Mistranslated Words in the Bible


Most English Bibles do a pretty good job of accurately translating the Greek and Hebrew concepts into corresponding English words, some better (like the NLB), some worse (like the KJV, but mostly because the language has changed so much in the last 400 years). But there are a very few Greek and Hebrew words that translators consistently get wrong -- especially in the more literalistic (less accurate) "translations" like the NASB. My rule-of-thumb is, "If there's an 'S' in the name, it's less accurate." There are other words Christians often use and assume are in the Bible, but they aren't, because the translators got that part right. The recent translations -- including the ones falsely ridiculed as "paraphrases" -- are mostly good.
 

Topics:

Green Death
Words
Mystery
Crown
Worship
Forgiveness
Heart of Emotions
Love
Relationship
Legalism
Prophesy
Carpenter
Perfect
Kill

I used to have two "litmus" verses that I often use to validate a new translation, Rev.6:8 and Matt.12:37.
 

Green Death

What color is the 4th horse of the Apocalypse? What does your favorite Bible say? The Greek word clwroV (chloros) means "green" like chlorine and clorophyll, the same color as the "green" grass in the springtime that Jesus had the 5000 sit on when he fed them from five slices of bread and two sardines in Mark 6:39, and the same color as the translators all give to the green grass that is burnt up in Rev.8:7. Most English Bibles translate the chloros horse as "gray" or "pale". Why is that? Because the rider on that horse is Death, and every English reader knows that green is the color of life. Since the horse's color represents the rider in a symbolic way, it simply wouldn't do to use a living and vibrant color like green to represent the rider of Death, would it?

So why did John the Revelator color that horse green? Well, part of the reason is chromatic: the four primary colors in Greek thinking are Black and White, Red and Green. Those are also the four colors in nearly every human language when they have exactly four color words. When they have only two such words, they represent light and dark; if there are three, the third color is red or reddish. The fourth color is green. English has a zillion colors, so we don't appreciate this limit.

The second, and more important, reason is that green is the color of death. No, not today in 21st century western civilization with antiseptic hospitals and morgues with refrigerators for the corpses and heavy makeup on the open-casket corpses, but it was in the first century when John wrote this book. What color does "aged" beef turn? Green. What color does a foot turn when it dies and goes gangrene? Yup, green. What color does that steak or casserole turn when you leave it in the fridge too long? Same color. What color do corpses turn in the grave without expensive embalming? The body is essentially meat. When it dies, it turns green and smells bad. Everybody knows that. Everybody, that is, except us moderns, who never see a dead body that hasn't been filled with plastics to keep it from turning green.

Green is the color of death in every culture but ours. So the translators did exactly the right thing by translating it "gray" or "pale", which are the modern colors for Death. You see, it's not about what color the horse is, it's about who the rider is, and the rider is Death. Death is not green in English.
 

Words

In Matt.12:37 they all got it wrong. Verse 36 brings a focus to Jesus' teaching on idle words. "Be careful," he says, "for you must give an account (logoV, logos) of every idle word (rhma, rhema) that you speak. For by your accounting (logwn, logos/plural) you will be justified or condemned. Who will do the condemning? You, yourself! Remember the parable of the unrighteous steward in Luke 16? The king called him in to give an account of his own doings. In Luke 19:22 the King (representing God) tells the wicked steward "I will judge you by your own words." There is a similar (but not identical) parable in Matt.25. God is apparently into letting people explain in their own words what they did and why, then condemning them on the basis of their own accounting. There will be no Fifth Amendment, no perjury on Judgment Day; each of us will get to tell the truth, and God will know it if we try to lie.

There is another reason for understanding this verse as being judged on the basis of our own accountings, and it is linguistic. Whenever, and in whatever language, if there are two similar words that mean nearly the same thing, and a speaker or writer says something involving both words used to refer to different things in that context, then uses one of those two words again in the same context, it always refers to the same thing it did in the previous usage. For an English example, how do you understand this story:

A red car hit a blue van. There were ten people in the car and they all were killed.
Were the ten dead people in the red vehicle or the blue one? No question about it! They were all crammed in the red car, as unlikely as that might otherwise seem. I had one translator justify his particular translation by the fact that "accounts" are never in plural. I guess he never heard of "accounts payable". Jesus said you give a separate account for every single idle word; if there are many words, there will be many accounts (plural).

It's not like this is a big deal if you misunderstand this one verse. The verse helps us to understand that God is exceedingly just, and He does not arbitrarily condemn people because he doesn't like your vocabulary. You yourself will agree that the condemnation is just. If you miss it in this verse, you might get it in Romans 2:14-16, where Paul makes the same point. If you miss the point entirely, that will not cost your your eternal salvation, because it's not about what you know, it's about Who is Lord.
 

