by Hart Wiens, CBS Director of Scripture Translation
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” (John 3.16 - NRSV)
The phrase “may not perish” is part of a bold rhetorical figure which the writer uses to highlight the ultimate destiny of the person who believes in Jesus. The figure profiles the desirability of that destiny by first emphasizing what it is not. In this issue we deal only with this first part of the figure – “may not perish.”
In the original Greek, this phrase consists of the word for “not’ followed by the word ἀπόληται which is translated in some English versions as “perish.” The primary meaning of the Greek word actually has to do with destruction and is glossed in Greek lexicons as “to destroy” or “to ruin.” In The Message, Eugene Peterson has “be destroyed.” Other recent version such as Good News, God’s Word and The Contemporary English version try to capture the fact that what is being dealt with here is a life and death matter and translate the Greek word into English as “die.”
The variation that we find in our English versions illustrates the difficulty of translating rhetorical figures in a way that fully and accurately captures the meaning of the original. Peterson is certainly right to translate this verse in a way that shows that believing in Christ keeps us from destruction. However his rendering is so general that many readers will have difficulty knowing what type of destruction is being referred to. Older and more literal versions tend to use the English word “perish,” which is accurate, but also archaic because many contemporary Bible users do not use “perish” meaning “to die” anymore. By making this a life and death issue, newer versions are more easily understood, but people may take these translations too literally as referring to physical death.
Our UBS Translators Handbook warns translators that this verse has frequently “been misinterpreted to imply that if people simply believed in Jesus that they would never experience physical death.” The Contemporary English Version tries to avoid this misinterpretation by saying that those who have faith in Jesus will “never really die,” implying that there is a kind of death other than physical death from which they will be spared.
Ultimately as translators we must recognize that in the case of difficult rhetorical figures such as these, our work is not enough. The work of the translators must be supplemented by the work of teachers and preachers. The Bible Society is keenly aware of the need for partnership with the Church. The work of Bible teachers, preachers, and even parents and Bible study leaders is critical for followers of Jesus to understand the Bible so they may grow and become true disciples in the Kingdom that Jesus came to bring.
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