jewels in the New Jerusalem

The Greek text that describes the city of the New Jerusalem in terms of jewels and other precious materials is translated in the German New Testament translation of Klaus Berger and Christiane Nord (publ. 2005) by using color references: “The city wall is made of jasper, and the city itself of gold that is as pure as glass. The foundations of the city wall are of great beauty, for they are built out of precious stones in many different colours. The first foundation-stone is jasper, the second blue sapphire, the third red agate, the fourth light green emerald, the fifth reddish brown onyx, the sixth yellowish red carnelian, the seventh yellow-gold quartz, the eighth beryl as green as the sea, the ninth shining yellow topaz, the tenth chalcedony, shimmering green-golden, the eleventh deep red jacinth, the twelfth purple amethyst. The twelve gates are twelve pearls, each gate is made from a single pearl. The main street of the city is of gold as shining as glass.” (for the German version see below.)

Chistiane Nord (in Open Theology 2016; 2: p. 566ff.) explains: “One of the purposes of this passage is certainly a referential-descriptive one. John sees the city in a vision and describes it to his readers. The referential function of this rather technical description works quite well for most readers, and certainly best for those with a specialist knowledge of precious and semi-precious stones. But apart from the referential purpose, the author may have had the intention to express his admiration for the city he has seen. Asked about their associations when reading or listening to the text, most people answer that they are thinking of the enormous value represented by the gold and the stones.

“This, again, is a rather modern perspective. We might wonder why a follower of Jesus, who showed so much contempt for ‘the world’ and its riches himself, would precisely describe his vision of God’s ‘new creation’ as something so rich in material terms. Precisely the great variety of different stones would seem to suggest that perhaps the author’s focus might have been rather on the colours than on the value. On the grounds of the assumption that his addressees knew the colours of all the stones he is describing, he need not mention them explicitly. But if modern translators want their target audience to share the author’s admiration of the beauty and colourfulness of his vision, they would have to make explicit what is implicit in the text. (…) Here it becomes clear that the text has also an expressive-evaluative or emotive function apart from the referential one. But even the expressive purpose may not be the most important one. The vision of the New Jerusalem is presented at the end of last book of the Christian Bible, following the horrors of the apocalypse, and it seems to be the absolute culmination of the Christian message. We may assume, therefore, that there is also an appellative purpose underlying the text, since the New Jerusalem presents the ideal of God’s new creation, for which a large number of martyrs through history were prepared to give their lives. An appellative intention cannot be carried out by a technical description -– for this purpose, we definitely need to know the colours. Therefore, our translation makes explicit the colours. Some critics found that this procedure reduces the poetic effect of the passage. However, the use of adjective compounds to describe the different shades of the stones (e.g., gelbrot, “yellow-red”, or meergrün, “ocean-green”, glasrein, “glass-pure”) is intended to compensate for any loss in poeticity.”

The text in German: Die Stadtmauer ist aus Jaspis erbaut, die Stadt selbst aus glasreinem Gold. Die Fundamente der Stadtmauer sind von großer Schönheit, denn sie bestehen aus verschiedenfarbenen Edelsteinen. Das erste Fundament ist aus grünlichem Jaspis, das zweite aus blauem Saphir, das dritte aus rotem Chalzedon, das vierte aus hellgrünem Smaragd, das fünfte aus rotbraunem Sardonyx, das sechste aus gelbrotem Carneol, das siebte aus goldgelbem Chrysolit, das achte aus meergrünem Beryll, das neunte aus gelbglänzendem Topas, das zehnte aus goldgrün schimmerndem Chrysopras, das elfte aus dunkelrotem Hyazinth, das zwölfte aus purpurnem Amethyst. Die zwölf Tortürme sind zwölf Perlen, jeder Torturm besteht aus einer einzigen Perle, und die Hauptstraße der Stadt ist aus glasreinem Gold.

