God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

Adultery in Matthew 5:32

Adultery and Matthew 5:32

According to Matthew 5:32, divorcing a woman causes her to commit adultery.

But Peter Kirk notices that the new NIV (“NIV 2011”) translation has a new take on the verse. Peter writes:

One rather odd change I noticed, which some might attribute to political correctness: in Matthew 5:32 the “adulteress” (1984, TNIV) is no longer a wrongdoer but has become “the victim of adultery” (2011).

More specifically, the NIV 2011 translates:

But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

It’s a fascinating and complicated issue.

What Victim?

At first glance, the introduction of “victim” seems uncalled for. The NRSV, for example, representing the usual translation of the verse, goes with (my emphasis):

I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife … causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

The usual translation makes the case look entirely parallel. A divorcee does the same thing as the man who marries a divorcee. They both “commit adultery.”

But the original is more nuanced.

Active and Passive Adultery

The original Greek uses the verb moicheuo (“commit adultery”) twice. It’s true that marrying a divorcee is moicheuo-ing, that is, committing adultery. But divorcing a woman is to cause her to be moicheuo-ed, or to have adultery committed against her. That is, the first verb is passive and the second is active. The man and the woman here do not do the same thing, according to the Greek.
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November 28, 2010 Posted by | translation practice | , , , , , , | 339 Comments

A New Collection of Questions and Comments About Bible Translation

The popular Better Bibles Blog (“BBB”) has a new feature: Share, where you can leave questions about Bible translation and share links.

From the announcement there:


We would like to hear from you. The Internet is a big place with far too much interesting stuff for our small group of writers to keep up on. Tell us what you’re reading and what stories on the Internet you’ve discovered that relate to Bible translation.


What questions do you have about Bible translation? Have you read a verse and wondered if it’s an accurate translation? Ask about it here.

Recent questions there have dealt with which translation to choose and the Hebrew word nephesh.

Take a look!

November 28, 2010 Posted by | announcements | , , | 1 Comment

The Ten Commandments Don’t Forbid Killing

The Pope’s latest comments about condoms have again brought up the Ten Commandments, and, in particular, “thou shalt not kill,” which Catholics and some others number as the fifth commandment, while Jews and most Protestants call it the sixth.

Unfortunately, “kill” is a mistranslation of the original Hebrew, which does not say, “you shall not kill.”

The Hebrew verb here is ratsach, and it only refers to illegal killing.

We see this pretty clearly from Numbers 35, which deals with different kinds of killing — somewhat like modern murder vs. manslaughter laws.

For example, in Numbers 35:16, we learn that one person who kills another with an iron instrument has ratsached. Verses 17-18 expand ratsach to include killing by hitting someone with a deadly stone object or a deadly wooden object. The reasoning seems to be that iron is assumed to be a deadly weapon, while stones and wood come in both deadly and non-deadly varieties. Hitting someone with a deadly instrument is a case of ratsaching.

The point of these clauses is that there are lots of kinds of killing, and only some of them are instances of ratsaching.

Other kinds of killing — for example, killing the assailant from verses 16-18 — is not only allowed but required. That sort of required killing (capital punishment, as we call it now) is not ratsaching, and is not forbidden by the Ten Commandments.

Similarly, many other kinds of killing are not addressed in the Ten Commandments.

I go through much more evidence in Chapter 7 of And God Said, so I won’t repeat it here.

Much of this information, though, is not new.
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November 24, 2010 Posted by | Bible versions, translation practice | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 13 Comments

Which Jews Opposed Jesus?

The latest incarnation of the NIV (“NIV2011,” released on-line in 2010) sometimes translates ioudaioi (“Jews”) as “Jewish leaders” because “the negative statements made about groups of Jews in the New Testament were clearly never intended to refer to every living Jew at that time….” (translators’ notes, available on-line as a PDF — emphasis from the original).

Even if the translators are right, I don’t think their translation is sound, for two reasons.

The first problem is that the English “Jews,” like the Greek ioudaioi, need not refer to “all Jews.”

Here’s an example, from the NIV2011 rendering of John 1:19: “Now this was John’s testimony when the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem sent priests and Levites to ask him who he was.” A footnote to “Jewish leaders” informs the reader, “The Greek term traditionally translated the Jews (hoi Ioudaioi) refers here and elsewhere in John’s Gospel to those Jewish leaders who opposed Jesus; also in 5:10, 15, 16; 7:1, 11, 13; 9:22; 18:14, 28, 36; 19:7, 12, 31, 38; 20:19.”

