The Greek that is translated as “tax collector” in English is translated in Tagbanwa as “money-grabbing official receivers of payment” (source: Tagbanwa Back Translation) and in Nyongar as mammarapa boya-barranginy or “people taking money” (source: Tagbanwa Back Translation). Likewise, in Cashibo-Cacataibo, it is the “ones who take the money” (source: Bratcher / Nida 1961).
In Mairasi it is translated as “the people who collect money pertaining to head payment.”(Source: Enggavoter 2004)
Click or tap here to see a short video clip about tax collectors in biblical times (source: Bible Lands 2012)
The Greek that is translated as “sinner” in English is translated as “people with bad hearts” (“it is not enough to call them ‘people who do bad things,’ for though actions do reflect the heart, yet it is the hearts with which God is primarily concerned — see Matt. 15:19”) in Western Kanjobal, “people who are doing wrong things in their hearts” in San Blas Kuna (source: Nida 1952, p. 148), “people with bad stomachs” in Q’anjob’al (source: Newberry and Kittie Cox in The Bible Translator 1950, p. 91ff. ), “those others who don’t fully obey our laws” in Tagbanwa (source: Tagbanwa Back Translation), or “people with dirty hearts” or “people who are called ‘bad'” in Mairasi (source: Enggavoter 2004).
In Central Mazahua and Teutila Cuicatec it is translated as “(person who) owes sin.” (Source: Waterhouse / Parrott in Notes on Translation October 1967, p. 1ff.)
Following are a number of back-translations of Mark 2:15:
Uma: “After that, Yesus and his disciples ate at Lewi’s house, and many other people whom the people said were evil came to eat with them, because many of them followed Yesus.” (Source: Uma Back Translation)
Yakan: “So-then Isa was eating there in the house of Libi. Also many people collecting taxes and sinful people were sitting and eating together with him and his disciples. For many of them were following him.” (Source: Yakan Back Translation)
Western Bukidnon Manobo: “And while Jesus and his disciples were eating in the house of Levi, there were many tax collectors and law breakers eating with them, for many had followed him.” (Source: Western Bukidnon Manobo Back Translation)
Kankanaey: “While Jesus and his disciples were eating in plural Levi’s house, there were many eating-with who were tax collectors and other sinful people. Because there were many who were accompanying Jesus.” (Source: Kankanaey Back Translation)
Tagbanwa: “And then when Jesus and his disciples went to the house of Levi to eat with him, many joined them in eating who were official-receivers-of-payment and others who were regarded by the leaders of the Judio as sinners. There were now many of these who went around with Jesus. They all ate together.” (Source: Tagbanwa Back Translation)
The Greek that is often translated as “disciple” in English typically follows three types of translation: (1) those which employ a verb ‘to learn’ or ‘to be taught’, (2) those which involve an additional factor of following, or accompaniment, often in the sense of apprenticeship, and (3) those which imply imitation of the teacher.
Following are some examples (click or tap for details):
Waorani: “one who lives following Jesus” (source: Wallis 1973, p. 39)
Ojitlán Chinantec: “learner” (Source: M. Larson / B. Moore in Notes on Translation February 1970, p. 1-125.)
Javanese: “pupil” or “companion” (“a borrowing from Arabic that is a technical term for Mohammed’s close associates”)
German: Jünger or “younger one” (source for this and one above: Reiling / Swellengrebel)
Germandas Buch translation by Roland Werner (publ. 2009-2022). “student” or “special student” (using the traditional German term Gnade)
Nyongar: ngooldjara-kambarna or “friend-follow” (source: Warda-Kwabba Luke-Ang)
French 1985 translation by Chouraqui: adept or “adept” (as in a person who is skilled or proficient at something). Watson (2023, p. 48ff.) explains (click or tap here to see more):
[Chouraqui] uses the noun “adept,” which is as uncommon in French as it is in English. It’s an evocative choice on several levels. First, linguistically, it derives — via the term adeptus — from the Latin verb adipiscor, “to arrive at; to reach; to attain something by effort or striving.” It suggests those who have successfully reached the goal of their searching, and implies a certain struggle or process of learning that has been gradually overcome. But it’s also a term with a very particular history: in the Middle Ages, “adept” was used in the world of alchemy, to describe those who, after years of labor and intensive study, claimed to have discovered the Great Secret (how to turn base metals like lead into gold); it thus had the somewhat softened meaning of “someone who is completely skilled in all the secrets of their field.”
