Pressing on to Maturity

14Mar09

Hebrews 6:1a reads, “Therefore let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity” (ESV).

Or does it?

Without being alarmist about English translations of the Bible, I’d like to suggest that the common rendering of this verse is a bit off. (My Greek professor, Dr. Black, pointed this out to our class.)

It isn’t just the ESV that gets it wrong. Every other major English translation (HCSB, KJV, NASB, NIV, NLT, and NKJV) translates the Greek pherometha (φερώμεθα) as “let us go” or “let us press on.” The correct reading is, “let us be carried.” That’s a significant difference.

Phero is the root of pherometha, and the verb generally means “to carry, bear, or lead,” as in, “I carried the book to you,” “I come bearing sword,” or “I am leading this horse to water.”

So the first issue is: how do we get “go/press on” from “carry, bear, lead”? In context, we could understand pherometha to say, “. . . let us carry on to maturity,” which we might correctly translate, “let us go on to maturity.” So far, so good.

But pherometha is in the passive voice. My English teachers in middle school loved to rail against the passive voice. They constantly reminded us, “Don’t write, ‘The bagel was eaten by Jim.’ Write, ‘Jim ate the bagel.'”

Since pherometha is in the passive voice (present passive subjunctive first person plural, if you really want to know), it is inaccurate to translate it in the active voice, as in, “Let us carry.” Instead, it should be translated, “Let us be carried.”

Let’s compare the two translations, then. Most every English translation reads, “Therefore let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go/press on to maturity,” but the Greek is more accurately rendered, “Therefore let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and be carried on to maturity.”

I think that’s a fairly significant difference, don’t you? The question is whether we become mature by our own efforts, or whether we are carried on to maturity by the Spirit as a sailboat is borne along by the wind (another use of phero). Not only does the latter interpretation better reflect the Greek, it also seems more in line with the overarching gospel message.

For me, this means I can stop trying to be or at least seem mature and just focus on submitting to the Lord. Does it affect your understanding of Hebrews 6:1-2? Do you buy my argument?

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6 Responses to “Pressing on to Maturity”

  1. 1 Drew

    I buy your explanation of the greek, but you haven’t argued why the major translations don’t agree with you. That’s a more interesting question.

  2. 2 Adam

    Drew, I agree that that is a more interesting question. I can only speculate on the answer, but here is my guess.

    First, the authoritative Greek lexicon, Bauer, Danker, Arndt, and Gingrich, 3rd ed. (BDAG), specifically translates this phrase, “let us move on toward perfection.” Obviously, this carries a significant amount of weight with any translator (including this one!), but its authoritative status doesn’t imply perfection.

    Why would BDAG get it wrong? There is a debated voice called deponent in NT Greek in which a verb in the passive form could be taken as active in meaning. If this is an instance of the deponent voice, then the active translation, “let us move on,” has warrant.

    However, not only is the deponent voice debated, BDAG itself doesn’t take phero as a deponent verb. Phero is listed with the omega ending, -o, whereas verbs understood as deponent are listed with an -omai ending. Secondly, in the section heading above BDAG’s translation of Heb 6:1, it reads, “the passive [of phero] can be variously rendered: be moved, be driven, let oneself be moved.” Again, this goes against its own translation of the verse, as well as the translation of every major English version.

    Even if it is possible to take pherometha as deponent here, I would put forth two arguments against such a reading. As argued above, phero is not normally a deponent verb, and secondly, I see no immediate contextual reason to take it in any way other than its normal passive sense.

    So back to your question: why do the English translations get it wrong? Part of the influence is likely the inconsistency in BDAG on this particular verse, and part of it probably has to do with the tradition of the KJV. Most of the major English translations start with it as their base rather than the Hebrew and Greek, so it is possible that slipped under their radar. Perhaps the ambiguity of BDAG and the uncertain notion of the deponent voice led translators to simply pass on the translation of the KJV rather than potentially stir the pot with a different reading.

    Does any of that sound plausible?

  3. 3 Adam

    Oh, and I’ve got to learn to write less.

  4. 4 Drew

    It sounds plausible to me, noted NT scholar that I am. 🙂

    Although the gospel doesn’t exactly hinge on Heb 6:1-2, issues like this are unfortunate and seem to dent the armor of inerrantists. Is this the author of Hebrews’ inspired word, or that of translators and scholars throughout the centuries? If the latter is just as good (because God could of course inspire anyone, not just apostles), what authority does apostleship really have?

  5. 5 Adam

    You raise a good point about the definition of inerrancy and apostolic authority. I agree with your hypothetical conclusion and definitely would restrict inspiration (in the sense of being inerrant) to the canonical OT and NT writings. What potentially bakes the noodle is whether Hebrews was written by an apostle, and if not, can it be inerrant. In short, yes, but that’s another post. 😉

    You’re also right that the gospel doesn’t hinge on this, and obviously most English translations are exceptionally faithful to the original text. To the extent that they are, they certainly convey God’s inerrant word to us.

    Thanks for your feedback, and I hope things are well with you. Lord willing, I’ll be posting more things Greek for us to wrestle with (or simply enjoy) in the near future!

  6. 6 Patrick

    You know, you’d be surprised with how many passive verbs are probably mistranslated. Even in my short time knowing Greek, I’ve run across one that was mistranslated in a major translation.
    And while the Gospel doesn’t ‘hinge’ on this one verse, I think if we have a more holistic view of the Gospel, that being living our life more and more in conformation with Christ’s, it can make a huge difference. If we are trying to press ourselves on toward maturity in Christ, we will have insufficient means of becoming mature, because we will be trying on our own power. But if we are ‘carried along’ by Christ, that makes all the difference in our spiritual walk.
    Good post Adam. If I ever write a paper on this verse I think I’ll quote you.


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