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I answered a question on Christianity.SE which focused on Christian prayer in light of Matthew 6:7:

But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking. (KJV)

And in praying do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard for their many words. (NIV)

In praying, do not babble like the pagans, who think that they will be heard because of their many words. (NABRE)

As I began answering the question, I was struck by the fact that the NABRE doesn't use "vain" (or its near-synonym "empty") in the translation—in fact it doesn't have a direct object to the verb at all. What is the Greek original of the passage, and what sorts of translation approaches (I'm aware that there may be doctrinal reasons for selecting a particular translation) lie behind the different translations?

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Matt - we are going to have to rephrase your questions, because this site is deals with the texts and their meaning, and therefore excludes discussion of dogma. We do not defend or advocate (or judge) the religious views of others, but welcome the analysis of the Biblical texts. – Joseph Jul 23 '14 at 15:53
I understand, and I am sensitive to the difference between Christianity.SE and BH. I was trying to focus more on the texts - the main question I was trying to ask was about the usage of whatever Greek word was translated "vain" or "empty" in the KJV and NIV translations. I can edit to focus on that. – Matt Gutting Jul 23 '14 at 15:55
@Joseph is that better? – Matt Gutting Jul 23 '14 at 16:07
Matt - thanks. We want to be sure that we do not load the questions with implicit, pre-biased answers. We want to let the texts speak for themselves. Few of us are interested in opinions (whether from you, from me, or others) - we just want to know what the Biblical text says. Your re-phrased question looks good - thanks! – Joseph Jul 23 '14 at 16:21
@MattGutting I may answer this later. In the meantime, there's useless/vain repetition "prayer" like a machine might give; there's also very good repetitive prayer per concentration, sincerity, etc. Jesus apparently chose the latter...(e.g. – John Martin Jul 24 '14 at 11:38

3 Answers 3

YE-SHOULD-BE-STUTTER-sayING ye-should-be-using-useless-repetitions, the meaning of the Greek word βατταλογεω (inflected here as 2nd plural aorist subjunctive βαττολοησητε "battologesete") from Thayer and Smith's Lexicon means,

to stammer to repeat the same things over and over, to use many idle words, to babble, prate. Some suppose the word derived from Battus, a king of Cyrene, who is said to have stuttered; others from Battus, an author of tedious and wordy poems


onomatopoetic word; to speak in a way that images the kind of speech pattern of one who stammers, use the same words again and again, speak without thinking

The key understanding here is found in the next verse(8),

Be not ye therefore like unto them: for your Father knoweth what things ye have need of, before ye ask him

Our Father is actually listening to us, therefore, it is unnecessary to make a lot of noise to get His attention. Since the 'heathen' vanities are not 'real God', they make endless chatter to try to draw attention to themselves; the Christian doesn't need this.

It should be noted that the context is petition; we are to give thanks always(1 Thess. 1:2), to engage in prayer always(1 Thess. 5:17), and that the gift of tongues, described as "stammering lips"(Isa. 28:11) is a sign of God's presence. The admonition is to try to make up in being vocal what one lacks in faith, God assures us He is listening, and if we follow the prescriptions He gives in Matt. 6, we will receive our answers.

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Thanks! I'm not sure exactly what your first sentence is getting at. Could you edit the question to post the Greek, please, and then the more literal translation? I'm most interested in why some translations use "vain"/"empty" - are you saying that there is no word in the original that means that specifically? – Matt Gutting Jul 24 '14 at 15:33
Also: I'm not particularly interested in the doctrinal part of this; that's something that's already being discussed at Christianity.SE and I think that's the appropriate site for it. – Matt Gutting Jul 24 '14 at 20:29
@MattGutting I appologize-I don't know how to get the 'Greek' text to appear in my answer. I'm not a Greek scholar, hence I'm not certain of the etymology of the word. It's almost certain the Lord didn't speak it in classic Koine Greek, therefore, whatever word was translated represented the word best describing the original intent of the Lord. It appears that all of your sources use the same definition; the discussion appears to be about modern translators finding 'relevancy' with their audience vs it's most accurate rendition. – Tau Jul 24 '14 at 21:08
@Matt Gutting - I suggested an edit to add the Greek text. To your question in the first comment - note that the translators of KJV, NIV are adding an object as part of their translation of the verb, which is intransitive in the Greek but perhaps doesn't have a perfect English equivalent. I also added the BDAG definition which points out that it's onomatopoetic. Hence, I like the NABRE which preserves that and the intransitive-ness: "babble." – Susan Jul 25 '14 at 11:23

Προσευχόμενοι δὲ μὴ βαττολογήσητε, ὥσπερ οἱ ἐθνικοί δοκοῦσιν γὰρ ὅτι ἐν τῇ πολυλογίᾳ αὐτῶν εἰσακουσθήσονται (Matthew 6:7 Stephanus Textus Receptus 1550)

What does βατταλογήσητε mean? 945 battologéō – properly, to blubber nonsensical repetitions; to chatter (be "long-winded"), using empty (vain) words (Souter). (Source).

What does Προσευχόμενοι mean? 4336 proseúxomai (from 4314 /prós, "towards, exchange" and 2172/euxomai, "to wish, pray") – properly, to exchange wishes; pray – literally, to interact with the Lord by switching human wishes (ideas) for His wishes as He imparts faith ("divine persuasion"). Accordingly, praying (4336/proseuxomai) is closely inter-connected with 4102 /pístis ("faith") in the NT. See: Ac 6:5,6,14:22,23; Eph 6:16-18; Col 1:3,4; 2 Thes 3:1,2; Js 5:13-15; Jude 20. (Source).

Translation Attempt

Exchange communication but do not blubber nonsensical repetitions like the pagans...


“And when you pray, you shall not be like the hypocrites. For they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. 6 But you, when you pray, go into your room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly. (Matthew 6:5-6 NKJV)

Exchange communication but do not blubber nonsensical repetitions like the pagans...

For they think that they will be heard for their many words. 8 “Therefore do not be like them. For your Father knows the things you have need of before you ask Him. (Matthew 6:7b-8 NKJV)

Choices by Other Translators

  • (KJV) vain repetitions - using empty (vain) words (Souter) | blubber nonsensical repetitions
  • (NIV) empty phrases - using empty (vain) words (Souter) | to chatter (be "long-winded")
  • (NABRE) babble - blubber nonsensical repetitions

All are appropriate translations for the Greek word (βατταλογήσητε).

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