Tricky Translation: interpretation or explanation

I recently heard a priest quote the verse that says “no prophesy of scripture is of private interpretation”. The person used this quote to defend the idea that non-clergy people should not be interpreting the Bible of their own understanding. They should listen to the traditional orthodox teachings passed down through the priesthood for one to truly understand the scriptures because it was originally passed down from holy men of God to them. When I heard this I recognized it to be the age old tactic of appealing to special exclusive knowledge to control the minds and hearts of people. It also is a really deceptive way to stop people from reading the scriptures, being led by the Spirit and getting close to God. Fundamentally, people in authority like to use the Bible to fool us into not reading it. Unfortunately, even the translation of the scriptures also sometimes make it difficult to fully understand the message that was intended. The use of the word, “interpretation”, in that verse makes it easy for someone to use that verse to convey the wrong message. Interestingly, “interpretation” may not be the best word to use to translate the Greek word it represents. Want to know why? Then, let’s have a look!

Meanings of the Word and its Context

19. We have also a more sure word of prophecy; whereunto ye do well that ye take heed, as unto a light that shineth in a dark place, until the day dawn, and the day star arise in your hearts:

20. Knowing this first, that no prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation.

21. For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost.

2 Peter 1: 19-21 (KJV)

First, let’s look at the word, interpretation, its etymology and meaning:

Online Etymology Dictionary: interpretation
mid-14c. “a translated text, a translation” (late 13c. in Anglo-French), from Old French interpretacion, entrepretatiun “explanation, translation” (12c.) and directly from Latin interpretationem (nominative interpretatio) “explanation, exposition,” noun of action from past participle stem of interpretari “explain, expound; understand” (see interpret).

From late 14c. as “act or process of explaining or interpreting; an explanation; construction placed upon an action.” Meaning “dramatic or musical representation” is from 1880.

Based on the Latin origin and early meaning of the word, we see that the word “interpretation” originally had the meaning of ‘explanation’ or ‘exposition’ and it gave the idea of the understanding, explaining or expounding of something. It was basically a synonym of explanation. Is this the same meaning it has today? Let’s have a look at some dictionary meanings:

Merriam-Webster: interpretation
  1. the act or the result of interpreting : EXPLANATION
  2. a particular adaptation or version of a work, method, or style
  3. a teaching technique that combines factual with stimulating explanatory information
Dictionary.com: interpretation
  1. the act of interpreting; elucidation; explication:
    This writer’s work demands interpretation.
  2. an explanation of the meaning of another’s artistic or creative work; an elucidation:
    an interpretation of a poem.
  3. a conception of another’s behavior:
    a charitable interpretation of his tactlessness.
  4. a way of interpreting.
  5. the rendering of a dramatic part, music, etc., so as to bring out the meaning, or to indicate one’s particular conception of it.
  6. oral translation.
Cambridge Dictionary: interpretation
  1. an explanation or opinion of what something means
  2. a particular way of performing a piece of music, a part in a play, etc.
Oxford Learner’s Dictionary: interpretation
  1. the particular way in which something is understood or explained
  2. the particular way in which somebody chooses to perform a piece of music, a role in a play, etc.

Examining the modern definitions of the word “interpretation”, we can see that the definition definitely includes explanation, but also includes clarification (elucidation, as stated by Dictionary.com), and giving of ones own opinion or explaining in a particular way. Interpretation does not seem to suggest explanation alone, although it could mean that, but it seems to add the idea that it could be one way of explaining things in a set of multiple ways. To me, I get the sense of different possible ways of ‘interpretation’. When I hear the word, ‘explanation’ however, I typically do not think that other explanations are possible. Honestly, I don’t know if this is due to my own personal bias based on my experience of using the English language all my life, but this is how I perceive the meaning and connotations of this word.

More important than the word itself is its use in the passage. It is helpful to read the entire chapter to get the full context of this, but for our purposes, we only need the verse before and after verse 20. just before these 3 verses, the apostle Peter was explaining that they are not speaking from myth or fables when they speak of their experiences of Jesus. His claim is that he saw it with his own eyes, and then he goes on to say that even beyond their eye witness testimony is the testimony of the prophecies written down in the scriptures.

