In my current bible translation project, we spend a lot of time examining English idioms that might hinder an English as a second language speaker’s understanding of the Biblical text. While I had never given much thought to it before, today I realized that in English we treat time and money identically in our English idioms. We speak about “how we spend our money” and “how we spend our time.” We speak about “how we invest our money” and “how we invest our time.” It is a thought to ponder next time we consider how we have spent our time and where it has been invested.
Behold all the servants of the Lord, bless the Lord.
All those who stand in the house of the Lord at night.
From Zion the Lord, who made heaven and earth, will bless you.
[i] The phrase “ידכם קדש” is unique in the OT; the easiest reading of the unpointed text would be “your holy hand” but the nekkud in the MT suggests that “ידכם” is plural which disconnects it from the singular “קדש”; the DSS (11QPSa) add further support to the MT as it renders this texts as “ידיכם קדוש” Most translations follow the LLX which renders this text as “ἐπάρατε τὰς χεῖρας ὑμῶν εἰς τὰ ἅγια / Lift up your hands in the sanctuary;” the Hebrew text lacks the preposition making this an awkward reading. Ps. 150:1 “הללו־אל בקדשׁו / praise God in his sanctuary” provides a good example of the expected grammar. Context in this situation adds support to the LXX reading.
[ii] The MT reads “וברכו את-יהוה / bless the Lord” but the DSS (11QPSa) reads “וברכו את שם יהוה / bless the Name of the Lord”
The Strong’s concordance is a great tool, but one that is too often abused. The biblical lexicon’s numbering systems allows one to identify lexical forms (i.e. roots) of Hebrew and Greek words that are used in the source that is represented in a text of a translation. Originally, this was intended to be used by biblical language students to aid in decoding lexical forms that might be difficult to recognize in the biblical text. For example, in Hebrew it is very common for the first letter of a root to be dropped in the form used in the biblical text For the beginning Hebrew student, finding words like these in a lexicon is nearly impossible because the entries are listed alphabetically. Before the development of computer bible software, a Strong’s concordance was one of the few ways possible for a biblical language student to identify the lexical form of words used in the biblical text.
The wrong tool for the job
Unfortunately, people sometimes believe that they can provide a better interpretation of their English translation by looking up the Hebrew and Greek roots and then choosing a new meaning from the ones listed in the definition for that root even when it differs significantly from the one chosen by the translators of their bible. This is something this tool was NEVER designed to do and using the tool for this purpose is an endeavor that can lead to disastrous conclusions. Few realize is that the lexical form (found in a Strong’s lexicon) is seldom the form that is found in the text itself, and yet it is absolutely necessary to understand both the form in used in the text and the context in which it is before the meaning of a word itself can be understood. Too often people misuse a Strong’s concordance by simply looking through the list of definitions and then picking the one that “they like best”; frequently picking a definition is not even possible when the context and grammar are considered.
In Hebrew, for example, each root (lexical form) can be conjugated in seven different constructions i.e. passive, active, intensive, intensive/passive, causative, causative/passive, and reflexive. Looking at the root אכל (to eat) we find that these constructions would correspond to eat, be eaten, devour, be devoured, feed, be fed, digest. Understanding the particular construction used is required before deciding which meaning is intended. Full lexicons, like HALOT or BDB, will separate the meanings by the corresponding construction but there is not enough room in Strong’s to provide this information. Looking at the Strong’s entry below, one must realize that definitions given are examples from several different Hebrew constructions i.e. “eat” is the qal form אכל, “devour” is the piel form מאכל, and “feed” is the hiphal form מאכיל; simply choosing a definition without regard to the form used in the text and the context in which it is used is almost guaranteed to lead to error (sometimes serious error). For example, Strong’s concordance provides the follow definition for the root אכל:
398 אכל a primitive root; to eat (literally or figuratively):– eat, burn up, consume, devour(-er, up), dine, eat(-er, up), feed (with), food.
To demonstrate how important these constructions might be in understanding a text, both of the following sentences below contain a words from the same roots i.e. Strong’s 935 (to come), 1004 (house), 398 (eat).
תבוא לביתי לאכול
תבוא לביתי להיאכל
One says, “You will come to my house to eat” and the other says, “you will come to my house to be eaten.” A Strong’s will not help one determine which form of Strong’s entry 398 was used. If you were given this invitation, don’t you think it would be important to know which form of the verb אכל was used?
