Translating Revelation Gooder

By Garrett Best

In the last post, I briefly discussed the solecisms of Revelation. If you didn’t read the last post or want the summary version, a solecism is a grammatical irregularity in the morpho-syntax of a sentence. Revelation has the reputation of having the worst Greek in the New Testament. The book contains numerous grammatical irregularities.

One of the main debates concerning the solecisms in Revelation is whether the author intended them or not. Many have argued that that they are unintentional on the part of the author. Give him a break; Greek is not his first language they say. The irregularities are slips or instances of unsuccessful bilingualism. It happens. The author is thinking in Hebrew/Aramaic while writing in Greek and accidentally produces several grammatical mistakes.

Others have argued the solecisms are intentional. I find this to be a very provocative idea- that an ancient author intentionally employed ungrammatical syntax for a specific purpose. Today, authors and screenwriters commonly use intentional solecism. For example, the 2011 film The Help was based on a 2009 novel by that name, and the main character Aibileen Clark famously coined a popular solecism that became associated with the novel and film: “You is kind. You is smart. You is important.” The author employed the solecism to give the story the historical realism of the diction of an African American woman living in Mississippi in the 1960s. Kathryn Stockett knew that was grammatically incorrect when she wrote it, but she intentionally used it for a purpose. So the idea that an ancient author did something similar is not unreasonable.

Allen Callahan argued the author intentionally did violence to the language to subvert the colonizing powers of empire. G.K. Beale has argued the solecisms point to Old Testament allusions. Others have wondered if the solecisms were meant to give the document an “ecstatic” feel.

Regardless of authorial intention, the solecisms had an effect on the original recipients of the Apocalypse. Are we robbing modern day readers of having the experience of first century hearers by producing grammatically pristine English translations of Revelation?

For example, in the last post, I chose a random example from Rev. 3:12. There, I noted that John uses the nominative participle ἡ καταβαίνουσα to modify the genitive phrase τῆς καινῆς Ἰερουσαλὴμ. Because the participle is modifying a genitive antecedent, it should be in the genitive (τῆς καταβαινούσης).

Modern English translations smooth over the solecism:

  • “the new Jerusalem that comes down from my God out of heaven” (NRSV)
  • “the new Jerusalem, which is coming down out of heaven from my God” (NIV)
  • “the new Jerusalem, which comes down from my God out of heaven” (ESV)
  • “the New Jerusalem that comes down out of heaven from my God.” (CEB)

You would never know there’s a solecism here. Perhaps it would be more reflective of the original text to translate it: “the new Jerusalem, that come down” or “the new Jerusalem, which coming down” to indicate the awkwardness and dissonance of the underlying Greek.

I personally am on-the-fence about Beale’s suggestion that the solecisms point to Old Testament allusions as the correct explanation for all the solecisms. I do think this might explain some (maybe many) of the solecisms such as Rev. 1:4 and 1:5. However, if Beale is even partially right, then by having grammatically correct English translations, modern day readers are missing out on a significant literary device the author has embedded within the very fabric of the Greek syntax of Revelation.

Or maybe I’m crazy and Revelation is complicated enough without adding ungrammaticality to the picture. Maybe I should just keep my crazy ideas to myself.

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