Basics in Bible study and Pitfalls in Interpretation: Part 2 (The first part is the article called: Are you sure you understand your Bible? -- also on this site. See below.)
Do you realize that a Christian's Bible often depends on where that Christian is in the world? The Christian world is broad and wide and so are our Bibles. The English world, for instance, has many Bible translations and versions to choose from.
There are many “versions” of the Bible. And often what a Christian's Bible says depends on which ancient text the translation is taken from. Bibles exist in many Chinese, African, and Native American languages, and in countries in the Middle East, the Eastern Text, France, Spain. The Eastern Church has its Bible, as does the French Church and the Roman Catholic Church. A “version” is not a different gospel or a translation that “proves” that a specific church is right. A
“version” is merely a translation of the Bible in the language people of a particular country. The King James Version of the Bible is the most popular Bible in the English-speaking world because the colonizers and missionaries took it across the world. But the Bible used by most Christians east of the Mediterranean is The Peshitta Bible (Peshitta means 'original') and is called by western Christians, "the eastern text." To Christians of the eastern region, our english translations are quite faulty. And --surprising to us westerners who think the world revolves around us-- is not THE MAJOR BIBLE.
Many Christians would be surprised to hear that some of the texts in English Bibles which give English-speakers such problems and English pastors such great opportunities to preach great sermons simply do not exist on the other side of the world. Ministers to Indian Christians, Orthodox Christians and Arab Christians are aware that what might be a big problem in the English Bibles might not exist in the Eastern Text or another Bible. I will compare the differences between the Eastern text and the KJV because the Eastern text is the most widely used aside from the King James Version.
With the exception of the old testament, most of the English language Bibles are taken from the ancient Greek translations of the Aramaic and Hebrew texts. Most of the Bible writers wrote in Aramaic. Few wrote in Greek. (Many people will argue with me here. See below.) Greek was the language the cultured world used and many ancient Jewish Scriptures were translated into Greek. Many of the earlier Christians used these Greek translations. Most of the gospels were originally written in Aramaic because the disciples were not students of Greek. Then the gospels were translated from Aramaic into Greek just as other Jewish Scriptures were. The Eastern Church's Bible –used by Christians from the Mediterranean to India and in the Orthodox churches and the Middle East are translations of the Aramaic texts. This means that many English version are translated from translations, whereas the Eastern text is translated from the ancient Aramaic. In addition, the Eastern Church lives near and among Arabs and have firsthand knowledge of Aramaic and Semitic slangs. This difference can be seen in the different translations of Bible verses. To their credit, the translators of the KJV and other English versions made a point of using italics whenever they were unsure of a particular text. And for the most part, the differences don't cause too much trouble. But sometimes, they are enlightening to the western reader.
Here are a few examples:
Remember what Jesus says in the King James Version: "It is harder for a rich man to enter heaven than for a camel to go through the eye of a needle." This translation is found in the English and several western European translations that took their Bible from the Greek text. But many other Bibles including the eastern church --which lives more with the old Aramic language than Elizabethan translators- translate the Arabic word "gamla" correctly as "rope" instead of "gamla" camel.
And some great sermons have been used about the camel and the eye of a needle --- some preachers going so far as to say that a gate once existed called "The eye of a needle" and camels
had to bow to enter through it therefore we must bow and untie all our belongings to enter that gate. When I hear these sermons, I always wanted to say, "Certainly, if the gate was such a bother, why did travelers use it?"
Unfortunately, when the translations were being made, words that made sense in one language became confused with other words because of the similarity of the words. Think how a non-speaker of English would translate bear (the animal) with bear (to have children) with bear (to endure.) Think also of the confusion between spirit (ghost) or (spirit) alcohol) or spirit (the immortal essence of a person.) Or rokha-wind and rokha- spirit. Sometimes the eastern text has wind where the English version says spirit. This happens many times. The way of the wind or the way of the spirit? Depends. Well, you get the picture. So we must be aware that we might very well be reading a verse that has been mistranslated.