Why does it matter?
There are many examples of popular fallacies that are passed along within evangelical circles that are the result of failing to understand the limits of word studies done with tools like Strong’s. For example, it is commonly taught that Proverbs 22:6 “Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it.” intends to convey the idea that we are to train up a child “according to the way God created him i.e. according to his ‘bent’.” It is claimed that the real meaning of the word “way” (דרך) is “to bend” and verses like Psalms 11:2 “for behold, the wicked bend the bow” are used as proof of this original meaning. However there are several serious problems with this claim, let’s look at a few.
1) The root really does not mean “bent”; in this context it really carries a sense of aiming a bow. “Bending a bow” in preparation to aiming it is an English idiom that doesn’t work in Hebrew. This becomes readily apparent when we look at a verse like Psalms 58:7 “when he aims his arrows.” In this verse, the exact same verb is used to describe aiming (not bending) an arrow.
2) Idioms in one language frequently do not translate literally into another language. For example, few English speakers would understand the Hebrew idiom of “doing something while standing on one leg” just like Hebrew readers would not understand a literal translation of the English idiom “according to his bent.” The English idiom that speaks of “one’s bent” does not translate directly into Hebrew.
3) Even if the etymology of this word had been “to bend” (which it is not), leaping to the conclusion that words that come from the same root must have the same meaning is also a mistake (especially when comparing verb forms with noun forms!). For example the noun “לחם” means “bread” but the verb “לחם” means “to fight.” While both come from the same root, it would be a huge mistake to assume that “giving bread to one who is in need” implied that you intended to fight with them.
While the taking into consideration the character and personality of your children as you seek to raise them is good, it simply is not an idea that is taught in this verse. It is a fallacy that is the result of using biblical study tools in ways that they were never intended to be used. And while no one will likely get hurt by misunderstanding this verse in this way, similar examples of bad teaching can be down right dangerous. For example, one very popular evangelical author teaches that Ge. 2:24 tells us that we must “abandon” our mother and father when we get married. He claims that, based on his word study, he has discovered that the word translated “leave” really should have been translated “abandoned.” How many family relationships may have been hurt by those seeking to be obedient to what they have been told was the intended meaning of this passage?
These are mistakes that CAN be avoided!
Fortunately this kind of mistake is easily avoided. In English we have an wealth of good English translations and by comparing a text in different English versions we can gain a deeper understanding about what the original Hebrew and Greek words really mean without needing to consult the Hebrew and Greek texts. Whenever we are told that a word study of the Greek or Hebrew has revealed a “new” meaning in the text, we should respond with a high degree of skepticism if that meaning is not easily recognizable in our English texts. If the claim comes from a competent Hebrew or Greek scholar then further research may be warranted but the opinions of other competent Hebrew or Greek scholars should be consulted before adopting this new meaning. However, if the claim comes from one with little or no training in the biblical languages then it should probably be dismissed. It is hard to imagine how someone with no training in the biblical languages could use a Strong’s concordance to discover a “new” meaning in the text that was missed by thousands of qualified scholars who have devoted their lives to studying God’s word in its original languages.
The Hebrew text of Psalm 51:17, as pointed by the Masorites in the 6th century, reads “Sacrifice of God” rather than “My sacrifice.” While it is true that, in Hebrew, the only difference is in the vowel markings and those markings were not originally part of the text, early translations, like the Greek LXX (2nd Century B.C.), Aramaic Targums, 1 Century A.D.), and Latin Vulgate (4th Century A.D.), reflect a reading that is identical to the way that the Masorites pointed this text and, unlike the Hebrew text, the possessive form is not a “possible” reading in these early translations. I know of no ancient translation that supports the reading found in the updated NIV nor is this reading found in other modern translations. The 2011 revision offers a new reading of Psalms 51:17, but the textual evidence shows much stronger support for the reading found in the 1984 revision of the NIV.
The goal of this translation is to provide a text that enables the bible student to more easily identify places in the text where significant interpretive choice have been made by the translators of other versions. For this reason, some of the English readings are purposely awkward where the corresponding Hebrew text itself is also awkward and in a few places an alternate translation has been offered where the interpretation of a specific phrase is more open in the original text.
