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Romans 2:15 NIV

They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them.

But the ESV

... and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them

And for good measure the KJV

...and their thoughts the mean while accusing or else excusing one another;

(I don't understand this English so this isn't much help to me but perhaps it makes sense to someone else.)

SBLGNT

οἵτινες ἐνδείκνυνται τὸ ἔργον τοῦ νόμου γραπτὸν ἐν ταῖς καρδίαις αὐτῶν, συμμαρτυρούσης αὐτῶν τῆς συνειδήσεως καὶ μεταξὺ ἀλλήλων τῶν λογισμῶν κατηγορούντων ἢ καὶ ἀπολογουμένων

Woodenly (mine),

...and the thoughts among themselves accusing [them] or also excusing [them]

I suppose there must be something in μεταξὺ ἀλλήλων that carries the idea of "conflicting". But BDAG cites this very phrase in its entry on μεταξὺ (2nd entry), and only offers among themselves, with one another. Is it instead the contrast between κατηγορούντων and ἀπολογουμένων that lends itself to the notion of "conflicting"? But connected by ἢ καὶ (c.f. Romans 4:9), I imagine this construction should allow the accusation and the excuse to apply to different situations, in which case the conscience might be understood as consistent and correct (as I think the NIV implies), not conflicting.

How does the notion of "conflicting" arise in translations of this passage, and is it appropriate?

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It appears that the ESV et. al. are adding the word conflicting from how they see the thoughts acting. The notes on the NET Bible read :

tn Grk "their conscience bearing witness and between the thoughts accusing or also defending one another."

The NET also adds conflicting in its translation.

...their conscience bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or else defend them,

They are understanding Paul's statement to mean the thoughts the Gentiles have at once ("or also") accuse and defend the Gentile's actions. In other words, though the unrepentant have God's law written on their hearts, their own self at once wants to follow that law (accuse their sin) and at the same time continue in it (defending).

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  • Frank is there any tie to the New Covenant in the context, where the law is written on the heart (Heb 8:10 and Heb 8:16)?
    – Joseph
    Jul 18 '14 at 17:32
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There is no conflict here as the ESV might appear to suggest.
Most translations, however, render this verse very sensibly (e.g. NIV has "They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them"). The New Living Translation has what I consider to be the best rendering, which carries precisely the idea the apostle has in mind. It reads as follows: "They demonstrate that God's law is written in their hearts, for their own conscience and thoughts either accuse them or tell them they are doing right." To me that's good English and as accurate a translation as you are likely to find of this verse.

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    It's hard to believe that the ESV (and RSV, NET, CJB, CEB...) just made up the notion of "conflicting thoughts", though!
    – Susan
    Jul 18 '14 at 16:00
  • I think that the main point of translation is to render the meaning of what is being said. Unfortunately, this is not always the case.
    – Richard
    Jul 20 '14 at 4:59
  • Young's Literal Translation renders the verse as follows: "who do shew the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also witnessing with them, and between one another the thoughts accusing or else defending." So you can see that, although there are two opposing or conflicting types of thought (i.e. accusative and defensive) the apostle is not speaking here of conflicting cognition or dissonance, but simply the fact that the conscience produces either the one type of thought or the other, depending on the particular circumstance or experience.
    – Richard
    Jul 20 '14 at 5:11

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