Mystery

What exactly do you use the word "mystery" for? Something that is mysterious, deeply unknown and unknowable, right? "I don't know what my wife is thinking about, it's a mystery to me." So when we read the same word in the Bible, it must mean some deep unknown and unknowable idea beyond any hope of comprehension, right? Wrong.

There is one context in English that preserves the basic meaning of the Greek word musterion (mysterion), and that is a "mystery novel." Is a mystery novel about some deep unknowable? Hardly. It's about some secret -- perhaps who done it, who committed the murder -- that is unknown at the beginning, but fully explained by the end of the story. Stories that don't tell you their secrets are no fun to read; the appeal of the mystery novel is to see if you can guess the secret before the author gets around to telling you. That is basically what the Greek word means, except that you don't need to guess.

Some modern Bibles correctly translate musterion as "secret" or "secret now revealed" and the rest of the Bibles leave you confused and mistakenly believing that there is no way you can possibly understand what the Second Coming is going to be like. Paul is telling the secret, we will not all die, but we will all be changed, suddenly, like an eyeblink. It's not some deep unknown and unknowable, he already told us. It will be like those "Mutant-X" people that change shape, except they are fiction, for us it will be real.
 

Crown

A crown is what kings wear, right? In the Bible, mostly not. The primary symbol of ruling in the Bible is the scepter, not the crown [Gen.49:10, Psa.2:9, Isa.14:5, Heb.1:8, Rev.2:27, and others]. But there is only one scepter in each kingdom, and it is not shared with subordinates. We all want to be chiefs, not indians, so we pick up on "crowns" that everybody gets as a reward for faithfulness.

Two very different Greek words unfortunately get translated by the same English word "crown" with consequent confusion. Diadem (DIADHMA) is the kind of crown kings wear. Most of the crowns in the New Testament -- especially all the reward crowns -- are the Stephen (STEFANOS) variety, a laurel wreath awarded to victors in the Games and more accurately translated into English as "medal". These, not diadems, are what the 24 Elders lay at the feet of Jesus. All of the crowns given to believers are wreath/medals, symbols of victory, not symbols of ruling. There is only one Ruler, Jesus.
 

Worship

I once went through the concordance looking at every single verse with the (English) word "worship". There were about 200 verses. A large number of them (perhaps 25%) explicitly gave a posture with the worship: Hands in the air and smiling face toward God as we see in all the modern "worship" photographs? Not a single one! Every time there is any indication of posture associated with "worship" it is face to the ground, and all the other usages are consistent with it. What about music and singing? Exactly two references have any mention of music anywhere near them.
As soon as you hear the sound of the horn, flute, zither, lyre, harp, pipes and all kinds of music, you must fall down and worship the image of gold... Daniel 3:5
It's not the worshippers who are making music, they only hear it as a cue to fall on their faces before the gold image. In the other reference, at the dedication of Solomon's temple in 2Chr.7, all the people worship God with their faces to the ground, then when they finish worshipping, they stand up and the music starts.

The modern English/American word "worship" is not about posture, it's about the warm fuzzies you get when you think about God. That often happens when you hear or sing so-called "praise and worship" music. We have a church service on Sunday mornings (and sometimes other times in the week) that is called "worship"; what about the service constitutes "worship"? The hymns? The rock band music? The sermon? Sometimes the pastor will invite people to "worship God with their tithes and offerings," but most people don't think of putting money in the offering plate as "worship". Worship is what happens when the awesome music plays, and the hair on the back of your neck stands up. That is what "worship" means in our language and culture.

Don't get me wrong, that kind of "worship" is in the Bible, and it's a good thing for us to do, but in the Bible it's called "praise", not "worship".

It turns out we do have a perfectly good English word that means almost exactly what the Biblical "worship" means. That word is "grovel". Does God want us to grovel before Him? You betcha. He is God, and you are not god. You grovel. But we don't like that word. It implies that God is somehow dominant. Guess what? He is.
 

Forgiveness

Another important Bible word that has changed meaning in the English language is "forgive". In the Bible it always refers to debt cancellation. We owe God a debt of obedience and (ahem) grovelling, and we don't pay what we owe. The past is past, there's no going back, but God is merciful: He cancels the debt -- but only if you want Him to, and only if you are willing to do the same for others [Matt.6:15].

