God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

Q&A: Is God’s Son The Son of God?

Another great question from the About page:

I have a question about Matthew 27:54. The centurion and the rest of the detachment set to guard Jesus’ body cried out and said “truly he was the Son of God!” — or is that really what they said?

Since it lacks the articles in Greek, and Latin doesn’t have articles, is it possible that they really said “truly he was the son of a god!”?

It’s a simple question with a complex answer.

There are two parts to understanding the issue.

The first is how Greek conveys possessives like “God’s.” In Greek, a possessor is marked by the genitive case, similar to the apostrophe “s” in English. So “God” in Greek is theos and “God’s” is theou. This same genitive also plays the role that “of God” does in English. Similarly “Paul” is paulos and “of Paul” and “Paul’s” is paulou.

At first glance, this seems to be Greek 101, but there a very important nuances that hide in the details. To get a sense of them, we can look just at English, and note that there are three expression that look like they should mean the same thing but do not: “Paul’s,” “of Paul,” and “of Paul’s.” Moving to less religiously charged words helps, so we can better compare:


  • I am a friend of Bill. / I am a vice-president of the company.
  • I am the friend of Bill. / I am the vice-president of the company.

  • I am a friend of Bill’s. / I am a vice-president of the company’s.
  • I am the friend of Bill’s. / I am the vice-president of the company’s.
  • I am Bill’s friend. / I am the company’s vice-president.

Some of these sentences are ungrammatical in English (“I am a VP of the company’s”) and some are odd (“I am the friend of Bill”). Proper names work differently that common nouns, which is why “friend of Bill’s” is so much better than “vice-president of the company’s.” Importantly, some of these phrases imply “the”: “I’m the company’s VP” most naturally means that the company has only one VP. In short, we see a lot of complexity, and subtle nuance related to (1) nouns vs. proper names; and (2) definite vs. indefinite readings.

The second part to understanding Matthew 27:54 is even more complex. “God” in Greek is either theos (“god”) or o theos (“the god”). In John 1:1, for example, the word was with o theos but the word was theos.

My guess is that the two ways of saying “God” convey different nuances, but I’ve yet to see a convincing analysis of the pattern, even though there are lots of partial explanations. Until we understand the pattern, though, I think it will be almost impossible to know how the two phrases for God interact with the genitive.

It’s perfectly reasonable to think that “[a] son of god” means “one son (among many) of one god (among many),” but that’s just based on our English grammar. The syntactically parallel “[a] son of Moses” is only likely — again based on English grammar — to mean “one son (among many) of (the one and only) Moses.” Yet the English “Moses’ son” might mean “(the one any only) son of (the one and only Moses),” even though the Greek would be the same in the last two cases.

We also have the word order to deal with. In Matthew 27:54 (along with 14:33), we find theou uios, instead of the more common reverse order.

All of which is a long-winded way of saying that I don’t think we can conclude that the Greek means what “a son of a god” would in English. So your interpretation is certainly possible, but I don’t think it’s more (or less) likely than the more common “Son of God.” (I also think that theou uios would have sounded very different in Greek than o uios tou theou [e.g., Matthew 26:63], with two determiners and a different word order — and as a guess, the word order adds more than it seems.)

I do think that we’re missing something important here, and Matthew 27:54 is a valuable clue.

December 13, 2009 Posted by | Q&A, translation practice | , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

How Many Women is One Woman in 1 Timothy 2:12?

Peter Kirk drew my attention to a post by Bill Heroman about I Timothy 2:

If anyone wants us to be perfectly literal about 1 Tim 2:12, we should note, at least as a beginning, that Paul is primarily speaking against one-on-one mentoring, female to male. “I do not allow a woman to teach or to direct a man.” Everything in this statement is entirely singular. [Emphasis in original.]

Bill then asks whether “[t]he male/female intimacy of a one-on-one discipling relationship may be all Paul is really afraid of.”

In other words, Bill suggests that Paul may not be talking about women in general, but rather about one woman teaching one man, in private (and perhaps even the specific instance of that).

It’s a lovely suggestion — and I laud the effort — but I don’t think the grammar supports it.

It’s common to use singular nouns generically, both in English (which is why I might equally write that “it’s common for a singular noun to be used generically”) and in Greek. Furthermore, the tendancy in Greek is to use eis (“one”) to refer specifically to one of something.

