How Scriptures get Mistranslated I

Discussion in 'Religion and Ethics' started by BluePhantom, Jun 15, 2012.

  1. BluePhantom
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    BluePhantom Educator (of liberals)

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    So I want to use a good example of one of the ways in which the meanings of Biblical scripture can get fucked up in translation. Now you have to keep in mind that the Hebrew language has a very interesting history and it provides some pros and cons. First it’s important to understand that the language was spoken for roughly 1,000 years and then died out in about 70 AD coinciding with the expulsion of the Jews from the Holy Land. From that point Jews began speaking Greek or Aramaic or the local language of wherever they ended up. It was not until the middle 1800s that Jews began to try and reclaim their heritage by reviving the language and it took several generations for it to take hold. On one hand that’s good for us because it means that Modern Hebrew is closer to Ancient Hebrew than other languages. Read some Shakespeare or the original KJV and you will get a good idea of how much English has changed in a mere 400 years or so of continuous use. On the other hand it’s a disaster because after nearly two millennia there are a lot of words, concepts, and aspects to the language that have been totally lost and have never been recovered. Without a path of continuous use to trace back, we have almost no way to recover them in the future short of some major archeological find.

    Like in English, Ancient Hebrew frequently used metaphors to describe things and because there is such a gap in the history of the use of the language, those metaphors lost their meaning and translators were left to guess. As time went on and archaeologists discovered new examples of ancient writing and new evidence to consider, we have started to realize just how God awful many of those guesses were. I want to focus on that today and introduce a hypothetical situation. Let’s assume we are looking at a line in Ancient Hebrew that gives us the literal translation:

    ”His wife was angry for he was blue and Lord punished accordingly.”

    Well what does it mean to be “blue” to an ancient Jew? The best way to find out would be to ask someone who speaks Ancient Hebrew, but alas no one has spoken the language in almost 2,000 years. We do know that in English, “to be blue” can mean a couple things. It usually means “to be sad” but it can also mean “to be vulgar”. It seems pretty unlikely to us that a wife would be angry at her husband for being sad and it seems even more unlikely that God would punish someone for being sad, so that doesn’t seem like a reasonable translation. We also know that in Greek culture “blue” means “pornographic” and in Ancient Greece blue was associated with socially unacceptable sexual behavior so it seems likely that some form of vulgar sexuality is being referenced here. So let’s rewrite it for our modern reader as such:

    “His wife was angry because he was sexually vulgar and the Lord punished him accordingly”

    Well we feel pretty good about this so we’re really surprised when we read a German version that says:

    “His wife was angry because he was late and the Lord punished him accordingly”

    We are even more surprised when we read a Russian translation that says:

    “His wife was angry because he was gay and the Lord punished him accordingly”

    Well shit. What happened? In this case it’s simply a cultural problem. In Germany, “to be blue” is to be late and in Russia “to be blue” is to be gay. Just as we did with our translation, they interpreted “blue” through the filter of their own culture and not ancient Jewish culture (which we are assuming is unknown for purposes of this example.)

    Let’s make the problem worse. Let’s assume that the line we are translating is in the context of rituals and let’s add the caveat that the German translation came first; say in about 1000 AD. While it sure doesn’t make sense that God would punish someone for being late it’s logically reasoned that in the context of ritual God might be a bit peeved if you were late to Temple and refused to give proper offerings etc in a timely manner. In that context God may just send down His wrath. So for a full millennium we have been bombarded with the idea that being late to a religious ritual will incur punishment from the Almighty.

    As we translate to English and Russian however we face these major problems because we know that the Greeks used blue to describe some form of sexual behavior that was considered unacceptable, and since we use it similarly in English speaking cultures and the Russians use it similarly in regard to homosexuality, we decide that we are right and the Germans were wrong. So now we have to create a totally new Bible to translate our theory on what the verse says but because the traditional interpretation has been “to be late” our theory of “to engage in sexually vulgar behavior” is going to have a very hard time catching on.