Historians of religion often use the term adept with reference to the ancient mystery religions that were so prevalent in the Mediterranean in the centuries around the time of Jesus. An adept was someone who, through a series of initiatory stages, had penetrated into the inner, hidden mysteries of the religion, who understood its rituals, symbols, and their meaning. To be an adept implied a lengthy and intensive master-disciple relationship, gradually being led further and further into the secrets of the god or goddess (Isis-Osiris, Mithras, Serapis, Hermes, etc.) — secrets that were never to be revealed to an outsider.
Is “adept” a suitable category in which to consider discipleship as we see it described in the Gospels? On some levels, the link is an attractive one, drawing both upon the social-religious framework of the ancient Mediterranean, and upon certain aspects of intimacy and obscurity/secrecy that we see in the relationship of Jesus and those who followed him. The idea that disciples are “learners” — people who are “on the way” — and that Jesus is portrayed as (and addressed as) their Master/Teacher is accurate. But the comparison is unsatisfactory on several other levels.
First, the Gospels portray Jesus’s ministry as a largely public matter — there is relatively little of the secrecy and exclusiveness that is normally associated with both the mystery cults and medieval alchemy. Jesus’s primary message is not destined for a small, elite circle of “initiates” — although the Twelve are privy to explanations, experiences and teachings that are not provided to “the crowds.” For example, in Matthew 13:10-13:
Then the disciples came and asked him, “Why do you speak to [the crowds] in parables?” He answered, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For to those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. The reason I speak to them in parables is that ‘seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand.’”
Etymologically, adeptus suggests someone who “has arrived,” who has attained a superior level of understanding reserved for very few. However, what we see in the Gospels, repeatedly, is a general lack of comprehension of many of Jesus’s key teachings by many of those who hear him. Many of his more cryptic sayings would have been virtually incomprehensible in their original context, and would only make sense in retrospect, in the wake of the events of Jesus’s passion, death, and resurrection. The intense master-student relationship is also lacking: the Gospels largely portray “the disciples” as a loose (and probably fluctuating) body of individuals, with minimal structure or cohesion. Finally, there seems to be little scholarly consensus about the degree to which the mystery cults had made inroads in Roman-ruled Palestine during the decades of Jesus’s life. According to Everett Ferguson in his Backgrounds of Early Christianity.
Although Christianity had points of contact with Stoicism, the mysteries, the Qumran community, and so on, the total worldview was often quite different….So far as we can tell, Christianity represented a new combination for its time…. At the beginning of the Christian era a number of local mysteries, some of great antiquity, flourished in Greece and Asia Minor. In the first century A.D. the vonly mysteries whose extension may be called universal were the mysteries of Dionysus and those of the eastern gods, especially Isis.
And Norman Perrin and Dennis C. Duling note, in their book The New Testament:
Examples of such mystery religions could be found in Greece… Asia Minor… Syria-Palestine… Persia… and Egypt. Though the mysteries had sacred shrines in these regions, many of them spread to other parts of the empire, including Rome. There is no clearly direct influence of the mysteries on early Christianity, but they shared a common environment and many non-Christians would have perceived Christians as members of an oriental Jewish mystery cult.56
Given the sparse archaeological and literary evidence from this period regarding mystery cults in Roman Palestine, and the apparent resistance of many Palestinian Jews to religious syncretism, Chouraqui’s use of the noun adept implies a comparison between the historical Jesus and mystery cults that is doubtful, on both the levels of chronology and religious culture. Personally, I believe this choice suggests a vision of Jesus that distances him from the religious world of ancient Judaism, thus creating a distorted view of what spiritually inspired him. But the idea of the disciples as “learners” on a journey (as the Greek term suggests) is a striking one to consider; certainly, the Gospels show us the Twelve as people who are growing, learning, and developing…but who have not yet “arrived” at the fullness of their vocation.
