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I have a question regarding the translation of 1 John 5:16. In the verses below, I have highlighted the translated (added?) words I’m querying.

Why does the NIV use ’you’ where the NKJV uses ’he’?
[and in the second highlighted word]
Why/how is this taken/assumed to be referring to be ‘God’?

1 John 5:16 (NIV): If you see any brother or sister commit a sin that does not lead to death, you should pray and God will give them life.

1 John 5:16 (NKJV): If anyone sees his brother sinning a sin which does not lead to death, he will ask, and He will give him life.

1 John 5:16 (TR):  Ἐάν τις ἴδῃ τὸν ἀδελφὸν αὐτοῦ ἁμαρτάνοντα ἁμαρτίαν μὴ πρὸς θάνατον αἰτήσει καὶ δώσει αὐτῷ ζωήν τοῖς ἁμαρτάνουσιν μὴ πρὸς θάνατον ἔστιν ἁμαρτία πρὸς θάνατον· οὐ περὶ ἐκείνης λέγω ἵνα ἐρωτήσῃ

  • Because we translate sentences, not words (in isolation). In many situations, saying you should (not)... is the same as saying one should (not)...; e.g., the ten divine commandments; whether one phrases them in the second person (as if addressed to a specific audience) or in the third person (by using abstract pronouns), is ultimately irrelevant insofar their meaning is concerned, since they are generic statements. – Lucian Oct 8 at 14:05
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OK, here is my very literal translation of 1 John 5:16 -

If (1)anyone should see the brother of (2)him sinning a sin not unto death, (3)he shall ask and (4)He will give (5)him life, to (6)those sinning not unto death. There is a sin unto death; not concerning that do (7)I say that (8)he should implore.

We immediately observe that there are several pronouns that need antecedents which I have numbered in the translation above - only the bolded pronouns are explicit, the rest are implied by the tense of the verbs. Now lest us list these and make the antecedents explicit:

  1. "anyone" - a person observing a sinning brother
  2. "him" - same as #1, ie, "anyone"
  3. "he" - the one observing the brother that is sinning
  4. "He" - God who is asked to forgive the sin
  5. "him" - the brother that has sinned
  6. "those" - includes anyone who does not commit a "sin unto death"
  7. "I" - Paul who is writing
  8. "he" - the one who observes the sin and seeks forgiveness for the brother

When I checked numerous versions, only the BLB and YLT give an absolutely accurate translation similar to mine above. Most, quite correctly, try to clear up the confusion of pronouns and verbs by adding a phrase or adjusting the pronouns to make things clearer. The NIV is typical of this -

If you see any brother or sister commit a sin that does not lead to death, you should pray and God will give them life. I refer to those whose sin does not lead to death. There is a sin that leads to death. I am not saying that you should pray about that.

Even the NKJV finds it necessary to add words and phrases to clarify the sense (highlighted below in italics), but still leaves a confusion of pronoun antecedents:

If anyone sees his brother sinning a sin which does not lead to death, he will ask, and He will give him life for those who commit sin not leading to death. There is sin leading to death. I do not say that he should pray about that.

By contrast, tye NIV, in conformity to modern English, puts the people to whom Paul is speaking in the second person ("you") and the the sinning brother in the third person ("He" and "him") which clarifies the meaning.

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  • Why is (3) the sinner rather than the observer? – Henry Oct 8 at 12:27
  • @Henry - quite right - my mistake - I will correct it. – Dottard Oct 8 at 20:00
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Why does the NIV use ’you’ where the NKJV uses ’he’?

It is simply based on their translation philosophy - the NIV tends and intents to be less formal (literal) and more dynamically equivalent to (translators' perceived meaning of) the Greek. So in translating the Greek and trying to understand the English they used will not be helpful. Interpreting the passage and trying to understand why they translated it in this way will explain why they went with their choices.

Let's start with translating the subject of the sentence:

τις

  • Part of Speech: indefinite pronoun
  • Case: Nominative (subject; predicate nominative)
  • Number: Singular
  • Gender: Masculine

It should be translated as "any man" (KJV) (indefinite singular masculine). NKJV uses anyone (indefinite singular neuter) and NIV as "you" (second person (singular or plural)). It tells you how they interpret the sentence by applying it directly to the reader and speaking to him/her personally.

This clause is in the potential subjunctive (if any man sees..) part of the sentence, which means a subordinate clause will follow. In this case, it is an active indicitive (αιτησει), and so to be consistent with the subject chosen:

  • you should pray (NIV)
  • he will ask (NKJV)
  • he shall ask (KJV)

This phrase is the translation of a single word in the Greek: αιτησει. The form is sufficient to translate it into English as a whole phrase since English does not carry its meaning primarily in the form of the word like Greek does. If we look at the form of the verb (ask) we see why the formal translations go with the above phrase:

αιτησει

Tense: Future Voice: Active Mood: Indicative Person: third [he/she/it] Number: Singular

So this word must be directly translated as "he, she or it shall/will ask", and the pronoun simply depends on who the subject is that will be asking. Who is the subject? This is a matter of interpretation of the sentence not translation.

If any man see his brother sin a sin which is not unto death, he shall ask...

In this case it is very clear that it is the subject of the sentence. This verb itself does not have gender, so for NKJV translating the subject of the sentence as "anyone" is not helpful to understand the "he" they choose later. Could he not refer to the subject of the passage? When it is "any man" as the subject of the sentence it is clear, and the use of "he" as the active participant of this subordinate clause makes clear sense.

