One stock phrase that comes up quite often in many English Bible translations is according to. It’s bona fide English, but it contains within it a subtle trap which can be quite annoying or disconcerting for the reader and this is why.
You’ll probably recognise 2 kinds of use of according to in everyday English:
- As an attribution or ‘hearsay’ expression – who said something
- “According to scientists…” or “According to a report in…”
- Similar to “in accordance with” or “on the basis of” or “in line with”
- “Bake the cake according to the instructions”
This means that when you hear according to you have to make a quick interpretation decision based on the context to decide whether you are talking about who said something (possibly distancing yourself from them) or following a pattern or instructions. This isn’t a big problem in itself; individual words and phrases are often used for multiple purposes. However, there are some aspects of how it is used in translation of the Bible that cause trouble.
In Bible translations it only ever means the second sense, while a quick search of Twitter and other texts will quickly show that the first sense above is vastly more common. Skewing language use against normal patterns is not recommended; you can get away with it, but at a cost to the reader.
(Or, “What did you mean?”)
Given the massive disparity in common use, many readers or hearers may only regularly use the attribution form of according to, and so may well assume this is the sense even when it’s surprising. The more knowledgeable and discerning reader still has to use the context to determine whether we’re talking about the rarer “in line with instructions” kind of sense or the more common usage.
How is the hearer or reader to decide what is meant? Generally there are patterns that we look for here. As I studied some natural English examples I found that according to the <something impersonal> was a major indicator that the rarer “on the basis of” meaning was intended. Any other noun phrase (names or identification of sources) strongly indicate the first sense.
Of course after assuming the first sense was meant you may end up realising it doesn’t make sense and then you conclude the second sense must have been intended. But this is a bad communication situation. Unless you as translator or speaker are really trying to achieve something significant by sending your listener on a wild goose chase (eg for a joke), it’s not advisable to do that.
So when we are translating the Greek κατα + accusative or Hebrew –ל prefix and we immediately think according to then actually we need to stop and see whether the ‘according to’ basis is going to be clearly understood to be impersonal communication. And even then, how about using a safer alternative, like on the basis of or in line with?
In fact, if you’re reading English translations that persist in using the odd Biblish form of according to, then I reckon you can improve them by substituting in line with or something like that. This is just a contemporary version of the ancient Hebrew qere/kethiv tradition; we see one thing and we read something more appropriate.
Some Bible examples, before and after:
|Lev 20:23||You must not live according to the customs of the nations I am going to drive out before you. Because they did all these things, I abhorred them.||You must not adopt/follow* the customs of the nations I am going to drive out before you. Because they did all these things, I abhorred them.|
|Gen 10:32||These are the clans of Noah’s sons, according to their lines of descent, within their nations. From these the nations spread out over the earth after the flood.||These are the clans of Noah’s sons, arranged in their lines of descent, within their nations. From these the nations spread out over the earth after the flood.|
|Num 35:24||…the assembly must judge between him and the avenger of blood according to these regulations.||…the assembly must judge between him and the avenger of blood on the basis of these regulations.|
|Philippians 2:12||12 Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, 13 for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.||12 Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, 13 for it is God who works in you to will and to act in line with his good purpose.|
|1 Peter 4:19||So then, those who suffer according to God’s will should commit themselves to their faithful Creator and continue to do good.||So then, those who suffer in line with God’s will should commit themselves to their faithful Creator and continue to do good. (or because it is)|
None of these (NIV84) examples are catastrophic, but the more distracting misdirection we can remove for the listener the easier a time they have of grasping the message as clearly as they should.
*The first one I really think works better if we translate the whole phrase live according to the customs as ‘adopt the customs’.