The Greatest Story Ever Told
There’s nothing better than a good story—especially when it’s true.
I love to tell the story of unseen things above,
Of Jesus and His glory, of Jesus and His love!
(So goes Arabella Hankey’s famous song, now almost 150 years old.)
What’s it take for you to understand and tell that story in English? The making of John 3:16 is a good place to start.
Translating John 3:16—Step One
The portion from John’s original writing probably looked like what you see below—Greek letters run together, without verse or chapter number, punctuation, or even breaks between words:
Scholars have sifted through thousands of Biblical manuscripts, all written by hand from soon after the time of Jesus until the printing press in the middle of the fifteenth century. Though differences among the documents are usually not significant, publication and comparison of old papyri and parchments help us decide which of the variations are correct. From there we can write John 3:16 in more modern form, something like this:
Translating John 3:16—Step Two
We must now try to determine the meaning of the Greek words. But this is where things get tricky. Almost every word in any language means more than one thing. Greek New Testament dictionaries include at least nine definitions for the word kosmos (here “world” in English). The word huios (here “son”) actually has at least seven meanings, and exw (here “have”) includes about 20. Webster’s lists 24 definitions for English world and 28 for love.
(Dare we mention the 179 definitions for English run?! Even boring old English the boasts a dozen or more definitions, and nearly invisible a, including its use as a prefix and suffix but excluding abbreviations, trumps that with 20 some meanings. How the mind can learn and interpret language is baffling. “Miraculous” is more accurate.)
Translating John 3:16—Step Three
Beyond that, word order and grouping of words raise still more questions. The Greek of John 3:16 literally says “loved the god,” without a capital for God. Unless we understand Johannine theology and Greek affixation (prefixes, suffixes), we can’t understand that in English these three words mean “God loved.” No English translation says “the God loved,” much less the highly literal Greek form “loved the god.” But we needn’t worry about that. Despite the fact that every English translation “takes a word away” here from the Greek original, that’s not what Revelation 22:18-20 is warning about. The Greek word logos used in those verses, along with the threat Revelation adds, do not refer to dictionary entries. That passage is talking about deliberate distortion of the truth. Ironically, we often unwittingly violate Revelation’s dictate when we translate too literally and thus obscure the original meaning.
Translating John 3:16—Step Four
But all the above is just the easy part. We might ask, for example, why the KJV translates the word mongenes as “only begotten,” whereas the NIV has “one and only.” Apparently, the KJV translators either misunderstood the term or felt constrained to follow the meaning of the historical Latin translation. The Greek word actually refers to uniqueness, not birth. Decades ago the NIV bravely broke with centuries-old tradition and rendered monogenes as “one and only.” That phrase is not only more accurate, but more evangelical, helping to prevent unscriptural misinterpretation. One way or another, most translations since the NIV have followed suit.
Translating John 3:16—Step Five
Much more research is necessary before John 3:16 can be translated accurately and clearly into modern English. But to give a final point for spiritual meditation—and even a bit of linguistic fun—consider this: Do English speakers ever “give” their offspring? People might “give their son a gift” or “give their daughter in marriage,” but that’s not what John intends here. Frankly, the heart of this verse—“gave his son”—is not standard English. When we notice that, it drives us to ask if the Greek word exw might not actually mean something more precise than “give.” When researching the term, we find that the New Testament uses it at least sixteen different ways. To “give (i.e., sacrifice) one’s life” is among them (Matthew 20:28). So we see that John 3:16 almost surely means God “gave up” or “sacrificed” his only son. Abraham’s obedience in offering up Isaac was the prime example of the same, provided some 2000 years before John wrote.
What’s more, as if a divine gift for translators, the Bible calls Isaac Abraham’s monogenes (Hebrews 11:17). But there the word cannot mean “only-begotten,” for Abraham’s son Ishmael was born before Isaac. In fact, Isaac was Abraham’s only legitimate heir, his only God-given son by Abraham’s wife, Sarah. That helps us with the translation of John 3:16.
The Bible, though of diverse literary forms and written by many people in three languages over the span of 1500 years, is a tightly woven unit—the holy, God-breathed Scripture (2 Timothy 3:15, 16) “which can build you up and give you an inheritance among all those who are sanctified” (Acts 20:32; NIV, 2011).
Translating John 3:16 in Other Languages
So there you have it—a small part of what went into translating one verse (and that in your mother-tongue for a Western culture with a long history of Christianity). If you really want to stretch your thinking muscles, try doing the same in a foreign language where the best-known religion, its vocabulary, typical literary forms and written traditions are quite different. We can be thankful for the many years of work that went into giving us God’s Word in English. An illustrious example is that of a German Bible translator—Martin Luther himself. He was one of the most educated people of his age, a Doctor of Divinity, polyglot, professor and author. In spite his celebrated qualifications he confessed:
I have also undertaken to translate the Bible into German. That was necessary for me; otherwise I might have died someday imagining that I was a learned man. Those who think themselves scholars should try to do this work.