Translating John 3.16

Οὕτως γὰρ ἠγάπησεν ὁ θεὸς τὸν κόσμον, ὥστε τὸν υἱὸν τὸν μονογενῆ ἔδωκεν, ἵνα πᾶς ὁ πιστεύων εἰς αὐτὸν μὴ ἀπόληται ἀλλ’ ἔχῃ ζωὴν αἰώνιον.

As Dr Hafemann said today, most of the English translations of John 3.16, as read by normal people who don’t know Greek, are wrong. These are the familiar words: For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. The typical reading, virtually encouraged by the bad punctuation job in the NKJV, is what the NLT renders:

For God loved the world so much that he gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.

This translation is wrong. The word that the King Jame Bible translates as so, οὕτως, is the same as thus or in this manner, without the connotation of magnitude. The correct meaning is conveyed in an alternative given in the ESV: for this is how God loved the world. In a more academic tone, or perhaps for certain kinds of historical narration, you might say, For God loved the world as follows.

Of course, making dramatic changes to everyone’s favourite Bible verses will offend grandma when she opens the book, and there really is value in continuity wherever this is feasible. But there is a relatively small change that can still go a long way to prevent the common misreading. Most noticeable in oral reading, this change keeps competent oral readers from inflecting their rhythms and cadences in a way that dictates the misreading. Simply this: use a colon rather than a comma after for God so loved the world. Without any alteration in  linguistic register or tone, the resulting sentence resists the incorrect reading. Is this proposal sound?

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3 responses to “Translating John 3.16

  1. Good stuff. How are you finding St Andrews so far?

    • I like it here, but as with any new place, I’m finding myself both social and reclusive. As a postgraduate student I suppose I’m a bit detached, though at the same time it’s hard to tell I’m not an undergrad. How’s that for a rambly non-answer?

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