Thursday, October 30, 2014

On John 1:3 and Many Questionable Translations

John 1:3-4New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life,[a] and the life was the light of all people.

The NIV translates John 1:3 as follows: "Through Him [the Word] all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made."

Almost all translations translate John 1:3 like the NIV.  One of C.S. Lewis's predecessors, George MacDonald, challenges that translation and bases an entire sermon on a divergent translation here.

Look again at the second independent clause, particularly "nothing was made that has been made."  What does the "that has been made" add to the sentence?  Nothing of substance!  It's oxymoronic (and perhaps plain moronic) to say that nothing has been made that has been made, since all things that have been made are all and only the things that have been made!

As MacDonald would have it, we should translate verses 3 and 4 as follows:

"All things were made through Him and without Him was not one thing made. [Stop]  That which was made in Him was life, and the life was the light of men."

According to MacDonald, such a translation has much theological significance. Is MacDonald's principle of charity at work justifiable?  Should we prefer a translation which--all other things being equal--has a better theological upshot and is more linguistically felicitous?  I say, yes.


  1. Maybe. But I'm not seeing it. "Of those things that have been made or done, none would have been made or done without Him." Seems to be a perfectly reasonable, plain sentence to me. And it remains in tune with the NIV version.

    Stop being an innovator, Tullius. You _might_ have added something "of substance," but why?!? And what is the "theological upshot"?

  2. Read this sentence: Through Him all things emerged; without him emerged not one thing. [A literal rendering]
    Now read this sentence: Through Him all things emerged; without him emerged not one thing that has emerged.

    What's the difference in meaning? I can't see that there is any. And the Greek apparently (according to more than one source) allows for the usual translation or MacDonald's.

    The theological upshot is...well. the rest of the SERMON which I linked to! There's two creations--the first is life in Jesus (if MacDonald is right in carrying over the last phrase into the next sentence.)

    Read the sermon you heathen!

  3. I should add that MacDonald thinks there is something of theological significance in life being made in the Word as opposed to their simply being life in the Word. I don't know if he's right but I sure would've liked to have heard that sermon.