Friday, March 11, 2011

Translation Issue - 2 Timothy 3.16

In preparing an article on OT canon I looked at 2 Timothy 3.14-17. This is the standard proof-text for biblical inspiration. A text, by the way, that focuses on the OT but is usually misunderstood to refer to the whole Bible which did not yet exist. While looking at the text I noticed something I had never seen before. The passage might well be translated differently and thus provide more insight into what Paul meant.

The context reads:
14 But you remain in what you have learned and believed, knowing from whom you learned, 15 and that from infancy you have known the holy Scriptures – those being able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.
And the translation issue comes in verse 16. For those interested the Greek text (NA27) reads,
πᾶσα γραφὴ θεόπνευστος καὶ ὠφέλιμος πρὸς διδασκαλίαν, πρὸς ἐλεγμόν, πρὸς ἐπανόρθωσιν, πρὸς παιδείαν τὴν ἐν δικαιοσύνῃ
Most popular translations (NIV, ESV, NRSV, etc.) read something like:
All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness
But, the text could just as easily read (ASV, RSV and footnoted in the NRSV):
All God-breathed scripture is also useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.
Grammatically, both readings are possible since there is no copulative verb. Those advocating the former reading (NIV, etc.) often point to 1 Timothy 4.4 as a similar grammatical construction:
πᾶν κτίσμα θεοῦ καλὸν καὶ οὐδὲν ἀπόβλητον μετὰ εὐχαριστίας λαμβανόμενον 
All of God’s creation is good and nothing is rejected having been received with thanksgiving.
This parallel also has no copulative verb (that is a verb linking the subject to the predicate) between “creation” (subject) and “good” (predicate) but it makes good sense of the text. The parallel does not prove anything about 2 Tim 3.16, except that supplying a copulative verb is a possible interpretation.

Since both translations are grammatically possible, the real question is which reading is contextually superior? In light of Paul’s overarching point to exhort Timothy to put scripture to use (2 Tim 3.17; 4.1-2), I would lean toward not supplying a verb. Paul’s point is not to argue for the inspiration of scripture. He already believes scripture is inspired by God (Rom 3.1-2; 9.4; 2 Cor 6.16; cf. 2 Pet 1.20-21). Indeed, the phrase “holy writings” [ἱερὰ γράμματα] from v 14 was used by both Philo and Josephus to describe the divine inspiration of the OT scriptures (Philo, Abr. 61; Preliminary Studies 34, 90; Decalogue 8; Flight 4; Creation 77; Heir. 106, 159 [citing Gen 1.31]; Spec. Laws 2.104; Josephus, Ag. Apion 2.45). The words of 2 Peter 1.21 are instructive for the general view of the "holy writings" in Second Temple Judaism,
For no prophecy was ever driven by the will of man, but being driven by the Holy Spirit men spoke from God.

This is not to suggest that the inspiration of certain holy writings was not important to Paul. Undoubtedly, he assumed the inspiration of scripture. Paul has no need to convince or remind Timothy of the divine inspiration of the “holy writings,” but rather to remind him that those “God-breathed” writings are useful for the work of his ministry. Rather than reading this verse as a proof-text for inspiration this ought to be yet another reminder that Paul used his Bible as a powerful tool for ministry.

What do you think? How does the translation difference change how you read this passage?

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