    Now to make matters even worse than that we will flash forward another 500 years and archeologists uncover evidence that in Ancient Hebrew, “to be blue” meant to show holiness and obedience to God (which is actually what it did mean to the Jews at the time). Well now the entire meaning of the verse changes. His wife was mad because he was showing obedience to the holiness of God. That means she was not the righteous one. She was in fact unrighteous and did not approve of his “na├»ve obedience to this notion of God”, and in fact God did not punish him as we previously thought, He punished her.

    Let’s put this into effect with a real scripture and refer to Matthew 23: 5-9 (NIV)

    The things to focus on are the terms “brother” and “father”. While in Ancient Hebrew those words (as well as “sister”, “son”, “daughter”, and “mother”, etc) had the same meanings as they do today they also had a different social meaning. Those terms were also used to denote rank or status. So in ancient times to refer to someone as “my brother” meant “I recognize you as my equal”. This is also the point in Song of Songs 4:9 where it says “You have stolen my heart, my sister, my bride;…”. It is not saying that he is involved in incest. It’s saying that he accepts his lover (not his bride BTW…that’s another mistranslation) as his equal and not inferior as most women were considered at the time. Similarly, father and mother would be used to refer to one who was superior and son or daughter would be used to refer to someone who is inferior. There is a great story about a king in ancient times who wrote to another king essentially saying “Hail to you, king my brother” and the other king wrote back essentially saying “Who the hell do you think you are, my son?”

    So when we look at what is being discussed here, when Jesus says in Matthew 23:8 “….you are all brothers….” He is not saying “you are all related to each other” nor is he talking about some metaphysical thing where “we are all one”. He is saying “you are all equals”. In verse nine when he says to “….call no man father, for you have one Father and He is in heaven.” He is not referring to blood relationships, he is referring to superiority. He is saying “Only God is your superior”. This was a REALLY rebellious and radical thing to say mind you because he is essentially telling the people “the Pharisees may act superior to you but they are not and even more Caesar is not superior to you either. You are inferior to no man and you need no man to find God.” Such a statement would be absolutely treasonous against both Jewish law and Rome.

    So there we have it. This is just one way in which scriptures get fucked up; that is, a misunderstanding of the metaphoric meaning of certain words in relation to ancient culture. It’s probably the most widespread and common reason that the lesson in a verse gets lost and the meaning gets jumbled and cemented into our brains in modern culture.
     
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    Last edited: Jun 15, 2012
  2. BDBoop
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    Thank you. That took a lot of work, I'm sure. :)
     
  3. amrchaos
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    amrchaos Pentheus torn apart

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    One question

    Why do Christian organizations make reference to a book filled with mistranslations?

    One would think the followers would need the actual truth, line by line--so why do the Clergy disregard such necessity?
     
  4. BluePhantom
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    BluePhantom Educator (of liberals)

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    A lot of reasons and I alluded to it briefly in the OP. When a given line of reasoning has been pounded into the culture of a given society they will be very resistant to changing it. When the Old Testament was translated initially it was translated in Greek. The translators engaged in as much as possible a "word for word" translation but there are things in one language that simply can't be translated into another language. Try doing it backwards. How would ancient Hebrews translate "triple bypass heart surgery"? Pffft....there's no way to do it. Surgery was non-existent, they weren't terribly certain what the heart did (they actually got the brain and the heart reversed)...there's just no way to make the concept make sense to an ancient Jew.

    Well similar things happen the other way around and so when it was translated into Greek they ran into a lot of words that simply could not be translated and because they were trying to stay word for word as much as possible they ended up using Greek words that had vaguely similar meanings but were largely incorrect.

    Later when the Bible was translated again into Latin, the Hebrew language was gone, but Greek still remained so they used the Greek as a basis for translation and those words were again mistranslated. This happened again when the Bible was translated into English in the 17th century. So we're talking about roughly 2,000 years where certain concepts have been hammered into people's brains and those concepts have become intertwined with the cultures of each given society.

    It's only been fairly recent, through computers, the internet, and this massive explosion of modern technology that we are currently experiencing...the last 20 years or so....that we are able to go back and discover all these errors that were made. But by now, the concepts are cemented into people's heads. It will be very difficult to correct.

