On 1 John 3:4 and its translation and meaning

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Apparently, some have thought that 1 John 3:4 means that the rules of the Old Covenant should be followed. But, that is a translation-related misunderstanding.

This article takes a closer look at that verse and what really is behind the translation “whoever commits sin transgresses also the law, for sin is the transgression of the law”. Among other things, it will be shown that early English bibles had a more correct wording, but that later things were changed so that today, many translations have wordings which could cause casual bible-readers to think that 1 John 3:4 refers to the breaking of the Old Covenant’s rules.

Early English translations.

The 1395 Wycliffe version had this wording:

1 John 3:4 Ech man that doith synne, doith also wickidnesse, and synne is wickidnesse. (WYC)

In more modern spelling: “Each man that does sin, does also wickedness, and sin is wickedness”.

In the 1525 Tyndale and 1535 Coverdale versions, the wording was as follows:

1 John 3:4 Whosover committeth synne committeth vnrighteousnes also for synne is vnrighteousnes. (TYN)

1 John 3:4 Who so euer comytteth synne, comytteth vnrighteousnes also, and synne is vnrighteousnes. (COV)

In that verse, where Wycliffe has “wickidnesse” and Tyndale and Coverdale “vnrighteousnes”, the Greek has anomia, referring to immorality, unrighteousness.

A note: Most lexicons of old Greek give limited and simplified definitions for the word anomia. But, a study of how the word anomia is used in the Greek texts of the New Testament and the Septuagint (LXX), shows that it had a wide range of uses and meanings, including “wickedness”, “iniquity”, “mischief”, “perversion”, “lawlessness”, “wrongdoing”, “lewdness”, “unrighteousness”, and so on. There is more on this, later in this article.

In short – what the apostle John said, was something like this:

1 John 3:4 Anyone who practises sin, also practises wickedness. Sin is wickedness. 5 You know that he came to take away sins, and there is no sin in him. 6 No one who abides in him keeps on sinning. Those who keep on sinning have neither understood him nor learned to know him. 7 Little children, let no one deceive you. Whoever practises righteousness is righteous, as he is righteous.

Many New Testament passages record how Jesus and the apostles taught that the disciples were to live holy and just, righteous lives. But, new-covenantal righteousness is not defined by the rules of the Old Covenant. In order to understand 1 John 3:4, one must keep in mind that the New Covenant is indeed new, and not a “continuation” or “modification” of the Old Covenant. (For more on this, see the article nca090.htm. The article nga080.htm explains what new-covenantal righteousness is and consists of.)

Now, when and how was the word “unrighteousness” or “wickedness” in 1 John 3:4 changed into a multi-word sentence, “the transgression of the Law”?

It was in the 1560 Geneva bible, that things were changed.

The in 1560 published Geneva bible was an English translation which was produced in Switzerland. Its makers introduced radically changed wordings in several bible-passages. Into 1 John 3:4, they put this wording:

1 John 3:4 Whosoeuer comitteth sinne, transgresseth also the lawe: for sinne is the trásgression of the law. (GEN1560)

The makers of the 1568 Bishops’ bible (a Church of England translation) copied that. And, when king James I of England in 1604 put a group of men to produce a new bible-edition for him, those men were given forty wide-margin prints of the 1602 edition of Bishops’ bible, and their orders were to produce a text that was as close as possible to that 1602 edition, with as few changes as possible. (The article nsa030.htm has more on this.)

Later, the changed wording in 1 John 3:4 was copied by many other translators. They put into 1 John 3:4 such phrases as “whoever commits sin transgresses also the Law, for sin is the transgression of the Law”. This has caused many people to think that it must be the rules of the Old Covenant, or some part of them, that define what is sin, even in connection with the New Covenant. But, the apostle John was not talking about the Old Covenant and its rules. The meaning of the Greek text in 1 John 3:4 is considered below, but again, in short: John was simply warning against iniquity, wickedness, immorality – the opposite of righteousness.

