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Is there a linguistic basis for how to translate John 8:43, or are translations basing their translation on context alone?

The following is not meant to be exhaustive, but a sample of the variation in the translations.

διὰ τί τὴν λαλιὰν τὴν ἐμὴν οὐ γινώσκετε; ὅτι οὐ δύνασθε ἀκούειν τὸν λόγον τὸν ἐμόν. (John 8:43, NA27)

Why do you not understand what I am saying? It is because you cannot hear My word. (John 8:43, NAS95)

Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot bear to hear my word. (John 8:43, ESV)

Why don’t you understand what I say? Because you cannot listen to My word. (John 8:43, HCSB)

Why is my language not clear to you? Because you are unable to hear what I say. (John 8:43, NIV84)

Why can’t you understand one word I say? Here’s why: You can’t handle it. (John 8:43, The Message)

Why do ye not understand my speech? Even because ye cannot hear my word. (John 8:43, ASV)

Why do you not understand My speech? Because you are not able to listen to My word. (John 8:43, NKJV)

Why do ye not understand my speech? even because ye cannot hear my word. (John 8:43, KJV)

Robertson mentions the clearest distinction with the use of τὴν λαλιὰν versus τὸν λόγον, which the translation pick up on:

My speech (την λαλιαν την ἐμην [tēn lalian tēn emēn]) and my word (τον λογον τον ἐμον [ton logon ton emon]). Perhaps λαλια [lalia], old word from λαλος [lalos] (talk), means here more manner of speech than just story (4:42), while λογος [logos] refers rather to the subject matter. They will not listen (οὐ δυνασθε ἀκουειν [ou dunasthe akouein]) to the substance of Christ’s teaching and hence they are impatient with the way that he talks. How often that is true.

Robertson, A. T. (1933). Word Pictures in the New Testament (Jn 8:43). Nashville, TN: Broadman Press.

However, the greatest difficulty and variation appears to be how to understand the phrase οὐ δύνασθε ἀκούειν.

A beginning, first year Greek translation of this verse, doesn’t make much sense, although the vocabulary of this verse is well within their grasp. What basis is there for these various translations?

  • Other than what A.T. Robertson wrote above, the answers so far say how to translate this verse is a matter of context, more than the immediate context. – Perry Webb May 22 '19 at 22:42
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John 8:43 is quintessential Koine Greek. It occurs in the context of yet another discussion about one of Jesus' metaphors that He uses to explain the spiritual realm that He was teaching about. The Jews did not understand this metaphor of being children of the devil either (unsurprisingly). Their spiritual mindset of pride and earthly kingdoms prevented such spiritual understanding. I would translate it literally as:

Why do you not understand my speech? Because you are unable to hear my ideas!

The pair of sentences contrasts λαλιὰν (verbal speech) with λόγον (concepts, ideas here). The second sentence is Jesus' answer to the question in the first sentence. The first sentence is a rhetorical question with a dose of irony.

Thus, Jesus is essentially saying that because you do not understand the concept of the eternal spiritual kingdom, you do not understand my literal words. To use a more modern idiom, "there are none so deaf as those that will not hear".

Therefore, I think most of the translation quoted in the OP are valid, but I especially like the Message.

APPENDIX - Metaphors in the Gospel of John

Here is an incomplete list of metaphors used by Jesus as recorded in the Gospel of John which almost all misunderstood by His hearers. (Sometimes deliberately??)

  • 1:1-14 – Jesus is the “Word” (Greek: “logos” means idea or principle)
  • 1:29 – Jesus is the Lamb of God
  • 1:51 – Jesus is the ladder between earth and heaven (Gen 28:12)
  • 2:19-21 – Jesus’ body is the temple that was to be destroyed and raised in 3 days
  • 3:3-12 – Jesus’ disciples must be born from above
  • 3:13, 14 – Jesus is the bronze serpent in the wilderness (also 8:27, 12:34 & Num 21:9)
  • 4:13, 14 – Jesus’ message becomes a fountain/river of living water flowing out of His disciples (see also 7:38)
  • 4:32 – Jesus’ food was not of this world (ie, conversions to discipleship)
  • 4:35-38 – Jesus’ disciples must reap the “harvest” of the Gospel
  • 5:13, 14 – Our work is to labour for “manna” or “food” that endures (also, 6:27)
  • 5:35 – John the Baptist was a lamp preparing for the greater light
  • 6:35, 41, 48, 50, 51 – Jesus said, “I am the bread of life”
  • 6:53-58 – we must eat Jesus’ flesh and drink His blood
  • 8:12 – Jesus said, “I am the light of the world” (see also 1:4, 9, 12:46)
  • 8:38-47 – Jesus’ disciples are Abraham’s children and children of God, whereas, His enemies are children of the devil.
  • 9:39-41 – converted disciples are not blind but those who will not see are blind
  • 10:1-18 – Jesus said, “I am the good Shepherd” (v11, 14) and the disciples are sheep
  • 10:8 – Jesus said, “I am the gate/door to the sheep”
  • 11:25 – Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and life”
  • 12:24 – Jesus compares his life to a seed that must die to produce more life
  • 14:6 – Jesus said, “I am the way the truth and the life”
  • 14:26 – Holy Spirit is called and advocate (Greek: “parakletos”) (see also 15:26ff)
  • 15:1-5 – Jesus said, “I am the vine and you are the branches”
  • 16:21, 22 – troubles of this life compared to child birth
  • 18:11 – Jesus’ trials likened to a “cup”
  • 21:15-17 – Jesus’ followers likened to lambs and sheep (see also 10:1-18)
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They do not understand what he is saying to them by his mouth : his spoken utterance in their ears.

Why not ?

Because they lack something.

What do they lack ?

The ability to hear his word.


The reason translators struggle with this may be due to their lack of inward experience. If they themselves do not hear inwardly, they shall have no knowledge of what Jesus means by his words in this text.

Before anyone can competently translate the words of Jesus and his apostles, they need to fully understand his word, experimentally within themselves by faith, (as well as be extremely competent in the Greek language).

But the KJV and Young's Literal both give the correct sense :

Why do ye not understand my speech? even because ye cannot hear my word. KJV.

wherefore do ye not know my speech? because ye are not able to hear my word. YLT.

They both, correctly, distinguish λαλιαν, lalian, Strong 2981 and λογον, logon Strong 3056.

Without inwardly, by faith, hearing the word of Christ which is uttered in Spirit to the soul, no amount of listening with the outward ear - whether to hear the words of Jesus himself or to hear words of preachers and evangelists who speak the same things - will do any good.

If one is deaf within - the inward hearing of faith - then there is no understanding of spiritual things and no amount of diction will penetrate the soul.

They did not understand his spoken words, through their ears : because they had no capacity within them (faith) with which to receive his inward speaking to the soul.

In summary, I would say that the other translators are struggling with both the linguistics and also the context. For neither linguistics nor context will reveal to them what the inward word means if they do not - already - experience it by faith.

But even in their struggle, they could, at least, just translate the words on the page and arrive at a literal rendering, rather than muddle (as one of them does) 'language' and 'say ; and miss out 'word'.

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