"Believe" in John 3:16

Michael H. Burer's picture

A NET reader recently posted the following question in our online comments database. I thought it was a good question, so I decided to post it here (with some slight editing) along with my response.

The question:

I was wondering about the choice of the word "believe" as a translation of "pisteuo." I know this has been the most common translation in most versions, yet I still think it might be deficient, especially in light of the recent scholarship focused on "pistis." Since "pistis" is most often translated as "faith," shouldn't the verb form "pisteuo" be translated as something like "exercise faith" or "be faithful to"? It seems to me that "believe" is a word most often associated in colloquial language with simple cognition or intellectual assertion, where the original verb does have some sort of action or volition associated with it. This is especially in light of the "pistis Christou" debate (of which I appreciate the inclusion of the new perspective translations in the NET).

My response:

Thank you for your interaction on this verse. In our opinion, this is an issue that comes to light because English and Greek are slightly different in the way they handle this concept. In Greek the noun and verb which embody this concept have the same root (πιστ-) but in English they do not. In English we have the noun "faith," but the related verb is "believe." That English verb can refer to simple intellectual assent, but it can also be quite strong and refer to the exact same mental/volitional combination that the Greek noun πίστις and the Greek verb πιστεύω do. So the translation "believe" in John 3:16 is quite appropriate in our opinion. This is the primary way John uses this verb; while the Pauline use of πίστις Χριστοῦ is related, they are emphasizing different aspects of faith. The use here in John is on the mental/volitional agreement and commitment to the object, not the faithful activity or trustworthiness of the one who believes.

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