For example, in John 11:50 we find, “it is better for eis anthropos to die…,” that is “one person.” Without eis the text would more naturally mean that it is better for people to die. I think that John 11:50 is particualy instructive because the context could make it clear that anthropos means just one person, because “it is better for people to die than for the whole nation to perish” doesn’t make any sense. But the grammar still has to support the context.

So it seems that the way to say, “I do not allow one woman to teach one man” would be to use the word eis twice.

Even so, I have to agree with Peter, who “love[s] the way that blogger Bill Heroman is prepared to think outside the box.”

December 10, 2009 Posted by | translation practice | , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

There’s No Distraction in the Bible

Karyn Traphagen points out that there are no distractions in the Old Testament:

In doing some searches in Accordance, I happened to notice that there are no distractions in the Hebrew bible.

No Hebrew word is translated by ESV, NIV, NRSV, NET (or many others) as “distract,” “distracted,” or “distractions.” The KJV does translate afuna found in Psalm 88:15 as “distracted,” but this word is found only here in the HB and does not have consensus for translation. In the NT there is only one verse that is translated with the word “distracted” (Luke 10:40).

I would add that the NLT and NJB use “distracting” in Exodus 5:4, but in a sense that is one step removed from “distracted.” Pharaoh chastises Moses and Aaron for, “destracting [hifri’a] the people from their work.” And many translations use “[without] distractions” in I Corinthians 7:35, where the Greek is aperispastos, the opposite of the word we see in Luke 10:40.

Significantly, the NRSV uses the word “distracted” twice in a row, first in Luke 10:40 (for periespato) and then again in 10:41 (for the unrelated thorubazi). The NRSV thus emphasizes distraction beyond the force of the original. The error seems all the more important in light of Karyn’s observation that the now-common topic of distraction is so rare in the Bible.

December 8, 2009 Posted by | translation practice | , , | Comments Off on There’s No Distraction in the Bible

Do All Men Experience Pain in Childbirth?

If we’re not careful, our Bible translations will wrongly alienate 51% of the English-speaking population, and perhaps offend even more. The issue (which has been addressed frequently — recently by me here and here, by Clayboy, Bill Mounce, and many others) is whether (orwhen) the English word “men” includes both men and women.

In my dialect, the answer is almost never. When I read or hear “men,” the word excludes women.

I’m told by people like Bill Mounce that in other dialects “men” is perfectly inclusive. So I have a question to the speakers of these dialects. Does “men” include the “women” here:

All men experience pain in childbirth.

More specifically, which (if any) of these make sense and mean what they clearly should?

1. All men experience pain in childbirth — women directly and their husbands vicariously.

2. Unlike the animals, all men experience pain in childbirth.

3. Unlike the gods, all men experience pain in childbirth.

4. Because they ate from the wrong tree, God punished men with pain in childbirth.

5a. In a rare alliance in the battle between man and machine, machines help men endure the pain of childbirth.

5b. In a rare alliance in the battle between man and machine, machine helps man endure the pain of childbirth.

6. Man experiences pain in childbirth both vicariously and directly.

7a. Unlike the animals, man experiences pain in childbirth.

7b. Unlike the gods, man experiences pain in childbirth.

What do you think?

December 7, 2009 Posted by | general linguistics, translation theory | , , , | 12 Comments

Q&A: Who is the woman in Ruth?

Also from the About page:

Here is a question — I have explored the usage of ish and ishah in Ruth (here) and I was surprised to see in 3.14:

vatakom b’terem yakir ish et-rei’eihu
vayomer al-yivada ki-va’a ha-isha ha-goren

and she rose before a man could recognize his friend
and he said — let it not be known that `the woman’ came to the threshing floor.”

This seems a strange use of the definite article! I wondered if it was a little joke between them.

I think he’s talking about her specifically, in which case “the woman” is what we’d expect. The other possibility is that “the woman” and “the man” are the heroes of the story, and this is a clever metareference, in which one character (the man) refers to another (the woman) in the way the narrator does; but I don’t think so.

I don’t agree with the rendering in the NIV (probably based on the identical KJV) that he doesn’t want it known that a women — any women — was there. I think he doesn’t want it known that she was there.

(Incidentally, I think the first part, “before a man could recognize his friend” is better translated, “before one person could recognize another” or even “before anyone could be recognized.” It seems like an indication of darkness to me — akin to “before you could see the hand in front of your face,” which doesn’t really have anything to do with hands or faces.)

