Stevens’ Paraphrase of the Epistles of Paul (1898)

George Barker Stevens, The Epistles of Paul in Modern English: A Paraphrase. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1898.

George Barker Stevens (1854-1906) was a professor at Yale when he published this paraphrase of Paul’s Epistles.

His college course was begun at Cornell, and completed at Rochester, where he graduated in 1877. After a year of theological study in the Baptist Seminary at Rochester, he came to New Haven, and graduated from Yale Divinity School in 1880. He was pastor of the First Congregational Church in Buffalo for two years, and then for three years of the First Presbyterian Church in Watertown, N.Y. In 1883 he gained the degree of Ph.D. from Syracuse University. The years 1885-6 he spent as a student in Germany; and earned the degree of D.D. at Jena, where he studied especially under Lipsius. He was then called to the chair of New Testament criticism and interpretation at Yale, succeeding Dr. Dwight, who entered on the presidency of the university, in 1886. This chair he held until 1895, when he was chosen to succeed the late Dr. Samuel Harris as Dwight professor of systematic theology. 1

In 1892 Stevens had published a major study of Pauline theology, 2 and we might naturally expect to find in this paraphrase of Paul’s epistles a reflection of the interpretations set forth in his earlier treatise. In fact we do find such a relationship in places, but it is most striking how the whole rationale of the paraphrase really contradicts what Stevens says in Pauline theology about the importance of taking seriously the forms of expression used by Paul, as indispensible keys to the true apprehension of his meaning:

Of greater importance for our present purpose than the consideration of Paul’s style is the study of the characteristics of his thinking and his favorite modes of presenting his thoughts, in order to gain a just conception of his teaching upon special subjects. By this study is meant something more than an examination of style; it includes the thought-forms which lie behind style,—the moulds into which ideas are run.

This subject has never received sufficient attention. Interpreters have too often taken up the Pauline letters without reference to the environment in which they were produced, the peculiarities of the writer, or the special ends contemplated in his writings. Upon his words have been put meanings which belong to opinions and speculations which he never entertained, and around his teaching have been thrown associations wholly foreign to his own type of thought. Paul has been read as if he had written in the nineteenth century (or more commonly as if he had written in the fifth or seventeenth), and as if his writings had no peculiarities arising from his own time, education, and mental constitution.

The task of defining these peculiarities is indeed a difficult one. We are so remote from the apostle’s time, we have so inadequate a knowledge of the religious conceptions under whose influence his Christian belief was matured, that we need to proceed with great caution and reserve in the treatment of the subject; but that it is necessary to define as carefully as possible the Pauline modes of thought is a conviction which will be forced upon the mind of every intelligent student who seeks to ascertain precisely the apostle’s meaning. 3

This is all true enough, but unfortunately the paraphrase practically makes it certain that Paul will be “read as if he had written in the nineteenth century”!


1. Frank C. Porter, “George Barker Stevens,” The Biblical World 28/3 (Sep. 1906), p. 162.

2. The Pauline Theology: A Study of the Origin and Correlation of the Doctrinal Teachings of the Apostle Paul. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1892. A revised edition was issued in 1897. The book expresses modernistic opinions that were more or less obligatory for a Yale professor at the end of the nineteenth century, but it is not aggressively anti-orthodox, and is for the most part an honest and scholarly enough treatment of the subject.

3. ibid., pp. 31-32.


In this volume I have sought to reproduce the thought of Paul’s epistles, and of the kindred letter to the Hebrews, in the language of to-day. The terms of our English versions have purposely been avoided, so far as practicable, because their very familiarity is often a hindrance to the apprehension of the meaning. I have hoped to awaken a fresh interest in the apostle’s thoughts by breaking up the form in which he expressed them and by setting forth his ideas in a free modern rendering.

The reading of a “literal,” or verbal, translation of Paul’s letters is attended by many difficulties. The apostle’s carelessness of form, his vehemence in utterance, his use of complex figures, and his involved and elliptical style, are among the peculiarities which often render his meaning obscure. Now a translation can only represent in English words the form of the original; it is debarred not only from introducing explanatory words, but even, to a great extent, from the use of free idiomatic English renderings. A literal translation is a kind of Anglicized Greek text. It necessarily reproduces, in large part, the idioms of the Greek language in English words, and taxes the mind of the reader by compelling him to grapple with all the perplexing irregularities of the apostle’s style.

