God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

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 | , , ,


  1. Your example is interesting in that it illustrates a migration in meaning for a word that primarily means ‘cold hard cash’. There are hosts of words that are many meaned. Mean is a good one – it can mean cruel or average or that elusive communicative sense of a word. The average is possibly the mathematical equivalent of the sense of semantic range. In this sense, the mean is much less than the full semantic range of the word.

    Flesh has a serious problem but it is the only possible translation of sarx that allows the necessary ambiguity in meaning for the mystery to be sought and found. Here are a few thoughts on sarx

    1. the physical flesh of a creature
    2. the will to power
    3. the need to be right
    4. the physical sign of the covenant
    5. the facts and acts of sex

    In Paul’s writing sometimes one, sometimes all of these are intended. How is it that Spirit is oppose to flesh? If the Song is in the canon then it cannot be that flesh in the sense of sex is ‘bad’ (though it certainly can be ‘bad’). When he writes in Galatians he clearly means circumcision – will you end in the flesh what was begun in the Spirit? In the Romans work, it is the will to power and the need to be considered right that is the battle ground. The will to power is expressed most clearly in our need to accuse and judge each other (like the beni elohim in Job). But the physical sense of flesh – is also present in Paul in both Romans and Galatians – Jesus physical descent.

    But flesh it must be for all these instances since the physical, the sexual, the will to dominate, are all encompassed in the sign of circumcision without which a man will be cut off from the people and it is this sign that is fulfilled in the crucifixion (as it is often fulfilled in other contexts of sonship and servanthood and the prophetic roles.) Circumcision is the type of the cross and the blood of the covenant (reminding me of the title of your brother’s great book, Covenant of Blood).

    The fleshly reality is incarnated by the Spirit in the death of Christ Jesus incorporating all who believe into the covenant people. So flesh and spirit are at odds but are reconciled so that the crown of creation might be revealed. This is also the first of the Sefirot – isn’t it?

    Walk before me – and be perfect. For we must be perfect as the Father is perfect, we must be holy as HaShem is holy. It is in this tension between flesh and Spirit – like Jacob at the ford when he wrestled with one in the form of a man – that we live. And we should hold on till we are blessed.

    Comment by Bob MacDonald | November 3, 2010

    • Your example is interesting in that it illustrates a migration in meaning….

      That’s why I chose it.

      There are lots of well known examples of homonyms, such as “bank” — both the side of a river and a financial institution. These are usually easy to understand.

      It’s sometimes harder to understand how a word like sarx can mean “flesh,” but only sometimes, even though there’s only one word “sarx.”

      Comment by Joel H. | November 3, 2010

  2. The biggest problem is, of course, that one thing σάρξ doesn’t mean is “sinful nature,” which is unfortunately how it is often translated.

    While I agree that there isn’t an English word with quite the range of meaning that σάρξ had in Greek, we do have something close: “flesh,” which does have quite some range (as you displayed). Nothing else comes close. And given the importance of the term—and especially the way Paul plays with its polyvalence—I don’t think there’s a better way to translate it.

    One thing that I think really gets lost in the whole translation discussion is that biblical interpretation within the church is supposed to be a communal, group activity. So when there are more difficult words with some range—like σάρξ—the question is whether the translators should make the interpretive decision to eliminate the polyvalence of the text in the interest of making things “easier to read” (while often obscuring or misrepresenting the meaning) or rely upon the presence of an interpretive community to help explain the polyvalence of the term.

    With the case of σάρξ, I think the choice is clear: the English word “flesh” is indeed the closest thing we have to the Greek concept—to the point that the English phrase “desires of the flesh,” is still fairly common in English, while still having the notion of physicality and even potentially the euphemism for the genitals—and should be consistently chosen in Bible translation. Does that make it a bit more difficult for the “reader off the street”? Yes, but my case would be that no “reader off the street” is going to understand much he/she reads either way—unless of course this reading is in the context of an interpretive community, where more details can be filled in.

    The bigger danger, as I see it, is that a mistranslation like “sinful nature” can do a great deal of harm as it encourages large-scale misreadings even at the community level, where interpretive frameworks are built up over a patently bad interpretation of the text. At least when there is some difficulty in understanding the nuance of the word it is a trigger for the community to dig a bit deeper. When something like “sinful nature” is substituted, it simplifies things—but in a very misleading way, especially when “sinful nature” is used in Romans 7 but isn’t used in the corresponding passages in Romans 8 that “undo” what Romans 7 says. Whole interpretive communities miss this stuff when it’s mistranslated in such a way.

    Are there other, perhaps less important terms that should be translated differently depending on context? Absolutely. I just don’t think σάρξ is one of them.

    Comment by Jason A. Staples | November 3, 2010

    • I would qualify your observations, Jason, by saying “when it comes to Paul…” it is, as you say, “trouble” to translate it with anything else, even “body.”

      Part of the issue has to do with the personal style and thought patterns of the writer. Do we really want to make each writer “homogeneous” rather than “get into” their style and preferences? You’ll miss so much.

      For example, KOSMOS is for the fourth gospel always, I think, a referent to the lost humanity, rather than the sky-land construct. So when he writes:

      “…in this way God acted in good will, and gave his unique son…” (John 3:16a).

      The generic “world” misses the special style of this author.

      Comment by WoundedEgo | November 4, 2010

  3. In a related matter, there are some religious terms that [I think] came to be used commonly as exaggeration. Over time, people forgot that it was an exaggeration, and so the meaning became somewhat “nerfed.”

    An example is “saint.” People once would exaggerate a good person as a saint, and now saint seems to be used to mean “good person” with no knowledge that that is an exaggeration.

    Another would be “to adore.” That used to mean worship, though now we more often use it in a much lesser sense than that.

    “Enchant” is another one where common use as exaggeration led to a weakening in, for lack of the proper term, semantic intensity.

    Comment by Gary Simmons | November 3, 2010

  4. When I’m trying to explain polysemy to someone, I pull up this video from Radiolab: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j0HfwkArpvU

    It goes through different senses of a bunch of words (play = theater performance, play = what kids do at a playground, play = what stereos do, etc.)

    Comment by Jessica Harmon | November 3, 2010

  5. hose

    Or maybe these are homonyms, requiring separate entries in a dictionary, rather than being polysemous.

    Comment by Wayne Leman | November 5, 2010

  6. The word water can mean:
    H2O in any state (gas, liquid, solid)
    H2O in its liquid state as distinct from ice or water vapor

    The word ‘man’ can mean:
    mankind (aka the human race)
    or a male human as distinct from a female
    or an adult male as distinct from a boy

    The word ‘God’ can mean:
    Father, Son, and Holy Spirit
    or the Father only (eg. 2 Cor.13:14)

    Comment by Phil McCheddar | November 10, 2010

    • I think “water” is particularly instructive, because it shows how a word can have a broad meaning and a more specific meaning that’s a subset of the broader meaning.

      Comment by Joel H. | November 10, 2010

      • Yes, it’s like the word “vegetable” which can mean any plant (as in the phrase ‘animal, vegetable, or mineral’) or more narrowly it can mean the edible part of certain types of plants.
        The word “finger” can mean a manual digit other than a thumb (hence we say ‘fingers & thumbs’), but on the other hand (pardon the pun!) we also say we have 10 fingers.
        Sometimes we talk about animals and human beings as two separate classes but other times we classify humans as animals (since they are animate entities).

        Comment by Phil McCheddar | November 10, 2010

  7. >>>…The word ‘God’ can mean:
    Father, Son, and Holy Spirit
    or the Father only (eg. 2 Cor.13:14)…

    This is not a feature of language, but rather of mass delusion. It is a mistake to lump together the abuse of language with the actual mechanics of language.

    This is like saying that “sometimes three equals one” as if it were sound mathematics. That degrades mathematics, for the sake of exalting dogma.

    Language must be the crucible of ideas, not that which gets ground to powder by hokie ideas.

    Comment by WoundedEgo | November 10, 2010

  8. I’m persuaded that Paul’s whole paradigm of the human condition is based on a bizarre understanding of THIS passage:

    Gen 2:7 And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.

    For “Paul” (assuming this is a single person), man had two PROFOUNDLY DIFFERENT components… his “flesh” and his “breath”….

    The “flesh” was molded from DIRT (eeeew!!!) while his “breath” was breathed from God’s own nostrils!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    This explains, better than anything I’ve ever heard, why Paul wrote what he wrote…

    So nuances about the word “son” have to take a back seat to the more *obvious* obsession that Paul had with SARX v PNEUMA… yes?

    Comment by bibleshockers | November 10, 2011

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