Focus On: Through a Gloss Darkly—and Beyond

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Through a Gloss, Darkly—and Beyond

Richard M. Harley, General Editor of the Contexticon of New Testament Language

The paradox is still with us, centuries after the Greek New Testament was first translated into English: the modern words that help us to hear and grasp the message also delimit what we can understand. Put another way, the words translators choose (also referred to as glosses) can convey only a part of what the early Christian authors and audiences would have understood. This limitation of the gloss has long been known to scholars of the Greek New Testament.Fortunately, digital technology is opening new ways to break beyond this constraint. The story of these advances is partly that of scholars sleuthing out new evidence on the way language played for Greek speakers in the early centuries of the Common Era. But it's also a story of scholars envisioning new study environments where readers—whether familiar with Greek or not—may engage the evidence and become informed interpreters in their own right.

The English term gloss derives from Latin and Greek terms for tongue, as in language. In scholarly discussion it often refers to the modern words used by translators to represent the original words of the authors.1 The longstanding practice of attempting to represent each biblical Greek word with a single English gloss continues in widely used translations.2 This is especially true of translations that shun paraphrase, hoping to represent the ordering and style of the Greek text.3 But often the same glosses that help us access the biblical message also restrict what we can hear. How, exactly, do they delimit? And what is at stake?

The problem is illustrated in comparing the glosses used in two translations of a verse Paul wrote for the troubled house churches he founded at Corinth. An early rendering, from the King James Version (1611), still surfaces occasionally in English speech today:  "Now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face" (1 Cor. 13:12). By the late twentieth century, translators working on the New Revised Standard Version would opt for glosses thought more current in modern English, so "through a glass" becomes "in a mirror." The idea of seeing "darkly" gives way to seeing "dimly." Hence the more modern NRSV rendering: "Now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face."4

The newer glosses advance beyond obsolete term usage, and embrace modern English. Yet the modern glosses can take us only so far toward understanding the phrasing in Paul, and can still impede closer examination of the text. For instance, in English mirror conjures up a sophisticated modern instrument with a glass-on-silver surface, reflecting precisely what is placed before it. Such high precision was not possible, of course, for the polished metal surfaces of antiquity (as good as some ancient reflectors were). Thus the modern term mirror may get us beyond archaic English, but does little to help us consider how Paul's imagery played for audiences in his own time. Does his message emphasize the likeness found in a mirrored reflection, or the flawed nature of that reflection? Does it emphasize how a mirrored view is indirect, not the original? In a one-word gloss like mirror, alternatives do not come into view.

The second NRSV gloss, dimly, presents a similar limitation. The English calls to mind sight that is poor quality or poorly lit. Though dimly may seem a clarifying advance over seeing darkly, a phrase seldom used today, scholars have long known that the Greek term used by Paul, ainigma, is far more intriguing. To ancient audiences, the Greek word (from which we get the English enigma) called to mind pithy riddles that initially puzzle or confound, but ultimately lead to insight (Ainigma, 2015). Again, a crucial perspective for any close reading of Paul's message. Yet our one-word gloss does not reveal this context and we are left seeing through a gloss, darkly.

Enter the Contexticon project, a consortium of scholars using powerful digital tools to break beyond limitations of the gloss.5 The name Contexticon reflects the attention these scholars give to context in assessing the use of Greek words by New Testament authors. The emphasis falls on how those words could have been understood by audiences in their own time. Invariably this kind of investigation reveals, for any particular term, a range of semantic possibilities far richer than our translation glosses convey.6 This work has been compiled in an online resource, the Contexticon of New Testament Language.


The View from Inside Research

  At the University of Chicago Divinity School, for instance, a Contexticon research group led by Professor Margaret M. Mitchell took a fresh look at significant Greek words used throughout Paul's influential chapter on love, 1 Corinthians 13.7 These include the terms rendered mirror and dimly in the NRSV: esoptron and ainigma. Examining Greek literature where esoptron occurs,  Chicago researchers most always found authors discussing the idea of reflection. However, they discovered that discussions fall into three distinct types—all worth consideration in the interpretation of Paul.

