The oldest books of the Bible were written thousands of years ago. Since then, language has changed dramatically. Modern and Biblical Hebrew are noticeably different languages, and only small pockets of people still speak Aramaic, the language Jesus would have spoken. These two languages, however, were two of the primary languages in which the Bible was written. The third language was ancient Greek, most famously in the form of an early Bible, the Septuagint. These languages, however, have evolved over time, and the number of speakers of each language has decreased accordingly.
The Protestant Reformation and the invention of the printing press led to an explosion of demand for Bibles written in “vulgar” languages, the languages that common people spoke instead of ancient Greek or liturgical Latin. As such, the ancient texts needed to be translated. As everyone knows, things get lost in translation. This happened with the Bible just like any other text. Also, translation is in and of itself an act of interpretation. Think about it. “Scrawny” and “thin” both technically mean the same thing, but the two words convey very different ideas. So, which word the translator uses reflects their opinion.
Biblical translation was further complicated by the loss of context. The original writers of the Bible would not have explained things that they and their audience would have simply understood. As such, translation was more difficult because there was no real way for translators to tell how a phrase was meant to be understood. One of the classic examples is the story of Tamar. This woman is often seen today as a prostitute or a temptress when in reality she was following ancient law. To make matters worse, translators were often translating a translation, such as in the case of the Septuagint.
The incredible complexity of Biblical translation has led to some common Biblical terms being divorced from their original meaning. Here are six Biblical terms that do not mean what people think they do.
FortyThe number 40 shows up repeatedly in the Bible. Christ was in the desert for 40 days. The Israelites waited to enter the Promised Land for 40 years. Jewish kings are noted as ruling for 40 years. This repeated number is often taken at face value by Christians. Lent, for example, is 40 days long in memory of Jesus’ time in the desert. The number 40, however, does not actually mean 40 in the Bible. In ancient Hebrew, the number 40 was used as a stand-in for “many.” So, Jesus was in the desert for many days. It can also be used to represent a generation. The number 40, then, is less a specific quantity in the Bible but used more like the modern words “forever,” “an age” or “a gazillion.” No one has been waiting in a coffee shop for the literal definition of forever, and no friend is literally taking “an age” to get ready. These words are simply understood to represent a long time in place of a more accurate number.
FeetThough no one likes to tell children this in Sunday school, the Bible actually contains quite a bit of sexual innuendo. One of the most common innuendos hidden throughout Scripture is the repeated use of the word “feet.” In ancient times, “feet” did not just refer to the appendages at the end of a person’s legs. It was also ancient slang for a person’s genitals. Rather like people today describe a person’s “junk.” As such, when Ezekiel says that the Seraphim covered their faces and feet, he does not mean that one set of wings was used to shield the Seraphim’s lower legs. Similarly, Zipporah probably did not touch her son’s foreskin to Moses’ toes. Being able to read the innuendo into such passages certainly evokes a different scene in a person’s head.
Familial Relationship TermsFamilial relationship terms are everywhere in the Bible. Jesus refers to some of His Apostles as His “brothers,” and there are numerous verses where people refer to those who are not kin as brother, sister or father. The many uses of familial relationship terms do not meant that everyone in the Bible is related by blood. Terms such as sister or father were used in some cases to denote the balance of power between two people. A father, obviously, would be a person who as in charge. A sister, meanwhile, would be a woman who was to be treated as an equal by the man. This is why the romantic Song of Solomon refers to the woman in the song as “my sister, my bride.” The writer is not promoting incest. They are saying that their bride is their equal.
AngelMost people have slightly different visions of what an angel actually is, but most agree that an angel is some sort of unique heavenly being. What most forget is that “angel” is not a race of heavenly beings, a denotation of salvation or a title. It is a job description.
The Hebrew word most commonly translated as “angel” is malak, which means “messenger.” The modern English term “angel” is a bastardized combination of the Old English engel and the Old French angele. Both these words came from the Latin angelus, meaning “messenger,” which carries the same meaning as the Late Greek term aggelos or angelos and the original Hebrew. Why modern English translators left “angel” in the Bible instead of the correct “messenger” is a mystery especially when the correct meaning for the word survived so long.
SatanIf you ask just about any Christian what the word “Satan” is, they will tell you that it is the name of the Devil. Those who are fans of Milton’s “Paradise Lost” will say that Satan is the name of Lucifer after he fell from heaven. Ironically, this Christian truth has a somewhat shaky foundation in Scripture.
Satan is often used as a proper name in Christianity today, but it is actually a descriptor or a title. In the ancient Hebrew versions of the Old Testament, there are repeated appearances of figures called satan or sometimes ha satan. These words mean, respectively, “an adversary” and “the adversary.” The figures do not always act like the Devil that Christians envision. The various figures alternately test, torment and spare various righteous people. Depending on how satan acts in each story, modern translations refer to the character in a variety of ways. The Hebrew ha satan is translated as “the Enemy,” “Satan” and, in one notable case in Numbers, “an angel of the Lord.” The word satan is also used to describe human enemies such as Hadad the Edomite.
The use of the word “satan” gets a bit more complicated in the New Testament due to how many different languages the ancient texts were written in. Sometimes “satan” is used as a proper name, but other times the tradition of the Old Testament continues, and the word is used more as a descriptor than a name.
ApocalypseThe word apocalypse never actually appears in the Bible, but it has come to be heavily associated with Scripture. It does not, however, mean what most people believe it signifies. “Apocalypse” does not mean “the end of the world.” It does not refer to the destruction of Earth, a violent end to life or any of the other disastrous scenarios the word usually conjures. “Apocalypse” comes from the Greek apokaluptein which means “uncover” or “reveal.” This is a much less frightening definition than the English definition: “the complete and final destruction of the world.”
In religious terms, an apocalypse actually refers to the end of an age. Life might well continue on, but things will have been irrevocably changed. As such, the resurrection of Christ could technically be considered an apocalypse because of how clearly the world was divided into “before” and “after” the event.
Because it is such a well-read and important book, many Christians are surprised to find out how many misunderstandings or mistranslations exist in the modern Bible. This, however, should not be shocking. The Bible has been translated from ancient Hebrew to ancient Greek to Late Latin to Old English to modern English. It is almost laughably easy to lose an article or word in a series of translations this long. This is, ironically enough, why more Bible translations are necessary. Religious scholars are increasingly able to jump over Greek and Latin to translate the original Hebrew and Aramaic directly into modern languages. These translations tend to be far more accurate with regards to the original text because there are fewer places for a word to get lost. Modern scholars also have a better grasp of ancient culture than medieval translators did and so can get a better sense of the context and connotations of ancient words. For some, the knowledge that the Bible is still being “corrected” is a frightening concept, but it should be an exciting one. Due to the determination of devout Christians and the curiosity of secular researchers, the faithful are continually receiving versions of Scripture that are increasingly accurate. Eventually, translations may be accurate enough as to be effectively word for word and thought for thought bringing Christians as close as they can get in this life to hearing sermons as Jesus phrased them.