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In my last post on Bible translation, I mentioned an idiom in ancient Greek and Hebrew that gives translators a hard time. It is the “What to you and to me?” question. It is too awkward to translate literally even in a literal English Bible, and we do not have an equivalent idiom in English to use in its place. “What have I to do with you?” was one way to put it in earlier contemporary English, but would anyone who had not slept through the last 50 years or more talk that way today?
It turns out that Jesus asked this question of his mother, using the form, “What to me and to you, woman?” (John 2:4). The context was the famous (or infamous) wedding in Cana when the hosts ran out of wine. Weddings were times of great celebration; in fact, it was considered a religious duty to rejoice with the bride and groom. Becoming joyfully drunk was a traditional element of the celebration, so running out of wine was a social disaster.
We know from John’s testimony (2:11) that this was the first miracle that Jesus performed, so it has been assumed that Mary had already suffered the lingering shame from false rumors about Jesus’ illegitimate birth for a long time and that she craved a miracle from Jesus to finally disprove the rumors. We could speculate that she had asked Jesus for public miracles before, and he had always refused, perhaps for the reason stated here. But we could also assume that Mary felt very badly for the hosts and mainly wanted to alleviate their predicament.
In any case, it is interesting to see how Jesus’ words are represented in the different translations. Most people think it’s a good idea to consult different translations during Bible study, and sometimes the experts even encourage it, but they seldom say why. The reason, as you probably already know, is that a translation usually represents how the translators interpret the passage, to various degrees. In doing that, the translations become micro-commentaries. The proof of the fact is that full-fledged (and often expensive) commentaries sometimes mention how a verse or word is handled in different translations. My beloved Hebrew professor used to say, “It’s amazing how much light the Bible throws on the commentaries!” He had something else in mind, but commentators know that in the different translations, translators are giving their own opinions about the meaning of the original-language (OL) words etc. in the context of the passage. When the passage is difficult and it was a committee decision, the resulting wording may even represent a compromise between opinions.
If you have a working knowledge of the OL, you can also gain valuable insight through textual criticism of the passage in question. Even without that knowledge, learning enough about textual criticism to be able to navigate through the wealth of information in textual notes can lead to important discoveries. Just as modern translations can be helpful in providing different interpretations, variant readings that have surfaced in ancient manuscripts over thousands of years alert us to what was perceived by scribes as problems in the meanings of the text–or not. I say “or not” because it is just as important to see what passed through all the hands of scribes without alteration as to discover alterations of difficult texts. In our present case, we have a simple verdict: no manuscript reported by Nestle-Aland 27/28 presents any variant to Jesus’ words in John 2:4. They are all agreed, from the leading Alexandrians to the Textus Receptus. This suggests to us that ancient scribes either did not find Jesus’ reply to his mother harsh or if they did, they evidently felt that she deserved it.
Modern translators have different sensibilities. I’ll begin with the NASB and the ESV since both aims at literal, non-interpretive translation. I can also speak from first-hand experience in regard to the ’95 NASB. As I already indicated, we needed to update the previous “What do I have to do with you” wording, which originally was supposed to be a smoothing out of “What have I to do with you?” I preferred something that would bring out the literal sense of there being no mutual obligation between the two of them, particularly from Jesus to his mother. I believe that the following remark about his “hour” meant that it was not the time (nor place) for him to do a miracle. What we ended up with was something of a compromise, turning the issue away from the personal obligation to the irrelevancy of the problem of wine to Jesus and Mary: “Woman, what does that have to do with us?” Considering this shift I also felt that it was very important that we continue to supply the literal (or formal) translation in a note, which we did.
The ESV translators took a similar approach but they removed the reference to Mary in the idiom, i.e. the phrase “and to you” of “What to me and to you?” Their version comes out, “Woman, what does this have to do with me?” They do not supply a literal translation of the question, but they point to a cross-reference where the same idiom is translated more literally. I question whether readers would make the intended connection, however.
Another literal translation, the NKJV, words the question, “Woman, what does your concern have to do with Me?” I find it difficult to say anything about this rendering other than in its own way, it seems almost as difficult to figure out as the original. Indeed it looks something like the original with “your concern” added without much thought. So unless I am badly misreading it, this looks like a blunder in an otherwise very good translation (based on later manuscripts). If readers are going to have to struggle over something in the text, it should always be over words that faithfully represent the original, not over a translator’s mishandling of the OL.
