Today I thought it would be interesting to do something that I hope will help you in your own Bible studies. It will also help you understand some of the issues involved in determining Christian beliefs and the reason there are so many different, and contradictory, Christian beliefs out there—one of the reasons Christians disagree so much. We’re going to look at the problems involved with translating the Bible into English.
Of course, the Bible was not written in English. The earliest copies of any books of the Bible we have are in a form of ancient Greek known as Koine Greek. It’s very different from modern Greek. It’s a form of ancient Greek that hasn’t been in use for many, many years.
So, if we want to read the Bible in English, it first has to be translated into English. There are a number of different English translations of the Bible available. I think you can gain a good understanding of many things you need to keep in mind when thinking about Christianity by going through and seeing the process of translating just one verse.
Translating John 1: 1
To do this, I’ve chosen a verse that’s very familiar to many Christians, the first verse of the Gospel of John. From the King James Version of the Bible, it reads like this: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Sounds pretty simple and straightforward, so let’s see if it really is.
If you are somewhere you can get a piece of paper and something to write with, I’d encourage you to do so. Then draw 17 blank lines on that piece of paper and write the words in along as we translate. If you can’t do that, it’s fine; just follow along.
In the ancient Greek, there are 17 words in this verse. They are as follows:
- A Greek word that means “in.”
- A word that means something like “beginning, origin, at the first.”
- A verb that is the equivalent of the English verb “was.”
- A word that means “the.”
- The Greek word “logos.” Logos literally means “a statement that expresses an idea.” We don’t have an exact English word to translate logos, but the closest English equivalent is the word “word,” since the definition of the English word “word” is, technically, a statement that expresses an idea. We’ll use the word “word” temporarily, just in our working copy, but we’ll come back to it later.
- A word that means “and.”
- A word that means “the.”
- The word “logos” again. We’ll use “word” again, at least temporarily.
- A word equivalent to the verb “was.”
- A Greek preposition that connotes motion toward something, as in moving to a destination. It’s like, “I’m driving ‘to’ California.” So we’ll use “to,” at least temporarily, just in our working copy.
- A word that means “the.”
- A word that means “God.”
- A word that means “and.”
- A word that means “God.”
- A word that means “was.”
- A word that means “the.
- The word “logos” again. We’ll use “word” again, just in our working copy.
So let’s see what we have—“In beginning was the word and the word was to the God and God was the word.”
That doesn’t make sense, does it? If you are familiar with any foreign language, you know that translation is not just the simple matter of substituting one word for another. It’s much more involved than that. So we have more work to do.
What Does “Logos” Mean?
Remember, we ran into confusion with the Greek word “logos,” so let’s start by going back to that and see if we can do something to make sense of it. There is all kinds of confusion within Christianity about what the word “logos” means, what it refers to. And frankly, no one really knows. Some say it’s a Greek philosophical concept, but when they talk about it, they can’t really give a definition for it. They talk about it in abstracts; that is, they use a bunch of terms that don’t really mean anything concrete. For that reason, I don’t pay much attention to the “logos as Greek philosophical concept” idea. It might very well be a Greek philosophical concept, but I’ve never seen any meaningful explanation of it.
At this point we seem to have hit a brick wall. This illustrates a problem faced in translation. The Greek in which the New Testament is written is not the same as modern Greek. It’s a ancient form of Greek that has long been out of use. For that reason, there are some words in the New Testament for which no one knows the precise definition. With this idea of “logos,” we run into that situation. We don’t really know, and there’s no way we ever can know, exactly what concept the author was trying to express with this word “logos.”
Fortunately, though, something bails us out in this situation. If we keep on going down through this passage, it soon becomes clear that, whatever the complete connotation of “logos” might be, the author is using it to refer to Jesus. We might not know all the connotations implied by the use of the word logos, but at least we know it refers to Jesus. This can help us with our translation. We can go back and substitute “Jesus” every place “logos” occurred, where we had “word.”
Here’s what we get—“In beginning was the Jesus and the Jesus was to the God and God was the Jesus.”
That still doesn’t make sense.
We Decide Based on Preexisting Doctrine
One of the things that doesn’t make sense is the word “to” in the phrase “and the Jesus was to the God”. The Greek word we translated as “to” is what’s causing the trouble. That word literally connotes direction toward something, the goal toward which something is headed. By far the great majority of times it occurs in the Bible, that’s how it’s translated—as “to.” A few times in the New Testament it’s translated as something like “pertaining to,” but if we try to put that in our phrase, it doesn’t make sense either.
