Jesus’ First Miracle: John 2:1–11 (NIV 2011)

Recently I received a question about Jesus’ first miracle at Cana in Galilee. This passage strikes the casual reader as somewhat unusual. Here is the passage in John 2:1–11 (NIV 2011):

On the third day a wedding took place at Cana in Galilee. Jesus’ mother was there, 2 and Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. 3When the wine was gone, Jesus’ mother said to him, “They have no more wine.”
4 “Woman, why do you involve me?” Jesus replied. “My hour has not yet come.”
5 His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.”
6 Nearby stood six stone water jars, the kind used by the Jews for ceremonial washing, each holding from twenty to thirty gallons.
7 Jesus said to the servants, “Fill the jars with water”; so they filled them to the brim.
8 Then he told them, “Now draw some out and take it to the master of the banquet.”
They did so, 9 and the master of the banquet tasted the water that had been turned into wine. He did not realize where it had come from, though the servants who had drawn the water knew. Then he called the bridegroom aside 10 and said, “Everyone brings out the choice wine first and then the cheaper wine after the guests have had too much to drink; but you have saved the best till now.”
11 What Jesus did here in Cana of Galilee was the first of the signs through which he revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.

Jesus puts mercy before ritual

Many of the following ideas represent my synthesis of the commentary on this passage by Craig S. Keener [The Gospel of John (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2003) 492–516].  This is currently the best commentary on John’s Gospel and ranks as one of the finest commentaries ever written.

First, this is a story of the problem-solution type. But, since Jesus is the solution to the problem, these events were certain to have major impact. This is the first of the many sign-miracles that John presents to help his readers take the same faith journey the disciples went through. The disciples of Jesus grew in faith through this miracle (John 2:11), but the miracle also begins the process that takes Jesus to his death.

The groom was in danger of a reputation-ending disaster through the lack of sufficient wine at the wedding feast. While there is no evidence that Jesus knew this family well — they probably lived about nine miles from Nazareth — the bride and groom were certainly in need of mercy.

Mary, the mother of Jesus, demonstrated her faith in Jesus by calling on him to solve the problem and also by telling the servants to do whatever Jesus said (John 2:3, 5). The quiet way Jesus works in the situation not only avoids social tragedy but also results in the groom receiving praise (John 2:9–10).

By choosing to change the water meant for Jewish ceremonial washing into wine, Jesus suggests that accepted Jewish ritual was not as important as the social acceptance of the family facing ruin. For Jesus to demonstrate his benevolence was more important than any offence taken by those committed to Pharisaic regulations. Jesus puts mercy before ritual.

The fact that Jesus created about 120–150 gallons of fine wine made it certain that this miracle could not remain under wraps for long. Indeed, the following section, John 2:12–23, demonstrates the ongoing clash in values between Jesus and the religious leaders as well as the growing response of the people to the signs Jesus was doing. In effect, the events at Cana displayed these trends in seed form. [Have no doubt that John is a literary master!]

For those interested in translation comparisons, I have commented elsewhere that the Greek wording of John 2:4 is idiomatic. A raw translation might be: “What to me and to you?” [NET Bible Notes]. The Greek text shows that Jesus questions the nature of the obligation either he or his mother might have. Strangely enough, only the New Living Translation — generally the king of paraphrase — strives to keep Mary in the picture (“that’s not our problem”). NIV 2011 reduces the joint emphasis on Mary by saying, “Woman, why do you involve me?” This is a minor point, and, since idioms require paraphrasing, it may only prove that NLT is sometimes better at achieving accuracy in that style than NIV 2011.

Copyright © 2011 by Barry Applewhite, Plano, Texas. All rights reserved worldwide.

 

NIV 2011: How much paraphrase is too much?

Some popular English Bible translations do a better job than others in maintaining fidelity to the original text of Scripture. As you know, the Old Testament was recorded in biblical Hebrew (except for a few parts of Daniel and Ezra written in Aramaic), and the New Testament was recorded in Koine Greek.

In my view, the following principles should be applied to Bible translation:

  • Idioms have to be paraphrased to make any sense at all.
  • Ancient writing style which does not involve idioms should be translated without paraphrase; just allow us to listen to an ancient conversation!
  • Biblical metaphors should be translated rather than being “clarified” by replacing the figure of speech with its concrete meaning; such replacement is paraphrase, not translation.

In each case below, you will find the Greek or Hebrew text followed by five English translations: English Standard Version (ESV), New English Translation (NET), New International Version (NIV 2011), Christian Standard Bible (CSB), and New Living Translation (NLT). In general, this order measures the tendency to paraphrase, with ESV doing so the least paraphrasing and NLT doing so the most. NET, NIV 2011, and CSB are all about the same in terms of tendency to paraphrase. That is a move to a more literal position for NIV 2011 in comparison to NIV 1984. I consider that a real improvement!

In the examples below, the underlined Greek text is idiomatic, and I have bold-faced the portion of each English translation that tries to express that idiom.

