When Does “No” Become “Never”?

~ Bill Mounce

Bill is the founder and President of BiblicalTraining.org, serves on the Committee for Bible Translation (which is responsible for the NIV translation of the Bible), and has written the best-selling biblical Greek textbook, Basics of Biblical Greek, and many other Greek resources. He blogs regularly on Greek and issues of spiritual growth. Learn more about Bill’s Greek resources at BillMounce.com.



It is often said that translators are traitors. They are traitors because they either over- or under-translate the meaning of the original text. Either they say too much in an attempt to convey the full meaning of the Greek, or they say too little and leave some of the meaning untranslated.

A typical example is the Greek construction of οὐ μή and the aorist subjunctive. It conveys an emphatic negation, not just “no” but “no no no” (as one of my children used to say when he was little). Of course, you can’t say “no no no” in translation, and we do not have a grammatical construction in English similar to οὐ μή plus aorist subjunctive. So are we to try and bring the emphatic nature of the negation into English, or do we leave it out?

A good example is Mark 10:15. “Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter (οὐ μὴ εἰσέλθῃ) it” (NIV, also CSB, NET, NRSV, NLT). In general, the use of “never” is too strong a translation (over translating) since that is not what the emphatic negation is saying. Think of Jesus saying v 15, and either pounding a fist or stamping his foot or raising his voice. That’s οὐ μή plus aorist subjunctive. However, the reason “never” works in this verse is that as long as a person does not become like a child, he or she will absolutely not enter God’s kingdom (hear my fist pounding). The statement is always true and hence the use of “never” works.

The ESV simply does not translate all the Greek: “shall not enter it” (also the KJV, “he shall not enter therein”).

The NASB uses italics, but to my mind in an incorrect way. They write, “Truly I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it at all.” Why do they put “at all” in italics since it is their translation of οὐ μή plus aorist subjunctive? “At all” is an explicit translation of two Greek words; why give the impression that it isn’t?

I keep coming back to a hobby horse (which is why it is a hobby horse) about the myth of “literal” translations reflecting the Greek. If you read the ESV, it simply omits some of the Greek. If you read the NASB, it implies that there is no Greek behind the “at all” even though there is.

I was speaking to a couple Mormon missionaries the other day, asking them what they thought it meant to be a Christian. They answered that a Christian was someone who did what God expected them to do (i.e., works). I answered that I agreed that a Christian lives within the limits of a covenantal relationship, but how do you enter into the relationship in the first place? “You have to really want it,” they replied.

I answered that this is why we would never agree. I (gently) said that their Christology was wrong, and that as long as they thought Jesus was a created being and the brother of Satan, they would never be able to call him “Lord.” And all the “wanting” to enter into a covenantal relationship would never be successful. They have to accept Jesus’ work on the cross with the faith of a child.

They were very nice young men who offered to come back and weed our flower bed. But they will never enter God’s kingdom until they understand the nature of justification by a child’s faith.

Do You Ever Leave a Translation Meaningless? (Hebrews 13:3)

~ Bill Mounce

I am reading a paper this week at the national meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society. It is entitled, “Do formal equivalent translations reflect a higher view of plenary, verbal inspiration?” Because of my research, I am particularly sensitive to the claims of formal and functional equivalent translations and the relationship between words and meaning.

Heb 13:3 provides an interesting test case. The ESV (see also the NASB) writes, “Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them, and those who are mistreated, since you also are in the body (ὡς καὶ αὐτοὶ ὄντες ἐν σώματι).”

“In the body”? What does that mean? In the church, the body of Christ? This is a good example of when a slavish following of the Greek produces meaninglessness. The CSB has, “as though you yourselves were suffering bodily.” See also, “as though you yourselves were being tortured” (NRSV), and “as though you too felt their torment” (NET).

The Greek lies out pretty nicely. The author is encouraging the recipients of the letter to remember two things, both indicated by genitive constructions, and both of which have modifiers introduced by ὡς.

τῶν δεσμίων
ὡς συνδεδεμένοι,
τῶν κακουχουμένων
ὡς καὶ αὐτοὶ ὄντες ἐν σώματι.

Everyone but the NIV translates μιμνῄσκεσθε with the simple “Remember.” The problem with this is that it implies the recipients are not currently remembering. I doubt that is accurate (although we are limited in our understanding of the historical background), and I think the NIV is correct to bring out its imperfective force, “continue to remember.”