The first two are quite the opposite of each other, and perhaps understandably so. Authors sometimes refer to mirrors when discussing how a representation of something is like what it represents.8 Elsewhere authors refer to mirrors when arguing the inadequacies of a representation—it's not the original.9 But the Chicago research also turned up a third type of discussion, one the investigators didn't expect. In this third usage authors use esoptron in reference to deep contemplation. The experience of such contemplation is likened to the way people gaze into a mirror. Typically for these authors, the subjects of contemplation hold great virtue; what gazers ponder, they assimilate, and often come to express.10

In revealing this three-fold range—precision, imprecision, contemplation— the Chicago researchers started to break beyond thelimitations of the translation gloss. In effect, they discerned conventions at work in ancient Greek speech—the ways that Greek speakers commonly referred to esoptron, the ways that their audiences commonly expected to hear the term used.  With this range of possibilities, today's reader can assess far more effectively a phrasing like Paul's in 1 Cor. 13:12.

Looking at this passage from the perspective of the contemplation usage brings into view a possibility little recognized in translations. Historically, translators have privileged the imprecision analysis. From this standpoint, Paul's phrasing likens the situation at Corinth to a flawed reflection seen in a mirror: now it is unclear and dim, eventually what is seen will be clear and direct—as if "face to face".11 Yet another possibility comes into view if the mirror imagery is considered in light of the contemplation convention of Greek parlance Paul would be urging Corinthians to understand their situation not as a dim, flawed reflection but as a valuable process of contemplation, sure to change contemplators for the better. This reading gains added support if one recalls the ancient association of ainigma (dimly) with riddles that lead to insight. Paul would be saying that the present puzzling situation at Corinth, rightly interpreted (through contemplation), will lead to the insight church members seek. Fresh interpretive possibilities like this are a common fruit of today's de-glossing research. These new avenues of interpretation can lead to fresh translations. This bodes well for Bible readers and interpreters alike.

Technology and democratizing informed interpretation

It would be difficult to exaggerate the importance of the digital revolution for transcending the limitations of the gloss. Modern researchers have at their disposal remarkable online databases of Greek literary and documentary sources.12 Scholarly efforts to mine data from the ancient literature, inscriptions, and papyri has a long pedigree, dating back to archaeological investigations of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that aimed to illuminate the context in which the Greek language was used, but the advent of online libraries of Greek literature in the 1980s accelerated access and analysis exponentially. When the NRSV was published in 1989, the scholarly use of new databases had only just begun, now most every doctoral dissertation assumes it. But the comprehensive databases of literature are only part of today's story. Imaginatively designed online study environments now make available exemplary exhibits of ancient term usage, facilitating the practical use of extant data in support of interpretation. As noted above, the Chicago researchers laid out the most revealing and exemplary evidence from their research in the new-style reference resource, the Contexticon, designed to give researchers rapid access to such evidence. In its research environment, readers are able to readily discard distortions of the modern gloss and assess terms like esoptron according to the precedents of Greek authors in the ancient Mediterranean world.13

Remarkably, in the development of the Contexticon researchers learned early on that students at all levels can transcend limitations of the gloss even if they have little or no familiarity with Greek. By becoming familiar with a term in its authentic range of usage, users become less dependent on the glosses offered in translations, more able to assess options in their own right. Like the democratizing effect of the first translation of the New Testament into English by William Tyndale nearly a half millennium ago which allowed thoughtful churchgoers, if literate, to read and interpret biblical texts without mediation from the local parish clergy— today's readers are invited to see the baseline evidence, appreciate the variety of possible readings, and interpret for themselves. As we continue into the twenty-first century, it's no exaggeration to say that the essential evidence needed for interpretation is no longer the exclusive domain of translator and commentator.

What Next for Translators and for Those Who Teach?