Somehow we have gotten the notion that forgiveness is getting rid of the bitter resentment at being hurt and feeling good about the relationship. That's a good and useful (and Biblical) thing to do, but the Bible does not call it "forgiveness". Forgiveness is the specific and Godly response to a person's repentance; it is neither commanded nor reasonable to cancel the debt for (that is, forgive) somebody who continues in their destructive behavior. It is commanded to love your enemies and pray for them and not seek revenge -- but that is never called "forgiveness" in the Bible. For a longer exposition on what it means to "forgive as God forgave us" see my essay on Forgiveness.

The anger, resentment, and bitterness is an emotional response, and we can choose to control our emotions. Unlike reconciliation, which only happens if both parties want it, how you choose to feel about the other person is entirely up to you. Bitterness will eat your gut (literally, in the form of ulcers and colitis) and you must get past it. Doing good for the other person -- especially when they don't deserve it -- is a wonderful way to change your attitude. Doing it in secret, without them knowing who did it, is wonderful fun and a great way to get past the bitterness. But if we insist on calling this process "forgiveness" then we need a different word to translate the Greek word used in the Bible.
 

Heart of Emotions

That the modern ideas of "worship" and "forgiveness" are such an emotional experience probably comes from the mistranslation of the seat of our emotions. What part of you best represents your emotions? Your heart, or your gut? Think about what happens when you get emotionally involved -- love or hate, it hardly matters -- your gut gets tied up in knots, you lose your appetite, all kinds of unhealthy things happen to your digestive system. So what body organ does the Bible use to represent your emotions? Your gut! The King James Bible spoke of "bowels of mercy"; that's an emotional response.

What about the heart? It's not about emotions, it's the core of your being, the center of your will. When Jeremiah tells us that "the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked," he's not saying something about our emotions. When we lie (being deceitful) or do wickedly, it's not because our emotions carried us away, it's because we choose to do wrong. It's because the very core of our being is deceitful and wicked. We no longer have an unambiguous body part to represent what "heart" means in Hebrew and Greek, but maybe "backbone" comes close.

It's interesting, that most modern translations (correctly) substitute the English word "heart" for the Greek and Hebrew words for gut as the seat of emotions, but they all fail to make an appropriate substitution for the heart organ when it refers to your spine, the center of your being. The result is that the modern Bibles seem to make everything an emotional response, when it's not.
 

Love

If the translators screwed up the seat of emotions so badly, then surely they got that quintessential Christian emotion, "love" right, right? Wrong. In modern western English, "love" is an emotional response to somebody you like, and the emotion can (and does) go away when you stop liking that person. In the Bible, the words most often translated "love" usually have nothing to do with emotional attachment. The love of God, represented in John 3:16, is not about a warm feeling in God's (ahem) heart -- what father in his right mind is going to get all warm and fuzzy seeing his son be tortured and killed when he doesn't deserve it? -- it's a choice to take up our pain and sin upon Himself. We don't understand the love of God because we keep trying to think of it as an emotional feeling. God does have that emotional feeling, but this isn't it. God also commands us to show this same virtue to others that He shows to us, but it's not an emotional response, not a feeling exuded by telling people you "love" them.

So what is it? The great "love chapter" in the Bible is 1Cor.13, and none of the modern translations accurately capture the meaning of the Greek word agaph (agape). As bad and outdated as it is, I think the King James Version comes closest with "charity". Charity is what you do for other people who don't deserve it, and who don't do anything for you. It's what you do because you are a good Christian and Christians do that kind of thing. It's not an emotional response to the plight of the poor -- oh, it might be -- but usually it's a thoughtful choice of how to spend a little of the bounty God gives every one of us, so to help out people less fortunate than we are. "Charity suffers long. Charity is not proud,..." This is not about your emotions, it's about what you choose to do.

Husbands must choose to treat their wives with courtesy and self-giving sacrifice, just as Christ chose to do it for His church. The First great commandment is not about having a warm feeling in your (ahem) heart, it's about choosing to obey God and make Him first in every part of your life -- even when God does not apparently return the favor. The book of Job explores what it means to give God first place when He doesn't seem to deserve it. Job passed the test. Can you? The Second great commandment is like the first, to give other people the same first-place consideration you naturally give yourself. You don't have to like them to do the right thing for them. Whether God actually likes us, the Bible says very little about. Are you likeable by God? You can do something about that, if you want to. That's what loving God is all about.
 

Relationship

You won't find the word "relationship" in most translations of the Bible. It's not that the idea of "relationship" is not there (it is), but rather that the people who care most about accurate translation are what I call "Relationshipists" and they implicitly define the word differently from the dictionary. But they are honest translators, and to use the word to translate a Greek or Hebrew concept -- even if accurately by one or another of its various meanings -- would confuse either their constituency or else the general public (or both).

