Matthew 1:1-11 “Begat” or “the Father of”?

1 Jan

Over the next two years I am planning to read through the Greek New Testament in small portions each day using the Greek New Testament/ESV parallel edition.

This morning’s reading was Matthew 1:1-11. This genealogy of Jesus reminded me of how the story of Jesus is rooted in the story of Israel. I was reminded of the many unusual circumstances and the noteworthy women in the family story of Jesus. The genealogy reads like a woman in labor, as you see all the pains and trials of Israel unfolded in the sleazy behavior of Judah and the noble actions of Rahab and Boaz and the murderous actions of David. But through all these pains and trials and sinful failures God brought forth His Son, born of Mary to save His people from their sins. So I am inspired from this passage about the promise-keeping power of God.

On another level, I was intrigued by a translation issue in these verses. The Greek verb gennao is used throughout these verses to refer to the men who fathered and the women who bore the children in the genealogy. When I first encountered these verses it was in the King James Version and the word “begat” was used. This was a word I didn’t understand but I could figure it out from the context. When I came to the newer versions, almost all of them had the phrase “was the father of” instead of “begat.” This makes sense because most people today never use the word “begat” and many people don’t know what it means. So in translation, do we stick with a word that is outdated but captures the Greek text better, or do we go with a more updated word and lose something of the flavor of the Greek? This is the challenge that confronts us over and over in the New Testament. In this case, all the major modern translations go with the updated language. In so doing, these translations ignore the fact that the word gennao is a verb and instead translate it “the father of,” in other words, as a noun. So there is a slight moving away from the Greek in order to make the translation more clear for modern readers. Now in this case it doesn’t seem to be a very big deal. I think the right idea is coming across, but this just serves as an example of something that is confronted all the time in the Greek text. This kind of thing, the tension between fidelity to the original text and clarity, accounts for many of the differences we note in various translations. In most cases, the translators are trying to faithfully bring the Greek text over into English but different translations will result based on whether the translators value fidelity or clarity more highly. Translators who value clarity don’t disregard fidelity, nor do those who value fidelity want to be intentionally unclear.

I like translations that are clear but I am not a fan of changing Greek word forms. In this case I thought the best translation would be the verbal form “fathered.” This translation is easily understandable while also true to the verbal form of the original text. Of all the translations I checked, a couple had this translation in their footnotes, but only the Holman Christian Standard Bible used it as its primary translation. I’m with Holman on this one.

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