God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

Making Jesus the “Human One”

Though the text of the new Common English Bible (“CEB”) has been circulating for some time, its recent release made headlines (Bob Smietana in The Tennessean, picked up by Cathy Lynn Grossman on her USA Today blog), in part because of the translators’ decision to change the traditional “son of man” into “human one.”

Why did they make the change, and is it a good one?

Son of Man

The traditional “son of man” is a literal translation of the Hebrew ben adam, which is how God frequently calls Ezekiel. We also find it elsewhere in the OT. In these cases, the Greek Septuagint translates the Hebrew literally as uios anthropou.

The English phrase also occurs in the NT, where it is the nearly literal translation of the Greek uios tou anthropou (“son of the man”), common in all four Gospels, and appearing elsewhere.

While the Hebrew phrase seems to refer to any human (even though it’s only actually used of a few humans), the Greek phrase seems to refer specifically to Jesus. For this reason, many translations capitalize it, either “Son of man” or “Son of Man.”

Against “Son of Man”

Perhaps the biggest drawback of these literal translations is that the Hebrew ben and Greek uois indicate “member of” in addition to “son” or “child.” One famous phrase where we see this is b’nai yisrael (b’nai is the plural of ben), commonly “children of Israel” or “sons of Israel,” but really just “Israelites.” Similarly (just for instance), in Matthew 9:15, the phrase commonly translated as “wedding guests” is literally sons of the weddinghall.

Accordingly, ben adam could simply be someone who is an adam, just as uios tou anthropou could be someone who is an anthropos. That is, both phrases might just refer to a person. This is where the CEB gets “human one.” They are right that “son of man” is overly literal and misses part of the point of the original.

Another problem with “son of man” is that it is doubly gendered in a way that the Greek is not. In Greek, both uios and anthropos can refer to women as well as men. So the traditional translation introduces gender while the CEB’s translation does not.

In Favor of “Son of Man”

On the other hand, the term “son” in the NT is hardly a neutral one. It is part of the trinity. And it makes possible the progression from “son of man” to “son of God.”

In terms of the latter, for example, we find Luke 22:69-70:

“…but from now on the Son of Man will be seated at the right hand of the power of God.” All of them asked, “Are you, then, the Son of God?” (NRSV, my emphasis)

In the CEB, this becomes:

“…but from now on, the Human One will be seated on the right side of the power of God.” They all said, “Are you God’s Son, then?” (CEB)

The progression is destroyed.

And in terms of the trinity, we might consider Matthew 12:32: “Whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven…” (NRSV), which resonates with Matthew 28:19: “baptiz[e] them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”

In the CEB, we find instead: “And whoever speaks a word against the Human One,” which doesn’t match “baptiz[e] them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” in the same way.

The Tradeoff

I understand the motivation behind “human one” in the CEB. And I think that in isolation it’s a better translation than the traditional “son of man.” But in the broader context of the full NT, I think the association with “son” is too central to give up, and so the CEB misses more than it captures.

What do you think? Which part of uios tou anthropou (“son of man” / “human one”) is more important, the meaning of the phrase or the associations of “son”?

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July 19, 2011 Posted by | translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , , , | 37 Comments