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Reply to "(WT) Jesus and Zaccheus: Bible Background and Lesson Objectives"

Why Translations Matter:

Where are Jesus and Zaccheus When the Crowd Grumbles?

During the preparation of this set, we discussed which translation of the Bible we wanted to use and settled on the dependable and widely used NRSV. The NIV is good too. But not all translations are the same!  Sometimes the translators or paraphrasers change the text and story setting in subtle ways that are ultimately important and often unnecessary. Such is the case with the popular New Living Translation's version (NLT) of the story of Zaccheus.

Now admittedly, SOMETIMES it doesn't make much difference which translation you use, but in Luke 19:1-10, the NLT adds two misleading phrases that are not original to the story, and thus, are not included in most major translations. They are "misleading" because they change a key point in the story and how we imagine in our minds how and where Jesus and Zaccheus interacted with the crowd. BTW: This happens a lot in "storybook" paraphrases of Bible stories, online lessons, illustrations, and curriculum --which is another reason to always compare your resources with a solid translation to make sure you're teaching the Bible's version of the story.

Here's a description and explanation of how the NLT got two things wrong in their translation of story of Zaccheus.

(1) The first mistranslation is in verse 6 of the Luke 19 story.

The NRSV says, "So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble, "he has gone..."

The NIV says, "So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly. All the people saw this and began to mutter, "he has gone..."

But the NLT says, "Zacchaeus quickly climbed down and took Jesus to his house in great excitement and joy. But the people were displeased. “He has gone..."

The phrase"and took Jesus to his house" --is not in Luke.  As the NRSV and NIV correctly translate, Zaccheus quickly climbs down and is happy/glad to welcome Jesus WHEN HE GETS DOWN, and there is no mention of them leaving. But the NLT inserts, "and took Jesus to his house."

So why did the NLT translators insert "and took Jesus to his house in great excitement"?  rather than placing the "excitement" in the Zaccheus' greeting of Jesus when he came down out of the tree --as the major translations do?

Because the NLT translators need to get Z and Jesus out of the way so that the crowd can grumble, "he has gone to be the guest of a sinner." "Gone" means "left" in English. And the Greek verb for "gone" is in the Greek text. So they added the phrase that Zaccheus "took Jesus to his house" to match the verb tense they assumed was "past tense" in the next verse, rather than leave the ambiguity. But as you will read in a moment, the verb tense translated by the NRSV, NIV, and NLT as "has gone" is not defintive. Read onward!

[Aside: The NRSV and NIV are decades old and the study of New Testament Greek continues to be a living science. So maybe one day they'll update their version to get this more right.]

What not in dispute in the major translations is that Zaccheus and Jesus were standing right there when "all who saw it" (saw Jesus and Zaccheus greet each other) "began to grumble."

The murmur was immediate, and so were Zaccheus and Jesus' responses.

Yet as we have seen in verse 6 of the New Living Translation, Jesus and Z have already left for Zaccheus' house when the crowd starts to crank up. But that can't have left because Jesus addresses the crowd in verses 9 and 10!

So if Z and Jesus are still there and haven't left, how can the crowd murmur "He's gone" ??

The problem is solved by studying the rare Greek verb tense that Luke uses for the phrase "has gone." And the solution allows Jesus and Zaccheus to still BE THERE with the crowd rather than solving it the way the NLT does by inserting the phrase, "he took Jesus to his house" which alters where the rest of the story takes place.  They are not at Z's house with the crowd. They are still at the tree! ...and here's why:

Luke uses a rather rare Greek past verb tense for "go" that has no definitive English equivalent. The NLT and others simply translate it in the "past tense," ("has gone") but the rare verb tense Luke used for "gone" here doesn't always have to be in the past tense according to Greek scholar Bill Mounce and others. Instead, Luke's rare verb tense for the word "go, come, enter" can also be translated with the sense of being "in the process of going," "starting to go." "Starting to go but not having left the scene" is also suggested by what Luke says about that crowd, that they "all saw it" and started to grumble, and also by the fact that Jesus seems to be addressing that same crowd in verses 9 and 10.

In other words, Z and Jesus had started to leave when the crowd started to grumble,

"he is going to be the guest of a sinner!"   

The Better Translation (TBT)

(3) The NLT's version of Zaccheus' story includes a third translation issue in verse 8 regarding whether Zaccheus "stopped" or "stood up" or "stood there" before Jesus.

After the crowd grumbles against Jesus, the NLT's version of Luke 19:8 read, "Meanwhile, Zacchaeus stood before the Lord and said, 'I will give half...'"

You have to admit, "stood before the Lord" sounds does cool, bold, and heroic, but Luke's Greek merely says Zaccheus "STOPPED (histemi) and said to the Lord..."

"Stopped" and "stood" are sometimes used interchangeably in the New Testament. But "stood before the Lord" is an embellishment by the NLT.  The NRSV uses the phrase "stood there" instead of "stopped" to describe what Zaccheus did before he spoke of giving his wealth. In its earlier version, the RSV said Zaccheus "stood up" which presumes he was sitting down at the tree, so it seems the NRSV corrected that by changing it to "stood there" rather than interject the idea of Zaccheus sitting and having to stand up to talk to Jesus --which Luke's words don't include.  Either way, Luke writes "stopped" or "stood" which is exactly what you'd expect from someone who was in the process of walking away with Jesus when he heard the crowd grumbling. Zaccheus STOPPED leaving when he heard the crowd. "Stood before the Lord" is something you might translate if they were already at home, but as we have learned, they weren't home, they were still there with the crowd.

Surprisingly, Zaccheus does not address the crowd --which is the way I think most of us have imagined it. No, instead, Zaccheus stops and addresses Jesus. Undoubtedly some in the crowd could hear him, but the sound of the scene is not speechy or ostentatious, it's personal. He's not trying to ingratiate himself with the crowd. He's not making a grand gesture. Instead, he's looking at and speaking to the only person whose opinion really matters to him, Jesus.

Zaccheus hurried down out of the tree and excitedly greeted Jesus, and as they were leaving, the grumbling crowd made Zaccheus stop and speak to Jesus.

Today salvation has come to this man's house!  -- "house" being a common biblical metaphor for FAMILY, For he too is a son of Abraham (part of the family of God).

What happened next is exciting to imagine. What would you say to Jesus as he walked with you to YOUR house and family?

Last edited by Neil MacQueen

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