“Unto” as a Nonce-word, and Why We Should Keep “Unto” in the Bible

That day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.” (John 14:20)

The old English expression for the nonce means “for the present.” A nonce-word is a word that is used only for the nonce; that is, on a specific occasion or in one specific text or writer’s work.[1] In the context of that occasion, text, or work, it acquires a nonce-meaning, its own special meaning, which readers learn to understand.

The word “unto” has become something of a nonce-word in biblical use. In 1768, Samuel Johnson’s dictionary showed it as already obsolete, but it has continued in quasi nonce-use in the Bible and in related works and speech. However, we hear it less now, since modern Bible translators have substituted “for” or other words in its place.

There are people who say we should keep “unto” in the Bible. It is not just that they miss the old familiar phrasing, but they also know that “unto” conveyed a special meaning that is lost in the new translations. This meaning involves a fascinating grammatical concept called fusion with the object.[2] I will explain this, but first, to see an example of lost meaning, we will compare 1 Timothy 1:16 in The October Testament (the New Testament of the New Matthew Bible or NMB[3]), where we kept William Tyndale’s word “unto,” with some modern translations.

In 1 Timothy 1:16, Paul wrote that he, a notorious sinner, had received mercy from Jesus Christ:

NMB: as an example for those who will in time to come believe on him unto eternal life.

ESV: as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life.

NIV: as an example for those who would believe in him and receive eternal life.

“Unto” conveys a unique meaning in the NMB, which is lost in the two modern versions.

(I note in passing that the ESV and NIV restrict this verse to the past, as if Paul was not to be an example for believers during the entire New Testament age. This is a significant change in meaning. The new meaning has nothing to do with a variant in the Greek manuscript used by the modern translators, but is a new interpretation.[4] This is the case with at least 98% of the losses and differences in meaning and doctrine in modern Bibles.[5])

About “unto” and fusion with the object

“Unto” is a preposition. A preposition is a word that is placed before a substantive (noun or pronoun) to show its relation to some other word or words in the sentence. The substantive is called the object of the preposition. In 1 Timothy 1:16, the substantive is (eternal) life, and it is the object of the preposition “unto,” where “unto” denotes the relation between believing on Jesus and eternal life.

But what relation does “unto” denote? The OED says “unto” was formed on the analogy of the word “until,” and it denotes motion directed towards and reaching (a place, point, or goal).[6] In other words, it expresses the concept of movement toward and finally reaching the object, the substantive. This is the concept that grammarians call “fusion with the object.” See how this works:

► [Paul is an example] for those who will in time to come believe on Jesus (related words) unto eternal life (object, substantive).

“Unto” expresses the idea that believing on Jesus begins motion toward and reaches the object, eternal life. In grammatical jargon, this is fusion with the object.

In 1 Timothy, some translators updated “unto” to “to.” Darby put, “those about to believe on him to life eternal.” However, in my view “unto” expresses the idea of movement “until” the object more emphatically. It has acquired – or with familiarity, does acquire – this unique, emphatic nonce-meaning, but “to” does not convey the idea as well.

Why we should keep “unto” in the Bible

The concept of fusion with the object, which is so well denoted by “unto,” teaches about spiritual things. In 1 Timothy 1:16 it teaches about the process and progress of faith, which finally attains to eternal life. In other verses, it teaches about the progress of the soul toward its eternal reward, as in “repentance unto salvation” (2Co. 7:10), or about the consequences of sin, as in “the sin unto death” (1Jo. 5:16). What a person does, believes, gives himself to, takes pleasure in, etc., propels him along a path that will reach (fuse with) good or evil in eternity.

“Unto” also teaches about the relation of believers as one with God in the Holy Trinity – our fusion with God, as it were, in and through Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. Salvation is attained in oneness with the trinitarian God. Jesus alluded to this when he prayed for His disciples that “they all may be one, as you, Father, are in me, and I in you; that they may also be one in Us” (John 17:21). “Unto” conveys the idea of oneness with the divine in and through Christ. Myles Coverdale referred to this oneness as an “incorporation” into Christ’s body, and by him into the Holy Trinity, wherein only can man attain to eternal life.[7]

The importance of understanding what it is to be “in Christ”

The concept of fusion with the object – that is, with God through Christ – enhances our understanding of our position in Christ and of what it means to be “in Christ,” as Paul often spoke of salvation. The following quotations are from The October Testament (NMB):

Romans 3:24 – We are justified … through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.

Romans 8:1 – There is then no damnation to those who are in Christ Jesus.

Romans 16:7 – Greet Andronicus and Junia, my kinsmen, who were … in Christ before me. (Ro. 16:7)

The idea of being in Christ is mysterious, but is clearly taught in the New Testament. The apostle John said in his divine and inspired words:

He who believes on the Son of God has the witness in himself. … And this is that testimony: that God has given to us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. He who has the Son has life, and he who does not have the Son does not have life. … We know that we are of God, and that the world is altogether set on wickedness. We know that the Son of God has come, and has given us a mind to know him who is true. And we are in him who is true through his Son Jesus Christ. This same is very God and eternal life. (1John 5:10,11-12,20, NMB)

Understanding our position in Christ, who is very God and eternal life, helps us understand the Holy Trinity, how God is known, the glory of salvation, how it is that we do not belong to this world but in another world, and much more. It helps us discern the body of Christ when we approach unto God in Holy Communion (1Co. 11:29). “Unto” is the right word to build understanding of these holy mysteries, and, also, to move the spirit to wonder and praise for what Jesus Christ accomplished for us through his cross.

