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The Translation of 2 Peter 1:19a

February 28, 2004

Various translations have taken a different tack on predicate accusative bebaiovteron in 2 Peter 1:19. Much hinges on the interpretation of this adjective. Consider the following translations (the rendering of bebaiovteron is in italics each time):

KJV: “We have also a more sure word of prophecy; whereunto ye do well that ye take heed, as unto a light that shineth in a dark place, until the day dawn, and the day star arise in your hearts.”

NIV: “And we have the word of the prophets made more certain, and you will do well to pay attention to it, as to a light shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.”

RSV: “And we have the prophetic word made more sure. You will do well to pay attention to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.” The ASV and NASB are similar.

NRSV: “So we have the prophetic message more fully confirmed. You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.”

ESV: “And we have something more sure, the prophetic word, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.”

NAB: “Moreover, we possess the prophetic message that is altogether reliable. You will do well to be attentive to it, as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.”

NET: “Moreover, we possess the prophetic word as an altogether reliable thing. You do well if you pay attention to this as you would to a light shining in a murky place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.”

The translations above can be broken down into three different broad groups: (1) those that take the adjective as an attributive adjective modifying toVn profhtikoVn lovgon (so KJV); (2) those that take it as appositional to toVn profhtikoVn lovgon (so ESV); (3) those that regard it as a predicate adjective (NIV, RSV, NRSV, ASV, NASB, NAB, and NET). Within this third group there are differences which we will come to shortly. For now, the first two views need to be addressed. Taking the adjective as an attributive is virtually impossible since it stands outside the article-noun group. The construction is e[comen bebaiovteron toVn profhtikoVn lovgon. In such a construction, the adjective needs to be taken as predicate or perhaps as substantival (and thus appositional). To be sure, there are a few places in the NT in which an adjective stands in predicate position but has an attributive relation to the noun, but these are few and far between. There are no more than half a dozen of them.1 And when the text makes good sense taking the adjective as a predicate, there is no need to resort to seeing as an attributive. That is the case in 2 Peter 1:19. The KJV translation thus is in error here, as is often the case when the underlying Greek text involves the article.2

But what about the ESV? Perhaps the translators were truly seeing bebaiovteron as a predicate adjective; the resultant difference in sense between “we have the prophetic word as something more sure” and “we have something more sure, the prophetic word” is minimal. But it is somewhat surprising that a translation which is very much on the more literal side of the spectrum is here so loose when a more literal rendering is perfectly acceptable in English and indeed is an improvement stylistically! If the ESV translators regard bebaiovteron as appositional, then it seems that they have erred in two ways: first, as an adjective one would expect it to function in its typical adjectival capacity unless there is contextual or lexical warrant for taking it otherwise;3 second, as a substantival adjective here, one would expect it to have the article with it. In light of these considerations, the ESV translation must also be rendered less than satisfactory here.

Almost all other translations regard the comparative adjective bebaiovteron as the complement to the object toVn profhtikoVn lovgon (or more broadly as a predicate adjective to toVn profhtikoVn lovgon). This leaves us with two options (at least as far as modern English translations are concerned): “we have the prophetic word made more sure” or “we have the prophetic word as a more certain [thing].” The RSV, ASV, NASB, NIV, and NRSV opt for the former option while the NAB and NET opt for the latter. One of the fundamental points we wish to raise in this brief essay is that the rendering “we have the prophetic word made more sure” is unlikely from a grammatical standpoint.

The construction almost surely has the force “The prophetic word is (more certain/altogether certain)—and this is something that we all have.” The translation, which many scholars4 prefer, “we have the prophetic word made more sure,” is unparalleled in object-complement constructions. When the construction has this force, poievw is present (as in 2 Pet 1:10 [spoudavsate bebaivan uJmw'n thVn klh'sin kaiV ejkloghVn poiei'sqai]). That so many translations render this verse as though it meant ‘made more sure’ is remarkable.

Exegetically, what is at stake is the following: (1) If we render the clause as ‘the prophetic word made more sure’ then Peter is saying that the OT is verified and certified by the NT apostles’ experience. In one respect, this would mean that Peter would regard his own experience as more authoritative than the OT. (2) If we render the clause as ‘the prophetic word is more sure’ (which is certainly more plausible grammatically), then this would be saying that the OT was a more reliable guide to truth than Peter’s experiences, including his experience of the Transfiguration. (3) If we render the clause as ‘the prophetic word is thoroughly reliable’ then no comparison is being made between the OT and the apostles’ experiences. This, too, is grammatically more plausible than the first option.

The meaning, as construed in the NET and NAB, is that the OT that these believers had in their hands was a thoroughly reliable guide. Whether it was more certain than was even Peter’s experience on the Mount of Transfiguration depends on whether the adjective should be taken as a true comparative (“more certain”) or as an elative (“very certain, altogether certain”).

