Sunday 3 June 2012

More than likely your Bible is wrong because of peer pressure. Its translators didn’t want to offend or alarm anyone, so they deliberately mistranslated certain verses. Not minor verses either, which is the root of the problem. Certain popular verses have been repeated and memorized by enough people that translators preserve older language rather than strive for accuracy. Older language isn’t intrinsically worse, but when the meaning of the included words has shifted dramatically over the centuries, older translations can diverge from the documents they originally represented unless readers understand which meaning to use.

To me the most bothersome example comes from John 3:16. If your Bible says something like this–”For God so loved the world…”–then you’re a victim. (Just to head off potential lynch mobs, I’m not about to suggest that God doesn’t love the world.) Some translations put it this way: “God loved the world so very much….” Of the thirty translations I’ve investigated, only three have a more accurate rendering. (To his credit, and I don’t often give him credit for much, Martin Luther’s German translation is one of those three.) Even translations with dramatically different styles and philosophies will include that version of John 3:16 almost verbatim because that’s the form that everyone knows.

As a way of illustrating the problem, let me pose a rhetorical question: do the two translations I provided above seem to say the same thing? Is “For God so loved the world” basically the same as “God loved the world so very much?” Most contemporary English speakers will probably think it is.

In contemporary English the word “so” has two common uses; I can illustrate them both with a simple story. “I missed my mother so I resolved to call her soon. I was so happy when she called me instead.” In the first sentence, “so” establishes the connection between the two thoughts; in the second it’s used for emphasis.

In John 3:16, because “so” occurs right next to “loved,” it seems natural to assume that it’s for emphasis too. That translation isn’t from contemporary English, though, it’s from a time when the word had different uses.

Consider another example: “If you don’t want your omelets to break apart, you need to flip them carefully like so.” In that sentence “so” isn’t connecting anything or being used for emphasis; it’s being used to point to a particular way of doing something. I could say the same sentence, like so (teehee): “If you don’t want your omelets to break apart, you need to flip them carefully in this manner.”

That sort of usage, rare nowadays, was more common in past centuries. When readers at that time read “For God so loved the world,” they read something more like this: “For God [in this manner] loved the world….” As it happens that’s a significantly better translation of the Greek.

Now, you might be wondering why any of this is important. That’s fair; this could seem like an awful lot of effort to put into a tiny word, especially when the crucial fact doesn’t change: God gave his son that whoever believes in him should not perish but have life everlasting.

The difference is more significant than it might seem, however. The emphasis view plays nicely into our culture, but has tragic flaws. We live in a world that values emotion over a lot of things. We don’t tell people the truth because it might hurt their feelings. We say people “feel strongly” about issues but don’t seem to care whether they think clearly about them. We value experiences (like church services) that evoke emotions, rather than asking if they’re helpful, wise, or appropriate, because we assume the strong emotion implies those things.

It’s comforting to think that God is just as passionate as we are. It makes him less scary, especially since love is such an agreeable passion. If God loves us “so very much” then it’s easier to imagine that we don’t need to worry about pesky little sins, or sometimes even big sins. We can imagine that every action is equally valid and every belief is equally acceptable, because God feels really strongly about us. Everyone knows that people who are passionately in love don’t care about the little things. Love, as they say, is blind.

Of course, anyone who’s ever loved knows that isn’t true. My wife knows more about my flaws, not less, because she’s taken the time to love me. I punish my daughter when she misbehaves because I love her. God demands righteousness from us because he loves us. He is unflinching, inflexible, and inexhaustible because he loves us. He doesn’t have highs and lows of love; it doesn’t wax brightly one moment nor wane another. It is a constant character determined never to be satisfied with less than perfection.

Frankly, that makes him sound terrifying.

Which is why the translation of John 3:16 is so important: “For God loved the world in this manner: he gave his only son that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life.” This is a verse about method, not feeling. What method did Almighty God, perfect and holy, choose to employ when enacting his unwavering pursuit of righteousness and his thorough destruction of all wickedness and sin?

He came to us because we couldn’t go to him. He came as a man, so he was approachable just like us. He came to serve, not to dominate, to heal and raise up rather than to break or oppress. He came with an offer, not a threat. He came to step between us and the punishment that we deserve, so that we could try again. He came to offer us life.

John 3:16 isn’t about the depths of God’s feelings, about how he was willing to give his son because he feels so strongly about us. It’s a verse about how God chose to remind us that, even though he has every right to terrify and destroy us, his character is to be gentle, to be patient, to serve. The Gospels aren’t just the history of an event; they’re also the window that God gave us into who he is and what he’s like. He loved us in this amazing way.

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3 thoughts on “Sunday 3 June 2012

  1. This is fantastic, and I’d never considered it this way before. I love the segments you do on religion – perhaps it’s because I struggle with faith, or because my husband’s family is so centered in theirs, or maybe it’s just because I love to read more and try to understand more. Thank you.

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