The dictionary defines "relationship" as a connection, often a family connection ("relative"). Real people mostly use the word to refer to a sexual liason, and "relative" or "relation" for other family connections. "Relationship" as a sexual liason is in 1Co.6:16, but none of the translations use the word there. "Relationship" as a family connection is all through the Bible, but individual kinship terms like "father" or "son" are always more precise. For more general notions of kinship, "kin" or "relative" is more accurate. "Relationship" as a connection other than family is in John 15:4 and elsewhere, but that is not what Relationshipists have in mind when they use the word. So the word is not in the Bible at all. That's actually a good thing. The absence of this word in Bible translations accurately reflects the fact that the concept of "relationship" (whatever definition you prefer) is not what the Bible teaches.
 

Legalism

You won't find the word "legalism" or "legalist" in any Bible translation I know of. In religious contexts, the word was invented by Relationshipists to mean "loves Jesus more than I do." They think of it as following a bunch of rules, lists of do's and don'ts. Of course there are do's and don'ts all over the Bible, much more than any message of affirmation (which is also there, but far less often), and the Relationshipists want to be affirmed without earning it. It is true that you do not earn your salvation -- that was earned by the finished work of Jesus on the cross -- but God definitely expects everybody in Heaven to be good (follow all the rules), otherwise people would get hurt, and Heaven wouln't be Heaven (for the people who got hurt). If you don't like following all the rules now, what makes you think you will like it any better in Heaven?

The people who like to use the word "legalism" or "legalist" to criticize other Christians trying to be good here and now, they seem to think they got the idea from the first three chapters of Paul's letter to the Galatians. But they don't read the whole epistle: two chapters later, the great Apostle launches into his own lists of do's and don'ts. Did he contradict himself? Hardly. The first half of the book is about clinging to the Jewish ceremonial laws, circumcision and special holy days and altar sacrifices. But Galatia is not in Israel, and those laws were not given to Gentiles. The rules given to the Church are about being good and doing for your neighbor (including the people you don't like) what you wish they would do for you. Because that's often hard to figure out, because most of us are too lazy to do the analysis of what that means, God and Moses and Jesus and Paul all gave us a bunch of do's and don'ts to explain it.

Jesus said "if you love me, you will do what I say" (follow the do's and don'ts). So the word "legalist" really does mean "loves Jesus more than I do." If you want to call me a legalist, I will wear the badge with honor.
 

Prophesy

Preachers often like to invoke God's blessing on their sermons by telling us that the Greek verb "prophesy" (not translated) is derived from the preposition "pro" (meaning "forth") and the verb "phemi" (meaning "tell"), so therefore "prophesy" means "forth-telling" without regard to the source of the information. Maybe, but if you want to do an etymological analysis, you should also consider the Greek noun "prophasis" derived from the same two roots, which means "pretense" or show-off as in Luke 20:47; in other words, their sermons are a pretense and a fraud -- which is true if they want to call it "prophecy".

The Greek and Hebrew words translated "prophesy" and "prophet" and "prophecy" have only one possible meaning in those contexts (which includes false prophets), and that is people speaking (or sometimes acting) under the direct command of God (or else pretending to), without any personal involvement of the prophet other than moving his lips. He does not choose the words, God did -- or at least he wants you to believe it. There are other words for "preacher" and "messenger" (angel) that give the agent a choice in what to say and how to say it.

Except possibly for pentecostals, no preacher is going to tell you the exact words of his sermon were dictated by God, but that's what "prophesy" in the Bible means. We don't even make that claim of the Biblical text -- except for the parts called "prophecy" -- but rather that God "inspired" the (human) authors so that the words they chose were true and accurate. I don't think the modern preachers are even willing to claim that much of their sermons, so applying the term "prophesy" to their preaching debases the Biblical word. Don't go there.
 

Carpenter

Everybody knows Jesus was a carpenter, right? Except the Bible doesn't say so. Mark 6:3 calls him a 'tikton', the Greek word used one other place in the Bible, Matt.13:55 referring to Joseph. It's the participle form of the verb 'tikto' meaning "build" so he's a "builder" (probably houses). Most modern houses are built of wood, because it's cheap and easy to work with modern power tools, so we think of builders in terms of woodworking. In the American southwest (and parts of Latin America) where it didn't rain much and wood was scarce, the preferred building material was mud bricks (adobe). That was also true in the Middle East (think: Israel) before concrete became easy to manufacture. The preferred pre-modern building material was stone, but that was labor-intensive (still is, even with modern tools, so we use ready-mix stone, also known as concrete); only rich people lived in stone houses. But there was a lot of work for stone cutters and stone masons, especially in the early first century during the growth of the town of Sepphoris, an easy walk from Nazareth -- and guess who lived in Nazareth? Yes, Joseph and Jesus were most likely stone masons, not wood-working carpenters.
 

