God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

The Curious Case of the Withered Hand: A Translation Dilemma

Matthew 12:9-14

The parable in Matthew 12:9-14 demonstrates so many key translation points (many of which have already come up recently, in posts too numerous to mention) that I think it’s worth taking a systematic look at that text and the issues it raises.

The Plot

As I understand it, the general plot of the episode goes something like this:

[9] Jesus enters a synagogue. [10] There’s a man there with a withered hand. The people there goad Jesus and ask him if it’s permissible to cure someone on the Sabbath. [11] Jesus addresses the group and tells them that if they had a sheep who had fallen into a pit on the Sabbath, surely they would rescue the sheep. [12] Because a man is worth more than a sheep, Jesus says it’s okay to heal the man on the Sabbath. [13] The man stretches out his hand and Jesus heals it. [14] The Pharisees leave and plot Jesus’ death.

Our first translation criterion is that the English convey the plot accurately and in a way that English speakers can understand.

The Rhetoric

The word anthropos is used throughout the parable. Here’s the paraphrase I just used, with the words for anthropos italicized:

[9] Jesus enters a synagogue. [10] There’s a man there with a withered hand. The people there goad Jesus and ask him if it’s permissible to cure someone on the Sabbath. [11] Jesus addresses the group and tells them that if they had a sheep who had fallen into a pit on the Sabbath, surely they would rescue the sheep. [12] Because a man is worth more than a sheep, Jesus says it’s okay to heal the man on the Sabbath. [13] The man stretches out his hand and Jesus heals it. [14] The Pharisees leave and plot Jesus’ death.

Our second translation criterion is that we make the rhetorical style of the Greek available to the English reader. A paraphrase like this does the trick:

[9] Jesus entered a synagogue. [10] There was a man inside with a withered hand. The people in the synagogue goaded Jesus and asked him if it’s permissible to cure someone on the Sabbath. [11] Jesus asked the group, “if one of you men had a sheep that had fallen into a pit on the Sabbath, wouldn’t you rescue it? [12] A man is worth more than a sheep. So it is permissible to heal someone on the Sabbath.” [13] The man stretched out his hand and Jesus healed it. [14] The Pharisees left and plotted Jesus’ death.

The Irony

In this particular case, the rhetorical repetition of anthropos to refer first to the man and then to the group is an interesting subtextual ironic message. The people don’t recognize how similar they (each being an anthropos) are to the man (anthropos) with the withered hand. This sub-theme meshes with the larger theme about the Sabbath.

One of the reasons the second translation criterion — capturing the rhetorical style — is important is that the irony in the story depends on it.

The Morals

The story has more than one moral. The most obvious seems to be that healing on the Sabbath is permissible. A second might be that we should identify with those in need of help. A third moral, from verse 12, is that people are more valuable than sheep. Because the Greek word anthropos means both “human” and “man,” it’s easy in Greek to shift seamlessly from using anthropos for “the man [with the withered hand]” to “all people.”

Our third translation criterion is that the English convey all of the morals of the story. It’s not hard to do that for verse 12 in isolation:

[12] …people are more valuable than sheep…

It’s particularly important to get verse 12 right because people want to be able to quote it out of context.

The Nuances

Even though the plot is straightforward, some nuances seem relevant. Jesus is asked if it’s permissible “to cure” someone on the Sabbath, while his answer is that it’s permissible “to do well” or “to do good” on the Sabbath. In answering the question, Jesus also shifts the focus of it.

Another nuance is lexical. Does the Greek word exestin mean “it is permissible” or “it is legal”? It’s an important distinction. There are times when it’s permissible to do what is not legal, and vice versa.

Similarly, does the Greek word xiros mean “withered” or something else? (The same adjective is used in Heb 11:29 to describe the condition of the Red Sea as the Israelites passed through it, suggesting that “dried up” or “withered” is right.)

A frequent translation error has the people asking Jesus if it’s permissible “to heal on the Sabbath.” At least in my dialect, “to heal on the Sabbath” could be sitting around passively. If I have the flu and I’m allowed to heal on the Sabbath, to me that means that I’m allowed to lie in bed all day and drink lots of liquids.

Our fourth translation criterion is get the details and nuances right.

The Conflicts

So here are the translation criteria:

1. Convey the plot.

2. Convey the rhetorical style, including the irony.

3. Convey all the morals.

4. Get the details right.

The problem, of course, is that they conflict. (2) requires the repetition of a word — probably “man” but maybe something else — first in verse 10 and then again in 11 and 12; it’s particularly important in 10 and 11 to get the irony right. But (3) requires “people” in verse 12 and, if I’m right about the Greek, (4) requires “man” in verse 10. Bit it’s hard to get “man” to work in verse 11 without sacrificing fluidity in English (“If any man among you…” barely sounds like English.)

