Friday, March 2, 2012



There is an Italian proverb that says “Tradutorre, traditore.” That is, “Translator, traitor.” There is no such thing as a perfect translation. Something always gets lost. Sometimes, for instance, the demand for clarity forces a translator to become an interpreter. Translators cannot help but betray the original text.

“Style” is hard to define and even harder to translate. Reading an English version of the Bible, you might not even realize that each of the writers of Scripture has their own unique style.

Luke and Acts, for example, are written in a fussy, florid and deliberately old-fashioned style of Greek. The Lukan author had literary aspirations.

Revelation, on the other hand, was written by a GSL (Greek as Second Language) student. John of Patmos’ grammar is often awkward.

The Gospel of John is written in simple grammar and with a limited vocabulary, yet it frequently achieves poetic effect. I have often said that John wrote Greek the way that Hemingway wrote English.

The writer of Ephesians, on the other hand, wrote Greek the way Faulkner wrote English. Sentences in Ephesians are long, convoluted, and rife with subordinate clauses. In Greek, Ephesians 1:3-6 is a single sentence, 66 words in length. The Greeks of old apparently liked this sort of thing. Most English translations break these verses into several sentences just to make them comprehensible. In the New Century Version, which is rendered into very simple English, I counted 6 sentences.

Translators usually have to subordinate the style of their source text to other concerns. 
So we have a New Century Version style, and a New International Version style, and a New Revised Standard Version style, and a New American Standard Bible style, and a Common English Bible style, and so on and on. It is easier to discern the differences among Bible versions than to discern the differences in the styles of the biblical writers within a version.

Robert Frost said “Poetry is what gets lost in translation.” A writer’s style is often lost in translation, too.

I found Hieronymus Bosch's painting of St. John on Patmos on Wiki.


  1. Thanks for these descriptions of the authorial styles of these books! Do you think the style of the letters of John resemble either the Johannine gospel, or Revelations?

    And can you tell us anything about the style of Mark and Matthew?

    I've frequently heard it said that the gospels are written in common, one might say vulgar or street Greek: any thoughts on that?

    (I'm really going to have to go back and study Greek and Hebrew after I finish my masters...)

  2. Hi Victoria.

    The Johannine letters are very similar in style to the Gospel of John. Based on style, and other concerns, it's clear that the Apocalypse was written by someone else.

    In a text study last week, I commented that Mark was not a very good writer, but he was a great story-teller. Mark's grammar is not particularly good.

    Matthew's command of Greek is better than Mark's but lacks the literary flair of Luke's writing.

    The entire New Testament was written in Koine Greek, a form of the language that was spread throughout the known world by Alexander the Great's conquests. "Koine means "common" in every sense of the word. It was common in the sense that everyone spoke it; it was the world's lingua franca. It was common in the sense that it watered down from the high literary Attic Greek of Homer. It was not necessarily uncouth (though the Apostle Paul occasionally got vulgar), but some of the New Testament writers had more polish than others.

    There was a time when some theologians thought the New Testament was written in "Holy Ghost Greek"--a special form of the language devised by God to communicate the Gospel. The discovery of thousands of ancient manuscripts in the desert rubbish heaps of Egypt put the lie to that notion. The New Testament was written in the ordinary language of the people. The fact that there was a world language was probably a significant factor in the spread of Christianity in the Roman Empire.

    At any rate, it was the non-literary character of the New Testament that led Nietzsche to quip "It is a curious thing that God learned Greek when he wished to turn author--and that he did not learn it better."

    1. This is awfully pedantic of me, but Homer didn't write in Attic Greek--he wrote in an archaic Ionic dialect. (Attic was spoken in Attica, the area around Athens. Ionia was in what's now western Turkey, although Ionic Greek was pretty widely spoken. Map here: .) Most of the other ancient Greek authors we still read wrote in Attic (the historian Herodotus, who wrote in a less-archaic Ionic dialect, being the main exception I'm aware of). Plato or Xenophon or Demosthenes would be good replacements for Homer in the sentence where you mention him.
      Again, that's awfully pedantic. Thanks for such an interesting and informative blog!

    2. I loves me some pedantry, Daniel. You are correct, of course and I should have known better! Thank you for the correction

  3. Thanks Brant! Very interesting.

    (Holy Ghost Greek? For serious? That just makes me giggle.)

  4. Hey Brant! I am really enjoying your series!

    Question: is it likely any of the disciples would have been able to read and write? Would they have spoken Greek? Or would it have been Greek to them? (Sorry!)

  5. Most of the stuff I read these days is pretty negative about the idea that the disciples were literate. Acts 4:13 describes Peter and John as "uneducated" or, more literally, "unlettered."

    I suspect, however that Levi, being a tax-collector, could probably speak enough Greek to communicate effectively with the Romans whom he served. Hard to say about the rest.