It's all Greek to me by Ros Bayes

John Wycliffe at work

 At the beginning of this year I began deliberately reading the book of Acts very slowly and thoughtfully.  I mull over a passage, write about it and chew on it and I don't feel under pressure to read the next bit until I'm ready.  Consequently I haven't quite reached the end of chapter 4 yet.  Sometimes I dust off my Greek New Testament (it's a long time since I studied New Testament Greek) and try to get a feel for what the original writers were saying, unmediated by the translators.

One day, in a spirit of grateful worship at what I was reading (Peter's sermon on the day of Pentecost), I posted something on Facebook of which it never entered my head that it could be considered controversial.  Here's what I wrote: "My thought for the day. Throughout the New Testament, in our English versions, we keep coming across the phrase 'Repent of your sins'. And in our English culture that pretty much equates to "Beat yourself up for being so bad". And so much of our relationship with God is built on a grovelling kind of guilt. But if you go back to the Greek text and see what it actually says, 'repent of your sins' turns out to be a very poor translation. It would be more accurate to say 'Go beyond your current mindset and the place where you fell short'. Doesn't that put a very different complexion on it? Suddenly God is not a judge who condemns us for being so very wrong, but an encourager who invites us to go further and get closer to his intention for us."

To my great surprise this prompted an angry response from someone accusing me of "watering down the Gospel".  According to this respondent God is indeed a judge who condemns us, repent means something much stronger than 'go beyond your current mindset' and 'falling short' is a great travesty of the seriousness of our sin.  I tried to engage with this person, pointing out that the Greek word for repentance is μετάνοια (metanoia) which simply means beyond or after the mind (compare paranoia - beside or out of the mind) and the Greek word for sin is 'αμαρτια (hamartia) which literally means to miss the mark (an archery term).  He was not convinced and still believed that I was watering down our English Bibles, never mind what the original said.  

This got me thinking about Bible translation and what, despite the great blessing of having access to the Bible in our mother tongue, we might be missing.  There were a number of early translators of the Bible into English - Caedmon, Aldhelm and the Venerable Bede among them.  But the earliest translator of the whole Bible into English was John Wycliffe.  He was born in the 1320s and died in 1384.  He was an English scholastic philosopher and theologian and he translated the Bible from the Latin Vulgate version.  He rose to become Master of Balliol College, Oxford.  He oversaw the Bible translation project, translating much of the New Testament himself and supervising the translation of the Old Testament by Nicholas of Hereford.  Nicholas too was an Oxford scholar and Doctor of Theology, eventually becoming chancellor of the University.  Both these men were convinced that Scripture should be the sole arbiter and authority on matters of belief and practice - an unpopular view for which they suffered much. 

Just over a century after Wycliffe's death, William Tyndale was born.  We owe so much to his felicitous use of the English language.  He coined phrases which are still in common parlance, such as 'my brother's keeper', 'filthy lucre', 'fight the good fight', 'a law unto themselves' and many more.  The words 'Jehovah' and 'Passover' also come from him.  Tyndale was the first to translate the Bible into English from the original languages of Hebrew and Greek rather than through the medium of Latin.  Tyndale had obtained a Bachelor of Arts degree from Magdalen Hall, Oxford.  He was a gifted linguist, fluent in eight languages. He later made an interesting observation regarding the method of study for a Master of Arts degree which he also completed at Oxford:  'They have ordained that no man shall look on the Scripture, until he be noselled in heathen learning eight or nine years and armed with false principles, with which he is clean shut out of the understanding of the Scripture.'  He paid dearly for his determination to bring us the word of God, being strangled and burned at the stake in 1536.

Myles Coverdale, who lived from 1488 - 1569 completed what Tyndale had started.  Coverdale was educated at Cambridge, studying philosophy, theology and canon law.  He produced an English version of the Bible, based on Tyndale's translation of the New Testament, the Pentateuch and the book of Jonah.  He translated from Luther's German Bible, and his translations of the Psalms survive and are still used in the Book of Common Prayer.  John Rogers then drew on Coverdale's translation to produce what became known as the "Matthew Bible", translated under the pseudonym of Thomas Matthew.  Rogers had also been educated at Cambridge, having completed a BA at Pembroke Hall.  So the Bible that was eventually, on the orders of Henry 8th and Thomas Cromwell, placed into every Parish Church in England included, in fact, the work of all these men - Wycliffe, Nicholas of Hereford, Tyndale, Coverdale and Rogers. 