I have no idea why the ESV, which values concordance so highly, did not keep the concordance of the two occurrences of ὡς, “as though … since.”

συνδεδεμένοι is a typical compound form with σῦν, the biblical author leaving out who the others specifically are, but contextually it is clear that the author sees a union between his recipients and those in prison.

Parallel to that is our phrase, ὡς καὶ αὐτοὶ ὄντες ἐν σώματι. Given the context, it is easy to see what the author is saying. They are “with” those in prison, and it is as if (ὡς) they are bodily (ἐν σώματι) suffering “with” them. Given the obvious meaning of the phrase, I am not sure why you would leave the meaningless phrase, “in the body.”

All translations are meaning-based; there is no such thing as a “literal” translation. (Come to ETS and find out why.) Even if it requires a little interpretation, as almost all of Scripture does, you still interpret so that the translation conveys something that has meaning.

Comment at: https://zondervanacademic.com/blog/do-you-ever-leave-a-translation-meaningless-mondays-with-mounce-331/

What Does This Prepositional Phrase Modify? (Acts 14:1) – Mondays with Mounce 327

~ Bill Mounce

Bill is the founder and President of BiblicalTraining.org, serves on the Committee for Bible Translation (which is responsible for the NIV translation of the Bible), and has written the best-selling biblical Greek textbook, Basics of Biblical Greek, and many other Greek resources. He blogs regularly on Greek and issues of spiritual growth. Learn more about Bill’s Greek resources at BillMounce.com.

Prepositional phrases are generally adverbial, but certainly not always. Sometimes it can be difficult to tell what they modify.

Take Acts 14:1 for example. Paul and Barnabas have just been run out of Pisidian Antioch and have entered Iconium. The NIV reads, “At Iconium Paul and Barnabas went as usual (κατὰ τὸ αὐτὸ) into the Jewish synagogue. There they spoke so effectively that a great number of Jews and Greeks believed.”

The Greek is, ἐγένετο δὲ ἐν Ἰκονίῳ κατὰ τὸ αὐτὸ εἰσελθεῖν ⸀αὐτοὺς εἰς τὴν συναγωγὴν τῶν Ἰουδαίων. So what does κατὰ τὸ αὐτὸ modify?

I thought the NIV was pretty straightforward. “According to the same” is adverbial, the point being that it was their custom to first go to the synagogue when they came to a new town.

The NASB has, “They entered the synagogue of the Jews together” (also ESV; KJV has “both together”). BDAG B5bα gives “together” as a possible meaning, citing 1 Sam 121:11, so presumably they have some evidence of the meaning of the idiom. To me this sounds redundant and therefore less likely. Of course they went in together; Luke just said that a few words earlier.

The CSB is unfortunate. “In Iconium they entered the Jewish synagogue, as usual.” It sounds to me that it is saying Paul had a normal way of entering the building, perhaps through a back door? I know that’s not the case, but by placing “as usual” next to “synagogue” the prepositional phrase sounds adjectival to me.

The NET reading is especially odd. “The same thing happened in Iconium” (also NLT). They are connecting κατὰ τὸ αὐτὸ with the preceding Ἐγένετο δὲ ἐν Ἰκονίῳ.

Idioms can be especially difficult to translate, and Acts 14:1 is a good test case for the flexibility of prepositional phrases.

I haven’t beat this drum in a while, but so much for the myth of a literal translation, or the myth of the English translation reflecting the underlying Greek structure. Translating word for word would be nonsense, and there is no way an English reader could get from “as usual” or “together” back to a prepositional phrase.

Comment or subscribe on his page: https://zondervanacademic.com/blog/what-does-this-prepositional-phrase-modify-acts-14-mounce/

Lots of Little Things (John 21:1-14)

~ Mounce

There are lots of little things in this section that make translating fun. If you are in class, make an experiment. Have everyone do their own translation on this section and compare notes.

21:5. Jesus calls out to them, παιδία, a word describing “a child, normally below the age of puberty.” It can also be used to describe someone “who is treasured in the way a parent treasures a child” (BDAG). Translations try words like “friends,” “children,” and “fellows,” none of which work in this historical situation. I wonder how a bunch of grown fishermen first responded when a stranger yelled out over the water, “Hey you prepubescent kids.” Sounds almost like The Goonies.

