Tuesday, May 11, 2010

What Does “That” Mean?

Ephesians 3:14-19 records a prayer of Paul for the Ephesian Christians. In translating this prayer the English uses the ambiguous word that for the Greek conjunction ἵνα. This conjunction is ambiguous because it could introduce an object clause, a purpose clause, or a result clause. The interpretation of the overall prayer changes with the function of the conjunction. The issue at hand, therefore, is important.

Clearly the first that clause in verse 16 is an object clause of an implied verb for praying. Less clear the New International Version (NIV) adds the conjunction “and” and a verb of praying at verse 17. It also transposes the conjunction that from the beginning of verse 18 in the Greek text to the middle of verse 17. These changes make the second that clause also an object clause and a second prayer request. The use of that in the NIV at verse 19, however, remains ambiguous.

The New American Standard Bible (NASB) maintains the same sequence of clauses as the NIV by adding “and” at verse 17 and transposing that from verse 18 into verse 17. The outcome of both the NIV and NASB translations creates two parallel object clauses and two petitions from verses 16-19a.

The final that clause at verse 19b remains ambiguous in the NIV where the translators inserted a dash, but the NASB appears to introduce a purpose clause at this point. The King James Version (KJV) translates ἵνα simply by that in all three occurrences.

For the knowledgeable Bible student, one indicator that a translator’s interpretation may be suspect is the felt need to supplement the translation by adding words or phrases that are not in the original text. In both the NIV and the NASB this has been the case here. A key interpretation question must be asked: Can the text be understood as is apart from adding words not found in the original text? If so, that translation must be given first interpretive priority.

The text as it stands makes good sense when all three that clauses are seen as object clauses. In addition, the second and third that clauses are not separate requests but can be understood as expansions or clarifications of the initial request of verse 16 by adding details. The asyndeton, that is, the absence of conjunctions in the Greek text such as “and,” supports this interpretation. Bullinger (Figures of Speech Used in the Bible, 138) calls this “Explanatory, when [clauses] explain each other.” This can also be called epexegesis “where what is added is a working out and developing what has been said” (Bullinger, 398).

An interpretive paraphrase reads like this: “. . . that [God] would grant you to be strengthened with power according to the wealth of His glory . . . ; that is, that you may be able to comprehend . . . [the immensity of God] and to experience the love of Christ . . . ; that is, that you may be filled with the fullness of the divine being.” In this paraphrase the insertions of “that is” reflects one way in which English communicates appositional or explanatory statements. Of the above-mentioned translations, the KJV is preferred in this passage.

To be sure, this interpretation of the sometimes ambiguous that (ἵνα) clauses is only one available option, but it does have the important advantages for the interpreter of (1) acknowledging the principle of authorial clarity—the writer wrote to be understood, (2) coherence—all elements fit together as is without requiring supplementation, and (3) implementation of the logical principle of “Occam’s Razor”—The translation/interpretation that requires the least number of hypotheses for a view to become viable is most likely to be correct. Ephesians 3:14-19 develops Paul’s prayer using three interrelated object clauses, and the driving focus of the prayer is that the Ephesian Christians would be filled “to all the fullness of God.”