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I've noticed that the latest NIV translation translates Galatians 5:17 differently to every other translation.

NIV "For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever you want."
NA28 ἡ γὰρ σὰρξ ἐπιθυμεῖ κατὰ τοῦ πνεύματος, τὸ δὲ πνεῦμα κατὰ τῆς σαρκός· ταῦτα γὰρ ἀλλήλοις ἀντίκειται, ἵνα μὴ ἃ ἐὰν θέλητε ταῦτα ποιῆτε.

The last part comes across as a command not to do the sinful things that your flesh wants to do.

KJV so that ye cannot do the things that ye would.
NKJV so that you do not do the things that you wish.
ASV that ye may not do the things that ye would.
ESV to keep you from doing the things you want to do.

These other translations translate it differently. To paraphrase, they seem to say that as a result of your flesh being in conflict with the Spirit, you are unable to do the righteous things the Spirit wants you to do.

Which is correct?

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    No, the KJV indicates that the Spirit prevents one from fulfilling what the flesh would desire to do. Or, at least, that is my own understanding of the wording.
    – Nigel J
    Jun 27, 2023 at 17:19
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    NKJV and NIV have identical meaning. KJV and ASV are using older English that also means the same as NKJV and NIV.
    – Perry Webb
    Jun 28, 2023 at 9:44

7 Answers 7

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While the NIV translation appears to be a command,. the Greek is definitely not. Both the verbs θέλητε (you might wish) and ποιῆτε (you might do) are subjunctive (ie, not imperative). Here is my very literal translation of Gal 5:17 -

For the flesh desires against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; for these to one another are opposed, so that you do not do the things you might wish. (see also BLB)

Thus, Paul's point in Gal 5:17 is the same as in Rom 7 - our sinful flesh (ie our sinful nature) is opposed to what we want to do as converted Christians. The solution to this age-old dilemma is given in the previous and next verse:

16 So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. 17 For the flesh craves what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are opposed to each other, so that you do not do what you want. 18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.

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  • Very nicely expressed. Your inclusion of the logical context of the verse in Galatians and the comparison of the similar point Paul makes in Romans 7:15 seems to be the key to a correct interpretation.
    – Dieter
    Oct 8, 2023 at 23:05
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The NIV translators seem to have focused on the fact that θέλητε (thelēte) is the active imperative of θέλω (thelō) (i.e. a command), but I think they, unlike other translators it seems, might be overlooking the inclusion of the particle ἂν (àn), which is used to express a conditional or hypothetical situation.

The NIV does not profess itself to be a literal translation. Its preface states that "faithfulness to the intended meaning" of the biblical writers" was the "first concern of the translators." The preface continues: "This has moved the translators to go beyond a formal word-for-word rendering of the original texts." This basically means that the translation may not be faithful to the original text if the NIV translators felt the writer intended something other than what the original Greek seems to literally say. The alternative explanation for the discrepancy is that they simply made an error and overlooked the implication of ἂν.

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  • thelete is > Present Subjunctive Active - 2nd Person Plural in the morphological codes in Greek modules.
    – Michael16
    Jun 28, 2023 at 16:31
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Though popular, the NIV is not a reliable translation as the translating committee decided to make deletions and change over 30,000 words. (See Poor and Misleading)

Young's Literal Translation (YLT) has Gal. 5:17 as:

<"for the flesh doth desire contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit contrary to the flesh, and these are opposed one to another, that the things that ye may will -- these ye may not do;"

But, I like the RSV a little better -

"For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you would."

The will of the flesh, our fleshly lusts and desires are opposing what our Spirit would have us do, and it is a daily battle to deny our selfish desires. That is what Paul referred to in Rom. 7:15-20 that he fights the sinful lusts of the flesh.

So, yes a command in that we are to maintain control and do not give into the sinful lusts of the flesh.

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    There's no default translation, so your assertion that the NIV "changed over 30,000 words" is completely meaningless.
    – curiousdannii
    Jun 28, 2023 at 0:54
  • +1 You are correct about the NIV changing the wording. @curiousdanii is perhaps focused on the English translation when counting those words, but I think it quite possible to count them from the original languages. For example, the insertion of the words "of leadership" in Numbers 27:18 that are not found in any Hebrew manuscript: "So the Lord said to Moses, “Take Joshua son of Nun, a man in whom is the spirit of leadership, and lay your hand on him." (NIV) The NIV evolves as they choose to change more over time...this particular insertion was made in about the last decade or so.
    – Biblasia
    Jun 28, 2023 at 1:39
  • It's true there's no default English version. Even if you compare it with one like KJV, the word count is not a good argument. The difference of 300 missing verses from KJV exists in all NT versions RV onwards. The argument should be that NIV (like NET) being a paraphrase attempts to sell itself as a translation while there's a big difference. Try to find scholarly reliable source citing.
    – Michael16
    Jun 28, 2023 at 3:37
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    @curiousdannii you're badly mistaken. Their claim of conveying meaning as opposed to translation proves that they are interpretation or commentaries in form of paraphrase which is not metaphrase (translation). You should read some scholarly works that refute dynamic equivalence philosophy. Nothing wrong in commentary but it's wrong if you sell it as translation. If you translate your subjective interpretation or meaning to target lang it's not translation of source text. NKJV is a translation. It's not to say translations are absurd mechanical mimicking without necessary equivalence.
    – Michael16
    Jun 28, 2023 at 6:09
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    Dynamic equivalence is not a new invention, it existed since the ancient times whenever translating certain idioms or phrases becomes necessary to be translated in a different wording in a target language. However, some translators like Eugene Nida and Daniel Wallace misused the concept by selling their commentary as translation. There's a big difference between the two. If you're constantly unnecessarily using dynamic equivalence you're essentially paraphrasing. Nothing new.
    – Michael16
    Jun 28, 2023 at 6:15
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ἵνα μὴ ἃ ἂν θέλητε ταῦτα ποιῆτε
so that...