Jerusalem

The name that is transliterated as “Jerusalem” in English is signed in French Sign Language with a sign that depicts worshiping at the Western Wall in Jerusalem:


“Jerusalem” in French Sign Language (source: La Bible en langue des signes française )

While a similar sign is also used in British Sign Language, another, more neutral sign that combines the sign “J” and the signs for “place” is used as well. (Source: Anna Smith)


“Jerusalem” in British Sign Language (source: Christian BSL, used with permission)

Learn more on Bible Odyssey: Jerusalem .

heaven

Greek, Hebrew, Latin, and Aramaic all have one term only that refers to what can be expressed in English as “sky” or “heaven(s)” (as a physical and spiritual entity). While there is a slight overlap between the meaning of the two English terms, “sky” (from Old Norse sky meaning “cloud”) typically refers to the physical entity, and “heaven” (from Old English heofon meaning “home of God”) typically refers to the spiritual entity. While this enriches the English lexicon, it also forces English Bible translators to make decisions that can be found only in the context in the Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic texts. Most versions tend to use “heaven(s)” even if the meaning is likely “sky,” but the Contemporary English Version (NT: 1991, OT: 1995, DC: 1999) is an English translation that attempted to be more specific in the separation of the two meanings and was used as the basis for the links to verses used for this and this story (“sky”).

Norm Mundhenk (in The Bible Translator 2006, p. 92ff. ) describes the difficulty that English translations face (click or tap here to see more):

“A number of years ago an old lady asked me a question. What did Jesus mean when he said, ‘Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away’? I do not remember what answer I gave, but I was surprised at how concerned she seemed to be about the verse. It was only later, after I had left her, that I suddenly realized what it was that she was so concerned about. She knew that death could not be far away, and all her life she had looked forward to being with God in heaven. But this verse said that ‘heaven will pass away’! What did that mean for her hopes? In fact, of course, in this verse Jesus was talking about the skies or the heavens, not about Heaven as the place of God’s presence. If I had realized the problem in time, I could easily have set the lady’s mind at rest on this question that was troubling her so much. However, I suspect that she is not the only person to be misled by the wording of this verse. Therefore, it is very surprising to find that even today many English versions (including the New International Version, New Revised Standard Version, Revised English Bible, Good News Translation) still say ‘heaven and earth’ in verses like Matt 24:35 and its parallels (Mark 13:31 and Luke 21:33). The Contemporary English Version (CEV) and Phillips’ translation seem to be aware of the problem, and in Mark 13:31 both of these have ‘earth and sky’ instead of ‘heaven and earth.’ But in some other passages (such as Matt 5:18) the traditional wording is still found in both of those translations. The New Century Version (NCV) does have ‘earth and sky’ more consistently, and the New Jerusalem Bible (NJB) has ‘sky and earth’ in these passages. (Although ‘sky and earth’ is closer to the Greek, it seems more natural in English to say ‘earth and sky’; but either way, at least the meaning is correct.)

“Louw and Nida’s Lexical Semantics of the Greek New Testament (publ. 1992) suggests that the Greek expression being translated here, ho ouranos kai he ge is ‘a more or less fixed phrase equivalent to a single lexical unit’ and that it means everything that God created, that is, the universe. They then quote Mark 13:31 as an example, using ‘heaven and earth’ in their translation of it. However, they go on to say that there ‘may be certain complications involved in rendering ho ouranos kai he ge as ‘heaven and earth,’ since ‘heaven’ might be interpreted in some languages as referring only to the dwelling place of God himself. The referents in this passage are ‘the sky and the earth,’ in other words, all of physical existence, but not the dwelling place of God, for the latter would not be included in what is destined to pass away.’ In my opinion, English itself is one of the languages where the word ‘heaven’ will be interpreted as referring only to the dwelling place of God himself, and translations into English should not use ‘heaven’ in these passages. It is probably because these passages are so very familiar that translators do not realize the meaning they are giving their readers when they use the expression ‘heaven and earth’ here. In modern English we might talk about a rocket ‘soaring into the heavens,’ but we would certainly not describe it as ‘soaring into heaven,’ because ‘heaven’ is not another way of referring to the sky or to outer space.

