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.

November 21, 2010 Posted by | translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , , | 18 Comments