Tuesday, March 14, 2023

How Should We Translate Pros in John 1:1?

Ever get stuck in a rut? I do. But I don't mind because I actually enjoy the rut I'm in.

Bible study.



See? RUT!

If you inspect the first photo above, you'll see that I was in John 1 this morning. Here's why. Last night in Greek class, I had the joy of introducing my students to the most common prepositions in that language. Four of them can be rendered "with," including the one circled below. 

The main idea of pros is "to" or "toward." Only occasionally does it mean "with." You normally find meta or sun meaning "with." However, when John writes "and the word was with God" in verse 1, he uses the less common word pros


Here are my thoughts, and they are guaranteed to bore you to tears. 

It seems that the Greek preposition pros implies something that neither meta nor sun do. You can't see this so much in English but you can in other European languages. All major English translations of John 1:1 stick with the conventional "with" in John 1:1. Likewise, most Spanish translations use the normal Spanish word for "with" ("con"), though I did find one that used "junto a" instead. French, you ask? French translations all use the normal word for "with" ("avec"). Finally, what did the Germans do? Now this is where things get really interesting. Every beginning student of German knows that the normal word for "with" in that language is "mit." But in John 1:1, all the German Bibles I was able to consult used "bei" instead. 

So that's the raw data. Let's unpack it. 

Let's begin with Spanish. This morning at the gym there were three ladies speaking Spanish with each other. They were happy to answer a very simple question I posed to them: "Cuál es la diferencia entre 'con' y 'junto a'?" Here's basically what they said. See all these people in the gym? We are "con" them. But you and I? We are "junto a" each other. The idiom "junto a," they said, implies "next to," "beside," "alongside," or "near." Here's an example:

  • "Fabiola siempre se sienta junto a Lorenzo cuando hay examen para poder copiarse de él."
  • "Fabiola always sits with (= next to) Lorenzo when there's a test so she can copy from him." 

This is the same concept you find in German between "mit" (again, the usual word for "with") and "bei." In German, you use "bei" when 

1. Stating that something is nearby:

  • "Die Tankstelle ist bei dem Einkaufszentrum." 
  • "The gas station is next to (right by) the shopping center."

2. Stating that something or someone is at a place or an event:

  • "Sie lebt bei ihrer Tante."
  • "She lives with her aunt."

3. During an event while one is doing something:

  • "Sie ist beim Rennen hingefallen."
  • "She fell while running."

With both the Spanish "junto a" and German "bei," the emphasis seems to be on the physical proximity of something. Oddly enough, this is precisely the same distinction in Latin between its normal word for with ("cum") and the word the Vulgate uses in John 1:1 ("apud"). This idea is completely lacking in the English word "with"! 

So what to do in John 1:1? I don't really know. There are so many subtle nuances in the Greek that maybe it's simply impossible to transfer all of them into English. But in my opinion, anything is better than a simple "with." Let me grab Williams' and Wuest's paraphrases from my shelves and see what they do with John 1:1. Here's the Williams New Testament:

"In the beginning the Word existed; and the Word was face to face with God; yea, the Word was God Himself."

And here's Kenneth Wuest's The New Testament: An Expanded Translation:

"In the beginning the Word was existing. And the Word was in fellowship with God the Father. And the Word was as to His essence absolute deity." 

Notice that Wuest adds "the Father," no doubt echoing the thought of verse 18 that Jesus is "in the bosom of the Father," meaning that Jesus and the Father have always enjoyed the closest possible intimacy. My own paraphrase might sound something like this:

"Before anything else existed, there was the Word. He has always enjoyed intimate fellowship with God the Father. In fact, the Word himself was God."

Much more could be said about John 1:1 but I've got to clean the house. There are depths in this verse which we will never plumb. All I've done is to paddle in the shallows. I can say I'm still glad I tried. Digging deeper like this is very rewarding to me personally. John 1:1 is symbolic for me of the careful attention to detail God paid when introducing his Son to us. 

So ... your turn. How would you render John 1:1?