31Since it was the day of Preparation, the Jews did not want the bodies left on the cross during the Sabbath, especially because that Sabbath was a day of great solemnity. So they asked Pilate to have the legs of the crucified men broken and the bodies removed.
The Greek that is translated into English as “crucify” is translated into Naro with xgàu which literally means “to stretch” as is done with a skin after slaughtering in order to dry it. The word is also widely accepted in the churches (source: Gerrit van Steenbergen). Similarly, Balinese and Toraja-Sa’dan also translate as “stretch him” (Source: Reiling / Swellengrebel) and in Rendille as lakakaaha — “stretched and nailed down” (source: Holzhausen / Riderer 2010, p. 33).
In Ghari it becomes “hammer to the cross” (source: David Clark), in Loma “fasten him to a spread-back-stick” (source: Bratcher / Nida), in Sundanese “hang him on a crossbeam” (source: Reiling / Swellengrebel), in Aguaruna “fasten him to the tree,” in Navajo “nail him to the cross,” in Yatzachi Zapotec “fasten him to the cross” (source for this and above: M. Larson / B. Moore in Notes on Translation February 1970, p. 1-125.), in Nyongar “kill on a tree” (source: Warda-Kwabba Luke-Ang), and in Apali the different aspects of the crucifixion have to be spelled out: “nail to a tree piece put cross-wise, lift up to stand upright (for the crucified person) to die (and in some contexts: to die and rise again)” (source: Martha Wade).
In British Sign Language it is signed with a sign that signifies “nails hammered into hands” and “arms stretched out.” (Source: Anna Smith)
“Crucify” or “crucifixion” in British Sign Language (source: Christian BSL, used with permission)
The Greek that is translated as “cross” in English is often referred to a description of the shape. In Chinese, for instance, it is translated as 十字架 shízìjià — “10-character-frame” because the character for “10” has the shape of a cross) or in Ancient Greek manuscripts with the staurogram (⳨) a ligature of the Greek letters tau (Τ) and rho (Ρ) that was used to abbreviate stauros (σταυρός), the Greek word for cross, and may visually have represented Jesus on the cross.
Elsewhere it refers to the function, e.g. a newly coined term, like one made up of two Sanskrit words meaning “killing-pole” (Marathi NT revision of 1964), “wood to-stretch-out-with” (Toraja-Sa’dan), or “nailing pole” (Zarma). A combination of the two seems to be used in Balinese, which employs a word for the crossbeams in a house, derived from a verb that can refer both to a beam that stretches from side to side under a roof, and to a person stretched out for torture (source for this and above: Reling / Swellengrebel). Similarly, in Lamba it is translated “with umutaliko — ‘a pole with a cross-piece, on which maize was normally tied’ from the verb ‘talika’ which, strangely enough, is used of ‘holding down a man with arms and legs stretched out, someone gripping each limb.'” (Source C. M. Doke in The Bible Translator 1958, p. 57ff.)
“In Mongolian, the term that is used is togonoltchi mott, which is found in the top of a tent. The people on the steppes live in round felt-yurts and the round opening on the top of the tent serves as a window. The crosswood in that opening is called togonoltchi mott. ‘Crucified’ is translated ‘nailed on the crosswood.’ This term is very simple, but deep and interesting too. Light comes to men through the Cross. What a privilege to be able to proclaim such a message.” (Source: A. W. Marthinson in The Bible Translator 1954, p. 74ff. )
In Mairasi it is translated as iwo nasin ae: “chest measurement wood.” “This term refers to the process of making a coffin when a person dies. The man making the coffin takes a piece of bamboo and measures the body from head to heel. He then breaks the stick off at the appropriate point. For the width he measures the shoulders and then ties the two sticks together in the shape of a cross. As he works, he continually measures to make sure the coffin is the correct size. At the gravesite, the coffin is lowered. Then the gravecloth, palm leaves, and finally the chest measurement stick are laid on top of the coffin before the dirt is piled on. This term is full of meaning, because it is in the shape of a cross, and each person will have one. The meaning is vividly associated with death.” (Source: Enggavoter, 2004)
In Lisu it is translated as ꓡꓯꓼ ꓐꓳ ꓔꓶꓸ DU — lä bo tɯ du: “a place to stretch the arms across” (source: Arrington 2020, p. 215), in Nyongar as boorn-yambo: “crossed tree” (source: Warda-Kwabba Luke-Ang), and in Tibetan as rgyangs shing (རྒྱངས་ཤིང་།), lit. “stretch + wood” (“translators have adopted the name of this traditional Tibetan instrument of torture to denote the object on which Jesus died”) (source: gSungrab website )
The English translation of Ruden (2021) uses “stake.” She explains (p. xlv): “The cross was the perpendicular joining of two execution stakes, and the English word euphemistically emphasized the geometry: a cross could also be an abstract cross drawn on paper. The Greeks used their word for ‘stake,’ and this carries the imagery of what was done with it, as our ‘stake’ carries images of burning and impaling. ‘Hang on the stakes’ for ‘crucify’ is my habitual usage.”
