Improved translation techniques and a better understanding of how to translate difficult words and phrases are constantly changing how I interpret texts from antiquity. The Bible is no different. When The Bible was transcribed into Greek from Hebrew, several mistranslations made it into the text. Here are some of the lesser known ones, and a few that might even change your understanding of The Bible and quite possibly your faith altogether.
Thou Shalt Not Take, Not Covet
When the 10th commandment was transcribed to the Greek bible, it was mistakenly translated from its original meaning of ‘thou shalt not take’ to ‘though shalt not covet’. This mistake is derived from an inaccurate understanding of the etymology, or the structure of the word and its meaning and origins.
For instance, in English the words acrobat and acronym share the same root, acro, but have completely different meanings. So is the relationship between the Hebrew words for take and covet, or desire. Ancient translators did not fully understand these relationships and therefore mistranslated the word meaning take into the word that means to desire or covet.
The Young Woman Was Not a Virgin
Translation of synonyms was also a significant challenge to ancient translators. In Hebrew, the words for love, mercy and compassion are often confused, even by translators today, because they often have similar meanings. So too are the words for young woman and virgin. Since most virgins were young women, and most young women were virgins, the words were used interchangeably.
This is how a virgin came to give birth to a child in the Greek version of The Bible, when the Hebrew version merely described them as a young woman. This mistake is repeated by both Isaiah 7:14, which describes the birth of Emmanuel, and the Gospel of Matthew, which describes the birth of Jesus. It seems that neither of their mothers were virgins, just simply young women.
My Sister is Not My Spouse
The translation of metaphors was as equally challenging to ancient translators. Titles of kinship such as father, brother, sister, wife, etc., were used to designate power structure in the ancient version of The Bible. This is why the Song of Solomon states, ‘my sister, my spouse’. It is not advocating the taking of your sister as your spouse. Rather it is declaring that women should hold the same place of power in a relationship, and that they should be equal to the man.
As we gain a better understanding of texts and their original meanings, we also gain better understandings of the inaccuracies and challenges inherent in translations. It is through this understanding that we as translators learn and grow.