As the era of de-glossing proceeds, we can expect far more richly nuanced renderings in our English translations. Here multiword renderings may well be needed—even by versions seeking to represent faithfully the Greek and curb the wilder liberties of paraphrased versions. Perhaps most significant will be the reexamination of terms that have been routinely rendered by the same English glosses, over and over again, century after century. These "super-glosses" are familiar: faith, grace, righteousness, redemption, glory, boldness, meekness, and so on. We inherit them, incredibly, from the sixteenth century church-speak used by William Tyndale in his first English translation of the New Testament in 1526. For some of these glosses, the range of usage in English has itself changed in subsequent centuries. One can only imagine the enhancements in biblical reading as the super-glosses are reassessed in the light of new research.

Not all translators will wish to revisit the super-glosses, and some may argue their legitimacy as a part of traditional church doctrine.14 However, even a cursory look at one of these super-glosses suggests the need to reconsider. Out of some 227 New Testament occurrences of the noun doxa and its related verb doxazo, nearly 90 percent are rendered in the NRSV with some form of the English word glory.15 NRSV translators do use other glosses in some contexts. But the alternatives to glory/glorify/glorious are used so sparingly in proportion, that one may suspect habit and familiarity to be driving a great many renderings—not a thoughtfully phrased alternative which draws us closer to the distinctively phrased messages of New Testament authors themselves. Contextual research shows a remarkably rich range of usages for doxa and its cognates. These uses include opinion, reputation, gratitude, praise, appearance, manifested splendor (or power that impresses onlookers), exaltation, and reflected splendor (Doxa, 2015). Again, one can imagine a great many enrichments in future translations as this richer semantic range is more fully considered.

Today's advances beyond the gloss also suggest a need to rethink how our educational institutions transmit a working knowledge of biblical Greek. In the past—and for the vast majority of those of us active in the New Testament scholarship today—the acquisition of Greek language skills was a process that relied heavily on the English gloss. These we encountered from an early stage in the vocabulary lists of textbooks. Faced with assignments to translate biblical (and other) Greek texts into English, we increasingly turned to the scholarly lexica. Yet at this formative stage, range of usage seemed a subject for specialists. Instead, for any given Greek term used by a biblical author we gravitated to suggested English options, then boldly plugged a gloss of choice into our translation—all too credulously taking the gloss as if it unambiguously representes the Greek of the biblical author. Again, the educational process that first helped us to engage biblical discourse now perpetuates imprecise interpretation.16

Fortunately today, we have an opportunity to rethink and reframe our educational systems, aided by new research and reference tools that take us beyond limitations of the gloss. This portends a new day and new ways.  Rather than assuming dependence on the gloss, rather than seeking comfort in familiar repetitions, we can open ourselves to fresh semantic possibilities that draw us closer to the standpoint of audiences for whom the New Testament texts were written. These efforts portend uncertainties—enigmas that will surprise and confound. Yet the research to date suggests that the venture will have sure rewards. The glosses have given us much. But now, surely, it is time we step beyond them.


1The term is also used of ancient scribes, and later compilers of biblical texts, who made marginal notes (glosses) to elucidate meaning.

2For instance: New Revised Standard Version (and previous revisions of the King James Version—the RV, ASV, and RSV), the New American Bible, and the English Standard Version.

3In many translations the tension between staying "literal" or allowing paraphrase remains an ongoing concern. The NRSV (1989) uses paraphrase with caution, saying it strives to be "as literal as possible, as free as necessary" ("Note to the Reader of the NRSV"). The preface to the New International Version says it strives for "more than a word-for-word translation," because thought patterns and syntax differ from language to language, so that "faithful communication of the meaning of the writers of the Bible demands frequent modifications in sentence structure and constant regard for the contextual meanings of words." In short, the NIV aims to be "idiomatic but not idiosyncratic, contemporary but not dated."

4Here NRSV translators preserve a number of renderings from earlier revisions of the King James Version, first found in the Revised Version of 1881, then the Revised Standard Version of 1952.