A note: For various reasons, some might connect 1 John 3:4 with Matthew 5:17–18. There are some notes on that passage, at the end of this article.

The noun anomia in the Greek texts of the New Testament and the Septuagint.

A note: It can be easier to understand 1 John 3:4, if one first takes a closer look at the matter of the two covenants, old and new. You can find some food for thought in that regard, under the heading “Covenants” of the page key12.htm.

As was noted earlier, many English lexicons of old Greek give limited and simplified definitions for the old Greek noun anomia. But, one can get a better picture of that word and its meaning, by studying how it is used elsewhere in the Greek text of the New Testament, and in the Septuagint.

13 passages in the Greek NT text contain the noun anomia; 1 John 3:4 and the ones listed below. Here, the 1769 edition of king James’ bible is quoted. In each passage, the word which is used as a translation for the old Greek noun anomia, is highlighted in bold style.

Again, in the list above the words which the 1769 KJ version uses as translations for the old Greek noun anomia, are highlighted in bold style.

Matthew 23:28, Romans 6:19, 2 Corinthians 6:14 and Hebrews 1:9 (see above) make it clear that anomia (iniquity, wickedness) is the opposite of righteousness. (For those who are into linguistics: A study of for instance Hebrews 8:12, Greek text, shows that the words adikia, anomia and hamartia could be used more or less as synonyms.)

Old Testament: Where the Greek Septuagint version (LXX) has anomia, the 1769 KJ version often has “iniquity”, but in some cases also such words as “wickedness”, “corrupt”, “mischief”, “ungodly”, and so on.

In short: In biblical times, the Greek word anomia was used in a wide spectrum of meanings, such as “wickedness”, “wrongdoing”, “mischief”, “perversion”, “lewdness”, “iniquity” and “unrighteousness”.

Anomia was the opposite of righteousness. Jesus and his apostles, including Paul, made it clear that the disciples were to live holy and just, righteous lives. At the same time, the New Testament makes it clear that the saints were not “under law” – new-covenantal righteousness is not defined by the rules of the Old Covenant.

Again, it can be easier to understand 1 John 3:4, if one first takes a closer look at the matter of the two covenants, old and new. You can find some food for thought in that regard, under the heading “Covenants” of the page key12.htm.

The Greek text of 1 John 3:4.

This is the question at hand: How should one interpret the word anomia in the Greek text of 1 John 3:4?

Earlier, it was shown that the Tyndale and Coverdale versions translate it as “unrighteousness”, and the Wycliffe version as “wickedness”. Some others have “iniquity”.

Here is the Byzantine Greek text of 1 John 3:4, transcribed into the English alphabet and with phrase translations:

1 John 3:4 pas ho poiôn tên hamartian (everyone doing sin) kai tên anomian poiei (also wickedness does) kai hê hamartia estin hê anomia (and sin is wickedness)

“Everyone doing sin”, or, “everyone practising sin”. The Greek verb in question is poieô (in the forms poiôn and poiei). Many bible-versions translate it as “practises” or “practising” in numerous passages, including this verse.

Leaving out the Greek, and using a more fluent English wording:

1 John 3:4 Anyone who practises sin also practises wickedness, and sin is wickedness.

Or,

1 John 3:4 Anyone who practises sin also practises unrighteousness, and sin is unrighteousness.

Some might say, ‘But 1 John 3:4 refers to the Decalogue and not to the Old Covenant’.

First, a note: What is said below, must not be misunderstood in any way. The New Testament shows that much more was expected, in the way of righteousness, of the saints who were under the New Covenant, than was ever demanded of the Israelites when they were under the Old Covenant.

The matter of the Decalogue is quite simple, in and by itself, but many people have been subjected to various kinds of confusing dogmas which have made it hard for them to understand how things really are.

