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In John 18:37, Pilate asks Jesus whether he is a king, and Jesus confirms the fact:

YLT: Pilate, therefore, said to him, 'Art thou then a king?' Jesus answered, 'Thou dost say it; because a king I am, I for this have been born, and for this I have come to the world, that I may testify to the truth; every one who is of the truth, doth hear my voice.'

ASV: Pilate therefore said unto him, Art thou a king then? Jesus answered, Thou sayest that I am a king. To this end have I been born, and to this end am I come into the world, that I should bear witness unto the truth. Every one that is of the truth heareth my voice.

KJV: Pilate therefore said unto him, Art thou a king then? Jesus answered, Thou sayest that I am a king. To this end was I born, and for this cause came I into the world, that I should bear witness unto the truth. Every one that is of the truth heareth my voice.

The NKJV even supplies "rightly" to make the confirmation more explicit.

NKJV: Pilate therefore said to Him, “Are You a king then?” Jesus answered, “You say rightly that I am a king. For this cause I was born, and for this cause I have come into the world, that I should bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice.”

Yet some versions translate a completely opposite meaning, with Jesus appearing to deny what Pilate said:

NLT: Pilate said, “So you are a king?” Jesus responded, “You say I am a king. Actually, I was born and came into the world to testify to the truth. All who love the truth recognize that what I say is true.”

NIV: “You are a king, then!” said Pilate. Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.”

Interestingly, unlike in many other cases, these translations don't supply footnotes indicating any alternative meanings.

What is the cause of these contradictory interpretations?

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  • Does the idiom explained in this answer help: hermeneutics.stackexchange.com/questions/76925/…
    – Perry Webb
    Mar 24 at 21:40
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    @PerryWebb, I have no problem with the "You say …" part. It's the "Actually" and the "In fact" that seem to contradict this idiom. In English, one wouldn't use those words to confirm the claim but to deny it. Compare with "You say that I'm English. Actually I'm Scottish." or "You say that I'm highly educated. In fact I dropped out after grade 8.". Mar 24 at 23:37
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    @ Ray So your issue isn't with the meaning of the Greek text but the meaning of the English translation, especially in different English cultures. Many languages have that issue with the meaning of expressions when crossing different cultures.
    – Perry Webb
    Mar 24 at 23:59
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    The literal Greek that Jesus used with Pilate (who likely did not speak Aramaic) started with "You say. For a king am I." The "You say." corresponds most closely with the American slang expression, "You said it!" Great point, @Perry Webb!
    – Dieter
    Mar 25 at 1:25
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    Bagster's Analytical Greek Lexicon states of ostis (oti) "often used pleonastically in reciting another's words" and gives the example of Matthew 9:18, Matthew stating 'that' the father said ' ... '. In which case Jesus said, here, 'Thou sayest that a king am I'. Which makes perfect sense.
    – Nigel J
    Mar 26 at 15:35

6 Answers 6

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Witherington makes a point on the parallel account in Mark 15. Here's what he has to say:

Thus at 15:2 we must envision that the trial has gone through several stages perhaps, and Mark is only summarizing its conclusion. Here Pilate asks Jesus directly: “Are you the King of the Jews?” If this is an historical motif, then it is surely likely that Pilate was consulted in advance about what charge to ask Jesus about. The claim to kingship is the important thing, for such a claim would indeed constitute high treason and it is the title Jesus is labeled by for the rest of this chapter (cf. 15:9, 12, 18, 26, 32). Jesus’ response here, unlike the final Son of Man response before the Jewish tribunal, may be seen as ambiguous. It can either be translated “that’s what you say” or “you’ve said it.” Note that Jesus’ response (in what language—Greek?) is not so clear that it prompts Pilate’s immediate order of execution. Rather it prompts further questioning of the witnesses.

Witherington, B., III. (2001). The Gospel of Mark: a socio-rhetorical commentary (p. 390). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.

If we look at the The Kingdom Interlinear Translation of the Greek Scriptures

enter image description here

Interpreting the meaning of Jesus' response depends on how one understands the context and purpose of Jesus' statement. Some would interpret Jesus' response as affirming his kingship, saying that he indeed is a king but with a deeper purpose of bearing witness to the truth. Others interpret it as a more indirect affirmation, acknowledging Pilate's statement without explicitly confirming or denying it.

The Greek phrase in question according to the KJV Lexicon [1] is: σὺ λέγεις ὅτι βασιλεύς εἰμι

enter image description here

You'll notice that "rightly" is not in the Greek and is added to be more interpretive as a direct affirmation to kingship. I mean, we would be rather surprised if Jesus denied being king wouldn't we?

