God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

How Were Jesus’s Followers Armed?

Newsweek reports on Dr. Dale Martin‘s claim that Jesus was killed because his followers were armed.

Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John all agree that crowds supporting Jesus carried weapons of some sort, usually translated “swords.” (Curiously, the Newsweek article omits Matthew.)

But Dr. Paula Fredriksen is quoted in the article as arguing that “the Greek word used in the Gospels that Martin interprets as sword really means something more akin to knife.”

She’s almost right. The word, machaira, means both “sword” and “knife.”

In Genesis 27:40, Abraham raises a “knife” against his bound son. In Hebrew, that’s ma’achelet and in Greek translation, machaira. Though etymology is notoriously unreliable, the root shared between the Hebrew words ma’achelet (“knife”?) and ochel (“food”) suggests some connection between the knife and food. But even if there is a connection, a ma’achelet is surely not a butter knife. It’s a sharp blade that’s deadly enough to slaughter with.

Furthermore, we also find machaira used to translate the Hebrew word cherev, “sword.”

Returning to the New Testament (which offers better evidence about Greek, because the Greek in the Septuagint is often a poor translation), we find that machaira is metaphorically the opposite of “peace,” in Matthew 10:34, for instance. And in John 18:10 — the passage about Jesus’s armed followers — one thing we know is that the weapon, a machaira, was carried in a sheath of some sort from which Simon Peter drew it.

Again, the machaira isn’t a butter knife, or (because it hadn’t yet been invented) a switchblade.

I think it’s misleading to say that the word doesn’t mean “sword.” It clearly does. The question is what kind. Perhaps we should call it a “dagger” in English, or perhaps there’s a better specific word, but it was certainly a violent weapon.

Jesus’s followers according to the Gospels were armed.

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October 15, 2014 Posted by | translation applications | , , , , | 13 Comments