The Greek that is translated as “ponder” in English is translated as “continually think-about” in Tboli, “turn around in the mind” in Batak Toba, “puzzle forth, puzzle back” in Sranan Tongo (source: Reiling / Swellengrebel), “constantly setting down her visions” in Mairasi (source: Enggavoter 2004), or “moved them in her heart” (bewegte sie in ihrem Herzen) (German Luther translation).
Newman / Nida describe some of the difficulties surrounding the translation of the Greek “Logos” which is typically translated as “Word” in English (click or tap here to read more):
“The term ‘the Word’ has a rich heritage, by way of both its Greek and Jewish backgrounds. For the Greeks who held to a theistic view of the universe, it could be understood as the means by which God reveals himself to the world, while among those who were pantheistic in outlook, the Word was the principle that held the world together and at the same time endowed men with the wisdom for living. In the Greek translation of the Old Testament (Septuagint), the Word could be used both of the means by which God had created the world (Ps 33:6) and through which he had revealed himself to the world (Jer 1:4; Ezek 1:3; Amos 3:1). Among certain of the Greek-speaking Jews of New Testament times, there was much speculation about the ‘wisdom’ of God, which God ‘made in the very beginning, at the first, before the world began’ (Prov 8:22-23). (…) By the time that John writes his Gospel, the Word is close to being recognized as a personal being, and it has roles relating to the manner in which God created the world and to the way in which God reveals himself to the world that he brought into being. Moffatt [whose English translation of the New Testament was published in 1913], realizing the difficulty in finding a term equivalent in meaning to the one used by John, transliterates the Greek term: ‘the Logos existed in the very beginning’ [see also Hart’s translation below]; while Phillips [New Testament translation published in 1958] at least makes an effort to give his translation meaning: ‘at the beginning God expressed himself.’
“Though the Greek term logos may be rendered ‘word,’ it would be wrong to think it indicates primarily a grammatical or lexical unit in a sentence. Greek has two other terms which primarily identify individual words, whether they occur in a list (as in a dictionary) or in a sentence. The term logos, though applicable to an individual word, is more accurately understood as an expression with meaning; that is, it is ‘a message,’ ‘a communication,’ and, as indicated, a type of ‘revelation.’ A literal translation, therefore, more or less equivalent to English ‘word,’ is frequently misleading.
“In some languages there are additional complications. For example, in some languages the term ‘word’ is feminine in gender, and therefore any reference to it must also be feminine [or neuter — see German below]. As a result, the possible use of pronouns in reference to Jesus Christ can be confusing. Furthermore, in many languages a term such as ‘word’ must be possessed. One cannot speak about ‘the word’ without indicating who spoke the word, since words do not exist apart from the persons who utter them.
“Because of these and other difficulties, many translators treat the term ‘Word’ or Logos as a title, and that is precisely what it is. The very fact that it is normally capitalized in English translations marks it as a title; but in many languages the fact of its being a title must be more clearly indicated by some explicit expression, for example, ‘the one who was called the Word’ [see Xicotepec De Juárez Totonac below] or ‘the one known as the Word’ [see German below] In this way the reader can understand from the beginning that ‘Word’ is to be understood as a designation for a person.
“Therefore, this first sentence in John 1:1 may be rendered ‘Before the world was created, the one who was known as the Word existed’ or ‘… the person called the Word existed.’ In languages which employ honorific forms it is particularly appropriate to use such an indication with the title ‘Word.’ Such a form immediately marks the designation as the title of deity or of a very important personage, depending, of course, upon the usage in the language in question.”
Translation for “Logos” include:
- Xicotepec De Juárez Totonac: “the one who is called the Word”
- Sayula Popoluca: “the Word by which God is known”
- Miahuatlán Zapotec: “one who revealed God’s thoughts”
- Alekano: “God’s wise Speech”
- Tojolabal: “he who told us about God” (Source for this and above: M. Larson / B. Moore in Notes on Translation February, 1970, p. 1-125.)
- Yatzachi Zapotec: “Jesus Christ the person who is the Word, he who gives eternal life”
- Eastern Highland Otomi: “the Word that gives new life to our hearts”
- Garifuna: “the one named Word, the one who gives life” (Source for this and two above: John Beekman in Notes on Translation 12, November 1964, p. 1ff.)
- Tzeltal de Oxchuc y Tenejapa (Highland Tzeltal): te C’opile: “the Word” (in a new, 2001 version of the New Testament to avoid the previous translation “the Word of God,” a term also used for “Bible.” — Source: Robert Bascom)
- Mairasi: “The Message” (source: Enggavoter 2004)
- German: Er, der ‘das Wort’ ist: “He who is ‘the Word'” — this solution circumvents the different gender of Jesus (masculine) and “das Wort” (neuter) (in: Die Bibel im heutigen Deutsch, 3rd edition: 1997)
- Anindilyakwa: Originally translated as N-ayakwa-murra or “he having the properties of a word/message/language.” Since this was not understandable, it is now “Jesus Christ, the one who revealed God who was hidden from us” (Source: Julie Waddy in The Bible Translator 2004, p. 452ff.)
- Tonga: Folofola: “Originally, the term is used in the kingly language and is related to the meaning of unrolling the mat, an indispensable item in Tongan traditions. The mats, especially those with beautiful and elaborate designs, are usually rolled up and kept carefully until the visit of a guest to the house. The term thus evokes to the Tongans the idea of God’s Word being unrolled to reveal his love and salvation for mankind.” (Source: Joseph Hong in The Bible Translator 1994, p. 329ff.)