The NIV translates the question, “Woman, why do you involve me?” This is a more contextualized and interpretive translation. It seems to be a different way of asking the same question found in the ESV, using a more sophisticated verb: “involve.” As a result, though, we seem to have a Jesus who does not want to get involved in other people’s problems, at least not for now. We may have that implied in the other translations, but it seems to be spelled out here when other options in wording are available. At the same time, it is interesting that the NIV has a footnote on “Woman,” pointing out that it does not denote any disrespect.
I’ll end this brief survey with the rendering found in a rather more interpretive translation, the NLT. It reads, “Dear woman, that’s not our problem.” First, while the NIV translators want us to understand that “woman” is not disrespectful, the NLT translators have Jesus say what they feel he ought to say. The rest, “that’s not our problem,” looks like a paraphrase of the NASB, with the question converted into a statement.
Let’s turn to what Jesus really meant here, or at least my opinion of it. If you can use Greek and Hebrew word searches to track down the “What to me/us and to you” idiom, then see how it is used is your best way of determining the meaning. My general translation for it is “What business do we have with each other,” or in a more confrontational setting, “What business of mine is yours?” The latter is similar to our “Mind your own business” idiom. You’ll see the former in situations where potential adversaries meet, and one tries to talk the other out of a fight with these words. It is a handy idiom that seems difficult to reproduce. We could almost say, “I’m ok if you’re ok” but in the negative, “I don’t have a problem with you if you don’t have one with me.” Or better but a little cruder, “Don’t make trouble and there won’t be trouble.”
When I ask whether Jesus was being disrespectful, I am deliberately starting with the wrong question. The right one is whether Mary was being disrespectful to Jesus. I think she was because in the panic of the moment she forgot who her son was relative to his earthly parents and what his mission was. He had long since been an adult whose obligation was to his heavenly Father, not to his earthly parents, and the miracles he was meant to perform were to point to his mission as the divine Savior and Son of God. At this moment, though, Mary evidently saw him as her son who was to do her bidding no matter how trivial or irrelevant to his mission.
Jesus, in response, seems to have intended to be firm, or even blunt, in setting Mary straight as to their personal relationship at this time in their lives. I agree with the NIV translators that “Woman” was not disrespectful, but it was not a term of endearment, either. It certainly was not “Mother,” or even “Dear woman.” I think it speaks for itself without a need for embellishment. What followed that was something that one stranger or mere acquaintance might say to another at a chance encounter. I believe it was something Jesus needed to say to Mary, not only to make it clear what he thought about her request at the moment but to prepare her for what was going to happen to their relationship as he continued on his mission. The ordinary bonds of the family had already been severed, and the reality of that truth would become more evident as time passed.
For the sake of truth and accuracy in translation, it is important that we know the “form,” i.e. the literal wording of what Jesus said here because even a brief survey reveals that translators may be reluctant to carry over all the nuances conveyed in the form. From my own perspective it seems that Jesus could have been more tactful in how he replied to Mary, but clearly, he knew best and knowing best, in this case, includes knowing how best to communicate a difficult truth. We also receive the clear impression that Mary was actually encouraged by what Jesus said because she told the servants to do whatever he told them (v. 5). Perhaps their discussion actually ended with Jesus saying something like, “And yet….”
Christian Publishing House Excursion
Translating the Unknown
First, let us take just a moment to talk about the translation procedure. Of course, to a person, who has never studied Greek, it will simply look like a collection of unrelated words. Below is John 2:4.
ΚΑΤΑ ΙΩΑΝΝΗΝ 2:41881 Westcott-Hort New Testament (WHNU)
4 και λεγει αυτη ο ιησους τι εμοι και σοι γυναι ουπω ηκει η ωρα μου
While many Bible scholars speak negatively of using an interlinear, we do not. It is a nice neat way of getting from “A” to “B.” We must keep in mind; yet again, Greek does not care about word order, because it has grammatical tags, which let the reader know what role a word is playing within the sentence. Let us now break our sentence apart and add the corresponding English words above the appropriate Greek word.
