Tag Archives: Bible translations

God “Was Able”? Or “Is Able”?

In this post I’m doing a dangerous thing—questioning grammatical details in English Bible translations when I am only a second-year Greek student. So please take this post with a grain of salt. If you are a Greek scholar and you see I am missing something, please let me know and I’ll happily correct this post. Meanwhile, since blogs are good for thinking out loud, here goes!

[Edit: I’ve received responses from a couple people who know Greek better than I do, including my Greek teacher, Joseph Neill. Here is part of what he wrote:

Could it be translated as “God is able”? Yes, but the grammar does not require it; in fact, it leans the other way I think. But based on God’s nature and the greater context (4:23 especially), it is right for us to understand from this passage that not only was God able, but God is able. (Context might lean this way.) So, if this is what Paul had in mind (God is able), I think he would have said exactly what he did say. But then again, if he did not have all this in mind (but rather God was able) he would have still said it exactly how he did say it. =)

Later: I would need to study and think more about it to be sure I got it right, especially the part that suggested Paul  could mean either was or is (in English thought) and he would have worded it the same either way. I would like to find examples that conclusively prove this hunch of mine.

See this comment below for his full response, as well as similar thoughts in comments from Marlin Sommers.]

Today I continued reading through Romans in Greek for the first time. Near the end of chapter four, I noticed something interesting:

ὃ ἐπήγγελται δυνατός ἐστιν καὶ ποιῆσαι. (Rom. 4:21)

A hyper-literal translation might read something like this:

What [he] has promised, able [he] is also to do.

Here is the same clause in some popular English translations:

What he had promised, he was able also to perform. (KJV)

What He had promised He was also able to perform. (NKJV)

What God had promised, He was able also to perform. (NASB)

What God had promised, he was also able to do. (CSB)

What God promised he was also able to do. (NET)

God was able to do what he had promised. (ESV)

God had power to do what he had promised. (NIV)

Do you see the difference? The Greek uses a present-tense verb (“is” ἐστιν), but these English translations use past-tense verbs (“was” or “had”). The Greek seems to say “he is able also to do,” while the English translations say “he was able also to do.”

Why might these English translations do this?

Here’s one possible explanation: Some Greek writers frequently insert “present tense” verbs into narratives of past events. But they do this without intending to imply that the action is happening presently. This is sometimes called the “historical present.” In other words, the Greek “present tense” does not neatly match English present tense verb usage, sometimes being used instead for other rhetorical purposes. (Hence my scare quotes around “present tense” above.)

You can see this in a translation such as the NASB, which marks these verbs with an asterisk. Here’s a random example from Mark:

As they *approached Jerusalem… He *sent two of his disciples, and *said to them… (Mark 1:1-2)

Is the same thing happening here in Romans 4:21? I doubt it. This use of the Greek “present tense” is usually found in narratives—in stories. This passage is not a story but rather a discussion about a story. Steven Runge, who discusses the “historical present” in depth in his recent book Discourse Grammar of the Greek New Testament, does not appear to include even one example of the “historical present” from any of Paul’s letters. Almost all of his examples come from the Gospel narratives.

Another possible explanation for the English translations here is that they switch from present to past in order to match the other half of the clause: “what he had promised.” But there, too, the Greek seems to carry more of a present tense: “what he has promised.”

(The weeds: The Greek verb here, ἐπήγγελται, is a perfect tense-form. The perfect tense-form is often understood as describing a present state that is the result of a past action. Though it was dying out in the Greek Koine of the NT era, there was also a pluperfect tense-form that is basically a past version of the perfect tense-form: “had promised” instead of “has promised.”)

In summary, it seems to this second-year Greek student that neither half of the clause clearly carries a past tense sense. The first half (probably) depicts a present state (“what he has promised”) and the second half (more clearly) asserts a present reality (“he is able also to do”).

