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Synonymous phrases

December 12, 2012

The comparison of Isaiah 2 with Micah 4 brings up the question of whether there are any absolute synonyms, or whether there is always some difference and a translation should reflect the different structure or choice of words in the original. Here are two phrases which appear to be synonymous. They translate the identical words in Hebrew and they are translated into identical phrases in English. But in Greek, they are different. Should a translation reflect this difference?

בְּאַחֲרִית הַיָּמִים,

ἐν ταῖς ἐσχάταις ἡμέραις Isaiah 2:2

ἐπ᾽ ἐσχάτων τῶν ἡμερῶν Micah 4:1

in the last days

These two Greek phrases seem to be synonymous, without any meaningful difference. Is this possible? Here is another similar example,

ὁ δὲ μείζων ὑμῶν Matt. 23:11 (genitive)

the greatest among you

ὁ μείζων ἐν ὑμῖν Luke 22:26 (en plus dative)

the greatest among you

These two seem to be synonymous phrases. There would be little point in making the English reflect the difference in English. However, there are exegetes that use differences like this to establish or reinforce certain theological doctrines. For example, regarding ἐπίσημοι ἐν τοῖς ἀποστόλοις Dr. Wallace asks,

would we not expect ἐπίσημοι τῶν ἀποστόλων if the meaning were “outstanding among the apostles”?

And my answer would be “Heck, no!” Is there a word for overexegeting, and if there were, would hyperexegeting be a synonym for this, or would we have to create a doctrine around the difference between these two?

Update: Kurk has added a great post on WOMBman’s Bible which also involves synonyms. What do we make of the translation of dabar as logos, and torah as nomos?

3 Comments leave one →
  1. December 13, 2012 5:23 pm

    Thanks for updating your post to link to one I’ve written elsewhere that involves synonyms. Hope you won’t mind my pointing to another post to further engage your question: “What do we make of the translation of dabar as logos, and torah as nomos?”

    And I would really like to point blog readers here to the BLT post you wrote (nearly a year ago) where you showed “that Romans 16:7 has received special treatment” by Dr. Wallace that is so against “The Junia Evidence” :

  2. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    December 13, 2012 11:56 pm

    Here’s good reference. This post cites a helpful bit.

    “Rajak situates the Septuagint within both the diverse notions of Jewishness in recent scholarship and the complex history of its textual transmission. This involves complicating an apparently simple claim that the Septuagint renders the Hebrew “torah” as “nomos” (law/custom). For Rajak, the Greek Bible can also be conceived as rendering “nomos” as Torah (The Law).[1] Rajak lays the foundation for an essentially linguistically based argument. She convincingly demonstrates that the nomos/torah rendering simultaneously Hellenizes an essentially Jewish institution, while Judaizing a common Greek word by altering its semantic valence.”


  1. Keep ‘em coming back with the December Biblical Studies Carnival | Words on the Word

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