Everyone who is committed to study the Holy Scriptures knows that what is being read is not simply the work of men, but is instead a revelation from GOD. The Bible is unfailing in matters of faith and morals, and so correctly states the Second Vatican Council: “it contains without error the truth that refers to our salvation” (Dei Verbum 11). But if there is no doubt about the truthfulness of the contents, this does not mean that every single word of the perfect Divine Message has reached our days error-free in translation made by human. The Texts that are contained in the Hebrew Bible have undergone continuous translation and interpretation for more than 2000 years, shifts in language that have inevitably led to a compromise of the original. The “path” that the original New Testament text has had to take has been particularly complex and can be identified in three main passages:
|(3rd century B.C.)||(4th century A.D.)||(13th century A.D.)|
Although fragments in Hebrew or Aramaic of the Gospels and the rest of the New Testament are not preserved to date, contemporary scholars analyzing lexically and examining in depth the Greek text of the four Gospels (but also the rest of the New Testament texts) from a linguistic point of view shows the existence of a Semitic substratum, particularly Hebrew. It must in fact be considered that although much of the New Testament was originally written in Greek, the language spoken by Jesus with his disciples and evangelists was certainly a Semitic language (probably ancient Hebrew or some form of Aramaic dialect).
Then it is to be considered true the famous Horace‘s opinion that even the best translator in the world must necessarily change some words (“As a good translator you must take care not to translate word by word). Therefore, if in the translation field “changing” is legitimate and sometimes necessary, so is investigating the mistakes made in the past in order to bring in the present a text more and more faithful to the original one.
Table of Contents
The 7 most important translation errors in the New Testament
1) Jesus the Nazarene not “from” Nazareth
Christians cannot claim that the expression “Jesus Nazarene” refers to “Jesus citizen of Nazareth”, in the same way that the expression “Leonardo da Vinci” means “Leonardo coming from Vinci” because this custom was absolutely unknown and used in the first centuries AD. In the period of the destruction of the second Temple in fact, both in Judea and in the Middle East in general, the name of the father was used as the “surname”, and not the provenance as many centuries later happened in the West. Therefore, if anything, the Messiah could have been identified with “Jesus son of Joseph” (Yehoshua ben Joseph as reported by all the Islamic tradition) and not as Jesus from Nazareth.
Nazareth is also never mentioned in the Old Testament and the first historical sources (excluding the Gospels) that speak of it date back to the 3rd-4th centuries AD and the provenance of Jesus can be more likely to be identified as the city of Gamala. In the N.T. Jesus is 18 times called “Nazarene”, and this title has instead to do with the oldest vow of consecration and GOD present in the Bible, that is, the Nazireate (or Nazir exactly like John the Baptist his cousin and forerunner), if anything, the trilateral root NZR could also be interpreted with “nezer”, which means “Bud” or “Virgult”, a term that we often find associated with the Messiah by the Prophets (Isaiah 11, 1 ; Zechariah 6, 12 ; Jeremiah 23, 5).
In the first Greek translation of the Septuagint (LXX) the word nazoraios does not mean at all “coming from the city of Nazareth”, but refers instead to a title, the same one present in the Book of Numbers 6, 1-21 and in Judges 13, 1-14 and that probably the first translators did not accept because it linked too much the new Messiah of the nascent Christianity to the old classical Hebrew tradition, and this probably would have prevented the formation in the first centuries of the doctrine that later emerged as Roman Catholic.
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2) The young woman from the Book of Isaiah
There is one passage above all that the Christian Church indicates as certain confirmation of the relationship between the revelations of the Old and the New Biblical Testament, an announcement for more than one of the major prophets of the Jewish Canon. The traditional prophecy of Isaiah (7, 14) about the “virgin who will conceive and bear a child” is about to disappear definitively from the new Bibles, which have only recently begun to correct the translation from the Hebrew text, which does not actually contain it (the CEI version reports “virgin”, while the New Rivedura 2006 “young”). Isaiah 7, 10-17 is particularly important for Christian doctrine since v. 14 is quoted in Matthew’s Gospel in Messianic perspective, supporting the birth of Jesus from a virgin with these words:
18 This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. 19 Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly. 20 But after he had considered this, an angel of the LORD appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus[note a], because he will save his people from their sins.” 22 All this took place to fulfill what the LORD had said through the prophet: 23 “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “GOD with us” 24 When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the LORD had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. 25 But he did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.