It has seemed to me that a paraphrase, or thought-translation, which purposely disregards the form, and expresses in idiomatic English the substance of the apostle’s thought, would greatly aid the understanding of our popular versions by presenting the meaning in a fresh setting, by disentangling, in some instances, the idea from its figurative form, by expressing the implied thought of many passages, and by concentrating attention upon the main drift of the argument. It is believed that such a version will be adapted for use in schools in which Bible study is a part of the curriculum, and, especially, for use in Sunday-school classes which have occasion to study this portion of the New Testament.

It is obviously impossible to represent in a paraphrase every shade and turn of Paul’s thought. To do that would require a commentary, and I have wished to avoid the danger to which commentaries are exposed, namely, that of obscuring the general sense by the elaborate treatment of details. I have, therefore, constantly aimed to bring into clear relief the central idea, the essential substance, of Paul’s arguments and exhortations. If, in doing this, minor phases of his thought have sometimes been neglected, it is believed that the omission is justified in the interest of simplicity and clearness.

This version of Paul’s epistles has of course been written with constant reference to the original Greek and with the aid of various critical helps for the determination of its exact meaning. In cases where there are important variations of text the reading which seemed to me preferable has been followed. Where different interpretations are current among scholars the paraphrase has been based, without justification or comment, upon that interpretation which commended itself as the best. It did not accord with the plan of this book to append to it critical notes and explanations. If this were to be done at all it would need to be done on a far greater scale than was possible in a small volume. Moreover, there is no lack of critical commentaries for those who have the time and patience to use them. I have preferred simply to present my conception of the meaning of these writings in as readable a form as possible, without distracting attention by a multitude of critical details. The book should be judged by its purpose and used in accordance with it. I trust that it may be found helpful to the understanding of Paul’s epistles and to the appreciation of his teaching.

George Barker Stevens.
Yale University,
October 1, 1898.

We give here a sample of Stevens’ paraphrase in parallel with the English Revised Version of 1881. The paragraphing is the same in both versions.

Romans 1


Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, separated unto the gospel of God, 2 which he promised afore by his prophets in the holy scriptures, 3 concerning his Son, who was born of the seed of David according to the flesh, 4 who was declared to be the Son of God with power, according to the spirit of holiness, by the resurrection of the dead; even Jesus Christ our Lord, 5 through whom we received grace and apostleship, unto obedience of faith among all the nations, for his name’s sake: 6 among whom are ye also, called to be Jesus Christ’s: 7 To all that are in Rome, beloved of God, called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

I, Paul, address you Romans as one obligated to the will of Christ, commissioned by a divine call and specially set apart to the work of spreading the gospel which God has given to man,—a message whose truths were heralded in advance by divinely inspired men in writings which, by reason of their origin and contents, are sacred, because they bear witness to the Messiah, who was, indeed, in his earthly manifestation, a descendant of David, but who, in his spiritual and essential life, was proven to be God’s Son by a glorious act of power, even an act of resurrection. Such is the divine attestation of Jesus, who has applied God’s grace to me and made me a messenger to secure, for his glory, that obedience to him which springs from faith, among the heathen peoples,—to whom you Christian Romans also belong,—and so, since you fall within the scope of my apostolate, I write you with salutations of grace and peace.

8 First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for you all, that your faith is proclaimed throughout the whole world. 9 For God is my witness, whom I serve in my spirit in the gospel of his Son, how unceasingly I make mention of you, always in my prayers 10 making request, if by any means now at length I may be prospered by the will of God to come unto you. 11 For I long to see you, that I may impart unto you some spiritual gift, to the end ye may be established; 12 that is, that I with you may be comforted in you, each of us by the other’s faith, both yours and mine. 13 And I would not have you ignorant, brethren, that oftentimes I purposed to come unto you (and was hindered hitherto), that I might have some fruit in you also, even as in the rest of the Gentiles. 14 I am debtor both to Greeks and to Barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish. 15 So, as much as in me is, I am ready to preach the gospel to you also that are in Rome. 16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek. 17 For therein is revealed a righteousness of God by faith unto faith: as it is written, But the righteous shall live by faith.

