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Ephesians 2:1-4, ESV: A critique

Posted by Gary Labels: ,

The ESV has been a refreshing translation to me in some ways, though I am not fully convinced of it yet. I don't take it at face value simply because it has an affiliation with the Church of Christ.

So, in reading Ephesians 2:1-4, here is the ESV text:

1 And you were dead in the trespasses and sins 2 in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— 3among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. 4But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us,
(courtesy of

Overall, the ESV's intent is to preserve the original flow and syntax of the Greek text as much as is intelligibly possible in English. This comes with its advantages and disadvantages, of course. On the one hand, reproducing the connectives (..."and") at beginning of sentences does preserve the original pattern and allow readers to see the connection between passages more readily. The lack of clear paragraph division also preserves the ambiguity of the original text, which leads to some fun for the English and Bible majors.

Verse 3: I can understand rendering ἐπιθυμίαι (desires) as "passions"; perhaps that is the better translation than what I usually use. However, the beginning connective for the sentence is removed. Verse 3 is an admission that it is not just "you" but "we" also who lived among them once. The circumstantial participle "carrying out" is fair, thought contextually influenced. However, I can see why they did not render ἐπιθυμίαι as "desires" before, since they use it here for θελήματα. While that's all well and good, I have to scratch my head about the desires of the body and mind. How should I word this objection?

Firstly, let's look at the word for "body." Precise translation of σάρξ (flesh/sinful nature) is a tricky matter. Literally it means flesh, but the metaphors they attached to the word flesh are different from the ones we attach to it now. As Dr. Joel Hoffman, a biblioblogger with a much clearer understanding than my own, says:
"In our culture, “flesh” has at least three main metaphoric uses: physicality (“he’s here in the flesh”), robustness (“flesh out”), and sex (“the flesh trade”)."

While it may be debated that Paul meant sinful nature by σάρξ, the debate is over my head so I won't go there. However, it sure seems odd to translate it as "body." No doubt it was for euphony since it fits well corresponding to "mind." Yet, the biblical word body should not be attached with sinfulness; Ephesians particularly uses the church image of the "body" of Christ. Should we really use the word "body" in such a context as this, given the treatment of body (σῶμα) in Ephesians? I think translating σάρξ as body is a bit of a stretch, and euphony does not grant proper justification; it mars the otherwise-positive uses of body in Ephesians: church as body of Christ, and woman as man's body (i.e. "without your wives, you would have an empty existence like a disembodied floating head [watch Futurama]. Knowing how irreplaceable your wife is, love her."). Body in Ephesians is not ever used negatively, so this is a poor choice.

I also have problems with "mind" here. διάνοια can mean mind/heart, the thinking faculty/understanding, or simply thought. In the Septuagint it was sometimes used as a translation for לֵב (e.g. Gn 17:17), but here it occurs in the plural. Really, my concern comes down to a theological question: "were/are the body and mind of unbelievers corrupted in a way that a believer's mind and body are no longer corrupted?" Perhaps this isn't the right question, and perhaps διάνοια has been translated effectively. However, I still find that the difference in number between σάρξ (singular "flesh") and διάνοιαι ("minds/thoughts") leads me to believe "flesh and [corrupt] thoughts" would be more precise. While the plural can mean minds, or perhaps could be translated as a collective singular "mind," (which is way over my head), I still find "thoughts" to be more natural. Or, if collective singular, "mind-set" would be better than simply "mind."

Theologically, Paul said that the Gentiles were corrupted completely, body, heart and mind - in Romans 1, but Romans is the latest Pauline epistle and so contains his fully developed understanding. Would it be a mistake to retro-interpret Ephesians 2 in light of Romans 1? I take the canon as it is (though I value Tobit as I value Mere Christianity), and so I accept the final form. Ephesians was also written by Paul, the Paul of faith, and for me that qualifies applying Romans to Ephesians without regard to historical authorship or time of writing.

So, the "sons of disobedience" were fully corrupt, body and soul. However, in Ephesians 2 we have the "before" and the "after" of the transformative power of the Gospel. And the fact is, Christians are still subject to corruption in both "flesh" and "thoughts," though I do not think it right to call us utterly "depraved." I must ask my more scholarly friends reading this: how does this theological subject impact the translation of Ephesians 2?

Moving on, this text fails to take into account the difference between the English perfect tense and the Greek perfect tense. There is some overlap, and sometimes a Greek perfect should be translated as an English perfect, but here it would be better rendered "by grace are ye saved," as the King James says. While the King James translators may have had inferior textual witnesses and a weaker grasp of Greek than modern translators, they did know English quite thoroughly. So, the King James Version's treatment of the perfect tense is better than some of the more modern translations (see Daniel Wallace's Greek Grammar: Beyond the Basics on the intensive perfect).

Another critique: participles are rendered without flavor, as if our flexibility in participle use is correlative with its use in Greek. Actually, there is quite a bit of overlap, but English readers are simply not acquainted with usage of the participle. The average American does not even know what a participle is, in fact. So, it's a poor idea to say in v 4 "God, being rich in mercy..." Even though one can use an English participle with a causative idea, it's so awkward to us that few readers indeed would be able to grasp its meaning.

Now, let me give you my [rough] translation, then I'll let you go on your merry way.
And you were dead in your transgressions and your sins, in which you once walked according to the custom of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air -- the spirit now at work in the sons of disobedience, among whom we all also once conducted ourselves in the desires of sinful nature, doing the bidding of our sinful nature and our [futile] thoughts. But God, because He is rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us,

All in all, I consider the ESV a good translation to be used by very well-read readers who want to have a greater understanding of how Hebrew and Greek syntax works. This particular text they do alright with, but I still disagree at least on the "body and mind" part.

Overall, this critique was a fun exercise and nothing more.