Translating Acts 16:34

greektextHow should Acts 16:34 be translated? Translations differ rather widely! Why does it matter? How it is translated feeds in to the theology of baptism.

Unfortunately, the verse itself is rather ambiguous, which makes working out what it means rather more difficult!

Background
Acts 16:34 comes at the end of the narrative of Paul and Silas in prison in Philippi (Acts 16:16-34). During the night, there is an earthquake and the gaoler thinks that all the prisoners have escaped. He prepares to kill himself (as his life would be forfeit if they had escaped), but Paul calls out, telling him that all the prisoners are still there. The gaoler rushes in, asks what he can do to be saved and is then baptised, along with his whole household.

Translations
One of Bible Gateway’s helpful features is the ability to compare all the translations they have of a particular verse. If the translations of Acts 16:34 are compared, it can be seen that there are 3 main ways of translating the verse. Two of the most widely used translations are the NRSV and the NIV, which differ in how they translate it. The NRSV translates the verse as:

He brought them up into the house and set food before them; and he and his entire household rejoiced that he had become a believer in God.

While the NIV reads:

The jailer brought them into his house and set a meal before them; he was filled with joy because he had come to believe in God – he and his whole household.

However, the third way is taken by, amongst others, the ASV. This approach is better at showing the ambiguity of the Greek:

And he brought them up into his house, and set food before them, and rejoiced greatly, with all his house, having believed in God.

So, all the gaoler’s household is rejoicing greatly. But, is all his household rejoicing because he (the gaoler) has believed in God, or because they all have believed in God? It’s not clear!

So, when I was reading this passage for my sermon on baptism, I read:

The jailer brought them up into his house and set a meal before them; and he rejoiced with all his household, having believed in God.

Interpretation
Both the NIV and the NRSV have interpreted the verse to translate it. The NRSV’s interpretation has chosen to see the conversion being just of the gaoler, while the NIV’s interpretation has chosen to see the whole household as having been converted.

Either of those is a valid interpretation of the ambiguous Greek, but neither leaves open the other interpretation. This is important, not least as the differences give different answers to the continuing discussions over the question of infant baptism. Is it appropriate to baptise someone who is a member of a believing household, but is not yet themselves a believer? The NRSV interpretation answers yes, the NIV doesn’t support that argument. Unfortunately, the commentators that I consulted largely ignore this discussion, which isn’t very helpful either.

I think that this shows that translators need to be more prepared to allow ambiguity and complication where it exists in the original, so that we can wrestle with the questions, rather than having them smoothed out and decided for us…

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2 thoughts on “Translating Acts 16:34

  1. I’ve never bothered to compare translations on bible gateway of this verse. it is interesting. perhaps I’m too lazy to be a theologian! It seems unlikely to me that they “all” rejoiced just because the gaoler believed. They would rejoice because they too believe, in some way at least. imho.

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    • Thanks Jeff,
      That’s certainly one of the arguments in favour of the NIV’s interpretation. But, it is an interpretation, as you’re adding additional things which aren’t present in the text. It’s certainly possible, but then people do rejoice over things even if they themselves aren’t that bothered about, if those close to them are. Also, for the household, the gaoler was the head, so if your master was happy, then you were happy too! So, possible, but by no means certain…

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