Word Studies in the New Living Translation: σκανδαλίζω (skandalizō)

Greek:      σκανδαλίζω (skandalizō)
English:     Cause to stumble, cause to sin, offend

by Jonathan W. Bryant, PhD, Senior Editor, Tyndale Bibles

Many who have grown up in the church are familiar with a statement of Jesus rendered something like this: “If anyone causes one of these little ones to stumble, it would be better for a millstone to be hung around his neck and to be drowned in the sea” (Matthew 18:6 // Mark 9:42). The term translated “causes to stumble” is the Greek word skandalizō (skahn-dah-LIDZ-oh), which is related to the noun skandalon (SKAHN-dah-lon). We get our words scandal and scandalize from these Greek terms.

The basic meaning of the noun skandalon is “trap,” as in, a device or object for catching prey or making someone trip. In Leviticus 19:14, a literal rendering from the Hebrew is “You must not put an obstacle [or stumbling block] in front of the blind.” The Septuagint (a Greek translation of the Old Testament) uses the term skandalon. But in addition to referring simply to a physical trap or object that causes a fall, the term skandalon came to refer figuratively to moral or spiritual “traps”—that which causes a person to “stumble” or “fall” morally. The related verb skandalizō, then, could be used to refer either to the activity that causes one to stumble or fall morally or to the act of stumbling or falling morally or spiritually.

The verb skandalizō appears 29 times in the New Testament, with 22 of these instances occurring in Matthew and Mark. The term is often used in statements of warning from Jesus, as in the one from Matthew 18:6 and Mark 9:42 mentioned above. The traditional term used throughout church history and theology for moral failure is sin. And a number of translations, including the NLT, often translate skandalizō in these warning passages as “cause to sin,” making explicit the notion that moral or spiritual failure is in view.

So, in the NLT of Matthew 5:29-30, we read, “If your eye—even your good eye—causes you to lust [naming the specific sin in this context], gouge it out and throw it away. . . . If your hand—even your stronger hand—causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away.” While some translations render skandalizō here as “cause to stumble” (including NIV, NASB1995), many others (including the NLT, ESV, NKJV, CSB, NRSV, NASB2020) take up clearly the figurative notion present here that the “stumbling” in view is moral or spiritual in nature. (Notice how the NASB translators shifted their approach on this issue between the 1995 and 2020 editions.)

In some other contexts in the Gospels, Jesus alludes to the notion that he himself could potentially be a cause for people to “stumble” or “fall” (for example, Matthew 11:6; 13:57; Mark 6:3). Clearly, these instances do not suggest that Jesus was causing people to sin. Rather, people were “tripping” or “falling” because they misunderstood Jesus or had a faulty view of him. The NLT uses a variety of terms to translate skandalizō in such cases, including “fall away,” “were offended,” “or will desert” (Matthew 26:31-33, in the case of the disciples deserting Jesus at his arrest). The other major English translations display a similar flexibility in rendering this term in these contexts.

As you can see, the NLT, like other translations, seeks to convey this specific Greek term in a way that makes most sense in its context (hence “will desert” in Matthew 26:31-33), and in a way that will be readily understood by readers (hence the explicit “cause to sin” in Matthew 5:30). This is a crucial element of translation and will continue to be so as long as translations are created and updated.

As Paul concludes in his three uses of the term skandalizō (1 Corinthians 8:13 [twice]; 2 Corinthians 11:29), may we be adamant about not causing others to sin. And may we also not trip over Jesus when we encounter him in our daily walk through life.

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