Words can be helpfully descriptive but also very unhelpfully misleading or confusing. I often chuckle about my own experiences with British words and the same words in North American English, which have very different meanings. Years ago I walked into a men’s clothing store in London, looking for a pair of trousers. I told the young fellow who came to help me that I needed “a pair of pants.” He said “we have a good supply” and took me to the store’s display of men’s underwear. In British English “pants” are underwear. And yes I remember my dismay when a British friend in Brussels came to me after one of my lectures at the international parish and said with a big smile: “my wife and I would like to invite you and your wife for dinner next week because your wife is so very homely.” I was flabbergasted and didn’t know how to react. In North American English “homely” means “unattractive and ugly.” Hardly a good description of my wife! I told him I would have to check my calendar and would get back to him. That evening, while talking with another expat friend, I learned that “homely” in British English has a positive meaning. A homely person means someone who makes you feel very comfortable and “at home.”
Word difficulties occur in biblical translations as well. Such translations can create problems, especially when they shape religious beliefs and behavior. By way of example, the historical Jesus, “Yeshua” as he was known, belonged to the Hebrew religious tradition. He was a Galilean from Nazareth. His home territory, Galilee, was part of the province of Judaea. There were no “Jews” in the days of Jesus. The word “Jew” came into existence centuries after Jesus. And the inscription on Jesus’ cross, often abbreviated as “INRI,” stood for Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum (Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Judaeans). NOT “King of the Jews.” Pontius Pilate, responsible for the jeering inscription, was the fifth governor of the Roman province of Judaea
Our biblical translations and religious language need a corrective and thorough updating. This is particularly important when we realize how New Testament mistranslations have supported antisemitism.
The Gospel of Matthew has been interpreted, in many Christian traditions, in an antisemitic way because the Greek and Latin words ioudaios and iudaeus have been translated not as “Judaean” but “Jew.” The Gospel of Matthew has often been regarded as a great contributor to the development of antisemitism, particularly because of the charge of Matthew 27:25. This so-called “blood guilt” text has been interpreted to mean that the Hebrew people of Jesus’ time and afterwards the “Jewish” people bear responsibility for the death of Jesus. I clearly remember the RCC Good Friday prayer, as it existed before 1959: “Let us pray also for the faithless Jews, that Almighty God may remove the veil from their hearts; so that they too may acknowledge Jesus Christ our Lord.” [A note regarding the spelling of Iesus and Iudaeorum, the letter “J” did not exist until the sixteenth century.]
As we go through life, we question, discover, and learn. Change is a part of life and our understandings do change. From the early through the late Middle Ages, for example, Europeans moved from an almost mystical way of thinking about the universe to an acceptance of a well-ordered, geocentric universe. In this universe, the earth was at the center and other heavenly bodies rotated around it in a series of concentric spheres. They thought therefore that the sun revolved around the earth. Today we know that our earth revolves in orbit around the sun in 365 days, 6 hours, and 9 minutes. We know as well that our earth is just one of millions and millions of planets in the universe. The exact number is around 10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000. All of these planets orbit around different stars and make up their own solar systems and galaxies. Where then is heaven? Early and later Christians thought it was up there above the earth.
Getting back to translations, I still have three more observations:
(1) In Matthew 1:23 we read “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel.” Each year in the Christmas season, of course, we hear and read the text repeatedly as a prophecy about the birth of Jesus. The text in Matthew comes originally from Isaiah 7:14 in the Hebrew Scriptures (the Old Testament).
The Hebrew Scriptures were written originally in Hebrew during the period from 1200 to 100 BCE. Later a Greek translation called the Septuagint was written from the 3rd through the 1st centuries BCE. The Greek Septuagint translation of Isaiah 7:14 uses the word parthenos which meant “virgin.” The original Hebrew language text of Isaiah 7:14, however, did not use a word meaning “virgin” but the word almāh meaning “a young woman of childbearing age.” The original text of Isaiah 7:14 referred to the birth of a son for King Ahaz of Judah whose reign was 732–716 BCE.
