FIVE THINGS NEW TESTAMENT TRANSLATIONS DON’T WANT YOU TO KNOW
“Why do we teach Greek and Hebrew at the seminary? Don’t we already have good translations of the Bible?” A lady at church asked me this question when I was a seminary student, and I didn’t have a good answer then. Since then, I have spent over a decade translating Cyril of Alexandria’s New Testament commentaries from Greek into English. This experience has given me a deeper understanding of what translation entails, which leads me to attempt to answer her question now.
Many people assume that translations are clear windows through which we can view the clear meaning of the original text. This assumes there is one obvious way to translate any given text. The problem is, when I was translating Cyril, I was making thousands of decisions on behalf of the reader because it just wasn’t possible to bring every nuance across into English. So I didn’t have a good answer to the lady’s question before, but my answer now would be: We don’t teach Greek and Hebrew so that the students can produce their own translations of the Bible, but so that they can understand the decisions that the translators have made on their behalf.
What kinds of decisions are those? Often, a word or phrase could be construed in more than one way in the original language, so the translator has to decide which one is more likely. In do soing, the translator hides the other option from the reader. In what follows, I will give you five examples where this occurs in our standard English translations of the New Testament. Now let me be clear. I’m not saying the translations are wrong. In fact, if I were translating the New Testament, I would make the same decision in most, if not all cases. But I am saying that a pastor ought to be able to understand what the other option was. And in some cases, the suppressed option leads to some very interesting theological considerations. Here are five examples.
1. The Devil Has a Father? (Jn 8:44)
In John 8:44, Jesus says of the devil, ὅταν λαλῇ τὸ ψεῦδος, ἐκ τῶν ἰδίων λαλεῖ, ὅτι ψεύστης ἐστὶν καὶ ὁπατὴρ αὐτοῦ. The ESV renders this, “When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies.” This translation assumes that αὐτοῦ is neuter and its antecedent is τὸ ψεῦδος earlier in the verse: “he is a liar and the father of it (i.e., the lie).” But αὐτοῦ could also be masculine, in which case its antecedent would be the subject of the sentence, the devil: “he is a liar and so is his father.” In fact, I would argue that if you didn’t already know that the devil doesn’t have a father, this would be the most natural way to construe the verse.
But wait, that doesn’t make any sense. We do know that the devil doesn’t have a father. So surely the English translations are right, and we really don’t need to consider this absurd possibility. No one would seriously take the verse this way.
Well, Cyril of Alexandria, a fifth-century church father and a native Greek speaker, construes the verse in precisely this way in his Commentary on John. So if you are willing to go down the rabbit hole, you will ask the obvious next question: who is the devil’s father? Cyril launches into a fascinating discussion of this question. First, he reports that there were some commentators before him who believed there was a sort of super-devil in the Old Testament, the ancient Satan who is now bound by God and cast into Tarturus. This figure is the father of the New Testament devil. Cyril rejects this view because there is really no evidence for it in the Scriptures.
Cyril’s own view is that the term devil is being used figuratively to refer to Cain. So, “the devil is a liar” means, “Cain is a liar.” Cyril goes on to observe that one can have a father literally, as Abraham is the father of Isaac, or one can have a father by imitation, as Jesus claims of the Jews: “You are of your father, the devil” (Jn 8:44). It is this second sense in which the devil is Cain’s father. Cain imitates the devil. So, “the devil (i.e., Cain) is a liar, and so is his father (i.e., the literal devil).”
Now this is a theological discussion that would never come up if you only read the text in English. That is because the translators (and I mean all of them, as far as I can tell) have decided on your behalf that it makes no sense to construe αὐτοῦ as masculine. But as I reflect on the implications of Cyril’s interpretation, I am fascinated that it actually does bring a few other passages into focus. For instance, earlier in John 8:44, Jesus says that the devil was a “murderer from the beginning.” Who was the first one to commit murder? Cain was. Of course you can also say that the devil murdered Adam and Eve, at least figuratively, when he tempted them to sin. But it seems to me that if you simply ask the question, “Who was the first murderer?” Cain is the character that probably comes to mind first.
All of these issues coalesce in 1 John 3:12, where John exhorts us to love one another, “not like Cain, who was of the evil one (ἐκ τοῦ πονηροῦ) and murdered his brother” (ESV). The use of ἐκ to describe Cain’s relationship to the evil one evokes Jesus’ own use of ἐκ to describe the relationship between the Jews and the devil: “You are of your father (ἐκ τοῦ πατρὸς), the devil” (Jn 8:44). So it may be that 1 John 3:12 is hinting that the devil is Cain’s father as well.