We can’t use “person” in verse 10 because it’s less specific than (how I understand) the Greek, and we want to get the details right. Substituting “person” for “man” when a specific man is involved is like substituting “animal” for “sheep.” Even if I’m wrong about the Greek, “a person” won’t work in verse 10 because it’s awkward in English. We don’t usually start stories with “there was a person with a withered hand.” We use “there was someone with a withered hand.”

In fact, “someone” in verse 10 would be great for criteria (1) and (4), but then we get stuck on (2) and part of (3).


Any suggestions for a successful translation?


September 16, 2009 Posted by | translation practice, translation theory | , , , , | 18 Comments

The Point(s) of Translation

A recent post by Mike Aubrey (quoting and disagreeing with Paul Helm) again raises the issue of “dynamic equivalence,” and, more generally, the goal of translation.

In a comment, Jason Staples suggests:

Good post. I think the basic translation philosophy of attempting to most clearly convey the meaning of a text (which is effectively “dynamic equivalence”) is the whole task of translation. The more translation I’ve done, the more I’ve come to see “literal” as a bit of a problematic concept in itself, since equivalent words don’t always have equivalent meaning across languages and language tends to be figurative anyway.

I agree that conveying the original meaning is one goal (and I agree that word-for-word renderings usually don’t do this), but I don’t think it’s the only goal, because there’s more to a text than what it means.

The point of some texts is purely poetic and they don’t mean anything. (This isn’t to say that they are meaningless.) Some of the poetry of Psalms comes to mind.

A text can raise awareness, or make people think. A text can be funny. A text can be a source of inspiriation. And so forth.

I think a translation that captures the meaning but misses everything else gives people a very shallow understanding of the original text (though a translation that misrepresents the meaning is doing even worse).

Here’s a question: beyond any potential role in conveying the meaning of the original, is there any point to trying to translate each word?

September 16, 2009 Posted by | translation theory | , , , , | 4 Comments

On Anthropos: Men, Women, and People



Following up on the brouhaha I seem to have started, here are some more thoughts on anthropos. Everyone agrees that, in various forms and contexts, anthropos is sometimes gender neutral (meaning something like “person”) and sometimes specifically masculine (meaning something like “man”). Can we tell when the word is used which way?

I think the answer is yes.

What Are We Looking At?


To get started, we note that words that are gender-specific in the singular are frequently gender-neutral in the plural. Examples from modern languages are very common, and two from Modern Hebrew will illustrate the point. (I pick Hebrew just because I know it so well. We could just as effectively use many other languages.)

The Hebrew words student and studentit both mean “[university-level] student.” The former is for men and the latter for women. Native speakers never say “he is a studentit” or “she is a student.” The plurals for these two words are studentim and studentiot. The former is gender-neutral, while the latter is limited to women. So the following are grammatical: “Those two men are studentim.” “Those two women are studentiot.” “The man and the woman are studentim.” In other words, even though a student must be a man, studentim need not just be men.

Furthermore, in some contexts studentim can be used for women only. That’s because it’s gender-neutral, and that neutrality encompasses “men,” “women,” or any combination. (Another time I’ll talk about the difference between studentim for all women and studentiot for all women.)

The Hebrew words yeled and yalda, “boy” and “girl,” work essentially the same way. The plural y’ladim can include girls, even though a girl cannot be a yeled.

From this we learn that we cannot use anthropoi (the plural of anthropos) to figure out what anthropos means, or, at least, it is a methodological mistake to start with the obvious fact that anthropoi is used for women and conclude that anthropos can be used for a woman.

Generalities and Instances

Just as a word can have different gender roles depending on whether it is plural or singular, a word can behave differently when it’s used to express a generality versus a specific instance. We see this in Hebrew and also in some dialects of English.

Many speakers use “man” to mean “someone,” as, for example, “man is the highest form of intelligence.” (You don’t have to agree with the statement to understand the grammar in it.)

Yet even the people who use “man” for men and women alike do not use it for a specific woman. They only use it for a specific man. So even speakers who use “man” generically do not say, “there’s a man I’d like you to meet” when they have in mind a woman. They certainly do not say, “Sarah is an interesting man” if she’s a women.

So we see that “man” (in some dialects) refers to people in general but only to a male adult specifically.

Accordingly, when we look at anthropos we have to distinguish between its general use (Aristotle’s “anthropos kai probaton,” for example) and its specific use (“I saw an anthropos yesterday.”)


