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The mistranslation “call yourself a Jew”: A myth-busting story (Romans 2:17)

This is a story about a scholarly myth and how I had the chance to bust it. I’m talking here about a small but significant 20th century biblical translation: “call yourself” instead of “are called” in Romans 2:17. I’m writing this story here for people who are interested in the Bible, but who aren’t perhaps familiar with the technical jargon of New Testament Greek scholarship. I’m writing it to help you get a bit of a feel for how biblical scholarship works (and doesn’t always work), and to help you read and/or teach the Bible better. Anyone who wants the full technical details can check out my newly-published technical journal article, where I show all my working. But here, I’m deliberately trying to explain the issue using accessible, non-jargony language (I’ll use a few technical terms, but I’ll explain them as I go).

(You can also view this story as a video rather than read the text – just click here:)

Contents

Just to set your mind at rest

Now just in case you’re starting to get worried or excited about the implications of this story—for example, how it might undermine the reliability of the Bible or explode traditional Christian teaching and living—don’t be. This myth-busting story doesn’t undermine any of those key biblical truths that matter for our relationship with God and that have been taught by Christians down through the ages. In fact, this mistranslation wasn’t even a thing before the 20th century. As far as I can tell, all Bible translations and theologians before the 20th century got the translation correct. The mistranslation only crept in during the course of the 20th century. And even then, for most of the 20th century it didn’t affect any key Christian teachings.

So why bother telling the story at all? Because the mistranslation is being used by a handful scholars today to bolster new, alternative “readings” of Paul’s letter to the Romans. These alternative readings might potentially be used to undermine traditional Christian teaching. That’s why I got interested in the issue. I wanted to do some research to check out these alternative readings. And in the course of my research, I investigated the translation of “call yourself” in Romans 2:17. Ultimately, I think this myth-busting story helps to seriously question these new alternative readings of Romans, and so actually it ends up supporting long-standing traditional Christian readings.

Photo by Markus Winkler on Unsplash

The issue: “call yourself” or “are called”?

OK, so what’s the actual issue? In the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Romans, chapter 2, verse 17, Paul turns to address a particular person. Many translations today translate the start of Romans 2:17, “But if you call yourself a Jew…”. The key issue in my story concerns the phrase “call yourself”. This phrase, or an equivalent, appears in quite a few modern English translations (e.g. RSV, NRSV, JB, NIV, CSB, ESV, NET, NASB 2020) as well as in modern German and French translations. However, it’s not the translation everywhere. Some other modern translations (e.g. NASB 1977 & 1995, NKJV) have “But if you are called a Jew”.

Why are there differences between the translations? Well, the original Greek word that Paul used (eponomazēi) has an ending that—if you didn’t have any other information—could be understood either way: “call yourself” (technical term alert: reflexive) or “are called” (technical term alert: passive). I’ll explain more about how that works in a moment.

Why does this difference matter? Well, whether we translate Romans 2:17 “if you call yourself a Jew” or “if you are called a Jew” affects how we understand the kind of person Paul is opposing in this part of his letter to the Romans. Is Paul talking about somebody who is pretentious and proud, and so going around “calling himself” a Jew, even if he really doesn’t deserve the title? Or is Paul just talking about somebody who is regularly “called” a Jew by others; i.e. he’s some kind of person who is generally well-known by the name “Jew”? This can make a significant difference to the way we read (and preach) this part of Romans. Is this part of the Bible all about taking aim at transparently proud and pretentious bigots? Or is it all about taking aim at well-known and perhaps even well-respected figures, e.g. teachers? The whole point of the rest of the section (and for some, the rest of Paul’s letter to the Romans) hinges on this decision. This isn’t the place to spell out all the implications for the entire understanding of Romans—again, please check out the journal article for more details. But rest assured, the difference does matter.