Now I am not arguing that Cyril’s interpretation is necessarily correct, though I am attracted by it. My point here is that this is a really interesting question, and exploring it leads you more deeply into questions larger than just the interpretation of the phrase καὶ ὁ πατὴρ αὐτοῦ. So even if you conclude that the English translations are correct, this is a line of theological inquiry that is worth thinking about. But you are not even going to know about the possibility of it unless you are reading the Greek text.
2. There Was No Holy Spirit? (John 7:39)
In John 7:39, John tells us that when Jesus spoke of rivers of living water flowing from those who believe in him, he said this of the Spirit which those who believed in him would receive. Then he notes, οὔπω γὰρ ἦν πνεῦμα,ὅτι Ἰησοῦς οὐδέπω ἐδοξάσθη. The ESV renders this, “for as yet the Spirit had not yet been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified.” The problem is, οὔπω γὰρ ἦν πνεῦμα means “for as yet there was no Spirit.” It doesn’t say anything about the Spirit not being “given.” What should we do with that?
Cyril of Alexandria is just as troubled by this verse as we are. His approach is to say that we should not take “there was no Spirit” in an absolute sense, because the Holy Spirit does appear in the Old Testament and the Gospels before Jesus’ ascension. Rather, we should interpret it to mean that the Spirit was not yet given so that there was not yet “the full and complete dwelling of the Holy Spirit in human beings.” And if we look at the critical apparatus in Nestle-Aland, we see that there are some texts that read, οὔπω γὰρ ἦν πνεῦμα δεδεμένον, which really would mean, “the Spirit had not yet been given.” The textual variants support Cyril’s interpretation.
So what’s the problem? The English translations are right, aren’t they? Yes, I believe they are. However, what they are giving us is the correct interpretation. They are not giving us the text itself. Do you want to interpret the Scriptures, or do you want a translator to interpret them for you and conceal problematic details like this from you?
Again, I would like to emphasize that the translations are not wrong to do this. This case is a particulary stark example, but all translation requires interpretation. You need to understand that when you read an English translation, you are relying on someone else’s interpretation of the text. If you want to understand the intepretive moves they are making, you have to read the text in Greek.
3. In It Was Life? (John 1:4)
After telling us that all things were made through the Word, John adds, ἐν αὐτῷ ζωὴ ἦν, which the ESV renders, “In him was life.” This translation assumes that αὐτῷ is masculine and refers to the Word. The form, however, could also be neuter, which is how Cyril of Alexandria takes it. He thinks the neuter referent is the creation, referred to in the previous phrase ὃ γέγονεν. So, “what was made—in it was life.”
Cyril’s argument is straightforward. It would not be correct to say that life is in the Word because the Word is life (Jn 14:6). Cyril does not want to say that the Word participates in some principle of life that is higher than he is (which is how he would hear “in Him was life”). Rather, he wants to say that the Word is life in the truest sense, and all creation has life only because it participates in him.
So what is at stake in this question? It’s a lot more than just the gender of a pronoun. What Cyril is doing here is reading the Scriptures through the lens of a Platonic understanding of participation. In this schema, items in the material world derive their identities and existence from higher realities in the realm of the forms (or in Christian Platonism, in the mind of God).
Now in our circles, I realize that we are allergic to Platonism. We imagine that it is somehow equivalent to hating the body. And we don’t believe in forms anyway. So I would ask you to bear with me for a moment. Cyril does not employ Platonic categories to denigrate the body. Instead, he employs them to insist on a strict distinction between creator and creation. According to Cyril, if one thing participates in another, the two things have to be different. Furthermore, the lower thing is completely dependent on the higher thing for everything it has. As Cyril likes to say, quoting St. Paul, “What do you have that you did not receive” (1 Cor 4:7)?
We can see the Platonic framework come into play in Cyril’s interpretation of a particularly difficult passage, John 10:34-36. The Jews are about to stone Jesus for blasphemy since they perceived that he claimed to be God. Jesus responds, “Is it not written in your Law, ‘I said, you are gods’? If he called them gods to whom the word of God came–and Scripture cannot be broken—do you say of him whom the Father consecrated and sent into the world, ‘You are blaspheming,’ because I said, ‘I am the Son of God’?(ESV)” Here Jesus seems to be saying that he is only “god” in a figurative sense, like people in the Old Testament are referred to as “gods” (Ps 82:6). Is Jesus really backing off from claiming to be God?
It does not seem that way to Cyril. He uses the framework of particaption, which he develops in his comments on John 1:4, to interpret this passage as well. In John 1, creation has life only in a derivative sense because it particates in the Word, who is life in the true sense. In the same way in John 10, the people in the Old Testament are called “gods” (in Psalm 82:6) only because “the Word of God came to them” (Jn 10:34). That is to say, they are “gods” in a derivative sense because they participate in the one who is God in the true sense. In Cyril’s Platonic framework, Jesus is clearly not saying that he is “god” only in a derivative sense. Rather, the fact that humans are called “gods” in the Psalms implies that he is God in the true sense, because they can only get that title by participation in him.
