August 6, 2005

Translation of 2 Timothy 2:2

This summer, I've been leading a weekly Bible study here at Penn. Two of us in the study read classical Greek (the other one is a senior majoring in linguistics and reads a truly absurd number of languages for someone still in undergrad - or, indeed, for anyone), and we often take time to pick apart the original text, and compare the various translations that people bring (mostly NIV, NKJV, ESV, and occasionally NLT). This past week, Steven and I were rather perplexed by the way in which the standard translations have chosen to render 2 Timothy 2:2, and had some difficulty connecting the translations to the Greek. NKJV renders this verse, "And the things you have heard from me among many witnesses, commit these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also." The relevant portion, "the things you have heard from me among many witnesses," is rendered almost identically by the other translations. NIV: "the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses," ESV: "what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses." The trouble is that the Greek seems to suggest a reading more like "the things which you have heard from me through many witnesses." That is, the Greek appears to say that Timothy heard these teachings from many witnesses who came from Paul, rather than that he heard them from Paul himself. The following is my (mostly failed) attempt to make sense of this. Because some technical discussion concerning Greek grammar and the meanings of the two prepositions is necessary in the discussion, the non-technical portions, excluding this introductory paragraph, are in bold print to facilitate easy skimming to help those who are not familiar with Greek grammar understand the basics of the translational issue without getting lost. Also, for those who don't know Greek (yet) but nevertheless care about the technical details (and have some time on their hands) I have tried to give some basic definitions of the terms that should hopefully be enough for you to follow.

There are two prepositions in this phrase, para and dia which are translated "from" and "among", respectively, in the NKJV. The basic meaning of para is beside, and with a noun or pronoun in the genitive case, as here, it would ordinarily mean "from the side of," however, LSJ notes an idiomatic usage with the verb akouo, as here, in which it sometimes specifies the person from whom a thing was heard (see LSJ s.v. "akouo". This usage is not noted in the entry for "para" as far as I can see). No difference in meaning is noted. However, para, because it means "from the side (i.e. the general vicinity) of" is clearly weaker than the other prepositions listed as far as the assertion of the origin of the thing heard. The phrase ha ekousas par' emou alone would clearly be properly translated "the things which you heard from me" (i.e. "the things which you heard me say"); the trouble comes in interpreting dia in a way that makes sense.

The object of dia is also in the genitive, which would ordinarily mean "through" in the sense of space or time, but is also used fairly frequently with the meaning "by means of," so the most obvious interpretation of this fragment in isolation is "the things which you heard from me through (i.e. by means of) many witnesses," with the implication that witnesses came to Timothy bringing Paul's words. These may have been the messengers that Paul sent bringing letters such as the present one, or other travelling preachers (there were a lot of these in the Christian community of the first century) who had heard Paul preach and reported his doctrine. The relative weakness of the preposition is an argument, albeit not a very strong one, in favor of this interpretation.

Some commentaries do note this as an alternative rendering. For instance, John Gill suggests the interpretation above. He also suggests a second alternative reading, which also interprets the preposition as meaning "by means of," on which the many witnesses are Moses and the prophets and these were the means by which Paul exposited the things that Timothy heard, so that the witnesses are indirectly the means of Timothy's hearing. Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown suggest that the literal reading should be "through many witnesses," to be interpreted as "with the attestation (or intervention) of many witnesses." The Treasury of Scripture Knowledge also briefly notes this as a possible interpretation.

This is all lovely, but the question remains, where does the standard translation come from? Steven and I at first thought it might just be a paraphrase: that someone (possibly the Geneva Bible, which seems to have this interpretation) had decided that "through many witnesses" didn't make sense in English and decided that what was meant was "among many witnesses." But how does one get "among" from "through"? My next guess was that, in order to make sense of the passage, some translator had decided to ignore the prepositon. In the absence of the preposition dia, pollon marturon would probably be best interpreted as a partitive genitive. This would yield the reading "the things which you have heard from me, being just one out of many witnesses," which might be rendered into better English with the NKJV's reading. However, this does not explain the NIV/ESV "in the presence of," and besides, where does a translator get off just ignoring a word, even if it is only three letters?