In short, what we are looking for as we try to figure out what anthropos means is only the singular, specific use of the word.

Before actually doing that, a few thoughts about one way languages can differ are in order, and I turn to them next.

Be Specific

Languages differ in the degree of specificity they require in different contexts. For example, in English we conveniently have a word “person” that includes males and females of any age. (“Human” does the same. As the cliched exercise for the reader: what’s the difference in English between the two?) But it’s not hard to imagine a language that didn’t have such a general word. In such a language, speakers might have to indicate the approximate age of the people they were talking about

An Example: Students

To help understand the issue, we can look at English and Hebrew. In English we have a word “student” that conveniently encompasses elementary school students, high-school students, college students, graduate students, etc. In Hebrew, by contrast, there’s one word (talmid) for grade-school students, and a whole other word (student) for college onward. (It’s a common mistake for English speakers to think that student means any “student.”)

So it is impossible in Hebrew to use one word to refer to a “student of any age” the way we think of the concept in English. So what if I have a “student” in mind, generally, of no particular age, maybe in grade school, maybe in college? I have to spell the notion out in Hebrew, perhaps with the phrase “talmid or student.

Similarly, an Israeli will almost never tell a story about a student without specifying whether the student is in grade school or higher education because it’s so hard to do linguistically.

Another Example: Travel

It’s such as important point that another example seems in order. In English, we have a nice general word “go.” It includes walking, running, biking, driving, flying, boating, etc. When I say “I went to New York City,” I don’t specify at all how I got there. In Hebrew, there are two verbs: halach and nasa. The former excludes travel by vehicle, while the latter excludes travel by foot. So in Hebrew, a speaker almost never mentions going to a place without at least giving some indication of the means of getting there because it’s so hard to do. (Russian is even more complex. It has different verbs for various modes of travel and also for mono-directional travel versus bidirectional travel. In Russian, going to New York and not coming back is not the same verb as going to New York for the day and then returning.)

Once again, for us the important point is that it’s impossible in Hebrew to say “go” without specifying whether or not a vehicle was involved.

How Is Anthropos Used?

With all of this in mind, we can look at how anthropos is used.

To the best of my knowledge, when it is specific and singular, it always refers to a specific man, never to a specific woman. In other words, anything of the sort “an anthropos was….” refers to a man. If the person is a women, we instead find the word gune. (My search is limited to the OT LXX and the NT, so there may be examples I don’t know about. What we’re looking for is something like “I saw an anthropos and she said….”)

Unfortunately, we may not have a fair sampling of how anthropos might apply to women, because the overwhelming majority of people in the Bible are men, and of the women, many are mentioned in the context of their specific role as women, either as mothers or wives. For example, in Genesis 24:5, Abraham’s servant is concerned that the “gune might not be willing to follow me back.” If anthropos were entirely neutral, used when gender is irrelevant, we might expect to see anthropos here, rather than gune. But on the other hand, even though Rebeka is just a person here, she is also the person Isaac is going to marry. So Gen 24:5 is suggestive but not convincing.

Still, we have a few clearer examples. Some of the ones I’ve found are these:

  • Joshua 2:4. The woman who hides the Israelite spies is just a person, really, and she doesn’t have any particularly feminine role, yet she is a gune, not an anthropos.

  • Matthew 15:28. Jesus calls the Canaanite woman, gune, not anthropos, even though she isn’t doing anything that only women can do.

  • Matthew 26:7 and 26:10. The woman with the alabaster jar (side note: someone has to remind me what alabaster is) is referred to as gune, not anthropos.

To me, two facts are important:

1. We see gune for a specific person when the person is female, even when her gender doesn’t seem germane.

2. We never see anthropos for a specific woman.

These two facts, combined with the theory above that tells us where we should look, point me to a very clear answer.


I don’t think anthropos means “person.” Rather, it is one masculine form of gune (the other being aner — a topic for another time). When the word is used to refer to an individual person, that person is a man. When the word is used to refer to a person in general (“one” in English, or the French on), it can be a man or a woman. And when the word refers to “people,” it again can be men or women.

In fact, Greek had no way of referring to a specific person without specifying gender. In other words, Greek didn’t have a word “person.” (This is parallel to Modern Hebrew, which doesn’t have a general word for “student” or for “go.”)

So even though anthropos in its various forms and contexts means different things, I think we can usually know when it is gender specific and when it is not.

The next question, what to do with that knowledge when we translate, will have to wait.

September 16, 2009 Posted by | general linguistics | , , , , , | 19 Comments