Perfect

The modern word "perfect" means "without flaw" but 400 years ago in Elizabethan English it meant something very different. The Latin root means to "make" and the first dozen or so definitions the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) are about completion. That's also why the King James translators used that word to translate the Greek adjective 'teleios' which means "mature" or "grown-up." You can tell that's what it means, because the root verb 'teleo' means "finish" and its corresponding noun 'telos' is usually translated "end." Furthermore, the context where 'teleios' is used sometimes contrasts it with "childish" but never with "flawed." The word "flaw" itself seems only recently to refer to imperfections. The OED gives its first four senses in terms of fragmentation (pieces broken off a masonry stone), and the first time it's used as a blemish is after the King James Bible was translated. The older word "blemish" appears three times in the KJV, but only (correctly) to translate a different Greek word, 'momos' or its negation.

So why do modern translators preserve "perfect" as the incorrect translation of 'teleios'? I suspect they are beholden to their anti-charismatic theological presuppositions, wanting 1Cor.13:10 to refer to the "perfect" Bible replacing the imperfection of tongues and prophecy. But that verse never mentions Scripture, nor does it tell us what this perfection to arrive might be, but the Apostle Paul apparently thought it obvious. It is obvious in the other two verses of the same epistle where the same word is used, 2:6 (translated by the oNIV as "mature") and 14:20 (translated by the oNIV as "adults" -- even the KJV translators couldn't bring themselves to use "perfect" there, but instead rendered it "men"). Much of what Paul is telling the church in Corinth is that they are behaving in a childish manner and should grow up. The contrast makes it plain that the Greek adjective 'teleios' means "mature" or "grown-up" and has nothing to do with the absence of flaws or blemishes. 1Cor.13:10 reminds them that when they grow up, they don't need childish training wheels like tongues, and those childish things cease. Paul wrote to Corinth to deal with their current problems, not to make pronouncements about some future event after they were all dead. There are 11 references to Scripture in his letter, every one of them the Old Testament, either a direct quote or an oblique reference like "[Jesus] was resurrected according to the Scriptures." There are no future references to Scriptures anywhere in the Bible other than in the direct teaching of Jesus, because only he can give authority to any Scripture at all.

Hebrews 5:14 uses the same Greek word (again translated by the oNIV as "mature") in contrast with babies needing milk. Every place this Greek word is used, it either obviously means "mature" or else it could be a metaphorical use of maturity or completion.

The Greek word 'teleios' is an adjective, used in 1Cor.13:10 without a noun for it to modify. Nevertheless, Greek adjectives always must match the noun they modify, both in number and gender, even if the noun is only inferred. Here it is neuter singular, but Scripture (Greek 'graphe') is feminine, so it cannot be that. The Word (Jesus Christ in John's gospel, 'logos') is masculine, again no match. James applies the same adjective to the "Law of Liberty," which looks like a good candidate, except that Law (Greek 'nomos') is also masculine. There is a Greek "word" ('rhema') that is neuter, but it always refers to a spoken word, and that is obviously not what the Cessationists want us to believe of this verse. Greek often uses neuter for abstractions, so "maturity" is a good translation here, and consistent with the context.

For additional thoughts on 'teleios' in this verse, see also my blog post "Cessationism".
 

Kill

There are several English words that basically mean to kill (and a few more where that is an extended or metaphorical sense). Greek and Hebrew in the Bible have the same variability. One word gives people problems because the King James Bible translated the Commandment as "Thou shalt not kill," but the Hebrew word is used only in six verses for unauthorized killing (murder). The Greek New Testament, when quoting or citing the Commandment (nine verses), similarly uses a unique word not otherwise used. There are other words in both languages for killing animals, and for killing enemies in war, and for capital punishment, and for accidental homicide; there is no conflict in the original Hebrew and Greek between the Commandment and the other kinds of killing that a fallen human race finds necessary to preserve the peace or just because Bad Things Happen. Most modern translations get it right, but far too many people cling to the King James, and are therefore confused.
 

First Draft 2003 December 30
Revised 2007 May 17, 2014 May 26, 2016 Jan.18, July 1, Sept.27, 2017 Feb.27