In the EnglishGood News Bible (2nd edition of 1992), this occurrence of the Greek hoi Ioudaioi, traditionally “the Jews” in English, is translated with “the authorities (in Jerusalem)” in contexts that imply that the referred groups are hostile to Jesus For an explanation of the differentiated translation in English as well as translation choices in a number of languages, see the Jews.
In American Sign Language it is translated with the sign for “government/governor” plus the sign for “P” with a circular movement. The reference to government indicates Pilate’s position of authority in the Roman Empire. (Source: RuthAnna Spooner, Ron Lawer)
The Hebrew and Greek that is translated as “Sabbath” in English is rendered as “day we rest” in Tzotzil, in Mairasi as “Jew’s Rest Day,” in Quiotepec Chinantec as “day when people of Israel rested,” in Shilluk as “day of God,” in Obolo as Usen Mbuban or “Holy Day,” and in Mandarin Chinese as ānxírì (安息日) or “rest day” (literally: “peace – rest – day”).
(Sources: Tzotzil: Marion Cowan in Notes on Translation with Drill, p. 169ff; Mairasi: Enggavoter 2004; Quiotepec Chinantec: B. Moore / G. Turner in Notes on Translation 1967, p. 1ff.; Shilluk: Nida 1964, p. 237; Obolo: Enene Enene; CHhinese: Jost Zetzsche)
In the old Khmer version as well as in the first new translation this term was rendered as “day of rest” (Thngai Chhup Somrak / ថ្ងៃឈប់សំរាក). Considered inadequate to convey its religious meaning (not only about cessation of work, but also in honor of Yahweh as the Creator), the committee for the Today’s Khmer Version (publ. 2005) decided to keep the Hebrew word and use its transliterated form Thgnai Sabath (ថ្ងៃសប្ប័ទ). “The Buddhist word Thngai Seil ‘day of merits’ used by some Catholics was once under consideration but was rejected because it did not receive unanimous support.” (Source: Joseph Hong in The Bible Translator 1996, p. 233ff.)
In Spanish, the translation is either día de reposo (“day of rest”) or sábado (usually: “Saturday,” derived from the Greek and Hebrew original. Nida (1947, p. 239f.) explains that problem for Spanish and other languages in its sphere of influence: “In translation ‘Sabbath’ into various aboriginal languages of Latin America, a considerable number of translators have used the Spanish sábado, ‘Saturday,’ because it is derived from the Hebrew sabbath and seems to correspond to English usage as well. The difficulty is that sábado means only ‘Saturday’ for most people. There is no religious significance about this word as the is with ‘Sabbath’ in English. Accordingly the [readers] cannot understand the significance of the persecution of Jesus because he worked on ‘Saturday.’ It has been found quite advantageous to use the translation ‘day of rest,’ for this accurately translated the Hebrew meaning of the term and resolves the problem in connection with the prohibitions placed upon some types of activities.”