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth[i]. And the earth was formless and empty and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was blowing[ii] on the surface of the waters.
And God said, “Let there be light” and there was light. And God saw that the light was good. And God divided between the light and between the darkness. And God called the light “day” and the darkness he called “night.” And it was evening and it was morning, one day[iii].
And God said, “Let there be an expanse between the waters and it will divide the waters.” And God made the expanse and it divided between the waters which were under the expanse and the waters that were above the expanse and it was so. And God called the expanse “sky.” And it was evening and it was morning, a second day[iv].
And God said, “let the waters under the sky be gathered to one place and let dry land appear” and it was so. And God called the dry land “earth” and the gathered waters he called “seas.” And God saw that it was good. And God said, “Let the earth sprout grass, plants producing seed, fruit trees producing fruit according to their kind which has its seed in it” and it was so. And the land brought forth grass, plants producing seed according to their kind and trees producing fruit with seed in it according to their kind. And God saw that it was good. And it was evening and it was morning a third day.
And God said, “Let there be lights in the expanse of the heavens to divide between day and night and to be signs for the seasons, days, and years and let there be lights in the expanse of heaven to shine on the earth” and it was so. And God made two great lights, the greater light to rule over the day and the lesser light to rule over the night and the stars[v]. And God set them in the expanse of the heavens to shine on the earth and to govern the day and the night and to divide between the light and the darkness. And God saw that it was good. And it was evening and it was morning, a fourth day.
And God said, “the waters will swarm with living creatures and birds will fly above the earth on the face of the expanse of the heavens” and God created the great sea creatures and all the living creatures that swarm in the waters according to their kind and all the winged birds according to their kind. And God saw that it was good. And God blessed them saying, “be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters of the seas and the birds will multiply on the land.” And it was an evening and it was a morning, a fifth day.
And God said, “the land will bring forth living creatures according to their kind, livestock, and creeping things, and wild animals according to their kind” and it was so. And God made the wild animals according to their kind and the livestock according to their kind, and all which creeps along the ground according to their kind and God saw that it was good. And God said, “We will make man[vi] in Our[vii] image and according to Our likeness and they[viii] will rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and the livestock and everything that is in the land and all that creeps upon the land.” And God created man in his image, in the image of God he created him. Male and female he created them. And God blessed them and God said to them, “be fruitful, and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it and rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every animal that creeps on the land.” And God said, “behold, I have given you every plant producing seed which is on the face of the earth and every fruit tree which produces fruit with its seed in it, for you it will be for food. And for every land animal and for every bird of the air and for every creeping animal on the land which has a living soul, every green plant will be food” and it was so. And God saw everything which he had made and behold it was very good. And it was evening and it was morning, the sixth day[ix].
And the earth and all their hosts were finished. And God finished on the seventh day from his work which he did and he rested on the seventh day from all his work which he did. And God blessed the seventh day and he sanctified it because on it he rested from all his work which God created to make[x].
[i] The words שמים (Shamayim) and ארץ (Eretz) when used individually typically refer to “sky” and “land” but when used together refer to the entire universe i.e. “heavens and the earth.”
[ii] The Hebrew word רוח (ruach) means either “spirit” or “wind” and the Hebrew word מרחפת (m’rachephet) can mean “hovering” or “blowing,” thus this phrase could alternatively be translated “and the Spirit/wind of God was blowing on the waters”
[iii] In Hebrew adjectives follow the noun but in English they proceed the noun, so a literal translation יום אחד (yom echad) would be “one day” rather than “day one.” The same phrase is almost always translated as “one day” when used in other places in Scripture i.e. Ge. 27:45, Ge. 33:13, Nu. 11:19, Is. 9:13. Translations that use “first day” as the translation for this phrase have made a highly interpretive choice to harmonize this day with the ordinal days that follow. In Hebrew “first day” is יום ראשון (yom rishon) not יום אחד (yom echad). The NASB is one of the few translations that has translated this phrase as “one day”
[iv] Days 1-5 do not contain the definite article i.e. “the” but it is included with the 6th and 7th days. Many translations have added the definite article despite its absence in every known Hebrew text. The NASB is one of the few translations that has not added the article where it is absent in the Hebrew text.
