The Bishop’s Strange Translation

United Methodist Bishop Bruce Ough has issued a pastoral statement on the refugee situation. I have a number of questions about the letter, but the first thing that caught my eye was a really odd, off-the-wall translation of Matthew 16:25. Of this verse, the bishop wrote:

The original Greek language is far more poetic, powerful and prophetic. In finer translations of the Greek language, we hear Jesus saying: “Whoever seeks to build a wall around their soul shall destroy it; whoever tears down the wall (around their soul) shall bring their soul to a living birth.”

Huh? I’m not a great Greek scholar, but the passage seems rather straight-forward to me.

ὃς γὰρ ἐὰν θέλῃ τὴν ψυχὴν αὐτοῦ σῶσαι, ἀπολέσει αὐτήν· ὃς δ’ ἂν ἀπολέσῃ τὴν ψυχὴν αὐτοῦ ἕνεκεν ἐμοῦ, εὑρήσει αὐτήν.

“Whoever wishes to save his or life will lose it, but whoever loses his or her life because of me will find it.”

Or, if you want to make the subjunctive verbs more visible,

“Whoever should wish to save his or her life will lose it, but whoever should happen to lose his or her life because of me will find it.” 

Both the vocabulary and the grammar are unremarkable. The word sometimes translated “soul” just means “life” in this context. The verbs “wish”, “save”, “lose” and “find” are clear. For grammar nerds, there are two third-class conditional independent clauses joined by an adversative conjunction.

There’s nothing about building or tearing down walls. Nothing about bringing a soul to birth. The bishop’s translation is quite a stretch, even for a paraphrase.

I don’t even see anything particularly poetic in the passage; Jesus’ plainly spoken words are powerful simply because they touch on life and death.

In this passage, Jesus is speaking to his disciples, not to secular America. The pronouncement called disciples to risk actual, physical death out of allegiance to Jesus. Matthew’s readers were threatened by their Judean coreligionists, their Gentile neighbors and the pagan state. The mere act of confessing Jesus as Lord could get you killed. It still can, in some parts of the world.

The full text of the statement is here.