Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Old in the New: NLT Romans 1:17

I started reading Romans in my NLT Study Bible recently and the NLTse translation of Romans 1:17b struck me as odd. This is the part of the verse where Paul quotes Habakkuk 2:4b. I know committee translations have a different person translating virtually every book and that translators rarely work in both the OT and the NT. However, I think it's nice if a translation has an internal consistency. They could try to make NT quotes correspond somewhat with the OT translation (in so far as the NT quote matches the OT base text, that is). Several popular translations have this internal consistency, at least for the example of Rom 1:17b and Hab 2:4b.

Hab 2:4b: but the just shall live by his faith.
Rom 1:17b: as it is written, The just shall live by faith.
Hab 2:4b: but the righteous shall live by his faith.
Rom 1:17b: as it is written, "The righteous shall live by faith."
Hab 2:4b: but the righteous will live by his faith
Rom 1:17b: just as it is written: "The righteous will live by faith."
The Hebrew literally translated reads, "The righteous by his fidelity will live." The only difference in the KJV, ESV, and NIV is the missing pronoun "his" which is not represented in the Greek of Romans 1:17b. This is also not a case where the NT quote diverges much from the LXX. The only difference is that the LXX reads "my faith," a clear case of reading a waw as a yod (anyone who's read Hebrew directly from any manuscripts knows how similar these two letters can be).

LXX Hab 2:4b
ho de dikaios ek pisteos mou zesetai
But the righteous will live by my faith.
Grk NT Romans 1:17b
ho de dikaios ek pisteos mou zesetai
But the righteous will live by faith.
[Please forgive the imprecise Greek transliteration. I couldn't figure out how to get a Greek font to work. If you have any tips or fonts to share, please comment.]

Now looking at the rendering of the NLTse, it makes the OT quote virtually unrecognizable. If all you knew was the NLT translation, the Romans quote wouldn't sound familiar at all.

Hab 2:4b: But the righteous will live by their faithfulness to God.
Rom 1:17b: As the Scriptures say, “It is through faith that a righteous person has life.”
The NLT of Hab 2:4b is a pretty good translation. They've followed the gender inclusive policy of translating the pronoun in the 3rd plural, and they've added the words "to God" obviously implied by context.

However, I'm still scratching my head over the rendering of Rom 1:17b. The verbal "will live" has become a noun "life" and the object of the verb "has." The subject "the righteous" was made subject of a relative clause and the main clause replaced with a filler "It is." Wouldn't it have been better style to translate, "A righteous person has life through faith"? Or better yet, why not make the text correspond to the NLT rendering of Hab 2:4b with "the righteous will live by faithfulness to God." This would create a similar consistency to that found in the examples from KJV, ESV, and NIV.

Maybe they can work on changes like this for the NLT 3rd edition. It would make the NLT more useful to me as a translation for teaching and study.


  1. Which platform do you use? Windows, Mac? Typing unicode Greek (and Hebrew) on a Mac is a cinch, but with Windows I'm not sure. Read Joe Weaks' posts for more info on using Unicode. http://macbiblioblog.blogspot.com/2008/05/unicode-now-most-common-text-format.html


  2. Alas, I'm not cool enough to have a Mac (mostly I'm too poor to afford to switch), so I use Windows XP. And Bibleworks is my bible software program of choice.

  3. Doug - You might find it useful to look at some of the work of Stanley Stowers on faith and the genitive in Romans 3:3. I haven't looked at it in awhile, but it might shed some light.

  4. For Unicode Greek and Hebrew, I use the fonts provided by David Instone-Brewer via the Tyndale Tech blog.

    As for the Habakkuk 2:4/Romans 1:17 issue, the reason for the difference, I suspect, is that the translators felt that Paul was using the Greek of Hab 2:4 in a slightly different way from how it would have been read in the original Hebrew. The Greek can be understood to mean either "Those who are righteous will live by faith(fulness)" or "Those who are made righteous by faith will live,"
    whereas Hab 2:4 in context almost certainly means only the former.

    I think the alternative translation given in the NLT textual note (or "The righteous will live by faith" Hab 2:4)is clear enough in pointing out the quotation. Perhaps I'll use Rom 1:17 for a future "NLT Through the Years" post on the NLT Blog to think through some of the translation decisions more carefully.

    What follows is the comment I received from Mark Taylor, a member of the Bible Translation Committee for the NLT, when I asked if he wanted to respond to your post:

    The only thing I would add to your comments is that an individual verse can’t stand on its own. Obviously the BTC looked at Hab 2:4 and how Paul was using that quotation. But in Rom 1:17a he said, “. . . This is accomplished from start to finish by faith.” Then Paul builds on this emphasis on faith by continuing, “As the Scriptures say, ‘It is through faith . . . .’” But Douglas’s suggested translations for Rom 1:17b do have the advantage of greater parallelism with the Hab passage.

  5. Keith,

    Thanks for the comment. I hadn't given much thought to the Greek grammatical implications of Paul's language (being an OT guy and all). It's a long time since my college NT classes discussing whether it was faith in Christ or faithfulness of Christ and other things like that.

    I saw the footnote gave a more typical translation but I thought it odd to put the more straightforward rendering in the note. Also I don't think the average reader checks every alternative the notes offer.

    Thanks for getting feedback from someone on the BTC. I appreciate Mark's comments drawing the focus back to the NT context on its own, and I agree that the bottom line in this kind of case is always trying to see how the NT writer was using the OT text.

  6. We just worked on these texts in my OT in the NT class this week. It's a very interesting problem, and I don't think the goal should be to harmonize Hab 2.4 and Rom 1.17 in the translations. It's not that Paul is misreading the OT (the textual tradition indicates that Paul was perhaps reading one textual tradition of Hab 2.4), but he is making a specific application of the text within his argument. Here are some of my class notes. They are very rough, but they should help clarify a bit: http://www.gettysburgseminary.org/mhoffman/OTinNT/exercises/Romans1.Hab2.pdf

  7. Mark,

    Thanks for your notes. Much more info than I had available when I was thinking through this post. I was focused less on how Paul was using his OT text and more on how transparent that use would be in the NLT translation example. Imagine there was no footnote telling you what the reference was. The inconsistency in translation would have made it hard to pick up on, I thought. I agree that it's not as simple as saying Paul was misreading. Harmonization isn't always possible and maybe shouldn't be a priority overall, but I still think it's worth considering when possible.

  8. Hi Doug,

    Hab 2:4b is also quoted in Gal 3:11 and Heb 10:38. I wonder--how do the versions you are looking at handle it in these places?

    I note a small scribal error in your transcription of the Greek of Rom 1:17--Paul has omitted the pronoun, but you are assimilating back to LXX :)

    What is interesting is that a similar case of assimilation happens in Heb 10:38. The earliest witnesses include the pronoun (like LXX), but later witnesses seem to be assimilating to Rom 1:17, where Paul omits it!

    Michael Lyons

  9. Michael, thanks for catching the scribal error and pointing out other references to check. This wasn't something I started out intending to research in depth. It was just an observation I made when reading Romans. The observations that you and Mark Hoffman have made today definitely raise the bar on what work can still be done on this passage. Mark's rough class notes (link above) provide a lot more background. I recommend them to you.