This brings me to my third and best working explanation: The English translations above do not follow the Greek as closely as they could. Interestingly, I am not alone in my assessment. There are a few English translations that agree with me, some old, some recent:

What He hath promised He is able also to do (YLT “Young’s Literal Translation)

Whatever things God hath promised, he is mighty also to do. (Wycliffe)

What he has promised he is able also to do. (Darby)

What God has promised, He also is able to do. (TLV “Tree of Life Version”)

God is able to do whatever he promises. (NLT)

Similarly, though I haven’t found any commentaries that directly address this translation question, several appear to indirectly affirm my conclusions. First, a comment from Moo:

It is Abraham’s conviction that God is fully able to do whatever he promised that enabled his faith to overcome the obstacle of the tangible and visible “facts.”1

And, better, a direct translation by Schreiner, followed by commentary:

Abraham grew strong in faith “by being fully assured that God is able to do what he had promised” (πληροφορηθεὶς ὅτι ὃ ἐπήγγελται δυνατός ἐστιν καὶ ποιῆσαι…)… He surely has the power to accomplish what he has promised.2

[Edit: In his 2018 revision of this commentary, Schreiner interprets Romans 4:21 as even more clearly expressing the timeless nature of God’s ability. His translation now reads: “by being fully assured that God is able to do what he promised” (instead of “had promised”).  And his comment now reads: “He surely has the power to accomplish what he promises” (instead of “has promised”). See page 246.]

In sum, I give Darby top marks for following the Greek most closely: “What he has promised he is able also to do.” And I give the NLT top marks for best expressing the timeless truth that Abraham grasped: “God is able to do whatever he promises.”

Whether or not I am right in the above, this I do know is true: My own faith, like Abraham’s, will be strengthened only if I am confident that God is able—past, present, future, always able—to do everything he has promised.

This timeless nature of God’s power is expressed clearly even in English translations several verses earlier in Romans 4: “The God who gives life to the dead and calls things into existence that do not exist” (Rom. 4:17 CSB).

John Toews puts it this way:

More is said about God than about Abraham’s faith. The character of the God “faithed” determines the character of the faith exercised. The point of the text is that the fulfillment of the promise is based on the power of God. Even more important than Abraham’s faith is God’s faithfulness.3

What a mighty God we serve!

Greek scholar or not, share your insights in the comments below. And thanks for reading.

  1. Douglas Moo, Romans, NICNT (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996), 286. Emphasis added.
  2. Thomas R. Schreiner, Romans, BECNT (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1998), 238-39. Emphasis added.
  3. John E. Toews, Romans, Believers Church Bible Commentary (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 2004), 123.

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I and my Wife and Paul’s Grammar

“I and my wife are thankful God answered our prayers and gave us children.”

Yes, “I and my wife.”

Now, grammar grumps, cool your fingers and curb your complaints. 🙂 I claim divine precedent for putting myself before my wife. Or at least scriptural precedent. Or at least Pauline precedent.

Oh, and I’m not relying on mere gender doctrine, either—which would actually tell me to put myself last. I have better justification for my grammar.

In 1 Corinthians 9:6, Paul wrote, “Is it only Barnabas and I who have no right to refrain from working for a living?”

Except that isn’t what he actually wrote.

This is what he actually wrote: “μόνος ἐγὼ καὶ Βαρναβᾶς οὐκ ἔχομεν ἐξουσίαν μὴ ἐργάζεσθαι;”

In Greek: “ἐγὼ καὶ Βαρναβᾶς” (“I and Barnabas”)

In English: “Barnabas and I”

That’s how the ESV “corrects” Paul’s good Greek grammar to make it good English grammar. The KJV and about a dozen other English translations retain Paul’s order, but most read like the ESV.

Surprisingly, however, here is the NIV: “I and Barnabas.”

Wow! I see no semantic reason for retaining the Greek order of these words, and the NIV places a high priority on using normal English language conventions. Yet here they are more hyper word-for-word than the ESV. What gives?

At any rate, there you have it: Both Paul and the NIV give me permission to put myself first.

I and you will just have to get over it.

Do I really want to read your comments on this one? Share them below if you feel you must.

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Notes While Reading the Christian Standard Bible (CSB)

I set a goal this year to read through the Bible in the Christian Standard Bible (CSB) translation. I’m far behind schedule but don’t regret my choice.

The CSB, you may recall, is the new version of the now-retired Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB). There are many differences between the two, though both aim(ed) to provide a translation that falls somewhere between the formal equivalence (NASB, KJV, ESV) and functional equivalence (NIV, NET, NLT) ends of the translation spectrum.

You can easily find more information online about all such things, including my own advice about Bible translations. Here I’ll simply share a few translation choices that have stood out to me so far in the CSB. Let’s talk about Adam, sex, and cubits.

“ADAM” or “THE MAN”?

The Hebrew word for the name of the first man, “Adam,” simply means “the man” or, in a generic sense, “human beings.” Translators need to use context when deciding how ‘adam should be translated.

