One of our readers sent me an e-mail recently asking an interesting question:
Hello, I am interested in a discussion on Acts 11:13-14 where Peter is recounting the events of his meeting with Cornelius.
In verse 13b & 14 Peter is quoting the angel’s words to Cornelius, ” Send men to Joppa and summon Simon who is called Peter, and he will tell you things by which you and all your household may get saved.”
As I understand the Greek word σωθήσῃ is rendered as “will” in the Kingdom Interlinear, however in the NWT it is rendered as “may”.
Was the angel conveying the idea that hearing from Peter all things by means of being saved is a hit and miss affair, as if believing in the name of Jesus “may” save them. Was the angel unsure?
If not then why does the NWT render the English different than the Kingdom Interlinear?
Looking at Acts 16:31 the NWT renders, σωθήσῃ as “will”.
“They said: “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will get saved, you and your household.”
The jailer asks what must I do to get saved? It appears the men, Paul and Silas were more definite than the angel about the means by which people must get saved.
The writer is not being flippant in his remarks regarding the angel’s words as rendered by the NWT. The verb tense for the Greek infinitive sózó (“to save”) used in this verse is sōthēsē (σωθήσῃ) which is found in two other places in the Bible: Acts16:31 and Romans 10:9. In each place, it is in the simple future tense and should be rendered “will (or shall) be saved”. That is how virtually every other translation renders it, as a quick scan of the parallel translations available through BibleHub proves. There you’ll find that it shows up as “will be saved”, 16 times, “shall be saved” or “shalt be saved”, 5 times each, and “can be saved” once. Not a single translation in that list renders it as “may be saved”.
Translating σωθήσῃ as “may be saved” moves it from the simple future verb tense to a subjunctive mode. Thus, the angel is no longer stating simply what will happen in the future, but rather relaying his (or God’s) state of mind on the matter. Their salvation moves from a certainty to, at best, a probability.
The Spanish version of the NWT also renders this in the subjunctive, though in Spanish, this is considered a verb tense.
“y él te hablará las cosas por las cuales se salven tú y toda tu casa’.” (Hch 11:14)
We rarely see the subjunctive in English, though it is evident when we say, “I wouldn’t do that if I were you”, switching out “was” for “were” to indicate the mood change.
The question is, why has the NWT gone with this rendering?
Option 1: Better Insight
Could it be that the NWT translation committee have better insight into Greek than all the other translation teams that are responsible for the many Bible versions we’ve reviewed on BibleHub? Were we dealing with one of the highly controversial passages, such as John 1:1 or Philippians 2:5-7, perhaps an argument could be made, but this does not appear to be the case here.
Option 2: Poor Translation
Could it be just a simple mistake, an oversight, a poor rendering? Possibly, but since it also occurs in the 1984 version of the NWT, and yet is not duplicated in Acts 16:31 and Romans 10:9, one has to wonder if the error occurred back then and has never been researched since. This would indicate that the 2013 version isn’t really a translation, but more of an editorial redraft.
Option 3: Bias
Could a case be made for doctrinal bias? The Organization often quotes from Zephaniah 2:3 emphasizing the “probably” in that verse:
“. . .Seek righteousness, seek meekness. Probably YOU may be concealed in the day of Jehovah’s anger.” (Zep 2:3)
We have no way of knowing why this verse is rendered as it is in the NWT. We could speculate that the translators, in line with JW policy, don’t want the flock to get too sure of itself. After all, the Organization is teaching millions of people that they are not God’s children, and while they may survive Armageddon if they remain faithful to the Governing Body and stay inside the Organization, they still will remain imperfect sinners in the New World; individuals who will have to work toward perfection over the course of a thousand years. The “will be saved” rendering would seem to conflict with that concept. Nevertheless, that leads us to ponder why they don’t use the same subjunctive mode in Acts 16:31 and Romans 10:9.
One thing we can say with certainty, “may be saved” does not properly convey the thought expressed by the angel as recorded in the original Greek by Luke.
This highlights the need for the careful Bible student to never rely exclusively on any one translation. Rather, with modern tools, we can easily verify any Bible passage across a wide range of resources to get to the heart of the truth expressed by the original writer. One more thing for which we should thank our Lord and the hard work of sincere Christians.