December 6, 2009 Posted by | Q&A, translation practice | , , , , | 1 Comment

Q&A: What kind of good child was Moses?

From the About page:

I have a question about Exodus 2:2. What does it mean that she saw that baby Moses was tov?

Could it be a statement of affection, the way we refer to children and pets as “good?” Or does “seeing that…good” simply echo Genesis 1?

Interesting question.

I don’t think it’s an echo of Genesis — I’m not even sure the authors of Exodus 2 knew the text of Genesis 1. And for what it’s worth, the LXX agrees, using the rare asteios here. (The Greek of Hebrews 11:23 and of Acts 7:20, which retell the story in part, matches. In Acts 7:20 we have the addition that Moses was “asteios to God.”)

But beyond that, I don’t see a clear way to narrow down the meaning, because there are so many ways of being “good” in English and in Hebrew. The word could refer to aesthetics, health, providence, etc. So we have to rely on context.

And even that doesn’t help much, for two reasons. First, I’m not sure the sequencing of the usual translation is right (“when she saw that he was tov she hid him for three months”). Secondly, even if we do see cause and effect here, the passage is at best suggestive. Had he not been tov would she not have hidden him? If so, maybe tov means “healthy and strong,” or maybe even just the opposite of “stillborn.”

All of which is a long way of saying that it’s hard to narrow down the meaning beyond something positive.

December 6, 2009 Posted by | Q&A, translation practice | , , , | 1 Comment

Did God Sit on a Chair or a Throne?

In my last post I asked whether we should use modern terms like “womb” and “stomach” to translate the ancient beten, which was used for both.

Similarly, what about “chair” and “throne”? It seems that, at least in the OT, one word was used for both different modern concepts.

The Hebrew for both is kisei. It’s a common word, so it’s not hard to find examples of a kisei for commoners (I Samuel 1:9, e.g.), for kings (II Samuel 3:10, e.g., where it’s used metonymically for “kingdom”), and for God (Psalm 11:4).

Though the Greek thronos is used consistently in the LXX for kisei, in the NT thronos seems more narrowly reserved for kings and other dignitaries (Luke 1:32, Revelation 4:4) and God (Matthew 5:34), though Satan (Revelation 2:13) gets one, too.

The Greek kathedra is used in the NT for ordinary chairs (Matthew 21:12), and in the LXX for the Hebrew moshav “seat” and more generally shevet “sitting.” (The Hebrew moshav seems to include seats of any kind, both “chairs” and “thrones.”)

Another way of looking kisei in the OT is to compare it to the modern English word “shoe.” Even though kings and ordinary folk wear different kinds of them (I think), there’s only one word for them (I think).

The translation issue is forced in I Kings 2:19, where King Solomon sits on his kisei and also orders a kisei brought for his mom (which, at the risk of editorializing, is really sweet). The KJV, ESV, and NJB use two different words here, first “throne” (for the king) then “seat” (for mom). The LXX (in Greek), NAB, NIV, NLT, and NRSV use the same word twice. (I’m a little surprised to find the “essentially literal” ESV using two words here, and the generally more idiomatic NLT sticking with one.)

The original Hebrew of I Kings 2:19 emphasizes the equality of Solomon and his mother. The KJV emphasizes the inequality of the two. The NRSV preserves the equality, but does so by giving Bathsheba a throne.

Elsewhere, the translator has to decide between “chair” and “throne” for God. By choosing “throne,” God is necessarily like royalty; and while that’s certainly a common metaphor for God in the OT, how do we know it’s always what the Hebrew meant? In the famous vision of Isaiah 6, for example, the only clue to a kingship metaphor is the word “throne” in English.

Should a translation preserve the OT way of looking at things that are sat upon (if you’ll pardon my grammar), the NT way, or go straight for the modern English way?

December 6, 2009 Posted by | Bible versions, translation practice | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Babies, Fetuses, Stomachs, and Wombs

At Hebrew and Greek Reader, the question is asked whether the NLT’s rendering of Ecclesiastes 11:5 is politically motivated. The issue is the image of …ka’atzamim b’veten ha-m’lei’ah, that is, “like etzems in the beten.” The NLT’s rending is:

…a tiny baby [etzem] growing in its mother’’s womb [beten]

(I’m ignoring maleh here, because it’s not relevant to my current point.)

