The Amazing Godwin | FATE Jan/Feb 2010

In my last column, I discussed the question of biblical inerrancy and mentioned the many misunderstandings that have arisen because of the problems of accurate translation.

Remember, the Bible was written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. And not even modern Hebrew, which any Israeli might be expected to understand, but ancient Hebrew, with all the letters run together and no vowels. Scholars are unsure as to the exact meaning of many of the words. Then turn this over to a group of 16th-century English scholars, and we end up with unicorns (Numbers 23:22, for example) and cockatrices (Isaiah 14:29). The night demon Lilith becomes a screech owl (Isaiah 34:14). So how far can we trust the translation of difficult passages?

Take for example the condemnations of sorcerers in Revelation. The word translated as “sorcerer” is the Greek pharmakos, which really means “poisoner”—or, perhaps even more accurately, “pharmacist.” So all you ceremonial magicians are safe.

On the other hand, there is no weas­ling out of the plain commandment in Exodus 22:18: “Thou shalt not suffer a witch (kashaph) to live.” Evidently, there is no other possible meaning for kashaph. However, Old Testament law is generally understood as not applicable to Christians.

We have already discussed the confusion in Acts, where both ekouontes (genitive) and ekousan (accusative) are translated as “hear,” but ekouontes denotes comprehension whereas ekousan does not. In some translations of the Bible, ekouontes is translated as “understand.”

I discussed over a year ago the problem with translating agape as “charity,” and this passage is still cited to support almsgiving.

In the book of Isaiah, verse 61:6 says that all our righteousnesses are as “filthy rags” in the sight of God. The phrase thus translated is iddim u-ka-beged, which might be more accurately rendered as “useless garments.” In other words, all our supposed good deeds are a ruse to make us look good to God, but they are useless because He can see right through them. It remains a question as to whether this observation applies to everybody at all times or just to the Israelites whom Isaiah was addressing. If you are quoting it to support the Pauline doctrine that we are saved by faith, not deeds, you might prefer to think that it applies here and now to you and me.

There is an argument which states that the Virgin Birth may be based on a mistranslation. The “born of a virgin” idea comes from good old Isaiah again, where the Hebrew word translated as “virgin” actually just means “young woman.” So Jesus could have fulfilled this “prophecy” just by being born normally. So—what is truth? — David F. Godwin