My pastor preached his last of an 80 part sermon series on John today. (Now I don’t feel so bad about preaching for 2 1/2 years on the Sermon on the Mount.) There were so many interesting things in John 21, I am not sure where to start.
John 21:5 has a couple. The ESV translates, “Jesus said to them, ‘Children, do you have any fish?’ They answered him, ‘No.’“ ”Children” is an awkward translation of the vocative plural of παιδίον (see the ESV, NASB, NRSV, NET, KJV).
Now, there is no way that a grown man would yell out “children” to another group of grown men, and fishermen to boot. How would you (if you are an adult) like to be called, “Hey kid”? So by translating “literally,” the words mislead. It could be argued that the translators’ job is simply to translate the words and let the readers figure out what they mean. But to call grown fishermen “children” comes into English only one way — demeaning — and hence misleads the reader. Other translations use “friends” (NIV, NJB), “fellows” (NLT), “young men” (TEV), and “men” (HCSB). Nothing really works here.
παιδίον means “a child, normally below the age of puberty” (BDAG). The entry in BDAG that includes our passage is, “as a form of familiar address on the part of a respected pers., who feels himself on terms of fatherly intimacy w. those whom he addresses” (citing 1 John 2:18 and 3:7 v.l.). The problem here is that the 1 John 2:18 passage is a pastor speaking to his church who knows him, and in our passage the disciples haven’t recognized Jesus yet. It must have been really strange to their ears.
The related παῖς apparently can have the same basic meaning (see Matt 14:21, et al), although it can more easily be used of older people. BDAG gives us, “a young pers. normally below the age of puberty, w. focus on age rather than social status,“ and also has a category, “one who is committed in total obedience to another, slave, servant.”
- The Centurion calls his sick servant ὁ παῖς μου (Matt 8:6).
- Jesus as the Suffering Servant is God’s ὁ παῖς μου (Matt 12:18; cf. Acts 3:13, 26; 4:27, 30).
- Israel is God’s παῖς (Luke 1:54).
- David is God’s servant (Luke 1:69; Acts 4:25).
- Herod even calls his servants, τοῖς παισὶν (Matt 14:2).
Perhaps Jesus used a term of address knowing that once he was recognized, that the term would make sense, although it is strange that he never calls them παιδίον elsewhere in the gospels.
The other interesting thing in this passage is the nature of question. Jesus introduces it using μή, showing that he expected the answer to be, “No, we haven’t caught anything.” Usually translations don’t try to bring this type of nuance into English (ESV, NLT, KJV); it is just too hard to do with smooth English. The NIV’s, “Friends, haven’t you any fish?” is trying to show the answer, but when I read it in Church this morning I couldn’t figure out what that answer was. Besides, it sounds oddly awkward for someone to yell from the side of lake. The NRSV is slightly more awkward English but the intended answer is clearer. “You have no fish, have you?” The HCSB and NET read probably the best. “You don’t have any fish, do you?”
This is a difficult verse. My dad’s vernacular translation has, “Hey there” (Jesus, in His Own Words). How about, “Hey Guys.” If I wanted to get the attention of a bunch of fishermen, that’s how I would say it. But I suspect there is more meaning down deep in Jesus choice of words that simply can’t make it into English.
William D. [Bill] Mounce posts about the Greek language, exegesis, and related topics at Koinonia. He is the author of numerous books, including the bestselling Basics of Biblical Greek, and is the general editor for Mounce's Complete Expository Dictionary of the Old and New Testament Words. He served as the New Testament chair of the English Standard Version Bible translation, and is currently on the Committee for Bible Translation for the NIV. Learn more and visit Bill's blog (co-authored with scholar and his father Bob Mounce) at www.billmounce.com.