Do we need Biblish?

As everyone knows, I’m against Biblish in Bible translations — with one exception which I will address here.

It has always been my contention that all English translations, from at least the KJV on, are monotonic. It doesn’t matter if they are essentially literal, dynamic equivalent, or paraphrase. By monotonic I mean that a single kind of English used is the same from cover to cover; the style is uniform.

But that’s a mistake. That’s not how the NT reads in the original. Most of it is unpretentious, plain talk — not too formal, not slangy at all. (Very unlike Biblish on the one hand and The Message on the other.) Paul’s letters are downright colloquial. Hebrews is literary. Luke is conscious of what good written Greek should sound like. John speaks a simplified second language speaker’s Greek. And the whole NT is also peppered with quotes from the OT in an Attic Greek more archaic than Koine.

This is a good reason to think that a fully accurate translation would reflect such differences. The quotes in the NT are mostly from the LXX. But in this post I’ll talk about Jude 1:9, which is a quote from an older religious work, just not from the LXX. But it has the advantage that it is one of the places where you can easily prove you need a contrast between ordinary Koine and LXX era Attic.

The passage in question is this.

ὁ δὲ Μιχαὴλ ὁ ἀρχάγγελος ὅτε τῷ διαβόλῳ διακρινόμενος διελέγετο περὶ τοῦ Μωϋσέως σώματος οὐκ ἐτόλμησεν κρίσιν ἐπενεγκεῖν βλασφημίας ἀλλὰ εἶπεν ἐπιτιμήσαι σοι κύριος (Jude 1:9)

But even the archangel Michael, when he was disputing with the devil about the body of Moses, did not himself dare to condemn him for slander but said, “The Lord rebuke you!” (TNIV)

According to Origen, the quote is from the apocryphal Assumption of Moses although the surviving (partial) manuscript doesn’t contain the passage.

Ignoring the theological question of an apocryphal source being quoted in the Biblical canon, what’s interesting here is the use of ἐπιτιμάω. As I have shown in great detail in a series of posts a couple years back (here, here, here, here, and here), the Koine meaning of ἐπιτιμάω is

‘ask (or tell) [someone] to stop [doing something], esp. ask (or tell) [someone] to stop talking [about something]’.

That sense is unambiguous in 27 of the 28 places it occurs in the NT. A good example is

καί τινες τῶν Φαρισαίων ἀπὸ τοῦ ὄχλου εἶπαν πρὸς αὐτόν διδάσκαλε ἐπιτίμησον τοῖς μαθηταῖς σου (Luke 19:39)

Then some of the Pharisees in the crowd spoke to Jesus. “Teacher,” they said, “command your disciples to be quiet!” (GNB)

(Notice that the Greek does not have anything corresponding to “be quiet”.)

The fact that the dictionaries gloss ἐπιτιμάω ‘rebuke’ only means that they didn’t notice that it had changed meaning from the early Attic use, when it did mean ‘yell at’ (or in Biblish ‘rebuke’), i.e. ‘say something negative to [someone] harshly’. That usage is well attested in the LXX: Gen. 37:10, Ps. 9:5, Ps. 118(119):21, Zech. 3:2. (All glosses TNIV.)

καὶ ἐπετίμησεν αὐτῷ ὁ πατὴρ αὐτοῦ καὶ εἶπεν αὐτῷ τί τὸ ἐνύπνιον τοῦτο ὃ ἐνυπνιάσθης ἆρά γε ἐλθόντες ἐλευσόμεθα ἐγώ τε καὶ ἡ μήτηρ σου καὶ οἱ ἀδελφοί σου προσκυνῆσαί σοι ἐπὶ τὴν γῆν (Gen 37:10)

[When he told his father as well as his brothers,] his father rebuked him and said, “What is this dream you had? Will your mother and I and your brothers actually come and bow down to the ground before you?”

ὅτι ἐποίησας τὴν κρίσιν μου καὶ τὴν δίκην μου ἐκάθισας ἐπὶ θρόνου ὁ κρίνων δικαιοσύνην (Ps. 9:5)

You have rebuked the nations and destroyed the wicked;
you have blotted out their name for ever and ever.

ἐπετίμησας ὑπερηφάνοις ἐπικατάρατοι οἱ ἐκκλίνοντες ἀπὸ τῶν ἐντολῶν σου (Ps. 118:21)

You rebuke the arrogant, who are accursed,
those who stray from your commands.

καὶ εἶπεν κύριος πρὸς τὸν διάβολον ἐπιτιμήσαι κύριος ἐν σοί διάβολε καὶ ἐπιτιμήσαι κύριος ἐν σοὶ ὁ ἐκλεξάμενος τὴν Ιερουσαλημ οὐκ ἰδοὺ τοῦτο ὡς δαλὸς ἐξεσπασμένος ἐκ πυρός (Zech. 3:2)

The LORD said to Satan, “The LORD rebuke you, Satan! The LORD, who has chosen Jerusalem, rebuke you! Is not this man a burning stick snatched from the fire?”