A very important little preposition: We should keep “unto” in the Bible

Who could have imagined that so much doctrine, so much meaning, could be packed into one little preposition? However, it is lost if we substitute other words. In the ESV, the preposition “for” in 1 Timothy 1:16 indicates a relation of purpose, not progress and fusion. The NIV paraphrase also brings a different message: it says only that those who believe on Jesus will (or rather “would,” past tense) receive eternal life. There is no sense of process or progress towards, or growth into, the object.

The Greek preposition that Tyndale translated “unto” in 1 Timothy 1:16 is εις (or eis, pronounced “ice”). Strong defines εις as meaning to or into, indicating an object “reached or entered.”[8] Thus it denotes fusion with the object, exactly like “unto” does. Tyndale’s translation was faithful to this meaning.

There are many good reasons to keep “unto” in the Bible as a nonce-word. To use other prepositions changes the meaning, while an update to the modern “to” – especially in the context of our relation to the divine – gives a weaker and unnatural result.

Below are three examples showing how well “unto” conveys spiritual teaching:

John 4:36

NMB: He who reaps receives reward, and gathers fruit unto life eternal.

ESV: Already the one who reaps is receiving wages and gathering fruit for eternal life.

NIV: Even now the one who reaps draws a wage and harvests a crop for eternal life.

Such different translations! In the ESV, it appears the translator rendered the Greek aorist verbs literally to convey sense of process that was lost by translating εις as “for.” However, the result is unnatural. “Unto” works well in nonce-use.

(I note also that both the NIV and ESV refer to “wages” instead of “reward.” This is too concrete and worldly when speaking of spiritual things. It is another change that had nothing to do with the Greek manuscript.)

2 Corinthians 7:10

NMB: Godly sorrow causes repentance unto salvation, not to be regretted, while worldly sorrow causes death.

ESV: For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death.

Here the ESV expressed the idea of the Greek preposition εις by a paraphrase. However, a subtle difference in meaning remains. The preposition “unto” indicates that repentance reaches salvation; however, the verb phrase “leads to” suggests it only puts one on the road to salvation. It does not convey the same relation.

It is interesting to see John Wycliffe’s 14th century translation, which to my mind conveys the meaning of the verse better than the 21st century ESV. (Note, in older English “penance” meant repentance and “health” meant salvation):

WYC: For the sorrow that is after God, worketh penance into steadfast health; but sorrow of the world worketh death.

1 Peter 1:3-9

The following beautiful passage from the apostle Peter speaks of the beginning and the end of our faith, and illustrates how “unto” conveys the spiritual meaning:

Blessed be God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who through his abundant mercy begat us again unto a living hope by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from death, to enjoy an inheritance immortal and undefiled, and that does not perish, reserved in heaven for you, who are kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation. Which salvation is prepared all ready to be shown in the last time – in which time you will rejoice, though now for a season (if need require) you are in heaviness through manifold trials, so that your faith, once tried, being much more precious than gold that perishes (though it be tried with fire), may be found to laud, glory, and honour at the appearing of Jesus Christ – whom you have not seen, and yet love him; in whom even now, though you see him not, yet you do believe, and rejoice with joy inexpressible and glorious, receiving the end of your faith, the salvation of your souls. (NMB)

In conclusion, “unto” has a nonce-meaning, a spiritual meaning, that is instructive for the Christian faith and is easily understood. The concept of fusion with the object teaches about salvation and about our relation with the divine through Christ. These are good reasons to keep “unto” in the Bible.

For we are members of his body, of his flesh and of his bones.” (Ephesians 5:30)

The glory that you gave me, I have given them, so that they may be one as we are one, I in them and you in me, so that they may be made perfect in one.” (John 17:22-23)

Ruth Magnusson Davis, March 2021.

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Blog post, baruchhousepublishing.com. “Unto” as a Nonce-word, and Why We Should Keep “Unto” in the Bible.

For real grammar buffs, see “Understanding ‘Like Unto’ in William Tyndale’s Writing”

See also this article on Tyndale Complains about Revisions to his Scripture Translations

———-ENDNOTES———

[1] OED online, s.v. “nonce,” noun, entry I.1.a. Only subscribers have access to the online OED.

[2] More correctly, “fusion with the dative,” because the object is in the dative case. It is also called “blending with the dative.”

[3] The New Matthew Bible is published by Baruch House Publishing. It is the chief work of the New Matthew Bible Project, dedicated to gently updating the 1537 Matthew Bible (MB) for today. This study of “unto” illustrates why an update should be gentle.

The MB was the work of William Tyndale and Myles Coverdale, the translators, and their friend John Rogers, who compiled their work, added study notes, and published the MB in 1537. King Henry VIII then licensed the MB for use in the Church. It went on to serve as the (unacknowledged) base of the Great, Geneva, and King James Bibles, so readers will find much that is familiar in it.

In 2016, Baruch House published the New Testament of the New Matthew Bible as The October Testament. Work on the Old Testament is underway.

[4] For Greek text comparisons, for the RT I use Scrivener’s text as set out in Green, Interlinear Bible, Hebrew, Greek, English, 2nd edition (USA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1986). For CT Bibles I use the Nestle Greek New Testament set out in Zondervan’s Interlinear KJV-NIV Parallel New Testament in Greek and English, ed. Alfred Marshall (Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1975).

[5] The many changes in modern Bibles are discussed, with examples, in The Story of the Matthew Bible, Part 2: The Scriptures Then and Now (Canada: Baruch House Publishing, 2020).

[6] OED online, s.v. “unto” preposition, entry A.I.1.a.

[7] Baruch House will publish Coverdale’s treatise Fruitful Lessons before the summer of 2021 (God willing). This is only one of his works containing teaching about the incorporation of the believer into Christ and, through Him, into the Holy Trinity.

[8] Strong’s Concordance, s.v. εις, entry 1519 in the Greek lexicon.