What makes this worth pursuing is that the translation “call yourself” is so widespread today that many people just assume that’s what the original Greek clearly says, without even considering any alternatives. That’s why I decided to investigate this assumption. (At this point I want to give a shout out to my painstakingly careful research assistant, Micah Sheath, who chased up many references and followed up several key details.) The more I investigated the assumption, the more I realised that it was built on sand, rather than on anything substantial. To give away the end of the story: even though the translation “call yourself” is widespread today, nobody has properly investigated whether it’s valid. And when I did the work of investigating whether it was valid, I discovered that it simply wasn’t valid. It should be translated “are called”, not “call yourself”.

How to translate words

At this point, I need to explain a little bit about how translation works. This will help you understand more about why there are different translations of this phrase. As I mentioned above, the original Greek word contains a particular ending. If we didn’t have any other information, that particular ending could be translated in several ways (e.g. “call yourself” versus “are called”). Let me use an analogy from the English language to show you what I mean.

Think of the English ending “-ed”. By itself, this ending could mean several things. What the ending actually means in any given instance depends on the word it is attached to. For example, think of the difference between the questions, “Are you dressed?” and “Are you respected?”. The words “dressed” and “respected” both have the same ending (“-ed”), but the ending means something different in each case. When I ask, “Are you dressed?” the ending “-ed” signals a state that you’re in; in effect, I’m asking whether you’ve finished the action of dressing yourself (assuming that you are an able-bodied adult). But when I ask, “Are you respected?”, the same ending “-ed” signals a different kind of thought, i.e. an action that others do for you; in effect, I’m asking whether other people normally respect you. Because we are so used to the English language, we have no problem with the same ending potentially meaning different things. We can instantly and intuitively tell the difference depending on the word. We’ve all heard, read and used the words “dressed” and “respected” so many times in various ways that we just know that there’s a difference between the kind of action being represented, even though the ending is the same in each case.

There’s also another factor in understanding what a word means. The context of the conversation can also make a significant difference. For example, if I added a few words to the question “Are you dressed?” and instead asked “Are you dressed each morning by a colour-blind maniac?” then the ending “-ed” no longer signals a state that you’re in. Rather, I’m (sarcastically) asking you to envisage an action that someone else does for you every morning. That is, the context of a word can often fundamentally change what an ending on the word means.

So here’s the upshot: the same ending (in this case “-ed”) can mean different things. But it can’t mean anything you like. What the ending means depends on the regular use of the word and the context of the conversation. That’s how English works. And in fact, that’s the way languages in general work—not in precisely the same way for each language, but the basic principle is the same.

Accordingly, the same is true of Greek words in general—and this Greek word in particular. There is a specific ending on the Greek word eponomazēi in Romans 2:17, which, by itself, could be used to signal various kinds of action. For example, if we didn’t have any other information, this ending could signal a kind of action that other people generally do, e.g. “if you are called a Jew” (a passive). Or, it could signal the kind of action that a person does to/for himself, “if you call yourself a Jew” (a reflexive). How would a translator decide which is which? The translator needs to do two things at this point.

Firstly, the translator needs to work out how this actual word was normally used by ancient Greek speakers. This is done by looking at as many other examples of the use of the word in other ancient Greek texts as possible. This is where a good Greek dictionary (or “lexicon”) can be helpful—because it summarises the various uses of words in the ancient language. Once the translator is familiar with the regular ways a word tended to be used in general—especially with this kind of ending—then the translator has a good idea of the range of possibilities for what Paul is trying to say by using this particular ending on this particular word at this point.

Secondly, the translator also needs to look at the context—i.e. the kind of things that Paul is saying in this text, before and after this word. That way, the translator can see which of the range of possibilities makes the most sense in this particular context.

Now, let me give you a sneak peek into what I discovered. In this particular case, many translators and scholars in the 20th century did not pay proper attention to the way this particular word in Romans 2:17 was normally used by other ancient Greek speakers. Instead, they relied almost solely on the context—i.e. their view of what Paul is saying at this point in Romans. In other words, they only did half the work: they used their view of the context alone to decide what the word meant. And that was fatal, because their decision about what Paul meant by using this word with this endingwas entirely out of step with the way the word was normally used by ancient Greek speakers.

