Adding “Guilt” to the Bible
Translation is difficult work. A major issue in translating texts is that the two languages reflect two different cultures, or ways of looking at reality. So words and concepts do not always translate perfectly across cultures. Translators must make many choices to best reflect the original meaning. However, sometimes one’s own cultural assumptions can find their way into the text. This post explores an example.
The NIV translation often adds “guilt” to the Bible text. I appreciate the intention to explain the text’s meaning, but I think its wording sends interpretations in the wrong direction.
Take for example John 9:41—“Jesus said, ‘If you were blind, you would not be guilty of sin; but now that you claim you can see, your guilt remains.’” The word “guilt” appears twice in this passage, and both instances are less than accurate translations of the underlying Greek text.
In the first instance, the word is unnecessarily added. The text literally says, “If you were blind, you would not have sin” (Εἰ τυφλοὶ ἦτε, οὐκ ἂν εἴχετε ἁμαρτίαν). The phrases “have sin” and “be guilty of sin” may seem similar, especially for those working from a Western theological framework. But they are not the same.
John 9 is the story about the man born blind. The narrative opens with the disciples asking Jesus, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (9:1). After Jesus heals the man, the Pharisees are upset that Jesus could heal such a “sinner.” Then Jesus teaches that the Pharisees have misunderstood the nature of illness. Physical impairments do not make a person a sinner, but, rather, provide a venue for God’s glory to be manifested. Then, our verse in question (9:41) concludes and reinforces this point. The sense of Jesus’ word is: “Even if you Pharisees were born blind, it would not be the result of sin, as you seem to imagine.” So in Jesus’ argument, sin is not wrongdoing that the blind person (or Pharisees) might be guilty of committing. Rather, sin is a force/reality/state/dynamic that causes a certain status for a person.
In the second half of 9:41, Jesus repeats his teaching on sin in another way. He says, “But now you [Pharisees] say, ‘We (can) see.’ Your sin remains.” The first statement in 9:41 corrected the Pharisees’ equation of blindness with sin, and now Jesus reminds them that their own ability to see (physically, with spiritual connotations) does not mean they are free of sin. The reality of sin still influences and shapes them. Even as able-bodied, religious leaders, they remain susceptible to the pervasive realities of sin. However, the NIV translates the word for “sin” (ἁμαρτίαν) as “guilt.” This is misguided because Jesus is accusing the Pharisees of not merely breaking rules and being in a state of condemnation, but remaining under the reality and consequences of sin. So in the two instances of “guilt” in John 9:41, the first is added into the text and the second replaces the word “sin.”
This translation preference appears elsewhere in the NIV. John 15:22–24 reads, “they would not be guilty for sin,” although the text reads, “they would not have sin” (ἁμαρτίαν οὐκ εἴχοσαν). A similar translation appears in the NRSV of 1 John 3:4—”Everyone who commits sin is guilty of lawlessness.” The text simply says “does/makes lawlessness” (ἀνομίαν ποιεῖ). See also John 19:11. I would not say this translation is “wrong,” but, rather, (overly?) influenced by cultural assumptions.
Some passages contain a word that corresponds to “guilt.” For example, John 8:46 reads, “Can any of you prove me guilty of sin?” (τίς ἐξ ὑμῶν ἐλέγχει με περὶ ἁμαρτίας;). However, even here, the term “prove guilty” could also be alternately translated as “expose,” “reveal,” or “convict.”
Overall, the choice to include the word “guilt” may be the translator’s attempt to interpret or contextualize the meaning of Scripture, which is respectable. However, the word choice may reinscribe Western theology as biblical theology. People may incorrectly conclude from such verses that guilt is, as they say, right there in the Bible!
Translation work is infinitely complex. I know that translators make many judgment calls and weigh many factors before deciding on single words. And the NIV is a great translation for certain audiences. So my point is not to criticize Bible translations, but to illustrate one way that cultural assumptions can sneak into the Bible. Culture affects not only our interpretation of the Bible, but also our translations of the Bible. I think we must be aware of this dynamic, lest we assume that certain cultural values are more “biblical” than they might actually be.