    I mean can you imagine how people would react if the Pope came out and said "well after doing some more research and looking at new linguistic evidence we have concluded that the Bible never said Mary was a virgin"? People would go fucking nuts. It would be a total 180 degree turn in a critical part of the religion. People simply would not be able to accept it and the church would suffer tremendously
     
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    Last edited: Jun 15, 2012
  5. Caroljo
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    Caroljo Gold Member

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    Very interesting! And though provoking :) Thanks!
     
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  6. Buford
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    And every bible on this planet is a mistranslation. We get it.
     
  7. amrchaos
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    amrchaos Pentheus torn apart

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    I think there lies an even greater problem here.

    If evry clergyman uses an incorrect translation of "the truth" and comes away with an incorrect interpretation, then who has the actual "truth"?

    In other words, what are the christians learning in their church? Seems like what is being taught is not the "Truth" but a misunderstanding of the "Truth".

    I think Bluephantom need to take caution in regards to this discussion. This "topic" is extremely "Topical".
     
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  8. BluePhantom
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    BluePhantom Educator (of liberals)

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    It's certainly a topic that can raise some blood pressures, but the reality is what it is. As to your question, "the truth" has become very hard to find. Mind you this is just one way in which the scriptures have been mistranslated. There are several others and I plan to start new threads in the future explaining those other ways as well. The point is to arm the amateur "Biblical scholar", or the person seeking "the truth" with the weapons and knowledge needed to find it.

    The reality is we will probably never know exactly what "the truth" was according to the original texts, but we can be good researchers and clear up some of the crap that has gotten in the way. Just like a newly discovered painting by DaVinci, we can apply modern techniques to bring out the original painting, clean it up, and clear out the dirt and defects that have messed it up over time. This is what is so exciting about all this. When I started my personal "search for the truth" we didn't have access to information like we do today. I had to go to libraries, order copies of manuscripts through cooperation with libraries, look through things like microfiche, sit down with experts in certain applicable areas to discuss things, etc. It took forever and even the experts had less knowledge because they were facing the same flow of information problems I was.

    With the internet and modern advances in computers and archaeological techniques we are in a very exciting time because the average Joe can now sit down and do some pretty intensive study from their home and at their leisure. But as you said, and I alluded to earlier, after thousands of years where that was not the case and these misconceptions have been drilled into our heads it's going to be very difficult to clean up simply because many people will stick their fingers in their ears and hum fearing that questioning the traditional teachings of the Church is somehow "evil" or demonstrates a lack of faith. That's understandable since the Church has spent quite a bit of time and effort convincing people that questing their word does exactly those things.

    I would argue that most (clearly not all) of the main themes have been preserved over time, but as the old saying goes "the devil is in the details" and what we are learning more and more is that the details have been seriously corrupted sometimes by chance, sometimes by human error, sometimes because of a legitimate impossibility in accurate translation, and sometimes even with intent to do so.

    So where is "the truth"? That's what those who seek "the truth" hope to discover. But as is written in Matthew (and I am paraphrasing here): not everyone will be able to accept this message. Let those who can hear it, hear it. The rest are perfectly free to do whatever they wish.
     
    Last edited: Jun 15, 2012
  9. Sky Dancer
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    The Christian right says all the time that homosexuality is an "abomination" based on the King James translation of Leviticus.

    Rather than meaning, "abomination" the actual Hebrew term, "toevah" or it's plural, "toevot", more likely means "taboo" rather than "abomination". It is mentioned 103 times in the Hebrew Bible and it's connotation is non-Israelite cultural practices. In the Torah, the primary toevah is foreign forms of worship.

    Deuteronomy 18:9-12 "When you come into the land that YHVH your God gives you, do not learn the toevot of those nations."
    Does the Bible Really Call Homosexuality an ?Abomination?? | Sexuality/Gender | Religion Dispatches

    Using the term "taboo" over "abomination" certainly gives a less radical interpretation to Leviticus.
     
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  10. BluePhantom
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    BluePhantom Educator (of liberals)

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    This is correct as well although I was hoping to avoid the "Leviticus brawl" that is sure to ensue. :rofl:
     
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