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Wednesday, January 09, 2008

translating pisteuw

The Greek word pisteuw is one of the most important, as well as common, words in all of the New Testament. Yet English Bible translators differ on how they translate it. Some translate it as "believe"; others as "have faith". There are other translation possibilities as well (such as "trust" mentioned by Psalmist in a comment on the first version of this post).

One of my favorite stories in the Bible is about the healing of Jairus' daughter. In Luke 8:50, Jesus tells Jairus (in translation):
Don't be afraid. Just have faith, and she will be healed. (NLT)
Don't be afraid; just believe, and she will be healed. (NIV, TNIV)
As you can see, these two translation wordings are identical other than for how they translate the Greek command, pisteuson. Like the NLT, these translations also use "have faith": REB, CEV. The following versions use "believe": KJV; RSV, NRSV, ESV, NASB, ISV, GW, NCV, HCSB.

Which translation of the Greek command do you prefer and why? What factors do you think English translators should take into account when deciding which English word(s) to use to translate the Greek word?

Feel free to register your preference in the new poll in the blog margin, as well as comment on this post.


At Wed Jan 09, 03:10:00 PM, Blogger Psalmist said...

Wayne, I hope it's OK to ask a basic question:

Is there any solid case to be made for "Just trust, and she will will be healed"?

At Wed Jan 09, 03:15:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Psalmist asked:

Is there any solid case to be made for "Just trust, and she will will be healed"?

Yes, Psalmist, I, believe (!) there is. That would be another translation option. Another would be "depend on God" or "depend on me".

At Wed Jan 09, 03:47:00 PM, Blogger codepoke said...

Yeah. This one has gone beyond the pale of common english versus historical english. This one has been entombed in amber and it's now a fossil. The mere phrase, "have faith," is crushed under baggage from Volataire and Descartes and Bill Bright that no two words should ever be asked to lift.

The problem is, if you whisk that little word "faith" away, half the Christian world will probably press the backs of their hands to their foreheads, and faint dead away.

Give me "believe," "trust," or even "count on."

At Wed Jan 09, 04:10:00 PM, Blogger Richard A. Rhodes said...

This is one of my favorite whipping posts. In real English, believe is not an intransitive verb. And, as codepoke has just said, have faith is now a technical term. (But, interestingly, have faith in is not. It's not hard to find statements out side of a religious context like: Sometimes, it’s hard to have faith in democracy, in people. [from 2parse/blog]

Although it sounds humorous now, Jesus was saying something closer to "Just trust me (on this)."


Just trust me, she'll be healed.

Notice that when you translate this right, it reflects our utter dependence on God and Jesus and takes us out of the picture, as if our twisting ourselves inside out to try to "believe" controls whether God acts or not.

In such contexts I have a harder time getting depend.

At Wed Jan 09, 06:51:00 PM, Blogger mgvh said...

I have a number of arguments, especially in the case of Luke 8.50, to argue for the use of "believe" or "trust." I posted them on
my blog
. I also provide an example of using BibleWorks and Logos to conduct searches on the Greek phrase exw pistin.

At Wed Jan 09, 08:00:00 PM, Blogger J. K. Gayle said...

Translators with a literary approach:

"Do not fear. Only believe."
-Willis Barnstone

"Have no fear. Only believe."
-Richmond Lattimore

"Now don't be afraid, go on believing. . ."
-J.B. Phillips

At Wed Jan 09, 11:19:00 PM, Blogger lingamish said...

I was thinking about this while translating 1 Timothy. 1 Timothy 1 is full of pistis and related words and there doesn't seem to be one word that will cover them. Also, one of the senses definitely seems to be "The Faith" as in Christianity.

At Thu Jan 10, 05:12:00 AM, Blogger J. K. Gayle said...

Since Lingamish brings up the senses of pistis:

Frances Young, in "Methodological Reflection on Jean [Vanier] on [the Gospel of] John," in Zondervan's Canon and Biblical Interpretation (2006), draws from Greek rhetoric:

ethos, logos, pathos, are all centered around pistis;

hence, author, text, reader, centered around faith;

and Paul, letter to Corinthians, Corinthian Christians, around faith;

and Holy Spirit, Scriptures, believers, around faith.

The hermeneutic model depends on overlaps between how the Greeks and the later Greek writing Christians interpret pistis (as "faith" and/or "proofs")

At Thu Jan 10, 05:34:00 AM, Blogger Gary Zimmerli said...

It seems to me that neither "believe" nor "have faith" says it completely. There's a subtle difference between them. So even though it adds words to the sentence, I think that the phrase "believe and have faith" may get the idea across better than one or the other.

At Thu Jan 10, 11:31:00 AM, Blogger Richard A. Rhodes said...

One of the really big problems in Bible translation is that we perform an anachronistic twist without realizing it.

In the 21st century church (actually the church stretching back to the 4th century or so) has worked out a very rich theological understanding of what the words of Scripture imply and we proceed to confuse that understanding with what it is the writers of Scripture actually said. To Jesus and to Paul this language was not the honed technical language of the theologian. When we project our understanding of theology back into the text, we make a grave mistake. The text is primary, the theology is secondary. When we translate based on our theology we utterly subvert what God wants to do with the Scripture.

believe, belief and faith, have faith are right at the top of the list of theologically technical terms, especially when the verbs are used intransitively. We feel driven to say that translations using trust are wrong, not because they are, but because we have a theology which is associated with the terms belief and faith, and to admit that the original language says trust is to question our theology, which, BTW, I think is wrong.