Ajië: Nô (click or tap here to read an explanation by Maurice Leenhardt — in The Bible Translator 1951, p. 154ff.):
“There are other words that the learned translators of the West have in vain tried to render into rich tongues as French or Latin. They found obscure expressions for the common ‘word’ or ‘speech’ (…) It would seem that these words would present insurmountable difficulties for the translator in primitive languages. Missionaries of the Loyalty Islands could not find the word to translate ‘Word,’ nor have they imagined that there could be a corresponding term in the native language. They simply introduced the Greek word into the vocabulary, pronouncing it in the native fashion, ‘In the beginning the Logos’. These people are intelligent; and do not appreciate pronouncing words which make no sense whatsoever. However, when a Caledonian speaks French, he translates his thoughts as they seem to him the most adequate. He can easily express himself relative to the man who has conceived good things, has said them, or done them. He simply describes such a person as, ‘The word of this man is good’. Thought, speech, and action are all included in the New Caledonian term no. In speaking of an adulterous man one may say, ‘He has done an evil word’. One may speak of a chief who does not think, order, or act correctly as, ‘His word is not good’. The expression ‘the Word of God’ is limited in our speech to meaning of the divine Scriptures, but in New Caledonian it includes the thoughts and acts of God, ‘God said and it was done’. The New Caledonian has no difficulty in seeing the Word becoming action, becoming flesh, the word becoming a physical reality. Our deceased colleague Laffay once said: ‘I prefer to read John in the Ajië rather than in French’.
The recent English New Testament translation by David Bentley Hart (2017), that uses the transliteration Logos for the Greek Λόγος, says this about its translation (p. 549p.): “In certain special instances it is quite impossible for a translator to reduce [Λόγος] to a single word in English, or in any other tongue (though one standard Chinese version of the Bible renders logos in the prologue of John’s Gospel as 道 (tao), which is about as near as any translation could come to capturing the scope and depth of the word’s religious, philosophical, and metaphoric associations in those verses, while also carrying the additional meaning of “speech” or “discourse”).”
Below you can find some background of this remarkable Chinese translation (click or tap here to read more):
Dao 道, which developed into a central concept of classical Chinese philosophy, originally carried the meaning of “path” and “(main) road.” From there it developed into “leading” and “teaching” as well as “say” and “speak.”
As early as the 7th century BC, however, dao appears with the meaning “method.” With this and the derived meaning of “the (right) way” and “moral principle,” dao became one of the central concepts of the Confucian writings.
In Daoist writings (especially in the Daodejing), dao goes far beyond the Confucian meaning to take on creative qualities.
With this new compendium of meaning, the term became suitable for numerous foreign religions to represent central points of their doctrine, including Buddhism (as a translation for bodhi — “enlightenment”), Judaism (similar to the Confucians as the “right [Jewish] way”), and Islam (likewise the “right [Muslim] way”).
The Jesuits, who had intensively dealt with Confucianism from the 16th century on, also took over dao as the “correct (Catholic) way,” and the so-called Figurists, a group of Jesuits in the 18th century who saw the Messianic figure of Jesus Christ outlined in Chinese history, went so far as to point to the existence of John’s Logos in the dao of Daodejing.
In later Catholic Bible translations, dao was rarely used as a translation for Logos; instead, the Latin Verbum (from the Latin Vulgate) was transliterated, or yan 言 — “language”, “meaning” — was used, usually with the prefix sheng 圣 — “holy” (also used by the Russian Orthodox Church).
Protestant translations, however, began to use dao as a translation for Logos in the 1830s and have largely retained this practice to this day.
Some voices went so far as to describe Logos and dao as a point of contact between Christianity and the Chinese religions. By its gradual shaping in Greek and Jewish philosophy, Logos had become an appropriate “word vessel.” Similarly, dao’s final formation in Daodejing had also assumed the necessary capacity to serve as a translation for Logos.
The origins of dao and Logos have some clear differences, not the least being the personal relationship of Logos as the Son of God with God the Father. But it is remarkable that using dao as the translation of Logos emulates John’s likely intention with the use of Logos: the central concept of the philosophical and religious ideas of the target culture was used to translate the central concept of Christian theology.
This was not possible in the case of European cultures, which for the most part have offered only translations such as Word or Verbum, terms without any prior philosophical or religious meaning. Only advanced civilizations like China — or ancient Greece — were able to accomplish that. (Summarized version of: Zetzsche, Jost. Aspekte der chinesischen Bibelübersetzung. R. Malek (ed.) Fallbeispiel China. Beiträge zur Religion, Theologie und Kirche im chinesischen Kontext. Nettetal: Steyler Verlag, 1996.)
Peng Kuo-Wei add this perspective (in Noss / Houser, p. 885): “The Chinese term chosen for logos in the is not hua (“word” or “utterance”) but dao from which the term “Taoism” is derived and which can denote a general principle, a way (concrete or abstract), or reason. Thus, Chinese readers can understand that the dao of God is not just words spoken by God, but it constitutes the guiding salvific principle underlying the whole biblical account, including his action in history and teaching and action of Jesus whom he sent. Jesus is the dao of God because his ministry, death and resurrection comprises the fulfillment and realization of God’s theological and ethical principles for humanity.”
The word play in the Hebrew original between “shaqed” (translated in most English versions as “almond tree”) of Jer 1:11 and “shoqed” (translated in most English versions as “watching”) in Jer 1:12 is reproduced in the German Good News translation (Die Bibel im heutigen Deutsch) of 1982 with Wacholderzweig (“juniper branch”) and wache (“watch”). Accompanying the translation is a note, indicating that the literal translation would be Mandelbaum (“almond tree”), which they point out is the first to bloom in the spring, giving the appearance not to have slept. Then they explain that just as Hebrew has a play on words between “shaqed” and “shoqed,” so also they have made a play on words between Wacholder and wachen in their translation.
