God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

Changing the Son of God for Muslims

An article in World Magazine discusses Wycliffe‘s recent debate about how to translate “Son of God” and “God the Father” into Arabic for Muslim audiences, noting that “in Muslim contexts,” a literal translation “implies that God had sexual relations with Mary” — at least according to some translators.

Therefore, Wycliffe’s translations have at times resorted to alternative wordings, causing more than a little debate.

It seems to me that there are two factual questions here.
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October 12, 2011 Posted by | translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , | 16 Comments

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”?

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

Q&A: Is God’s Son The Son of God?

Another great question from the About page:

I have a question about Matthew 27:54. The centurion and the rest of the detachment set to guard Jesus’ body cried out and said “truly he was the Son of God!” — or is that really what they said?

Since it lacks the articles in Greek, and Latin doesn’t have articles, is it possible that they really said “truly he was the son of a god!”?

It’s a simple question with a complex answer.

There are two parts to understanding the issue.

The first is how Greek conveys possessives like “God’s.” In Greek, a possessor is marked by the genitive case, similar to the apostrophe “s” in English. So “God” in Greek is theos and “God’s” is theou. This same genitive also plays the role that “of God” does in English. Similarly “Paul” is paulos and “of Paul” and “Paul’s” is paulou.

At first glance, this seems to be Greek 101, but there a very important nuances that hide in the details. To get a sense of them, we can look just at English, and note that there are three expression that look like they should mean the same thing but do not: “Paul’s,” “of Paul,” and “of Paul’s.” Moving to less religiously charged words helps, so we can better compare:

  • I am a friend of Bill. / I am a vice-president of the company.
  • I am the friend of Bill. / I am the vice-president of the company.

  • I am a friend of Bill’s. / I am a vice-president of the company’s.
  • I am the friend of Bill’s. / I am the vice-president of the company’s.
  • I am Bill’s friend. / I am the company’s vice-president.

Some of these sentences are ungrammatical in English (“I am a VP of the company’s”) and some are odd (“I am the friend of Bill”). Proper names work differently that common nouns, which is why “friend of Bill’s” is so much better than “vice-president of the company’s.” Importantly, some of these phrases imply “the”: “I’m the company’s VP” most naturally means that the company has only one VP. In short, we see a lot of complexity, and subtle nuance related to (1) nouns vs. proper names; and (2) definite vs. indefinite readings.

The second part to understanding Matthew 27:54 is even more complex. “God” in Greek is either theos (“god”) or o theos (“the god”). In John 1:1, for example, the word was with o theos but the word was theos.

My guess is that the two ways of saying “God” convey different nuances, but I’ve yet to see a convincing analysis of the pattern, even though there are lots of partial explanations. Until we understand the pattern, though, I think it will be almost impossible to know how the two phrases for God interact with the genitive.

It’s perfectly reasonable to think that “[a] son of god” means “one son (among many) of one god (among many),” but that’s just based on our English grammar. The syntactically parallel “[a] son of Moses” is only likely — again based on English grammar — to mean “one son (among many) of (the one and only) Moses.” Yet the English “Moses’ son” might mean “(the one any only) son of (the one and only Moses),” even though the Greek would be the same in the last two cases.

We also have the word order to deal with. In Matthew 27:54 (along with 14:33), we find theou uios, instead of the more common reverse order.

All of which is a long-winded way of saying that I don’t think we can conclude that the Greek means what “a son of a god” would in English. So your interpretation is certainly possible, but I don’t think it’s more (or less) likely than the more common “Son of God.” (I also think that theou uios would have sounded very different in Greek than o uios tou theou [e.g., Matthew 26:63], with two determiners and a different word order — and as a guess, the word order adds more than it seems.)

I do think that we’re missing something important here, and Matthew 27:54 is a valuable clue.

December 13, 2009 Posted by | Q&A, translation practice | , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments