Sunday, April 5, 2015

How Much did Nicodemus Bring?

I use the NASB as the base text for most of the Bible studies I teach. A few days ago, however, one of the students who read from the ESV asked about a translation issue in a passage about the handling of the body of Jesus.

The NASB translates John 19:39 in the following way:

“Nicodemus, who had first come to Him by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about a hundred pounds weight.” (NASB)

The ESV, however, translates John 19:39 as follows:

“Nicodemus also, who earlier had come to Jesus by night, came bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds in weight.” (ESV)

The NASB, KJV, NKJV, NRVS, YLT, and BBE all translate the verse 100 pounds. The ESV, NIV, NET, NLT, HCSB, and others translate the verse 75 pounds.

Why are the translations different? Did Nicodemus bring around 75 pounds or around 100 pounds?

There are various reasons why translators sometimes use different words for the same verses. Sometimes the translators are using a different manuscript tradition. Sometimes there are variant readings in the ancient manuscripts themselves. Other times, the words may be difficult to translate into English so different choices are made to help the reader understand the meaning of the original. In this case, however, the manuscripts agree and variant readings are not an issue. Likewise, the words themselves are not difficult to translate.

The reason for the difference has to do with the way the translation philosophy is applied to the verse. Some translations attempt to replicate the words and form of the original languages as closely as possible while still allowing it to be readable in English. Scholars often call this approach “formal equivalence” because wherever possible the translator is trying to reproduce the form of the original. Others, however, are more concerned about expressing the meaning of the original than the exact words or form. Scholars often call this this the “dynamic equivalence” method because the concern is more about translating meaning than words.

The fact is that no major translation is purely one or the other. Every translation involves a combination of both. Rather than either/or, it is often a matter of a spectrum where some translations are more likely to apply one or the other in any given situation. In this case, for example, both ESV and NASB are formally equivalent translations, yet they make different decisions regarding this particular verse.

The words in question are the Greek words λίτρας έκατον (litras hekaton). As I said earlier, both of these words are straightforward. The word λίτρας (litras) is the word from which we get our modern word “liter” we associate with liquid measures in the metric system. It is the Greek word for pound. It is the same word, for example, used in John 12:3 to describe the amount of perfume Mary used to anoint the feet of Jesus. The other word, ἑκατόν (hekaton) is the Greek word for 100. It is where we get our modern prefix hecta/hecto, as in hectare etc., which we still use in the metric system to denote a factor of 100. Therefore, the Greek text includes the word for 100 and the word for pounds to describe the quantity Nicodemus brought.

Why then do so many translations say 75 pounds? The reason is that at the time John wrote his Gospel the λίτρα (litra) or pound referred not to our English pounds but to Roman pounds. English pounds are 16 ounces, but the Roman pound is just a little over 11.5 ounces. This means that the actual amount of weight that Nicodemus brought was around 73 pounds. Since the text makes it clear that it is not giving an exact amount, the ESV and many others translate this “about 75 pounds”.

Those who apply a more formal approach, such as the NASB, recognize that the text includes a Greek word for 100 and a Greek word for pounds that have English equivalents and so they translate it formally. ESV, however, apparently thought that most modern readers would probably not realize that the text is referring to Roman pounds. As a result, they thought formal translation of the verse was not the most accurate way of conveying the meaning of the original in English, and used a dynamic approach for this verse.

Neither of these translations are a mistake. They are simply two different approaches to handling the process of translation. I usually tend to prefer formal translations particularly for inductive studies because the reader is less dependent upon the interpretive choices of the translator. As this verse demonstrates, however, formal does not always mean more accurate in the sense of communicating the meaning of the original in English. In this case, translating the exact words of the original does not give the English reader a more accurate understanding of the original. This is why, even when using a reliable translation (and both of these are), it is often helpful to consult multiple translations when we study.