As I pointed out in the ἐπιτιμάω series, ἐπιτιμάω is pragmatically neutral in Koine usage. That means that, although in most cases getting someone to stop doing something is inherently negative, there are two good cases in the NT that show that the word itself must not be a pragmatically negative word.

First, the disciples are unfailingly deferential to Jesus, but Peter is described as doing this to Jesus.

καὶ προσλαβόμενος αὐτὸν ὁ Πέτρος ἤρξατο ἐπιτιμᾶν αὐτῷ λέγων ἵλεώς σοι κύριε οὐ μὴ ἔσται σοι τοῦτο (Matt . 16:22)

Peter took him aside and began to [ἐπιτιμᾶν] him. “Never, Lord!” he said. “This shall never happen to you!”

Second, Paul used ἐπιτιμάω speaking to Timothy in a verse so familiar that we fail to recognize that it makes no sense with ἐπιτιμάω translated as ‘rebuke’.

κήρυξον τὸν λόγον ἐπίστηθι εὐκαίρως ἀκαίρως ἔλεγξον ἐπιτίμησον παρακάλεσον ἐν πάσῃ μακροθυμίᾳ καὶ διδαχῇ (2 Tim. 4:2)

Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction.

While one can correct and encourage with great patience, one can’t rebuke with great patience, but one can patiently ask someone to stop behaving a certain way. (Later in this post I’ll provide a proposal for how this verse should read.)

So it is clear that the Jude 1:9 use of ἐπιτιμάω matches LXX usage in contrast to the use of ἐπιτιμάω elsewhere in the NT. I would argue that that constitutes Biblish usage in Koine, so the appropriate translation should have the quote in Biblish as compared to the norm of the NT.

ὁ δὲ Μιχαὴλ ὁ ἀρχάγγελος ὅτε τῷ διαβόλῳ διακρινόμενος διελέγετο περὶ τοῦ Μωϋσέως σώματος οὐκ ἐτόλμησεν κρίσιν ἐπενεγκεῖν βλασφημίας ἀλλὰ εἶπεν ἐπιτιμήσαι σοι κύριος (Jude 1:9)

But the archangel Michael, when he was arguing with the devil over Moses’ body, didn’t dare condemn him for blasphemy himself but said, “The LORD rebuke you!”

The point of this post is simple. If the whole NT is translated into Biblish, then there’s no contrastive Biblish available when you need it.


2 Tim. 4:2 should read something like the following, taking into account the Koine (as opposed to Attic) meanings of ἐλέγχω and ἐπιτιμάω:

κήρυξον τὸν λόγον ἐπίστηθι εὐκαίρως ἀκαίρως ἔλεγξον ἐπιτίμησον παρακάλεσον ἐν πάσῃ μακροθυμίᾳ καὶ διδαχῇ (2 Tim. 4:2)

Preach the Word; be prepared to do so no matter how inconvenient; with the utmost patience and care teach  people what they are doing wrong and get them to stop and encourage them.

The difference in translation here is important because pastors have long used this verse a license to yell at their congregations, forgetting that Jesus, who did a lot of yelling at folks, yelled at religious leaders, not at ordinary folks.


  1. Posted December 14, 2008 at 9:49 am | Permalink

    I’m following your compelling argument for textured difference because of the Attic (not Koine) reference in the one NT sentence. But how do you figure Aristotle’s Attic from this example in his Nicomachean Ethics (1114a.25)?

    No one, in fact, would rebuke [ὀνειδίσειε] a person who’s naturally-born blind or who’s blind because of a disease or accident. In contrast, one would show the blind person more mercy than ever [ἐλεήσαι].

    Everyone, however, would blame [ἐπιτιμήσαι] a person who’s blind because of wine abuse or, in contrast, because of debauchery.

    οὐθεὶς γὰρ ἂν ὀνειδίσειε τυφλῷ φύσει ἢ ἐκ νόσου ἢ ἐκ πληγῆς, ἀλλὰ μᾶλλον ἐλεήσαι·

    τῷ δ’ ἐξ οἰνοφλυγίας ἢ ἄλλης ἀκολασίας πᾶς ἂν ἐπιτιμήσαι.

    Does “get them to stop” work?

  2. Posted December 14, 2008 at 8:40 pm | Permalink

    there are two good cases in the NT that show that the word itself must not be a pragmatically negative word.

    First, the disciples are unfailingly deferential to Jesus, but Peter is described as doing this to Jesus.

    Rich, I have always assumed that Peter was bawling Jesus out for saying something that Peter thought should not happen. But I have assumed many wrong things, so I’m interested in how you conclude that the context here is not pragmatically negative.

