Monday, 2 April 2018

How Transliterations Change How We Read the Bible

there has always being a lot of conversation around the way certain words are translated in the Bible. Very little seems to have been written about Bible transliterations so I thought that it may be beneficial to dedicate a post to it. I find that understanding the true meaning of transliterated words can drastically change the way one reads specific passages in the Bible. Before I provide some examples though, let me explain what a transliteration is for those who do not know.

Normally Bible translators like to take Hebrew and Greek words and replace them with the equivalent in our language, when a sentence is being translated they usually stray from a direct translation to a paraphrase, as a literal word for word translation hardly ever makes sense going from one language to another. To use an example in the only two languages that I know, a word for word translation of the Afrikaans sentence, “Hy woon by nommer drie en dertig maar ons kan nie daar vandag verby gaan nie” would be, “He live by number three and thirty but we cannot there today past go not”. So translators would change this to something like, “He lives at number thirty-three but we cannot go past there today" for clarity sake. Sometimes though a word in one language does not exist in another, this is where transliterations come in. Translators did not want to (or could not) use a particular word or phrase to convey the meaning of the original and instead made up a new word that looks and sounds similar to the original. The word ‘Bethel’ for example is a combination of two Hebrew words, “Beth” (meaning house) and “El” (which is God), a literal translation would have been ‘House of God’ but the translators chose instead to make up a new English word. This is done a lot in the Bible, most often with the names of people and places.
There are some interesting places in the Bible though where using a transliteration instead of a translation can potentially change the way in which we understand a passage. For example, the word deacon today is used to describe a specific office in the church, it is a transliteration of the word diakonos and literally means servant. Now where I live the office of deacon is held in high regard, while most people know that it means ‘one who serves or ministers’ we certainly don’t think of deacons as ‘servants’. The same is true for the word apostle which comes from the Greek word, apostolos. It simply means ‘one who is sent’ and is the modern equivalent of a missionary.

There are numerous other passages that we might see in an entirely new light if we understood the meaning behind certain transliterations. Heretic (aihretikos) as used in Titus 3:10 in the KJV speaks of one who is divisive or schismatic and not necessarily of one who teaches something false. The context is far broader and implies that one can speak the truth and yet still be divisive (a heretic) and a danger to the church. Angel also comes from the word angelos and literally means messenger and can refer to spiritual beings as well as humans depending on context. There are a few instances in the Bible where the word messenger would make far more sense if it were translated that way, the messengers to the seven churches in Revelation 1-3 and those who have entertained angels (messengers) unwittingly by showing hospitality to strangers (Hebrews 13:2) both come to mind. Baptism (baptisma) is a word that simply means immersion and was often used in ancient times without religious connotations. While it can refer to water baptism it was often used in other ways as well. One can be immersed in their work or soak up as much information as they can about a particular subject. While I agree with water baptism I think that Jesus had more than that in mind when He gave the great commission. I think that He was telling His disciples to immerse people in the life of the Father, son and Holy Spirit. That they would be not just physically get wet but saturated with the knowledge of God and fully identified with Him.

There is one last transliteration that I wish to address and I believe that it is the most important to be aware of. It is the word Christ which comes from the untranslated word Christos. Christos means anointed one and speaks of Jesus as God’s eternal King, the ruler of all nations (see Psalm 2). We use the word as though it was His last name but in reality the scriptures are referring King Jesus. I find it interesting that Jesus constantly spoke of the gospel of the kingdom. 135 of the 158 times the word kingdom is used it appears in the first 5 books of the New Testament. The epistles thereafter only use it 23 times. At a glance it seems like the New Testament writers might have lost track a bit until we see that the word Christ (God’s anointed King) is used 511 times in the epistles! To illustrate how this can add depth to what we read, I randomly opened up my Bible yesterday and the first thing I read was 2 Corinthians 5:20 which says, “Now then, we are Christ’s (the Kings) ambassadors, as though God were pleading through us, we implore you on Christ (the Kings) behalf, be reconciled to God”. Can you see how it relates to Jesus’ teachings of the gospel of the kingdom?

I hope that this proves to be a useful tool for you in your time in the Bible. Next time you read a transliterated word, pause and reread it with the English equivalent and see if it adds any perspective to the text. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. Is it something you have considered before? Does it change anything for you? Are there other words where you think the transliterations have robbed us of the author’s original thought?

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