Read more: https://zondervanacademic.com/blog/lots-of-little-things-john-211-14-mondays-with-mounce-325/

What Makes a Translation Accurate? (Phil 2:13)

Being literal does not make a translation good.

Sign saying Do Not FollowI saw a chart the other day that mapped out how “accurate” different translations are. Unfortunately, based on the translations that were deemed “accurate,” you could see that the author had a defective view of what “accurate” means.

The old adage is that you measure what you value. If you value the replication of words, then the most formal equivalent translations will win.

I am only somewhat amused at the marketing of the Bible that champions what they call “optimal equivalence,” and surprise, surprise, they are the most optimally equivalent translation. The problem with their marketing is that I know the programmer who did the math, and his work is based on a reverse interlinear approach that sees the purpose of translation to be the replication of the words. You measure what you value.

But two things happened to me the last couple days that illustrate the real issue. This morning I was driving to the gym and saw a construction truck in front of me with the sign, “Construction Vehicle. Do Not Follow.” Now, if a German friend who didn’t speak English were riding with me and wanted to know what the sign was, how should I translate it?

The problem, of course, is that the sign does not say what it means. How can you not follow the truck in front of you? Once the truck is on the road, does the road have to be vacated until it leaves the road? Of course we understand that it means, “Do not follow closely.” So what would be an accurate translation? If you said, “Folge nicht,” would that be an accurate translation for your friend? Or would you have to say, “Folge nicht genau”?

It’s kind of like a stop sign. The last thing it means is stop. It means, stop, and when it is your turn go; otherwise, you would never leave the intersection.

The second thing that happened was that I was translating Philippians 2 with Martin (a friend) and we came to 2:13. “For it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work on behalf of his good pleasure (ὑπὲρ τῆς εὐδοκίας).” What is an “accurate” translation of the verse? Every major translation says “his good pleasure,” even though the possessive pronoun αὐτοῦ does not occur. The KJV and NASB put “his” in italics, which is not technically accurate because we know that ὁ (τῆς) can function as a possessive pronoun, and the fact that it is unusual to have ὁ in a prepositional phrase clearly shows that ὁ is functioning as a possessive.

So what is more “accurate”?

  1. “On behalf of the good pleasure”
  2. “On behalf of his good pleasure”
  3. “On behalf of his good pleasure”

#1 isn’t accurate since it doesn’t mean anything in context. What does “the” refer to?

#2 isn’t accurate since “his” is present in the Greek as τῆς.

#3 is accurate since is accurately conveys the meaning of ὑπὲρ τῆς εὐδοκίας.

My point is this. If someone thinks that accuracy in translation means they replicate words, then the conclusion is foregone. If someone thinks that accuracy is a matter of meaning, then it leaves the question open for a positive debate on which translation is the most accurate.

Does John 3:16 Say “Whoever”?

~ Mounce


When Bibles Do, and Don’t, Follow the Greek. A Couple Examples


Wives “Submit” or “Respect”? Ephesians 5:22, 33

I hesitate to open this particular Pandora’s box, and my intent is not so much to deal with the issue of submission as much as it is to give a potential example of semantic range.

It always confused me when Paul switches from “wives submit (ὑποτασσόμενοι, from v 21)” to “wives respect (φοβῆται).” Are they meant to be the same thing, or is one an explanation of the other?

Yesterday in church I saw in the CSB a potential answer, or at least part of the answer. I am used to the translation “however” for πλήν. “However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband” (ESV, also NIV, NRSV) [see the verses in parallel]. The NET uses “Nevertheless.”

Continue: https://zondervanacademic.com/blog/wives-submit-or-respect-ephesians-52233/

What is a “Divided Tongue” (Acts 2:3)

If you were raised in the church with a biblical pastor, you might have some idea what a “divided tongue” is, but possibly not. My guess is that the most natural understanding is that you have a multiple tongues (of fire), and each one is split into different parts (i.e., “cloven”), but one tongue. But then you get to the second half of the verse and you realize that this fire is going over each person present, possibly 120 people (Acts 1:15).

Read the rest of Bill’s thoughts at: https://zondervanacademic.com/blog/what-is-a-divided-tongue-acts-23-mondays-with-mounce-313/

Why is the NIV Bible Translation updated so much?