If you’re a student of the Bible at all, you’re all-too-aware that you’re reading a translation. At one time, it was considered heresy to translate the Bible into English. Those who attempted it often paid with their lives, burning at the stake, which was the preferred method of the British crown during the rule of Mary Tudor. Thank goodness we’re no longer in danger of being set on fire for reading varied modern translations that run the gamut from the Amplified to the Geneva or Tyndale Bible to the King James and the New International Version.
But my favorite thing to do, because I am a word nerd, is to read the Greek and English parallel Bible. Most recently, I’ve read the Greek Interlinear Bible, available online.
It is an intriguing experience, to have the Word of God built out of different building blocks, almost like rearranging Legos or Lincoln Logs. Often, direct objects are far from the nouns they compliment. Often, there are no direct English words for the Greek. Other times, you get the impression that there were no Greek words for some of the ancient Hebrew concepts. Interesting mental images result. For example, in Luke, the disciples set out fishing. According to the Greek, they take “floaters” into the sea “to be on up-leading” which translated to the King James meant “thrust out.” The Greek phrase conveys a meandering up a coast-line while the English conjures images of oars striking out, pushing off in a certain direction.
Words carry weight, a concept called connotation, not unlike baggage, and when choosing English words, the translators had to be very much aware that some words carried more weight than others. In Luke Five, Jesus tells his disciples (“learners” in the Greek) to cast out their nets. They explain that they’ve fished all day and the fish aren’t biting. Jesus, who has no experience in the business, tells his learners to cast on the opposite side of the ship. Simon Peter thinks this is the height of inexperience (what side does it matter, it’s all the same sea underneath), but he does so. In this section, he calls Jesus “Master,” in the King James. But in the Greek, the term used for Jesus is a Greek word with several meanings: The word is “Adept,” meaning “Doctor,” which could be interpreted “Healer,” “Teacher,” and also, “Expert.”
By choosing to translate “Adept” as “Master,” White European Civilizations subtly reinforced the Master-Slave relationship. We can think of “Master” as a reference to “Master-Teacher,” but for peasants, the word “Master” implies a relationship with Jesus that is one of slave-to-better, thus providing a substantial framework for the role of the poor in serving the theocracies of old. I have often thought that English translations of the Bible reinforced Medieval thought, the feudalistic economic structure, the great class divide.
By the time the poets and scholars began work on the Geneva Bible, the concept of sin was well-established. The Roman Empire gave rise to Christianity across Europe and beyond. The concept of disobedience and its punishment were well documented. Every great empire perpetuated the concept of Divine Right of Kings. Pharoahs laid claim to the gods as their ancestors. White European kings retained their thrones, spreading the message of obedience through churches they controlled. The system in place was God’s will; therefore, the peasant should not seek to rise above his master.
The concept of sin, according to the Divine Right of Kings, applied to any act against the crown or perceived as dangerous to the crown. Women, minorities, the poor, the sick, the mentally ill offended by simply existing. Righteousness was equated with status, a way of living above the fray. This is how Marie Antoinette could utter the stupid comment, “Let them eat cake,” when told the poor among her citizens had no bread.
In the Greek, there is no word for sin. The word hamartia means, literally, to keep missing, as in bad shot, error, missing the mark. While I’m not belittling the salvation experience or the individual’s need for deliverance, I do think our concept of the sinful act is based on an oppressive social construct we cannot decode because we don’t know how. In this world, it is unthinkable to be in poverty, to be homeless, and we use the word “sinful” to describe the worst conditions in which humanity lives. But what if sin, in God’s eyes, means that we are off course? What if it’s the idea that we are aiming for things in life and missing, that this aiming and missing goes on until we are unable to achieve anything we want? Until we’re so off course that we can’t see our way back.
Perhaps much of what we have learned is not Biblical at all but lost in translation. Words are, to be sure, cultural mile-markers, and when we find that no word exists in a language or that a word differs greatly between cultures when it comes to usage and meaning, perhaps we should consider whether we have a grip on things or whether we have been brainwashed as to what to think instead of searching out meaning ourselves.