God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

Who is the Most High?

Adjectives without nouns are quirky and idiosyncratic, and understanding them is important for translation.

As an example, in English we have “the Americans” (American people) but not (*)”the Swisses,” or (*)”the Frenches.” We have “the Swiss” (Swiss people) and “the French” (French people), but “the American” can only mean one person.

Other languages work differently. In French, “la suisse” is a Swiss girl or woman, and “les suisses” is more than one of them. In French, “une suisse” (literally, “a swiss”) makes sense, but (*)”a swiss is here” doesn’t work in English.

Moving away from nationalities, we find in biblical Hebrew that plural adjectives are people when they’re masculine, events when they’re feminine. By themselves, the rishonim (literally, “the first [m,pl]”) are “people from long ago” and the rishonot (literally, “the first [f,pl]”) are “events from long ago”; Isaiah 43:9 is an example of the latter.

This range of variation is relevant for understanding upsistos in Greek. As a singular superlative masculine adjective, it works like any other Greek adjective, and it means “the one who is highest.” In Mark 5:7 we see upsistos with a noun, and in Acts 7:48 without one.

But as a plural neuter adjective, it means “heights,” a usage we see in Luke 2:14, for example: doxa en upsistois theo, “glory to God on high.”

I don’t know of any English translation that renders rishonot as “the firsts” in Isaiah 43:9. It just wouldn’t make any sense in English. Translators generally add the noun “things.”

Yet en (tois) upsistois ends up in English as “in the highest” in the KJV, ESV, and NAB. It seems to me that that translation is just wrong. To me, “in the highest” — if it means anything at all in English — is adverbial and it signifies “greatly.” Other translations preserve the superlative degree, giving us “highest heaven” or “highest heavens,” which may or may not be right. On one hand, there was a hierarchy of heavens in Greek thought, so there was a lowest one, middle ones, and a highest one. On the other hand, the phrase seems to be a Hebraicism, but the original Hebrew m’romim is not superlative (or adjectival — it’s a plural noun).

As for upsistos, “the Most High” is multiply problematic as a translation. First — and it’s hard to know what to do with this — being “high” in English doesn’t usually mean what we want it to here. (An old anecdote tells of a teenager who decided to get religious when he was taught that we should strive to be like God and that God is the most high.) Secondly, we don’t use adjectives that way in English. The closest we have is “high one.” Unlike in Greek and Hebrew, “the high” doesn’t make sense in English. Also, the superlative of “high” is “highest,” not “most high.”

And we end up with capitalization problems. Most versions give us “the Most High God” in Mark 5:7 (and Luke 8:28 etc.), which is not how capitalization works in English.

So all in all, translations of en upsistois and upsistos are a mess.

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November 20, 2009 - Posted by | Bible versions, translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , , , ,

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