Robertson's Word Pictures gives us a much better hint. It suggests that this is a legal idiom meaning "supported by many witnesses". For this usage of dia, Robertson cites Plutarch, but he does not give a specific reference, and this usage is not listed in LSJ under either dia or martus, nor is it listed in Moulton's "Analytical Greek Lexicon Revised" (a NT specific reference) or any other lexicon I have access to. Somewhat more helpfully, Robertson lists other references in the Pauline epistles where he says the word is used in this same sense. These are 1 Thessalonians 4:2, 2 Corinthians 2:4, Romans 2:27, and Romans 14:20. The 1 Thessalonians reference does not appear to be related to the issue at hand. In 2 Corinthians 2:4 NKJV translates dia as "with," however, I think that the text is better interpreted as saying that Paul was writing "through many tears," and I don't understand why it has not been rendered in this way, as the very literal rendering "out of much afflication and anguish of heart I wrote to you through my tears" is perfectly idiomatic English (though note that the text says "many tears," not "my tears." I have taking this slight liberty with the passage because I'm trying to make a point that good idiomatic English could have kept the word "through" very easily, and I don't think that "through many tears" sounds like something produced by a vernacular speaker of contemporary English, while I think that "through my tears" does). Once again, all three translations are united on this questionable interpretation that is not supported by the standard lexica (although in this case the reading is supported at least by Moulton). In Romans 2:27 the word is again translated "with," and again I think "through" is a better rendering ("will he not judge you [to be] a transgressor of the law through [i.e. according to] the written [law] and the [covenant of] circumcision?"). In Romans 14:20 "with" is probably a good translation of dia, but I think the literal meaning "through" still stands. The idea, I think, is that the man continues eating it right through offense, i.e. he doesn't stop because of it.

As you can see, Robertson does little to support the standard translation, and we are back where we started, and I still don't understand why this verse is translated the way it is. Kenny's Excruciatingly Literal Amateur Translation Attempt (KELATA) on this verse is the following: "The very things which you heard from me through many witnesses, these things commit to faithful people, whatever people will be competent to teach even others." Does anyone out there know why he major translations render it the way they do?

Posted by Kenny at August 6, 2005 11:35 PM
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2 Tim. 2:2, translating dia
Excerpt: Kenny Pearce is asking for help with translation of Greek dia in 2 Tim. 2:2. Perhaps some of you would like to wrestle with the issues with him as he lays them out in his blog post.
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Tracked: August 7, 2005 12:30 AM


Kenny, you do wrestle with tough issues!

The NET Bible wording is:

"And entrust what you heard me say1 in the presence of many others as witnesses2 to faithful people3 who will be competent4 to teach others as well."

Translation footnote 2 reads:

Grk “through many witnesses.” The “through” is used here to show attendant circumstances: “accompanied by,” “in the presence of.”

Dr. Ann Nyland's translationo, The Source (based on what she believes is the most recently discovered Greek lexicographical evidence), is rendered:

"Quote the things you heard from me through many witnesses as evidence to faithful teachers who are suitable to teach others too."

The HCSB (whose translators were very careful exegetes) has:

"And what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, commit to faithful men who will be able to teach other also."

You might also want to post your question to the Bible Translation email discussion list. One of the HCSB translators is active there, and there are a number of other subscribers who are quite competent with biblical Greek.

There is also the Biblical Greek (B-Greek) discussion list, but which has many scholars, but they do not do so much with translation itself.

Posted by: Wayne Leman at August 7, 2005 12:24 AM

Hi Kenny,

The end of BDAG entry 4a on DIA reads:
Occasionally the mediation becomes actual presence (references for this usage in BKeil, Anonymus Argentinensis 1902, p. 192, 1; 306 note) DIA POLLWN MARTURWN in the presence of many witnesses 2 Ti 2:2 (Simplicius in Epict. p. 114, 31 DIA QEOU MESOU=in the presence of God as mediator; Philo, Leg. ad Gai. 187 TO DIA MARTURWN KLAIEIN=weeping in the presence of witnesses).

