God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

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.

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November 21, 2010 - Posted by | translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , ,

17 Comments »

  1. Joel, although I may side with “Jewish leaders” myself, you make a strong argument. The problem is in how others interpret “Jews” as all Jews.

    Comment by Kevin S. | November 22, 2010 | Reply

  2. Willis Barnstone, in his Restored New Testament, translates the phrase “the Jews.” But he adds this footnote:

    “All the people in these scenes are Jews. The appellation ‘Jew’ here and in most places in John has two functions: to distinguish Jews who do not believe Yeshua to be the son of God from those who do; and to cast hatred on and condemn the unbelievers to immediate and eternal punishment at the day of judgment. Such usage of ‘Jew’ cannot reflect the initial texts of John but is an anachronism of later interpolators. The followers of Yeshua were initially few in number among the many sects that made up the Jewish population. All thought themselves Jews–Jews and Christian Jews. Therefore, naming the Jews as a hated community existing alongside Yeshua and his follower Jews is linguistically unlikely. Such usage reflects the later competitive period of nascent Christianity when the Jews had expelled Christian Jews from the synagogues and when the traditional Jews, in turn, became the vilified enemy [of Christian Jews and, later, of non-Jewish Christians].”

    Comment by JK Gayle | November 22, 2010 | Reply

  3. 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.”

    But here’s the thing, we DO mean that “Americans” as a collective group representing the whole voted for change, even if no one argues that every American so voted. Likewise with “the Jews,” do we mean to suggest that, as a whole, the actions being taken were in general accord with the collective group?

    I’m not convinced we do.

    Comment by Mark Baker-Wright | November 22, 2010 | Reply

    • Hi Mark,

      In the case of “Americans voted for change,” I think we understand that some significant portion of Americans were involved in the decision, but that’s only one meaning of the phrase.

      That’s why I also included “The Americans sent their president to high-level negotiations in Versailles.” In that case, most Americans had no say in the decision.

      I think one meaning of both the English and Greek construction “The X’s sent Y” is that Y arrived representing the X’s, whether or not the X’s approved of the decision.

      In light of current events, we might consider yet another example: “The North Koreans sent a high-level commander to….” Clearly, this could be true even though most North Koreans had no say in the matter.

      Comment by Joel H. | November 23, 2010 | Reply

  4. This reminds me of the “Muslims” versus “terrorists” terminology war. If you say “Muslims commandeered a plane into the Twin Towers” you are an “Islamophobe” while if you say “terrorists” did, you are re-invited to parties. My preferred term is “Jihadists” because the perps were dedicedly Jihadists. All Muslims are [or are supposed to be] Jihadists, so I presume they are unless they tell me that they repudiate that tenet of their “faith.”

    When we speak of a “War on Terror” we are too vague.

    The idea that this reference to “the Jews” may be a later interpolation is without evidence to support it.

    My own view is that the term is used thus because the thought is that “the only good Jew is an ex-Jew.” This seems to be the view of the NT writers (who are, IMHO, only ostensibly Jews).

    But this is, to my mind, the real ambiguity… when does the term apply only to Judean Jews? To my mind, the semantic range of the word is not:

    * Jews
    * Jewish leaders only

    but rather:

    * Jews
    * Judean Jews only

    That is the question that cannot be established by the grammar but only by the context.

    By the way, from where I sit, the body of changes introduced in this “new” NIV mainly relate to political correctness issues.

    Comment by WoundedEgo | November 22, 2010 | Reply

  5. I think the history of the use of some NT texts is involved in this decision. Some people (wrongly) interpreted some verses as a global condemnation of all Jews forever and there were some well known consequences of this interpretation. So some translations want to avoid the possibility of such a (wrong) interpretation.

    Comment by Don | November 23, 2010 | Reply

    • Some people (wrongly) interpreted some verses as a global condemnation of all Jews forever and there were some well known consequences of this interpretation.

      If we read some of the Bible translation theorists who are Jewish and write on the NT (such as Naomi Seidman, Willis Barnstone, and David Rosenberg), then we get the sense that, in the history of the Jews and the Christian church, the interpretation is neither wrong nor unfair.