“In fact, it is surely important in all languages to have some way of distinguishing the concept of ‘sky’ from the concept of ‘dwelling place of God.’ In these passages translators should never use a term meaning ‘the dwelling place of God.’ It may not be necessary to use a term meaning ‘sky’ either, if there is some other expression in the language which gives the correct meaning of ‘everything that has been created’ or ‘the universe.’ There are of course places in the New Testament where Heaven, as the place where God lives, is contrasted with the earth. In these passages, translators should be careful to give the correct meaning. A good example of this is in the Lord’s Prayer, in Matt 6:10: ‘Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.’ Similarly, 1 Cor 15:47 says that ‘the first man [a reference to Adam] was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven.’ Passages like these are referring to Heaven, not to the sky. Other NT passages where heaven refers to God’s dwelling place, in contrast with earth, are Matt 5:34-35, 16:19, 18:18, Acts 7:49, James 5:12, and Rev 5:3.
“Sometimes in the New Testament, the word ‘heaven’ is used because of the Jewish reluctance to use the name of God. ‘Heaven’ in these cases is used in place of ‘God’ and refers to God himself. This is the case in the many references in Matthew to ‘the kingdom of heaven’ where other gospels have ‘the kingdom of God’ (e.g., compare Matt 4:17 with its parallels in Mark 1:15 and Luke 10:9). It is also most likely the case in references like Matt 16:1, Luke 20:4, 5, John 3:27, and even perhaps Col 1:5.

“There are some places, such as Matt 11:25, where God is called ‘Lord of heaven and earth.’ Since God is of course the Lord of Heaven as well as of the universe, it may not matter so much which interpretation is given in these passages (others are Luke 10:21 and Acts 17:24). Nevertheless, the intended meaning here is likely to be ‘the universe.’ This is because this expression in Greek, as Louw and Nida say, is a set expression referring to everything that has been created. Acts 17:24 in fact combines the idea of the creation of the universe with the idea of God as Master or Lord of the universe. (…)

“Old Testament background The use of ‘heaven and earth’ in the New Testament is very similar to what we find in the Old Testament, because it is largely based on the Old Testament.

“The Old Testament begins with the story of creation, which is presented as the creation of the heavens and the earth, with lights to shine in the heavens and give light to the earth. Birds are created to live in the heavens, animals to live on earth, and fish to live in the sea (Gen 1:1-2:4).

“As we can see from the way the creation story is told, it is meant to be understood as the creation of the universe. Although in English the regions above the earth have traditionally been called ‘the heavens’ in the story of creation, they cannot be called ‘Heaven,’ in the sense of the place where God dwells. In terms of modern English, it would probably be better to say ‘the sky and the earth’ or ‘the earth and the sky.’ The story of creation then becomes an important theme throughout the Old Testament. (…)

“In most passages, whether in the Old Testament or the New Testament, when ‘heaven and earth’ or ‘the heavens and the earth’ are mentioned, the meaning is the created universe. It is not a reference to Heaven, as the dwelling place of God. In English, translators have not been careful to keep this distinction clear, and this is probably true in many other languages as well. However, as we have seen, this can lead to real confusion for ordinary Bible readers. It is better if translators find ways to make the meaning clear in these passages. ‘Heaven’ should be mentioned only in passages which clearly mean the dwelling place of God. In other passages, an expression should be used which means only ‘sky.’ Or else, the whole expression ‘heaven and earth’ can be translated in a way to show that the whole universe is meant.”

Other languages that have a semantic distinction similar to English include (click or tap here to see more):

  • Hungarian: ég — “sky”; menny — “heaven”
  • Tagalog: kalawakan — “sky”; langit/kalangitan — “heaven”
  • Swedish: sky — “sky”; Himmel — “heaven”
  • Loma: “up” — “sky”; “God’s place” — heaven”
  • Mossi: saase — “sky”; nyingeri — “the up above”(source for Loma and Mossi: Bratcher/Nida)
  • Roviana: mamaṉa — “sly”; maṉauru — “heaven” (an old word, meaning “empty, open space of the sky”) (source: Carl Gross)
  • Kayaw: mô̄la or “canopy-under”/mô̄khû̄la or “canopy-above-under” — “sky” (atmosphere where there is just air); mô̄khû̄ or “canopy-on/above” — “heaven” (invisible abode of God and angels)
  • Burmese: မိုး ကောင်း ကင်/moe kaungg kain — “sky”; ကောင်း ကင်/kaungg kain — “sky” or “heaven”; ကောင်း ကင်ဗုံ/kaungg kain bone — “heaven”
  • Mairasi: Sinyavi — an indigenous term that is used for both “sky” and heaven”; Surga — loanword from Sanskrit via Indonesian referring to “heaven” (source: Enggavoter 2004)
  • Noongar: worl — “sky”; Boolanga-Yirakang Boodjer — “Country of God” (source: Warda-Kwabba Luke-Ang)