Compare Genesis 4:7, 13 in both translations. The Eastern Church knows these verses as "Behold if you do well, shall you not be accepted? And if you do not well, sin lies at the door. You should return to your brother, and he shall be subject to you." And "And Cain said to the Lord, My transgression is too great to be forgiven." The CEV English version reads, ""If you had done the right thing, you would be smiling. But you did the wrong thing, and now sin is waiting to attack you like a lion. Sin wants to destroy you, but don't let it." and "This punishment is too hard." The KJV version sounds partly like the Eastern text and partly like the CEV It mentions the word "accepted" and it mentions sin lying in wait to attack. But it doesn't show what the Eastern text shows, that God wanted to heal the relationship between Cain and Abel.
Sometimes the entire tone of a passage will change because of a translation. For instance, where readers of the english version read that Satan gave Job boils from his head to his foot, the Eastern Bible reads, Satan gave Job cancer from his foot to his brain. Big difference. The KJV and english versions makes it seem as if Job had a bad case of tormenting boils. But the eastern text shows that Job had terminal illnesses of all kinds with many types of cancers.
There is also the famous line uttered by Jesus from the cross, "My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?" Eastern Churches know zilch about this! Their version has Jesus triumphantly saying, "My God, my God, for this have I been spared!" Christians from the east and west would have differing ideas of what Jesus actually said. Remember now, that this isn't some small little translation floating around in some small corner of the world. It's the translation used by
Christians in the eastern tradition and Christian Arabs.
English speakers have passive and active verbs. We say, "Ellie buys a book" or "The book was bought by Ellie." This English construction is reflected in the King James Version. But the
Aramaic and Semitic languages have another kind of verb which implies allowing something to happen-- a strange combination of the passive and active verb. For instance, the King James
Version has God saying, "I will put on you the diseases of Egypt." But the Bible of the Eastern Church says, "I will allow the diseases of Egypt to fall upon you." The same goes for the Lord's Prayer. The King James Version reads, "Lead us not into temptation." The text of the Eastern text reads, "Don't allow us to be tempted."
Sometimes the English/Greek Bibles differ so much from the Eastern Church's that we find the English translation doing something that God would not do. Remember Jephthah's daughter? In the English version, Jephthah's daughter is seemingly sacrificed. In the Eastern church, Judges 11:39 reads, "And at the end of two months she returned to her father, who did with her according to his vow; she knew no man. And it became a custom among th echildren of Israel that the daughters of Jerusalem went up yearly to weep with Jephthah's daughter." The rest of the world believes Jephthah's daughter became a living sacrifice and lives in perpetual virginity. The notes in the margin of the KJV say, "this verb lament can also mean to weep with" and the reader is given a choice as to how they will take the story. The western world, because of the Greek
translation used believes God's prophet sacrificed his daughter. But human sacrifice was forbidden by Yahweh and Jephthah would not have sacrificed his daughter. And the Arabs of the Eastern world are well aware of the tradition of "living sacrifices."
This connects to 1 Corinthians 7:36 and 38. The KJV and english versions say, "But if any man thinks he behaveth uncomely toward his virgin, if she pass the flower of age and needs so require,
let him do what he will, he sinneth not, let them marry." The Aramaic-derived version reads, "If a man thinks he is shamed by the behavior of his virgin daughter because she has passed the age of marriage and he has not given her in marriage and that he should give her, let him do what he will and he does not sin. Let them be married. So then he who gives his virgin daughter in marriage does well. And he does not give his virgin daughter does even better." In the Eastern text, it is clear that the virgin daughter has taken a vow of virginity to God and the father is having problems letting his daughter keep her vow. Remember in this culture, a woman –and her betrothed had no power– only the father.
The KJV reads, "The light shined in darkness and the darkness comprehended it not," the meaning of the word "comprehend" has changed. In King James' time, it meant to encompass or to
conquer. When they saw the old Aramaic/Hebrew word that meant to conquer, they used "comprehend." When modern folks say "comprehend," we mean "to understand." Therefore
when they read the KJV, they misunderstand the verse. I've heard some great sermons on the darkness not "understanding" the light. These wonderful sermons and interpretations were valid
in their own way. But the verse still means: "the darkness did not overcome the light." New English translations reflect this. But the Eastern Church has always understood the verse this way.
