Translation of 1 John 3:19-20

1 John 3:19–20 reveals some translations differences between the NIV, NASB, and ESV.

  • Greek: ‘And by this we know that we are from the truth, and we reassure our heart before him hoti if our heart condemns us for [hoti] God is greater than our heart and he knows all things.’
  • NIV: ‘This then is how we know that we belong to the truth, and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence whenever our hearts condemn us. For God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything.’
  • ESV: ‘By this we shall know that we are of the truth and reassure our heart before him; for whenever our heart condemns us, God is great than our heart, and he knows everything.’
  • NASB: ‘We shall know by this that we are of the truth, and shall assure our heart before him, in whatever our heart condemns us; for God is greater than our heart and knows all things.’
The word hoti (‘for’, ‘because’) is used twice here. I have left the first one untranslated in the Greek translation. The NIV, ESV, and NASB translated the word similarly as ‘whenever’ and ‘whatever’. The question is does the word divide the phrase ‘our heart condemns us’ from v. 19 (ESV) or does it complete the thought of v. 19 before moving on to ‘for God is greater’ (NIV, NASB). The question ultimately comes down to a decision about early manuscripts which were written in Greek in all capital letters (uncials) with nospacesbetweenthewords. So we can have here either hoti eav (‘for if’, ‘because if’) or ho ti eav (‘whatever’, etc.). In this case, I think that the NIV and NASB are correct.

As to whether it is best to use ‘whatever’ or ‘whenever’ in English, vv. 17–18 speak of not closing our gut to our siblings and to loving in word and deed. Verse 19’s discussion of having ‘our heart’ condemning us is related to this loving in word and deed and looking after brothers and sisters. I, therefore, do not think that this is a time issue of ‘whenever’ but an event or specific instance of loving (‘whatever’). The reference to God knowing all things (panta; v. 20) is further evidence of this.

Thus, I would suggest a translation similar to the NASB: ‘And by this (loving in word and deed and not rejecting those brothers and sisters in need) we know that we are from the truth, and we reassure our heart before him, in whatever our heart condemns us, because God is greater than our heart and he knows all things.’

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