Verse 21 is a explanation or expansion of verse 20, and it says that prophesy did not come about by the will of men, but by the moving (bearing up; prompting and upholding) of the Holy Spirit. To me, verse 21 qualifies verse 20. It explains that prophesy is not by a man’s own explanation or understanding or thoughts, but prophesy comes through the man (that is, the prophet) from the Holy Spirit. It is talking about the source of the prophesy. The source is not to speaker, but the Holy Spirit of God. Reading these verse together, I do not get the sense that Peter is referring to people reading the scriptures and ‘interpreting’ it for themselves, but rather he is referring to the prophet not being the source of the exposition of the prophesy.

Comparing the Translations

Using Biblehub to compare 29 bible translations, I found that 22 of the 29 versions of the verse use the word “interpretation”. Of those same 29, 11 of them use the word “private” instead of a variation of “one’s own”. From reading the different translations, you can see the bias of the translators in the thought expressed by the choice of words. Below I compare the verses and highlight in red those parts that given a dubious rendering:

2 Peter 1: 20 Verse Translation
Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation of things. New International Version
Above all, you must realize that no prophecy in Scripture ever came from the prophet’s own understanding, New Living Translation
knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. English Standard Version
Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture comes from one’s own interpretation. Berean Study Bible
knowing this first, that any prophecy of Scripture is not of its own interpretation. Berean Literal Bible
But know this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, New American Standard Bible
knowing this first, that no prophecy of Scripture is of any private interpretation, New King James Version
Knowing this first, that no prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation. King James Version
Above all, you know this: No prophecy of Scripture comes from the prophet’s own interpretation, Christian Standard Bible
But you need to realize that no one alone can understand any of the prophecies in the Scriptures. Contemporary English Version
Above all else, however, remember that none of us can explain by ourselves a prophecy in the Scriptures. Good News Translation
First of all, you should know this: No prophecy of Scripture comes from one’s own interpretation, Holman Christian Standard Bible
First of all, you must understand this: No prophecy in Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, International Standard Version
Above all, you do well if you recognize this: No prophecy of scripture ever comes about by the prophet’s own imagination, New English Translation
knowing this first, that no prophecy of Scripture is of private interpretation. New Heart English Bible
Knowing this first, that no prophecy of Scripture originated as anyone’s own private interpretation; A Faithful Version
While you first know this: No prophecy is its own exposition of the Scriptures. Aramaic Bible in Plain English
First, you must understand this: No prophecy in Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation. GOD’S WORD Translation
But know this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, New American Standard 1977
Knowing this first, that no prophecy of the scripture is of one’s own interpretation. King James 2000 Bible
Knowing this first, that no prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation. American King James Version
knowing this first, that no prophecy of scripture is of private interpretation. American Standard Version
Understanding this first, that no prophecy of scripture is made by private interpretation. Douay-Rheims Bible
knowing this first, that [the scope of] no prophecy of scripture is had from its own particular interpretation, Darby Bible Translation
knowing this first, that no prophecy of scripture is of private interpretation. English Revised Version
Knowing this first, that no prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation. Webster’s Bible Translation
But, above all, remember that no prophecy in Scripture will be found to have come from the prophet’s own prompting; Weymouth New Testament
knowing this first, that no prophecy of Scripture is of private interpretation. World English Bible
this first knowing, that no prophecy of the Writing doth come of private exposition, Young’s Literal Translation

Very few bible translations actually say that people can’t understand prophesies by themselves. Other translations use ambiguous terms like “one’s”. The translation I like the most is actually the Weymouth New Testament. It is a paraphrase, but I feel like it is the clearest and most accurate. Typically, I don’t really ascribe to using the NIV, but I also think it is very clear when it says that “no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation of things”. Weymouth states that “no prophecy in Scripture will be found to have come from the prophet’s own prompting”. If we look at the actual Greek, we can clearly see that both the NIV and Weymouth are taking the contents of verse 21 into consideration when they translated verse 20. So, let’s check the Greek out.