Every translation I know renders beten here as “womb.” But the same Hebrew word (in Proverbs 13:25, for instance) is clearly “stomach,” because it’s associated with food. And we know from Judges 3:21 that men have a beten, too. Even though we have two words in modern English — “womb” and “stomach” — is seems that Hebrew had just one, which we might translate “belly.”

The translator’s question here is whether the translation should reflect the ancient world view or the modern one. The good news with beten is that not much rides on the decision. It makes little difference whether it is the mother’s “womb” or “belly” that is the seat of pregnancy.

Exactly what is in the beten, on the other hand, is enormously important. Is it a “fetus”? An “embryo” (NJB)? “Bones” (KJV)? A “human frame” (NAB)? Is it a baby (NLT)?

The theoretical issue in this second case is almost the same as the first: does the translator use a modern term (“fetus” or “embryo”) or an ancient one? But, unlike with beten, the implications of the theoretical approach to translation end up with much more widespread consequences.

December 4, 2009 Posted by | translation practice, translation theory | , , , , | 6 Comments

On the Blocking Effect

Daniel 12:7 refers to a man who “swore by chei ha-olam,” commonly translated as something like “the one who lives forever.”

Some years ago, I had a to translate a similar phrase in the Jewish liturgy, chei ha-olamim, which many prayer books wrongly render, “life of the universe.” It was the last line in the volume I was working on, and after sitting for some 8 hours going over the translation with Dr. Marc Brettler, in our fatigue induced giddiness he and I wrote a short footnote about that phrase:

That is, one who lives forever. (“Eternal liver” is clearly wrong.)

(The translation appears in Vol. 3 of My People’s Prayer Book.)

The reason “eternal liver” can’t mean “one who lives forever” is that the anatomical word “liver” blocks the otherwise expected meaning of the word. Normally, “verber” can be used to mean “one who verbs,” but not in this case. The specialized meaning blocks the general meaning. (This is one kind of blocking effect.)

It seems to me that many of the questions on BBB are about more subtle cases of the blocking effect. For example, Wayne recently asked what the word “confess” means, “as you ordinarily use the word.” His question is part of a larger theme: translators sometimes use words in ways that other speakers of English do not.

Frequently, I think that the translators believe a word could mean what they want it to, but they don’t realize that the blocking effect prevents their intending meaning. Similarly but conversely, I think translators sometime know a technical meaning for a word, and that meaning blocks the more usual meaning in their minds.

For instance, I can imagine using “liver” enough in the right context that it would start to seem like it can mean “one who lives.” For example, I might write a story about “the living and the dying, and, in particular one brave dyer who loves a liver….” Eventually it would start to sound okay, and I might even use it in a translation, to disastrous effect.

So I think that understanding the blocking effect is important for understanding one way that things can go wrong in translation.

What other examples of technical words blocking more common meanings can you think of?

December 3, 2009 Posted by | translation theory | , , , | 2 Comments

Behold! Little words mean a lot more than you might think.

It turns out that “um” means something in English, and we can learn about translation by looking at that short word.

The following hypothetical conversation between a shopper and a sales associate at a book store demonstrates:

Shopper: “Where can I find a complete bilingual text of Aristotle?”

Clerk: “Aristotle who?”

Shopper: “Um, the Greek philosopher?”

The last line, in colloquial American English, does two things. The last three words answer the question. But the first word, “um,” demonstrates disdain. The shopper is mocking the sales associate for his or her ignorance. (Incidentally, this happened to me at Barnes and Noble a couple of years ago. The staffer at the customer service desk didn’t know who Aristotle was. I did my best to hide my disappointment in our school system.)

This short word “um” demonstrates an important way words can work in language: they can add a flavor or nuance to a conversation. And as a guess, most English speakers are unable to articulate how “um” works in their native language, so we also see how complex and subtle these nuance-words can be.

I’m almost sure that na in Hebrew was such a word, and that “please” or “pray” don’t convey the same thing in English.

I think hinei in Hebrew and idou in Greek also contributed primariliy to the tone of a sentence, in a way that is not captured by “behold,” “see,” “see here,” and so forth.

So here’s a challenge: What do you think hinei and/or idou contributed?

December 2, 2009 Posted by | general linguistics, translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , , , | 3 Comments