The Problem of Untranslated Words in the Bible

Not only do I think this topic is important, but fun as well. Therefore, I am going to write this section by section and put the page up even though I've only done a few sections.

Jump to word

"Transliteration"

Each of the section titles below is an English, Hebrew, or Greek word from the Bible that has been left untranslated. The term for this is "transliteration."

Many such words have made it into the English language. One example is "vamoose," as in "Let's vamoose." "Vamoose" comes from the Spanish vamos, which means "let's go." Sometime in our Southwestern cowboy past, we borrowed the term from the Mexicans and refined it a bit for our use.

Other terms we have imported include "blitzkrieg," German for lightning war and savoir faire, French for "know how," though we apply it to knowing how to behave in a "suave" manner in public settings. Oddly enough "know how" has come to replace savoir faire in the French language. "Le weekend" is now a French word as well. A German taxi driver once told me that the German word for "rush hour" is "rush hour," laughing as he told me.

Words like hotel, restaurant, and café are the same or very close to the same in English, German, Dutch, Spanish, Italian, etc. (Ever wonder why we have words with accents on them?) I don't know which of those languages were the source for such words, but we can be confident that they are the same in so many languages because there was one source, and the other languages assumed the word without translation.

"Hotel" and "restaurant" have kept their meaning in all those language because they are tied to a physical object. What happens with less concrete words is that they become a part of the new language and take on a meaning of their own with time.

It can be sad that the effect of this change over time is that it is difficult to understand Shakespeare. It can be tragic, however, if language changes so much that we can't understand Holy Scripture!

Adam

Adam is the Hebrew word for "man." It is used 502 times in the Old Testament.

502 Times in the Old Testament

Actually, adam is used 502 times in the Protestant Old Testament. I don't have search capabilities that will count occurrences in the Deuterocanon, the additional books considered Scripture by the Catholic and Orthodox churches.

I am certain that adam is used many more times in the deuterocanonical books. For example, adam is used as the name of the first man in Sirach 36:10.

Though adam is used as the name of the first man in Hebrew, we do not carry the Hebrew meaning to English speakers by leaving his name as Adam. His name was "Man."

To the Hebrews, there was no difference between the word adam used as the name of the first man and adam used a few hundred times to mean mankind in general.

While I would regard the transliteration of adam as one of the more minor issues we will discuss on this page, it is not without value. When we are discussing whether the story of the garden was a historical event, it would be good to know it was about a man named "Man," a woman named "Life," two trees that impart immortality or god-like knowledge respectively, and a talking snake.

This does not mean that such stories are not "true," it means that they are allegories or parables. My argument is that Jesus was as fond of using parables as the pre-existent Word (Jn. 1:1-3), when he gave us the Old Testament Scriptures through the patriarchs and prophets, as he was of using parables after he humbled himself to become man.

The idea that stories like the garden are meant as history is a relatively new idea, as well as a purely western one.

Wherever your opinion on the matter lies, it makes a difference that the first man and woman did not have "American" first names like Adam and Eve. Their names were Man and Life.

Baptism

It is possible that the transliteration of baptizo and baptisma is even more minor an issue than leaving adam untranslated. Nonetheless it is not without significance.

When we say "baptism" in English, we think about a religious ritual, usually Christian, used as an entrance rite into the church. However, the word baptisma, from which we transliterated our English word "baptism," actually has a meaning in Greek.

Baptizo, the verb form ("to baptize"), means to dunk something or someone in water or to soak it or them with water.

Many years ago I looked up baptizo in the Lidell-Scott Greek-English Lexicon, which is faithful to list all the ways Greek words have been used in Greek written records. Thus, they are usually regarded as the most authoritative lexicon available for English speakers. Uses of baptizo include a metalsmith dousing the tip of a hot sword in a bucket of water and waves "baptizing" a beach. Every sentence they listed involved getting the baptized item not only completely wet, but soaking, dripping wet.

Imagine a foreigner come to America, walking into your retail shop on a plaza in which was a big fountain. The person, not speaking English too well, tells you that they were soaking in the fountain. Noticing they were not very wet, you would look at them puzzled until you figured out that they were merely dipping their feet in the fountain along with some others who were doing the same.

Such a person was not really "soaking" in the fountain. They could be said to have been soaking their feet, but not soaking themselves. "Soak" has meaning, and if what we want to say does not match that meaning, we try to find a different word.

The same is true, or should be true, with baptisma; or, in fact, with any word in any language.

When we sprinkle or pour water over a person's head to "baptize" them, we are properly using the English word "baptize" in its modern significance; however, if we want to know what the apostles were talking about when they mentioned baptism in the Bible, we had better see beyond the English word "baptism" and find out what the Greek word baptisma signifies.