Das Wortspiel im hebräischen Oiginal zwischen "shaqed" (zu deutsch "Mandelbaum") in Jer. 1.11 und "shoqed" (zu deutsch "sehen", "schauen") in Jer 1.12 wird von der Die Bibel im heutigen Deutsch von 1982 mit "Wacholderzweig" and "wache" nachgebildet. Die Übersetzung wird von folgender Fußnote begleitet: "Der Mandelbaum blüht im Frühjahr als erster und scheint im Winter sozusagen gar nicht 'geschlafen' zu haben." Dann wird erklärt, dass das hebräische Wortspiel dem deutschen Wortspiel zwischen "Wacholder" und "wachen" Vorbild war.
Translator: Jost Zetzsche
The German Good News Bible (Die Bibel im heutigen Deutsch) (1st edition: 1968, 2nd edition: 1982, 3rd edition: 1997) says this about the translation of the Greek expressions that in English are often translated as “kingdom of God” or “kingdom of heaven” respectively:
“An example for how a term evolved is the rendering of ‘heavenly kingdom’ or ‘kingdom of God.’ A verbatim translation will be misunderstood by most readers today: as if it talks about a kingdom that is located in heaven, when in reality it refers in the Bible to God being the ruler, to that area in which that rule has been realized and everything that human beings can expect because of that. Dependent on the context, the term is therefore translated differently in this present version: When it focuses on the presence of God’s kingdom it is rendered as ‘God establishes his rule’ (‘Gott richtet seine Herrschaft auf’), when the focus is on the future it is translated as ‘Once God finalizes his creation (or ‘work’) . . . ‘ (‘Wenn Gott sein Werk vollendet . . .’), and when the focus is on that finished creation it is ‘God’s new world’ (‘Gottes neue Welt’).” (p. 299)
The respective translation choice in that German translation:
- kingdom (of God / heaven) (presence of God’s rule)
- kingdom (of God / heaven) (God’s finalized creation in the future)
- kingdom (of God / heaven) (God’s new world)
Daud Soesilo writes this about the translation of those terms in the Malay translation:
In the New Testament [of the Revised Malay Translation (Alkitab Berita Baik, 1996)] “the Kingdom of God/Heaven” does not refer primarily to a region, or place, or to a political or national territory.
The meaning of “kingdom” is fundamentally that of “sovereignty” or “rule.” Since the primary idea is that of kingship, kingly rule, or sovereignty of God, rather than of the sphere or realm in which his rule operates, the sense of this term should be expressed in translation as “kingly rule,” “reign,” or “sovereignty,” rather than by the literal “kingdom.” The most common literal translation of the term “Kingdom of God” in Malay is “Kerajaan Allah.” “Kerajaan Syurga” is used for its variant “Kingdom of Heaven.” However, careful linguistic analysis of the meaning and usage of the term “kerajaan” “kingdom” shows that when it is unmarked it carries the following components:
- a territory
- in which a king rules
- his people
Thus the expressions “Kerajaan Allah” and “Kerajaan Syurga” have primarily a territorial sense, rather than expressing the idea of “kingly rule.” This means, then, that we should consider replacing the literal renderings “Kerajaan Allah/Syurga” with expressions that are better able to give the New Testament meaning of “he basileia tau theou,” as expressed in the following components:
- God’s kingly rule, including his activity in bringing about his rule in this world
- the people God rules over, in particular those who accept his rule in their lives,
- the situation in which God rules completely, which is the consummation of God’s activity of bringing about God’s rule. (This is the situation which the German Common Language Bible “Die Gute Nachricht” translates as “God’s New World.” From one point of view, however, this use of the expression is the one that relates most closely to the “territory” sense mentioned above.)
The Malay translation team has tried to render the expression “he basileia tou theou” faithfully and meaningfully according to the main focus in each context in which it occurs. However, to help readers who are looking for the formal features of the term, we have added footnotes that give a literal rendering. (Source: Daud Soesilo in The Bible Translator 2001, p. 239ff.)
(See also Barclay Newman in: The Bible Translator 1974, p. 401ff.)
Likewise in the Gurung translation the term was also, depending on context, rendered in four different ways:
- God’s power at work in the world,
- the personal response to God, in obedience and receiving blessing,
- God’s future open ruling of the world,
- the ultimate blessings of God’s rule in heaven.
(Source: Warren Glover in The Bible Translator 1978, p. 231ff. — here you can also find a comprehensive list of examples where which translation was applied.)