The Gospel According to John 1881 Westcott-Hort New Testament (WHNU)
Now that we have established our interlinear translation, we can now move to bringing them together into clauses, followed by sentences. In that we favor a literal translation philosophy, we will attempt to retain the word order of the Greek as far as possible. Our next step is to develop our English sentence.
We can take the English equivalent of the Greek clause, “And says to her, the Jesus,” and render it literally as
- And Jesus said to her,
Then, we can take the English equivalent of our next Greek clause, which is a question, “What to me and to you woman,” and keep it literal as,
- What have I to do with you, woman?
The English equivalent “woman” can be literally translated as “woman,” but more on that in a moment. Finally, we move onto our last Greek clause, “not yet is come the hour of me,” and render it literally as,
- My hour has not yet come.
When we put it all together, we get the translation below. Note that our translation has a footnote that will remove any misunderstanding for our readers.
John 2:4 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
[a] Lit What to me and to you, which is a Hebrew idiom; a question indicating objection. It is found in the Hebrew Scriptures, namely, in Josh. 22:24; Judg. 11:12; 2Sa 16:10; 19:22; 1 Ki 17:18; 2 Ki 3:13; 2 Ch. 35:21; Hos. 14:8. Jesus meant no disrespect. In the Greek New Testament, it is found in in Matt. 8:29; Mk 1:24; 5:7; Lu 4:34; 8:28; John 2:4.
[b] The Greek does not denote any disrespect.
Dynamic or Functional Equivalent Translation
However, as we would suspect the interpretive translations take issue with the literal rendering of “woman.” Concerning the literal rendering of “woman,” in one instance the interpretive translators will tell us “Jesus’ use of “woman” (UASV) in direct address was not considered disrespectful (compare Matt 15.28).” However, rather than put this informative statement in a footnote, in the next instance, they want to add their interpretation into the text, removing the difficulty for the reader.
A number of serious problems are involved in translating “woman” literally. In some languages, a man would address his own wife this way, and so this rendering cannot be employed here. In other languages, to address one’s mother as “woman” would be insulting; it could even be interpreted to mean that Jesus was denying that Mary was his mother. The closest equivalent in many languages is simply “my mother” or “mother,” but in others, an equivalent expression showing proper respect would require the omission of any expression of direct address, as in TEV.
The closest equivalent is not “mother,” it is “woman.” The trouble with removing a difficulty, you remove an opportunity at Bible education, enabling the students to appreciate a Bible background to Bible times, with one simple footnote. Rather than bring our translation down to the seventh-grade level, let us bring our Bible student up to the tenth to the eleventh-grade level of biblical understanding. The dynamic equivalent translator is more concerned with ‘re-expressing the meaning’ that they wish to convey in the translation, as opposed to expressing the meaning conveyed by the corresponding English words, which God meant to convey by his inspiration in the original language words. Some solutions that they offer in translating the unknown are (1) use a descriptive phrase, (2) the substitution of something similar, or (3) use a word that is more general in meaning, or (4) use a word or phrase that is more specific in meaning.
Jesus was direct, purposeful in his statement to Mary that he was the Son of God; moreover, thirty years old at this point, no longer her little boy, and now Jesus was taking direction from his heavenly Father. Even though Jesus had just begun his 3.5-year ministry, he was well aware of the hour, i.e., the time, for him to carry out the will and purpose of the Father, which would have included his ransom sacrifice (Matt. 20:28) Not even his dear mother would be permitted to interfere with his doing the will of the Father. (Matt. 7:21-23; John 4:34) Christians, today, should serve the heavenly Father with the same determination.
The UASV’s primary purpose is to give the Bible readers what God said by way of his human authors, not what a translator thinks God meant in its place.—Truth Matters!
The UASV’s primary goal is to be accurate and faithful to the original text. The meaning of a word is the responsibility of the interpreter (i.e., reader), not the translator.—Translating Truth!
 Barclay Moon Newman and Eugene Albert Nida, A Handbook on the Gospel of John, Helps for translators; UBS handbook series (New York: United Bible Societies, 1993), 57.
 Ibid. 57
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