Finally, you will notice that Jesus is later, in verse 39, referred to as "King of the Jews" by Pilate:

39 “But you have a custom that I should release someone to you at the Passover. Do you therefore want me to release to you the King of the Jews?”

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    I am intrigued by Biblehub's 'KJV lexicon' which quotes no source. The 'NASB lexicon' on Biblehub is simply Strong, evident by the numbering. But that of the 'KJV lexicon' has no source and no authority.
    – Nigel J
    Mar 24 at 22:42
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    I'm not questioning which meaning is correct or why; I'm wondering why most translations say "yes", while some others seem to be saying "no" by using "Actually" or "In fact", which are normally used to indicate a denial of the original idea. Mar 24 at 23:41
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    @NigelJ I also noticed that it quotes no source which I didn't like. However, it is based on Thayer's and Smith's Bible Dictionary, plus others. I will add an extra link!
    – Jason_
    Mar 25 at 1:38
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    @RayButterworth And this Answer gives you the reason. The original Greek here is both ambiguous and not very smooth when literally translated to English. Attempts to smooth it out can result in implying one way or the other.
    – trlkly
    Mar 25 at 21:34
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I was about to provide a very literal translation of John 18:37 but noticed that my version was almost identical to the BLB -

Therefore Pilate said to Him, "Then You are a king?" Jesus answered, "You say that I am a king. For this I have been born, and for this I have come into the world, that I may bear witness to the truth. Everyone being of the truth hears My voice."

Many versions, including the supposedly literal versions like ESV, NKJV, etc, add extra words to help interpret the Greek. For example:

  • the NKJV adds "rightly" (in italics)
  • the NLT adds "actually"
  • the NIV adds "In fact, the reason"
  • the ESV adds "purpose" twice
  • the BSB adds "reason" once
  • the NASB adds "correctly"
  • the YLT adds "because" which is actually misleading.
  • etc

Now none of these are in any way contradictory (except YLT) - all of them simply try to smooth out the English, ie, to make it more readable because the word-for-word Greek translation is not good English.

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  • 2
    Yes, but my question is about the other versions, whose English wordings ("Actually" or "In fact") seem to deny the original idea. Mar 24 at 23:45
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    Sorry, but I don't see any denial. The fact is that most languages don't translate very well mapping word-for-word into a different language. So to varying degrees and using larger of smaller vocabularies, translations try to provide thought-for-thought paraphrases. The Easy to Read version reads, "Jesus answered, “You are right to say that I am a king. I was born for this: to tell people about the truth. That is why I came into the world. And everyone who belongs to the truth listens to me.” This is pretty good at delivering the meaning with a limited vocabulary.
    – Dieter
    Mar 25 at 1:38
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    @Dieter says "I don't see any denial". I naturally read two of them as "You say I am a king. [But] Actually, I … .*" and "You say that I am a king. [But] In fact, the reason I was born … .". In English, they each sound like they are denying the "I am king". Mar 25 at 3:21
  • You comment:- supposedly literal versions like ESV The ESV Publishers explain: Every translation is at many points a trade-off between literal precision and readability, between “formal equivalence” in expression and “functional equivalence” in communication, and the ESV is no exception. Within this framework, we have sought to be “as literal as possible” while maintaining clarity of expression and literary excellence.
    – deep64blue
    Mar 26 at 9:20
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    It calls itself "essentialy literal" which is a bit different than "most literal".
    – deep64blue
    Mar 26 at 9:38
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I think what others are saying is: the phrase translated "you say" (that I am) is an idiom native to Greek or Hebrew (and probably also to that time), not English. An idiom usually conveys meaning that is cultural, not literal. An extreme example might be the phrase "that's bad!" which, for a brief period in some American English meant, "that's good." Another example, this one from the Bible, is Matt. 6:23 "If your eye be evil..." The literal translation has led to many superstitions because readers were not familiar with that idiom's meaning in Israeli culture of the time. Once we learn that it means "If you are stingy/selfish..." things become clearer. But if the meaning of an idiom is ambiguous or no longer known, the translators are faced with having to make the best choice they can, based on context, their mastery of the language, their conversations with others, and to some hopefully small but inescapable degree, their personal sense, what they personally believe.

What that passage conveys to me, and I'm not a language scholar so this is mere opinion, is something like, "That's what you are hyper-focused on, and yes it's true, but what's really important is..."

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Perhaps the difference lies between dynamic equivalence and formal equivalence translations. The immediate conversation concerning kingship goes back to John 18:33. Pilate's question and Christ's answer flows from Jesus' statement about His kingdom (vs 36). Clearly Jesus is the King of His Kingdom, but not a political king of which he had been accused. So again, in response to your question, it seems the difference is due to an inferior translation.

