Deferring to Others or Keeping Score?
Aug 01, 2011 by Craig Blomberg | 3 Comments
“. . . not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.” (Phil 2:4, updated NIV).
Unfortunately, many Bible readers today form opinions about the merits of various translations based on hearsay rather than firsthand examination of the text of Scripture, even if that hearsay is quite mistaken or slanted in what it claims. Sometimes people just accept the opinion of a trusted authority in their lives. Maybe they base their decision solely on the rendering of a single verse, or collection of verses on the same topic or involving the same issue. Some people stress very literal renderings at the expense of clarity of meaning, or freshness of style at the expense of faithfulness to the original languages.
Having read large swaths of many of the major English translations of the Bible and having been involved in the production of four of the major recent translations (ESV, HCSB, NLT and updated NIV), I am convinced that the updated NIV achieves the best combination of accuracy and clarity of meaning most frequently. Each translation has its appropriate niche, but the NIV seems to serve best the broadest cross-section of purposes and audiences. This is the fourth in a series of blogs, appearing more frequently than in the past, which looks at a diverse collection of texts and topics that I believe support my conviction.
A pastor I heard a number of years ago, who was preaching through Philippians, applied Philippians 2:4 to close friendships, including marriage relationships. I don’t remember his exact words, but his point was basically that if each person got their way about half the time, the relationship would stand a good chance of flourishing. He was reading from the New American Standard Bible, which said, “do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others.” He apparently didn’t pay much if any attention to the fact that the NASB italicizes words it adds to the text for a variety of reasons, because he made the point rather strongly that we are not to shortchange ourselves just as we are not to shortchange others.
A survey of English translations yields some interesting results here. The KJV followed the Greek literally and had nothing corresponding to this “merely.” But the NKJV added “only.” So much for their highly touted claim that they would change the KJV only where the language needed to be updated to make it understandable! The 1901 American Standard Version retained the accuracy of the KJV, but the Revised Standard Version also added “only.” The NRSV correctly deleted these words, but the ESV did not. The HCSB added “only,” but correctly italicized them as a translators’ addition. The NiV, NET and the NLT also added “only,” but without italics.
Translations that do not have any adverb moderating the stark sense of the Greek include the TNIV, the updated NIV, the NAB, the NJB and the CEB.]
So what’s going on here? The problem is that the Greek sentence is not symmetrical. An interlinear word- by-word gloss might read, “not the things of themselves each considering but [also] the things of others each.” Without the “also” the sentence would be symmetrical. Turned into intelligible English, it would read, “each person not considering their own things but the things of others.” That would mean deferring to the other person all the time so that the score would be Self-0%--Others-100%! But enough good manuscripts have the “also” to make that the most likely original reading. One can understand why one way scribes would try to smooth out the awkwardness of an expression that read “not x but also y” would be to just drop the also. For the very same reason, modern translators have tended to smooth out the irregularity by adding a word like “only,” so that it reads, “not only x but also y.” After all Paul knows and elsewhere quotes the great Levitical command, “love your neighbor as yourself.” He can’t mean here that we are never to love self, do good things to care for ourselves, etc.
But Paul knew how to write “not only” if he wanted to, and does so in 26 other places in his letters. Plus there are no significant textual variants in this half of the verse. Here his point really must have been not to look to one’s own interests! After all, the context is all about Christian unity. The immediately preceding verse has just declared, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves.” There’s nothing 50-50 about that!
I know of no marriage counselors who would recommend keeping score so that each partner gets what they want about half of the time as the key to a lasting, loving marriage. I know no experts on parenting who would recommend that parents and children should each get their way about half of the time. In the case of Jesus’ love for humanity, the score was Jesus 0% (he shouldered the penalty for the sins of the world), humanity 100% (so that none of us would have to if we followed him). But following does mean carrying our own crosses. And the very next passage is that marvelous Philippian hymn (2:5-11) all about Christ’s making the infinite, eternal, unsurpassable sacrifice for us. Surely the least we can do for one another is to put others interests above our own.
Yes, I can hear the therapists already. But set boundaries, Craig. Don’t burn out. Receive proper self-esteem. Achieve correct self-actualization. Yes, yes, of course. Those aren’t the hard commands. Thanks to a good upbringing perhaps, or whatever, I don’t have any masochistic tendencies. In fact, I’m pretty much a wimp about pushing myself too hard. And my whole life, my self-esteem has never improved one iota when someone has praised me for something I know I really didn’t do a good job on. But for every one person I see burning out these days in the church (and I’m talking about laity as well as leaders), I see a whole bunch who are thinking far more about what’s fair for them (like 50-50) than what’s sacrificial.
Is the updated NIV worth getting over the old NIV. You bet! And over quite a few other highly touted translations as well.