Getting some historical perspective

Bible translations

The first part of my myth-busting investigation involved getting some historical perspective on the translation. As we have seen, the translation “call yourself” seems quite widespread today, and appears in many Bible translations. But has it always been so? How far back does the translation “call yourself” go? Who translated the word this way in the past, and who didn’t?

This led to my first fascinating discovery. As far as I can tell, after an extensive investigation, the reflexive translation “call yourself a Jew” only became common in the mid-to-late 20th century. In fact, it doesn’t seem to have existed at all before the start of the 20th century. Of course, it’s possible that I’ve missed some obscure translation before the 20th century that did actually use the phrase “call yourself”. But even if that were true, it would be an anomaly. The vast majority (and possibly all) of the Bible translations before the 20th century, and many in the early 20th century, used phrases that were passive, i.e. equivalent to “are called”. Here are some examples:

  • “thou art named” (Wycliffe)
  • “thou art(e) called” (Tyndale; Geneva; King James Version; Webster)
  • “thou bearest the name” (RV; ASV)
  • “you bear the name” (NASB 1977 & 1995)
  • “you are called” (NKJV)
  • German: “du heißest” (Luther; Schlachter 1905) – i.e. “you are called”
  • French: “vous qui portez le nom” (Bible Sacy) – i.e. “you who bear the name”

Of course, this isn’t a knock-down argument all by itself—after all, Bible translators before the 20th century might have all got it wrong. Nevertheless, it provides a very important perspective on the question. It shows that our situation today is an anomaly. Although the translation “But if you call yourself a Jew” (reflexive) happens to be common right now, it wasn’t always so. So it’s clearly not a given. And by the way, Bible translators before the 20th century definitely knew their Greek—they read it extensively, perhaps far more widely than many translators today.

This historical perspective is important. Why? Because even though many modern scholars and commentators seem to assume that “call yourself” (reflexive) is the obvious translation, often they don’t even consider that “are called” (passive) could be a possible translation, let alone realise or acknowledge that “are called” (passive) was apparently the only viable translation before the 20th century. But how did that happen?

Origen and Latin

Before I answer that question, let me take you back even further for a moment. After all, people have been translating Romans for quite some time! In the early church, Paul’s letter to the Romans was translated from the original Greek into Latin. So what do the Latin translations say? When I checked out a couple of key Latin translations of Romans 2:17, I found they also translated it as “are called” (passive).

The Latin Vulgate—a major and highly influential Latin translation of the Bible—uses the word cognominaris, which means “are called” (passive), and does not mean “call yourself” (reflexive). So far so good.

But then there’s the case of Origen—which is a story with an extra strange twist. Origen was a very significant scholar and theologian from the 3rd century who wrote a commentary on Romans. Origen wrote his commentary in Greek, but most of the original Greek text—including the part on Romans 2:17—has been lost. We do, however, have an abbreviated translation into Latin by Rufinus in the 4th century. Now here’s the thing: whereverOrigen cites this Greek phrase from Romans or discusses its meaning, Rufinus uses the Latin passive (“are called”) or equivalent (cognominaris (Comm. Rom. 2.11.1, 3, 4, 5), cognominatur (2.11.4×2, 8), cognominari (2.11.4), cognominetur (2.11.5)). Rufinus never translates it into the Latin reflexive (“call yourself”). However—and this is the strange bit—two 21st century scholarly translations of Rufinus’s Latin into English (by Sheck, in 2001) and French (by Brésard, in 2009), take the Latin passive (“are called”) and translate it as a reflexive (“call yourself” or equivalent)—even though there is nothing obvious in the Latin to indicate that this is the correct translation.

At this point, I started to seriously wonder what was happening? It seemed to me that these 21st century scholars were so used to assuming that Paul meant “call yourself” (reflexive) in Romans 2:17 that their assumption overrode their translation of the Latin, even though the Latin was clearly passive (“are called”).

Surveying the scholarship

So the next stage of my investigation had to be to review various modern scholars. I wanted to understand two things: (1) how they translated the phrase “are called” / “call yourself”, and (2) what reasons—if any—they gave for their translation. I wasn’t able to survey every piece of scholarship on Romans in existence—this would have been a ridiculously massive and mind-numbing task. Instead, I focused on some of the key milestone commentaries and lexicons, and on those scholars who make a big deal about the translation “call yourself”. Here are some examples of what I found.