This creates special challenges in the early chapters of Genesis. The first occurrence of ‘adam is in Genesis 1:26, where God says, “Let us make man in our image, according to our likeness. They will rule…” (I’ll use CSB in this post unless otherwise stated). Here both the theological emphasis on all humanity being created in God’s image and the plural “they” make it clear that a translation such as “man” or “human beings” (CSB footnote) is necessary. “Let us make Adam” would not work.

By the time we get to Genesis 5:3, it is very clear that ‘adam references not merely “human beings” in general nor even a generic “man,” but a specific individual: “Adam was 130 years old when he fathered a son in his likeness… and named him Seth.”

But the Genesis creation narrative flows quite seamlessly from a general description of the creation of humanity in general to a more specific discussion of Adam and Eve as individuals. When should we start thinking of ‘adam as a specific man?

It is always interesting to see when translations make this transition.

The KJV first mentions “Adam” at Genesis 2:19:

And out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air; and brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them: and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof.

The ESV makes the transition one verse later, at Genesis 2:20:

The man gave names to all livestock and to the birds of the heavens and to every beast of the field. But for Adam there was not found a helper fit for him.

The NASB and the NIV do the same as the ESV, but the NIV tips the reader off as early as  Genesis 2:4 by providing a heading that reads “Adam and Eve.”

The NLT waits until Genesis 3:20 to make the transition, translating a single Hebrew word twice to help the reader along:

Then the manAdam—named his wife Eve, because she would be the mother of all who live.

But the CSB waits even longer. “Adam” doesn’t appear until Genesis 4:25:

Adam was intimate with his wife again, and she gave birth to a son and named him Seth…

Which option is best? I give NLT top points for clarity. And it is ingenious to provide Adam’s name in the same verse where Eve is first named! But its double translation implies that two terms are present in Hebrew where there is only one.

Overall, I like the choice of the NASB, NIV, and ESV best. Including both “the man” and “Adam” in the same verse somewhat eases the transition, helping the reader know both terms refer to the same person.

And I like the CSB the least of the options shown above. When “Adam” first appears in Genesis 4:25, the man named “Adam” has not been discussed since Genesis 4:1—twenty-four verses earlier—where we read, “The man was intimate with his wife Eve…” The intervening verses have been about other characters named Cain, Abel, Lamech, and more. Advanced readers will notice that “Adam” who is “intimate with his wife” in 4:25 is “the man” who was “intimate with his wife” in 4:1.  But many beginning Bible readers (and there are increasing numbers in North America) will be left wondering who this “Adam” is that they are hearing about the first time, and why he is mentioned “again” if he has not been named before.


But if the CSB strikes out with “Adam,” it hits a home run with its translation for the act of sexual intercourse, also mentioned in the verses above.

Translating sexual language brings many potential pitfalls. First, there are our modern preoccupations with sex, ranging from undue sexual embarrassment (especially when reading the Bible aloud in church!) to the anything-goes flaunting of sexual provocation in North American media and fashion.

The ancient biblical conceptions of sexuality also bring translation challenges. When the Old Testament talks about sexual intercourse, it often uses the word yada, often translated “know”/”knowledge.” Here is how Baker’s Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology begins its discussion of this word:

Yada… appears almost 950 times in the Hebrew Bible. It has a wider sweep than our English word “know, ” including perceiving,learning, understanding, willing, performing, and experiencing. To know is not to be intellectually informed about some abstract principle, but to apprehend and experience reality.

This word yada is used of all sorts of situations, including humanity’s knowledge of God, God’s knowledge of humanity, personal skills, moral awareness, and treaty relationships.

And sex.

Formal modern language about sexual union rarely expresses this concept of knowing another person. “Sexual intercourse” and “coitus” sound too scientific. “Had sex” is too dryly factual and sounds like we are talking about consumer goods. “Consummation” and “sexual relations” come closer, but still do not emphasize knowing above other possible connotations. Informal language such as “make love with” and “go to bed with” also often misses the boat.

Given these ancient and modern challenges, what is a translator to do?

The KJV famously simply opts for “knew.” Formally, this is a perfect translation choice, retaining links to other places where yada is found. And functionally, it points the reader directly to a primary significance that the ancient Hebrews saw in the sexual act. That said, it leaves some modern readers clueless as to what Adam actually did. (Did he take Eve on a date? Exchange family histories with her? Ask her about her favorite flavor of ice cream?) Now, this has its advantages in church Bible readings, when children are present, right? But nobody today uses “knew” in this way unless they are deliberately parroting the KJV.

That is what the NKJV does, and so do others like the NRSV and the ESV. It works, but it needs some explanation from time to time.