(Matthew 1, 18-25)
There is no doubt that the gospel according to Matthew intends to report with extreme clarity the miraculous birth of Jesus. The author is careful to specify that Mary became pregnant before she went to live with Joseph (Mt 1, 18). The miraculous conception is also underlined by the fact that Joseph had secretly planned to sack her (Mt 1, 19). The Gospel of Luke also speaks of the virginal birth of Jesus, but without mentioning the passage from Isaiah, while Mark and John do not describe the circumstances of the birth of the Messiah. Usually careful to highlight every aspect of Jesus’ life that can be read through the biblical prophecies, especially in the account of Jesus’ childhood, Matthew does not fail to reconnect to Is 7, 10-17. According to the author of the Gospel, the prophet Isaiah announced the miraculous birth of Jesus from a virgin many centuries before the fact occurred or, alternatively, although he was aware of interpretations of Is 7, 10-17 of a purely historical nature, he would have updated the prophetic text by linking it to events that had involved his own religious group. Verse 22, transmitted substantially in this form by the whole manuscript tradition, is eloquent: “All this happened so that what was said by the LORD through the prophet might be fulfilled”. However, in v. 23, Matthew, in quoting Is 7, 14 seems to make a mistake, or to deliberately force the meaning of the prophecy, in fact he uses the Hebrew word ‘almah (העלמה) which means only “young woman” or “girl” and is not a specific term from which one can infer that Isaiah actually intended to allude to a virgin who should have conceived a child without any sexual intercourse. The presence of ‘almah in Is 7, 14 is confirmed both by the Masoretic Hebrew text, corresponding to the current Hebrew Bible, and by the 1QIsa scroll found in Qumran.
in Cave 1Q, for which see chapters 6 and 7 of this document. Many scholars therefore point out the fact that if Isaiah had explicitly wanted to refer technically to a “virgin” he would have had to use the Hebrew term bethulah (בתולה) which is more specific in this sense, so this forcing has remained for centuries an irrefutable Christian proof of the New Testament revelation, but in fact today without foundation.
3) Jesus GOD’s son, but not the Most High GOD
In chapter 19 still of the Gospel according to Matthew, which for many remains both the oldest and most authoritative with historical evidence that it is the only one originally written in Aramaic [note b] we find a translation constraint. Most translations of the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Church thus translate verses 16 and 17::
16 Just then a man came up to Jesus and asked, “Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?” 17 “Why do you ask me about what is good?” Jesus replied. “There is only One who is good.
(Mt 19, 16-17 NIV)
whereas the appropriate and literal translation from Greek should be:
16 And behold, one came and said unto him: “Good Master, what good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life? And he said unto him: 17 “Why callest thou me good? There is none good but One, that is GOD: But if thou wilt enter into Life, keep the Commandments”. 18 He saith unto him, “Which?” Jesus said: “Thou shalt do no murder, thou shalt not commit adultery, thou shalt not steal, thou shalt not bear false witness, 19 honour thy father and thy mother: and, thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself”.
(Mt 19, 16-19)
An obvious difference, from a cryptic speech, to a simple clear one that confirms not only the great humility of Jesus Christ, but also his not belonging to GOD the Most High as the same substance (trinity), but simply as the GOD’s son as Psalm 82 states and as each Saint believer should consider himself according to the doctrine.
4) No one has ever seen GOD
For Christian translators dealing with a passage like the one in v. 18 of the Gospel according to John was really a very delicate task. Yes, because although like many others this passage can be interpreted in different ways, it still contains a constant that is difficult to digest from a Trinitarian perspective: “No one has ever seen GOD”. So if no one has ever seen Him, but they have instead clearly seen Jesus, the Messiah and the Son of GOD, this will never let them understand that the FATHER is the son and vice versa, otherwise this statement:
Perhaps it can be understood metaphorically and spiritually but it certainly cannot be affirmed how the Christian Creed reads “generated, not created: of the same essence as the FATHER”. So the correct translation of:
18 No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known.
(Jhon 1, 18 NIV)
should instead be:
18 Θεὸν (GOD) οὐδεὶς (no one) ἑώρακεν (has seen) πώποτε (ever yet); μονογενὴς (the only begotten) Θεὸς (God),b ὁ (the One) ὢν (being) εἰς (in) τὸν (the) κόλπον (bosom) τοῦ (of the) Πατρὸς (FATHER), ἐκεῖνος (He) ἐξηγήσατο (showed us the way)
18 GOD no one [has] ever seen him; [but] the only God created, the only one who exists in the bosom of the FATHER [and] He [has] showed us the way.
(Translations of the Gospel according to John Chapter 1 v. 18)
In this way the doctrine preached by the Messiah is really comprehensible, and just as the prayer he taught the disciples invoking the FATHER of us all (LORD’s Prayers that beguin with: “Our FATHER in Heaven”), and not simply saying “my FATHER”. We are all Sons of GOD although at that time it was Jesus the son of Mary the only begotten son of the FATHER who fully understood His Precepts and His Laws. For this reason His name in history was elevated above all other names.