Scot McKnight (in The Second Testament, publ. 2023) translates it into English as apprentice.
In Luang several terms with different shades of meaning are being used.
For Mark 2:23 and 3:7: maka nwatutu-nwaye’a re — “those that are taught” (“This is the term used for ‘disciples’ before the resurrection, while Jesus was still on earth teaching them.”)
For Acts 9:1 and 9:10: makpesiay — “those who believe.” (“This is the term used for believers and occasionally for the church, but also for referring to the disciples when tracking participants with a view to keeping them clear for the Luang readers. Although Greek has different terms for ‘believers’, ‘brothers’, and ‘church’, only one Luang word can be used in a given episode to avoid confusion. Using three different terms would imply three different sets of participants.”)
For Acts 6:1: mak lernohora Yesus wniatutunu-wniaye’eni — “those who follow Jesus’ teaching.” (“This is the term used for ‘disciples’ after Jesus returned to heaven.”)
Source: Kathy Taber in Notes on Translation 1/1999, p. 9-16.
In American Sign Language it is translated with a combination of the signs for “following” plus the sign for “group.” (Source: RuthAnna Spooner, Ron Lawer)
In British Sign Language a sign is used that depicts a group of people following one person (the finger in the middle, signifying Jesus). Note that this sign is only used while Jesus is still physically present with his disciples. (Source: Anna Smith)
“Disciple in British Sign Language (source: Christian BSL, used with permission)
God transcends gender, but most languages are limited to grammatical gender expressed in pronouns. In the case of English, this is traditionally confined to “he” (or in the forms “his,” “him,” and “himself”), “she” (and “her,” “hers,” and “herself”), and “it” (and “its” and “itself”).
Modern Mandarin Chinese, however, offers another possibility. Here, the third-person singular pronoun is always pronounced the same (tā), but it is written differently according to its gender (他 is “he,” 她 is “she,” and 它/牠 is “it” and their respective derivative forms). In each of these characters, the first (or upper) part defines the gender (man, woman, or thing/animal), while the second element gives the clue to its pronunciation.
In 1930, after a full century with dozens of Chinese translations, Bible translator Wang Yuande (王元德) coined a new “godly” pronoun: 祂. Chinese readers immediately knew how to pronounce it: tā. But they also recognized that the first part of that character, signifying something spiritual, clarified that each person of the Trinity has no gender aside from being God.
While the most important Protestant and Catholic Chinese versions respectively have opted not to use 祂, some Bible translations do and it is widely used in hymnals and other Christian materials. Among the translations that use 祂 to refer to “God” were early versions of Lü Zhenzhong’s (呂振中) version (New Testament: 1946, complete Bible: 1970). R.P. Kramers (in The Bible Translator 1956, p. 152ff.) explains why later versions of Lü’s translation did not continue with this practice: “This new way of writing ‘He,’ however, has created a minor problem of its own: must this polite form be used whenever Jesus is referred to? Lü follows the rule that, wherever Jesus is referred to as a human being, the normal ta (他) is written; where he is referred to as divine, especially after the ascension, the reverential ta (祂) is used.”
In that system one kind of pronoun is used for humans (male and female alike) and one for natural elements, non-liquid masses, and some spiritual entities (one other is used for large animals and another one for miscellaneous items). While in these languages the pronoun for spiritual entities used to be employed when referring to God, this has changed into the use of the human pronoun.
