Starting this week, we can pursue new perspectives in a great many ways. Whether it is about Covid-19, social action, or religious and political polarization, I hope there will be new perspectives anchored in honesty, fairness, and human compassion for all.
Another Voice begins our “new perspective days” with some translation perspectives on Jesus of Nazareth and the early Christian believers.
English and other languages have always intrigued me. In high school and college, Latin and Greek were my favorite “foreign” languages. Since then I have added facility with a few more languages; and in my spare time (retired people have more spare time), I do a lot of translation work.
When it comes to Sacred Scripture, especially the New Testament, I have come to realize that some translations present a perspective somewhat out of sync with what the biblical authors really said. This week, therefore, my focus is on New Testament translations using the words “Jew” and “Jews.” These translations invite reflection, especially when we see antisemitism on the rise across the United States and in Europe.
By the time of the Roman Empire, in the days of Jesus of Nazareth, the Greek word Hebraioi referred to those whom today we call “Jews,” but, really should be more correctly translated as “Hebrews,” since strictly speaking there were no “Jews” back then. It would be similar to someone writing about William Bradford and the 1620 Mayflower Pilgrims and calling them “US citizens.”
Contrary to what some Christians understand, the leaders of the first Christian community in Jerusalem were called Hebraioi: “Hebrews.” In his Ecclesiastical History, Eusebius of Caesarea (265 – 339 CE), historian and later bishop, tells us that the Christian community at Jerusalem, “consisted of faithful Hebrews.” The New Testament “Epistle to the Hebrews,” once incorrectly attributed to Paul the Apostle, was probably written for these Hebrew Christians. The author is really unknown.
Today we are gradually correcting biblical translations that have contributed to antisemitism. It is a slow process. The New Testament is not antisemitic. Jesus was a Hebrew. His Hebrew name was Yeshua, which is a derivative from the Hebrew verb meaning “to rescue” or “to deliver.” His early disciples were Hebrews. We also have a much better historical realization that the structure of first century Hebrew synagogues directly shaped the structure of first century Hebrew Christian communities. A “president,” “deacons,” a “precentor” (song or prayer leader), and “teachers” were found in both the synagogues and in the Christian communities. James, the brother of Jesus, was the president of the early Christian community at Jerusalem.
Studies of the Hebrew nature of early Christianity have brought many new insights and better understandings of the first-century Christian scriptures. A good example, whose complete meaning is missed in most English translations, is the story in Matthew 9:20–21. “Just then a woman who had been subject to bleeding for twelve years came up behind him and touched the edge of his cloak. She said to herself, ‘If I only touch his cloak, I will be healed.’” (New International Version NIV) The Greek word kráspedon translated here as the “edge of his cloak” means edge but more precisely the embroidered border of a garment, especially with conspicuously large tassels. The woman was, most likely, reaching for the tassels on Jesus’ Hebrew prayer shawl. This gives a very different perspective on the historical Jesus: Yeshua called rabbi.
Neither Jesus nor his disciples ever renounced their Hebrew faith. They did not attempt to start a new religion. Christianity is an organic development from Hebrew roots, what today we call “Judaism.” Unfortunately the Greek and Latin biblical words for “Hebrews” and for “Judeans” have too often been incorrectly translated as “Jews.” In the Bible, we find Hebrews, Israelites, and Judeans; but NEVER “Jews.” The word “Jew” did not enter the English language until the twelfth century CE.
In the 2001 third edition of Bauer’s Lexicon, one of the most highly respected dictionaries of Biblical Greek, one reads that the preferred English translations for the Greek words Ioudaios and Ioudaioi are not “Jew” and “Jews” but “Judean” and “Judeans.” Reviewing academic publications over the last ten to fifteen years, one sees increasingly the terms “Judean” and “Judeans,” rather than “Jew” and “Jews.” If the term “Judean” is used instead of “Jew” in translations, especially in the Gospel of John, it dislodges some of the old antisemitism problem.
But we still have the important question: How did antisemitism get started?
