Is Paul a “good deed doer”? — Mondays with Mounce 217
One of the more interesting expressions in the Pastorals is ἔργον ἀγαθόν, “good deed.” It occurs 6 times.
- Women are to be clothed in good deeds (1 Tim 2:10).
- A widow shows herself to be godly by devoting herself to good deeds (1 Tim 5:10).
- If you cleanse yourself from what is impure, you are prepared for any good deed (2 Tim 2:21).
- Scripture equips Timothy for every good deed (2 Tim 3:17).
- The false teachers deny their claim to know God by their deeds (ἔργοις), and are therefore unfit for any good deed (Titus 1:16).
- Christians are to ready to do every good deed (Titus 3:1).
Is “deed” the right word? It sounds a bit like the Wizard of Oz or a boy scout to me. So what about the obvious, “good work”? But now the problem is more theological. If you take the phrase out of context, it moves in the direction of works salvation.
The ESV and HCSB are consistent with “good work(s).” The NIV (and others) varies between “deed” and “work,” but look at Titus 3:1. “Remind the people to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready to do whatever is good.” The latter moves the verse out of theological objection, but it also breaks the connection with the theme of “good deeds” in the Pastorals.
Likewise, the NRSV rephrases 1 Tim 5:10. “Devoted herself to doing good in every way.”
The point is that not only words but also phrases have connections with our experiences that makes translation difficult. Doing “good deeds” sounds too mundane, like helping someone across the street or doing something that makes you think you merit special favor. “Good works” feels (to some) to be in opposition to salvation by grace through faith. If you are not consistent in translation, you break up a theme that should probably be held together.
Sometimes there is no right answer, and you make your choice and take your lumps.
William D. [Bill] Mounce posts about the Greek language, exegesis, and related topics at Koinonia. He is the author of numerous works including the recent Basics of Biblical Greek Video Lectures and the bestselling Basics of Biblical Greek. He is the general editor of Mounce's Complete Expository Dictionary of the Old and New Testament Words. He served as the New Testament chair of the English Standard Version Bible translation, and is currently on the Committee for Bible Translation for the NIV.
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