Monday, March 26, 2007

NIV vs. TNIV: Matthew 11:12

For a while now, I've been thinking of starting an ongoing series of posts on This Lamp comparing revisions of translations to their predecessors. These will be short posts comparing usually on a verse or two at a time. This new TNIV Truth blog is the perfect forum to write about the ways that the TNIV improved on the NIV, so I will write those posts here and posts about other translations at This Lamp. Much of the attention that the TNIV has received has been over its supposed controversial aspects (which I always refer to as artificial controversy) to the neglect of the actual improvements in accuracy over the NIV.

One such example is found in Matthew 11:12. The intent of the writer's Greek can be very difficult to determine in this verse.

πὸ δὲ τῶν ἡμερῶν Ἰωάννου τοῦ βαπτιστοῦ ἕως ἄρτι ἡ βασιλεία τῶν οὐρανῶν βιάζεται καὶ βιασταὶ ἁρπάζουσιν αὐτήν.
From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been forcefully advancing, and forceful men lay hold of it.

From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been subjected to violence,* and violent people have been raiding it.

*Or been forcefully advancing.

The key phrase in question is "ἡ βασιλεία τῶν οὐρανῶν βιάζεται." Is the kingdom of heaven on the giving or receiving end of violence? This isn't a text critical issue because the text itself is not in question. We cannot determine a harder reading for guidance. In fact, harder readings don't apply here because obviously the context must weigh heavy on a translator's choice.

The NIV rendering is clearly in the minority among English translations, although the NLT also agrees and makes the action active rather than passive. The TNIV, however is clearly in line with the way most translations interpret the phrase (yet another case in point that ALL translations require interpretation, regardless of method). The NIV doesn't offer an alternative translation, but the TNIV includes one as do a number of other translations (ESV, NASB, NET, NLT, NRSV).

No doubt that during certain periods in Christian history, such as during the Crusades, the idea of the kingdom of heaven forcefully advancing would have been a popular one. And certainly, one could spiritualize the phrase to think of the kingdom of heaven advancing against powers and principalities. But what would the context (which is regarding Jesus' praise for John the Baptist) suggest?

The ICC commentary on Matthew by W. D. Davies and Dale C. Allison is one of my favorite works on the first gospel because they are so exhaustive when looking at the possibilities for a question such as this. In fact, Davies and Allison list seven different interpretations for this passage that have been offered down through the ages before hesitantly settling on this one:

N. Perrin, speaking for many, finds in 11.12 par. a reference to 'the death of the Baptist and the prospective suffering of Jesus and his disciples'. Further, 'In Matt 11.12 the use of kingdom of Heaven ... evokes the myth of the eschatological war between God and the powers of evil and interprets the fate of John the Baptist, and the potential fate of Jesus and his disciples, as a manifestation of that conflict'. In other words, the suffering of John and of the saints after him is interpreted in terms of the messianic woes or the eschatological tribulation of the latter days [p. 255].

If such things bother you, don't get hung up on the word myth in the quote above. It's being used in the straight literary sense, not as an evaluation of a truth claim. Regardless, the point is that John the Baptist is the prime example of one who would suffer violence for the sake of the Kingdom, and there would be more who would follow after him. Though the exact translation of the phrase is not a closed subject and still open to debate, in my opinion, the TNIV translators made a fair corrective to the NIV in this verse that fits in not only with the immediate context, but also with the context of the Bible as a whole and in many ways, with the context of church history.


Gary Zimmerli said...

That has been a difficult verse for me to understand for many years, and I'm sure it is for many as well. If the TNIV reading is indeed correct, it clarifies things immensely for me!

Thanks, Rick!

Gary Zimmerli said...

To clarify what I just said:

That has been a difficult verse for me to understand for many years, and I'm sure it is for many othersas well.

Does that make any better sense?

Gary Zimmerli said...

I'm about ready to give up. There should be a space between "others" and "as".

Wayne Eddie Torr Leman said...

Don't give up, Gary. Scribal errors are part of the game.


Gary Zimmerli said...

Thanks for the encouragement, Wayne! ;-)

Sorry I messed up the comments after your fine entry, Rick.

Kevin said...

Rick, this clarification of Matt. 11:12 helps us to see that the bible in a less violent manner. Some people have unfairly painted Christians as war-mongering. In political terms, this helps us to see ourselves, the church, more in terms of being the victim rather than the aggressor--which is the real situation around the world today.

Ross Garner said...

I am about to preach on this passage of scripture. I tend to use the NIV so I was about to preach "come on folks lets be forceful men who take hold of the kingdom and forcefully advance it."

But I have just read Carson's commentary on the verse which points us to an interpretation that says "since the days of John the Baptist the Kingdom of heaven is being forcefully advanced, and violent men are pillaging it."

So that shoots my planned sermon in the foot. However, I sense that Carson's interpretation is right. I don't feel like a mighty warrior about to take hell by storm and the people who I preach to are by and large in the scared rabbit league.

So my revised interpretation is that Jesus in the power of the Holy Spirit is forcefully advancing the Kingdom of heaven every time he heals the sick, cleanses a leper or brings sight to the blind (Matt 11:5). Jesus clearly sees these as actions of spiritual warfare against the principality of darkness (cf 1 John 5:19).

This violence against the forces of evil is carried out by a child of God - a little one whose eyes and ears are open to the things revealed by the Father (verses 15 and 25).

The violent men are the people who oppose the Kingdom of heaven by persecuting the likes of John the Baptist, Jesus, James and countless other Martyrs.

The implications for me and my hearers is that although we are little children and not forceful men we can nevertheless join Jesus in his work of forcefully advancing the Kingdom of heaven as we operate in the power of the Spirit: doing good deeds that bless people and healing the sick.