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Inside Translation
Translating the Gospel (Part 14): Limitations to Translation
by Hart Wiens, CBS Director of Scripture Translation

"For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life." (John 3.16 - NRSV)

This is the last in this series of 14 articles illustrating various translation principles through the lens of the issues we face as we translate a verse like John 3.16, often referred to as the Gospel in a nutshell. In this issue we grapple with the phrase, "may have eternal life," the climax of this verse.

One of the reasons Christians love this verse so much is its promise of life - the life that all of us long for. According to this verse we have this life through a combination of what God has done and our response. God sent his Son to save us and the anticipated response on our part is faith that results in action.

But what is this "eternal life" that we are promised? It is important that this be translated and understood clearly, since this is at the core of the Gospel message itself. The original Greek text is . The first Greek word is the source from which we derive our English word "zoology." It is generally translated in English as "life." The second word in the Greek phrase is most frequently translated into English as "eternal." It is the Greek word from which we get our English word "eon." Unfortunately in our English translation as in many languages the focus in a word like "eternal" tends to be on the length of time - time without end. In Greek however and in the context of the Jewish culture in which the Gospel was written, the focus is as much on the quality of life that is promised as on the length of time. The Jewish people were looking forward to a time when the Messiah would come and rule - the messianic age. Could that be what John had in mind when he wrote about eternal life here?

Those of us who just read this verse in our English translations without understanding the context in which John lived and wrote, will tend to think of a time after death when the part of us that does not die goes on to live forever in heaven. However for Jesus, and for his early followers, the time that is in focus here had already begun with the coming of Jesus, the long awaited Messiah. Everything that Jesus did and taught was intended to demonstrate that the messianic age - the "Kingdom" had come near. So perhaps, what John is telling us here is that by believing in Jesus - by believing that he is indeed God's messiah - we are ushered into a whole new quality of life, a life which begins here and now and goes on after our bodies die. This life that we are promised does not just begin at our physical death and then go on forever after that. It begins as soon as we recognize and place our trust in the Messiah - the one and only son of God whom God sent into this world because he loves us so much.

The inadequacy of most translations to capture the full range of what John is trying to communicate profiles the importance of sound biblical teaching in the Christian community to convey the depth of meaning that cannot always be captured in translation. As Bible translators we work in partnership with competent Bible teachers to bring the good news of the Gospel to people with the power to transform lives.

For more information and discussion on this topic, please contact us by .

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