Lynell Zogbo (in The Bible Translator 1989, p. 401ff) explains in the following way: “From informal discussions with young Christians especially, it would appear that, at least for some people, the experience and/or concepts of Christianity are affecting the choice of pronoun for God. Some people explain that God is no longer ‘far away,’ but is somehow tangible and personal. For these speakers God has shifted over into the human category.”
In Kouya, God (the Father) and Jesus are referred to with the human pronoun ɔ, whereas the Holy Spirit is referred to with a non-human pronoun. (Northern Grebo and Western Krahn make a similar distinction.)
Eddie Arthur, a former Kouya Bible translation consultant, says the following: “We tried to insist that this shouldn’t happen, but the Kouya team members were insistent that the human pronoun for the Spirit would not work.”
In Burmese, the pronoun ko taw (ကိုယ်တော်) is used either as 2nd person (you) or 3rd person (he, him, his) reference. “This term clearly has its root in the religious language in Burmese. No ordinary persons are addressed or known by this pronoun because it is reserved for Buddhist monks, famous religious teachers, and in the case of Christianity, the Trinity.” (Source: Gam Seng Shae in The Bible Translator 2002, p. 202ff.)
In Thai, the pronoun phra`ong (พระองค์) is used, a gender-neutral pronoun which must refer to a previously introduced royal or divine being. Similarly, in Northern Khmer, which is spoken in Thailand, “an honorific divine pronoun” is used for the pronoun referring to the persons of the Trinity (source: David Thomas in The Bible Translator 1993, p. 445). In Urak Lawoi’, another language spoken in Thailand, the translation often uses tuhat (ตูฮัด) — “God” — ”as a divine pronoun where Thai has phra’ong even though it’s actually a noun.” (Source for Thai and Urak Lawoi’: Stephen Pattemore)
The English “Contemporary Torah” addresses the question of God and gendered pronouns by mostly avoiding pronouns in the first five books of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament (unless God is referred to as “lord,” “father,” “king,” or “warrior”). It does that by either using passive constructs (“He gave us” vs. “we were given”), by using the adjective “divine” or by using “God” rather than a pronoun.
Some Protestant English Bibles use a referential capitalized spelling when referring to the persons of the Trinity with “He,” “His,” “Him,” or “Himself.” This includes for instance the New American Standard Bible, but most translations, especially those published in the 21st century, do not. Two other languages where this is also done (in most Bible translations) are the closely related Indonesian and Malay. In both languages this follows the language usage according to the Qur’an, which in turn predicts that usage (see Soesilo in The Bible Translator 1991, p. 442ff. and The Bible Translator 1997, p. 433ff. ).
See also this chapter in the World Atlas of Language Structures on different approaches to personal pronouns.
“In Matthew’s account of the birth of Jesus Christ, Joseph is told that when Mary gives birth to a son ‘you will name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins’ (1:21). This name is a Greek transliteration of the Hebrew name [Yeshua (יֵשׁוּעַ) which is a short form of a name meaning] ‘the Lord [Yahweh] saves.’ The name is very significant and is in itself especially dear to Christians around the world. (…) Unquestionably great importance is attached to the name of Jesus by Christians of all persuasions and backgrounds.”
