Darkness vs. Light

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it (John 1.5)

This seems like a pretty straightforward statement doesn’t it?  Darkness doesn’t overcome light.  Boom! Let’s move on to verse 6.  Not so fast.  Let me show you how this verse is translated in some different English versions:

The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it. (NIV)

And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not. (KJV)

And the light shineth in the darkness; and the darkness apprehended it not. (ASV)

And the light shines on in the darkness, but the darkness has not mastered it. (NET)

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness can never extinguish it. (NLT)

Unless you are brain dead, you see the problem here.  Does the Greek word translated overcome by the ESV mean understood, or comprehend, or apprehend, or mastered, or extinguish?  If you’re super smart you’ve already answered: “How in the world should I be able to come to a conclusion if brilliant translators can’t even figure it out?”  Ah, grasshopper, if you asked that question, you are very smart indeed.

Here is where we come to understand that translation is an inexact science.  Not every word has an exact match in another language, especially when those languages are separated by broad cultural differences and 2000 years.  The word that the ESV translates overcome (katelaben) is one of those words that just can’t be translated directly into our language, but that’s not the only problem (and you thought Bible study was going to be easy).  The other problem is that katelaben (katalambano) can be translated five different ways from Greek to English.  It can mean acquire  or attack  or seize  or overpower or  understand. [Before you get on your high horse and start complaining about the Greek language consider the word bad.  Depending on the context it can mean immoral, or evil, or rotten, or broken, or even good!?! [Dude! That is a bad corvette you have!] depending on the context in which it is used].

One commentator [wryly?] points out the difficulty here: It is apparent that the darkness had no chance of victory over the light, but the phrasing is ambiguous due to the variety of figurative senses available for the verb katalambanō, which literally means “to take hold of, seize.”

Does John mean the darkness does not attack the light, or does not seize the light or does not overpower the light?  Usually from the context one can come to a pretty good possibility which way the word is used, but in this particular verse, it is ambiguous.  So as a translator one just chooses the best possibility and that’s about all one can do.

A. T. Robertson is pretty helpful here as he teases out what John meant:

The word is used in the sense of laying hold of so as to make one’s own; hence, to take possession of. Used of obtaining the prize in the games (1 Cor. 9:24); of attaining righteousness (Rom. 9:30); of a demon taking possession of a man (Mark 9:18); of the day of the Lord overtaking one as a thief (1 Thess. 5:4). Applied to darkness, this idea includes that of eclipsing or overwhelming. Hence some render overcame (Westcott, Moulton). John’s thought is, that in the struggle between light and darkness, light was victorious. The darkness did not appropriate the light and eclipse it [emphasis added].

I think Robertson sums up the meaning pretty well.  The darkness did not appropriate the light and eclipse it.  Light was victorious. 

So if you’re going to choose one side or the other [and oh by the way, you are!], darkness or light, only one of the two is going to win by overcoming and that would be light. 

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