Note that you can tell the ESV translators are not thinking of the passage this way because they do not capitalize “word of God” in John 10:34. The “word of God” that came to the people is presumably prophecy or the Scriptures, in their view, but not the Word of John 1:1. They may be right, but if you rely on the English at this point, you would never consider the possibility that the people are called “gods” because they participate in the “Word of God.” For a passage as difficult as John 10:34-36, I think you would want to be able to see all of your interpretive options. And those options can be shut down prematurely if you hastily decide that the English translations must be right that αὐτῷ in John 1:4 is masculine, not neuter.
4. Did Jesus Become the Son of God at His Resurrection? (Rom 1:4)
In the introduction to the epistle to the Romans, Paul states that the Christ Jesus “was declared to be the Son of God (ὁρισθέντος υἱοῦ θεοῦ) in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead.” But if you look up ὁρίζω in a lexicon, it doesn’t really mean “declare.” It means to “separate out,” “ordain,” or even “define.” This strikes me as quite a bit stronger than “declare.” Paul seems to be saying that Christ’s resurrection is what defines him as the Son of God.
If that is true, then it would be hard to see how this passage fits with all the other parts of the New Testament that show Jesus as God before his resurrection. So it makes sense that the translators would want to soften the verb a bit so Paul doesn’t contradict himself. My reaction to this is similar to my reaction to the problem of the existence of the Spirit in John 7:39. There as here, I think the ESV is giving you a correct intepretation. But it is an interpretation.
Only in this case, I think bit more may be lost. In Romans 8, Paul turns his attention to the sonship of Christians. There, the defining factor is that we receive the Holy Spirit—the same Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead—who puts our flesh to death and raises us to new life (Rom 8:11-13). This is the Spirit of adoption by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” (Rom 8:15).
Now if you are willing to take ὁρίζω in Rom 1:4 in its stronger sense of “define,” then there is a strong parallel between Christ’s sonship and our own. He is defined as the Son of God by the Holy Spirit raising him from the dead, and so are we. The same Spirit who raised Christ dwells in us, and through him we cry “Abba! Father!” The problem with the strong parallel here is that Christ actually is Son of God in a different sense than we are. He is Son of God by nature, and we are sons by adoption. So if we do allow ὁρίζω to mean “define,” then it would be necessary in the interpretive task to make this distinction so as not to give the impression that Jesus’ sonship is exactly like ours.
If we delegate that interpretive task to the translators rather than doing it ourselves, the result is that the parallel between Christ’s sonship and ours is broken, or at least watered down. In that case, it becomes harder to perceive the link between our own resurrection and sonship. I suppose that is not as bad as thinking that Jesus didn’t become God until the resurrection, but if we read the text in Greek, we can have the best of both worlds. We can perceive the link between Christ’s sonship and ours, and then engage in further theological reflection so that we don’t draw the wrong conclusions from ὁρίζω.
5. What Are “Soul Bodies”? (1 Cor 15:44-45)
In my opinion, 1 Corinthians 15:44-45 are the most difficult verses to translate in the entire New Testament. I will begin by citing them from the ESV so that we can get a sense of the difficulty. Paul raises the issue of what kind of bodies we will have at the resurrection. Then he says, “It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body. Thus it is written, ‘The first man Adam became a living being’; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit.”
One question here is what “natural body” and “spiritual body” mean. I don’t think this is an insurmountable question for the English reader, however, since one can gain enough clues from the context that “natural body” refers to our physical body which is buried, and “spiritual body” refers to the bodies we receive at the resurrection. One may still wonder in what sense that body is “spiritual,” though I think by linking it with Jesus, Paul makes it clear enough, even in English, that he is not imagining that we will have incorporeal bodies at the resurrection.
No, the real question in these verses, which I believe is insurmountable for English readers, is this: Why does Paul cite Genesis 2:7 here? He wants to show that there is a natural body, and there is a spiritual body. So he cites the words, “Adam became a living being” (Gen 2:7), a verse which doesn’t mention either one! Why would he do that?