ἵνα μὴ ἃ ἂν θέλητε ταῦτα ποιῆτε
so that, whatever you want [to do],

Notes:
1. ἃ ἂν refers to an indefinite antecedent, hence the use of ἂν. ἃ ἂν does not warrant any translation beyond “whatever”. See Goodwin, p. 196, § 515.

2. The verb θέλητε is a conjugation of θέλω. It is equivalent to the English verb “to want” or “to desire”. In English, “want” (and “desire”) is often followed by an infinitive. For example, “I want to sleep”. Likewise, in Greek, we can supply an infinitive in brackets, which infinitive can be deduced by the context. In this case, the author wants to do, as indicated by the later verb ποιῆτε (“do”). It is certainly acceptable to omit the infinitive, but supplying it is likewise acceptable.

ἵνα μὴ ἃ ἂν θέλητε ταῦτα ποιῆτε
so that, whatever you desire [to do], you do not do these things

Notes:
1. μὴ modifies the verb ποιῆτε.

2. Translating the Greek into English yields rather crass English. To make it more polished English and yet to maintain an accurate translation, we could translate it as,

so that you do not do whatever you desire [to do].

As Heinrich Meyer writes, quoting George Benedikt Winer,1

Das im Ganzen Richtige hat auch Winer: „τὸ πνεῦμα impedit vos [vielmehr impedire vos cupit], quo minus perficiatis τὰ τῆς σαρκός (ea, quae ἡ σὰρξ perficere cupit), contra ἡ σὰρξ adversatur vobis, ubi τὰ τοῦ πνεύματος peragere studetis“

which is translated into English as,

Winer also has the altogether correct [interpretation]: “The Spirit hinders you (rather, it desires to hinder you) from accomplishing the things of the flesh (those things which the flesh desires to accomplish), while the flesh opposes you when you strive to carry out the things of the Spirit”.


Footnotes
1 Meyer, p. 281
References
Goodwin, William Watson. Syntax of the Moods and Tenses of the Greek Verb. Boston: Ginn, 1893.

Meyer, Heinrich August Wilhelm. Kritisch exegetischer Kommentar über das Neue Testament, Siebente Abtheilung, Kritisch exegetisches Handbuch über den Brief an die Galater. Vol. 7. 5th ed. Göttingen: Vandenboeck and Ruprecht, 1870.
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The NIV "you are not to do" may seem like a command [not (supposed) to do], but I am sure the writers or editors did not intend it that way. They only meant the same as others, that you are prevented to do the good that you would want to do [you are not (allowed) to do].

Such ambiguous verses are cleared when compared with other better translations. This phrase occurs elsewhere in NIV in the place of a command, so the misunderstanding should be common among NIV readers. It is advised to keep in mind that NIV, NET, NLT like Bible versions are paraphrase, and that you should not rely solely on them while studying the Bible, but read them for their simplified interpretative language, as a secondary version.

Deut 12:8

NIV You are not to do as we do here today, everyone doing as they see fit,
ESV: “You shall not do according to all that we are doing here today, everyone doing whatever is right in his own eyes,

Lev 23:3b

NIV You are not to do any work; wherever you live, it is a sabbath to the LORD.
ESV You shall do no work. It is a Sabbath to the LORD in all your dwelling places.

The negative particle (mē) μὴ is used for non-indicative moods, such as imperative and subjunctive prohibition or prevention. Used with hina (in order, so that) ἵνα μὴ it forms the subjunctive prevention as in Gal 5:17. Even if someone may get confused while translating, we can be sure that the sentence is not an imperative mood, but a negative with subjunctive verbs, which means "in order that you would/should not do" (ἵνα μὴ ἃ ἐὰν ποιῆτε). The subjunctive verbs are translated as would or should expressing probability or hypothetical case.