[v] The Hebrew texts reads simply “and the stars” but many translations have amended the text to convey the idea that “he also made the stars;” however, the original thought may have been that the “lesser light” ruled both the night and the stars.
[vi] There are two common words form “man” in Hebrew, the most common word is איש (ish), but the word used exclusively, except in the phrase “from man she was taken” (Ge 2:23), in the first two chapters is אדם (adam) which is related to the word for “ground” אדמה(adamah) from which man was taken. This is sometimes translated as “man” and sometimes as the proper name “Adam.” The word play between man, Adam, and ground is lost in English.
[vii] The use of the plural reference to God is unique to this passage in Scripture.
[viii] Note the switch to the plural form when referring to man. An identical move between the singular and plural is also found in vs. 1:27
[ix] The sixth day is the first day that includes the definite article although both vs .1:31 and 2:3 are in the construct form and would literally translate as “day of the sixth” and “day of the seventh.” Only in vs. 2:3 do we have the literal Hebrew text for “the seventh day.”
[x] This last phrase is difficult in the Hebrew. Most translations attempt to smooth out the translation in English.
The King James translation of the bible has profoundly influenced both the language and culture of the English speaking world. It was the catalyst for the standardization of English spelling and grammar and has been extremely influential in the construction of western thought, law, and ethics. For much of its history, it was seen as the only legitimate translation of Scriptures by large segments of the English speaking world. The English speaking world has deeply loved the King James translation of Scriptures in a way that has been unmatched by any other version.
Unsurprisingly, the King James version has also greatly influenced, both directly and indirectly, the translations found in most English bibles that have been published since its introduction in 1611. Translators of newer versions have often been hesitant to make significant changes to the wording of our most beloved verses because they recognize that these phrases have been engrained into the memories of men and women who hold them very dear to the heart. While this hesitancy to make significant changes to the wording used in the KJV has helped to keep the vocabulary consistent across many different English translations, it occasionally has caused some minor misunderstandings when the meaning of words has changed but the vocabulary has remained the same. Let’s examine one such misunderstanding found in Is. 53:4. The KJV version of this verse reads “Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows.” The words translated as “griefs” and “sorrows” are “חלי” and “מכאבות”; however, these Hebrew words are typically understood to mean “severe illness or injury” and “physical pain” but “grief” and “sorrow” in English more accurately convey the idea of emotional pain. For comparison, let’s take a look at how these Hebrew words are used in other places in Scripture.
Now Ahaziah had fallen through the lattice of his upper room in Samaria and injured himself. So he sent messengers, saying to them, “Go and consult Baal-Zebub, the god of Ekron, to see if I will recover from this injury.” (2Ki 1:2 NIV).
Comments: While some versions do follow the tradition of the KJV and translate this as “sick/illness,” the context of this passage clearly indicates that the concern was about an injury sustained when the king fell. No translation uses the word “grief” in this passage.
Three days later, while all of them were still in pain (Gen 34:25 NIV)
Comments: The men of Shechem had all just been circumcised and were still experiencing the physical pain caused by circumcision. No translation uses the word “sorrow” in this passage.
While the Hebrew words “חלי” and “מכאבות” can be used to communicate the idea of emotional pain and suffering, they do so nearly identically to the way that equivalent words in English do. In English, words like “wound,” “injury,” “illness,” “hurt,” and “pain” are typically used to speak about physical suffering but they can also be used to convey the idea of “grief” and “sorrow” when additional contextual clues are included i.e. “He is a wounded soul,” “his heart hurts,” “she was injured by his words,” “he felt ill because of what he had done,” etc… And like English, without these contextual qualifications these words always bring to mind the idea of physical pain. For example, without qualification the phrase “she experienced great pain because of her injury” communicates only the idea of physical pain and injury.
With this insight, let us look again at portrait of the suffering servant found in Isaiah 53. This passage describes one who has been struck, crushed, bruised, whipped, wounded, led to the slaughter, and killed. Over and over again the language used in this passage communicates the idea of physical pain and suffering. While Christ also experienced emotional pain and suffering that far exceeded his physical torment, these were not “our sorrows” or “our griefs;” his emotional pain and suffering on the cross is something none of us truly understand because it was different from anything we have ever experienced. What this verse is describing is the punishment that we deserved but that Christ bore on our behalf. The words “grief” and “sorrow” used in many versions of this passage fail to capture this meaning or the extent of the pain and suffering that Christ bore on our behalf.