Before the 20th century

For earlier commentaries, before and at the turn of the 20th century, the translation was normally passive, along the lines of “are called”. For example, the commentary by Sanday and Headlam in 1902 has “bearest the name”. Nobody before this time seems to have even considered the possibility that a reflexive translation (“call yourself”) could have been an option.

Across the 20th century

Early in the 20th century, one key German commentator (Zahn, in 1910) argued against the passive idea (i.e. “are called”) and for the reflexive idea (i.e. “call yourself”). However—and this is significant—his evidence was entirely based on his reading of the context within this part of Romans. He did not look at all at the regular meaning of the word in the Greek language. And interestingly, throughout the course of the 20th century, various other German scholars—though not all—seem to have followed his lead to various extents. But none of them, as far as I can tell, checked out the regular meaning of the word in the Greek language either.

A very important English language commentator (Cranfield, 1975) understands the phrase to have a passive meaning along the lines of “are called” (i.e. “be named”). Cranfield also allows for the possibility that the idea of “claim to be” might be present here, because in the context Paul is being a little ironic (e.g. vv. 17–20). However, Cranfield is careful to point out that we shouldn’t make too much of the context; i.e. he wants to ensure that the basic passive meaning of the word is central even if we might see shades of “claim to be” in the context.

A key German lexicon (Bauer, 1988) understands the phrase as a passive (technically a permissive passive, “du läßt dich e. Juden nennen”). However, something strange happened in the highly influential English translation of this German lexicon called BDAG (2000). BDAG follows Bauer in saying that the word is passive—which of course is quite normal. However, strangely and without explanation, BDAG gives a reflexive rather than a passive translation (“you call yourself”). As far as I can tell, the English translator of the lexicon was being overly influenced by English language Bible translations rather than by his own clear statement that the word is passive. Why? My very strong hunch is that it’s because the underlying Greek word, even though it is quite common in ancient Greek more widely, doesn’t appear anywhere else in the New Testament. Hence the lexicon doesn’t give it much attention (the entry for this word is very short). So the lexicon’s authors and translators aren’t trying to make a big case for anything; they’re just not interested in following it up further because they have bigger fish to fry.

In summary: the story of the 20th century translation of Romans 2:17 is of the gradual decline of the passive (“are called”) and the gradual rise of the reflexive (“call yourself”). However, there are very few, if any, substantial arguments for a reflexive translation (“call yourself”). There are only, it seems, some brief comments in some commentaries about the fact that the context within Romans seems to favour “call yourself”. Nobody, as far as I can tell, seeks to justify a reflexive translation (“call yourself”) by actually going back to examine the general use of the word in the ancient Greek language. So this trend seems to be simply a gradual shift in scholarly convention. I could only conclude that various scholars have gradually influenced each other without doing the primary work of going back to the original Greek language and examining what the word meant.

Is this a problem? Well, for most of the 20th century, it wasn’t much of a problem at all. Why? Because nobody made a big deal out of the reflexive translation (“call yourself”). It was just a thing that some commentators and scholars remarked on and then moved on.

Into the 21st century

However, in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, there were a handful of scholars who did start to make a big deal of the reflexive translation (“call yourself”). This isn’t the place for all the details—again, if you’re interested in the details you can check out my journal article. But the upshot of it all is that these scholars (e.g. Stowers, Thorsteinsson) saw the reflexive translation “call yourself” as very important because it demonstrated that Paul wasn’t really talking to Jews in Romans. Rather, these scholars argued, Paul was talking here to somebody who just wanted to call themselves a Jew—e.g. one of Paul’s missionary opponents, or a gentile who wanted to become Jewish to escape God’s judgment. And this fact, according to these scholars, forces us to read Romans in a fresh light. It means, for example, that the gospel Paul spells out in Romans isn’t necessarily universal. That’s because it doesn’t necessarily apply to Jews in Paul’s day—since Paul wasn’t speaking to his fellow Jews here (only to gentiles who were trying to be Jews). There was even a book published, titled If You Call Yourself a Jew: Reappraising Paul’s Letter to the Romans. The title says it all: the reflexive translation “call yourself” was being used by some scholars as a byword for a new way of reading Paul’s letter, and potentially of understanding aspects of Christian theology.