For the NIV then to have made you the subject, it must now keep you as the subordinate participant.

It must be for gender neutrality that both NIV and NKJV went with the gender-neutral English for the subject of the sentence.

Why/how is this taken/assumed to be referring to be ‘God’?

As for the conclusion of the statement (and God/he/He will give), why did the NIV go for God, since the Greek does not have the word for God?

It is simply for clarity because it again depends on interpretation as to who the active participant of the subordinate clause is referring to as the subject: the subject of the sentence or the subject of the passage.

So, as not to assume by the reader that it is the person asking that gives life, some translations inserts God not based on their translation philosophy but for clarity. The NASB, a very formal equivalent translation does the same, but they italicize words added for clarity. And God is italicized in this translation:

1 Joh 5:16 NASB

Why/how is this taken/assumed to be referring to be ‘God’?

Again, a singular Greek word is translated as the English phrase "he shall give" because of its form:

δωσει

  • Part of Speech: Verb
  • Tense: Future
  • Voice: Active
  • Mood: Indicative
  • Person: third [he/she/it]
  • Number: Singular

It is exactly the same form as the previous verb, which means the formal equivalent translation is "he/she/it shall/will give". So again it is a matter of interpretation (not translation) to know who the subject of this subordinate clause is. Who is will/shall give life?

The answer is obvious from the preceding verses:

And this is the record, that God hath given to us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. He that hath the Son hath life; and he that hath not the Son of God hath not life. These things have I written unto you that believe on the name of the Son of God; that ye may know that ye have eternal life, and that ye may believe on the name of the Son of God. And this is the confidence that we have in him, that, if we ask any thing according to his will, he heareth us: And if we know that he hear us, whatsoever we ask, we know that we have the petitions that we desired of him. (1Jn 5:11-15)

Notice that God is the subject of the discussion and the giver of life. Any dependent singular pronoun not immediately associated with the subject of the sentence is referring to the Subject of the discussion.

Hence by interpretation the subject of the verb (δωσει) is referring to God, the Subject under discussion Who gives life to (and through) them that ask. Since the danger exists that one might use verse 16 out of its context and imply that it is the asking man giving life, it makes sense why NIV and NASB add the word God not in the Greek.

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  • Your answer is both comprehensive and very helpful. Appreciated. If you could ‘tick’ two - I would have. – Dave Oct 8 at 18:26
  • @Dave. Thanks Dave - was a thorough pleasure: I'm learning myself... Excellent question though - as a matter of fact, it really brought this passage alive to me! – Pieter Rousseau Oct 8 at 18:40
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When it's not clear from the original language, we look for evidence supporting one leaning over another. The subject of the passage is God - though this is difficult to follow. Justifying the 'God' inclusion in the translation.

We know that both God and Jesus can give life.

I charge you in the presence of God, who gives life to all things, 1 Timothy 6:13

“Truly, truly, I say to you, an hour is coming and now is, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live. 26“For just as the Father has life in Himself, even so He gave to the Son also to have life in Himself John 5:26

Jesus only does it because the Father granted this capacity. Jesus was always the way TO the Father who gave life - in that sense both give life - one virtually, one literally.

Just as the living Father sent Me and I live because of the Father, so also the one who feeds on Me will live because of Me. John 6:57

(to be clear, he is not talking about living again as Lazarus did, but a kingdom life that is eternal)

Jesus is the one who triumphed over death - thereby enabling life - yet only in the Father - certainly not on his own!

We can also pursue the context - of asking in prayer -

John 14 Jesus speaking of the yet future, 'I go to the Father' v12, he is keen to maintain a relationship with them - just as they asked him for things on earth, why when he goes to be with the Father, would it be any different - the Father still gets the glory! And, reciprocally, the Father glorifies the son - and rightly so.

Whatever you ask in My name, that will I do, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. 14“If you ask Me anything in My name, I will do it. v13

We see later on in 1 John 5 the understanding that Jesus, the 'one born of God' is responsible for those who are his and has the authority to do so.

We know that no one who is born of God sins; but He (Jesus) who was born of God keeps him, and the evil one does not touch him.

All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth Matt 28:18, Col 2:10, 1 Pet 3:22

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If anyone sees his brother sinning a sin which does not lead to death, he will ask, and He will give him life for those who commit sin not leading to death. There is sin leading to death. I do not say that he should pray about that. (NKJV)

ἐάν τις ἴδῃ τὸν ἀδελφὸν αὐτοῦ ἁμαρτάνοντα ἁμαρτίαν μὴ πρὸς θάνατον αἰτήσει καὶ δώσει αὐτῷ ζωήν τοῖς ἁμαρτάνουσιν μὴ πρὸς θάνατον ἔστιν ἁμαρτία πρὸς θάνατον οὐ περὶ ἐκείνης λέγω ἵνα ἐρωτήσῃ

The passage begins by identifying the one who commits sin as ἀδελφός, which means brother. The NIV reflects this is not meant to be taken literally and adds "or sister" to show inclusiveness:

If you see any brother or sister commit a sin that does not lead to death, you should pray and God will give them life. I refer to those whose sin does not lead to death. There is a sin that leads to death. I am not saying that you should pray about that. (NIV)

Given this change, "you" which could be either male of female, is similarly more inclusive than "he."

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