have been convinced! Which is EXACTLY what John is attempting to do with the reader with the entire gospel (cf John 20:31--and note the similarity between 20:29 and 1:50!)

This is one very interestingly constructed text!

At Sat Jan 21, 06:22:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Wayne, I suspect that you are being a bit hard on NLT here. They are not using "son" here just because it is a biblical idiom - because the Greek text does not use any word for "son". Rather, they are using an English idiom, "true son of ...".

Peter, it's a dialect issue. In my dialect we don't have the idiom "son of ___" for anything other than biological or adopted son of a person. I suspect that the same is true for many other speakers of various dialects of American English, but we'd have to field test to be sure.

Thanks for the data you gave that show that the NLT usage is possible in some dialects or for some historical stages of English.

At Sat Jan 21, 06:46:00 PM, Blogger KAT said...

Whoa Mike....Thanks for the illumination. Though I recognized that he further carried the Israel metaphor with the Jacob's Ladder passage, I never put it all together like that. Amazing.

Hmm...Yeah, it all makes sense now. I've always been intrigued by the "Amen, Amen" phrase and when/why Jesus uses it, but the connection just flew right past me on this one. Now I see though.


At Sat Jan 21, 08:06:00 PM, Blogger KAT said...


I needed to add that your explanation solves another difficulty I've had with the text for some time: Nathaniel's quick change of heart and testimony to Jesus' messiahship (which would seem so out of place from what he said moments before to Andrew....As well as out of place with the synoptic tradition that Simon was the first to truly confess Jesus' messiahship).

The "Amen, amen" saying of Jesus solves it all. It illustrates that Nathaniel really wasn't confessing. It was just more cynicism. Jesus was closing the irony, cynicism, and humor of the situation with dead seriousness. Or in comedic terms, this is when he went "deadpan".

Anyways, sorry for the derail. :)

However, I think that I need to subscribe to Mike's newsletter, if he has one. ;P

At Sun Jan 22, 02:14:00 PM, Blogger Tim said...

Really, really helplful and illuminating commentary on the text, Mike - thanks a lot (and no irony intended at all!!!).

Tim C.


Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home