Should we forfeit the word “forfeit”? (Matt 16:26) — Mondays with Mounce 224
In this most central passage on discipleship, Jesus says, “If anyone resolves to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever resolves to save his life will lose (ἀπολέσει) it; but whoever loses (ἀπολέσῃ) his life for my sake will find it (vv 24-25).” In the list of the Bible’s most solemn verses, this passage surely is near the top.
So we come to v 26. “For what advantage will there be for a person if he gains the whole world yet forfeits (ζημιωθῇ) his life? Or what will a person give in exchange for his life?” I am told that the word “forfeit” is not understandable by the younger generation and instead we should use “lose.”
There are several problems with this.
1. Do we let the most recent young generation determine our vocabulary? If so, I suspect our Bible translations need to be updated a lot faster than they currently are. But more importantly, I think the younger generation needs to grow its active vocabulary and not reduce English to the bare minimum. When my children were young, I limited what they could watch on television, partly because I did not want them listening to characters that never said a word longer than 5 letter and never spoke in sentences longer than 6 words. (Perhaps a bit overstated, but basically accurate.)
2. More importantly, does ζημιόω mean “to lose”? I don’t think so. I lose my wallet and keys. I lose track of time. But in v 26 Jesus is talking about someone who makes a deliberate decision to set aside the things of God, decides not to live daily as one crucified to his own ambitions, who tries to hold on to his or her own life and give it meaning apart from Christ. This is why Jesus chose ζημιόω and not some more bland word meaning, “to lose.”
BDAG defines ζημιόω as, “to experience the loss of someth., with implication of undergoing hardship or suffering, suffer damage/loss, forfeit, sustain injury.” In our context, it is to make a conscious decision to set aside something with injurious consequences.
3. The third issue would be a false concordance with "lose” in v 25. HCSB, NRSV, and KJV make this mistake (“lose … lose”), but is avoided by the NIV, NASB, and ESV (“lose … forfeit”).
Frankly, I am not sure “lose” is the best translation for ἀπόλλυμι in v 25 anyway. While it can mean, “to fail to obtain what one expects or anticipates, lose out on, lose,” my guess is that it carries the sense of “to cause or experience destruction, ruin, destroy” (BDAG).
All translations must makes a decision in their philosophy as to what level vocabulary they are willing to use. To my mind, if that means using a grown-up word that younger people might have to stop and think about, then so be it. The Bible is also literature, and as there are many benefits of reading good literature, including vocabulary acquisition. But more than this, the different literary styles of the different human authors need to be preserved. Poetry should not read like prose. Hebrews should not read like John.
We understand that the Hebrew and Greek of the Bible wasn’t written for teenagers to be able to understand without thinking. Neither should the English. At least that’s what I think. For more discussion, check out my seminar on translation theory.
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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