Idioms (must be paraphrased for comprehension)

BNT Matthew 1:18 ??? ?? ????? ??????? ? ??????? ????? ??. (????????????? ??? ?????? ????? ?????? ?? ?????, ???? ? ????????? ?????? ?????? ?? ?????? ?????? ?? ????????? ?????.

A raw translation would be “have in the womb.” The Greek phrase is an idiom: “?? ?????? ????? be pregnant” BDAG-3, the standard Greek lexicon.

ESV Matthew 1:18 Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.

NET Matthew 1:18 Now the birth of Jesus Christ happened this way. While his mother Mary was engaged to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit.

NIV 2011 Matthew 1:18 This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit.

CSB Matthew 1:18 The birth of Jesus Christ came about this way: After His mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, it was discovered before they came together that she was pregnant by the Holy Spirit.

NLT Matthew 1:18 This is how Jesus the Messiah was born. His mother, Mary, was engaged to be married to Joseph. But before the marriage took place, while she was still a virgin, she became pregnant through the power of the Holy Spirit.

BNT John 2:4 [???] ????? ???? ? ??????·?? ???? ??? ???, ?????; ???? ???? ? ??? ???.

The Greek phrase is idiomatic. A raw translation might be: “What to me and to you?” [NET Bible Notes]

ESV John 2:4 And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what does this have to do with me? My hour has not yet come.”

NET John 2:4 Jesus replied, “Woman, why are you saying this to me? My time has not yet come.”

NIV 2011 John 2:4 “Woman, why do you involve me?” Jesus replied. “My hour has not yet come.”

CSB John 2:4 “What has this concern of yours to do with Me, woman?” Jesus asked. “My hour has not yet come.”

NLT John 2:4 “Dear woman, that’s not our problem,” Jesus replied. “My time has not yet come.”

COMMENT: Oddly enough, NLT is the only English text that retains Jesus’ question about the relevance of this situation to both Mary and Jesus by combining them in the pronoun “our.” All the others focus only on Jesus.

BNT John 10:24 ????????? ??? ????? ?? ???????? ??? ?????? ????·??? ???? ??? ????? ???? ??????; ?? ?? ?? ? ???????, ???? ???? ????????.

A raw translation might be “Until when do you raise our soul?” The Greek phrase is an idiom. “to keep in a state of uncertainty about an outcome, keep someone in suspense, fig. ext. of [meaning] 1.” BDAG-3, the standard lexicon.

ESV John 10:24 So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Christ, tell us plainly.”

NET John 10:24 The Jewish leaders surrounded him and asked, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Christ, tell us plainly.”

NIV 2011 John 10:24 The Jews who were there gathered around him, saying, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.”

COMMENT: NIV 2011 adds the words “who were there,” but why? Only the people who were there could surround Jesus, so why add those words? On the positive side, NIV 2011 substitutes “Messiah” for “Christ.”

CSB John 10:24 Then the Jews surrounded Him and asked, “How long are You going to keep us in suspense? If You are the Messiah, tell us plainly.”

NLT John 10:24 The people surrounded him and asked, “How long are you going to keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.”

Ancient Style (leave it alone!)

WTT 1 Kings 2:10 ???????????? ?????? ????????????

ESV 1 Kings 2:10 Then David slept with his fathers and was buried in the city of David.

NET 1 Kings 2:10 Then David passed away and was buried in the city of David.

COMMENT: NET takes out the more metaphorical idea of “slept with his fathers” and replaces it with the sterile contemporary euphemism “passed away.” The Hebrew original maintains the continuity of David with his ancestors, but the NET takes it away. How does that make matters better? It is hard to believe such measures were necessary to help a contemporary audience understand that David had died when the same verse says he “was buried”!

NIV 2011 1 Kings 2:10 Then David rested with his ancestors and was buried in the City of David.

COMMENT: This substitution of “ancestors” for “fathers” is the result of NIV 2011’s use of new research on English word usage. This is a good change.

CSB 1 Kings 2:10 Then David rested with his fathers and was buried in the city of David.

NLT 1 Kings 2:10 Then David died and was buried with his ancestors in the City of David.

COMMENT: In reference to this verse, NLT has the following misguided boast in its preface: “Only the New Living Translation clearly translates the real meaning of the Hebrew idiom ‘slept with his fathers’ into contemporary English.” (Introduction to NLT, page xlii). This is what software developers call “turning a bug into a feature”! What a selling point!

BNT Romans 13:4 ???? ??? ???????? ????? ??? ??? ?? ??????. ??? ?? ?? ????? ?????, ?????· ?? ??? ???? ??? ???????? ?????· ???? ??? ???????? ????? ??????? ??? ????? ?? ?? ????? ?????????.

ESV Romans 13:4 for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.

NET Romans 13:4 for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be in fear, for it does not bear the sword in vain. It is God’s servant to administer retribution on the wrongdoer.