Following is a list of (back-) translations from other languages:
- Tzeltal: “persons like these will reach God’s government” (as in Mark 10:14 and Luke 18:16: “the Kingdom of God belongs to those”) or “the jurisdiction of God” (in the sense of where God has the authority)
- Western Kanjobal: “receive God as king”
- Copainalá Zoque: “like God to rule over”
- San Miguel El Grande Mixtec: “agree to God reigning over”
- Kekchí: “power (or authority) of God”
- Laka: “God’s commanding”
- Javanese: “the rule of God”
- Huave: “where God rules”
- Huastec: “God as ruler”
- San Blas Kuna: “God’s government”
- Navajo: “what God has charge of”
- Sayula Popoluca: “to have God rule over”
- Tzotzil: “to have God as chief”
- Highland Puebla Nahuatl: “the leadership of God”
- Wayuu: “where God is chief” (this and examples above in Bratcher / Nida)
- Fuyug “God’s clan”
- Mono: “sana lala’aha nang” – “area of chiefly rule”
- Martu Wangka: “The Father looks after his own relatives” (source for this and the two preceding: Carl Gross)
- Caribbean Javanese: Kratoné Allah (“God’s seat (of a king)”)
- Sranan Tongo: Tiri fur Gado (“the Ruling of God”) or Kownukondre fur Gado (“King’s land of God”)
- Eastern Maroon Creole: A Nyun Tii fu Massa Gadu / Saramaccan: Di Njunjun Tii u Gadu (both: “the New ruling of God”) (source for this and 2 above: Jabini 2015)
Umiray Dumaget Agta: “protectorate of God” (source: M. Larson / B. Moore in Notes on Translation February 1970, p. 1-125.)
In Mairasi, a language “where people would rather say something in a new way than in an old way,” there are a number of translations, including “Great Above One’s (=God) rule,” “His power,” “His control,” or “His place of authority/power.” (Source: Enggavoter 2004)
The Hebrew ’ishshah for “woman” and ’ish for “man” is a clear play on words. In English the terms “man” and “woman” naturally simulate that play on words (Moffatt emphasizes this in his 1926 translation by saying “This shall be called Wo-man, for from man was she taken.”)
In the German translations of Luther (all versions) and Menge (1926), this word play is emulated by creating the new term “Männin” which would be the grammatical feminine form of “Mann” (“man”).
Bei dem hebräischen ’ishshah für "Frau" und ’ish für "Mann" handelt es sich um ein Wortspiel. Im Englischen simulieren die gebräuchlichen Begriffe "man" (Mann) und "woman" (Frau) dieses Wortspiel (in der 1926 veröffentlichten Übersetzung von Moffatt wird das folgendermaßen herausgehoben: “This shall be called Wo-man, for from man was she taken.”)
In deutschen Übersetzungen von Luther (alle Versionen) und Menge (1926) wird dieses Wortspiel mit dem eigens dafür geschaffenen Neologismus "Männin" (für "Frau") nachgebildet.
Translator: Jost Zetzsche
The Greek that is translated with some rendering of “in private” in English versions is translated in most German versions with the idiom unter vier Augen (“under four eyes”) which means “privately” or “confidentially.” (See also the Hebrew equivalent in 2Sam 3:27.)
The Greek that is translated as “eye of a needle” in English (and in many Romance and Germanic languages) is rendered variously in different languages:
- “foot of a needle” (Mitla Zapotec)
- “hole in the foot of the needle” (Guerrero Amuzgo)
- “hole of a needle” (Arabic, Italian, Portuguese, French (also: “eye of a needle”), Japanese, Muna)
- “nostril of a needle” (Piro)
- “mouth of a needle” (Hakha Chin)
- “ear of a needle” (Tedim Chin, German, Tsou, Serbian, Bosnian, Croatian)
- “nose of a needle” (Lahu)
- “channel of a needle” (Rawang) (source for this all above: Bratcher / Nida and crowdsourced responses on Twitter)
- “loop of the needle” (Tae’) (source: Reiling / Swellengrebel)
The Greek that is translated as “blasphemy” or “blaspheme” is (back-) translatated in various forms:
- Panao Huánuco Quechua: “speak evil of God”
- Western Kanjobal: “to hurt God”
- Southern Bobo Madaré: “to break God’s name”
- Loma: “to spoil the name of God”
- Luvale: “to insult God”
- Pamona and Malay: “to slander God”
- Javanese and German: “to defame God”
- Tae’: “to bring curses (or “calamitous words”) against God”
- Uab Meto: “to talk to pieces” (source for this and above: Bratcher / Nida)
- Xicotepec De Juárez Totonac: “treat God with contempt”
- Ojitlán Chinantec: “say bad words”
- Yatzachi Zapotec: “slander God”
- Tenango Otomi: “don’t respect God with what one says”
- Navajo: “say evil about God” (source for this and four above: M. Larson / B. Moore in Notes on Translation February 1970, p. 1-125)
- Bacama: “spoiling the name of God” (source: David Frank in this blog post)
The Greek term that is translated in virtually all English translations as “fox” (exceptions: Passion Translation of 2014 with “deceiver” and The Voice of 2012 with “sly fox”) presents an intriguing example of the complexity of translation and meaning across different cultures.
Edward Hope (2003, p. 64ff.) describes the occurrence of the fox and its meaning in the Bible as an inferior rather than crafty animal (click or tap here to see the details)
“In biblical times, and even today, there are three species of fox found in Israel and one type of jackal. An additional type of fox was found in Egypt. In the Bible the Hebrew word shu’al and its Greek equivalent alōpēx refer to any of these animals. These are members of the same animal family, which includes the wolf and the dog. The word “jackal” was borrowed from the Arabic jakal, which is from the same Semitic root as the Hebrew word shu’al. In the days of the King James Version the word “jackal” had not yet been introduced into the English language, and so in that version “fox” is used throughout for shu’al. (…)
“Both foxes and jackals are extremely intelligent animals, and their quick-witted, crafty opportunism is legendary in the Middle East, Africa, and Europe. The fables of Aesop, a North African philosopher and storyteller, which feature the crafty fox, date from about the time of Daniel. The fox also figures in Greek and Roman fables. Similar fables about opportunistic jackals have been widespread in Africa and the Middle East for centuries.