But I don’t think that the (more common) “…Jews from Jerusalem sent priests and Levites…” means “every living Jew” or “every Jew in Jerusalem,” so I think the translators are addressing a non-problem.

Similarly, in John 5:10, the (more common) English translation “the Jews said…” clearly doesn’t mean that “all the Jews said….”

We commonly use group terms to refer to only part of a group. For example, “Americans voted for change in November 2010” clearly doesn’t mean “all Americans.” Similarly, there’s no reason to think that “Jews” means “all Jews,” just as ioudaioi need not mean “all Jews.”

So the English word “Jews” and the Greek word ioudaioi are similarly vague, making “Jews” exactly the right translation. Anything more is to make the mistake of “translating and improving.”

Secondly, though, I don’t even think that “Jewish leaders” is what ioudaioi refers to here. And I think we see this pretty clearly right in John 1:19. The priests and Levites were the Jewish leaders. So it’s not the Jewish leaders who sent Jewish leaders, but rather the Jews more generally who sent the Jewish leaders.

Again, we might by analogy look at English: “The Americans sent their president to high-level negotiations in Versailles….” It’s quite clear that (a) it wasn’t every American who supported the delegation; and (b) most Americans had no say in what their president did. But even so, to say that “The American leaders sent their president…” is not the same thing as “the Americans sent….”

Similarly, “the Jews from Jerusalem sent priests and Levites” clearly doesn’t mean that (a) every Jew supported (or even knew about) the delegation; or that (b) every Jew was involved in the decision. Rather, the point is that the priests and Levites were representing the Jews.

The political and religious diversity of the Jews as represented by their leaders, or as seen by the emerging Christians, may be an apt topic for commentary or a history lesson, or maybe even a footnote.

But I think the translation should present the text as it is.

November 21, 2010 Posted by | translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , , | 18 Comments

The JBC Tour

I’m in Houston, my first stop on a four-city, two-week book tour about And God Said. (Read more.) Sponsored by the JBC, the tour brings me to Houston, San Diego, Milwaukee, and Boulder this month, in addition to Queens (last month) and Wilmette, IL (in March).

Those who are so inclined can follow along from the book’s blog.

November 4, 2010 Posted by | announcements | , | Comments Off on The JBC Tour

Words that Mean More than One Thing

I think it can helpful to look at familiar English words as a way of understanding ancient words and how best to translate them.

In this case, we’ll look at one way words can mean more than one thing.

“Cash” in English

One meaning of the English word “cash” is actual physical money — dollar bills, 5’s, 10’s, etc.

As credit cards became more widespread, “cash” was used in opposition to “credit.” Two ways to pay for something were by credit card or with actual bills. The second one was called “cash.”

Because there was something more immediate about “cash,” it came to represent anything that wasn’t credit. So paying by check was one way of paying cash (even though “cash” could also be the opposite of “check”). Paying with a debit card is also different than credit, so that’s also “cash.” In this sense, too, “cash” (debit card) is the opposite of “cash” (physical money).

“Cash on delivery” (“C.O.D.”) now just means payment on delivery, and is the opposite of pre-paid. You can sometimes use a credit card to pay for something C.O.D.

Most English speakers don’t have any difficulty understanding “cash” in these various contexts.

Sarx in Greek

The same sort of thing happened with the Greek word sarx, variously translated “flesh,” “human nature,” “sinful nature,” “humanity,” etc.

The trick is that the word means more than one thing.

In this regard, it’s like “cash” in English, because sarx does mean “flesh,” but also one particular aspect of “flesh,” and also “flesh” in contrast to various other things.

Even though the English word “flesh” also means more than one thing — think of “human flesh,” “the flesh trade,” “flesh and bones,” etc. — we don’t have anything that migrated in meaning the way sarx did. That’s why it’s difficult to translate.

I think that understanding this basic fact about words is essential to formulating a plan to translate them accurately.

What other polysemantic (“having more than one meaning”) words can you think of?

November 3, 2010 Posted by | general linguistics, translation theory | , , , | 12 Comments

Gender in the Updated NIV

According to the translators’ notes for the updated (“2011”) NIV, “every single change introduced into the committee’s last major revision (the TNIV) relating to inclusive language for humanity was reconsidered.” This is in keeping with an announcement the translators made in 2009.

