Number 91. Language and Theology – Two Examples.
Michael Cox


For most of my working life, up until retirement, I worked as a theological translator. I would like to share with you my thoughts on two passages of Scripture, one from the Hebrew Bible and one from the New Testament.

Every language has its own genius ("creative, or inventive capacity", Concise Oxford Dictionary). But every language also has its blind spots. The Italians have an expression 'traduttore, traditore': 'translator, traitor', i.e. to translate is to betray what the original writer intended to say (See e.g. the article Untranslatability in Wikipedia). It has also been said that anything can be translated from one language to another if you have enough explanatory footnotes.

Jerome, the translator of the Latin Vulgate, was criticized by his contemporaries for changing (and improving) the familiar wording of the Old Latin versions of the Bible. But he in fact performed an invaluable service by translating from the hebraica veritas ('the Hebrew truth') - the Hebrew text of the Tanakh (Old Testament). Jerome also said something to the effect that in general a translator should translate sense by sense, meaning by meaning, rather than word for word, but that Scripture was a special case, where a translator should as far as possible translate word for word.

But this is precisely where some theological problems arise, because of the blind spots in human language.

Example 1: Bereshit (Genesis 1:26-27)

1:26 God said, 'Let us make man with our image and likeness. ...
Vayomer Elohim na'aseh adam betsalmenu kidemutenu ...

1:27 God [thus] created man with His image. In the image of God, He created him, male and female He created them.
Vayivra Elohim et-ha'adam betsalmo betselem Elohim bara oto zachar unekevah bara otam.

The above Jewish translation translates be-tsalmenu as "with our image", be-tselem as "in the image". Most, if not all (I cannot be sure), Christian translations translate as "in our image".

Jewish rabbis and Christian theologians have for centuries, actually millennia, debated, argued and dogmatically asserted different interpretations of what is meant by tselem, 'image', and "in the image of God". Christian theologians have generally come to the conclusion that the image of God is trinitarian: Father, Son, Holy Spirit - body, soul, spirit. Then there is the question of whether the image of God was totally obliterated or merely distorted by the Fall of Adam.

But we have a theological problem - God does not have a body or soul - He is a spirit (John 4:24). Although the Bible, especially the Hebrew Bible, uses anthropomorphic language, depicting the reator with arms, hands, eyes, nostrils etc., it is generally recognised that this is metaphorical, symbolic language. This was especially emphasized by such Jewish thinkers as Moses Maimonides (1135 –1204).

Some languages also have a linguistic problem. I am thinking especially of Finnish, which is the main language I have worked with.

Jumala sanoi: "Tehkäämme ihminen, tehkäämme h&aumk;net kuvaksemme, kaltaiseksemme, ... Ja Jumala loi ihmisen kuvakseen, Jumalan kuvaksi hän hänet loi, mieheksi ja naiseksi hän loi heidät.

The Finnish word 'kuvaksemme' can be translated as "AS our image" or "to be our image", "Jumalan kuvaksi" as "AS the image of God", but not as "IN or WITH the image of God".

I have thought about this particular problem for years. I have heard many Finnish sermons where it is stated that Man (including woman) IS the image of God. I have wrestled with the problem of how to express "created IN the image of God" in Finnish.

Only now have I found a satisfactory explanation. Man was originally created RESEMBLING God ("in His likeness") but not actually BEING the image of God. The only true image of God is the Messiah: "Who being the brightness of his glory, and the EXPRESS IMAGE of his person.... (Hebrews 1: 3 KJV) Again we need to think hebraically, not philosophically like the Greeks.

Example 2: Hebrews 10:12

But this man (the Messiah) , after he had offered one sacrifice for sins for ever, sat down on the right hand of God (KJV)

The Greek word for "offered" is prosenenkas, which is the aorist active participle. i.e. 'having offered', a past once-for-all action.

Now Latin does not have an aorist active participle, so when Jerome came to translate the Vulgate, he had to choose between the present active participle, 'offering', i.e. a present continuous action, or the perfect passive participle, i.e. 'having been offered'. The latter obviously does not make sense, so Jerome chose the former, which became the bane of Western Latin theology, since mediaeval Latin theologians generally did not know Greek.

So our verse became:
hic autem unam pro peccatis offerens hostiam in sempiternum sedit in dextera Dei

But he, offering one sacrifice for sins for ever, sat down on the right hand of God (translation from the Latin Vulgate)

And this was one of the proof-texts for the doctrine of the perpetual, repeated offering of the so-called sacrifice of the mass, reflecting on earth the perpetual repeated self-offering of the Messiah in heaven.

It was to a large extent the rediscovery of Greek and Hebrew by Bible translators during the Reformation that led to a great spiritual breakthrough and revival.



The French reformer Théodore de Bèze (Theodore Beza, 1519-1605) correctly translated our verse from Greek into Latin:
Hic vero, una pro peccatis oblata in perpetuum victima, consedit ad dextram Dei. But he, one victim/sacrifice for sins having been offered for ever, sat down at the right hand of God.

So it does matter which language we read the Bible in - and not necessarily our native tongue alone? At least our Bible teachers MUST learn Greek and Hebrew.

(This articles was first published in the third series of Tishrei Journals, Number 3, December 2008)