Actually, contemporary biblical scholars point out that the Greek Septuagint translation of the Hebrew Scriptures differs from the original Hebrew language texts in many ways and the Greek translations often demonstrate a real ignorance of Hebrew idiomatic usage. For these reasons, most people in the Hebrew tradition abandoned the Septuagint around the second century CE. The earliest Gentile Christians, however, used the Septuagint out of necessity. It was the only Greek version of the Scriptures available to them and most of these early Gentile Christians could not read Hebrew.
Well this textual clarification can lead to a discussion about Jesus’ “virgin birth” — something I have touched on before and can return to if necessary. Most contemporary biblical scholars would say that Jesus’ “virgin birth,” mentioned only in Matthew 1:18–25 and Luke 1:26–38, is more theologically symbolic than historical. The author of the Gospel of Mark, composed around 70 CE, thus much earlier than Matthew and Luke, was not aware of any special circumstances surrounding Jesus’ birth.
(2) My second translation observation is about the Greek word ekklesia (ecclesia in Latin) which New Testament translations translate as “church.” Ekklesia is a Greek word meaning “an assembly or congregation.” The Greek ekklesia is the basis for our English words ecclesiastical and ecclesiology. The word in the New Testament, however, was also used to refer to any assembly of people and especially a community of Christians.
It is unfortunate that ekklesia has been translated as “church” in New Testament translations. For example, Acts 11:26 says “Barnabas and Saul met with the church [ekklesia]” in Antioch. And in 1 Corinthians 15:9 Paul says he had persecuted the “church [ekklesia] of God.” In most New Testament contexts, the word ekklesia is used to refer to the people who comprised the New Testament communities of faith. This is an important and key issue. Barnabas and Saul met with the Christian community in Antioch. The early Christians were organized into communities of faith. Not hierarchical institutional churches. When reading these New Testament texts, we should say “community” not “church.”
And the correct understandings ekklesia encourages us to ask about our own contemporary understanding of the institutional church.
(3) My third translation observation is connected with my observations about ekklesia but is about another Greek word epískopos. In Latin it is episcopus. We get our English word “episcopal” from that. The Greek and Latin words meant “an overseer,” one who exercised general oversight in a Christian community. Men as well as women exercised this ministerial role in the early Christian communities. The New Testament translators translate the Greek and Latin words as “bishop.”
One of my friends said “ok…so what’s the big deal?” The big deal is about the historical meaning of a bishop’s ministerial role, which should be an important reminder about the shape and form of a bishop’s ministry today.
A bishop should not be a power-broker and an authoritarian big boss in the church but a traveling companion in the community of faith — one who journeys with and in the community as a member of the community, helping to insure that community life resonates with the way of Jesus. Early Christian community overseers (episcopi in plural) had no sense of sacramental power that elevated them above the community, and they had not been “ordained” by the historical Jesus, because ordination did not exist in his lifetime. The historical Jesus, contrary to what a US cardnal acquaintance still says, did not ordain the first bishops at the Last Supper.
Unfortunately the role of many bishops today is far removed from the example of the early bishop overseerers. They resonate more with the post-Constantinian and later medieval bishops who were rich and powerful men at the top, in a well-organized ecclesiastical hierarchical pyramid. Many US bishops today, sorry to say, see themselves in a similar pyramid and are really out of touch with the people in their diocesan communities, when it comes to ongoing clerical sexual abuse, women’s ordination, and a broad range of LGBTQ issues.
Historically the growth of episcopal power owed a lot to the Roman Emperor Constantine (c.272 – 337) whose “conversion” to Christianity was very politically motivated. Constantine used Christianity as the dominant religion in his Roman Empire. In fact, he was baptized only on his deathbed. In what we call “the Constantinian shift,” the efficient organization of the Roman Empire became the template for the organization of the institutional Christian church in the 4th century particularly after Constantine’s Edict of Milan (313). Then, as Roman authority began to fail in the western portion of the empire, the bishops took over much of the civil administration, becoming regional judges. The role of western bishops as civil authorities, often called prince bishops, continued throughout much of the Middle Ages, far removed from the pattern of the episcopus spiritual guide and overseer in the early Christian communities.
Well, words are important because they not only shape understandings but behavior. A clarification of biblical words can also be an invitation for reformation and renewal.