However—and here’s the important thing—even those scholars who made a big deal out of the reflexive translation “call yourself” and even titled their book according to this phrase didn’t go back to examine the regular use of the word in the ancient Greek language. Some just assumed that “call yourself” was the obvious translation without even considering there might be an alternative (“are called”). Others, while allowing that the passive “are called” was possible, rejected the idea pretty quickly. What was their reason for rejecting the passive “are called”? I chased down their footnotes. They just pointed to various other scholars—commentaries, lexicons, etc.—who translated it as a reflexive “call yourself”! And when I went and checked out the other scholars they were relying on, I realised that these scholars hadn’t done the primary work either—they were just relying on or influenced by other scholars. It was a conclusion built on an assumption based on a convention.

What had happened? A few scholars in the early 20th century made a brief argument about the meaning of the word based on its context within this single passage in Romans, without checking what the word meant in the language as a whole. This view gradually permeated and became widely accepted over the course of the 20th century. But nobody actually checked it out. For a long time, that wasn’t a big deal, because nobody made very much of it—it didn’t seem to have any major implications. Then, closer to the end of the 20th century and the early 21st century, a handful of scholars claimed that it did have significant implications for understanding Romans. But none of these scholars checked it out either, because by that time it had just become accepted.

Doing the primary research

“OK”, I thought, “somebody really has to go back and actually check it out”. So that’s what I did. Rather than relying on scholars who were citing other scholars who were citing other scholars, I decided to look through and summarise the 645 actual uses of the word in the ancient texts we have in the New Testament Greek language (there’s a database called TLG you can use to do that). And I found, after looking at these uses, that there really is no substantial reason for translating the word reflexively as “call yourself” in Romans 2:17.

Why do I say that? Here is a brief summary of the reasons, based on my research. Again, if you’re interested in the details of the research, check out my journal article.

The word itself (Greek: eponomazō) means to name somebody or something. That is, the word is used when somebody or something is given a name—often a surname—that will be used widely by other people to refer to them (e.g. in the ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament: “He named the city after the name of his son Enoch”, Gen 4:17; “She bore a son and named him Seth”, Gen 4:25).

It’s often used in the passive sense to refer to the idea of a person generally being “named” or “called” something by public custom (e.g. “the name of that place was named bitterness”, Exod 15:23). That makes sense, because by its very nature, a name is something that many other people tend to use.

This all makes it very likely that when Paul used the word by itself, he meant (and everybody would have understood) the usual passive sense, “you are named a Jew”—i.e. Paul is referring to somebody who is known by others as a Jew. Presumably, the various scholars and Bible translators before the 20th century knew this well, because they read Greek extensively, and they were quite familiar with the regular uses of the word. That’s why they didn’t even think to question the passive sense “are called”.

OK, but might a reflexive sense at least be possible here? Not really, no. As far as I could find, in the ancient Greek language, the Greek word is never used all by itself in a reflexive sense. I could find zero instances where the word by itself was used to mean “call yourself” or “call herself”, etc. That makes sense, because by its very nature, a name is not naturally something you give to yourself.

Now, that’s not absolute. There are a small number of places in ancient Greek writings where somebody decides to “name” themselves. It’s rare, but it’s possible. However—and this is really significant—whenever this happens, because it is obviously so unusual as an idea, an extra reflexive word, e.g. “himself”, is added to make it clear that this is happening. For example:

  • “He used to call himself Neptune” Poseidōna heauton epōnomaze (Dio Cassius, Hist. Rom. 55.32.1)
  • “he called himself this name” touto to onoma… heauton epōnomase (Iamblichus, De Vita Pythagorica 8.44.14).

In other words, if you were a regular ancient Greek speaker and you wanted to say “call yourself”, you really would need to add the actual Greek word “yourself”. If you didn’t put in the word “yourself”, then everybody would have understood you to be saying “are called”.