Actually, if you look at the passage in Greek, you can see that he didn’t. He says, σπείρεται σῶμα ψυχικόν,ἐγείρεται σῶμα πνευματικόν. εἰ ἔστιν σῶμα ψυχικόν, ἔστιν καὶ πνευματικόν. 45οὕτως καὶ γέγραπται, Ἐγένετοὁ πρῶτος ἄνθρωπος Ἀδὰμ εἰς ψυχὴν ζῶσαν: ὁ ἔσχατος Ἀδὰμ εἰς πνεῦμα ζῳοποιοῦν. I have put the key terms in bold. The phrase that the NIV translates as “natural body” is σῶμα ψυχικόν. The word ψυχικόν is the adjective from ψυχή (soul). If you wanted to translate this literally, the closest you could come, since English doesn’t have and adjectival form of soul, is something like “soul body.” Since that is incomprehensible, it’s not really an option for translators. The translators are forced offer an interpretation, and I believe “natural” body is the correct interpretation. The word ψυχή has to do with our natural life, so “natural body” gets the meaning across well.
What it obscures, however, is the link to Genesis 2:7. That verse says that Adam became a living ψυχή, which the ESV translates as “living being.” Paul then derives the term σῶμα ψυχικόν from ψυχή (“soul”) as a way of saying that there is a body that we inherit from Adam, that is, our σῶμα ψυχικόν (“soul body”). The reason this verse is so hard to translate is that there is no way both to convey the sense of σῶμα ψυχικόν while at the same time making clear that the term comes from Genesis 2:7. The ESV opts for making the sense clear, which I believe is the correct decision. However, we are left with an English text in which there is no obvious connection between Adam being a “living being” and us having a “natural body.” That connection can only be perceived in Greek. Translators have to make decisions. And even good decisions are bound to obscure some features of the text.
There is another translation issue lurking in the background here, and that is the move from the Hebrew word nephesh to the Greek word ψυχή. In the Hebrew text of Genesis 2:7, Adam becomes a living nephesh. The Septuagint embarrassingly translates nephesh as ψυχή: “Adam became a living soul.” The problem is that nephesh doesn’t really mean “soul.” Rather, it refers to our entire being. So if you look Genesis 2:7 up in the ESV, you will find the translation, “Adam became a living creature (nephesh).” In my view, and I believe in the view of most scholars, this is a better translation than the Septuagint’s ψυχή.
The problem is, St. Paul cites the Septuagint! Here the ESV makes an astonishingly bold move. Rather than translating the Greek word that Paul actually uses, ψυχή, it instead translates the Hebrew word nephesh that underlies it. Or it least that’s how it looks to me. It’s almost as if the translators are correcting St. Paul’s translation of the Hebrew. Can they do that? On the one hand, we would say that the Hebrew is the inspired version of Genesis 2:7, not the Septuagint’s Greek translation. On the other hand, if St. Paul decides to cite the Septuagint, maybe translators need to reflect that?
I’m not sure what the answer is, though I am inclined to translate the words Paul actually uses. But if you only read the text in English, you are not going to be able to perceive the momentous decisions that the translators are making in these verses. Regardless of what you think the right answer is, you should at least want to know what is going on.
I have chosen these five examples to provide some stark and surprising examples of the way in which English translations of the Bible are forced to make interpretations on your behalf. Yet there are many, many more examples of far more subtle decisions that translators make. Not all are as spectacular as deciding whether the devil has a father, but they all subtly push the readers in one direction and prevent them from going in others.
As I have already said, this does not mean that translations are wrong. Translators, by the very nature of their task, have to make decisions, and when they do so, they necessarily hide from the reader those options which they think are unlikely to be right, or those which they think are not as important to bring through to English. Sometimes the options they hide would have provided subtle nuances. Sometimes they would have opened up significant and interesting lines of theological inquiry. You want access to these resources. That is why you should learn Greek.
 The entire discussion summarized in this paragraph may be found in Cyril of Alexandria: Commentary on John 8:44, vol. 2, tr. David Maxwell (Downes Grove: IVPAcademic, 2015), 1-5.
 Cyril of Alexandria, Commentary on John 7:39 (Maxwell 1:312).
 Cyril of Alexandria, Commentary on John 1:4 (Maxwell 1:32-38).
Fr. Dan Greg November 18, 2021
God bless you, Dr. Maxwell! This is the kind of Sola Scriptura that changed my life during my time at the St. Louis Seminary. Thanks for imparting to us a love of “reading the Scriptures with the fathers,” whom you mention in this article are “native Greek speakers,” so let’s trust them!
A pastor friend up here where I’m serving always encourages me to reach out to other pastors when they have made an impact in my life.
Peace be with you sir.
David Maxwell November 19, 2021
Thanks, Fr. Greg!
Charles Schulz November 20, 2021
I’ve passed this along to my Greek students at CUAA as an encouragement in their studies. (I’m also gratified to see my PhD work on John 10/Ps. 82 alluded to and masterfully summarized here in just a couple sentences–I should memorize this as my own elevator speech to use when people ask me what I learned!).
Tom Koenig November 20, 2021
You’ve explained a lot. Thank you.