The Philo parallel looks pretty convincing to me. Howard Marshall provides some other parallels in his commentary.

John Kendall

Posted by: Anonymous at August 7, 2005 5:05 AM

It occurred to me that you might like to see the Philo passage in context. I can't provide the rest of the Greek text, but here's an extract from Yonge's translation. The relevant infinitive clause is marked with asterisks.

GAI 1:185-188 185 For we had come from Rome to Dicaearchia attending upon Gaius; and he had gone down to the seaside and was remaining near the gulf, having left for a while his own palaces, which were numerous and superbly furnished. 186 And while we were anxiously considering his intentions, for we were continually expecting to be summoned, a man arrived, with blood-shot eyes, and looking very much troubled, out of breath and palpitating, and leading us away to a little distance from the rest (for there were several persons near), he said, "Have you heard the news?" And then when he was about to tell us what it was he stopped, because of the abundance of tears that rose up to choke his utterance. 187 And beginning again, he was a second and a third time stopped in the same manner. And we, seeing this, were much alarmed and agitated by suspense, and entreated him to tell us what the circumstance was on account of which he said that he had come; for he could not have come merely ***to weep before so many witnesses.*** "If, then," said we, "you have any real cause for tears, do not keep your grief to yourself; we have been long ago well accustomed to misfortune." 188 And he with difficulty, sobbing aloud, and in a broken voice, spoke as follows: "Our temple is destroyed! Gaius has ordered a colossal statue of himself to be erected in the holy of holies, having his own name inscribed upon it with the title of Jupiter!"

John Kendall

Posted by: Anonymous at August 7, 2005 11:18 AM

Thanks for the help. John, I agree that the Philo reference seems fairly compelling. It doesn't seem, by looking at the translation (I don't have the Greek here; I may go grab it from the library when I get a chance), that it could be translated "through" in this case. But is this the only such reference? If so, I'm not sure what to make of it. Philo's readers would not have understood him if he was the only one to use it the way he did. Then again, how can we be sure that this is the way he used it and not just the translators' misunderstanding? I remain unconvinced, but will try to go have a look at the text in the library some time soon. Also, I don't have access to Marshall's commentary, so if someone could post the relevant references that would be much appreciated. Thanks again.

Posted by: Kenny at August 7, 2005 10:18 PM

Hi Kenny,

Marshall also cites Plutarch, Moralia 338F: DIA QEWN MARTURWN and Chrysostom PG LXII, 619 (Field 1899:215). His other references are to commentaries, TDNT and Moule's Idiom Book of N.T. Greek p.57.

Note also BDAG's citation of Simplicius' commentary on Epictetus noted above.

As evidence of a native, if later, Greek speaker, some commentaries, like Marshall, indicate that Chrysostom understood the preposition as 'in the presence of'.

I don't have the resources to check these further. It would be interesting if somone can track down further examples. A TLG search for collocations of DIA with MARTUS might be a good place to start. But, given the remarkable semantic flexibility of prepositions, I'd not be surprised if BDAG is reasonably reliable on this.

John Kendall

Posted by: Anonymous at August 8, 2005 5:17 AM

I'm not so sure the Philo example really does means "to weep before so many witnesses." For one, there are not "so many witnesses" in the context: "leading us away to a little distance from the rest (for there were several persons near)."

There is an instance of DIA MATURWN in the LXX that is elliptical. Num 35:30, DIA MARTURWN FONEUSEIS TON FONEUSANTA means "On the testimony of witnesses, you shall slay the one who has slain."

Thus, I would propose understanding Philo's OU GAR hENEKA TOU DIA MARTURWN KLAIEIN to mean something like: "for the weeping is not on account of the (what he heard) through witnesses." Philo's point is that the man appeared so distraught to them that he must have experienced the calamity personally. As it turned out, however, the news was about the Temple and was so bad that even Philo and his group were struck dumb by the news.

Posted by: Stephen C. Carlson at August 8, 2005 4:47 PM

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