While Iēsous (pronounced: /i.ɛː.suːs/) is transliterated as “Jesus” (pronounced /ˈdʒiːzəs/) in English (but was translated as “Hælend” [the “healing one”] in Old English — see Swain 2019) it is transliterated and pronounced in a large variety of other ways as well, following the different rules of different languages’ orthographies, writing systems and rules of pronunciation. The following is a (partial) list of forms of Jesus in Latin characters: aYeso, Azezi, Cecoc, Chesús, Chi̍i̍sū, Ciisahs, Ciise, Ciisusu, Djesu, Ɛisa, Ƹisa, Eyesu, Gesù, Gesû, Gesü, Ġesù, Ghjesù, Giêsu, ꞌGiê‑ꞌsu, Giê-xu, Gyisɛse, Hesu, Hesús, Hisuw, Ià-sŭ, Ié:sos, Iesu, Iesui, Iesusɨn, Iesusiva, Ié:sos, Ihu, Iisus, Ijeesu, iJisọsị, Iji̍sɔ̄ɔsi, Iosa, Íosa, Ìosa, İsa, I’sa, Isiso, Ísu, Isus, Isusa, Iisussa, Isuthi, Itota, Îtu, Isuva, Izesu, Izesuq, Jasus, Jeeju, Jeesus, Jeesus, Jeezas, Jehu, Jeisu, Jeju, Jejus, Jeso, Jesoe, Jesosa, Jesoshi, Jesosy, Jesu, Jesû, Jesua, Jesuh, Jesuhs, Jesús, Jésus, Jesúsu, Jethu, Jezed, Jezi, Jézi, Ježiš, Jezu, Jezus, Jézus, Jėzus, Jēzus, Jezusi, Jėzus, Jezuz, Jiijajju, Jíísas, Jiizas, Jíìzọ̀s, Jisas, Jisase, Jisasi, Jisasɨ, Jisasɨ, Jisaso, Jisesi, Jisɛ̀, Jisos, Jisọs, Jisɔs, Jisu, Jiszs, Jizọs, Jizɔs, Jizọsi, Jizọsu, Jòso, Jusu, Jweesus, Ketsutsi, Njises, Sesi, Sisa, Sísa, Sisas, Sīsū, Sizi, Txesusu, uJesu, Ujísɔ̄si, ŵaYesu, Xesosi, ´Xesús, Xesús, Yasu, Ya:su, Ɣaysa, Yecu, Yeeb Sub, Yeeh Suh, Yeesey, Yeeso, Yeesso, Yēēsu, Yēēsu, Yehsu, Yëësu, Yeisu, Yeisuw, Yeshu, Yeso, Yesò, Yëso, Yɛso, ye-su, Yésu, Yêsu, Yẹ́sụ̃, Yésʉs, Yeswa, Yet Sut, Yetut, Yexus, Yezo, Yezu, Yiisu, Yiitju, Yis, Yisɔs, Yisufa, Yitati, Yusu, ‑Yusu, :Yusu’, Zeezi, Zezi, Zezì, Zezwii, Ziizɛ, Zîsɛ, Zjezus, Zozi, Zozii, and this (much more incomplete) list with other writings systems: ᔩᓱᓯ, ᒋᓴᔅ, Հիսուս, ᏥᏌ, ኢየሱስ, ያሱስ, ܝܫܘܥ, Ісус, Їисъ, 耶稣, იესო, ईसा, イエス, イイスス, イエスス, 예수, येशू, येशो, ਈਸਾ, ພຣະເຢຊູ, ජේසුස්, যীশু, ଯୀଶୁ, ཡེ་ཤུ་, ‘ঈছা, இயேசு, ಯೇಸು, ພຣະເຢຊູ, ယေရှု, ઇસુ, जेजू, येसु, เยซู, យេស៊ូ, ᱡᱤᱥᱩ, ယေသှု, యేసు, ᤕᤧᤛᤢ᤺ᤴ, އީސާގެފާނު, ਯਿਸੂ, ꕉꖷ ꔤꕢ ꕞ, ⵏ⵿ⵗⵢⵙⴰ, ଜୀସୁ, يَسُوعَ,ㄧㄝㄙㄨ, YE-SU, ꓬꓰ꓿ꓢꓴ, 𖽃𖽡𖾐𖼺𖽹𖾏𖼽𖽔𖾏, ꑳꌠ, ᠶᠡᠰᠦᠰ (note that some of these might not display correctly if your device does not have the correct fonts installed).
Click or tap here to read more.