The eastern church also knows the difference between a symbol and something literal. The Bible says that when Lot and his family fled the sulfur-burned cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, Lot's wife looked back and turned into a pillar of salt. Many western people questioned this verse and people have lost their faith or created great art because of this business of a woman actually turning into a pillar of salt. The western world gets all bent out of shape about it. Some preachers say she was covered up with sulfuric salts. Some say she was radiated and burned and her remains was salt. But most Christians from the Mediterranean eastward understand that this is a middle eastern slang. They know that the phrase "to be turned to a pillar of salt" means something like our "petrified." (We use the word "petrified" to mean shocked or afraid. But it literally means "turned to stone.") In that case, Lot's wife simply died of fright. Think of the phrase, "The Love of Money is the root of all evil." The Greek phrase "love of money" means covetousness. But because the King James translators translated the word literally, its primary meaning of covetousness is changed to "love of money." Think what would happen if someone
translated strawberry as "berries of straw." People would be asking, "Why would people eat berries made of straw? Is it some religious or dietary regimen? Or is it meant symbolically? Hey,
that's what we've done over the past centuries with some of the stranger parts of the Bible.
Then there is the confusion of "You have" and "I have"
For instance, the KJV for Jeremiah 4:10 reads, "Ah Lord God, surely you have greatly deceived this people..." Whereas the Eastern Church's Bible says, "Ah Lord, I have greatly deceived this people..." Ataeth -- I have deceived or ataith - you have deceived. This is the problem of the jot and tittle. Remember Jesus said that no jot or title of the law would be destroyed. The jot and title are similar to the dot over our i and the cross of a t. And in Aramaic, the position of that little dot can turn the meaning of one word into another. Think how easy it would be for a non-English speaker to mix up the words "pail" and "pall" "hail" and "hall" or "ail" and "all" if the dot over the "i" was missing or if the dot was placed too close to the bottom portion of the "i." The same goes for the cross bar of the "t". If the crossbar is missing, "halt" becomes "hall" and the non-English-speaking translator would be misled.
There is the problem of the passive plural verbs.
In Isaiah 43:28, the KJV reads, "Therefore I (the Lord) have profaned the princes of the sanctuary..." The Eastern Church's Bible reads "Your princes have profaned my sanctuary." John
12:40 reads "He hath blinded their eyes." But the eastern churches Bible reads, "Their eyes have become blind." Some later translators –done with the help of modern linguistic techniques and more knowledge of the culture– have repaired some errors...in some translations. But tons of these differences still remain.
Slangs are often hard to translate. When Jesus' mother told him to do something about the wine shortage at the wedding reception, he answered her with a slang. The King James translates the slang as "Woman, what do I have to do with you?" This is a literal translation of the slang. But the Eastern Bible translates it as "Woman, what is it to you and me?" This is a very friendly phrase which is still used among Arabic speaking cultures. Some wonderful sermons have been written
and spoken about Jesus dismissing his mother and --the opposite-- about Jesus being friendly to his mother. God uses these sermons, but a Jewish reader would know what Jesus actually said and actually meant. We have the same problem translating many English words. In our time, someone might say, "What's up?" This could be translated as "What is up?" "What is happening?"
Depending on the skill of the translator, the reader might think someone is asking 1) where something is 2) what the meaning of the word "up" is 3) what thing is up there or 4) what is
happening? It is the same with Bible translation.
The truth of the matter is that the Bible as we Christians know it is completely different from the way other Christians know it. Verses that might perplex us or enlighten us or bring us joy may read totally differently in another Bible.
