God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

How Not To Use Context

A common argument runs along the lines of, “Paul believes X, so here in Paul’s writing we have to make our translation say X.” For example, in translating Galatians 5:6 (recently discussed here, here and by me here), some people try to figure out what Paul believed about circumcision, faith, and love not only to understand what he meant but also to figure out how to translate the verse.

To see how poorly this works, we have only to look at something considerably simpler than faith versus works. One point of Galatians 5:6 is that circumcision is irrelevant: “neither circumcision nor non-circumcision counts for anything” (NRSV). But four verses earlier, Paul says, “if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no benefit to you” (NRSV again). So which is it? Is circumcision irrelevant (5:6) or detrimental (5:2)?

Of course, it’s both. In Galatians 5:2, Paul begins his claim that circumcision is part and parcel of following OT law more generally, and that following that law is the wrong path; in Galatians 5:6, Paul presents his understanding of the right path.

But in an effort to harmonize the two verses, some translations — wrongly, in my opinion — translate peritemnisthe as “accept circumcision” (ESV, NJB) rather than just “be circumcised.” I think the mistake here (and elsewhere) is not realizing that some ideas require more than one verse.

February 21, 2010 Posted by | translation theory | , , , , | 1 Comment