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Can “Or” Mean “And”? (1 Thess 2:19) — Mondays with Mounce 250
Paul tells the young Thessalonian church, “For what is our hope or (ἤ) joy or (ἤ) crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming? Is it not you?” (ESV; see also the NASB, HCSB, and NRSV). What’s wrong with that?
Given the normal use of “or” in English, Paul is asking if the Thessalonians are one of three things. What is our hope? Or, what is our joy? Or, what is our crown? Presumably the Thessalonians are one of those three things, two of those things, or perhaps all three of those things. We certainly understand it is the latter contextually, but you have to fight through the odd use of “or.”
I think this is a good example of why “literal” translations can be wrong. In normal English, we would ask about our “hope and joy and crown.” That would be English. But the ESV and others are slavishly sticking to the use of “or” for ἤ.
You can see the other translations recognizing this issue. “For what is our hope, our joy, or the crown in which we will glory” (NIV). “After all, what gives us hope and joy, and what will be our proud reward and crown?” (NLT). Even a couple commas would help: “For what is our hope, or joy, or crown of rejoicing.”
If you want Greek permission to translate ἤ as “and,” Best gives it to us, saying that ἤ … ἤ … can be “copulative as well as disjunctive; cf. Moulton-Turner, p. 334; Bl,-Deb. #446” (page 127).
Maybe I am being a little picky, but I am getting tired of hearing people say a word for word translation is a “literal” translation. You can’t have read my blog very long without hearing me saying, repeatedly, that the English dictionary defines “literal” primarily as “taking words in their usual or most basic sense without metaphor or allegory.” In other words, meaning and not form.
But this aside, here is what I wrote in the last BiblicalTraining.org newsletter. “Paul tells the Thessalonian Christians, ‘For what is our hope, our joy, our crown of rejoicing before our Lord Jesus at his coming? Is it not indeed you?’ When I was pastoring, this verse made me think of the church and the joy they brought me. Today, it leads me to you, to the users of BiblicalTraining. All of us at BiblicalTraining so appreciate your use of the website and support of the ministry, and revel in the thought of seeing you face-to-face in heaven.” Our ministry is to be a source of great hope, and joy, and our crown, even amidst the trials.
William D. [Bill] Mounce posts about the Greek language, exegesis, and related topics on the ZA Blog. 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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