“In ancient Arabic literature and in the Talmud and Midrash, the word ‘lion’ stands for a truly great and powerful person. In contrast, ‘jackal’ is used to designate an insignificant but self-important person. Since this figurative usage of ‘lion’ (or ‘lioness’) is also common in the Bible, there is a strong probability that the term ‘jackal’ or ‘fox’ used as a metaphor in the Bible for a person carries the connotation of self-important insignificance.
“However, the main symbolism associated with the jackal in the Bible is related to its habit of living among ruins and feeding on carcasses. To say that a certain place would become the dwelling place of jackals meant that the place would become deserted and lie in ruins, as the result of war. The jackal was thus a symbol of death and desolation, as well as insignificance and opportunistic craftiness. (…)
“[When in Luke 13:32 the term] alōpēx is used figuratively, it is more important to retain the inference associated with the word than to signify the exact animal. The word is slightly insulting, and the main exegetical decision to be made here is whether Jesus is using the term with the Greek connotation of ‘crafty opportunist’ or with the Semitic connotation of ‘insignificant but self-important person.’ Either would fit the context. If the former is in focus, Jesus is inferring that even though Herod Antipas is a crafty opportunist, his plans are known. If the latter sense is intended, as seems more likely, then Jesus is inferring that Herod does not have the power to stop him doing what he has to do. Some commentators have argued that both inferences are intended since both the Greek and Hebrew metaphors would have been known.
“If the Greek inference is decided upon, then the word alōpēx could be translated ‘crafty fox’ or ‘crafty jackal.’ If the Semitic inference is preferred, the word could be translated ‘insignificant jackal.’ In either case the word for a local animal that symbolizes crafty opportunism (for example, baboon) or self-important insignificance (for example, rabbit) can be used in the text, with a footnote to indicate that the original word means fox or jackal.”
Due to a lack of understanding of the above-described differences in the meaning of “fox” as a metaphor in Hebrew and Greek culture, early versions of translations tended to emphasize the craftiness of the metaphor:
Harry McArthur (in Notes on Translation 1992, p. 16ff), who had worked on a translation of the Aguacateco New Testament in the 1970s and then revised that version in the 1990s describes the original translation of this passage as one of “the few places where, when I was translating, I did not understand the original text (or the translations of it). (…) The helps we had at that time told us that the point of comparison was that Herod was a ‘cheater.’ We have since come to understand from the use of the word ‘fox’ on many other Biblical passages that Jesus was calling him a small or inconsequential man: a better rendering would be “go tell that poor benighted soul…”
An early Swati version translates “fox” as “nyoka“: “snake” (in the 1996 Swati translation it says “mphungutja“: “jackal”). Eric Hermanson comments on this: “This change, however, rather than bringing out what was intended in the original utterance, made it suggest even more strongly that Jesus was calling Herod a twisty schemer than is indicated when ‘fox’ is used as a metaphor in English. What happened in this case. then, was that replacing a metaphor from the original language with a different metaphor from the second language resulted in readers and hearers having different thoughts and ideas than were intended by the original author. (…)
“In Zulu and other African languages, however, itnpungushe (‘the jackal’) is also seen as an insignificant animal; and referring metaphorically to a king as itnpungushe instead of as iSilo or iNgonyama (‘the lion’), the normal praise-names of a paramount chief, has the same effect (…) that was intended by Jesus.” (Source: Eric Hermanson in The Bible Translator 1999, p. 235 ff..)
The German translation by Jörg Zink (1965) translates “dieser Fuchs, dieser Verderber”: “that fox, that spoiler (or: destroyer)”.
In Meyah, it is translated as “evil person” (source: Gilles Gravelle in Kroneman 2004, p. 502).
The translation of the Greek οἱ Ἰουδαῖοι (hoi Ioudaioi), traditionally “the Jews” in English, is used particularly often in the Gospel of John and has been receiving attention in the last 50 years. Below you’ll find an overview of how some English translators and translation have translated it, why they did so and the solutions some other languages have chosen.
Starting in the late 1960s, at the time the English Today’s English Version (Good News Bible) and respective translations in other languages (see below) were published, many translators started to question the translation of hoi Ioudaioi with “the Jews.”
Robert Bratcher, the translator of the Today’s English Version New Testament describes why his translation uses four different translations for the same Greek words (in The Bible Translator 1975, p. 401ff.): “Jewish people,” “Judeans,” “people hostile to Jesus,” and “the authorities in Jerusalem” (for more see here):
“In order to better understand the meaning of ‘the Jews’ in the Gospel of John, we must first look at the use and meaning of ‘the world’ in this Gospel. The author sees everything in terms of opposite forces: light and darkness, truth and error, life and death, God and the Devil. And he makes a sharp distinction between the world and Jesus and his followers, especially in the last half of the Gospel. Of course the world is the object of God’s love and of Christ’s saving mission (John 3:16–17; 12:47; 17:21, 23), but it is not the object of the love of the followers of Jesus: they are not commanded to love the world. The disciples of Jesus are in the world (John 13:1), but they do not belong to it (John 15:19). The world hates Jesus and his disciples, because they do not belong to it (John 15:18–19; 17:14, 15, 16). The world loves only those who belong to it (John 15:19). It does not know Jesus (John 1:10), or the Father (John 17:25), and cannot receive the Spirit of truth (John 14:17). The world’s ruler is to be overthrown (John 12:31, 14:30; 16:11). When Jesus is parted from his disciples, they will be sad, but the world will be glad (John 16:20). Jesus has overcome the world (John 16:33); his kingdom is not of this world (John 18:36). In the Gospel of John ‘the world’ stands in opposition to Jesus and his disciples.
