Sunday, December 10, 2017

The Translations of Matthew 11:12

(The original of this note is in Chinese, published in September 2011. In the translations below, inside the brackets are the footnotes from that version.)

NIV: From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been subjected to violence (been forcefully advancing), and violent people have been raiding it.

NLT: And from the time John the Baptist began preaching until now, the Kingdom of Heaven has been forcefully advancing (the Kingdom of Heaven has suffered from violence), and violent people are attacking it.

NKJV: And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent take it by force.

RSV: From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence (has been coming violently), and men of violence take it by force.

In this sentence, the subject is the Kingdom of Heaven. The Greek verb βιαζεται can be understood as “passive voice”: be violently against. Or it can be understood as “middle voice” without an object: Forcefully advancing. The picture is violent – either the Kingdom of God violently does something, or it has been violently against by something.

The later part of the sentence has another Geek verb αρπαζουσιν, which is a plural form of action, also gives a violent picture. It means violently does something, for example plucks away, or takes away by force, or suddenly catch away. Depends on how you understand the previous part of the sentence, this part has to be translated differently. But remember, its subject is plural, so it probably is not the Kingdom of God, no matter how violently it advances itself.

This will leave only one possibility of understanding the earlier part, to be the subject of the later violent action: those violent men who violently resist/against the Kingdom. And this is supported by the contexts of the verse – John the Baptist brought the message of the Kingdom, but strong/violent people were attacking him, even Jesus faced the same treatment. Therefore the RSV translation of the verse makes best sense. By the way, in Luke 16:16, we see a similar verse, especially if you read Chinese version, but it actually is a different statement.

RSV: The law and the prophets were until John; since then the good news of the kingdom of God is preached, and every one enters it violently.

When we think it is “similar”, that is because Luke 16:16 appear give similar picture to one of the renderings of Matthew 11:12 – the Kingdom of God advancing forcefully, and followed by men act violently. – Why entering God’s Kingdom needs violence? There is a similar confusion like Matthew 11:12. NLT interpretes Luke 16:16 as people's desire to be eager, rather than their actions to be violent:

NLT: Until John the Baptist, the law of Moses and the messages of the prophets were your guides. But now the Good News of the Kingdom of God is preached, and everyone is eager to get in.

Again βιαζεται can be understood either passive or middle voice there -- It is either people were forcefully pushed/grab into the Kingdom (by God), or people strive to enter it. Most translators select the second rendering, and I guess this was how Chinese version of Matthew 11:12 came from, which literally says “From the days of John the Baptist until now, people strive to enter the Kingdom, and those who are trying hard have it.”

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