Switching from NIV to New Living Translation

As a Bible translator, I have typically looked at a dozen different translations of the Bible in addition to the Greek or Hebrew when translating into the Fulfulde language. I have always appreciated the fresh perspective that the New Living Translation gave, and especially the naturalness of the English language that is used to convey the truth of Scripture into modern English. As a result, I have been reading from the NLT for my devotions and for our family devotions for many years. But it wasn't good enough for Scripture memory. I had learned verses as a child in first the RSV, then the NIV version and figured I would just stick with the NIV so as not to confuse my poor little brain. Not anymore. My recent experience with trying to memorize Galatians 3:13-14 has pushed me over the edge.

Let's start by looking at the passage in the NIV 2011 edition:

13Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: "Cursed is everyone who is hung on a pole."14He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit. 

I'd like to explore the logic and ambiguity problems that gave me an awful time trying to memorize this passage. Please bear in mind that if you are used to the King James, the ESV, the NIV, or any other more "literal" translation, you will have to deactivate the jargon filter that you use to interpret Scripture.  The modern English speaker with no exposure to Scripture doesn't have a jargon filter and will have trouble understanding. This is partly how I come at it, having been working in French and Fulfulde, being absent from churches in my mother tongue for many years.

Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us.

Today, If I say that something became a curse, what does that mean?  Let's let Google decide, filtering out Scripture references, these are the top results:

  1. 10 years of Windows XP: How longevity became a curse
  2. When religion becomes a curse
  3. Attacking World Class Charitable Hospital(SKMH) became a curse for PMLN-Hasan Nisar
  4. Fossil Fuels: The blessing ThaT became a curse.
  5. Everu blessing ignored becomes a curse
  6. The boy whose gift became a curse.
  7. Conversion Therapy: When the cure becomes a curse.
  8. The spell became a curse for hundreds of years.
  9. their oil wealth had become a curse
  10. Beauty becomes a curse as more teen girls reject skin they're in

So, looking at the modern useage of what it means to become a curse, we'd say that it is when something that has one objective, turns 180 degrees and achieves the opposite objective. (2,3,4,5,6,7,9,10).

What is more, our passage says he became a curse "for us". Now, "for" is one of those multipurpose words that can be used in many different contexts, and with different meanings.  The intended meaning here is not that Jesus becomes a curse on us or to us as it does in Example 3 above and also in this modern example:

if forex traders fail to judge the market properly, it is a curse for them because they will lose money for that.

Rather, the "for" in our passage means "in our place", as in "Dear, would you answer the phone for me".  Given the modern usage of curse, this phrase is very confusing.  If today's English speaker looks at this clause, it seems to be saying that while first we were under the curse of the law, now we are under the curse of Christ!  And while we can make our brains adjust to the intended meaning, given what we already know to be true, we shouldn't assume that modern readers will  do the same.

He [Christ] redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus,

This is already difficult to follow because in one phrase we have references to 5 agents (He, us, Abraham, Gentiles, Christ).  In the previous clause, the subject was Christ, and so it still is here.  I think the grammatical difficulty here is fairly obvious, and was another point of confusion for me as I attempted to memorize this: Christ redeemed us so that the Gentiles can have Abraham's blessing through Christ.  If Christ really was the subject of this sentence, I think we would say "through himself".  But since we don't, it seem unnatural.

so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit.

And this part that follows immediately is source of even more confusion for me.  Even taking into account the context of the passage, the previous clause shows the beneficiaries of redemption by faith are the Gentiles (by way of Abraham) and then adds, "so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit".  I know that so that is a purpose clause of some sort, but the connection is far from obvious to me.  Does we refer to Gentiles?  How can Paul speak as a Gentile, when he is a Jew?  Yes, I know, this is the stuff sermons are made of.  But we can hope for a translation that states things a little more clearly or else we are forcing our readers to be dependant on their pastors to decypher the message.

Weak memory or ineffective message?

I'll leave you to judge whether my problems are due to a weak memory, or whether the trouble I have memorizing this is due to the fact that the message is presented in an ineffective and difficult to follow format.  I know that Paul's constructions in the Greek take a bit of wrestling with in order to follow his reasoning, but once the translator has figured out this line of reasoning, can't the message be communicated clearly?

NLT Rendering

13But Christ has rescued us from the curse pronounced by the law. When he was hung on the cross, he took upon himself the curse for our wrongdoing. For it is written in the Scriptures, “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree.”14 Through Christ Jesus, God has blessed the Gentiles with the same blessing he promised to Abraham, so that we who are believers might receive the promisedt Holy Spirit through faith.

This passage contains all of the intended meaning of the NIV text, but uses the extra words necessary to make the meaning clear:

Christ becoming a curse for us [ambiguous] is rendered: he took upon himself the curse for our wrongdoing

Christ redeeming us ...through Christ is rendered: Through Christ Jesus, God has blessed the Gentiles...

And the connection between the Gentiles blessing and our receiving the Spirit is laid out this way:

The we of which I was uncertain is now "we who are believers"  So both the Gentiles and the Jews "who are believers" are beneficiaries of this redemption by faith, rather than by the law.

The NLT clarifies this passage for me so much, that I decided to memorize this version instead.  Some say it is less literal and therefore less reliable than other translations.  But that can go two ways.  Literal, word for word translations can actually communicate the opposite message of what the author intended as we see in the example of Jesus being a curse "for us".  Why the strict economy of words, when adding a few more will make the meaning readily understandable?  I know for sure that the 74 words of the NLT will be easier to memorize than the 59 words of the NIV.

Compare your favorite translation to this passage and see how well it communicates this important message about Christ's redemtive love and the gift of the Spirit.