“‘The Jews’ belong to ‘the world,’ as compared with Jesus and his followers. The Jews, like the world, do not know the Father. They have never heard his voice or seen his face, nor do they believe in the one whom he sent (John 5:37, 38). Jesus says to the Jews. ‘You come from this world, but I do not come from this world’ (John 8:23). (…)
“The author clearly places himself, and those whom he represents, as separate from the Jews. He speaks of ‘the Passover of the Jews’ (John 2:13; 6:4; 11:55), the religious rules of the Jews about purification (John 2:6), a religious festival of the Jews (John 5:1), the Festival of Shelters of the Jews (John 7:2), the Day of Preparation of the Jews (John 19:42), and the way in which Jews prepare a body for burial (19:40).
“And quite as clearly he regards Jesus as not ‘a Jew’. In talking to the Jews. Jesus speaks of ‘your Law’ (John 7:19; 8:17; 10:34) and ‘your circumcision’ (John 7:22). Abraham is ‘your father’ (John 8:56). When the Jews say to him. ‘Our ancestors ate manna in the desert’ (John 6:31), Jesus replies, ‘What Moses gave you was not the bread from heaven’ (John 6:32), and later on says, ‘Your ancestors ate the manna in the desert’ (John 6:49).
“It is true that twice Jesus is called a Jew: by the Samaritan woman (John 4:9) and by Pilate (John 18:35). But in both instances the term is used in its sense of ‘person of Judah’, contrasted with the Samaritan and the Roman. The same applies in John 4:22, where Jesus says to the Samaritan woman. ‘You (Samaritans) do not really know whom you worship; we (Jews) know whom we worship, for salvation comes from the Jews.’
“Apart from those two instances, it is only in John 1:11 that Jesus is identified as a Jew. in the statement that he came to ‘his own country’, but ‘his own people’ did not receive him. This passage, however, does not go against the Gospel as a whole, in which Jesus is shown as not being a part of ‘the Jews.’
“What accounts for this? It seems clear that the deep differences shown between Jesus and ‘the Jews’ of his time reflect the hostility between Church and Synagogue at the time the author wrote his Gospel. He has moved back the disputes and arguments of his own time into the time of Jesus, and they are represented as taking place between Jesus and the people of his time.
“The prominent part played by the Pharisees in the opposition to Jesus is worthy of note here. The High Priest and the chief priests are mentioned often, especially in chapters 18-19, as we would expect. They were, after all, the religious authorities responsible for arresting Jesus and turning hint over to Pilate. What is surprising is that the Pharisees appear so often in the Gospel (see John 1:24; 4:1; 7:32, 47, 48; 8:13; 9:13, 15, 16, 40; 11:46; 12:19, 42), and are at times identified as ‘the Jews’, that is, the authorities. Their part in relation to Jesus in the Gospel of John is different from the part they play in the other Gospels. In John it is their refusal to believe in Jesus and his claims that brings them into conflict with him. They are not, as in the other Gospels, condemned by Jesus because of their hypocrisy or their understanding of the Law. (…)
“The translator is bound to represent faithfully the way in which the author describes the ministry of Jesus. But the way in which he will translate the Greek hoi loudaioi every time it appears in the Gospel is not an easy matter to decide. (1) Should he not, always and everywhere, translate it by ‘the Jews’? This certainly may be argued, since the author does not use the expression in a precise national or racial sense of the people of Israel in the years A.D. 30-33, but of the opponents of his own time who denied the claims the Church makes about Jesus the Messiah. If the translator did this, however, he would almost be forced to use quotation marks — ‘the Jews’ — to show the strangeness of the phrase. (2) But since the author has placed these disputes in the time of Jesus, it is at this level that the translation must take place, so that ‘the Jews’ must be identified in terms of the people of Jesus’ own time. But as a matter of fact Jesus was a Jew, and to translate a passage, for example. ‘Jesus, in Jerusalem, said to the Jews’, is as unnatural as to say, ‘The President, in Washington, said to the Americans’, or, ‘The Queen, in London, said to the British.’
“In translating on this ‘historical’ level, however, does not the translator somehow distort the meaning of the text? The answer depends on whether we believe that the author intended his readers to understand his Gospel as reporting historical events which took place in Judea, Samaria, and Galilee in the early part of the first century. Assuming that he did, it seems to me that the translator does not have much of a choice, unless he says something like ‘the enemies of Jesus’, or ‘the unbelievers’ every time ‘the Jews’ is used of the opponents of Jesus.
“Consequently, in following the course which I think is the only right one to take, the translator must carefully observe the different senses in which ‘the Jews’ is used in the Gospel of John—and this is what will be done in this study, with an examination of every occurrence of the phrase and its meaning in the ‘historical’ setting of the Gospel. (…)
“According to this review, ‘the Jews’ in the Gospel of John may have four different meanings:
- its natural sense, meaning simply Jewish people
- Judeans, people who live in and near Jerusalem
- people hostile to Jesus
- the authorities in Jerusalem
For the Contemporary English Version in the 1990s, similar translation strategies were taken, as explained by David Burke, a member of the translation team (see the reprint from an original article in TIC TALK 24, 1993, right here). Other English translations that use varied translations for hoi Ioudaioi include the Living Bible, New International Version, Common English Bible, New Living Translation, The Inclusive New Testament, and others.
