By Mark D. Taylor

The issue of sentence structure in English Bibles is interesting. On the surface, one might assume that an English Bible could/should simply follow the structure of the sentences in Hebrew and Greek. But the very concept of a “sentence” differs from language to language.

Let’s look at the prologue to Romans (Rom 1:1-7) as an example. We begin by reminding ourselves that koine Greek does not actually use punctuation or paragraph breaks, nor does it differentiate between upper case and lower letters. This might surprise you, because the UBS Greek New Testament uses paragraphs, capital letters, and punctuation (commas, periods, question marks, and semicolons). But this is because the editors of that Greek text have made judgment calls as to how the Greek “sentences” should be presented in a format we’re accustomed to seeing in English.

In the UBS Greek text, Rom 1:1-7 is presented as one long sentence (i.e., the first full stop comes at the end of verse 7). But does that mean that English translations should also use only one sentence for that passage? Formal-equivalence translations tend to do so. For example, KJV, RSV, NASB, NRSV, and ESV all use only one sentence for this long prologue. Interestingly, the NKJV uses two sentences. NIV and TNIV use four sentences. NLT2 uses nine sentences.

Which approach is correct? I would argue that they all are. Each translation uses a unique translation philosophy, and the structure of English sentences plays into that philosophy. Unfortunately, the proponents of formal equivalence sometimes imply that the only legitimate style of translation is to follow the sentence structure of the original texts as closely as possible. But life isn’t quite that simple.