"I tell you the solemn truth . . ."

Michael H. Burer's picture

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.


Mike, This morning I offered a rejoinder to your post. Thanks for taking the time to consider my ideas in a gracious way. Perhaps we will have to agree to disagree. Best, Chris

Michael H. Burer's picture

Keep returning to Bible.org to read our online studies. They are a great resource.

I , too must agree with Mike's blog which I just now read after searching for why that phrase occurs so often in the Net Bible, my usual study Bible. As a modern reader, I'm thinking "Why does Jesus have to preface these statements like that?" It brings to my mind the idea that he's really not being truthful but trying to convince people he is, which of course, as a believer I do not really believe that at all. I think the "verily, verily or amen, amen " is more acceptable than that with an explanation in the footnote. 

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