I was taken aback. After having prepared for teaching through Gal 1.6-10 and working in the Greek, the English translation before my eyes surprised me. It violated all my expectations of how the text could possibly be rendered.
The lead up
Having achieved a good grasp of Greek, I do most of my NT reading, study, and preparation for teaching from the Greek text. I consult relevant English translations on the side, but don’t pay too close attention to them. Sometimes there are issues in the Greek which require a significant translation decision that will affect what people reading the English are going to see in front of their faces. When that is the case, I pay more attention to English translations. But for the most part, they are absent from the main work..
Nothing about Gal 1.6 screamed out to me “check how the English translations handle this.” Naturally, I looked at some ways that ἕτερον εὐαγγέλιον (a different gospel) has been translated. That’s highly significant and the way that this phrase pairs with ὃ οὐκ ἔστιν ἄλλο (which is not another [gospel]) in v. 7 is significant. Other than that, though, it looked like smooth sailing.
Needless to say, I was rather caught off guard when I read through the NIV (2011 version) translation of Gal 1.6, seen here:
- Θαυμάζω ὅτι οὕτως ταχέως μετατίθεσθε ἀπὸ τοῦ καλέσαντος ὑμᾶς ἐν χάριτι Χριστοῦ εἰς ἕτερον εὐαγγέλιον (SBL)
- I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you to live in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel (NIV)
For the most part, this is just bread and butter translation within the NIV translation theory. It’s common for English translations to repeat the verb “to turn” in this verse—even the ESV does—although Greek does not. Compare the Lexham English Bible on this:
- I am astonished that you are turning away so quickly from the one who called you by the grace of Christ to a different gospel (LEB)
That part is not strange. What caught me off guard was one little phrase the NIV inserts into the text: “to live in.”
There is nothing in Greek which this rests on (nor any variants). Paul could easily have written something like “ἀπὸ τοῦ καλέσαντος ὑμᾶς ζήσαι ἐν χάριτι Χριστοῦ” to convey that idea. Including the “to live in” phrase is a pure interpretive decision. While making interpretive decisions is nothing new or objectionable in translation—it is no more remarkable than the fact that people move their legs when they walk—I was a little puzzled by this one.
The NIV (1984) has this passage as:
- “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel.”
That is an obvious possible way to understand the text. On this reading, the preposition ἐν is supporting the weakening dative case to give the instrument “by which” the calling was carried out. A very defensible reading of the Greek grammar (dative case meanings are often strengthened by the preposition ἐν in this way, BDAG 5, Blass-Debrunner-Funk sec. 219-220) and a very defensible reading of the text in Galatians and in Pauline theology.
The tendency to replace pure dative case usages with a variety of prepositions was a bigger phenomenon than just in biblical Greek literature. Sure, in the LXX the often mechanical correspondence between בְּ and ἐν makes it painfully obvious, but this goes back to Homer, at least. During the Koine period, we probably are seeing the early warning signs of the eventual death of the dative case. For more, see Pierre Bortone, Greek Prepositions: From Antiquity to the Present, 181-82.
Another obvious way to handle this text would be to run with the “punt” translation:
- “…so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ”
This leaves a variety of possible nuances open—such as a metaphorical spatial notion where grace is the “space” in which God’s call takes place (personally, I’m big on metaphorical space)—though tends to close the possibility of the instrumental reading as English does not use “in” for instruments in the same way we see ἐν in Greek.
The NIV (2011) takes a non-obvious approach to the translation here. While it may not be theologically objectionable to say, “the one who called you to live in the grace of Christ,” one wonders what in the context the NIV committee found so compelling as to push them in this direction here? Whatever it is, I’m not seeing it.
I don’t like surprises when I go from studying the Greek text to reading an English translation. The NIV (2011) translation of Gal. 1.6 was a surprise. And I stumbled across it right in the middle of teaching through the passage.
Moral of the story: read the translation you are going to teach from ahead of time.
While the translation is defensible, it strikes me as a rather heavy-handed interpretive decision which forces a meaning onto the text which is not altogether clear in the text. I know the NIV does its NIV translation approach, which is fine by me. But this one has left me kind of puzzled.
I’m sure I’ll have more of these sorts of questions and puzzles coming as I am now regularly teaching from the NIV.