In some languages the different confessions have selected different transliterations, such as in Belarusian with Isus (Ісус) by the Orthodox and Protestant churches and Yezus (Езус) by the Catholic church, Bulgarian with Iisus (Иисус) by the Orthodox and Isus (Исус) by the Protestant church, Japanese with Iesu (イエス) (Protestant and Catholic) and Iisusu (イイスス) (Orthodox), or Lingala with Yesu (Protestant) or Yezu (Catholic). These differences have come to the forefront especially during the work on interconfessional translations such as one in Lingala where “many hours were spent on a single letter difference” (source: Ellington, p. 401).
In Chinese where transliterations of proper names between the Catholic and Protestant versions typically differ vastly, the Chinese name of Jesus (Yēsū 耶稣) remarkably was never brought into question between and by those two confessions, likely due to its ingenious choice. (Click or tap here to see more).
The proper name of God in the Old Testament, Yahweh (YHWH), is rendered in most Chinese Bible translations as Yēhéhuá 耶和華 — Jehovah. According to Chinese naming conventions, Yēhéhuá could be interpreted as Yē Héhuá, in which Yē would be the family name and Héhuá — “harmonic and radiant” — the given name. In the same manner, Yē 耶 would be the family name of Jesus and Sū 稣 would be his given name. Because in China the children inherit the family name from the father, the sonship of Jesus to God the Father, Jehovah, would be illustrated through this. Though this line of argumentation sounds theologically unsound, it is indeed used effectively in the Chinese church (see Wright 1953, p. 298).
Moreover, the “given name” of Sū 稣 carries the meaning ‘to revive, to rise again’ and seems to point to the resurrected Jesus. (Source: J. Zetzsche in Malek 2002, p. 141ff., see also tetragrammaton (YHWH))
There are different ways that Bible translators have chosen historically and today in how to translate the name of Jesus in predominantly Muslim areas: with a form of the Arabic Isa (عيسى) (which is used for “Jesus” in the Qur’an), the Greek Iēsous, or, like major 20th century Bible translations into Standard Arabic, the Aramaic Yēšūaʿ: Yasua (يَسُوعَ). (Click or tap here to see more.)
Following are languages and language groups that use a form of Isa include the following (note that this list is not complete):
Some languages have additional “TAZI” editions (TAZI stands for “Tawrat, Anbiya, Zabur, and Injil” the “Torah, Prophets, Psalms and Gospel”) of the New Testament that are geared towards Muslim readers where there is also a translation in the same language for non-Muslims. In those editions, Isa is typically used as well (for example, the Khmer TAZI edition uses Isa (អ៊ីសា) rather than the commonly used Yesaou (យេស៊ូ), the Thai edition uses Isa (อีซา) rather than Yesu (เยซู), the Chinese edition uses Ěrsā (尔撒) vs. Yēsū (耶稣), and the English edition also has Isa rather than Jesus.)
In German the name Jesus (pronounced: /ˈjeːzʊs/) is distinguished by its grammatical forms. Into the 20th century the grammatical rules prescribed a unique Greek-Latin declination: Jesus (nominative), Jesu (genitive, dative, vocative), Jesum (accusative), from which today only the genitive case “Jesu” is still in active use. Likewise, in Seediq (Taroko), the morphological treatment of “Jesus” also occupies a special category by not falling under the normal rule of experiencing a vowel reduction when the object-specific suffix an is added “since it was felt that the readers might resent that the name has been changed that drastically.” (Compare Msian for “Moses” (Mosi) as an object, but Yisuan for “Jesus” (Yisu).) (Source: Covell 1998. p. 249)
In Lamba the name ŵaYesu consists of a transliteration Yesu and the prefix ŵa, a plural form for “proper names when addressing and referring to persons in any position of seniority or honor.” While this was avoided in early translations to avoid possible misunderstandings of more than one Jesus, once the church was established it was felt that it was both “safe” and respectful to use the honorific (pl.) prefix. (Source C. M. Doke in The Bible Translator 1958, p. 57ff. )
The style of the following drawing of Jesus by Annie Vallotton is described by the artist as this: “By using few lines the readers fill in the outlines with their imagination and freedom. That is when the drawings begin to communicate.” (see here )
Illustration by Annie Vallotton, copyright by Donald and Patricia Griggs of Griggs Educational Service.