As the church moved westwards and away from its Hebrew roots, the Roman church leaders, with barrel vision, created theologies which virtually did away with all that was Hebrew. New ideas began to spring up as early as 160–220 CE in the Roman African communities represented by Tertullian (c 155 – 240?), the early Christian author from Carthage, who argued that the non-Hebrew Christians had been chosen by God to replace the Hebrews, because they were more worthy and more honorable than the Hebrews. Antisemitism was also spearheaded by popular speakers like John Chrysostom (349–400 CE) the “golden-mouthed” early Church “Father” who became Archbishop of Constantinople in 397 CE. In his prejudiced ignorance, he stressed that because the Hebrews rejected Christ, the Christian God in human flesh, they therefore deserved to be killed and were “fit for slaughter.”
Antisemitism, with ecclesiastical approval, took off very quickly in the Middle Ages. Violent mobs accompanying the First Crusade, and particularly the People’s Crusade of 1096, attacked Jewish communities in Germany, France, and England, and put many Jewish people to death. Expulsion of Jewish people from cities became increasingly common in the 13th to 15th centuries. Ecclesia and Synagoga, a pair of contrasting images, began to decorate the facades of churches and appear in stained glass windows: Ecclesia is a woman depicting the Christian Church triumphant, wearing a crown, holding a cross in one hand and a chalice in the other, and looking confidently forward. Synagoga, representing people of the Hebrew tradition, is a blindfolded and unhappy looking woman, carrying a broken staff, and crushed tablets of the Law.
Antisemitism is not just hateful and discriminatory. It is irresponsibly ignorant about Jesus and early Christianity: our spiritual roots. May we proceed in this new year, with new perspectives and renewed commitment to our Faith, Hope, and Charity.
“The new dawn blooms as we free it
for there is always light
if only we are brave enough to see it
if only we are brave enough to be it”
– Amanda Gorman (January 20, 2021 – Washington DC)
13 thoughts on “Translation Perspectives: Jesus and Early Christians”
FANTASTIC!! Thank you so much for clarifying and illuminating so many of the inaccurate translations.in the New Testament. Knowledge and truth always bring light. Also, your explanation of the roots of Christian antisemitism show how deep-seated is this historic tragedy. You are a wonderful teacher.
How wonderful that you included the beautiful words from the inauguration to emphasize illumination of the truth. You are helping to clarify how we have reached some of our toxically confused “understanding” of our biblical texts. Knowledge of our past will help us live our present if we are open to change. Antisemitism always confused me since we know that the historical Jesus came to a specific time and place but died for ALL humanity for ALL time. If Jesus came to America in 2021, He would have died for our sins, would he not, and would we then be subject to anti-Americanism as the murderers of Christ? Thank you, Jack, for opening our eyes because it can only lead to opening our hearts and minds.
Love getting into “the weeds” regarding the histories of religious sects, languages and interpretations. Thanks for the lesson, I loved it. Also loved the loved the use of the beautiful words of our newest young poet laureate, Amanda Gorman. She certainly stole the show. Blessings, Jack.
Perspective is important….
Thanks, Jack, for your “illuminations,” both in explaining the history of the word and your corrections. Glorious freedom, glorious freedom in knowing the truth, “like shining from shook foil.” Halleluia!
Thanks Jack! Excellent insights, important information that sadly one will never hear spoken from the ecclesial pulpits. Missing opportunities to re-educate and foster metanoia.
Thanks Joseph! Yes indeed: re-education and metanoia.
Thank you for another great column! I’ve found Amy-Jill Levine, Paula Frederickson, and Pam Eisenbaum to be very helpful in my understanding of the Jewish background of Jesus, but you have addred even more to my understanding. Perhaps another important event to note in the gradual schism between Christianity and Judaism would be the destruction of the Temple and the slaugher at Masada. Before then, Jesus’ followers were arguably a subset of a very diverse Judaism that included Pharisees, Sadducees, Zealots, and others. Afterwards, the Zealots lost the war, and there was no Temple for the Sadducees to oversee. That left the Pharisees and Christians as the major parties still standing, each of which argued that it was the true heir of their ancestral faith. (J. Louis Martyn’s History and Theology in the Fourth Gospel was an early influence in my thoughts).
Another reflection on translations — the Inclusive Bible uses “religious authorities” instead of “the Jews” when, for example, it speaks of the disciples locked in the upper room in fear.
Many thanks David.
Really enlightening from a historic perspective
Very important clarification re the origins of antisemitism