The English language “versions” include The King James Version, The New King James Version, The Contemporary English Version, The Ebonics Bible, The Jerusalem Bible, The New International Version, The Amplified Bible and do their best to help Christians understand the possible meanings of the Greek and Aramaic words. For instance, it often translates the phrase “have faith” as “to rely on, to trust, to cling to.” It makes a good “study Bible.” For new Bible readers, I highly recommend the Contemporary English Version from the American Bible Society or the Amplified Bible which plugs in several different possible meanings for each verse which is always helpful. We don't want to compound matters by mistranslating the King James Version. Many cults have risen up because people don't understand King James English.
The Contemporary English Version translators not only use modern everyday words but in many instances, they choose to write the meaning of a Biblical slang (or metaphor) rather than use the
literal Middle Eastern metaphor. Here is an example: In the King James Version Ecclesiastes chapter 11, verse 1 reads like this: “Cast thy bread upon the waters and you will find it after many days.” The Contemporary English Version translates it as “Be generous and someday you will be rewarded.”) The Contemporary English Version (CEV) also uses non-sexist language in many places. They often replace the word “man” with the words “humanity” or “people.”
You can pick up a Bible for less than ten dollars. If you want a brand new Bible, your Christian friend will probably have one to spare. The American Bible Society --which translates Bibles from the Greek translations-- also has a large selection of translations, in English, Spanish, French, Chinese and other languages. These Bibles are usually sold at low prices. You can write the American Bible Society at 1865 Broadway, New York, NY 10023 or contact them on the web.
Many of the well-established Christian cults were created because of misunderstandings. They misread, mistranslated and misunderstood the Greek or the King James Version of the Bible.
The Book of Mormon, for instance, was supposedly translated by 18th century Americans but its word choices and styles are Shakespearean, as if copied from King James. It even uses the word 'oxen' which was a KJV word meaning a castrated cow, but castrated cows were unheard of in the Americas. The thing is to read the Bible in a translation you understand. And if the translation you're reading says something really strange, it is possible that another Bible will clarify matters for you. Preferably a Bible taken from another tradition, translated from a text as close to the source as possible.
The important thing to remember is that God has given us our own minds. It is not a good idea to have a Second-hand God and a second-hand knowledge of Scripture. Nor is it a good idea to be too western-minded in our mindset, believing that what the western world has is necessarily better and greater than what the rest of the world has.
Research background: Have read several good research books on this, showing that the linguistic style is more Aramaic and Hebrew than Greek. The turn of phrases often seem to show that the translator was working with an Aramaic phraseology. Each language has its own ways and if you have a sensitive ear --which I don't have but which many linguists have-- one can tell for instance that a French translation of an english work was originally English. Or that an English translation of a french work is mimicking the French...because certain phraseologies are carried over with the syntax of the words. All Bibles, for instance, show the Hebrew tendency towards parallelism (For instance, "Who will go for us and whom shall I send?"). Phrase patterns that only a Hebrew mind would come up with.
Re: Jephthah and Judges. I accept the "living sacrifice" of Jephthah's daughter because the concept of a "living sacrifice" was used by Paul and because it is common in Eastern and Arabic society.
The Hebrew and Aramaic share the same Semitic roots. Aramaic was more vernacular and Hebrew tended to be written but these OT manuscripts were not written in Greek. Imagine Jonah being called to preach to the Ninevites if the languages weren't related? And the Semitic Aramaic language are still alive in the Arabic world. I can't imagine Moses writing in Greek, can you? Check out the history of the Codex Ambrosianus. Also historical research shows that the Jewish Talmuds were written in Aramaic. Scrolls of Jewish papyri found in 1900 in Egypt show many passages in Biblical Aramaic. The commentary on Habbakkuk founded in Qumran were in Aramaic. By the time of Daniel, Hebrew was rarely or never spoken and became a written language. So ater the exile the Aramaic language grew. And even in Biblical times, Josephus used Aramaic and Hebrew almost indiscriminately. Many times, Jesus and his disciples often used texts that agree with the Eastern text but do not agree with the Greek text.
Are you sure you
understand the Bible?
commandments, trespasses and iniquities ?
old testament Prophets
sacraments of the Bible
An overview of the
The works of
Solomon: Ecclesiastes, Proverbs, Song of Solomon
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