As I’ve discussed in an earlier post, 2Ti 3:16, the key verse that Fundamentalists use to claim that the Bible is the inerrant Word of God could not possibly mean that New Testament scripture is inspired (see New Testament: Inspired Scripture?”). Now, I will show that the English translations for this verse are not accurate, and that the verse does not even mean that the Hebrew Bible (known to Christians as the Old Testament) is inspired! The explanation will get a bit technical, but I will provide examples along the way. Note that I’ve provided the Greek here for reference – but you will not need any previous understanding of Greek to understand this post. So just stay with me and just take it slow.
To my knowledge, the original Greek text for 2Ti 3:16 is not disputed and is recorded in the Stephanus Textus Receptus as:
πᾶσα γραφὴ θεόπνευστος καὶ ὠφέλιμος πρὸς διδασκαλίαν πρὸς ἔλεγχον, πρὸς ἐπανόρθωσιν πρὸς παιδείαν τὴν ἐν δικαιοσύνῃ
An English transliteration of the above Greek is:
pasa graphē theopneustos kai ōphelimos pros didaskalian pros elegmon pros epanorthōsin pros paideian tēn en dikaiosunē
For convenience, I’ll use the transliteration from here on out when I want to talk about the original Greek. The NIV translates this verse as:
All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness:
But that’s not the best translation of the verse. The literal word-for-word translation of the beginning of this verse is (we only care about the beginning – the rest is undisputed):
each writing God-breathed also profitable for…
Note absence of the verb, “is”, which is not used in the Greek. The question is: where should “is” go in the English translation? Should it go in this location?
Option 1: “each God-breathed writing is also profitable…”
If so, then the verse simply states that ‘writing which happens to be God-breathed is profitable’ – it does not state that ‘all writing is God-breathed and is therefore profitable.’
Or should the verb, “is”, go in this location:
Option 2: “each writing is God-breathed also profitable…”
If it goes here, then the verse really does make the claim that ‘all writing is God breathed. ‘ Note that the order of “writing” and “God-breathed” are different in the 2 options – more on this in the Example 2 below. So which translation is correct?
It depends on whether the verb, theopneustos (God-breathed, or “inspired”), is used in the passive form or the active form. The word was originally known only in the passive verbal form and it was most likely used in the passive form here too, though this is disputed – see this technical discussion for the history of the debate and why the passive form is more likely).
Example 1: Active vs. Passive verbs
In the sentence, “the dog bit the boy”, the verb “bit” is active because there is a subject (the dog) that acts upon an object (the boy) and that particular action is described by the verb (bit). However in the sentence, “the bitten boy cried”, the verb bitten is passive because it does not describe an action between a subject and object, and it is used as an adjective because it describes the state (bitten) of the subject (the boy). In English, the passive and active forms, “bit” and “bitten” are written differently. In Greek, theopneustos would be written the same way whether used in the active form or the passive form. In the passive form, theopneustos likewise serves as an adjective because it modifies the word, “writing” – it tells you it is not talking about just any writing, it is talking specifically about God-breathed writing.
Example 2: “writing God-breathed” – or – “God-breathed writing”?
In English, the adjective comes before the noun as in big (adjective) house (noun). In Greek, the adjective comes after the noun, as it does in many other languages – like Spanish for example. To say “big house” in Spanish, you would say “casa grande”, not “grande casa”. So in the Greek phrase, “graphē theopneustos”, since theopneustos is used as an adjective as we’ve discussed above, it is translated into English as “God-breathed writing” as in Option 1 above (not “writing God-breathed” as in Option 2 above).
Now, with the correct translation for graphē theopneustos as “God-breathed writing“, there is only one place to put the auxiliary verb, “is”:
each God-breathed writing is also profitable…
One final note, the word “graphē” does not mean scripture or sacred writing, it means any “writing”. It is the same word used for financial ledgers for example. Then it makes no sense to claim that all writing is inspired since financial ledgers are probably not. It would make better sense to talk about certain inspired writings – which is exactly the case when “graphē theopneustos” is correctly translated as “God-breathed writing”.