Frequently, as in this case, these kinds of misunderstandings were not the fault of the KJV translators but are the result of modern English speakers who have misunderstood the KJV translation. The cause of these misunderstandings are frequently the result of assuming that we have understood the meaning of words that are still commonly used in contemporary English today when our understanding differs significantly from the understanding of English speakers from the 17th century.
With this insight, let’s take a look at how “grief” and “sorrow” were understood by English speakers in the 17th Century. While both words included the meaning we associate with them today, they both also had a broader semantic range of meaning that has significantly narrowed over time. It is the meaning that has been lost which most closely mirrors the definition of the Hebrew words used in original text of this passage. The University of Michigan has an online middle English dictionary that can be consulted when researching how English words were used in older English literature. Consulting this dictionary we see that there are aspects to the meaning of “grief” and sorrow” that no longer part of the definition of these words today.
grief – Sickness, disease, bodily defect or injury; (b) pain, suffering, torment, bodily affliction; ~ of hed, headache; (c) wound, hurt place.
sorrow – Physical pain, soreness, agony; torture; also, the fact or state of being in pain; also, a pain; a spasm of pain, pang; nimen ~, to feel pain; (b) physical sickness, disease; also, mental illness [quot. a1398]; also, a sickness, disease; also fig.; (c) lovesickness; a pang of lovesickness; also, the state of being lovesick; (d) Jesus’ suffering on the cross, the passion of Jesus; (e) the torment of Hell, infernal pain; also, an infernal pain; also, the suffering of purgatory; ~ stede, the place of torment, Hell.
With this background, let’s look at this phase as it is translated in the in the KJV and ESV translations.
Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows (Isa 53:4 KJV)
Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows (Isa 53:4 ESV)
While the translators of the KJV and the ESV have translated this verse almost identically, the KJV translators had accurately communicated the meaning of the Hebrew text to their intended audience i.e. English speakers of the 17th Century but, by following the KJV tradition, the ESV translators have miscommunicated the meaning of this text to their intended audience. Yes, God in his love and mercy for us does care about our deepest emotional pain but that is not the concern that Isaiah was attempting to communicate in this passage. In this passage Isaiah was telling us about how Christ would bare the punishment that we all deserved.
There is a growing interest among many Christians to understand the Jewish/Hebrew roots of our faith and those who take the time to truly understand the roots of our faith will find that their understanding of Scripture is also enriched. Unfortunately, there is also a growing trend to simply adopt beliefs and practices from Jewish culture without really taking the time to understand them. Sometimes what has been adopted from Jewish culture actually places obstacles in our path that hinder us from understanding our Scripture.
One of the most tragic examples has been the acceptance of the idea that Hebrew is a “sacred” language. This belief has resulted in English “translations” of the bible that are nearly impossible to understand. Here are a few examples from modern English translations of Scripture that have arisen because of this belief.
“And concerning the Goyim coming to emunah, we have sent an iggeret with our decision that they avoid what is offered to elilim and dahm and what is strangled and zenut.”
“and he spoke with them and with all the mishpakhat bais avi imo”
“Are you willing to have da’as, O hollow man, that Emunah unharnessed to Ma’asim, stands idle?”
If you find it difficult to comprehend the meaning of these verses, you are not alone. Even the English speaking congregations that use these translations are often confused about what their own translations mean.
To understand how we have come to the point where translations of Scripture like these are being used in congregations today, it would be helpful to understand a little of the Jewish background from which these practices arose. Because Hebrew has been seen as a “sacred” language in Jewish culture, Jewish people have, for centuries, read the Scriptures in the synagogue and prayed their (memorized) daily prayers in Hebrew even though few understand what is being read or prayed. They have also mixed in significant amounts of Hebrew vocabulary into their native language to such an extend that other speakers of their language may have a difficult time following some of their conversations. The Yiddish language is an extreme example of this tendency, it is basically German written in Hebrew characters and includes a large amount of alternative Hebrew vocabulary; a spoken conversation is difficult for a German speaker to follow and written communication is completely unintelligible.
