The Passion “Translation” of Romans: Problems and questions

Romans: Grace and Glory. The Passion Translation

I’ve been asked to review the book by Brian Simmons, Romans: Grace and Glory, Translated from Greek and Aramaic Texts (Racine: BroadStreet, 2017). This is part of Simmons’ wider project known as The Passion Translation (2015). The following post isn’t designed to be a comprehensive review of the whole Passion translation project; instead I’ve decided to (deliberately) limit myself to this one volume on Romans. I just want to point out a few significant problems with the book, especially with its curious claim to be “translated directly from the Greek and Aramaic texts” (see front matter).

Why translate Romans directly from Aramaic texts?

The first question that strikes me is: Why is so much weight given to Aramaic texts in a translation of Romans?

Of course, using Greek texts make perfect sense. The Apostle Paul wrote his letter to the Romans in Greek, from a Greek-speaking city (probably Corinth), to Greek-speaking Jews and Gentiles in a city (Rome) where Greek was widely known and spoken. Anyone who wants to translate Romans needs to establish what Paul originally wrote in Greek. While we don’t have the original letter Paul wrote, we do have many Greek copies at our disposal, e.g. the Chester Beatty Papyrus P46 from about AD 200, Codices Sinaiticus and Vaticanus from the fourth century, and later minuscules. These manuscripts display small differences from one another, but by comparing and contrasting these texts we can normally work out how the differences arose, and so work out with a very high level of certainty what Paul originally wrote. So of course we would want to use Greek texts to establish what Paul wrote in Greek, and it makes sense for Simmons to look at the Greek.

Aramaic, on the other hand, is much more limited in its usefulness for translating Romans. Aramaic was a language spoken in the Eastern Mediterranean. It was common in Syria, Judea, etc. Jesus probably spoke it, and Paul probably knew it too. But nobody thinks that Paul actually wrote Romans in Aramaic. Why would he? Very few people in Rome would have understood him if he did that.

However, it is true that in the early Christian centuries, Romans was translated into Syriac (a dialect of Aramaic), and we do have copies of early Syriac texts. Occasionally, a Syriac text might helpful because it is translating something from the Greek original that helps us to decide between different Greek possibilities. When it comes to translating Romans, that’s basically it. The Syriac (Aramaic) has limited usefulness as one witness among many others in sometimes helping us to discern the original Greek.

For more information on this, see:

  • Metzger, Bruce M. The Early Versions of the New Testament: Their Origin, Transmission and Limitations. Oxford: Clarendon, 1977, pp. 3–98.
  • Patzia, Arthur G. The Making of the New Testament: Origin, Collection, Text & Canon. 2nd ed. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2011, pp. 216–220.

What Aramaic text(s) is Simmons referring to?

In Romans: Grace and Glory, Simmons gives no indications about which “Aramaic text” he is referring to. However, on his website, the following FAQ is answered (emphasis mine):

What textual source materials were used in composing the Passion Translation?

The Passion Translation is not a revision or paraphrase of another existing version. It is an entirely new, fresh translation from the original Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic documents. … For the New Testament, he used Novum Testamentum Graece, edited by Nestle and Aland (twenty-seventh edition, 1993) as his Greek base text from which to work, while incorporating insights from the Syriac (Aramaic) Peshitta, as well as the Roth text.

Here, the two texts Simmons cites as the basis for his Aramaic translations are:

  1. The Syriac Peshiṭta, which is “a revision of the earlier ‘Old Syriac’ version, generally thought to have been produced around the turn of the fifth century” (King,The Syriac Peshiṭta, XIII).
  2. “the Roth text,” which seems to mean the Aramaic text that can be found in Andrew Gabriel Roth’s Aramaic English New Testament. This is based on the Peshiṭta anyway, so it’s not really a different text.

In other words, by “Aramaic texts” it appears that Simmons basically means the c. 5th century Syriac Peshiṭta. When I quote from the Peshiṭta below, I will use the English translation by Daniel King and George A. Kiraz, The Syriac Peshiṭta with English Translation: Romans-Corinthians, The Antioch Bible (Piscataway: Gorgias, 2013), which is generally agreed to be a reliable scholarly source.

Where has Simmons decided to replace the Greek with the Syriac (Aramaic) text?

As far as I can tell by reading his book and its footnotes, Simmons is trying to give the impression that normally his translation is based on the Greek texts. However, there are 23 places where Simmons marks a phrase “As translated from the Aramaic”. When he does this, he normally gives a Greek alternative in a the footnote, implying that he thinks that his Aramaic translation gives us better access to the original than the Greek manuscripts.

However, in many of these 23 places, it is highly questionable whether the Syriac Peshiṭta should be used to replace the Greek in helping us to understand what Paul originally wrote (in Greek!). In the table below I have listed all 23 instances. In each case, I have given Simmons’ Greek translation, King’s translation of the the Syriac Peshiṭta, and then Simmons’ Passion Translation “from the Aramaic” which he believes should replace the Greek:

Verse in Romans The Greek text reads (according to Simmons): The Syriac Peshiṭta reads (according to King’s translation): The Passion Translation replaces the Greek with the following “Aramaic” (according to Simmons):
1:9 whom I serve in my spirit in the gospel God, whom I serve spiritually in the work of the gospel For I passionately serve and worship him with my spirit through the revelation [of his Son]
1:10 that I may have a smooth and prosperous journey to you a way might be opened for me to come to you that I would be able to come and visit you
1:11 [For I long to impart to you] a spiritual gift I long … to bring you a spiritual gift For I long to impart to you the gift of the Spirit
1:25 to whom be glory and blessing forever and ever, amen. glory and praises to him for eternity of eternities!
3:8 to do evil so that good may come. let us do wrong that good may come Is it proper for us to sin, just so we can be forgiven?
4:13 for the promise made to Abraham or to his descendants that he would inherit the world The promise made to Abraham and his descendents, that they would inherit the earth, God promised Abraham and his descendants that they would have an heir who would reign over the world.
5:7 Rarely would anyone die for a righteous person. it is difficult for someone to die for an evil person Now, who of us would dare to die for the sake of a wicked person?
5:11 [in whom we have now been] reconciled. in whom we have now received reconciliation our new relationship of living in harmony
5:18 which brings righteousness of life shall mean victory leads us to a victorious life
6:17 Thanks be to God blessed be God And God is pleased with you
6:17 the type of teaching into which you were handed over the pattern of teaching that you were entrusted with the teaching you are devoted to.
7:23 warring against the law of my mind opposed to the law of my instincts waging a war against the moral principles of my conscience
9:28 The Lord Lord Yahweh
9:29 Lord of hosts the Lord God of angel armies
10:10 the mouth confesses to salvation. a mouth that acknowledges him will live the mouth gives thanks to salvation
10:12 the Lord Lord Jehovah
10:13 Everyone who calls on the Lord’s name will live Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord Yahweh will be rescued and experience new life.
11:17 you, wild olives that you are you, who were once nothing more than a wild olive branch in the desert
12:19 if you do not exact judgment on your own behalf, then I will exact judgment, says the Lord If you don’t take justice in your own hands, I will release justice for you,” says the Lord
15:11 praise the Lord Praise the Lord Yahweh,
15:21 those who have not heard will understand those who have not heard shall become obedient those who have not heard will respond
16:2 [not present] I am entrusting her to you
16:6 Miriam, who has toiled and labored extremely hard to benefit you. Mary; she has done much hard work with you. Miriam, who has toiled and labored extremely hard to beautify you

Notice how in several places, the Syriac does not provide much warrant for replacing or modifying the Greek text as it stands.

For example, in Romans 1:9, the Greek has the word “gospel”, but Simmons believes that this word “gospel” should be replaced by the Aramaic word “revelation”. However, as King’s translation shows, the word “gospel” is clearly there in the Syriac Peshiṭta (this can be confirmed by using these Peshitta tools at dukhrana.com). Hence there is no discernible reason from the Syriac (“Aramaic”) text why Simmons should make a point of replacing the word “gospel” with “revelation”. (For more on this see this article).

Furthermore, the whole rendering of the verse is a little strange and over-the-top. Here’s a slightly fuller comparison of Romans 1:9:

The Greek text from the NA28 critical edition: μάρτυς γάρ μού ἐστιν ὁ θεός, ᾧ λατρεύω ἐν τῷ πνεύματί μου ἐν τῷ εὐαγγελίῳ τοῦ υἱοῦ αὐτοῦ, ὡς ἀδιαλείπτως μνείαν ὑμῶν ποιοῦμαι

The ESV translation from the Greek: “For God is my witness, whom I serve with my spirit in the gospel of his Son, that without ceasing I mention you”

King’s translation of the Syriac (Aramaic) Peshiṭta: “God, whom I serve spiritually in the work of the gospel, is witness to how I remember you in my prayers constantly”

The passion translation from the Greek and the “Aramaic”: “And God knows that I pray for you continually and at all times. For I passionately serve and worship him with my spirit through the revelation of his Son.”

Notice here in particular the word “I serve”:

  • The Greek term (λατρεύω) refers to “the carrying out of religious duties, esp. of a cultic nature, by human beings” (BDAG).
  • Hence the ESV is right to render it “I serve”.
  • Furthermore, as King’s translation shows, the Syriac is clearly based on this Greek word – i.e. the Syriac gives no indication that there was any other original Greek word other than “I serve”. This can be confirmed by using these Peshitta tools at dukhrana.com and looking at the meaning of the Syriac term, which basically means “to serve” or “to perform ones function”.
  • However, the passion translation has rendered the word “I serve” as “I passionately serve and worship”

Why has Simmons taken a word that means “serve” and turned it into “passionately serve and worship”? It is not because of the meaning of the Greek term. Nor is it because of the meaning of the Syriac (Aramaic) term that has been used to translate the Greek term. The only justification I can find comes from the translator’s introduction, in which Simmons states:

The goal of the Passion Translation is to reintroduce the passion and fire of the original, life-changing message of God’s Word for modern readers—not merely to convey the original, literal meaning of words, but also to express God’s passion for people and his world.

In other words–the Passion Translation is not actually a translation. It is not seeking to convey the original meaning, but it is deliberately seeking to add the concept of divine “passion”, even where it is not present in the original. And this is precisely what has happened here. There is no justification for adding “passionately” in Romans 1:9 (not from the Greek, nor even from the Aramaic) apart from the desire of the translator to find the idea of “passion”.

 

Conclusion: not a translation

So is this “Passion Translation” really a translation? In other words, is it “translated directly from the Greek and Aramaic texts”, as it claims on the title page and in the front matter? Well, in some places it’s a translation. But in other places, it’s highly questionable whether we should call it a “translation”. It reads more like a reflective paraphrase from Simmons, sometimes tightly based on the Greek text, at other significant places quite loosely based on the Greek text, occasionally using insights from the Syriac Peshiṭta, yet at other places having little discernible connection to the critical version of the Syriac Peshiṭta even in places claiming to be based on “the Aramaic”. It seems to add concepts to the biblical text that simply aren’t there in the original words–whether Greek or Syriac.

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