Praying Without Ceasing and Hyperbole

Praying Without Ceasing and Hyperbole

Mike Sangrey has a post on translating 1 Thessalonians 5:17 at Better Bibles Blog where he suggests “Don’t stop praying!” would be more accurate than “Pray without ceasing,” which is what most of us are used to hearing. He arrives at this conclusion by looking at various uses of the Greek word in question (adialeiptws). Nonetheless the key argument seems to be that:

the words “without ceasing” carry the idea of “unending, continuous prayer” to the English mind.  I think such an action is impossible and others think so, too.

Just so! I think it’s impossible as well. But as the first commenter notes, this is likely a form of hyperbole. Now I’m quite comfortable with interpretive translations that try to adapt one idiom into another, or take a rhetorical device from the source language that is absent (or different) in the target language and replace it with another.

My concern in this case is that hyperbole is a perfectly good rhetorical device in English. We use it regularly. Sometimes our “holy filter” keeps us from seeing it in scripture, but that’s not because it’s absent from the language.

My question is this: If Paul was using hyperbole here, then what is wrong with hyperbole in an English translation? To be more precise, I could ask whether a Greek speaking reader might have heard the passage as “unending, continuous prayer,” realize he had encountered hyperbole, and apply it appropriately. If so, why not let an English speaking reader do the same?

If I might illustrate further, when Jesus says that if your right eye offends you, pluck it out (Matthew 5:29), is it not likely that we have just a small amount of hyperbole? If so, should I translate this verse into something non-hyperbolic, such as “it might be better to be blind than to have your eyes lead you into lust”? (I’m not proposing that as a good translation–just a pointer.)

I’m leaving comments open, but suggesting you comment at Mike’s post or on your own blog to keep the discussion linked.

3 thoughts on “Praying Without Ceasing and Hyperbole

  1. I don’t think it’s hyperbole to tell someone not to stop their regular practice of prayer. If you pray at regular times, and someone tells you to continue praying without stopping, it’s not hyperbole. It’s just telling them not to stop what they’re doing. Not that I’m opposed to hyperbole in the Bible. I just don’t think this is a case of it. It’s a straightforward, literal command not to cease the discipline of praying.

  2. if you are right-and I acknowledge you have a case-then there is even more reason to keep the possibly ambiguous sense in this case. My argument is that the range of possibilities one gets from reading the Greek here is unusually close to the range one gets in English.

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