There is a growing trend in Hebrew roots communities to accept, even more zealously, the idea that Hebrew is a “sacred” language. Today the “Hebranglish” spoken in Hebrew roots communities may use an even more extensive list of Hebrew words compared to what is commonly used in Jewish communities and this vocabulary is being adopted into the “English” translations of Scripture that are being used every week in their congregations. These new translations, which are a mix of Hebrew and English, are difficult to understand because they use an extensive Hebrew vocabulary which is foreign to English speakers and they provide little value to person wanting to learn Hebrew because they frequently use these Hebrew words incorrectly.
One of the greatest blessings God has given His people is His word in a language they can truly understand. We need to remember that the original language of our Scripture is not Hebrew; our Scripture is a collection of books written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek! Jesus himself spoke Aramaic, his disciples wrote in Greek and frequently quoted from their Greek translation of Scriptures, and the leaders of the early church spoke Latin and quoted from their Latin translation; there is simply no one “sacred” language of Christianity. The most tragic misunderstandings of Scripture have arisen at times when some have elevated one language above all others and hindered God’s people from having access to a God’s word in a language they could understand. Scripture is no more sacred when it is written in Latin, Middle English, or Hebrew. Let us not again make the mistake of believing that any one language is God’s Holy language and instead thank him for giving us Scriptures in a language we can truly understand.
The arm of the Lord rests on those to whom it has been revealed.
He grew up as a tender shoot before him
Like a root from dry ground
there was no form or majesty[i] that we should look to him,
Nor beauty that we should desire him.
He was despised and abandoned by men,
a man suffering in pain and acquainted with injury.
Like one from whom we turn our face,
we despised[ii] him and thought nothing of him.
And yet he was wounded for us,
and suffered in our place.
We thought he was stricken,
struck down by God, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions
and crushed for our iniquity.
The punishment for our peace was upon him
and by his stripes we were healed.
All of us are like wandering sheep,
Each one headed his own way.
And the Lord placed on him[iii] the iniquity of us all.
He was oppressed and afflicted
but he did not open his mouth.
Like a lamb being lead to the slaughter or a sheep bound before its shearers
He did not open his mouth
Through coercion and judgment he was taken away
and who is concerned about his descendants?
even though he was cut off from the land of the living,
and he was punished for the transgression of his[iv] people.
They[v] intended to place his grave with the wicked
but in death he was given a place with the rich
because he had not acted violently nor spoken deceitfully.
The Lord desired to crush him and to pierce him[vi]
If[vii] he makes atonement
He will see his offspring,
His days will be prolonged,
And the desire of the Lord will prosper in his hand.
Because of the trouble of his soul has endured,
He will see light[viii] and he will be satisfied.
By his knowledge, my righteous servant will vindicate many
and he will bear their iniquity.
Therefore I will allot to him abundant spoils and he will divide the plunder of[ix] the strong,
because he exposed his soul to death and was counted among the transgressors
and took upon himself the sin of many and interceded for their transgressions[x].
[i] The MT reads ‘and no majesty (ולא חדר)’ but 1QIsaa reads ‘and no majesty to him (ולוא חדר לו)’ which more closely mirrors the prior phrase ‘no form to him (לא תאר לו)’
[ii] The MT reads ‘he was despised (נבזה)’ but 1QIsaa reads ‘and we despised him (ונבוזהו)’
[iii] Lit ‘met in him’
[iv] The great Isaiah Scroll from the Dead Sea reads “his people”; the MT reads “my people”
[v] The great Isaiah Scroll from the Dead Sea reads “they gave”; the MT reads “he gave”
[vi] The great Isaiah Scroll from the Dead sea reads “and YHWH desired to crush him and pierce him (ויהוה חפץ דכאו ויחללהו).” This mirrors the statement in verse. 5 which reads “he was pierced for our transgressions and crushed for our iniquity” and is a much easier reading than the MT which reads “and YHWH desired to crush him, caused sickness (ויהוה חפץ דכאו החלי)”
[vii] Lit. “if his soul make atonement”
[viii] The great Isaiah Scroll from the Dead Sea reads “he will see light”; the MT reads “He will see.” The reading found in the Great Isaiah Scroll is also supported in the LXX.