      Comment by JK Gayle | November 23, 2010 | Reply

      • >>>>If we read some of the Bible translation theorists who are Jewish and write on the NT (such as Naomi Seidman, Willis Barnstone, and David Rosenberg), then we get the sense that, in the history of the Jews and the Christian church, the interpretation is neither wrong nor unfair…

        Meaning that history backs up the idea that Jews are objectively as bad as the wonderful Christians suggest?

        If so, you are dangerously ignorant.

        Comment by WoundedEgo | November 23, 2010

      • Joel is right, of course, that my comment wasn’t helpful.

        What might be helpful is if you explain/clarify what you meant. Maybe I misunderstood you, or you misunderstood the history involved.

        Were you, in fact, saying that Jews are demonstrably “dogs” and “stiff necked” and “contrary to all men” and “Christ killers” and the like?

        And if so, what in history supports this conclusion?

        Thanks.

        Comment by WoundedEgo | November 24, 2010

  6. Meaning that…? If so,

    well, God didn’t say that and neither did I. If I am ignorant, of course, then it’s quite obvious you will have to tell me. (I still think it wouldn’t hurt you to read Seidman’s, Barnstone’s, and Rosenberg’s arguments, which they and other persecuted Jews seem to have experienced.)

    Comment by J. K. Gayle | November 24, 2010 | Reply

    • I replied to the other post, before seeing this one….

      I’m probably misunderstanding you…

      Please clarify your thought.

      Thanks.

      Comment by WoundedEgo | November 24, 2010 | Reply

  7. The major problem is that, today, the term “Jew” is used to refer to all the descendants of Jacob. In the time of the Second Temple, hoi Ioudaioi was used more specifically to refer to those descendants of Jacob who lived in or came from the Roman province of Judah and were not Helenes (usually translated Greeks, but includes the Romans who spoke Greek).

    Although the term derives from יהודה, the Tribe of Judah, it does not and did not mean a member of that specific tribe.

    Following the Bar Kokhba revolt, “Jew” was a term of approbation in the Roman Empire. Ever since Constantine, Jews have been blamed and persecuted for the death of IESVS·NAZARENVS·REX·IVDÆORVM.

    So, there is no term in modern English which carries the correct connotations. Worse, using the closest terms in modern English carries far more difficult connotations.

    I recommend David G. Burke’s Translating Hoi Ioudaioi in the New Testament:

    Another facet of the problem is that “the Jews,” particularly in the form with the definite article in English, carries for modern readers a sweeping connotation that somehow all Jews were acting in concert in these events (or worse, that all Jews of all time are somehow implicated). While such leaps of logic may seem to stretch credibility, to know personally Jews who have been beaten up because they were said to be “Christ-killers” is all it takes to realize that such improbable leaps continue to be made with fearful consequences. Because the NT passages provide fuel for expressions of anti-Jewish hatred today, the question of how hoi Ioudaioi and related expressions get translated is a critical one.

    This is a critical, but not an easy, question without a seemingly satisfactory answer.

    Comment by Christopher | November 24, 2010 | Reply

  8. Thank you Don, JK, and WoundedEgo, and others.

    I understand that this is not just a theoretical conversation, but even so (or perhaps especially so), please remember to keep it civil, without attacks like “ignorant.”

    Comment by Joel H. | November 24, 2010 | Reply

  9. […] as “the Jewish leaders”, so translated to avoid anti-Semitic interpretations, is guilty of “improving” the text. Joel also asks whether the context of some passages made the specification unnecessary. Robert […]

    Pingback by Biblical Studies Carnival נז (November 2010) | Bulletin for the Study of Religion | December 1, 2010 | Reply

  10. […] Which Jews Opposed Jesus? […]

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  11. […] the fact that the NIV 2011 still includes many apologetically-driven translations which attempt to smooth over the errors and contradictions in the Bible (as in 2 Samuel 21.19 on […]

    Pingback by Baptists call for the Bible to be Banned: The Women-hating Southern Baptist Convention of 2011 | Remnant of Giants | June 21, 2011 | Reply

  12. […] in some places especially in the gospel of John. On this point, see Joel Hoffmann’s post Which Jews Opposed Jesus? – although I don’t agree with all of Hoffmann’s […]

    Pingback by Jesus was not a Jew - according to the Gospels (1) - Gentle Wisdom | April 6, 2012 | Reply


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