The Curse of Quotations— by Philip Jenkins

Here is an excellent post by Philip Jenkins. See what you think.

I have posted several times on issues of translation, specifically about the New Testament. Today I want to address the Curse of Quotations.

Recently, my church read 1 Corinthians 8, which in the NIV begins with the verse

Now about food sacrificed to idols: We know that “We all possess knowledge.” But knowledge puffs up while love builds up (8.1)

Please note the quotes around “We all possess knowledge.” The chapter then included several other phrases likewise in quotes. We are used to seeing these, but they do raise some difficult issues.

As that particular translation has it, when Paul writes “We all possess knowledge,” he is quoting someone, perhaps a person or group with whom he is disagreeing, or else he is citing a well-known phrase or even proverb. Hence the quotes, to indicate that they are not his words. The resulting English reads well and consistently. Unfortunately, the Greek gives no foundation for such a reading. Here it is:

Περὶ δὲ τῶν εἰδωλοθύτων, οἴδαμεν ὅτι πάντες γνῶσιν ἔχομεν. ἡ γνῶσις φυσιοῖ, ἡ δὲ ἀγάπη οἰκοδομεῖ.

Peri de ton eidolothuton, oidamen hoti pantes gnosin echomen. He gnosis phusioi, he de agape oikodomei

The original text has no punctuation marks whatever, and certainly nothing resembling our quotation marks. Nor is there anything to differentiate upper and lower case letters, no boldface or italics. There are no divisions between sentences, clauses, or parts of a sentence. In the case of 1 Cor. 8.1, then, there is nothing to indicate that “We all possess knowledge” is anything other than Paul’s own words. Accordingly, and correctly according to the text, the King James Version translates thus:

Now as touching things offered unto idols, we know that we all have knowledge. Knowledge puffeth up, but charity edifieth.

It is an open question whether that really catches Paul’s meaning, and generations of acute scholarship have suggested very plausibly that he is quoting his opponent’s views, but not agreeing with them. But whether that was really his intent is still up for debate, and scholarly opinions might well change in a decade or two.

The RSV takes the process further, offering:

Now concerning food offered to idols: we know that “all of us possess knowledge.” “Knowledge” puffs up, but love builds up.

You can see what is happening here. Not just is the original statement in quotes, but so is “Knowledge” (sic). Again, it is obvious enough why. The translators have accepted a theory held by some (by no means all) commentators, namely that Paul was launching a diatribe against adherents of Gnosis, presumably some variant of the Gnosticism we know from other sources. But does that entitle us to regard every use of ”knowledge” as a technical label for Gnostic heresy, duly consigned to quotes? Should we translate the word as knowledge, or as Knowledge, or even leave it as Gnosis?

The NRSV sensibly backtracks here, without the quotes around “Knowledge.”

Now concerning food sacrificed to idols: we know that “all of us possess knowledge.” Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.

The RSV was an interpretive bridge too far.

You’ll also notice that these various translations of a single verse differ widely in their emphasis and interpretation. A couple of quotation marks can make a huge difference.

I could give plenty of other examples, but one of the most contentious occurs later in 1 Corinthians, at 10.23, a passage that the KJV gives conservatively as

All things are lawful for me, but all things are not expedient: all things are lawful for me, but all things edify not.

That is an accurate rendering of the Greek:

Πάντα ἔξεστιν· ἀλλ’ οὐ πάντα συμφέρει. πάντα ἔξεστιν· ἀλλ’ οὐ πάντα οἰκοδομεῖ.

Panta exestin all’ ou sympherei; panta exestin all’ ou oikodomei.
Along the way, however, critics and commentators have (generally) determined that Paul was again quoting rather than stating, and specifically that “Panta exestin” (all is lawful) was the slogan of a libertine Corinthian faction (Compare 1 Cor. 6.12). If that is the case, then you need to indicate it by quotations, as in the RSV:

“All things are lawful,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful,” but not all things build up.

Or the NIV:

“I have the right to do anything,” you say—but not everything is beneficial. “I have the right to do anything”—but not everything is constructive.

Note that the NIV takes matters one step further by adding a “you say,” which has no warrant in the text. The New Living Translation offers:

You say, “I am allowed to do anything”–but not everything is good for you. You say, “I am allowed to do anything”–but not everything is beneficial.

But reading and punctuating another way, did Paul actually believe that all things really were lawful for him? Or was that a crazy sentiment he is duty bound to combat?

I suppose that for translators, all things are lawful.

Please understand, I am not arguing against these scholarly interpretations of what was happening in Corinth. But somewhere along the line, does not translation cease to be translation, and become paraphrase?

Conversely, suppose that Paul really meant to cite those key words as quotations from his opponents, and you fail to indicate that fact by setting them apart somehow, are you not betraying him in another way? The moral: you can’t win.

And it’s not just Paul. Look at John’s Gospel, and try to decide when the author is attributing words to Jesus, and when he is adding his own commentary or meditations. See especially the famous exchange with Nicodemus in John 3.1-21. Clearly, Jesus is speaking at verse 10, so you indicate that fact by opening a quote. But where do you close it? There has to be a closing quotation mark, and possibly a paragraph break, but where? Some critics end the quote at 13, and treat 14-21 as commentary. Others end the quote with verse 15. Some read the whole passage from 10 through 21 as words of Jesus. This has been debated since Patristic times, and we can scarcely imagine any likely manuscript find that could ever solve the problem.

To take one of the most famous verses in scripture, John 3.16 is almost certainly meant as commentary rather than quotation, as are the following few verses, but it’s all (if you’ll pardon the expression) a judgment call. There really is no way to know for sure.

To give an idea of the effect that quotation marks can have, let me propose the following reading of a familiar text:

We hold these “truths” to be self-evident, that all “men” are created equal, that they are endowed by their “Creator” with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

It’s different, isn’t it? Nobody is reading that particular text in that way right now, but scholarship has a habit of changing quite rapidly.

Whenever you see quotation marks in the Biblical text, it often pays to ask both why they are there in the first place, and why they are located precisely where they are.


"Lovely, thank you for posting. It's many years since I visited Lindisfarne, but remember the ..."

The Beauty of Lindisfarne
""Yet the Evangelist farther on says, that Jesus baptized not, but His disciples; whence it ..."

Born of God— the Meaning of ..."
"The movie industry is losing an ideological war-fare to traditionalist conservatism and so these movies ..."

Samson– The Agony of Agonistes
"Thank you Ben. Much appreciated. May Adonai shine his light upon you too and bless ..."

Eternal Treasures in Earthen Vessels— 2 ..."

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment