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Monday, August 20, 2007

Live of the Gospel

My first Bible was a King James, and underlined in red in that Bible are the following words from 1 Corinthians 9:14:

they which preach the gospel should live of the gospel

I underlined those words in red because I took them to mean that we should practice what we preach. Those who preach the gospel should live of the gospel; that is, live in conformity to and consistency with the gospel.

Imagine my surprise when some time later I read the same verse in the NIV:

those who preach the gospel should receive their living from the gospel

That's still an important biblical principle, but unless you're a professional minister stumping for a raise, it's not something you're likely to underline in red in your Bibles!

This is an excellent example of how a concordant translation (one which tries to translate each Greek or Hebrew word with an equivalent English word) can lead to misunderstanding and misinterpretation. Had I paid a little more attention to the context of this verse, I would have realized that "live of the gospel" referred to earning or receiving one's "living." But as a teenager reading the Bible as a series of individual verses, I completely misunderstood the meaning of the phrase.

The way the NIV (and just about every other modern translation) renders this phrase is much more clearly understandable to modern readers. And while less concordant than the KJV, it is actually surprisingly "transparent" to the original Greek. In English, we use the gerund "living" (a verbal noun) to refer to our monetary income. The Greek of 1 Corinthians 9:14 uses the infinitive (a verbal noun) to express the idea that preachers are "to live" out of the proceeds they receive from those who benefit from their message. So English translations are able to use a noun form of the verb "live" to translate the noun form of the Greek verb meaning "to live." However, preserving the "living" idea also requires the insertion of additional words such as "get" or "receive" and "their." Still, "get their living from the gospel" is pretty darn close to a "literal" or "concordant" translation.

But what if English didn't happen to use the word "living" to express the idea of income? Then we would need to step further away from a concordant translation to use a word like "support" or "income." Both the NLT and the Message use the idea of "being supported" to render the Greek verb meaning "to live." They even go so far as to identify who is doing the supporting—an identification which is not made explicit in the original Greek. Such translations are certainly more "dynamic," but they have nevertheless accurately expressed the idea being communicated in the original Greek. What's more, it could certainly be argued that they communicate the idea more clearly than those translations which use the idea of "receiving one's living"—especially if that expression is less well known to younger generations.

My misreading of 1 Corinthians 9:14 as a teenager is an excellent example of the dangers of being too "literal" in translation, as well as a warning to readers not to read verses without a proper understanding of the surrounding context. But there's a silver lining here as well: and that's that the Holy Spirit can overcome our misreading of Scripture and even use it. At the time, the idea that we should "practice what we preach" was more applicable to me than the notion that the "worker deserves his wages," and though I got that idea from the wrong verse, the Holy Spirit nevertheless used it in my life. What's more, he later showed me my mistake. To this day, I have no idea why I realized that the verse I was reading in the NIV was the same verse I had previously read as "practice what you preach" in the King James. I could easily have assumed that they were two distinct passages. I'm convinced that I made the connection and realized the mistake not because I'm particularly smart, but because at that time, God was teaching me how to read Scripture more responsibly.

Thus, God condescends to communicate with us through his Word wherever we happen to be in life and whatever our level of interpretive skill. That should be a comfort to all of us as we strive to "live of the gospel."


At Mon Aug 20, 10:59:00 AM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...

Nice post, Dave, and it picks up a point in 1 Cor. that I missed.


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