Many languages follow the original biblical languages in not making that distinction, such as (click or tap here to see more):

In some languages, such as Wandala, the vocabulary for terms for either “heaven” or “sky” is much richer than just to include those two distinction. While zhegela, the term that is specifically used for the physical sky was only used in early translations of the New Testament for “sky,” other terms such as samaya (used for both “sky” and “heaven”), zlanna (specifically used for the perfect abode of God and the goal of the faithful, as in Matthew 8:11), kwárá (a locational term used to speak of a chief’s rule [lit., “voice”] such as Matthew 3:2), or sleksire (“chieftaincy,” “kingship,” or “royalty” [originally from slekse “chief”] and used where there are no locational overtones, such as in Matthew 16:28) are used. (Source: Mona Perrin in Notes on Translation 1/1999, p. 51ff.)

The English translation by Sarah Ruden (2021) uses “sky” throughout. Ruden explains (p. li): “The Greek word ouranos refers evenhandedly to the physical sky and the place—often pictured as a royal court — where supreme divinity resides. ‘Sky’ seems generally better, first of all in avoiding the wackier modern imagery that comes with the English ‘heaven.’ And even when a supernatural realm is meant, ‘sky’ will often do, because the divine realm was thought to be located there, in addition to the weather and the heavenly bodies, whereas ‘heaven’ to us is fundamentally a religious term, and the ancients did not tend to separate linguistic domains in this way. I have retained the plural ‘skies’ where I see it in the Greek, because it is a Hebraism familiar in English translations of scripture and (I hope) not too archaic or jarring.”

king

Some languages do not have a concept of kingship and therefore no immediate equivalent for the Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic, and Latin that is translated as “king” in English. Here are some (back-) translations:

(Click or tap here to see details)

  • Piro: “a great one”
  • Highland Totonac: “the big boss”
  • Huichol: “the one who commanded” (source for this and above: Bratcher / Nida)
  • Ekari: “the one who holds the country” (source: Reiling / Swellengrebel)
  • Una: weik sienyi: “big headman” (source: Kroneman 2004, p. 407)
  • Pass Valley Yali: “Big Man” (source: Daud Soesilo)
  • Ninia Yali: “big brother with the uplifted name” (source: Daud Soesilio in Noss 2007, p. 175)
  • Nyamwezi: mutemi: generic word for ruler, by specifying the city or nation it becomes clear what kind of ruler (source: Pioneer Bible Translators, project-specific translation notes in Paratext)
  • Ghomála’: Fo (“The word Fo refers to the paramount ruler in the kingdoms of West Cameroon. He holds administrative, political, and religious power over his own people, who are divided into two categories: princes (descendants of royalty) and servants (everyone else).” (Source: Michel Kenmogne in Theologizing in Context: An Example from the Study of a Ghomala’ Christian Hymn))

Faye Edgerton retells how the term in Navajo was determined:

