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Five Mistakes in Your Bible Translation

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In the original Hebrew, the 10th Commandment prohibits taking, not coveting. The biblical Jubilee year is named for an animal's horn and has nothing to do with jubilation. The pregnant woman in Isaiah 7:14 is never called a virgin. Psalm 23 opens with an image of God's might and power, not shepherding. And the romantic Song of Solomon offers a surprisingly modern message.

But most people who read the Bible don't know these things, because extensive translation gaffs conceal the Bible's original meaning.

The mistakes stem from five flawed translation techniques: etymology, internal structure, cognates, old mistranslations, and misunderstood metaphor. (Read more: "Five Ways Your Bible Translation Distorts the Original Meaning of the Text.")

The tenth Commandment, commonly but wrongly translated as "thou shalt not covet," illustrates how internal structure or etymology can be misleading. Like the English "host" and "hostile" that share a root but don't mean the same thing, the words for "desirable" and "take" in Hebrew come from the same root. It's the second word, "take," that appears in the Ten Commandments. But translators, not recognizing that related words can mean different things in this way, misunderstood the Hebrew and wrongly translated the text as "thou shalt not covet" for what should have been "thou shalt not take." (Learn more: "Thou shalt not covet?")

The translation "Jubilee year" results from a mistaken application of cognates (similar words in different languages). In the original Hebrew, the year was called the "year of the horn," or, in Hebrew, "the year of the yovel." The Latin for yovel is iobileus, which just happens to sound like the Latin word iubileus, connected to the verb iubilare, "to celebrate." The English "Jubilee year" comes from the Latin. (A similar Latin coincidence gave rise to the notion that the fruit in the Garden of Eden was an apple.)

Starting about 2,300 years ago, the Hebrew Bible was translated into a Greek version now known as the Septuagint. One shortcoming of that translation is its inattention to near synonyms. For instance, the Hebrew words for "love," "mercy" and "compassion" are frequently mixed up, because they mean nearly the same thing. Likewise, because most young women in antiquity were virgins and most virgins were young women, the Septuagint wasn't careful to distinguish the words for "virgin" and "young woman" in translation.

This is how the Hebrew in Isaiah 7:14 -- which describes a young woman giving birth to a boy who will be named Emmanuel -- ended up in Greek as a virgin giving birth. Though these facts about Greek and Hebrew are generally undisputed among scholars, the translation error remains, both because people are usually unwilling to give up familiar translations, and also perhaps because the Gospel of Matthew describes the virgin birth of Jesus by quoting the mistaken Greek translation of Isaiah 7:14.

Metaphors are particularly difficult to translate, because words have different metaphoric meanings in different cultures. Shepherds in the Bible were symbols of might, ferocity and royalty, whereas now they generally represent peaceful guidance and oversight. So the image of the Lord as shepherd in Psalm 23 originally meant that the Lord was mighty, fierce and royal. The impact was roughly the same as "the Lord is a man of war." But in most English-speaking cultures, "the Lord is my shepherd" conveys a wholly different, and therefore inaccurate, image.

Similarly, kinship terms like "father," "brother," "sister," etc. were used in the Bible specifically to indicate power structure. This is why the romantic Song of Solomon -- the Bible's only full length treatise on relationships -- says "my sister, my bride" or "my sister, my spouse." On its face, that English translation is not only unromantic but in fact felonious. The original point, however, was that the woman in this relationship should be the man's equal.

In these and many other instances, improved translation techniques bring us closer to the original intent of the Bible. And like a newly restored work of art, the Bible's original beauty shines the brighter for it.