For a recent translation of the New Testament, its translator and Eastern Orthodox scholar David B. Hart (2017) explains why he chose to use ‘Judaean’ for every occurrence of the singular Ioudaios or the plural Ioudaioi throughout the New Testament (for more see here):
“The next term is Ioudaios — or Ioudaioi in the plural — which is usually rendered ‘Jew’ or ‘Jews,’ except in places where ‘Judaean’ or ‘Judaeans’ seems better to fit the context: again a perfectly justifiable practice, but also one that inadvertently introduces a distinction into the text that would not have been entirely intended by the authors. The books of the New Testament were written in an age in which national, ethnic, religious, and racial identities were not arranged in the often pernicious categories that came to hold sway in subsequent centuries; and it would be a severe distortion of the texts of the New Testament to allow these later developments to cast a shadow backward onto a time innocent of the evils of mediaeval or modern history. For example—and the most striking example -— the Gospel of John has often been accused of anti-Semitism, despite the anachronism of the very concept. Where English readers are accustomed to reading the Gospel as referring, often opprobriously, to ‘the Jews,’ the original text is usually referring to the indigenous Temple and synagogue authorities of Judaea, or to Judaeans living outside Judaea, or even to ‘Judaeans’ as opposed to ‘Galileans’ (see, for instance, John 7:1). The Gospel definitely reflects the disenchantment of Jewish Christians in Asia Minor with those they saw as having expelled them from the synagogue, and later Christian culture certainly often took this as an excuse for anti-Jewish violence and injustice, but it would be absurd to impute to the Gospel the sort of religious prejudices born in later generations, or certainly the racial ideologies that are so much a part of the special legacy of post-Enlightenment modernity. I have rendered the word as ‘Judaean’ or ‘Judaeans’ throughout, even where that sounds somewhat awkward, and even in places where ‘Jew’ or ‘Jews’ would be an utterly anodyne or bracingly affirmative translation. After all, the general extension of the term ‘Jews’ to all who worshipped Israel’s God meant principally that their cultic life was focused on the Temple in Jerusalem. Again, my rationale for doing this, and for ignoring my own twinge of reluctance whenever it produced a somewhat inept construction, is that I thought it better to preserve the unity of the word and the concept in the language of the ancient authors than to impose distinctions that would make the texts conform more readily to our cultural categories (and historical sins). (source: Hart 2017, p. 548f.)
Other English translations that use Judeans in most passages in John for Ioudaioi include N.T. Wright’s Kingdom New Testament (in the UK: New Testament for Everyone), the Messianic Jewish Bible Project’s Tree of Life translation, and David Stern’s Jewish New Testament.
In The Jewish Gospel of John its translator explains why he chose to not translate but instead transliterate virtually ever occurrence of Ioudaioi (for more see here):
“The Gospel of John was initially written for a particular audience consisting of a variety of intra-Israelite groups, one of the main ones being the Samaritan Israelites. To them, unlike for us today, the word Ioudaioi did not mean ‘the People of Israel,’ i.e. ‘the Jewish people’ as we call them today. For these people, the people I propose are one of the main audiences for the Gospel of John, the Ioudaioi, meant something different.
“One modern example that illustrates this ancient dynamic comes from an Eastern European setting. The Ukrainians often called Russians, with whom they had an uneasy relationship to say the least, ‘Maskali.’ The Ukrainian word ‘Maskal’ comes from the name of the Russian Imperial Capital — Moscow. Those who were either of Russian ethnic descent, or who even as much as acknowledged Moscow’s authority or leading role in the region, could be referred to as ‘Maskal.’ In fact, the Maskal did not have to be from Moscow or be ethnically Russian at all. The individual simply needed to be (or be perceived to be) a supporter of a Moscow-led political agenda. Other peoples outside of the Russian-Ukrainian political conflict, who were familiar with the issues, never used the designation ‘Maskali’ themselves, knowing that it was a Ukrainian term for the Russians and Russia’s affiliates.
“Therefore, using a similar analogy, those who acknowledged the Jerusalem-approved authorities in Kfar Nahum (Capernaum) and Cana, which were far from Jerusalem, were also referred to by the principal name for the Jerusalemite formal rulers and leading sect — the Ioudaioi. All members of the Jerusalem-led system became the Ioudaioi in the Gospel of John. This is very similar to the way ‘Russians’ became ‘Maskali’ to Ukrainians and to others who witnessed their polemic. So when the audience for John’s Gospel heard these anti-Ioudaioi statements (like John 7:1-2), whom did they think the author/s had in mind? This is the key question.
“To Samaritan Israelites, whatever else the Ioudaioi may have been, they were certainly Judeans –- members of the former Southern Kingdom of Israel who had adopted a wide variety of innovations that were contrary to the Torah as Samaritans understood it. Judging from this Gospel, the original audience understood that, as well as simply being Judeans, the Ioudaioi were: i) Judean authorities, and (ii) affiliated members of this authority structure living outside of Judea.
“These affiliates were located both in the territories of the former Northern Kingdom of Israel (Galilee) and in the large Israelite diaspora outside the Land of Israel, both in the Roman Empire and beyond. In this way, the Gospel of John, like the other Gospels, portrayed Jesus’ antagonists as representatives of sub-groups within Israel, and not the people of Israel as a whole. In other words Ioudaioi (‘the Jews’ in most translations) in this Gospel are not ‘the Jewish People’ in the modern sense of the word.