So if Paul, who was in the business of communicating with people, had wanted to say, “if you call yourself a Jew”, he would have done the normal ancient Greek language thing and added the extra word “yourself” (seauton eponomazeis). But he didn’t. He simply used the word that everybody would naturally have understood as “are called/named” (eponomazēi). So it’s exceedingly unlikely that he meant “call yourself”.

What about the fact that the context in Romans 2:17–20 seems so full of irony? Isn’t that a factor we have to consider (as scholars have done over the course of the 2oth century)? Well, yes … of course there is irony in the context. And yes, context can sometimes allow a word to be used in a highly unusual way. But here in Romans 2:17, there’s nowhere near enough irony to overturn the regular use of the word “are called”, which does after all make sense here. You’d need many, many more clear signals than that. And even then, it still wouldn’t explain why, if Paul meant to say “call yourself”, he didn’t make himself clearer by adding the word “yourself”, which he so easily could have done and would have done to avoid a misunderstanding.

Myth busted

I’m pretty certain that I’ve marshalled enough evidence to say quite definitively that the modern trend to translate Romans 2:17 “call yourself” has no substantial basis. It’s just a so-far unexamined trend, not a firm conclusion of scholarship. For much of the 20th century, it wasn’t a problem, because nobody made very much of the unexamined trend, and so nobody felt a burning need to question it. However, more recently, a handful of scholars have made a great deal out of the translation “call yourself”, even saying that it should be a key factor in reappraising our view of what Romans is about and whom it applies to. OK, you might say: couldn’t these scholars be right? Well of course anything’s possible, but it needs to be tested. So this was the point where somebody really did need to go back and test the unexamined trend, to see if it will bear the weight of these claims. That’s what I’ve had the opportunity to do in my research. By the way, that’s not because I’m somehow special or better than the other scholars. It’s simply because my particular research interests have put me in the right place at the right time to ask this particular question that nobody else had asked (as far as I can tell).

I hope that’s helped you to understand a little more about how biblical scholarship works. I also hope it’s helped you to read and teach the Bible a little better. Of course, you might now be asking what I think Romans 2:17 and following is actually all about! That’s an important question, but it’s another story. The brief answer is that I think Paul is seeking to undermine the view that educating people in the law of Moses will help them to be better people and so reach salvation. The person who is generally “named” by people as a Jew represents publicly known Jewish law-teachers in Rome. This in fact teaches us quite a bit about ministry practice. If you’re interested in all of that, you might like to listen to my two sermons on Romans 2:17–27 and Romans 2:28–29 that I preached in Moore College chapel:

A lesson about scholarship

I want to finish my story with a lesson about scholarship itself. In some ways, this story is a cautionary tale. It teaches us that we should be discerning about biblical (and other) scholarship. When anybody claims that their view is supported because it is what the “majority of scholars” believe, don’t just take that claim at face value. Ask some further questions.

Firstly, ask: how is the “majority of scholars” being defined here? Is it just the majority right now, or is it the majority historically? If it is just the majority today, is there a good and justifiable reason for the shift? Or is it just a matter of convention, or taste, or accident, or the changing vibe of the world around us that has affected the scholarly vibe too?

Secondly, ask: why do the majority of scholars say this? Is it because a significant number of scholars have actually investigated the primary texts for themselves and each has come to a firm conclusion that independently confirms the firm conclusions of others (in which case, it is indeed worth listening to)? Or is it because there’s just a general scholarly group-think going on—an idea that just happens to be widespread amongst scholars because they’re all talking to each other, but nobody has actually gone and investigated it?

If you’re discerning about biblical scholarship, you can both benefit from it, and avoid having the wool pulled over your eyes by naïve or authoritarian references to “the majority of scholars”.

By the way, if you want to see some more myth-busting, you might like to check out my essay on the common evangelical claim that the Greek word for “ministry” means “service” (spoiler: it’s a myth too, but it was already busted by somebody else in 1990).

Published inRomans

Publications by Lionel Windsor:

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