God Forbid, A Study in Bible Translation MethodologyY



From The Electronic Magazine: “As I See It”
By Doug Kutilek

The phrase “God forbid” occurs some 24 times in the King James Version of the Bible.  Nine of these occurrences are in the OT (and thrice the similar “the LORD forbid”), while fifteen are found in the NT.  Of the NT occurrences, all but one are found in the writings of Paul. 

As has been pointed out countless times with regard to the use of the phrase “God forbid” to render the words of the original Hebrew and Greek, it is a close English equivalent except for two facts: 1. the word “God” is not found in the original text; and 2. neither is the word “forbid.” Other than that, it is a fine representation of the original! 

It is obvious, of course, that here at least, the KJV is not a literal translation of the original, but is at best a paraphrase, a “dynamic quivalent.” (Do I hear some rigid KJV adherent mutter under his breath, “God forbid!”?)

It is our aim to examine the words of the original, their force andm meaning, trace the origin of the common English rendering as far as possible, and compare this with translations in other languages, and in more recent English versions.

Because it would divide our attention and take us too far afield in this context, we will set aside the OT references and focus on those in the NT, saying only that the OT references are similar in nature to what we will discover regarding those of the NT. 

The NT passages, gleaned from Strong’s concordance, are Luke 20:16; Romans 3:4; 3:6; 3:31; 6:2; 6:15; 7:7; 7:13; 9:14; 11:1; 11:11; I Corinthians 6:15; Galatians 2:17; 3:21; 6:14.  In every case but the last, the phrase is a self-standing grammatical unit, expressing strong opposition or rejection of a just mentioned opinion, point of view, or implied answer to a question.  In Galatians 6:14, it is incorporated into a sentence.

In all 15 references, the Greek phrase is identical: ME GENOITO.  ME is a negative particle usually used with verbs in the subjunctive, optative or imperative moods.  GENOITO is a rare NT occurrence of a verb in the optative mood (just 56 cases in all).  It is from the verb GINOMAI, “to be, become, happen,” etc.  Taken together, the phrase may be literally rendered, “may it not be,” a phrase weaker in force in English than the Greek original. 

It is of note that GENOITO is sometimes used in the Septuagint, the pre-Christian Greek translation of the OT, to translate the Hebrew word “amen.”  So, to write GENOITO would be as if to say “amen!” while in the negative, ME GENOITO is in essence to declare “no amen!”   And just as “amen!” is a strong affirmation of agreement, so “no amen!” would be a strong expression of disagreement.  Modern English equivalents would be “not at all!” or “absolutely not!” or “certainly not!” or “by no means” or “under no circumstances” or “perish the thought!” or even the colloquial, “no way, Jose!” (see the New King James Bible, New American Standard Bible, and New International Version in the passages involved). While all of these modern renderings are other than strictly literal renderings of ME GENOITO, they at least have the advantage over the KJV rendering of not introducing the name of God where it is not found in the original.

Where exactly did the rendering “God forbid” come from?  Well, it was not an innovation with the KJV.  It is found all but uniformly in earlier English Bible versions.  It is employed in all 15 passages in the Catholic Douay NT of 1582 (this version influenced every page of the KJV NT), and in three distinct editions of the Geneva version (1557, 1560, 1602), in the earlier Cranmer version (1539), and also Tyndale’s editions of 1526 and 1534.  Even Wycliffe’s version of 1380 uses “God forbid” in all but Galatians 6:14, where he has “far be it from me,” which is a literal translation of the Latin Vulgate on which Wycliffe based his version.  (I was not able to check the Bishops’ Bible of 1562, the version on which the KJV revision was based, but I would be greatly surprised if it differed greatly from the other 16th century English versions.  One author affirmed that Coverdale’s [1535?] revision of Tyndale’s version had “that be far” in at least some passages, but I was not able to confirm this). In retrospect, Wycliffe, translating from a Latin text and not from Greek –but not literally translating that Latin into English–seems to have set a pattern which subsequent English Bible translators followed as a matter of course.

I could find no trace of “God forbid” earlier than Wycliffe.  An Anglo-Saxon translation of part of the Bible was made in England during the Middle Ages on the basis of the Latin Vulgate; only the Gospels are preserved to this day.  The one occurrence of ME GENOITO in the Gospels, Luke 20:16, is rendered “Dhaet ne geweordhe,” literally, “may that not happen.”  Evidently, “God forbid” did not pass into later English versions from the Anglo-Saxon.

Can the influence of some foreign version be discerned in this matter? Apparently not.  The Latin Vulgate, known and used by all Bible translators in the Reformation era, regularly in the 15 NT passages has “absit,” a third person singular subjunctive form of “absum–to be away from” and therefore meaning “may it be away or distant” or more colloquially “far be it” (neither “God” nor “forbid” being expressly mentioned).

Jerome’s Latin NT translation (begun in 384 A.D.) was a revision of earlier Old Latin versions.  The one place where I was able to check the rendering of the Old Latin version, Luke 20:16, it did not differ from the Vulgate.  The KJV (and earlier English versions) apparently did not derive “God forbid” from influence from the Old Latin.

Nor did Luther’s German influence the English, since Luther regularly follows the Vulgate closely, giving “das sey ferne,” literally, “may that be far away.” (Galatians 6:14 has “es sey ferne,” “may it be far away”). And of course Wycliffe, the first English version and the first to use “God forbid,” preceded Luther by 140 years anyway.

Other Reformation-era translations of the NT into the languages of Western Europe show a uniform absence of anything like “God forbid” in their rendering of ME GENOITO.  Calvin’s Latin version gives either “ne ita sit” (“may that not be”) or “absit” (“may it be far”). 

The French Ostervald-Frossard version, a revision of a Reformation-era version, has usually “nullement!” (“not at all, by no means”).  In Luke 20 and Galatian 6, it has phrases meaning literally, “may that not thus come (to pass)” and “may I not arrive,” respectively.  This French version is commonly hailed by KJVO advocates as the French equivalent of the KJV. 

The Spanish Reina-Valera version of 1602 (Trinitarian Bible Society edition, which in some places has been altered by the TBS from the original 1602 edition) mostly has “en ninguna manera”–“in no manner,” or something closely akin.  A couple of places it has phrases meaning “may that be far away,” reflecting the Vulgate.  At Luke 20:16, it has, uniquely and inexplicably, “Dios nos libre”–“God free us.”  The baseless insertion of “God” here parallels the English custom, but it is not an equivalent phrase to “God forbid,” since God is invoked, not to prohibit the action, but to free the petitioners from it.

Frankly, I am at a loss to explain how it came to pass that “God forbid,” came to be considered by Wycliffe and other early English translators from Tyndale to the KJV as a suitable and correct translation of the Greek ME GENOITO.  It was strictly a phenomenon that arose in the then-very small English-speaking world, as far as I can tell.  It shows no equivalent in the prior Latin or Anglo-Saxon versions, nor in the contemporary German, Latin, French or Spanish versions.  It cannot be defended as “the closest possible English equivalent.”  The renderings of the NKJB, NASB, and NIV are very much to be preferred to it.

Doug Kutilek 

“The phrase ME GENOITO is an Optative of Wishing which strongly deprecates something suggested by a previous question or assertion. Fourteen of the fifteen New Testament instances are in Paul’s writings, and in twelve of these it expresses the apostle’s abhorrence of an inference he fears may be (falsely) drawn from his argument.”  (Ernest De Witt Burton, Syntax of the Moods and Tenses in New Testament Greek, Kregel, 1976, p. 79) 




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