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Putting the Text of the Bible Back Into Context

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Although context is the most reliable way to figure out what an ancient word means, Bible translators often rely on less accurate, outdated methods that ignore important contextual clues. The result is modern translations that distort the original meaning of the Bible.

Fortunately, a closer look at the original context of the words of the Bible can help readers see past these translation mistakes, which range from awkward phrasing to misrepresenting such central themes as the Ten Commandments.

Familiar English words illustrate the value of context.

For example, the English word "sincerely" seems like it ought to have something to do with sincerity, but in business letters it just means "my name comes next," a fact that becomes clear from how the word is used in context: even a deceitful letter to the IRS might be signed "sincerely." Similarly, the salutation "Dear" is not reserved for people who are dear.

But published Bible translations often do not take context in account, which is why they contain odd phrasings and inaccurate renderings of the ancient texts.

One example is the absurd but common translation, "God spoke unto Moses, saying," which is barely even grammatical in English. (By comparison, I would never write, "The religion editor of The Huffington Post spoke unto me saying, please keep your articles under 1,000 words.") The problem in this case is the Hebrew word leimor, literally, "to say," which becomes "saying" in most translations.

Ancient Hebrew and Greek didn't have punctuation marks, so authors had to use words instead. The Hebrew "to say" functions like modern quotation marks, as context makes apparent: the word for "to say" is only used to indicate direct quotation. Accordingly, the translation into English should read along the lines of the simple and clear, "God said to Moses, '...' "

Furthermore, "to say" in Hebrew introduces not just declarative sentences, but also questions and songs, as in Judges 5:1: "Then Deborah ... sang on that day, saying." But songs in English are not said. They are sung. Again, instead of the English word "saying," translations should simply use quotation marks.

This kind of translation mistake wrongly gives readers the impression that the prose of the Bible is lofty and even bizarre, when in fact it is often straightforward and commonplace.

A more theologically important example involves the Ten Commandments, where the Hebrew word chamad is commonly translated as "covet." But context demands a different translation.

Exodus 34:24 reads, "No one shall chamad your land when you go up to appear before the LORD your God three times in the year" (NRSV). That passage refers to the three pilgrimage holidays each year when the Israelites would temporarily travel to Jerusalem. Because there is nothing about leaving one's land that might make landowners more concerned about envy, or the neighbors more covetous, it's evident that the Hebrew word doesn't mean "covet," "desire" or "want."

Rather, the word means "take." So the last commandment should read, "do not take..." (Learn more in this short "Exploring the Bible" video: "Thou Shalt Not Covet?")

Likewise, the Hebrew verb ratsach is often wrongly translated as "kill," so the fifth or sixth commandment (depending on who does the counting) is often misquoted as "thou shalt not kill" or "do not kill." But that's not what the commandment means.

Again, context proves helpful. In particular, Numbers 35 offers a detailed exploration of various kinds of killing: by accident, on purpose, with a deadly object, in hatred, and so forth; as well as circumstances like revenge killing and the death penalty. In all of these discussions, the Hebrew verb refers exclusively to illegal killing. From this we see that the Ten Commandments only address illegal killing, and take no stand on legal killing such as capital punishment or unavoidable deaths during war.

A third example comes from John 3:16. There, the Greek word houtos modifies God's love: "houtos God loved the world." We get an indication of what that Greek word means from Matthew 6:9 (the beginning of what is now called the Lord's Prayer), where Jesus uses it regarding how to pray: "houtos pray: Our Father in heaven..." The word means "like this," or "in this way."

Though most translations get the word right in Matthew 6:9, they get it wrong in John 3:16, opting for "God so loved the world" instead of the more accurate "this is how God loved the world." (When the translation "God so loved the world" was first conceived, "so" meant "like this." The translation used to be more accurate than it is now. Learn more: "John 3:16.")

Appreciating the importance of context helps bring us a better sense of the what the original words of the Bible meant, not just in these examples, but throughout a text that is both hugely influential and, sadly, poorly translated.

Watch these "Exploring the Bible" videos with more information: