Why Translators Shouldn’t Translate “Walk” as “Live” in Ephesians 4-5

Recent Bible translations have increasingly opted to translate the Greek word peripateo, whenever it is used metaphorically to describe one’s way of life, with the English word “live.”  The other option at translators’ disposal is to retain the metaphor and translate it into English as “walk.”  The motivation for the decision to translate with the word “live” instead of “walk,” apparently, is the fear that readers might not grasp the metaphor, and thus might either interpret verses that employ the metaphor literalistically (describing the manner in which you put one foot in front of the other), or, more likely, that readers might simply find themselves confused by the metaphor.  Let me show you some verses from Ephesians 4-5 where this matters, comparing the English Standard Version and the New American Standard Bible, both of which tend to use “walk” in such contexts with the New International Version and New Living Translation, both of which tend to use “live” (or something similar).

Walk” in Ephesians 4:1

ESV  I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called,

NASB  Therefore I, the prisoner of the Lord, implore you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called,

“Live” in Ephesians 4:1

NIV  As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received.

NLT  Therefore I, a prisoner for serving the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of your calling, for you have been called by God.

—-

“Walk” in Ephesians 4:17

ESV  Now this I say and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds.

NASB  So this I say, and affirm together with the Lord, that you walk no longer just as the Gentiles also walk, in the futility of their mind,

“Live” in Ephesians 4:17

NIV  So I tell you this, and insist on it in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking.

NLT  With the Lord’s authority I say this: Live no longer as the Gentiles do, for they are hopelessly confused.

—-

“Walk” in Ephesians 5:8

ESV  Walk as children of light

NASB  walk as children of Light

“Live” in Ephesians 5:8

NIV  Live as children of light

NLT  So live as people of light!

—-

Walk” in Ephesians 5:15

ESV  Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise,

NASB  Therefore be careful how you walk, not as unwise men but as wise,

“Live” in Ephesians 5:15

NIV  Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise,

NLT  So be careful how you live. Don’t live like fools, but like those who are wise.

—-

In my opinion, more is lost than gained by the decision to translate peripateo as “live” instead of “walk.”  Let me offer a few reasons.

  1. The word “live” in English is multivalent. Granted, it can—and sometimes does—refer to one’s conduct (“Take care how you live your life”), but it can also be used for other ideas, such as staying alive (“I hope to live to ninety years old”), for thoughts that remain (“that story lives on in my memory”), for what you eat (“when my wife isn’t home, I live on mac & cheese”), or for where you reside (“I live in Los Angeles”).  Multivalent words such as “live” tend to generate interpretive fog for a reader unless such words are supported by other ideas in their immediate literary context.
  2. The word “live” in English is banal. For those who don’t commonly use the word “banal,” let’s insert the word “boring.”  The word “live” in English is boring; it lacks zing…or emotion…or more significantly, movement.  Observe the examples in point 1 above.  Those examples tend toward simple description and tend away from engagement with one’s will or emotions.  Since Paul wrote Ephesians 4-5 with the intent to engage both his readers’ wills and emotions—along with their minds—the concern about banality in the English word “live” needs to be factored in among other concerns.  In contrast, the word “walk” has the potential of engaging both the will and the emotions in a way that “live” does not.
  3. But will people understand the word “walk” as a metaphor for conducting one’s life? Yes, I believe so.  It shows up with some regularity in popular culture.  Consider the following:
  1. Think about what might get lost if we started consistently removing metaphors from our Bibles. Here is a non-metaphorical rendition of Psalm 23.  Boring….

The Lord is my protector and guide.  I shall have no need.  He gives me rest.  He gently guides me.  He encourages me when I’m discouraged.  He shows me the right things to do, for the sake of his reputation.  Even though I go through really (really!) hard times, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.  You comfort me.  You take care of me even when my enemies are against me.  You give me special treatment.  I am fully cared for.  Surely your goodness and mercy will be with me until I die.  And I will live with you forever. 

Hmmm….   Let me suggest a rule of thumb regarding the retention of metaphors:  If you can retain a metaphor—and a reader is likely to understand it—by all means develop a bias toward keeping the metaphor!

  1. Now, to the most important reason for maintaining the walking metaphor in Ephesians 4-5. “Walk” is the most important word in Ephesians 4-5.  Paul has purposely chosen this metaphor as a header and connector for the various ideas in this section of the letter (4:1, 17; 5:2, 8, 15).  To remove the metaphor is to remove one of Paul’s intended meanings.  In fact, it is not uncommon for people to divide up Ephesians into three sections, focusing on the positions of the believer:  1) Sit, 1:1-3:21, 2) Walk, 4:1-6:9), and Stand, 6:24).  This division is not an imposition upon the text because Paul has intentionally included each metaphor to highlight our position in Christ (“sit”—except that “sit” is actually “seated,” see 2:6), how we’re to work it out (“walk”), and how we are to defend against the Evil One (“stand”).  The “walk” metaphor is the most pronounced of these three metaphors.  The verses from Ephesians 4-5 listed above show how important is this word in chapters 4-5 of Ephesians.  Perhaps for the sake of consistency we should consider removing the “seated” and “stand” metaphors if we intend to do so with “walk” in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians.

For these reasons, I recommend that translators reconsider the recent trend toward translating peripateo as “live” instead of “walk” in Ephesians 4-5, and indeed, in other similar contexts.

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