  • γρηγορεῖτε καὶ προσεύχεσθε, ἵνα μὴ εἰσέλθητε εἰς πειρασμόν (Matt 26:41)
    Stay awake and pray, so that you won’t enter into temptation

  • μὴ κρίνετε, ἵνα μὴ κριθῆτε (Matt 7:1)
    Do not judge, so that you won’t be judged

  • Pray that it may not happen in winter (Mark 13:18)
    προσεύχεσθε δὲ ἵνα μὴ γένηται χειμῶνος·

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  • The ἵνα μὴ does appear to have been ignore in the NIV. Jun 29, 2023 at 10:05
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Of the translations in the OP’s question, I think the NKJV offers the most straightforward rendering of the clause in question.

Galatians 5:17 NKJV

For the flesh lusts against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; and these are contrary to one another, so that you do not do the things that you wish.

As others have noted, the verb poiēte in Galatians 5:17 (ποιῆτε, Strong’s 4160, meaning to make or do) is in the subjunctive mood. Whereas the imperative is the mood used to express commands, the subjunctive is the mood generally used to express an event that is possible or probable. This is why the word “may” is seen in the ASV and some of the other translations (ERV, YLT, etc.)

However, in Gal 5:17 poiēte is part of a dependent clause introduced by the conjunction hina (ἵνα Strongs’ 2443 meaning in order that). This construction implies that the function of the subjunctive is to convey cause or purpose, not probability.

“More Detailed Description of the Greek Subjunctive Mood” (ntgreek.org)

Purpose Clause

c) The conjunction that precedes the subjunctive verb (usually i{na or o{pw") is translated "in order that" or possibly "that". For the sake of clarity, it is probably best translated "in order that".

d) If the subjunctive mood is used in a ‘purpose’ (or in a ‘result’) clause, then the action should not be thought of as a possible result, but should be viewed as the stated outcome that will happen (or has happened) as a result of another stated action. The use of the subjunctive is not to indicate that something ‘may’ or ‘might’ result from a given action, but it is stating the ‘purpose of’ or ‘reason for’ an action.

e) The subjunctive mood in a purpose clause actually functions more like a verb in the indicative mood rather than in the optative mood. It is not stating the possibility or probability of an action, but instead telling the intention of the primary action.

Per the above reference, when the subjunctive mood is used in a purpose clause, it functions more like a verb in the indicative mood. Of the translations in the OP’s question, I prefer the NKJV’s “so that you do not do the things that you wish.” Its use of the indicative mood conveys the meaning of the purpose clause with little added embellishment.

That said, context and authorial intent should be examined in each case to confirm any conclusions made about the function of the subjunctive. The question here is whether Paul intends the subjunctive of poiēte in Gal 5:17 to convey a) an event that may happen or b) an outcome that will happen or has already happened. I believe the answer is the latter. In other words, “you do not do the things that you wish” is an outcome that cannot be avoided given that flesh and Spirit are opposed to one another.

Based on the context of Galatians 5 and what Paul has written elsewhere, Gal 5:17 can be understood in two ways:

  1. If man lives according to the flesh, he does not do the good that he intends (cf Rom 7:18)
  2. If he walks according to the Spirit, he does not do the things that he desires, that is, the things that are dictated by the flesh or that are simply self-willed (cf Gal 5:16, 2:20).

In each case, if the first condition is met, I do not think there is any doubt in Paul’s mind about the resulting outcome.

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A correct translation of Galatians 5:17 can depend on interpretation and nuances of the Greek language. Here's a breakdown of the options you provided along with their respective meanings:

a) KJV:

"so that ye cannot do the things that ye would."

  • This translation implies an inability to do what one desires due to the conflict between the flesh and the Spirit.

b) NKJV:

"so that you do not do the things that you wish."

  • Similar to the KJV, implying an inability to do what one wishes due to the conflict between the flesh and the Spirit.

c) ASV:

"that ye may not do the things that ye would."

  • This translation also suggests an inability to do what one would like to do because of the conflict between the flesh and the Spirit.

d) ESV:

"to keep you from doing the things you want to do."

  • This translation conveys the idea that the conflict between the flesh and the Spirit serves as a deterrent to prevent one from doing what they desire.

All of these translations convey a similar idea that the conflict between the flesh and the Spirit results in a hindrance or inability to do what aligns with one's desires or wishes.

In terms of the accuracy and correctness of the translation, the original Greek text in Galatians 5:17 NA28 provides the basis for interpretation. The phrase "ἵνα μὴ ἃ ἐὰν θέλητε ταῦτα ποιῆτε" translates to "so that you may not do the things that, if ever desired, you would be doing" in your initial provided translation.

To summarize, all the translations capture the essence of the original Greek, conveying the idea that the conflict between the flesh and the Spirit hinders or prevents individuals from doing what they desire or wish, particularly in the context of righteous actions the Spirit prompts. The differences in wording may result from variations in translation approaches and language usage in English. Each of these translations can be considered correct, but they may emphasize the nuance of the Greek text slightly differently.

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  • This is not answering the question, which relates to various translations of the verse. Jun 29, 2023 at 11:34

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