[ix] The LXX reads “of the rich”
[x] The MT reads ‘and for the transgressors (ולפשעים)’ but 1QIsaa reads ‘and for their transgressions (ולפשעיהמה)’
Increasingly ‘Allah’ is being used as a word for ‘God’ in non-Semitic language bible translations produced by organizations like Wycliffe, Frontiers, and others and this has raised concerns with the local churches where these translations are being introduced, missionaries who work with these churches, and other bible translators who are concerned about the legitimacy of these new translations. These new Muslim Idiom Translations (MIT’s) are being produced in languages like Amharic, Russian, Persian, etc… that have used other words for God for centuries. In these languages, the use of ‘Allah’ as a word for ‘God’ is a foreign concept ; in these cultures they understand ‘Allah’ much as we do in English i.e. as a name of the Islamic God. In many of these cultures the Christian community has had a very long history of bible translation in which the native word for ‘God’ in their language has been used for centuries. In these cultures, the introduction of a bible that replaces the word ‘God’ with ‘Allah’ is as offensive as it would be if the bibles we read in English made such a replacement. For more information on the use of ‘Allah’ as a name for ‘God’ please read this article.
Here is the Story told
Frequently missionaries who support the use of ‘Allah’ in non-Semitic languages will point to the Frontiers Turkish translation as an example of a non-Semitic language that legitimately uses the word ‘Allah’ as a translation for the word ‘God’. And they are right, Turkish is one of the unique cases where ‘Allah’ can legitimately be used in a non-Semitic bible translation. In the Missions Perspective coarse I took, the session that addressed the use of ‘Allah’ in Christian missions and bible translation presented such an argument. The story we were told in class went something like this:
Well meaning, but misguided, missionaries insisted that the Turkish word ‘Tanri’ be used in bible translations despite the fact that ‘Allah’ was the word that the culture understood as the legitimate word for ‘God.’ These misguided missionaries did not understood is that the word ‘Tanri’ was the word used by the Turkish people to describe a ‘little god’ and not the ‘Supreme God’ and their mistake in choosing the wrong word caused the bible to be misunderstood and largely rejected by the Turkish people. Frontiers came to the rescue with a new bible translation resolved this problem by introducing the word ‘Allah’ as a translation for the word ‘God’ allowing the non-Christian Turkish people to understand the message of the bible for the first time. Unfortunately the existing Christian church in Turkey, who no longer understood how ‘Tanri’ was understood by the larger culture, was angered by this new translation and its use of the word ‘Allah’ for ‘God’ and has been fighting against using the very terminology that allows the larger culture to finally be able to understand the message God intended.
The story presented in my Missions Perspective class is a great story and one that is often repeated but, unfortunately, it is mostly smoke, mirrors, and misdirection intended to deceive. Prior to taking the Missions Perspectives course I had had a number of discussions with bible translators about the Frontiers Turkish bible translation and because of those discussions I had taken a little time to study the history of Turkish bible translation. Because of this background I knew that the dispute in Turkey in regards to the new Turkish bible produced by Frontiers has never been about the use of ‘Allah’ as the word for ‘God.’ What troubled the Turkish church were the terms used for familial language i.e. calling Jesus the “representative of God” instead of the “Son of God” and calling God “Guardian” rather than “Father.” In Turkish ‘Allah’ and ‘Tanri’ are truly considered synonymous word for ‘God.’ Within the Christian church today, older bibles use ‘Allah’ and newer bibles, because of the language reforms, use ‘Tanri’ and the use of ‘Allah’ has never been a significant issue within the Turkish church. The dispute has been entirely about the translation of familial language which until the introduction of the Frontiers version, has been translated consistently in every bible translation including the original Muslim produced translations from the 17th and 18th century. Here is the responses to the Frontiers Translation from the Turkish alliance of Protestant Churches and the response from Thomas Cosmades (One of the most respected scholars in Turkey and translator of a Turkish NT). Note that in neither letter is the use of Allah in Turkish in dispute.