  3. Dru
    Posted December 14, 2008 at 11:43 pm | Permalink

    Rich can I come back on the point that you make at the beginning of this post, which is something I strongly agree with. You say that all, or virtually all translations are monotonic, but:-

    “Paul’s letters are downright colloquial. Hebrews is literary. Luke is conscious of what good written Greek should sound like. John speaks a simplified second language speaker’s Greek. And the whole NT is also peppered with quotes from the OT in an Attic Greek more archaic than Koine.”

    A few weeks ago, I commented that some translations are better for some parts of the Bible and others for others. The most obvious point is whether a translation works for the OT or the NT best. This depends on the translation’s register – but most of them, once they’ve got a register, seem to stick to it. They are indeed monotonic, if they are literary, everything is literary. If they are colloquial, everything is colloquial. Yet even a simple point, poetry and prose are not the same.

    I’d like to see translations pick up more of the appropriate register for what they are translating.

  4. Rich Rhodes
    Posted December 15, 2008 at 3:35 am | Permalink

    The meaning ‘stop [doing something]‘, probably first appears about 200-150 b.c.e. The first attestation (to the best of my knowledge) is in the LXX, where there are some transition contexts showing that that meaning was just starting to appear, e.g., Ruth 2:16, so Aristotle didn’t have it. (I’m sorry about saying something confusing about Attic. Although Attic is properly what Aristotle spoke and the language of Alexander’s court, I was trying to distinguish between the early Koine of the LXX and the Koine of the NT by calling the former Attic.)

  5. Rich Rhodes
    Posted December 15, 2008 at 5:15 am | Permalink

    Can I prove beyond the shadow of a doubt that Peter wasn’t rude to Jesus?


    Do I think it is unlikely he was?

    Yes. For both textual and cultural reasons.

    Textually, the other place where Peter contradicts Jesus is when he insists that he will follow Jesus to death. There he’s insistent but not impolite.

    Culturally, a disciple wouldn’t have dared rebuke his teacher. It was simply not done. Jesus wasn’t a disciple of the leaders of the synagogue and he was constantly in trouble for being too forceful with his social superiors. We lose all sense of this because we’ve heard that “Peter rebuked Jesus” all our lives. Yet another price of mistaken translations.

    One often hears the argument that Biblish helps remind us of the foreignness of the texts. Here it hinders us from seeing it.

  6. Rich Rhodes
    Posted December 15, 2008 at 5:45 am | Permalink

    As good an idea as it is, different versions for different sections doesn’t really answer my objections. It might do for the Gospels, at least at first approximation. But it doesn’t work for Paul. All his letters have colloquial sections, esp. at the end,for which The Message might not be too bad, but in the middle of most he talks like a rabbi, which would have to another version.

    And LXX quotes are everywhere, so even if something like the TEV is the right style for say, John, you still want the LXX quotes to sound like the KJV.

  7. Dru
    Posted December 15, 2008 at 7:38 am | Permalink

    Rich, I’m not saying one should have different versions for different parts of the Bible. That is the position at the moment because each one has a register and sticks to it. What I am saying is that it is a pity one translation – particularly as there are already both too many and not enough difference between some of them – cannot vary the register of its English to convey at least something of the register of what it is translating.

  8. Posted December 15, 2008 at 9:10 am | Permalink

    I don’t mind some biblish.

  9. Posted December 17, 2008 at 1:33 am | Permalink

    I really appreciate this post. Especially the “Appendix.” Many preachers use the OT prophet as their example in preaching, instead of Jesus or his apostles.

  10. CharlesPDog
    Posted December 19, 2008 at 3:37 pm | Permalink

    I just received Alter’s Psalm translation. What a magnificent work. Biblish, huh? “Nobody could understand the ESV’s archaic language.”
    Why not read what someone can do with the English language?
    Do we really need to dumb everything down? Yes, Alter’s work requires, study and osmosis of the poetry and a Bible dictionary and a regular dictionary, but what a reward. Yes, I think we need Biblish. Sometimes it helps to transcend to understand.

  11. Posted December 19, 2008 at 5:44 pm | Permalink

    Charles, when I read a psalm, a piece of poetry, I don’t want to have carry “a Bible dictionary and a regular dictionary” around with me. And I don’t want to have to analyse it as if it were a language puzzle. I want to allow it to penetrate my mind and heart. And at least for me strange syntax and vocabulary is not a help but a barrier to understanding.

  12. CharlesPDog
    Posted December 19, 2008 at 7:10 pm | Permalink

    Just because I need to use greater effort to understand it doesn’t:

    a) mean you have to
    b) diminish the greatness of Alter’s achievement
    c) mean I should avoid reading things that aren’t written with middle schoolers in mind

    As you once wisely pointed out to me, “If you want to understand the meanings of Greek words, get a Greek dictionary, or some other book designed for that purpose. But unfortunately it is not possible to study Greek without learning Greek.”