If you were that retail clerk in my illustration above, you would wonder why, if this foreigner had been soaking in the fountain, he wasn't soaked! In the same way, if you were sprinkled in water, then told an apostle you had been baptized a few second ago, he would have been puzzled. He would ask the same question: "Why aren't you soaked?"

This is not a doctrinal issue. This is a grammar and language issue. The grammar issue applies to something which we have turned into a doctrinal issue over the years: sprinkle, pour, or immerse? Thus, it is worth knowing the real meaning of the word.

Having provided a language context, let me add a historical context. There is a very early church manual called The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles or The Didache (Greek for "The Teaching"). It is no later than a second-century document, and many claim it is from the first century. In paragraph 7 it gives instructions for baptism. It says the baptized person should be soaked (baptizo) in running water. If no running water is available, still water can be used, but it should be cold, not warm, if possible. If all this is not possible, then it is permissible to pour water three times over the head.

It is possible that this ancient church manual was carrying on the tradition of triple immersion, still practiced by the Russian Orthoodox and German Baptist Brethren, once in the name of (or "by the authority of") the Father, once in the name of the Son, and once in the name of the Holy Spirit. The mention of pouring water over the head three times may just have been because of that practice, if trine immersion is that ancient a tradition.

The other possibility, since "three times" is not mentioned for any of the dunking modes he mentions, is that pouring three times was suggested so that the person would actually be soaked, which is what the Greek word baptisma implied.

Christ and Messiah

While leaving adam untranslated is a minor issue, leaving the Greek christos untranslated as "Christ," or the Hebrew meshiach as "Messiah," is a tragedy, affecting the Christian faith all the way down to our understanding of the Gospel. See "The Tragedy of Not Translating Christos on this site.

Deacon

"Deacon" is another pet peeve of mine, though I haven't been able to break even my own church of the habit of using the word.

Following the Church

I believe that the church is the pillar and support of the truth. I believe this because the Bible explicitly says so (1 Tim. 3:15). I'm very cautious when I teach something, and the church is unmotivated to carry it out. If the church isn't interested, it is probable that Jesus isn't interested, either.

Most Christians don't have a strong enough belief or understanding that the church is the body of the King. You live in a body, and so does Jesus. He used to live in a single body that walked around on earth like yours and mine. That body was resurrected and Jesus still lives in it, but being divine, that resurrected body is not the only one in which he lives. Now he lives in a "many-membered" body, consisting of all the members of the church.

1 Corinthians 12 is devoted to the subject of the church as the body of the King, but verse 12 is very explicit that Jesus lives in a body of many members, those members being us.

Thus, I'm somewhat hesitant to ask anyone to act on this particular transliteration problem. What I write about "deacon" here is undeniably accurate, though, so I will almost certainly keep asking both my church and all Christians to at least be aware of the real meaning of deacon, even if they don't actually change the name of the office in their church.

The word translated "deacon" in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 is diakonos, which means servant. It is used 31 times in the New Testament and only in those two chapters, in which Timothy and Titus are told to appoint elders and deacons in Ephesus and Crete, is diakonos transliterated to "deacon" rather than translated as "servant."

I am especially stunned by the translation of diakoneo, the verb form, as "used the office of deacon" or "served as deacon" (depending on which version of the Bible you are reading) in 1 Timothy 3:10 and 13. Diakoneo is in the New Testament 37 times, and it is consistently rendered "serve" or "minister to" ... except in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1.

Why leave it untranslated or create a new English word for it only in these passages?

There are two obvious reasons:

  • Tradition
  • The exaltation of clergy

"Deacon" sounds much more spiritual, important, and religious than "servant." The problem is that Paul didn't write anything that is the equivalent of "deacon." In the original Greek, he was calling that office "servant," and he commended those who "served well," not those who "used the office of deacon well."

It's sad that we are motivated to make adjustments like this to the Bible and to church life. Paul said there is a great reward for those who serve well, including great boldness in the faith (1 Tim. 3:13). Jesus, however, spoke even more highly of servanthood than Paul, telling us that serving everyone is the route to being the greatest in the Kingdom of God (Mark 10:43-44).

We ought to treasure the title of Servant, not hide it under an invented religious word.

Seraph/Seraphim

This untranslated word is particularly annoying to me because it is only left untranslated in one passage, Isaiah 6, where "seraphim" are found in heaven. I find the decision to omit a translation of seraphim in just one situation dishonest.

I have yet to find a version of the Bible that does translate the Hebrew in Isaiah 6 or that does not translate seraph in its other occurrences. In fact, I haven't found a version of the Bible that mentions even in a note that seraph is found in other passages or that its Hebrew meaning is known. I am sure there must be one, but I've never seen one.

You can find my complaint and the translation of seraphim here.

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