Here, it can be good to know that the word “Decalogue” comes from the phrase tous deka logous, “the ten words”, in Exodus 34:28 in the Greek Septuagint version (LXX). – The event when the Lord spoke the “ten words” is recorded in Exodus 20, but it is in Exodus 34:28 and Deuteronomy 4:13 and 10:4 that they are given a “name”. Here is the first of those three passages, as the 1917 Jewish Publication Society translation has it:

Exodus 34:28 And he was there with the Lord forty days and forty nights; he did neither eat bread, nor drink water. And he wrote upon the tables the words of the covenant, the ten words. (JPS1917, highlighting added)

(Deuteronomy 4:13 and 10:4 contain a shorter form, “the ten words”, JPS1917.)

The highlighted phrases above are correct translations of the Hebrew text. The article nca050.htm clarifies this matter in more detail, but here is a short summary:

Again, the Hebrew text of Exodus 34:28 talks about “the words of the covenant, the ten words”. Consider this: “Words of the covenant” – which covenant? Why, the one that was made by Mount Sinai. The Old Covenant.

Please note this: Those “words of the covenant, the ten words” were not separate or a thing for themselves. They were an integral and inseparable part of the Old Covenant. There was nothing “bad” about those ten words, but they belonged to a covenant which had many other rules. That covenant did not provide the Israelites a way to everlasting life. That is probably why the apostle Paul wrote, “the letter kills” and “the ministry of death, in letters engraved on stones”, 2 Corinthians 3:6–7. (The article nca110.htm has some notes on that passage and matter.)

The Old Covenant was “added because of transgressions”, Galatians 3:19, and it was to last “until the Offspring would come to whom the promise was made”, same verse – that is, until Jesus came. When Jesus the prophesied Offspring of Abraham came and then made this Sacrifice by giving his life in place of others, it became possible to launch the New Covenant. When that happened, the Old Covenant had served its purpose and was set aside. The article nca080.htm has more on this.

Again, this matter must not be misunderstood in any way. As was noted above, much more was expected, in the way of righteousness, of the saints who were under the New Covenant, than was ever demanded of the Israelites when they were under the Old Covenant. But again, it is not the rules of the Old Covenant that define what is sin, under the New Covenant.

More on righteousness, in 1 John 3.

Let us read some of the context in 1 John 3.

1 John 3:6 No one who abides in him keeps on sinning; no one who keeps on sinning has either seen him or known him. 7 Little children, let no one deceive you. Whoever practices righteousness is righteous, as he is righteous. 8 Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil, for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil. 9 No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him, and he cannot keep on sinning because he has been born of God. 10 By this it is evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother. (ESV01)

Verses 7 and 10 talk about practising righteousness (poieô + dikaiosunê), as opposed to practising wickedness (poieô + anomia) which is mentioned in verse 4. In short: The apostle John simply used the word anomia as an antonym of dikaiosunê, righteousness. (Antonym = a word that expresses a meaning opposed to the meaning of another word.)

A note: Even the above-quoted ESV01 translates verse 4 in a misleading way. That is what this whole article is all about – the in the 1560 Geneva bible introduced changed and misleading way of translating that verse. Again, it appears that the apostle actually meant something like this:

1 John 3:4 Anyone who practises sin, also practises wickedness. Sin is wickedness. 5 You know that he came to take away sins, and there is no sin in him. 6 No one who abides in him keeps on sinning. Those who keep on sinning have neither understood him nor learned to know him. 7 Little children, let no one deceive you. Whoever practises righteousness is righteous, as he is righteous.

Here some might say, ‘So, what is righteousness?’

Righteousness is important. Taking one passage among many – consider what the apostle Paul wrote to the saints in Corinth:

“Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God?” (1 Corinthians 6:9, VW06)

So, the saints were to live and act in a righteous manner. Multiple New Testament passages make this clear beyond question.

Here, one must keep in mind that new-covenantal righteousness is not defined by the rules of the Old Covenant.

In a way, the two below-quoted passages contain an ultra-short “summary” of the matter of righteousness:

Micah 6:8 I will shew thee, O man, what is good, and what the Lord requireth of thee: Namely, to do right, to have pleasure in loving-kindness, to be lowly, and to walk with thy God (TRC)

(Loving-kindness = caring for other people, and helping them.)