    Just because something has barriers to understanding doesn’t mean its not worth trying to understand it

  13. Posted December 19, 2008 at 8:00 pm | Permalink

    Charles wrote:

    Just because something has barriers to understanding doesn’t mean its not worth trying to understand it

    This is true, Charles. But it’s true of complex ideas such as relativity, black holes, quantum theory, etc. It should not be true of a translation of the Bible since the Bible was written in standard dialects of Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, and meant to be understood linguistically by its audiences. We have changed the Bible if we make it more linguistically complex than it was originally.

    Let’s let the Bible be the Bible and not add complexity to it by using non-English syntax and word combinations. Let’s let complex philosophical and scientific text remain complex and not dumb them down to a language level they were not written in.

    Let me, please, rephrase your comment to:

    Just because the Bible does not, overall, have barriers to the understanding of its syntax, word combinations, and style, we should not create translation barriers to understanding its language.

    It is true that the Bible contains some complex ideas, such as some of Paul’s arguments in Romans. But the complexity is in the ideas, not the syntax and words. It is for Bible teachers and commentaries to help Bible readers deal with the complex ideas. The words and syntax used to express those ideas should have no more linguistic barriers to their understanding that did the original biblical texts.

    There is an important difference between the language resources used to express ideas and the ideas themselves. Alter has done something unique with his translations. But it’s not a standard English translation. And it doesn’t truly reflect the standard English equivalents to how the Hebrew Bible was worded.

    Again, let’s please not confuse the straightforwardness of the wordings of the Bible (which should be translated with straightforward English language) and complex ideas that may be expressed with that straightforward language.

    It is a distortion of the Bible to express it in odd English, when it wasn’t originally expressed in odd Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek.

    Another way to express this important idea is that the Bible was not written in Biblish, so our translations of it should not be written in Biblish either. Creating a Biblish translation does not accurately reflect the non-Biblish language of the Bible.

  14. Posted December 19, 2008 at 11:05 pm | Permalink

    Charles, if I wanted to understand the Hebrew of the Psalms I would use the original text and a Hebrew dictionary. But for my devotional reading I don’t want to study the Hebrew, directly or by proxy through a word for word “translation”. I want to understand the text without unnecessary intellectual barriers between it and me. These should be two quite different exercises.

    I’m sure Alter’s translation is a magnificent achievement, but it is not what I will be using devotionally, indeed probably not at all.

  15. CharlesPDog
    Posted December 19, 2008 at 11:08 pm | Permalink

    I think the Message Bible is perfectly adequate to give people the general idea of the Bible. With just a tad more effort one can read the NLT and with just a tab more effort than that one can read the NIV. These three Bibles should give most people the necessary basis for most theological ideas.

    Other Bibles and other Books of the Bible, such as Alter’s translation of Psalms and the Torah can not only give us a better idea of the way the writers said it, but also provide transcendence and beauty in its poetry for those of us that enjoy the extra.

    Why else go to the effort to learn Greek and Hebrew and Aramaic?

    Is the individual translator going to uncover some heretofore unknown idea that other Bible scholars have not yet discovered in the myriad of Bibles that are already out there. Or are they doing it for their own edification and enjoyment?

    I’m sure many would say well go ahead and read Alter or the ESV or even the KJV if you want, they why not read the Bibles mentioned above if you don’t enjoy the more, dare I infer contrived language that people claim the self defined bibblish is?

  16. Posted December 20, 2008 at 2:37 pm | Permalink

    Charles, I think I agree with you. If people are looking for transcendence and poetry in a translation of the Psalms, then maybe Alter is for them. That’s not what I am usually looking for. Nor am I looking for “some heretofore unknown idea”, but perhaps it is those who are looking for this who prefer very literal translations. But, I can assure you, they are not going to find that idea in any reliable way from any translation; at least, any such idea needs to be checked very carefully with the original, by someone who knows the original language well.

  17. Posted December 27, 2008 at 2:28 am | Permalink

    While not a complete translation the Scholars Version (Jesus seminar) aims to capture the tone of the original. So vocabulary level and sentence lengths varies from book to book emulating the complexity of the original Greek (or Coptic) text.

2 Trackbacks

  1. [...] ‘rebuke’. That’s the right referent in most contexts, but very wrong in framing. (See this post and the ones it links to for a full explication of why.) Outside of Jude 1:9, the right framing [...]

  2. By I want a 4G translation « Better Bibles Blog on January 2, 2010 at 8:32 pm

    [...] the framing right: 2 Ti. 4:2 (discussed here) 2κήρυξον τὸν λόγον, ἐπίστηθι εὐκαίρως ἀκαίρως, [...]

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