Some people were concerned about this, because they were afraid the translation committee might reverse some of the progress the TNIV made in preserving gender accuracy.

From the quick look I took today, it seems that the gender-neutral translations for humanity have largely been preserved.

OT Examples

For example, the phrase ashrei adam appears six times. In all six places, the TNIV had “those” for adam, an update from the 1984 “man” in five out of six of the instances.

In half of those cases (Psalm 32:2, Psalm 84:16, and Proverbs 28:14), the NIV2011 changes “those” to “the one,” while in the other half (Psalm 84:6(5), Proverbs 3:13(12), and Proverbs 8:34) the newer version retains “those.” I think it’s unfortunate that ashrei adam now enjoys two translations in English, but I think the more important point is that the gender neutrality was preserved in the new NIV.

Likewise, Psalm 1:1 with its similar asrei ha-ish is now “one.” It was “those” in the TNIV, and “man” in the older NIV84.

In Psalm 147:10, surprisingly, the NIV translators chose “warrior” for ha-ish. I think it’s a mistake, but it still demonstrates a commitment to gender accuracy in translation.

NT Examples

On the other hand, for Matthew 4:4 (ouk ep’ arto zisetai o anthropos), the NIV2011 reverses a decision made by the TNIV, reverting to “man” (which is what NIV84 had) for anthropos: “Man shall not live on bread alone.”

This is confusing. Unless the translators think that “man” is gender inclusive, the translation is wrong. But if they do think that “man” is inclusive, it’s not clear why they didn’t use it elsewhere.
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November 1, 2010 Posted by | Bible versions, translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , , , | 19 Comments

On “Hearing the Word the Way it Was Written”

The updated NIV has been released on-line. According both to an interview with Douglas Moo and to the translators’ notes (available in PDF format), one goal of the NIV is “hearing the Word the way it was written,” which, Dr. Moo explains, means “trying to reflect in English something of the form of the original text.”

I’ve already explained why I think mimicking the form of the original is a bad idea.

I’m not sure what “reflect” means when Dr. Moo says he wants to “reflect … the form of the original.” It sounds like he means “mimic.”

But to properly translate Hebrew or Greek into English, the Hebrew and Greek forms have to be translated into appropirate English ones, not merely mimicked, just as vocubulary has to be translated.

For example, the Greek word isuchia has a variety of possible English translations: “Silence,” “quiet,” “quietude,” “quietness,” etc. are all reasonable choices. But the way to decide among these possibilites is not to ask which has the most sounds in common with the Greek isuchia, or which has the same number of syllables, or to look at any other formal quality of the word. For instance, it’s usually a bad idea to rule out “silence” as a translation because it has only half the number of syllables as the Greek, or because it has two sibilant sounds (“s”) where the Greek has only one.

It is the same kind of mistake to think that the English translation for en isuchia must have two words, and that one of them must be “in,” to match the Greek en. Yet in I Timothy 2:11 that’s exactly what we find in the (old and new) NIV: “A women should learn in quietness.” This translation is all the more astonishing because just one verse later, the same Greek phrase is correctly translated as “[she must be] quiet,” not “[she must be] in quietness.”

I chose these verses because — as David Ker points out (in a PDF as part of a post) — NIV11 changed some of the wording here. So we know that the translation committee took note of this passage.

My point is not to highlight a mistake — I know as well as anyone that publishing a translation means publishing at least one mistake. Rather, I wonder about the approach that led to “in quietness” even being considered, let alone accepted.

It seems like a case of “hearing the Word the way it was written,” and, I think, it highlights the drawbacks of that approach.

November 1, 2010 Posted by | translation practice, translation theory | , , , | 1 Comment

The Updated NIV is Online as of Today

As expected, the much-anticipated updated NIV went on-line today at Bible Gateway.

The new translation doesn’t seem to have a name that distinguishes it from older translations of the same name. It’s just called the “NIV.”

Unfortunately, the previous two NIV translations — the TNIV and what I guess we’ll have to call the “old NIV” — have been removed from the site. [Update: The older translations can still be found on Bible Gateway’s beta site.]

Notes from the translation committee are available in PDF format here.

More soon.

November 1, 2010 Posted by | announcements | , , , , | 3 Comments