Let the first theme of my letter be the gratitude which I feel for your growth and progress in the Christian life, which is evidenced by your reputation for faithfulness in the whole Christian world. I may thus speak of my feeling of gratitude, for I solemnly avow that it is confirmed and illustrated by my constant prayer that God would grant me the opportunity to visit you,—an opportunity which I sought because of an eager desire to confirm you in the Christian life, or, rather, that both you and I might together receive new strength from the reciprocal influences upon one another of the faith which we both alike cherish. Nor has this desire to visit you been a mere desire with me; I have often formed a fixed purpose to carry it into effect (but have thus far been providentially prevented from so doing),—the end I had in view being to extend the work of the gospel at Rome as I have done and am doing in other Gentile communities. This purpose to visit you was thus in line with my mission to fulfil my divinely imposed obligation to the heathen, regardless of nationality or condition. Hence my readiness to come and work among you,—a readiness which I boldly profess, for I confidently glory and trust in the gospel as God’s effective means of saving from sin every one who believes on Christ, whether Jew or heathen (though I do not forget the economic precedence which has been providentially accorded the Jew in receiving the glad tidings). The gospel, I say, can save men, for in it a way is revealed in which sinful men may be accepted before God and may stand in his presence approved and forgiven. Faith is the condition—the procuring cause, on the human side, of this acceptance—and also its result; that is, the attainment of this standing of acceptance with God is a matter of faith throughout, as the Old Testament itself already intimates.

18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold down the truth in unrighteousness; 19 because that which may be known of God is manifest in them; for God manifested it unto them. 20 For the invisible things of him since the creation of the world are clearly seen, being perceived through the things that are made, even his everlasting power and divinity; that they may be without excuse: 21 because that, knowing God, they glorified him not as God, neither gave thanks; but became vain in their reasonings, and their senseless heart was darkened. 22 Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools, 23 and changed the glory of the incorruptible God for the likeness of an image of corruptible man, and of birds, and four-footed beasts, and creeping things.

Apart from faith, it is God’s wrath (rather than his righteousness) which awaits those who, by the practice of sin, prevent the truth which they do possess from ruling their lives. For a knowledge of God is possessed by men universally. The evidence that God has made himself known to them is found in the fact that they have had, in all periods of the world’s history, through reflection upon the works of God, an idea of divine majesty,—a fact which renders them guilty for the consequences of a neglect of that knowledge. It was because the heathen sinned against divinely given light, and became irreverent, ungrateful, and wickedly foolish in their thoughts of the divinity, that the moral degradation which they are experiencing came upon them. They gave themselves up to the follies and perversions of idolatry, and degraded the idea of God to the level of mere creature-life.

24 Wherefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts unto uncleanness, that their bodies should be dishonoured among themselves: 25 for that they exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed for ever. Amen.

In consequence of this, God punished them by plunging them, through the operation of moral laws, into that degradation in which they now live and in which their lives are characterized by the most revolting and unnatural vices, instead of by supreme reverence for God, as should have been the case.

26 For this cause God gave them up unto vile passions: for their women changed the natural use into that which is against nature: 27 and likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust one toward another, men with men working unseemliness, and receiving in themselves that recompense of their error which was due. 28 And even as they refused to have God in their knowledge, God gave them up unto a reprobate mind, to do those things which are not fitting; 29 being filled with all unrighteousness, wickedness, covetousness, maliciousness; full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, malignity; whisperers, 30 backbiters, hateful to God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil things, disobedient to parents, 31 without understanding, covenant-breakers, without natural affection, unmerciful: 32 who, knowing the ordinance of God, that they which practise such things are worthy of death, not only do the same, but also consent with them that practise them.

To such a life, I say, did God give them over,—a life in which the relations of the sexes were basely disregarded and perverted, and the dire consequences of such vice realized. And so, as they cast out God from their mind, he gave them in return an outcast * mind which led into every namable sin those men who, all the while, knew God’s just decree that such action leads to moral death, and yet were not only themselves guilty of it, but have reached the deeper depth of actually justifying and approving it.


* By this clumsy play upon words I have attempted to represent the paronomasia of the apostle: οὐκ ἐδοκίμασαν ... ἀδόκιμον νοῦν, κ.τ.λ.