Musings Of A Spiritual Atheist
Bible Translation

The only way to fully understand what the bible says, and means, is to read it in the original languages with a full understanding of the colloquial and semantic assumptions of the original authors and their contemporaries. Languages change over time, sometimes in a surprisingly short time. New colloquial expressions arise and older ones become unused and “archaic”. New words are formed and may replace older words or, as frequently happens, may assume a new meaning. Similarly, a word in one language may not have a precise equivalent in another and either an approximation or a phrase must be used for a single word. These are problems inherent to translation, even amongst present day languages which are still being spoken. For those reasons, I doubt if there is a single person alive today who can understand the Bible in its entirety in its original languages, with all the nuances of semantic and colloquial expression it contains. That means every bible commenter takes a guess about the meaning of something it says sooner or later, every single one.

An example of an obscure word is “tsohar” in the book of Genesis (chapter 6, verse 16), referring to what Noah was instructed to put on the top of the ark. This word only occurs once in the bible and its meaning is not clear. It is usually translated as either a roof, a window or a light, although Jewish tradition asserts that it referred to a luminous stone.

Something similar happened with the word used as the foundation for god’s personal name, “Yahweh”. It is almost always said that no person now knows the correct pronunciation of the word used since the original writings left out the vowel sounds. However, similarities to other words and the verb forms used indicate that Yahweh is likely fairly close. The root verb from which the name is derived has the meaning of “to become” or something similar and the name itself is in the causative imperfect so the meaning of god’s personal name is “he who will cause to become” or “he who will prove to be”. This is different from the most common translation of god’s personal name in the Bible which is usually “I am”, based on the verb meaning the same as the present tense of the English verb “to be”. Apparently however, Hebrew verbs do not have time tenses, denoting instead either completed or continuing actions with the time reference depending on the context. In other words that could not be the definitive meaning. Nevertheless, the use of “I am” as god’s personal name is so deeply entrenched in Christianity that it is still translated that way, even though it is known to be incorrect. In other words, doctrine triumphs linguistics in most translations. The possibility that this may happen in other parts of the Bible is the reason why accepting any translation of the Bible as the final authority should be done with caution. Bear in mind that any translation may be influenced by a doctrinal filter. There is a more detailed discussion of god’s personal name in a later chapter.

A further problem is the change of meaning of words in the language translated into. An example of that is the English word “without”, which today has the meaning of “not having possession of”, as in “he left home without his jacket”. Originally this word was the opposite of “within”, a synonym for “inside”, and “without” therefore had the meaning of “outside”. The well known hymn says, “There is a green hill, far away, without a city wall”, meaning that the hill on which Jesus was crucified (Golgotha) was outside the wall surrounding Jerusalem. It does not mean that Golgotha did not have a city wall of its own. Since it was not a city, it could not have one.

A further problem is the different grammar and syntax that a language may use. These can be the cause of deep misunderstandings and may significantly affect doctrine. An example is found in the opening verse of John’s Gospel, which is most commonly translated as: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with god, and the Word was god.” An alternate translation is: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with god, and the Word was a god.”

Just one word (“ho”, meaning “the”) would have clarified this by changing “a god” to “the god”, the same expression which was used for the god the Word was with. Instead, the writer has left us in confusion and the difference has caused a furore in Christianity which has lasted for two millennia and led to numerous acts of murder, and which is still the subject of major disagreements.

John actually wrote, “en archei en ho logos kai ho logos en pros ton theon kai theos en ho logos”, although it would have been in upper case letters, since lower case letters were a later development. This literally translates as “In beginning was the word and the word was with the god and god was the word”. The dispute essentially comes down to asking, “what is the significance of contrasting ‘the god’ with ‘god’?”

It is obvious that the Greek dialect with which the New Testament was written used grammatical articles (“the” and “a”) differently from the way they are used in English, so lets proceed phrase by phrase to see what effect this has on the verse.

It begins, “In beginning”. This is quite unlike English where we would use an article of some kind. Which one should we add to the Bible? Putting in one instead of the other would indicate either specificity, “the beginning”, implying there was only one, or generality, “a beginning”, implying there were at least two, perhaps more. Depending on our philosophical bent we would use one or the other, although we could substitute another term altogether, such as “initially”.

There is no difficulty with, “was the word”.

It continues,”and the word was with the god”. We would say, “the word was with god”, but the original says, “the god”, thus indicating a specific deity, who would be understood by a Christian reader to be the bible god, the Father, Yahweh. In English, we would capitalise the word as “God” to indicate the same thing. Capitalising a word would not indicate the same thing in the Greek dialect used, since all writing at the time was upper case. In other words, we would leave out the definite article “the” to get “the word was with god”, although some believe this should be translated as “the word was with the (true) god”, so that the article can be included with a word inserted to emphasise what John likely meant.

The next phrase is the one that causes all the disputes. John wrote, “and god was the word”. This is usually changed around to be, “and the word was god”, and by so doing using English word order to reinforce a particular understanding. The question still arises though, is “the god”, whom the word was with, the same as the “god” the word was, since the first has a definite article implying specificity (the god) while the second has no article, implying generality (a god)? Ignore the difference in spelling between “theos” and “theou”, they are the same word, just in different grammatical forms.

In essence, although there are mountains of writings debating the minutiae of this verse, the resolution appears to depend more on preconceived beliefs than on anything else. Translations made by those who accept the trinity as doctrine use “The word was god”, and those who reject the trinity use, “The word was a god”. This division existed in the very early Christian Church and it still does today. It has been this way for almost 2000 years.

The very existence of the vast number of explanatory notes and discourses on this one, short verse emphasises that its meaning is not clear, at least to us in the present, but we now have no idea whether John did this intentionally or not. Many Christians believe that all text in the Bible was written under divine inspiration and reflects what god wants it to say. If that is so, then god must have wanted the meaning to be obscure. That being the case, perhaps translators should render the phrase in such a way that the same lack of clarity is displayed in the translation as the original displays, thereby showing they are not guilty of making changes to god’s Word. A slightly different, but quite valid, approach which is used by a few translators, sees the “theos” from “theos en ho logos” as being adjectival. These translate it to read, “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with god and the Word was divine”, which is nicely indefinite and may well reflect the meaning of the original more accurately.

Let me repeat the point I made in the opening paragraph of this section. “I doubt if there is a single person alive today who can understand the Bible in its entirety in its original languages, with all the nuances of semantic and colloquial expression it contains.” My point is that Bible translation always involves doctrinal filtering and translation compromises. It is unavoidable for that to be so because no person alive understands the languages in which it was written as living languages in the way that the original speakers did.

Reader beware!

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