Lost In Translation: Pruned or Cleaned in John 15:2-3

Lost In Translation: Pruned or Cleaned in John 15:2-3

A group I meet with on Thursday nights has been studying the Gospel of John, and as we’ve progressed I’ve been working my way through it in Greek, trying to do my own translation. What I’ve found is that I have great sympathy and empathy for Bible translators, who (among a multitude of other struggles) are so often forced to take all the nuanced options in original languages and reduce them to one.  Or they have to take wordplays in one language and try to figure out solutions for making them work in translation (or not).  Sometimes, however, I wonder “Why did they make that translation choice!?” because for one reason or other it just doesn’t make sense to me.  One of those passages is John 15:1-4.

Pruned Vines and Clean Disciples

In this passage Jesus is using the image of vines and the branches that grow from them as a metaphor for the disciples, their vital relationship to Jesus, and the tending role of the Father as Vinedresser or Gardener (literally, “worker of the ground”, ge-ōrgos /γεωργός from gē ergō).  This is how the passage is translated in some popular versions:

English Standard Version New International (2011) New Revised Standard
John 15.1 “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser.

John 15.1 ¶ “I am  the true vine,  and my Father is the gardener.

John 15.1 ¶ “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower.

 John 15.2 Every branch in me that does not bear fruithe takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes,that it may bear more fruit.

 John 15.2 He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit,  while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes  so that it will be even more fruitful.  John 15.2 He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit.

John 15.3 Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you.

 John 15.3 You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you.   John 15.3 You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you.

John 15.4 Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me.

John 15.4 Remain in me, as I also remain in you.  No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me. John 15.4 Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me.

When reading these verses in English, there seems to be a break at verse 3 in the flow of thought: Jesus is talking about trees and fruit,  when suddenly he digresses for a moment to point out to his disciples that they are “clean” before continuing with his gardening metaphor.

Finding Some Catharsis

However, in the Greek there is no real break in thought.  The words used for “prune” in verse 2 and “clean” in verse 3 are from a related root.  In verse 2 this root is being used as a verb, kathairei (καθαίρει), and in verse 3 as an adjective, katharoi (καθαροί).  Most often these are used for “cleanse” or “clean”, respectively, especially when referring to ritually pure objects or people (think terms of “purify” or “pure”). However, the verb has a range of meanings, including “pruning” or “cleaning” a tree, vine, plant, etc.   Perhaps a more connected choice within the translation options would be “purged”.  You have probably already noted the connection between these Greek words with the English word catharsis,”to release” or “to purge” for the sake of being made whole, clean, or pure. Given the rooted relationship between kathairei and katharoi, it is surprising that almost all English translations of these two back-to-back verses contain the overly literal and disjunctive”prune” and “clean” combination.  For consistency of thought, a better translation would be to represent the relationship of the terms, and, in this case, Eugene Peterson’s The Message captures the idea and feel of the passage much more effectively (although “grapes” is an addition):

“I am the Real Vine and my Father is the Farmer. He cuts off every branch of me that doesn’t bear grapes. And every branch that is grape-bearing he prunes back so it will bear even more. You are already pruned back by the message I have spoken . . . “

John 15:1-3 (The Message)

This translation obviously helps the reader to have a better sense of the passage, and the potential break in Jesus’ flow of thought is removed.

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About the author

I’m a husband, father, and one of those friends who has a terrible habit of not returning phone calls.  I’m really just trying to figure out what it means to follow Jesus, and I enjoy meeting great people along the way and maybe having a chance to spend time talking about things deep and trivial.

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  1. James Lambert

    Something else to consider is that in the first half of verse 2, the verb translated variously as “takes away,” “cuts off,” or “removes” is ‘airei,’ a very literal rendering of which would be “lifts up.” So, the word play actually extends over three verbs (well, two verbs and a verbal adjective): “lifts,” “lifts-cleans,” and “clean.” – if kathairei is understood as a compound word involving both of the roots we’ve mentioned, or if it really only comes from the katharos root but the “airei” portion is an incidental pun. So, with those three ideas connected, we see an image of the vinedresser constantly and carefully tending to the vine as a whole as well as the individual branches, to remove whatever must be removed in order for us to bear more fruit. That means whole branches which have already died and show it by bearing no fruit; and portions of the fruit-bearing branches which need to be pruned to make way for more fruit. And then the result is that we are clean before God – or probably better to say we are already clean but this process maintains us in that state. As you said, difficult to render simply in English.

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