The thing which all these translators have in common is that their education was heavily influenced by Renaissance humanism. Grammar, rhetoric, history, poetry, logic and moral philosophy would have formed their core curriculum, and this was the understanding of the world which they brought to the task of translating the Bible.  Faced with the word μετάνοια, they selected the word repentance which derives from the Latin penitire, to regret.  This idea of sorrow and regret is not really inherent in the Greek word, which carries the sense of transcending our current thinking.  They chose an Old English word, sin, probably deriving from the Latin sons and sont meaning guilty - again, a concept which is absent from the word chosen by the original Bible writers, 'αμαρτια, which carries the sense of missing what you were aiming at.  They decided to translate the word αφεσις (aphesis) as forgiveness.  Forgiveness derives from an Old English word which means to give, grant, allow or remit a debt or to pardon an offense.  But the word αφεσις is used in other ancient Greek literature to mean release, for example the release of horses from a starting post at the beginning of a race, or the release of waters from a sluice gate.  This might perhaps suggest that the atonement should be seen less in terms of pardoning by bearing the punishment for sins, and more in terms of releasing us from what held us captive.

So perhaps when we read our English Bibles, we should remember that the Renaissance Humanism of 15th and 16th century Oxford and Cambridge is the filter through which they come to us, and should be willing to look more closely at what the original writers meant by the words they chose to use.  Thanks to the Internet you no longer need to be a Greek or Hebrew scholar for this -  there are online Greek and Hebrew interlinear versions which give a literal rendering of the original words as well as showing how they are translated in our English versions.

And let's not be surprised if God turns out to be far more gracious than we gave Him credit for.  After all, one thing the original and the translations are completely agreed on is that  Θεὸς ἀγάπη ἐστίν - God is love.

  Ros Bayes has 10 published and 4 self-published books, as well as some 3 dozen magazine articles. She is the mother of 3 daughters, one of whom has multiple complex disabilities, and she currently works for Through the Roof (www.throughtheroof.org) as their Training Resources Developer, and loves getting paid to write about disability all day. You can find her blog at http://rosbunneywriting.wordpress.com and her author page at http://www.amazon.co.uk/Ros-Bayes/e/B00JLRTNVA/. Follow her on Twitter: @rosbwriting

Comments

  1. A brilliant overview and a wise interpretation - thank you.

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  2. Wow, Ros, thank you - what a difference that makes. The precision of words' meanings and translations is just so important. And it points to how our reverence for the Word of God needs to include an educated and deeper rather than surface reading only. You have made me wish I had taken my A level RE NT Greek further!
    So important to understand the culture of language too - I'd recommend Kenneth E. Bailey's 'Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes' and 'Poet and Peasant' for this.
    Thank you.

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  3. Wow! That was such a great read, and illuminating in many ways. Thank you :)

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  4. This is absolutely spot-on, thank you! And it has momentous theological implications. But if I may say so, the paradox is even greater than you've stated. These translators were Greek scholars, so they should have known what we know about the meanings of those words. Yet they deliberately chose to reinforce the medieval understanding of the words, with all their inherent guilt and condemnation, thus locking all their Protestant descendants into this negative view of God. Why? I think because the gospel expressed in those words was too good to be true even for them. They could see the good news but they didn't dare abandon the ingrained view of God which it contradicted. What do you think?

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  6. Thank you for all your comments - at last I have access to a computer and can reply. No doubt the translators had also been ingrained with fear of eternal punishment if they "watered down the Gospel" as I was accused of doing, and found they could not dare to go as far as the Gospel writers. It's hard to shake off the things we have been steeped in from birth - I know that even writing this article would make me a heretic in the Brethren Assembly in which I was raised, and I found it hard to write for that reason, even while my heart is turning cartwheels at the revelation of what the Word of God actually says. As for Scriptures like Romans 3. 23-24 which literally translates as "For ALL have missed and lack God's glory AND are gratuitously justified by His grace by being loosed from it through Jesus the Anointed one" or 1 Corinthians 15. 22 "For even as in Adam all are dying, thus and in the Anointed shall ALL be being made to live" - I was taught that the Bible must be taken literally at face value and not subject to human interpretation, and yet these verses were reinterpreted to us so they didn't mean exactly what they say. As evangelicals (or ex-evangelicals) are we more selective about the interpretation of Scripture than we care to admit?

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  7. Hi Ros, I read your piece with particular interest as I'm a member of Wycliffe Bible translators. I'll be very interested to see what my collieges think to this. I'm shocked and saddened at how blind that angry responder is. Loved the ending too! Blessings, Martin

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