Sometimes you reach a point like this when translating. A straight word-for-word translation doesn’t make sense, and instead of just straight translating, you have to try to decide what the author meant, and use that instead of a straight translation.
So with that in mind, think of something. No one who translates the Bible translates from a blank slate. Any translator translates with certain beliefs already in mind. And so, if you are a Christian trying to translate this verse, you already have certain existing Christian beliefs in mind.
One of the beliefs you already have in mind is what’s called the doctrine of the Trinity. That says God is one in three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. You might not understand what that means, but you have it in mind—three persons—and so in your mind, it’s not unreasonable to think the author must have meant something like “with” instead of “to.” After all, the Trinity says three persons, so you think it’s reasonable to assume the author must have been picturing God and Jesus, standing there together, “with” each other. And so you decide to express it in your English translation as “with.”
Now you have this: “In beginning was the Jesus and the Jesus was with the God and God was the Jesus.”
See what you’ve done? You’ve “translated,” and here I use the term “translated” loosely, so that it will reflect the doctrine of the Trinity. You have translated it in such a way that it will reflect something you already believed. You have, in essence, adjusted the translation to fit your existing belief.
From the literal Greek, it was unclear what the author meant, so you had to decide what the author meant, and you decided based on something you already believed—the doctrine of the Trinity.
You translated the Bible to reflect what you already believed. This illustrates that any translation is an interpretation, because in translation, you often have to interpret what you think the author meant in order to translate it. A word-for-word straight translation often does not work, so you have to interpret in order to translate.
We Need to Make It Flow Better
But, even after having done that, there’s something else that’s bothering you about this verse. You notice that there’s a “the” in front of some occurrences of God and Jesus, but not in front of others. You wonder what to make of this, and so you look at other places in the New Testament where the word “God” is used. You notice that sometimes, there’s a “the” before God in the Greek, but sometimes not. You look at a number of instances like this, and you see that there’s really no difference in the meaning when “the” is used and when it’s not. And so you conclude that “the” is sometimes used before “God,” but sometimes not, but that there is no difference in the meaning.
Now you can feel free to knock out some occurrences of “the” if you need to in order to clear up your translation, and so you get this: “In beginning was Jesus and Jesus was with God and God was Jesus.”
Does “Jesus Was God” Equal “God Was Jesus”?
That’s somewhat better, but still, there’s something that makes you uncomfortable. It says “God was Jesus.” Keep in mind that you’re a Christian, and you have been exposed to a certain interpretation of Jesus. From the interpretation of Jesus you have been exposed to, you are uncomfortable saying “God was Jesus.” It just doesn’t sound right. You have occasionally heard the phrase “Jesus was God,” though, and although technically “God was Jesus” and “Jesus was God” is the same thing, there does seem to be at least a nuanced difference between saying “Jesus was God” and “God was Jesus.” You feel more comfortable saying “Jesus was God.”
Since you are a student of Greek, you know that word order in Greek can be somewhat more fluid than word order in English, in that word order in Greek is not as critical as word order in English. Since you know this, you feel justified in tinkering with the word order, so you do that and come up with “In beginning was Jesus and Jesus was with God and Jesus was God.”
A Few More Adjustments
Finally, you still feel a little uncomfortable not expressing in any way some kind of reference to the word “logos” that was used in the original, and since you are sure people will eventually read on down and see that Jesus is identified with “logos,” you decide to go back to using “word” instead of “Jesus.” Plus, you decide to capitalize it since it refers to Jesus.
You also have those occurrences of “the” you knocked out earlier, and you can put some of those back in if you need to in order to make it flow properly. And, since the use of the word “the” seems to be pretty fluid, you feel justified in adding an extra “the” somewhere if you need to.
You end up with this: “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.”
That is translating what, in our Bibles, is the first verse of the Gospel of John.
Every Translation Is an Interpretation
From this example, I hope you can see that translation is a very complicated thing. It’s not just a matter of substituting an English word for a Greek word. Decisions have to be made. Every translation is an interpretation.
Think of all the times we had to make decisions and interpretations just translating the first 17 words of the Gospel of John. Think how many you would have to make if you translated the whole thing.
So when you read the Bible, what you read has already been filtered, or altered, at least to some extent by the translation process. You are reading, at least to some extent, not necessarily what the biblical authors wrote, but someone’s take on what they wrote.