I saw some fascinating translation techniques used with Romans 2:28 and wanted to share them with you. In the process, I realized I had blogged on this passage four years ago, but I think it is still worth mentioning.
The text reads, “For that person is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh.” The Greek is a tad weird: οὐ γὰρ ὁ ἐν τῷ φανερῷ Ἰουδαῖός ἐστιν οὐδὲ ἡ ἐν τῷ φανερῷ ἐν σαρκὶ περιτομή. “For the Jew is not in-the-open and the circumcision (is) not in-the-open in (the) flesh.” As I like to say, “Thanks Paul.” But the previous translation gets at its meaning.
The RSV is the translation that originally caught my eye. “For he is not a real Jew who is one outwardly, nor is true circumcision something external and physical.” The words in question are “real” and “true,” neither of which are in the Greek.
I commented in my earlier blog, “If you remove the additional words, Paul is redefining who a Jew is. ‘He is a Jew who is one inwardly.’ Being Jewish has nothing to do with outward issues. Circumcision is only ‘a matter of the heart, spiritual and not literal.’ Paul would not be denying the reality of the Jewish race (cf. 2:17-24), but he would be affirming that God shows no partiality (2:11), and is ‘specifying what it is that qualified a person to be a “true Jew” and so to be saved’” (Moo, 175).
What I have been enjoying reading are how other translations deal with the issue.
The NASB/KJV translate basically as I have above. The ESV cushions the blow (so to speak) by adding in the word “merely: ”For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly.” HCSB adds the word “true”: “true circumcision is not something visible in the flesh” (also NRSV and NLT). NIV adds “only”: “A person is not a Jew who is one only outwardly.” Surprisingly, the NET (with the theological background of its translators) does not add in any of these words: “For a person is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision something that is outward in the flesh.”
You will see the same additions in the RSV of 2:29. “He is a Jew who is one inwardly, and real circumcision is a matter of the heart, spiritual and not literal” (see also NLT). Interestingly, the other translations let the influence of the additional words in the previous verse carry over to this verse without repeating them.
At some point some translations become commentaries, and I have not yet read a reason why the verse should not be allowed to stand on it own. But it is interesting the different ways they find of muting the force of the Greek.