The Most Abused Word in the Bible
Despite all the preachers that claim every word in the Bible is important, translators of the Bible often act with complete indifference about the actual words used by Jesus. In this article, we examine the little word they abuse the most often: the definite article, “the.” Why does such a minor word need an essays to explain its importance? Actually, whole books have been written on this topic. The definitive article is the most common word in both ancient Greek and English. One out of every seven words in the Greek New Testament is this word.
As the most common word, the definite article is untranslated hundreds, maybe thousands, of times. It is also inserted where it doesn’t appear and translated as other words. This happens hundreds of times. Are these changes important? We will look at a couple of key ones in this essay, examining them more closely in future posts.
These words are not changed out of laziness or incompetence. They are changed because Jesus doesn’t quite say what the translators wanted him to say. The fact that the definite article is abused so often shows us how much modern Christianity has drifted away from Jesus’s real message. Of course, in some modern translations, Jesus’s words are abandoned completely and replaced by how those words are deconstructed into phrases the Bible writers prefer.
When first studying Jesus's words, I overlooked how important these little words are. Over time my understanding of the importance of the Greek definite article has grown and grown. We will look at some key examples of the problem, but first, we should discuss why this problem exists.
One Source of the Problem
While we can blame modern Christian teachings for bad translation, many of those teachings arose because Latin doesn't have a definite article. When the Greek NT was translated to Latin, all the definite articles were lost. Our first English translation, the King James Version (KJV), was largely based on Greek in the Textus Receptus, which was based to a large degree on the Latin Vulgate (see this article). In looking at the Vulgate to understand the meaning of a verse, the definite article can never be found.
However, this doesn’t explain the additions of the article, but it does explain some mistranslation. The Vulgate certainly never adds the article, because it can’t. However, it can change the article to another word. For example, in English translations, it is common to change "the Father” in Greek to a “my Father” in English translations. This can be done in Latin, perhaps as a way of capturing the missing article.
Much of Jesus's use of Greek comes from the Septuagint, the Greek Old Testament, written a century before his life. The Greek article is important in the Septuagint because Hebrew also has a definite article. In Hebrew, the article, however, is not a separate word, but a prefix ( ה (Hei), which is used to make the "h" sound in English) added to the front of the noun making it a definite noun. Like Greek, Hebrew has no indefinite article ("a," "an"). So more information in the Hebrew OT was captured in Greek, only to be lost in Latin translation.
Since most Christian concepts in the west arose under a thousand years of a Latin Bible, we should not be surprised when many of those teachings contradict Jesus’s actual words. After a thousand years, it is very hard for people to ignore what has gone before if they want to continue the tradition. Luther may have been a revolutionary, but in the few times I have looked at his German translation, I see many of the same problems.
Let us look at how the lack of a definite article in a translation changes its meaning. As we said, Jesus usually describes himself as "the son of the man," which is always mistranslated as "the son of man." This change makes his statement more general with the “man” meaning “mankind.” This is especially problematic because in ancient Greek, "the man," has a special sense, much as it does in English. “The man” is an important man, the big man. What man is Jesus referring to? Not Joseph. Not the Father, who is not a man. We will explore this in a future article on this phrase.
It is interesting that the phases "a son of the man" and "the son of a man" are found in the Septuagint, but Jesus's unique formulation, "the son of the man" doesn't exist in the Greek OT. This means that it didn't exist in Hebrew either. Jesus invented a new idea to describe himself. Why?
We see the same dropping of the “the” in referring to “heaven.” The words Jesus uses are usually “the skies,” a very different idea than our modern one of “heaven.” We do not even say “the heaven” or “a heaven” because “heaven” is seen as unique. Jesus did not use the Greek word, “sky,” that way. Something we discussed in detail in this article.
The addition of the English article “the” to certain phrases and verses is even harder to justify and more confusing. We see this in John 10:36:
KJV: Say ye of him, whom the Father hath sanctified, and sent into the world, Thou blasphemest; because I said, I am the Son of God?
Literal version: Who did the Father dedicate and sent off into this society? You yourselves said that "You blaspheme," because I said "A son of the Divine I am."
There is a world of difference between claiming to be “the son,” something special, and “a son,” one of many. In the context of his discussion with his challengers, he makes his meaning quite clear, quoting the Psalms describing men as “gods, sons of the Divine.” He may have been unique, but he was not making that claim here. The general one he is making is too important to ignore.
"This" and "That" and "The One
Another issue is that the Greek definite article is more demonstrative than "the" in English. The Greek article is really a weaker form of a demonstrative article/pronoun, as in "this,""that" "these" and "those." The Greek demonstrative and definite articles share many of their forms, depending on gender and number. English has only one definitive article, “the,” the same word for both singular and plural, but Greek has different forms. Our demonstrative pronouns do as well: “this” and “these".” Many times the English demonstrative articles work better, communicating number and making to words sound smoother and less abstract.
For example. in John 5:25, Jesus says:
KJV: Verily, verily, I say unto you, The hour is coming, and now is, when the dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God: and they that hear shall live.
If we substitute “this” for “the,” we get:
Literal Version: Honestly, honestly, I tell you that a time begins and it now exists when these dead might hear of this voice from this Son of the Divine and those hearing might live.
It is much clearer in the second version that Jesus is referring to himself. Personally, I find it a little creepy that the Bible has Jesus referring to himself in the abstract their person. “This man” is much more of a personal reference than “the man.”
Many, if not most, of Jesus's verses are clearer if we use "this" or "that" in appropriate places instead of repeating the simple definite article, "the." For example, if Jesus refers to the past, we can safely use "that." If he refers to the present, "this" should be used. This simplifies many of Jesus's statements and makes them more easily understood in English.
Like English demonstrative articles, the Greek definite article is used as a pronoun when it stands alone without a noun. "The" is often better translated as "the one" or, "the ones." The article can also have the sense of referring to a previously mentioned noun, like any pronoun, as in "this" or "this one."
Like the English definite article, the Greek article can transform an adjective into a noun, for example, "strong" into "the strong." It can also transform various verb forms and adverb into nouns as well. When preceding a verbal adjective, a participle, it creates a noun, "sowing" becomes "the one sowing." This type of phrase is often in English Bibles as a related noun “a sower, but this loses a lot of verb information in the participle, including its tense and voice. The English Bible can also translate this participle into an active verb, “a man who sows” but this requires adding information in an active verb that is not in the participle such as mood. When the Greek definite article precedes an infinitive of a verb, it creates a noun describing the action, "to sow" becomes Enslish "the sowing" in English because we use the gerund, the “ing” form of the word, for this purpose.
In the next two articles, I will cover two specific but important examples of article abuse: “the son of the man,” and “a son of the Divine.” The issues with these phrases go beyond the article, but they illustrate the points made here. I may even do an essay about other important aspects of the Greek article not mentioned here.
In any case, this is a small word, but an important one that we do not want to lose in translation if we care about understanding Jesus’s words, For some reason, I find his words more compelling than current Christian teaching, which I think Jesus would describe, as he did the dogma of the Pharisees, as “the teaching of men.”