The NASB uses “had relations with.” That’s closer to modern usage, though usually today one would specify that it is sexual relations under discussion. And again, the modern idiom “relations” does not quite emphasize the idea of knowing in a way that matches the Hebrew yada.

The NIV lets modern usage lead the way, so it says Adam “made love to” his wife. This translation mercifully lets readers know what actually happened. But it totally misses the boat with its connotation of loving another person rather than knowing them. It carries too much baggage from medieval notions of romance and modern chick flicks.

The CSB, it seems to me, gets it about as good as modern English can: “Adam was intimate with his wife.” First, this clearly conveys what actually happened between Adam and his wife. Dictionaries define this phrase as “to have sexual relations with” or have “sex” or “sexual intercourse” with someone. Second, the word “intimate” very accurately expresses the sort of experiential knowledge conveyed by the Hebrew yada. And third, the phrase is an idiom, which appears to be how the term yada functioned when used to refer to sexual activity.

Well, done, CSB!


Today while reading through Exodus in the CSB, I was surprised to read this:

They are to make an ark of acacia wood, forty-five inches long, twenty-seven inches wide, and twenty-seven inches high. (Exodus 25:10)

What surprised me was the appearance of “inches,” along with other modern units such as “feet,” “yards,” and “pounds.”

Metric units would be so much better, right? Actually, what I was expecting was “cubits,” as I grew up reading about in the KJV:

And they shall make an ark of shittim wood: two cubits and a half shall be the length thereof, and a cubit and a half the breadth thereof, and a cubit and a half the height thereof.

A cubit was the length from a man’s elbow to his fingertips—about 18 inches. So, when you do the conversions, the CSB lengths remain accurate.

But every other translation I’ve commonly used retains the ancient Hebrew units. This includes the NKJV, the NASB, the ESV, and—surprisingly—even the NIV. I say surprisingly because usually the NIV is seen as more quick than the CSB to prioritize modern language over the formal patterns of the original text. (We saw a hint of this above with the NIV’s “made love to” vs. the CSB’s still-modern-but-less-widely-used “was intimate with.”) Generally, if no significant meaning will be lost by using modern terminology, the NIV will use it. So why didn’t they here?

Roughly twenty of the approximately fifty English translations on www.Biblegateway.com use modern units.  I am somewhat surprised that so many do. Most recent translations opt for English units. But there are some exceptions: for example, the Lexham English Bible, International Standard Version, and even the Amplified Bible still retain Hebrew units. (None offer metric units. And the ESVUK retains biblical units in sensible British fashion.)

I don’t know what I think about this choice. I have been familiar long enough with cubits to have little trouble picturing the size of objects measured with this unit. But other ancient units (shekel, hin, etc.) still leave me searching for footnotes. So I appreciate the assistance that using modern units gives to readers.

On the other hand, an ark that is “twenty-seven inches wide” (not 24″ or 36″) sounds less natural than one that is “one and a half cubits wide.” The same is true of:

  • an altar that is “7 ½ feet” long and wide (not 8 feet) versus one that is “five cubits” long and wide (Ex. 27:1), or
  • hangings that are “22 ½ feet” long (not 20 feet or 25 feet) versus “15 cubits” long (Ex. 27:14).

It is clear that God used measurements that were ordinary sizes in the culture of ancient Israel, but using modern unit conversions doesn’t convey this.

A second potential concern is that some biblical measurements have symbolic meaning that can be lost in conversion. That said, I am not aware of any such symbolism in the measurements of the tabernacle, apart from ratios of length which are not lost in conversion. The dimensions of the Most Holy Place form a cube in feet just as well as in cubits, thus preserving the link to the cube-shaped New Jerusalem in Revelation. And in Revelation, where the units measuring the New Jerusalem do indeed have symbolic significance (being multiples of 12), the CSB does use the biblical units, excluding modern units to footnotes:

He measured the city with the rod at 12,000 stadia. Its length, width, and height are equal. Then he measured its wall, 144 cubits according to human measurement, which the angel used. (Rev. 21:16-17)

I would need to examine this further to see how well the CSB handles this balance. But what I see so far suggests that in their handling of units of measurement the CSB translators have achieved the “optimal equivalence” they aimed for between faithfulness to the original text and readability for the modern ear.

Every translation philosophy has trade-offs. I enjoy reading multiple translations to help me better ponder and understand God’s words.

Have you read from the CSB? Do you have any most- or least-favorite translation choices from the CSB? Share them in the comments below. And keep reading…

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