Following are a number of back-translations of John 19:31:
Uma: “The day that Yesus was crucified was the day of preparation (meaning, the day before the Sabat Day) and according to the taboos of the Yahudi people there could not be a dead person hanging on a cross during Sabat Day. Even more so because that Sabat Day was more important than usual. That is why the Yahudi rulers asked Pilatus so that those people who were crucified [have] their legs broken, so that they would quickly died and their bodies taken down.” (Source: Uma Back Translation)
Yakan: “Because that was a Friday hep, the leaders of the Yahudi went to Pilatus to ask permission to command that the lower-legs of the three people nailed to the posts be broken so that they would die faster and could be taken down already while the day of-no-work had not yet started. They did not want that the corpses would be left on the posts during the Saturday for that day of-no-work was a very important day.” (Source: Yakan Back Translation)
Western Bukidnon Manobo: “It was then afternoon on the day of the preparation for the Feast of Passing By. And the leaders of the Jews, they went to Pilate and begged him that he have the legs broken of those who were nailed to the cross in order that they might die, so that it might be possible that their bodies be taken down from the cross before the Day of Rest. Because that Day of Rest was a special day to the Jews.” (Source: Western Bukidnon Manobo Back Translation)
Kankanaey: “The tomorrow of that day, it was the day for-resting, and it was an important day as well, because it coincided with the fiesta. So the leaders of the Jews, they went and told Pilato that the soldiers should fracture the legs of those who were nailed on the crosses so they would die immediately so their bodies would then be taken-down. Because the Jews, they considered-it-taboo/improper if the day for-resting would arrive and the bodies were still on the cross.” (Source: Kankanaey Back Translation)
Tagbanwa: “That day was called the Preparing, because the following day was the far-from-ordinary Day of Rest, that being the focal-point (lit. eye) of that Fiesta. Well, since the Judio didn’t want that when those who were nailed were now dead, they just be left on the cross when it was now the Day of Rest, that’s why they made arrangements with Pilato. They requested that the legs of those who were nailed on a cross would be broken so that they would then die quickly/easily and be removed from there.” (Source: Tagbanwa Back Translation)
Tenango Otomi: “The next day would be the day of rest. The Jews did not want the corpses on the crosses on the day of rest because it was the important day of the Passover celebration. Therefore the leaders of the Jews told Pilate to order the legs of those who were on the crosses to be broken so that they would die. Then when they were dead, the corpses would be taken down from the crosses.” (Source: Tenango Otomi Back Translation)
Good News Translation rather radically restructures this verse. For a literal rendering see Revised Standard Version.
The Jewish authorities is best understood as a reference to the chief priests of verse 21.
The request of the Jewish authorities must be in the form of direct address in some languages, for example, “Then the Jewish authorities asked Pilate, ‘Allow us to break the legs of the men who have been put to death and then to take down their bodies from the crosses.’ ” Note that in speaking of the removal of the men from their crosses, it may be necessary in some languages to speak of “taking down their bodies from the crosses.” There may even be a technical term for the body of a dead person, for example, “their corpses.”
The legs of the men who had been crucified is literally “their legs,” but a literal translation could sound as if the Jews were asking Pilate to break their own legs (note Revised Standard Version “the Jews asked Pilate that their legs might be broken”). Other translations avoid this ambiguity by changing the possessive pronoun “their” to “the” before “legs” (for example, Moffatt “in order to prevent the bodies remaining on the cross during the sabbath … the Jews asked Pilate to have the legs broken…”). Breaking the legs of criminals with a heavy mallet was originally also a form of capital punishment. Generally only the legs were broken, but sometimes other limbs were broken as well. Although this was in itself a cruel form of capital punishment, when done to a person who was being crucified, it was looked upon as a merciful act, since it ended more quickly the agony of a lingering death on the cross.
And take their bodies down from the crosses is more literally “and that they be taken away.” According to Greek syntax, the subject of the verb “be taken away” is “their legs,” though it is obvious that John is referring to the bodies of the men. (Compare Moffatt “the legs broken and the bodies removed”; compare New English Bible, Jerusalem Bible.)
They did this because it was Friday is literally, “since it was (the day of) preparation.” The noun “preparation” is the same one used in verse 14 in the phrase the day before the Passover (literally “the preparation of the Passover”). When used without a qualifier, this word always refers to the day of preparation before the Jewish Sabbath, that is, to the period from 6 P.M. on Thursday to 6 P.M. on Friday, when the Sabbath day begins. It is possible to translate: “It was Friday, the day of preparation for the Sabbath day, and the Jews did not want the bodies to stay on the crosses on the Sabbath day.”
Since the coming Sabbath was especially holy is more literally “for the day of that Sabbath was great.” According to John, in the year of the crucifixion the Passover fell on a Sabbath day, which made the day especially holy. Jerusalem Bible translates “since that Sabbath was the day of special solemnity”; Goodspeed “for that Sabbath was an especially important one”; Phillips “for that was a particularly important Sabbath”; and Barclay “for that Sabbath was a specially great day.”
Following the wording of Good News Translation, with the two changes suggested above, one may reorder the sentence to read “It was Friday, the day of preparation for the Sabbath, and the Jews did not want the bodies to stay on the crosses on the Sabbath day, since the coming Sabbath was especially holy. So they asked Pilate to allow them to break the legs of the men who had been put to death and to take their bodies down from the crosses.”
Quoted with permission from Newman, Barclay M. and Nida, Eugene A. A Handbook on the Gospel of John. (UBS Handbook Series). New York: UBS, 1980. For this and other handbooks for translators see here .