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  • Thank you for your input on this question! However, it would help tremendously if you explained to readers the concepts of "dynamic and equivalence " translations...and placed the quoted examples in the Question into each category. Truly, the NLT is not a literal translation, and does "take liberty" in translating. Keep studying the Bible; it will bring you closer to Jesus!
    – ray grant
    Mar 24 at 22:32
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The OP states that some English translations render John 18:37 in a way that gives a completely opposite meaning to the majority, “with Jesus appearing to deny what Pilate said.” While there is some disagreement regarding the meaning of Jesus’ response, that difference does not lie principally in whether Jesus accepts or denies being king. Instead, it relates to the referent of the demonstrative pronoun τοῦτο (“this”).

John 18:37 ESV (brackets added)

Then Pilate said to him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this [τοῦτο] purpose I was born and for this [τοῦτο] purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.”

Most construe εἰς τοῦτο (“for this”) as pointing both forwards and backwards – referencing forwards to Jesus’ prophetic mission as well as back to his kingly office. Ellicott's commentary outlines this perspective, though it places greater emphasis on Jesus’ kingship.

Ellicott’s commentary on Jn 18:37

“To this end,” “for this cause,” intending probably that the first phrase should be understood of the words which precede, and the second of those which follow: “To this end (that I may be a king) was I born, and for this (that I may bear witness unto the truth) came I into the world.” Had this been the meaning, it would have been almost certainly expressed by the usual distinction in Greek; and in the absence of any such distinction, the natural interpretation is, “To be king have I been born, and to be a king came I into the world, in order that I may bear witness unto the truth.”

Others construe εἰς τοῦτο as pointing forwards to Jesus’ prophetic office only, seeing a clear separation between εἰς τοῦτο and the preceding discourse. According to Hengstenberg and Lampe, this separation preserves the distinction between Jesus’ kingly office and his prophetic mission.

Hengstenberg and Lampe commentary on Jn 18:37 (emphasis added)

According to the current exposition, Jesus, in the words, “Therefore was I born,” etc., defines more closely the nature of His kingdom. Bengel: To a kingdom of this world is opposed the kingdom of truth. Lücke: “Assuredly I am a King, but My kingdom is the truth.” But in fact there is not the slightest reference to the kingdom. The words refer rather to the prophetic office of Christ.

Rather than a denial of his kingship, the NLT and NIV translations can be viewed as underscoring the distinction between Jesus' kingly office and his prophetic mission. Based on these translations, Jesus’ words can be paraphrased as saying: While I do not deny that I am king, what I have actually come to do is bear witness to the truth.

Hengstenberg and Lampe make an important point that even if Jesus’ kingly and prophetic offices are viewed as distinct, that does not mean they are unrelated.

It is true that the right understanding of this would serve materially to make the kingship more intelligible, and to place it in a true light. He who describes the immediate end of His mission to be the annunciation of the truth, would not be a king in the ordinary sense, in that sense in which the Jews had falsely charged Him with assuming it; nor could He condescend to involve Himself with mere political insurrectionary movements. The transition from the kingly to the prophetic office of Christ was all the more obvious, inasmuch as Isaiah, ch. John 4:4, described the Messiah as at once the Witness and the Leader and Lawgiver of the nations: the μαρτυρήσω here evidently refers to the witness there. So, in Revelation 1:5, Jesus Christ “the faithful Witness” distinguished from Christ “the Prince of the kings of the earth.” If we would set in a closer connection the two offices of testimony and ruling, we cannot do that without establishing the fact that the testimony paves the way for the dominion.

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KJV and NKJV Bibles are based on the Textus Receptus or Received Texts which consists of over 5,800 Greek manuscripts, which includes 1550 Stephanus Greek New Testament, 1598 Beza Greek New Testament, 1516 Erasmus Greek New Testament, 1887 Scrivner Greek New Testament. All other English language Bibles today are based on the Modern Critical Texts Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Vaticanus and the Nestle-Aland Greek New Testament Frist edition 1881 28th edition 2012, which contains 105 variants, 34 changes in Epistles of James and Jude, 272 changes not supported with any Greek Manuscripts.

The textual variants between 5,800 Greek manuscripts agree 99.5% while the textual variants between Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Vaticanus alone is 3,036, Matthew 656, Mark 567, Luke 791 and John 1022.

Majority Texts focuses on word for word meaning while the Critical Texts focuses on meaning for meaning. It can take on many forms depending on who is editing it.

Who has given the right for Modern Critical text advocates the right to decide what verses in our Bibles to include or exclude?

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