Some would categorically object to any experience functioning as a confirmation of the scriptures and hence would tend to give the adjective a comparative force, with the ‘prophetic word’ being the greater authority over the apostolic experience: “we have the prophetic word as [that which is] more reliable [than our own experience].” Yet Peter labors to show that his gospel is trustworthy precisely because he was an eyewitness of this great event. Further, to say that the OT scriptures (the most likely meaning of “the prophetic word”) were more trustworthy an authority than an apostle’s own experience of Christ is both to misconstrue how prophecy took place in the OT (did not the prophets have visions or other experiences?) and to deny the final revelation of God in Christ (cf. Heb 1:2). That is, because of the finality of revelation in Christ, the apostles may have viewed their own experience of him to have equal authority with the OT. However, one might argue that the NT authors rarely if ever viewed their own writings as scripture. This is true, but the clearest text in the entire NT that any author viewed part of the NT as scripture is found in this very letter! In 2 Peter 3:15-16 the author speaks of Paul’s letters as scripture. If this letter is authentic (i.e., from the apostle Peter himself), then such an assessment of Paul’s letters would be a remarkable admission.5 But for our present purposes it would do more than that: If Peter is calling Paul’s letters scripture, would that not imply that his own were equally authoritative?6

Where does this leave us then? We have already ruled out the attributive and appositional views as highly unlikely on a grammatical basis. The same is true for the ‘made more certain’ view, even though it could well fit contextually. But the grammatical gymnastics required to make it fit this text twist the meaning of the Greek more than it can bear. Contextually and theologically (that is, arguing from the apostolic perspective), it is unlikely to take bebaiovteron in a comparative sense (“we have the prophetic word as [that which is] more reliable [than our own experience]”). This leaves us with one option: the elative (the translation of the NAB and NET).

In sum, since syntactically the meaning that “we have confirmed the prophetic word by our experience” is improbable, and since contextually the meaning that “we have something that is a more reliable authority than experience, namely, the Bible” is unlikely, we are left with the meaning “we have a very reliable authority, the Old Testament, as a witness to Christ’s return.” No comparison is thus explicitly made. This fits both the context and normal syntax quite well.7 The introductory kaiv suggests that Peter is adding to his argument. He makes the statement that Christ will return, and backs it up with two points: (1) Peter himself (as well as the other apostles) was an eyewitness to the Transfiguration, which is a precursor to the Parousia; and (2) the Gentile believers, who were not on the Mount of Transfiguration, nevertheless have the Old Testament, a wholly reliable authority that also promises the return of Christ.

1 See D. B. Wallace, “The Relation of Adjective to Noun in Anarthrous Constructions in the New Testament” (Th.M. thesis, Dallas Theological Seminary, 1979) for instances of such.

2 A. T. Robertson, A Grammar of the Greek New Testament in the Light of Historical Research, 4th ed. (Nashville: Broadman, 1934) 756-57, notes this on the translation of the article in the KJV:

“The translators of the King James Version, under the influence of the Vulgate, handle the Greek article loosely and inaccurately. A goodly list of such sins is given in “The Revision of the New Testament,” such as “a pinnacle” for toV pteruvgion (Matt. 4:5). Here the whole point lies in the article, the wing of the Temple overlooking the abyss. So in Matt. 5:1 toV o[ro" was the mountain right at hand, not “a mountain.” On the other hand, the King James translators missed the point of metaV gunaikov" (Jo. 4:27) when they said “the woman.” It was “a woman,” any woman, not the particular woman in question. But the Canterbury Revisers cannot be absolved from all blame, for they ignore the article in Lk. 18:13, tw'/ aJmartwlw'/. The vital thing is to see the matter from the Greek point of view and find the reason for the use of the article.”

The reason the KJV translators misunderstood the force of the article was apparently due to the fact that they had much greater facility in Latin than in Greek. Since there is no article in Latin, and since the KJV translators used the Latin translation of Erasmus to help them with the Greek, the result was hundreds of errors in the translation that simply not did grasp the force of the Greek article.

3 See my essay on “The Text and Grammar of John 1.18” posted at for examples of substantival adjectives followed by nouns with the same concord.

4 Cf., e.g., J. N. D. Kelly, The Epistles of Peter and Jude (London: Black, 1969) 321; Dick Lucas and Christopher Green, The Message of 2 Peter & Jude (Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity, 1995) 80.

5 Most scholars deny Petrine authorship of this letter, and one of the major reasons is the statement in 3.15-16. Since no early church father until the second half of the second century called any part of the NT scripture, the problems of assuming Petrine authorship of this letter are very real: If authentic, why didn’t it apparently have any impact on anyone else’s assessment of the NT’s authority? I, for one, do think that Peter wrote this letter but that it was not well received initially nor in subsequent decades. Doubts about its authenticity arose immediately and persisted, and the lack of copying the letter effectively removed it from having much of an influence on patristic understanding of the nature of the authority of the NT.

6 In some respects, how one regards the authenticity of this letter may determine how he or she takes bebaiovteron: if this is a pseudepigraphical letter, it is possible that the author was not regarding his own writing as authoritative—especially if the church as a whole had not yet regarded the NT as scripture. Although allegedly from Peter, the author might see the OT as more authoritative than the apostolic experience. Thus, “we have the prophetic word as [that which is] more reliable.” But if from Peter, since he was treating Paul’s letters as scripture, the standard Jewish argument from the greater to the lesser would apply here: since Peter was an eyewitness to the Christ event, his apostolic voice would be no less authoritative than Paul’s. In this case, taking bebaiovteron as an elative would be the most natural. It is thus perhaps mildly surprising to find Bauckham among those who take the adjective as an elative since he rejects Petrine authorship for this letter (Richard J. Bauckham, Jude, 2 Peter [Waco, TX: Word, 1983] 223).

7 Some exegetes deny that the use of the comparative adjective in an elative sense is at all normal (so Lucas and Green, The Message of 2 Peter & Jude, 80, n. 36). But “the elative sense in classical Greek was normally reserved for the superlative form, but in Koine the comparative has encroached on the superlative’s domain” (D. B. Wallace, Greek Grammar beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996] 300). Cf., e.g., Acts 13:31; 17:22; 2 Cor 8:17.

Related Topics: Bibliology (The Written Word)

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