5Research teams have been located at major universities (Chicago, Yale, Oxford, Baylor, McGill, Emory, Notre Dame, University of Texas at Austin, Southern Methodist, Duke, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Wake Forest), and are coordinated by editors at Contexticon Learning and Research, Inc., in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

6The work of these scholars is published in the Contexticon of New Testament Language. Behind the emphasis on assessing New Testament terms "in context" lies a seminal insight of modern linguistics: that a word does not signify meaning in -and -of itself; rather, its role as a signifier can only be determined by seeing how it is used in relation to, and in combination with, the terms, syntax, and other verbal signals that comprise the fuller context. From this standpoint, the same Greek term can play a variety of roles, depending upon context. One seminal statement of this view is found in Johannes P. Louw, "How Do Words Mean—If They Do?" Filologia neotestamentaria Neotestamentaria  4 (Vol. IV, November 1991),: pp. 125-142). See also D. Alan Cruse, Meaning in Language: An Introduction to Semantics and Pragmatics (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2000), pp. 99-100.

7Scholars on Mitchell's team include K. Scott Bowie, Jeffrey Dean Jay, and James L. Weaver.

8For instance, Diogenes Laertius writes that Plato advised youths who get drunk to "view themselves in a mirror; for they would then abandon the habit which so disfigured them" (Lives 3.39), as translated by R. D. Hicks in Loeb Classical Library 184 [Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1925]).

9And indirectness can mislead, as when a mirror-gazer sees his or her face reversed left-to-right (e.g., Plato's Theaetetus 193, translated by H. N. Fowler in Loeb Classical Library 123 [Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1921]).

10For instance, in Philo's description of Hagar's discernment of the divine source of her cultivated understanding: "How couldst thou fail, thou soul, who in thy progress art dipping deep into the school-lore knowledge, to see reflected in thy training as in a mirror the Author of that knowledge?" (Flight 213, as translated by F. H. Colson and G. H. Whitaker in the Loeb Classical Library 275 [Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1934]).

11NIV translators emphasize the imperfection of what is currently seen by Paul and his audience, offering this paraphrase: "Now we see only a reflection as in a mirror."  

12Three of note include Thesaurus Linguae Graecae (TLG), the Perseus Digital Library, and the Ancient World Online (AWOL).

13The term "precedents" is used here in a broad sense to include examples of term usage found in writings before, contemporary with, or even later than texts of the New Testament—the latter when thought illuminating for NT Greek usage.

14The English Standard Version, for instance, adopted the principle of preserving English terminology that has long been associated with church doctrines. Specifically, the preface to its 2008 revision states that the ESV deliberately "… retains theological terminology—words such as 'grace,' 'faith,' 'justification,' 'sanctification,' 'redemption,' 'regeneration,' 'reconciliation,' 'propitiation'—because of their central importance for Christian doctrine," also arguing that the Greek words represented by these glosses were "already becoming key words and technical terms in New Testament times."

15Including "glorify," "glorified," and "glorious."

16A growing recognition of the seriousness of this problem is illustrated in a talk delivered by the Chair of the NIV Committee on Bible Translation, Douglas J. Moo, before the Evangelical Theological Society in San Diego in November of 2014. Dr. Moo cautioned educators that the practice of encouraging students to use glosses in word-for-word translation exercises may hold them back from acquiring more sophisticated Greek language skills: "Do [students] move beyond the 'gloss' method to a more sophisticated understanding of words and their meanings? Or… do we continue to require our second-year language students to translate 'word for word,' perpetuating a simplistic and ultimately quite false view of language?" (We Still Don't Get It: Evangelicals and Bible Translation Fifty Years After James Barr. [Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan reprint: 2014], p. 14).


  • "Ainigma," Contexticon of New Testament Language. Cambridge, MA, 2015:
  • "Doxa," Contexticon of New Testament Language. Cambridge, MA, 2015:
  • Cruse , D. Alan, Meaning in Language: An Introduction to Semantics and Pragmatics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000:99-100.
  • Louw, Johannes P., "How Do Words Mean—If They Do?" Filologia Neotestamentaria  4 ( Nov. 1991): 125-42.
  • Online Databases:

  • Thesaurus Linguae Graecae. (TLG),
  • Perseus Digital Library:
  • Ancient World Online (AWOL):

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    Subject Entries and Commentary

    Translation of the Bible into English
    Translation as Interpretation
    The Translation of the New Testament
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