Following is the oldest remaining Ethiopian Orthodox icon of Jesus from the 14th or possibly 13th century (found in the Church of the Saviour of the World in Gurji, Ethiopia). As in many Orthodox icons, Jesus’ right hand forms the Greek letters I-C-X-C for IHCOYCXPICTOC or “Jesus Christ.”
Orthodox Icons are not drawings or creations of imagination. They are in fact writings of things not of this world. Icons can represent our Lord Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary, and the Saints. They can also represent the Holy Trinity, Angels, the Heavenly hosts, and even events. Orthodox icons, unlike Western pictures, change the perspective and form of the image so that it is not naturalistic. This is done so that we can look beyond appearances of the world, and instead look to the spiritual truth of the holy person or event. (Source )
auton … autou ‘he … his’: there is some disagreement as to who is referred to in the opening clause. Luke 5.29 expressly says it was Levi’s house, and there is general agreement that that is the meaning here: ‘his house’ is Levi’s house. Although some think that ‘he sat at table’ refers also to Levi, the majority understand this to be a reference to Jesus, an interpretation supported throughout by Marcan usage (cf. Translator’s New Testament).
katakeisthai (14.3; cf. 1.30) ‘recline (on a couch at table),’ ‘dine’ . Lagrange says that this manner of eating was universal in the time of Jesus, but others, e.g. Jeremias, insist that such was not the case. With the same meaning of ‘recline at meal’ or ‘dine’ Mark uses other verbs as well: anakeimai (6.26; 14.18; 16.14), anaklinō (6.39), anapiptō (6.40; 8.6), sunanakeimai (here and 6.22).
telōnai kai hamartōloi (Mt. 9.10, 11, 11.19, Lk. 5.30, 32, 7.34, 15.1, 18.13) ‘tax collectors and sinners.’
telōnai (2.16) ‘tax collectors’: these are to be thought of as the portitores, men who actually collected the dues, rather than the publicani to whom the revenues were farmed out .
hamartōloi (2.16, 17; 8.38; 14.41) ‘sinful (men)’: the adjective is always used in Mark (with the exception of 8.38) in the plural, as a noun, hoi hamartōloi ‘the sinners.’ There is widespread agreement that ‘sinners’ were people in general who were not so careful in their observance of the Law, especially with regard to dietary laws, as were the Pharisees. “The ʿam ha-ʾarets (people of the land) who are sinners, not because they transgress the law, but because they do not hold the Pharisaic interpretation of it” (K. Grayston).
kai tois mathētais autou ‘and his disciples’: this is the first mention of the disciples as such, in Mark. The word mathētēs ‘disciple’ occurs some 43 times in Mark and should always be translated ‘disciple,’ ‘follower,’ ‘adherent,’ while ‘apostle’ should be kept exclusively for apostolos, in Mark only at 6.30 and, perhaps, 3.14.
ēsan gar polloi kai ēkolouthoun autō ‘for they were many and they were following him’: who is referred to by ‘the many’ who were following Jesus? Some (Rawlinson, Taylor, and others) understand it to refer to a large company of disciples who were now following Jesus; Turner observes that this is the first mention of the disciples, and “we are told that they were now many and that they were beginning to ‘follow him about.’” Others (Swete, Moffatt, Manson, The Modern Speech New Testament, O Novo Testamento de Nosso Senhor Jesus Cristo. Revisdo Autorizada) understand that publicans and sinners are referred to. Although there is no way by which definitely to prove one or the other interpretation, it would seem that the context favors the second interpretation.
kai ēkolouthoun autō ‘and they were following him’: this clause has been interpreted in two ways: (1) as suggested by Tischendorf, some connect this clause to the next verse, by making it the beginning of the sentence, as follows: “And there were following him also the scribes of the Pharisees….” (2) The majority, however, like Revised Standard Version, connect the clause with what precedes, and translate it as a relative clause, in accordance with normal Semitic syntax: ‘who also were following him’ (Rawlinson, Lagrange, Manson, The Modern Speech New Testament, Le Nouveau Testament. Version Synodale, Zürcher Bibel).
