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Is the NWT's "the Blood of his Own" the Most Likely Translation?
Robert M. Bowman, Jr.
This article originally appeared on the Evangelicals and JWs Discussion Board June 6, 2004
I acknowledge that the NWT rendering of Acts 20:28 has its defenders outside the JW religion. Murray Harris, in his well-respected work Jesus as God: The New Testament Use of Theos in Reference to Jesus, defends a similar translation.
The verse says that God purchased the church of God DIA TOU hAIMATOS TOU IDIOU. Some manuscripts have "the church of the Lord" here instead of "the church of God," but virtually all biblical scholars today agree that the text originally said "the church of God." A couple of scholars in the past, notably F. J. A. Hort, have argued that the text may have originally said DIA TOU hAIMATOS TOU IDIOU hUIOU, "through the blood of his own Son." On this view, the word "Son" (hUIOU) accidentally got left out because it looks so much like the last part of "his own" (TOU IDIOU). Again, though, virtually all biblical scholars reject this suggestion, since there is no manuscript support for it.
To get around the reading "which he purchased with his own blood," some scholars in the past century or so have argued that the clause should be translated, "which he purchased with the blood of his own." What is at dispute here, in technical terms, is whether to take TOU IDIOU adjectivally ("his own") or substantivally ("of his own"). The simplest reading in terms of the grammar is the adjectival reading, "through his own blood." (Greek often places the adjective after the noun in this construction, article-noun-article-adjective, called the second attributive position.) The NWT Reference Bible, in an appendix on Acts 20:28, admits that this would be "the usual translation" (p. 1580). However, Harris and some other scholars favor the substantival reading. On this reading, "his own" is a kind of description or title of Christ. They admit that Christ is nowhere else in the NT called "his own," but they compare this way of construing the words to other titles of Christ using adjectives, such as "the Righteous One" or "the Beloved."
The NWT reflects a similar approach; it translates the text, "the blood of his own." The NWT Reference Bible appendix does not state whether this translation is based on the text-critical view of Hort that "Son" was originally in the text or on the grammatical view that TOU IDIOU is to be construed substantivally. The appendix presents both explanations and leaves it at that.
I don't find the arguments for these views persuasive. There is zero manuscript evidence to support Hort's speculation, despite the fact that there are several other textual variants in the manuscripts for this verse. So I think that view may be safely set aside as both unsubstantiated and improbable.
The view that TOU IDIOU is a substantive is at least plausible, but I think it is also unlikely. Against it I would make the following six arguments.
1. The other titles of Christ based on adjectives (e.g., "the Beloved") all have multiple attestations in the NT and continued to be recognized as Christological titles and used by the early church. This is not the case with the hypothetical title "His Own." Moreover, in the case of these other titles there is no grammatical ambiguity about their usage as there is here.
2. The smoothest and simplest reading is the adjectival reading, "his own blood." I don't know of anyone who disputes this fact. Again, as noted above, the NWT Reference Bible appendix acknowledges that this would be "the usual translation."
3. It is prejudice against the text speaking of God's "blood" that drives the substantival reading, as Harris himself candidly states. The NWT Reference Bible appendix makes this clear as well, observing, "That has been a difficult thought for many." But ultimately this begs the question.
4. The early church clearly did not even entertain the substantival reading. Copyists who were bothered by the text altered "God" to "Lord" (as noted above) or made other changes, attesting to their understanding TOU IDIOU adjectivally. As best I can determine, the substantival reading is only about a hundred years old. This doesn't make it certainly false, but it does place a heavy burden of proof on the substantival reading.1
5. As Harris himself points out, as quickly as the early second century Ignatius could write about "God's blood" (Ignatius's Epistle to the Ephesians, 1:1). Where did Ignatius get such language? Is it best explained as an Ignatian innovation or as reflecting Paul's words in Acts, originally spoken to the Ephesian Christians (Acts 20:17, 28)? The Ephesian connection gives weight to the latter view.
6. The Bible elsewhere speaks in similar language of Christ's blood, e.g., "through his blood" (DIA TOU hAIMATOS AUTOU, Eph. 1:7), "through his own blood" (DIA TOU IDIOU hAIMATOS, Heb. 13:12). (Again, the position of TOU IDIOU cannot be said to make any difference in the absence of some evidence for that claim.) Admittedly, the Bible can also use a substantival expression in the final position, as in "through the blood of his cross" (DIA TOU hAIMATOS TOU STAUROU AUTOU, Col. 1:20), but again, here the adjective AUTOU functions adjectivally to mean "Christ's," not "the Father's."
While one hundred per cent certainty may be unattainable on this question, I think the evidence heavily favors the translation "his own blood."
Now, I would be very interested in serious responses to the above arguments. And to help anyone who is contemplating mustering such a response, I will provide some guidelines on how *not* to answer it.
(1) Don't appeal to the fact that there are scholars out there who disagree with me. I know that. If you find answers to the above arguments from those scholars, by all means share them. But counting scholarly noses is not the way to pursue truth.
(2) Don't argue that other views are possible. I know that, too. I'm not interested merely in cataloging all of the possible views of the meaning of the text. I want to know which one has the most going for it, based on the available exegetical evidence.
(3) Don't appeal to other texts that you think contradict my understanding of Acts 20:28. I know about those texts, too. The reverse can also be said: Acts 20:28 appears to contradict your understanding of those other texts. That won't get us anywhere. And if you're right about those other texts, some answer to these six arguments concerning Acts 20:28 ought to be found.
1. Robert Hommel's note: The reading "his own blood" also find support in the two early translations from the Greek: the Sahidic Coptic and the Peshitta.