Word Studies in the New Living Translation: Paragraph Breaks and Section Headings

by Mark D. Taylor, NLT Bible Translation Committee

If you compare two or more Bible translations, you will occasionally find differences in the breakup of paragraphs or major sections of the text. What’s going on?

For starters, we need to recognize that the Hebrew and Greek manuscripts upon which our translations are based did not have chapter breaks, verse numbers, paragraph breaks, or punctuation. In fact, the earliest Greek manuscripts didn’t even have spaces between the words. All those features have been added by Bible copyists and scholars through the centuries.

The standard Greek text used by most students today, published by the United Bible Societies (UBS), includes chapter and verse numbers and a minimal level of punctuation. The scholars who compiled that Greek text have also inserted section headings in the text, but translators have to make their own judgment as to the placement of paragraph breaks and section headings.

An example where translations differ comes in the section break at Ephesians 5:20-21. The syntax of the Greek text suggests that verses 18-24 comprise one long sentence, yet the UBS text introduces a paragraph break and a new section header beginning at verse 21. Some translations (e.g., RSV, NIV2011, NLT) follow the UBS text and introduce a section header prior to verse 21. Other translations (e.g., NASB, NIV1984, NKJV, NRSV, ESV) introduce a section header prior to verse 22. We can see the difference when we compare this passage in the NLT and the ESV:

Ephesians 5:20-24 (NLT)

20 And give thanks for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Spirit-Guided Relationships: Wives and Husbands
21 And further, submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.
            22 For wives, this means submit to your husbands as to the Lord. 23 For a husband is the head of his wife as Christ is the head of the church. He is the Savior of his body, the church. 24 As the church submits to Christ, so you wives should submit to your husbands in everything.
            25 For husbands, this means love your wives, just as Christ loved the church. He gave up his life for her 26 to make her holy and clean, washed by the cleansing of God’s word.
Ephesians 5:20-24 (ESV)
. . . 20 giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, 21 submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.
Wives and Husbands
22 Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. 24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.
            25 Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, 26 that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, . . .

Why the difference? It relates to the translators’ understanding of what Paul is saying in verse 21. Is the concept of “submitting to one another” the end of a thought and therefore the end of a major section, as in the ESV? Or is verse 21 the beginning of a new thought that is continued in verses 22-33? If the section break comes before verse 22 rather than before verse 21, it implies that submitting to one another (v. 21) is somehow unrelated to the instruction for wives to submit to their husbands (v. 22).

The NLT translators see verse 21 as an introduction to the relationships within a marriage. Believers are to submit to one another (v. 21). This thought is then fleshed out in terms of the relationship between wives and husbands. Wives are to submit to their husbands as to the Lord (v. 22), and husbands are to love their wives, just as Christ loved the church (v. 25).

We must remember, though, that the section headings in any translation have been created by the translators as a tool to help readers understand the flow of the text. Those headings were not in the original Hebrew or Greek texts.

This is just one small glimpse into the kinds of decisions that Bible translators make as they prepare the text for print. Translators take their work very seriously since they are dealing with God’s message for all people in all cultures and languages. May we as readers also take the text seriously as we read it and apply it to our own lives.

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