“[This term was] easily expressed in the language of Biblical culture, which had kings and noblemen with their brilliant trappings and their position of honor and praise. But leadership among the Navajos is not accompanied by any such titles or distinctions of dress. Those most respected, especially in earlier days, were their headmen, who were the leaders in raids, and the shaman, who was able to serve the people by appealing for them to the gods, or by exorcising evil spirits. Neither of these made any outward show. Neither held his position by political intrigue or heredity. If the headman failed consistently in raids, he was superceded by a better warrior. If the shaman failed many times in his healing ceremonies, it was considered that he was making mistakes in the chants, or had lost favor with the gods, and another was sought. The term Navajos use for headman is derived from a verb meaning ‘to move the head from side to side as in making an oration.’ The headman must be a good orator, able to move the people to go to war, or to follow him in any important decision. This word is naat’áanii which now means ‘one who rules or bosses.’ It is employed now for a foreman or boss of any kind of labor, as well as for the chairman of the tribal council. So in order to show that the king is not just a common boss but the highest ruler, the word ‘aláahgo, which expresses the superlative degree, was put before naat’áanii, and so ‘aláahgo naat’áanii ‘anyone-more-than-being around-he-moves-his-head-the-one-who’ means ‘the highest ruler.’ Naat’áanii was used for governor as the context usually shows that the person was a ruler of a country or associated with kings.”

(Source: Faye Edgerton in The Bible Translator 1962, p. 25ff. )

See also king (Japanese honorifics).

Translation commentary on Tobit 13:16

For Jerusalem will be built as his house for all ages: The Greek of the first line does not make good sense, “Because Jerusalem will be built to/for a city his home unto all ages.” The problem is the phrase “to/for a city.” Without it, there is good sense: “Jerusalem will be built as his home unto all ages.” There is very good reason for thinking that the Old Latin is correct here when it has “again” instead of “to/for a city.” (The Greek words “city” and “again” look much alike.) Good News Translation assumes this when it translates “Jerusalem will be re built and will be his home forever” (similarly Contemporary English Version, New Jerusalem Bible, New American Bible, Revised English Bible). In languages that do not have the passive voice, this line may be expressed as “They [unknown agents] will rebuild Jerusalem for him [the Lord] to live in forever.”

The second use of “Jerusalem” in Good News Translation reestablishes the second person singular after the first line of verse 16; but in some languages the third person can be retained (see verse 9).

How happy: This is the same word used in verse 14.

A remnant of my descendants should survive to see your glory; that is, “if any of my descendants….” Good News Translation seems (mistakenly) to have Tobit make the assumption that all his descendants will one day see the restored Jerusalem. Survive does not translate a Greek word, but it is clearly implied by the line, “I will be happy if out of all my descendants, any should one day see your glory….” Glory in this context means “splendor” or “beauty.”

For acknowledge see verses 6, 10; 12.6. For the King of heaven, see 1.18.

The gates of Jerusalem: For gates see 11.16. From here to the end of the prayer, except for your walls, Jerusalem is spoken of in the third person. Good News Translation prefers to continue the second person address to Jerusalem. We can achieve consistency with fewer changes by changing your glory to a third person “the glory of Jerusalem”; this would mean that the whole discourse from verse 15 to the end would be without interruption in the third person.

Sapphires are semiprecious stones that are blue in color, while emeralds are precious stones that are green in color. In cultures where these stones are unknown, translators may say, for example, “they will make Jerusalem’s gates out of precious [or, expensive] stones named ‘sapphire’ and ‘emerald.’ ”

And all your walls with precious stones may be rendered “and [they will make] your walls with other kinds of precious/expensive stones.”

The towers of Jerusalem will be built with gold, and their battlements with pure gold: For towers see verse 12. Battlements were presumably well fortified projections from the towers on the city wall that enabled more archers to stand in defense of the city at any single point. It may be difficult in many languages to find suitable terms for both towers and battlements. In such cases we may combine these two lines and say something like “Your towers will be of gold all the way to the top” (Contemporary English Version) or simply “they will use pure gold to build your towers [or, strong high places] on the walls.”

The streets … will be paved with ruby and with stones of Ophir: The ruby is a precious stone with a deep red color. Ophir is the name of a place whose location is unknown today. Suggestions have been made placing it anywhere from Africa to India. It was known primarily as a source of fine gold. Here the name adds a note of extra interest to these valuable objects, so for stones of Ophir Good News Translation has “precious jewels.” To say the streets will be paved means people will cover them with material of some kind—in this case precious stones.

Quoted with permission from Bullard, Roger A. and Hatton, Howard A. A Handbook on Tobit. (UBS Helps for Translators). New York: UBS, 2001. For this and other handbooks for translators see here.