5) Agape and Caritas, Love or Charity?
Even in not in all the English (mostly protestant Churches) in many traslations around the Christian World the First Letter of St. Paul to the Corinthians (Chapter 13) we find an example of how an inappropriate translation can lead to a misunderstanding of the whole thought. In this case it would seem to be more than a literal error, it would seem to be a personal interpretation of the translator (or his school) who attributes, albeit incredibly, more value and strength to the earthly feeling of charity than to the universal feeling of love.
The Greek “Caritas”, which means “Love”, first becomes correctly in Latin “Agape” (“Love”) and then mistakenly turns into the Italian “Charity”, a mainly worldly and material term, far from the high and noble feeling of Love. Below is the correct translation from the Greek Classical (Love), and in brackets the incorrect translation that the Church still proposes in our Bibles today:
If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 3 If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. 4 Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5 It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6 Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7 It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. 8 Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. 9 For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10 but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. 11 When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. 12 For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. 13 And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.
(1 Corinthians 13, 1-13)
It remains obvious that a believer can still be confused today that giving alms, or giving to charity, can be a great act of love to GOD’s Eyes, but instead the doctrine wants to teach us that no action, not even the most generous material donation, can please GOD if it does not come from the depths of our heart.
6) The rope and the camel
In the Gospel according to Matthew in Chapter 19 we find a purely grammatical error, and although it does not have much importance from a doctrinal point of view, it manages in itself to express how much an error can merge with the culture of man, since even today this error has not been corrected in the Bibles throughout the world. Because of their similarity the terms could have been mistaken without considering the inaccuracy and correcting the translator’s error:
24 Again I tell you, it is easier for a rope (not a camel) to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of GOD.
(Matthew 19, 24)
The term camel (kamilon) and rope (kamiilon) are both possible transliterations, as both translate the Aramaic ghamil. In fact, between the term kamilon (from the Greek Dictionary κάμηλος -ου, ὁ, ἡ [ebr. gāmāl], camel, dromedary) and kàmelon (transliterated, but the “e” would be “eta”) the difference is very small to mislead. In some codes we read kàmilon, with iota, and therefore the translation would be “it is easier that a rope passes through the eye of a needle”. This form, which certainly seems even more sensible, is corroborated by the testimony of ancient Armenian and Georgian translations, and is also found in quotations of ancient authors, such as Origen, Cyril Alexandrinus, who even takes sides against Julian the apostate, saying:
The Lord [Jesus] takes as an example the eye of the needle and the gml, and not the animal, as the ungodly, ignorant and idiotic Julian thinks, but the thick rope in every ship.
(from a fragment of Book XVI of the treatise against Julian, preserved in Syriac)
Yet all three synoptic passages, in the Greek version, carry the term “κάμηλον” which means, without a shadow of misunderstanding, camel; (Matthew 19, 24) (Mark 10, 25) (Luke 18, 25)
7) Regarding women
These two examples show how the society of ancient times has often interpreted the passages more according to forms and customs than to the grammar of the text, emphasizing the difference between man and woman present in the culture of the past, but not in the right one of the Divine Message.
The term hagnos (ἁγνός) is translated as “holy” when used when referring to men, and as “caste” or “pure” when used for women. NIV translates the Letter to Titus Cap.2, 4-5 as follows:
4 Then they can urge the younger women to love their husbands and children, 5 to be self-controlled and pure, to be busy at home, to be kind, and to be subject to their husbands, so that no one will malign the word of GOD.
It is not lawful to change a translation of a word only according to custom, but consistency must always be used in a translation.
Other distortions include the mistranslation of the term exousia (ἐξουσία) which is more often interpreted as “power”, “authority”, “law”, “freedom”, “jurisdiction” and “force”, but when it is used referring to women in 1 Corinthians 11, 10 many versions translate it as “veil” or “covered head”, which evidently served only to give men authority over women. If translated correctly, however, it reports Paul’s teaching that women have authority over their own heads, thus nullifying male domination, and giving everyone authority only over themselves.
[note a] The original name is Yehoshua (יהושע) which in fact means “GOD saves” and only later it was transliterated first into Yesous (Greek) and then Iesus (Latin) and Jesus.
[note b] Origen in Eusebius of Caesarea, Ecclesiastical History, 6.25.3-6 – “The first to write was Matthew who was a tax collector and later became an apostle of Jesus Christ; he published the Gospel in Hebrew for the Jewish faithful. The second was Mark who wrote according to the direction of Peter, who recognized him as a son in his letter: “Greetings to you, the community that has been elected like you and dwells in Babylon; and also Mark, my son. The third was Luke who wrote the Gospel preached by Paul for the Gentiles. After all came John.”