The Scripture calls us to trust God, not to give mental assent to a list of doctrines.

At Thu Jan 10, 11:43:00 AM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Rich concluded:

The Scripture calls us to trust God, not to give mental assent to a list of doctrines.

Amen! I have found the former harder to do than the latter. But as I have risked trusting God, it is so much more satisfying than the latter.

Now we're getting to where the rubber meets the road, where Bible translation can actually make a difference in a person's life. Now *that* is quite a concept!

At Thu Jan 10, 12:18:00 PM, Blogger Psalmist said...

Thanks for the information. My NT prof once said that the only adequate way to translate this word would be if we suddenly understood "faith" as a verb in English. He maintained that "Just FAITH, and she will be healed" was the way he wished it could be translated.

Not having studied the language myself, I took his word for it and it changed how I read many cherished "faith" passages of the NT.

At Thu Jan 10, 12:27:00 PM, Blogger J. K. Gayle said...

To Jesus and to Paul this language was not the honed technical language of the theologian.

Yes, and even before Jesus and Paul, there were these beginnings of honings of theological language:

The use of πίστις by both Hesiod and Homer is with reference to the deities. For example, Zeus has faith and is trusted. Zeus is “τοῖς πίσυνος θνητοῖσι” or is “trusting in the dread weapons” in Theogeny (506) as Lykaon’s son has had πίσυνος or trust in his bow in the Iliad (5.205). Then, in the Iliad (9.238), Hector is “ἐκπάγλως πίσυνος Διΐ,” or is “confident that Zeus is with him” or is “trusting in Zeus” or is “reliant on Zeus.” Furthermore, in the Iliad (21.286), Poseidon and Pallas Athene shake hands to confirm an “oath of faith.”: “χειρὶ δὲ χεῖρα λαβόντες ἐπιστώσαντ' ἐπέεσσι.”

Then later in Alexandria, Egypt (but still before Jesus and Paul) there's the Septuagint, with its further theological honing of the word, such as:

καὶ ἐπίστευσεν Αβραμ τῷ θεῷ, καὶ ἐλογίσθη αὐτῷ εἰς δικαιοσύνην.

(PS: neither épi-stémè nor épi-stémé with their prepositional formations, highlighted by my hyphens here, is to be confused with πίστις, as the root of ἐ-πίστευσεν)

At Thu Jan 10, 09:34:00 PM, Blogger Kevin said...

"have faith" vs. "believe"? I'm not sure if either accurately expresses the meaning of faith. I'm not sure if we really have a handle of the meaning of pisteuw. Depending on your theology, this may differ. From an Augustinian point-of-view (and Luther and Calvin both agreed with Augustine), faith is not something of one's own making. We Christians often think of faith as something that is simply conjured up from within ourselves--"just believe and it will happen." Both Augustine and Luther would deeply disagree with this. They would say there is absolutely nothing within ourselves that could cause one to believe since there is only sin and darkness within the human heart. Faith can only come from God. So whether faith is understood as a verb or a noun, it ought to be understood as God being the source of one's faith. Faith is nothing human beings own outright so we can't take any credit for having faith in the first place. Therefore, to say: "have faith" or "believe" might not accurately express Jesus' intended meaning. So the NLT's translation of Luke 8:50 might be translated as: "Don't be afraid. Just receive faith, and she will be healed."

At Fri Jan 11, 12:27:00 PM, Blogger chad said...

I really think that "trust" would be a good option here. I agree with how some people are not fond of using these words that are filled with religious overtones (faith, believe).

But I also like the idea that it would be easier to understand if Faith were a verb.

I know in Greek we learned that the main translation for pisteuw was faith, but I think that it may be time for us to move on.

At Fri Jan 11, 01:05:00 PM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Kevin, I would be rather surprised if Jesus was expressing Augustinian theology at this point. I don't think his words should be translated as if he was. This is not necessarily to reject Augustine's understanding of faith, more to suggest that it is very likely irrelevant to this situation in which Jesus is not talking in technical theological categories.

At Fri Jan 11, 05:47:00 PM, Blogger Dan Sindlinger said...

Another option is to use the term confidence, as in The Better Life Bible:

"Jesus overheard what they said, so he told Jairus not to be upset but to have confidence that he could bring her back to life."

At Mon Jan 14, 04:51:00 PM, Blogger Kevin said...

Peter, if we got too technical about it, our biblical translation for pisteuw would probably get quite messy.

At Tue Jan 15, 03:21:00 AM, Blogger J. K. Gayle said...

You get us to a good insight about Jesus. His imperative pisteuo is likely NOT Greek at all but rather the translation by his disciples of his Hebrew Aramaic command.

Question: if all scripture is inspired by God (and if some of you think it's also without error), then is it the Greek translation or the unknown Hebrew Aramaic of Jesus? Or are both inspired (without and/or without error)?

You make a good point about messiness in translation. Elsewhere, I've written about how differently scholars of rhetoric have translated pistis implying there's a mess indeed.

At Tue Jan 15, 09:01:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Kurk, I think almost all evangelicals, including myself, consider that the authoritative text of the gospels etc is the surviving Greek, not some hypothetical reconstructed Hebrew or Aramaic version. Indeed even if an original Hebrew or Aramaic text were found and proved to be genuine, it would not thereby have automatic authority. But this is not really my point in my comment, which is about Jesus' words as presented by the apostles, not as (mis?)understood by Augustine and his successors.


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