God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

When the Bible Quotes Itself

John Hobbins writes in favor of “retaining the standard ‘x and y’ collocation ‘God and men'” in I Samuel 2:26 and Luke 2:52, because it is an example of “standard literary English.”

I think “peace on earth and good will toward men,” — another example that John mentions — is now a perfect example of what I call the Bible quoting itself.

Even though Luke 2:14 was original prose when it was written, precisely because it has become such a common phrase in English now, it’s hard to read “good will toward men” without seeing first a Bible quotation, and only second whatever it might actually mean. (Luke 2:14 has been highlighted recently by Jim West, by Clayboy, on BBB and in a slew of other places.)

This translation dilemma is not unique to the Bible. Shakespeare, too, has been facetiously criticized because he just “strung together a bunch of well known quotations.” A reader who reads Shakespeare for the first time may now read a “well known quotation” where Shakespeare penned original words.

Similarly, “dust and ashes” is now an English expression, whereas it was novel Hebrew once. Like “good will toward men,” it’s hard to read “dust and ashes” and actually see the words that make up the phrase.

I think this is a translation problem, because it’s usually a mistake to translate a novel thought with a well-known expression. More importantly, it’s surely a mistake to translate a phrase that was intended literally with a phrase that can only be understood figuratively. As an example of the latter, what we would do if a foreign text referred to “driving me up a wall” and really meant “driving up a wall”? The seemingly obvious text would be completely wrong if “driving up a wall” wasn’t an idiom in the original language.

Similarly, “dust and ashes” wasn’t an idiom in the OT, nor (as I understand it) was “good will toward men” in the NT.

But in many cases like these we seem to have little choice.

As it happens, though, we have a great alternative for Luke 2:14. And that’s getting rid of the word “men,” which I don’t think is what Luke meant. The original point was “people,” male and female alike.

The debate over gender and language has been fierce and on-going, but I think this example is particularly instructive.

In favor of keeping “men”: Even though “men” may not usually be the right word to express anthropoi, it would be a shame to destroy such a well-known quotation. (I have some thoughts about quoting the Bible when the translation keeps changing here.)

In favor of changing “men”: Not only is “men” the wrong word to express anthropoi, but even if it were accurate, we want to avoid a familiar phrase in translating an original one.

In other words, sometimes “that’s the traditional way of translating it” or “it’s a well known phrase” may mean precisely that it has to be changed.


December 21, 2009 - Posted by | translation practice, translation theory | , , , , ,


  1. I have observed just this phenomenon within the scriptures with the phrase “flesh and blood.” When that form is used, it doesn’t refer to the tissues but to humans.

    Mt 16:17 And Jesus answered and said unto him, Blessed art thou, Simon Barjona: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven.

    1Co 15:50 Now this I say, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; neither doth corruption inherit incorruption.

    Ga 1:16 To reveal his Son in me, that I might preach him among the heathen; immediately I conferred not with flesh and blood:

    Eph 6:12 For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.

    In order to avoid confusion, when the writer of “To the Hebrews” wanted to refer to the tissues, he reversed the order and said “blood and flesh,” but the translators switched them back to the more familiar order!

    Heb 2:14 Forasmuch then as the children are partakers of flesh and blood, he also himself likewise took part of the same; that through death he might destroy him that had the power of death, that is, the devil;

    That verse, in Greek, reads “blood and flesh!”

    All of this has led me to believe that Paul was not referring to the tissues, but to human strength when he wrote:

    1Co 15:50 Now this I say, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; neither doth corruption inherit incorruption.

    That is, “humans, are not sufficiently powerful to take over the kingdom of God” – referring to the final “Crusade.” It will instead be a divine victory, led by God’s supernaturally empowered Crusader, Jesus:

    1Co 15:57 But thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

    Comment by WoundedEgo | December 22, 2009

    • I have observed just this phenomenon within the scriptures with the phrase “flesh and blood.” When that form is used, it doesn’t refer to the tissues but to humans.

      This is a great example.

      Comment by Joel H. | December 22, 2009

  2. Hi Joel,

    Thanks for picking up on this. You seem to be against retaining the collocation “God and men” in 1 Sam 2:26 and Luke 2:52. If so, you are in excellent company: e.g. NRSV, TNIV, and NJB. Of course, I am in excellent company in favoring a more conservative approach: e.g. NJPSV, REB (Luke), and NAB (both; in the second case “God and man”).

    However, I think the reason NRSV, TNIV, and NJB translate as they do is because of a prior commitment to a particular notion of gender-sensitivity. If one’s policy is to do away with 3rd masculine pronouns and male generics, then that is what you do, even if standard literary English would allow you to do otherwise. I’m fine with either choice, but I think people need to be up front about what they are doing.

    Comment by John Hobbins | December 28, 2009

  3. […] first glance, part of the problem concerns passages that are so familiar that everyone knows them. But it seems to me that if a biblical passage was new and innovative, it’s actually a […]

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  4. Indeed we may need to change this to “human beings” to clarify the passages, but great care must be taken to keep from removing the idea of a God-created authority structure in family and Church relationships. Would it be wiser to educate the Church on the original linguistic/contextual meaning of the passages? This is, of course, almost impossible given the way the ‘church’ has, in defiance to God, splintered itself into private comfort clubs…

    Comment by spinuzzi | November 24, 2014

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