“The translation of Ioudaioi always and only as ‘Jews’ sends the reader in the opposite direction from what the author intended. While the translation of this word simply as ‘Judeans,’ is a more accurate choice than ‘Jews,’ it is still not fully adequate –- for three reasons that come to mind:
- The English word Jews evokes, in the minds of modern peoples, the idea of Jewish religion (i.e. Jews are people who profess a religion called Judaism) and therefore cannot be used indiscriminately to translate the term Ioudaioi, since, in the first century, there was no separate category for religion (Judaism, when it was used, meant something much more all-encompassing than what it means to us today). In a sense, it was only when non-Israelite Christ-followers, in an attempt to self-establish and self-define, created the category called Christianity, that the category called Judaism, as we know it today, was also born. Since then most Christian theologians and most Jewish theologians after them project our modern definition of Judaism back into the New Testament.
- On the other hand, the English word Judean evokes in the minds of modern people, oftentimes, an almost exclusively geographical definition (a Judean is the person who lives in Judea or used to live in Judea) and hence cannot be used indiscriminately either, since today it does not imply everything it intended to imply in late antiquity.
- The word Judean, without clarification and nuancing, does not account for the complex relationship of the outside-of-Judea affiliates with the Jerusalem authorities either.
“Because of the lack of a perfect word to describe what was meant by Ioudaioi in the Gospel of John, I suggest that the word is best left untranslated.” (source: Lizorkin-Eyzenberg 2015, p. XIff.)
In other languages, many common language versions (approximate equivalents to the English Today’s English Version / Good News Bible) or other simplified translations (as well as non-simplified versions) use varied translations for Ioudaioi in John as well. Below are some examples of translations of hoi Ioudaioi in John 1:19:
- Portuguese: líderes judeus (Jewish leaders) (in Nova Tradução na Linguagem de Hoje (New Translation in Today’s Language))
- French: autórités juives (Jewish authorities) (in Bible en français courant (Bible in Modern French) or chefs juifs (Jewish leaders) (in Parole de Vie (Word of Life))
- Spanish: autiridades des judias (Jewish authorities) (in Dios Habla Hoy (God Speaks Today))
- Italian: autorità ebraiche ((Jewish authorities) (in Traduzione Interconfessionale in Lingua Corrente (Interconfessional Translation into Modern Language))
- Dutch: Joodse leiders (Jewish leaders) (in BasisBijbel (Basic Bible))
- German: führende Männer (leading men) (in Die Gute Nachricht: Die Bibel im heutigen Deutsch (Good News: The Bible in Today’s German)), führende Männer des jüdischen Volkes (leading men of the Jewish people) (in Neue Genfer Übersetzung (New Geneva Translation)), or jüdische Behörden (Jewish authorities) (in BasisBibel (Basic Bible))
- Indonesian: penguasa Yahudi (Jewish authorities) (in Alkitab dalam Bahasa Indonesia Masa Kini (The Bible in Today’s Indonesian))
- Hindi: यहूदी धर्म-गुरुओं ने Yahūdī dharma-guruoan ne(Jewish religious leaders (in पवित्र बाइबिल CL (Holy Bible CL))
- Nepali: यहूदी अगुवाहरूले Yahūdī aguvāharūlē (Jewish leaders) (in सरल नेपाली पवित्र बाइबल (Simple Nepali Holy Bible))
- Hebrew: רָאשֵׁי הַיְּהוּדִים rashei hayehudim (heads of the Jews) (Modern Hebrew New Testament)
The Greek that is translated as “(he) looked up at his disciples (and said)” or “raised his eyes to his disciples” or similar in English is translated in the German New Testament translation by Klaus Berger and Christiane Nord (publ. 2005) as Jesus setzte sich, sah seine Jüngerinnen und Jünger an und sagte…: “Jesus sat down, looked at his [male and female] disciples, and said….”
Christiane Nord (in Open Theology 2016; 2: p. 566ff.) explains: “Where are the disciples if Jesus has to lift up his eyes to them? The bit of cultural knowledge the reader may be lacking (and the translators did not think of) is that, in the source culture, teachers used to be seated while they were teaching, with the listeners standing in a circle around them. Since the author assumed this habit to be known by his addressees, he used a generic verb that does not specify how Jesus ‘is’ in the plain, whereas the translator(s) of the King James Version adapted the text to English style conventions which require a specific verb, thus contributing to an image of Jesus with his eyes lifted up to heaven. (…) Now the text is coherent, but the readers automatically envisage a scene that is different from the one described in the original. Berger and Nord explains the situation, thus making the scene comprehensible without reducing its strangeness.”
A particularly interesting development in the history of Christianity [related to translation] took place with respect to the Greek term monogenés, literally, ‘only, unique, one of kind.’ It was used of Isaac as the son of Abraham [see Gen. 22:2], though Isaac was not the only son of Abraham, for he had a son Ishmael, and with a later wife Keturah, several sons. But Isaac was the only son of a particular kind, that is to say, the unique son of the promise. The term monogenés was translated into Latin as unigenitus, meaning literally ‘only begotten’ [in English — or likewise traditionally in Chinese: “dúshēng 獨 生,” Italian: “unigenito,” Spanish “unigénito,” or German: “eingeboren”] but in Greek the equivalent of ‘only begotten’ would have two n’s and not just one. Nevertheless, the Latin misinterpretation of monogenés has constituted such a long tradition that any attempt to speak of Jesus as the ‘unique son of God’ rather than the ‘only begotten son’ is often announced as a case of blatant heresy. (Source: Nida 1984, p. 114.)
In Waiwai, the Greek that is translated as “only begotten Son” in English in John 3:16 is translated as cewnan tumumururosa okwe, where the “particle okwe indicates dearness, and it must be included in Waiwai for the expression ‘only begotten Son’ to mean anything like what it means to God or to us as Christians.” (Source: Robert Hawkins (in The Bible Translator 1962, pp. 164ff.)
See also complete verse (John 3:16).