Thursday, July 8, 2010

Groaning in the Spirit: John 11:28-44

Although knowledge of the original languages is no doubt a great advantage to students of the Word the plain teaching of scripture comes through clearly and adequately in the better English translations. A few years ago I began to study Koine Greek and although it is valuable, I find its chief benefit is a better understanding of the emphasis and nuances of various texts as well as enabling a better understanding of the more scholarly commentaries. It is comforting to me that nothing I have learned thus far in Greek has overturned any doctrinal understanding I derived from the English versions I had been studying. If anything, it has helped me to be more confident in certain interpretations and to better appreciate the difficulties in others.

Although scholars may argue about the relative clarity or fidelity of various translations to the form or intent of the manuscripts there is seldom anything of great consequence regarding the basic meaning of any entire passage. Emphasis, phrasing, or a word here and there may differ between the major English translations but in general they are in substantial agreement. Where they do differ there is usually some textual variant, ambiguity in the Greek, or a different philosophical principal of translation at work (i.e. the translation of idioms etc.).

Therefore, I was quite surprised when I recently read D.A. Carson’s book Scandalous: The Cross and Resurrection of Jesus. In chapter 4 of that book Carson is giving an exposition of John 11 where Jesus raises Lazarus. According to Carson the rendering of that passage in English is frequently incorrect. He argues that the verb enebrimesato found in 11:33 and 11:38, often translated “he was deeply moved”, actually means “outraged” when applied to humans. If true this drastically changes the way that the passage is understood. Below is a sampling of some prominent English translations of verse 33:

NIV- “When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled.”

NASB- “When Jesus therefore saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, He was deeply moved in spirit and was troubled,”

ESV- “When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled.”

The closest to Carson’s interpretation is that of the King James Version (and NKJV) but even that does not convey the strength of “outrage”:

KJV- “When Jesus therefore saw her weeping, and the Jews also weeping which came with her he groaned in the spirit, and was troubled,”

Consultation with a number of lexicons seems to confirm Carson’s view that the word strongly implies not mourning but outrage. Strong’s concordance gives as the first definition as “to snort with anger”, the Blue Letter lexicon also give to snort with anger as the literal construction but gives the first definition as “to charge with earnest admonition”, others suggest that the word means to “have indignation”, “to groan”, “to sigh”, and even “to thunder”. It is doubtful to me that most readers will assume that Christ was “deeply moved” with indignation or outrage. It seems that the likely conclusion from the English translations would be that he was moved with grief, especially since we see Him weeping in the passage.

Carson argues that “He is outraged by the death that has called forth this loss, by the sin that lies behind that, and by the unbelief that characterizes everyone’s response to it.” Rendering the word as outrage sheds a completely different light on the passage. As we consider Jesus coming upon this funerary scene with the clamor, noise, and weeping typical of that time we get a picture of our Lord not just mourning the loss of His friend but as the savior of the world confronting the ultimate enemy, death, and preparing to demonstrate His power over it by raising Lazarus.

I have been unable to find any compelling explanation as to why most English translations choose to avoid the more common way of rendering enebrimesato in this particular passage. Is there some textual reason that D.A. Carson has been unable to identify? Is it simply the weight of the translation tradition as Carson conjectures?

I have no doubt that the English translations are reliable and stand as a sufficient and accurate communication of God’s revelation. I do, however, find it strange that there would be an instance such as this where virtually all of the English translations are in general agreement in translating a passage in way that, based upon a quick review of a number of lexicons, seems to be misleading. I could perhaps understand one or two… but all of them?


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  2. Very interesting. I heard mention of this on the White Horse Inn a couple of years ago. I read somewhere that John Calvin described the scene as Christ going forth as our Captain to war against death.

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  4. I just heard about this this morning on Leading the Way with Michael Youssef. It certainly gives new light to the passage.