Because of the confusion of pronominal reference in the first clause of this verse (a confusion which also exists in the Greek, but which needs to be resolved in order for the passage to be intelligible in some languages and which if not made more specific may give an entirely wrong meaning in other languages), it is advisable in many instances to translate, ‘and as Jesus was dining in Levi’s house….’
The rendering sat at table is an obvious adjustment to the requirements of the English cultural setting, since in the Greek the verb means ‘to recline.’ However, the important thing is that this verb means ‘to eat’ or ‘to dine.’ The particular position assumed by the participants surrounding the table, whether reclining or sitting, is not important. What matters is the function.
The tax collectors are the ‘ones who take the money’ (Cashibo-Cacataibo) or as in some instances ‘those who take the money for the government,’ in order to specify their function as being different (at least officially) from those who steal, rob, or cheat.
There is no doubt about the special meaning of sinners in this context, for undoubtedly the essential meaning is ‘those people who consistently violated religious regulations,’ in contrast with the Pharisees and others who scrupulously kept all the detailed requirements of the law. However, in most languages it is almost impossible to find a term which accurately describes such persons, without introducing certain alien concepts. Accordingly, for the most part translators have used one word for sinners throughout the Scriptures, whether the context happens to imply those who were morally reprehensible or those who violated certain religious taboos. For a treatment of the lexical problems in words for sin see 1.4.
Terms for disciple are generally of three types: (1) those which employ a verb ‘to learn’ or ‘to be taught,’ (2) those which involve an additional factor of following, or accompaniment, often in the sense of apprenticeship, and (3) those which imply imitation of the teacher. Expressions which are based on the first class of semantic base include: ‘word searchers for’ (Ngäbere), ‘those who learned from Jesus’ (Yaka), ‘those who learned’ (Navajo, Western Highland Purepecha, Tepeuxila Cuicatec, Lacandon), ‘those who studied with Jesus’ (Mixteco Alto), ‘the ones Jesus taught’ (Northern Grebo); Toraja-Sa’dan ‘child (i.e. follower) of the master’; Indonesian and Javanese ‘pupil.’ There is, however, always a danger in this first type of expression, namely, that the reader will think that the disciples were simply school boys that Jesus was teaching. Accordingly, in order to convey something of the meaning of continued association and fellowship which was involved in the rabbi-disciple relationship of N.T. times, the Central Mazahua has ‘companions whom Jesus taught.’ Kipsigis, Loma (Liberia), and Copainalá Zoque use a form which means essentially ‘apprentices,’ implying continued association and learning. In Cashibo-Cacataibo the meaning is ‘those who followed Jesus’ and in Huautla Mazatec the expression ‘his people’ means essentially his followers and is used of the political adherents of a leader.
In Highland Puebla Nahuatl the word for disciples is based on the root ‘to imitate,’ and as such has a good deal to recommend it.
If in the last clause of this verse one follows the second interpretation noted above (one strong support for this interpretation is the occurrence of many with tax collectors and sinners in the second clause), one must make certain that the reference is clear. In some instances one may have to repeat ‘tax collectors and sinners,’ but in many instances languages possess pronominal elements which refer to the earlier of two such third person plural referents. The confusing element in this last clause, however, is the word followed, which is generally used in speaking of disciples, not of tax collectors and sinners.
Quoted with permission from Bratcher, Robert G. and Nida, Eugene A. A Handbook on the Gospel of Mark. (UBS Handbook Series). New York: UBS, 1961. For this and other handbooks for translators see here .