Looking at the Greek

First, let’s break down the Koine Greek and translate each word:

Greek Word (Transliteration) Part of Speech Meaning
τοῦτο (touto) pronoun – accusative this
πρῶτον (prōton) adverb first
γινώσκοντες (ginōskontes) verb – present participle knowing
ὅτι (hoti) conjunction that
πᾶσα (pasa) adjective – nominative all
προφητεία (propheteia) noun – nominative prohesy
γραφῆς (graphes) noun – genetive of scripture
ἰδίας (idios) adjective – genetive appropriate to one’s self (Liddell and Scott pg. 656); belonging to oneself (Danker)
ἐπιλύσεως (epilyseos) noun – genetive explanation; interpretation; noun form of epilyo, which means to free, loose or unravel
οὐ (ou) particle – negative no
γίνεται (ginetai) verb is (3rd person singular of to be/become/exist)

There are only 11 Greek words in this verse. Most of them are common words found through the New Testament and even the LXX. However, the word, epilyseos, is a Hapax Legomenon, a word that is found only once in the entire New Testament. Danker and Strong’s defines it as “explanation” or “interpretation”. However, if this word occurs only once in the entirety of scripture, how are they so sure that it means “interpretation or explanation”. According to Liddle & Scott, epilyseos means “a freeing, release from; – 2. unloosing; unraveling; solution; interpretation”. As stated before, it is a noun form of a frequently used verb, epilyo, which means “to loose, or untie” according to Thayer and Liddell & Scott. Thayer adds a secondary meaning “to clear (a controversy), to decide, settle: to explain (what is obscure and hard to understand)”. Danker mirrors this definition, as he states the epilyo means “‘loose’ as extended to idea of solving or resolving – 1. To make known what something means; explain; interpret. – 2 . dispose of a matter in dispute; resolve; settle”

Concluding Thoughts

I must admit that this word is hard to properly translate to convey the meaning that it seems to express in the passage. I certainly see how Weymouth New Testament used the word ‘prompting’, due to the Greek word used for “moved [by the Holy Spirit]” in verse 21. And I think the NIV also grasped the idea by saying “the prophet’s own interpretation of things”. If I had to paraphrase it, I would say “the prophet’s own explanation of things he figured out”. The main fact is that this is a noun of a well known verb that gives the idea of ‘loosening’, ‘unraveling’, ‘solving a controversy’, or ‘explaining things hard to understand'”. Maybe a good word to use would be a noun form of “decipher”, such as “decipherment” or “decipherability”. The idea is to convey that prophesies are not what people have unraveled or figured out themselves, but they spoken by men who have been prompted or moved by the Spirit to do so.

This verse should not be used to make people feel that they can’t understand the scriptures or prophesies, or that they need a ‘priest’ or ‘theologian’ to teach them the meaning of what the scriptures plainly say. Don’t let anyone fool you with the expression ‘ private interpretation’. It wasn’t men who figured out some mystery and explained it as a prophesy. A prophesy is God’s words spoken through men by his Spirit. Read the scriptures, ask the Holy Spirit to guide you. And remember the words of the apostle Paul to the believers in Corinth:

And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing. – 1 Corinthians 13:2

References:

  1. Lexicon :: Strong’s G1955 – epilysis – Blue Letter Bible – Site: https://www.blueletterbible.org/lang/lexicon/lexicon.cfm?Strongs=G1955&t=KJV
  2. The Concise Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament – Frederick William Danker
  3. A Greek-English Lexicon – Henry George Liddell & Robert Scott
  4. Interpretation – Oxford Learner’s Dictionary – Site: https://www.oxfordlearnersdictionaries.com/definition/english/interpretation
  5. Interpretation – Cambridge Dictionary – Site: https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/interpretation
  6. Interpretation – Dictionary.com – Site: https://www.dictionary.com/browse/interpretation
  7. Interpretation – Merriam-Webster – Site: https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/interpretation
  8. interpretation – Online Etymology Dictionary – Site: https://www.etymonline.com/word/interpretation
  9. 2 Peter 1:20 – Biblehub – Site: https://biblehub.com/2_peter/1-20.htm