Matthew 22:34 But when the Pharisees had heard that he had put the Sadducees to silence, they were gathered together. 35 Then one of them, which was a lawyer, asked him a question, tempting him, and saying, 36 Master, which is the chief rule in the law? 37 And he said to him, Have love for the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. 38 This is the first and greatest rule. 39 And a second like it is this, Have love for your neighbour as for yourself. (BBE)

Verse 36, “chief rule in the Law” – here, the phrase “the Law” refers to a section in the Old Testament, the five books of Moses. And so, Jesus gave an answer by citing two passages in those books, parts of Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18 (see the above-quoted verses 37–39).

But, of course, there is more to the matter of righteousness than what can be read in Micah 6:8 and Matthew 22:37–39. The article nga080.htm has more on that subject.

A note: It appears that some people have wished to have “written rules” for the New Covenant. But, the New Covenant is written,

“not with ink but by the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of flesh, that is, of the heart” (2 Corinthians 3:3, NKJV).

The article nca060.htm has more on the nature of the New Covenant’s “writing”, including Jeremiah 31:33 and its translation and meaning.

Matthew 5:17–18, ‘the Law’ and ‘the Prophets’ and ‘jot’ and ‘tittle’.

For various reasons, some might connect 1 John 3:4 with Matthew 5:17–18. Let us consider that passage.

Matthew 5:17 Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill. 18 For truly I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the Law till all is fulfilled. (VW06, highlighting added)

A casual bible-reader could easily misunderstand that passage, and think that it means that the Old Covenant and its rules are still in force, “down to the smallest details”. But, it is obvious that when Jesus on that occasion spoke about “the Law” and “the Prophets” and “fulfilling”, he was talking about the fulfilling of certain prophecies which are recorded in “the Law” and in “the Prophets”, that is, in the Old Testament. – Here is a passage which clarifies what the word “fulfill” in Matthew 5:17 and 18 refers to:

Luke 24:44 Then He said to them, These are the words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things must be fulfilled which were written in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms concerning Me. (VW06, highlighting added)

Clarification: The Jews divide the Old Testament into three main sections, “the Law”, “the Prophets”, and “the Psalms” or “the Writings”. “The Law” is a name for the five books of Moses; “the Prophets” and “the Psalms” are names for the two other sections.

In all simplicity: Both Matthew 5:17–18 and Luke 24:44 mean that certain prophecies which are recorded in “the Law” and “the Prophets” and “the Psalms” would be fulfilled, down to the last “jot” and “tittle” (Matthew 5:18, in the Greek text iôta and keraia, which in English terms can be said to correspond to the lower-case letter i and the dot on it).

The article nca010.htm has more on Matthew 5:17–18 and 19–20. See also the “recommended reading” section, below.

Please send or mention the address to this site to others. You can also link to these pages. The address to the table of contents page is biblepages.net/articles.htm

Recommended reading here at the Bible Pages, on related as well as other matters

An explanation of the short names for the bible-translations that are quoted or mentioned at this site. → nsa090.htm

The New Covenant is indeed something new, and not a “renewal” or “modification” of the Old Covenant. → nca090.htm

What does the word “righteous” really mean? What does the Bible say about righteousness? → nga080.htm

On the King James translation. The story behind king James’ bible, including the men who were involved in producing it. → nsa030.htm

On the Decalogue, “the words of the covenant, the ten words”. → nca050.htm

Many talk about “the spirit of the law” versus “the letter of the law”, but those expressions are not found in the Bible. On the meaning of the phrases “the Spirit” and “the letter” in 2 Corinthians 3:6–8 and Romans 7:6. → nca110.htm

On Galatians 3:17–19 and what the apostle Paul meant by “added law”. → nca080.htm

Where can one find the rules of the New Covenant, in written form? → nca060.htm

The New Covenant versus the Old Covenant. Also, some notes on Matthew 5:17–18 and 19–20. → nca010.htm

Other articles on the matter of the two covenants, old and new. → Look under the heading “Covenants” of the page key12.htm.


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