Here is what really happened
Because Turkish (which was originally written in the Arabic Script) was very heavily influenced by Arabic and Islamic culture, the Turkish language presents an unusual case where a non-Semitic language has truly adopted ‘allah’ as a generic word for ‘god.’ The first Turkish translations of the bible were produced by Muslims in the 17th century and were produced for Muslim audiences; these translations used the word ‘Allah’ for ‘God.’ Christians began using these translations centuries ago and continued to use them until new terminology was adopted as a result of the Turkish language reforms of the 1920’s and 1930’s. These language reforms were not driven by Christian missionaries but by the predominantly Muslim Turkish Government. In the late 1920’s Mustafa Kemal, a secular Turkish president, began a campaign of language reforms that replaced the Arabic Script with the current Latin Script and attempted to create a pure Turkish language free from its Arabic influences. As part of this language reform he insisted that many Arabic words be purged from the Turkish language and that Turkish words be used in their place. One of the most controversial mandates was his insistence that the Turkish word ‘Tranri’ be used by Turks as the name for a divine being in every religious context (even Muslims were required to make this change). The adoption of ‘Tanri’ in Christian bible translations was the result of these language reforms and not a result of a movement within the church initiated by well meaning but misguided missionaries as is claimed by some MIT proponents. The following is a quote from a Time Magazine article written Feb 20, 1933 that speaks about this issue. “A hard father to his people, Mustafa Kemal told his Turks last December that they must forget God in the Arabic language (Allah), learn Him in Turkish (Tanri). Admitting the delicacy of renaming a 1300-year-old god, Kemal gave the muezzins a time allowance to learn the Koran in Turkish. Last week in pious Brusa, the “green* city,” a muezzin halloed “Tanri Ulndur” from one of the minarets whence Brusans had heard “Allah Akbar” since the 14th Century.”
The story told about the Frontiers Turkish translation has become part of missionary folklore and is one of the many fictitious that are being repeated by far too many missionaries. Some repeat these stories because they too have been deceived but, sadly, some repeat these stories with the intent to deceive both their supporters and their fellow missionaries.
For several decades some missionaries[i] from organizations like Frontiers, Wycliffe, SIL, YWAM, and others have adopted a form of contextualization known as C-5 contextualization (or “Insider Movements”). These missionaries believe that followers of Christ should remain in the religion of their birth i.e. a Muslim should remain a Muslim, a Hindu should remain a Hindu, etc… Many of these missionaries suggest that asking someone to convert to Christianity is wrong. In Muslim contexts, “C-5 believers” frequently hold views about Christ that mirror the beliefs of the general Muslim population. They may continue to identify themselves as Muslims, continue to affirm Mohammad as God’s prophet, continue to affirm the Qu’ran as God’s word, and reject a belief in the divinity of Christ. Western missionary organizations promoting C-5 contextualization have produced new translations of the bible that harmonize the place and people names with those used and the Qu’ran and replace terms like Father, Son, Baptism, etc.. with alternative language that Muslim audiences find “less offensive.”
For more than a decade the Turkish church has expressed its serious concerns about the methods used and translations produced by these western missionaries. In 2007, Thomas Cosmades[ii] (one of the leading biblical scholars and translators in Turkey), in an open letter, expressed his concerns about a translation being produced by Frontiers. When those concerns were ignored, the Alliance of Protestant Churches wrote a warning letter to the churches in regards to the later published “Muslim friendly” translation.
Today, the pleas of the Turkish church remain unheeded and now leaders (mostly Muslim) in the Turkish government have taken notice of these practices and issued a warning about these missionaries, their practices, and their bible translations. The following is an excerpt from an article that appeared in the Turkish news yesterday (January 19, 2014).
TURKEY’S CiA (MIT) warns government (Prime Minister and Ministry of Religious Affairs) about foreign Christian undercover missionaries posing as Muslims operating under a branch named C-5 in a mission agency called Frontiers. Also mentioned by name are Jeff Carvey in Bursa and Bruce Privatsky in Tekirdag. The article also mentions the attempts of creating a Muslim-friendly Bible translation to entice Muslims.
The complete article (in Turkish) can be found here.
The news article (in English) is now available here
C-5 contextualization and its accompanying translations are hindering the evangelistic work of our brothers and sisters in Christ in many parts of the world because it is angering the Muslims they are trying to reach; Muslims who believe Christians are trying to deceive them. When Muslims react in anger to the deceptive methods that our western missionaries have employed, it is our brothers and sisters in Christ who live among them that suffer. Please listen to the pleas of our brothers and sisters in Christ and make sure the money you give to missionaries is not being used to promote the deceptive practices of C-5 contextualization, practices that hinder the Gospel and endanger our brothers and sisters in Christ. More information on this issue can be found on the Biblical Missiology website.