"I tell you the solemn truth . . ."

Michael H. Burer's picture
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Dr. Chris Skinner recently blogged about a translation particular to the NET Bible. (Chris and I overlapped at DTS by a number of years, and I consider him a friend, so this is "iron sharpening iron," so to speak.) Let me offer a little background to help set the stage.

In the Synoptic Gospels Jesus often says ἀμὴν λέγω ὑμῖν. Translated literally this would be "amen, I say to you." Many translations (the ESV, for example) translate this as "truly, I say to you." In the NET Bible we have chosen to translate this phrase as "I tell you the truth." It gets more interesting in the Gospel of John, which is the only Gospel to have a double "amen" in this phrase. This is uniformly regarded as even more solemn and powerful than the phrase in the Synoptic Gospels, although that phrase itself is pretty strong. Many translations stick with "truly, truly, I say to you," but in the NET Bible we have chosen to translate the Johannine phrase as "I tell you the solemn truth."

Dr. Skinner took issue with this translation in John on stylistic grounds but also on theological grounds. His point is that in the fourth Gospel Jesus is given high status of equality with God the Father. As such he speaks with that same divine authority. He would prefer the literal translation of "amen, amen, I say to you" to shock the reader into reflecting more carefully on the point of the phrase and the nature of the one who says it.

This is an important point to discuss for a number of reasons. We often assume that the original wording of the scripture was perfectly clear, but often times it was shocking, unusual, or thought provoking. We acknowledge that about the Johannine phrase. However, we felt it necessary to balance a strong statement with communication in English: In our judgment a contemporary reader would get little to no meaning out of "amen, amen." In fact it might have the opposite effect and sound sanctimonious instead of powerful. We chose the dynamic rendering "I tell you the solemn truth . . ." as the best of all options, even though it does fall short in some ways.

Thanks to Dr. Skinner for the thoughtful interaction.

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