NIV 2011 Romans 13:4 For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.

CSB Romans 13:4 For government is God’s servant to you for good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, because it does not carry the sword for no reason. For government is God’s servant, an avenger that brings wrath on the one who does wrong.

NLT Romans 13:4 The authorities are God’s servants, sent for your good. But if you are doing wrong, of course you should be afraid, for they have the power to punish you. They are God’s servants, sent for the very purpose of punishing those who do what is wrong.

COMMENT: This verse displays the NLT’s pride in removing metaphors that they believe are “difficult for contemporary readers to understand” (NLT preface). Apparently some of us are considered so ignorant as to think the authorities were going to pat us on the back with the sword. So, the paraphrase had to make it crystal clear that the intent was punishment. Of course, the sword finds little use in 2011, so it had to go too. Calling this a “translation” is a real stretch. [Just to be clear, the Greek words for have, power and punish do not occur in the Greek text.]

In conclusion, I do not argue that any of the changes shown above affect doctrines of Christian faith. But paraphrasing biblical texts that are not idiomatic is an undesirable translation practice. If the translator believes more “clarity” is needed, put it in a footnote!

Copyright © 2011 by Barry Applewhite. All rights reserved worldwide.

 

Hard Sayings (John 6:60)

More than once Jesus’ disciples threw up their hands and said, “This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?” (John 6.60). Have you ever said something similar when you encountered a bracing section of the Bible?

Actually, we silently protest the hard sayings of Jesus more easily than his disciples. We open our Bibles in the privacy of home, and we have complete control over what we select to read or what we choose as fit for reflection. After all, Jesus is not physically there speaking to us about the things we need most to hear.

So, when our eye falls on something tough that Jesus said, like “whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life” (John 6:54), we start scanning for something more cheerful to brighten the day. Over time we get to know the soothing parts of the Gospels, but the hard parts are like a forbidding land our feet hesitate to enter.

Jesus knew his disciples were grumbling about what he had said and that some had even turned back. You might think Jesus would try to reassure his disciples to keep them in the fold, but you would be wrong. Instead, he challenged the Twelve by saying, “You do not want to leave too, do you?” (John 6:67). No spin control. No soft words from a media consultant.

Peter responded to the challenge with frankness, “Lord, to whom shall we go. You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68). Peter speaks to us down the centuries. He says there is no turning away from the hard sayings of Jesus, because they are the words of eternal life. And he reminds us that to turn away from Jesus’ words means to turn away from Jesus himself.

How do we proceed? I recommend this spiritual discipline for the next month: spend time studying the Bible verses you like the least. Pray about them, and ask the Holy Spirit to guide you into all the truth. You may find this to be a hard saying. So be it.

Copyright © 2011 by Barry Applewhite. All rights reserved worldwide.

Are you holding on tight?

Are you holding onto your salvation with a firm grip? If you are, there will come a day when your hand gets tired. Or perhaps that day has already arrived.

You had an iron grip on eternal life the day you trusted in Jesus to pay the penalty for your sins. But as time went on there was the incident of cheating on the exam, the casual sex with someone you just met, the cash payment on which no taxes were paid. We both know God rejects all that as sin, so maybe your grip on heaven is not as firm as you thought. In place of confidence, a secret sense of foreboding about your salvation has seeped into your heart. Are you — again — lost?

Jesus foresaw that fear would steal into your heart, he understood that your grip on salvation was only that of human strength. He knew someone had to watch over us in the dark of night when human hands must lay their burdens down, someone to shepherd the vulnerable flock. “I am the good shepherd,” he said. “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11).

As wonderful as that promise is, it is a one-time protection, for a dead shepherd protects no sheep. Jesus knew that too, so he added, “I lay down my life only to take it up again” (John 10:18). Our resurrected shepherd keeps unending watch over his flock!

Yet our fear again takes voice to wonder whether we are still part of his flock. Might it be that our sin has banished us from his care? Jesus answers No! in the most emphatic possible words:

27 My sheep listen to my voice; and I know them, and they follow me. 28 I give them eternal life, and they will never perish; no one will snatch them from my hand. (John 10:27–28, NET Bible)

The context makes clear that those who listen to Jesus’ voice are those who have put their faith in him. At the moment of salvation, Jesus gives them eternal life, and they will absolutely not — the negative forms of the New Testament Greek are the strongest possible — spiritually die forever! Jesus goes further to say that “no one will snatch them from my hand.” But that is not the end of the assurance he gave about our salvation, for he said:  ”My Father who has given them to me is greater than all, and no one can snatch them from my Father’s hand” (John 10:29, NET Bible).

You may rest now and relax your grip. Your hand has never been the one that mattered in holding your salvation eternally secure. No one will snatch it from the hand of Jesus. No one can take it from the hand of the Father. No one will, no one can. Not even you.

Copyright © 2011 by Barry Applewhite. All rights reserved worldwide.