Ways a Bad Translation Can Goof You Up

I was teaching yesterday at congregation. I do an interactive hour of teaching every week after the shacharit (morning prayer) service. The subject was Luke 8. I was talking about how you can see over Luke’s shoulders to an issue from his own time that he was addressing in the way he ordered and shaped the stories from Luke 8:4-56. That’s also what my podcast was about Friday. The issue is the scandal of the delay of the Second Coming and the hostile reaction to the gospel in Luke’s day as a message hard to believe.

At the end, I went to John 21, and especially to John 21:22, to make a final point: that the dying off of apostles without the realization of the Second Coming was an issue that made the community nervous and caused them trouble (and the issue still causes us trouble, doesn’t it?).

That’s when my translation goofed me up.

I said something impromptu based on the translation I was using at the moment. It happens to be the NET Bible. That’s the New English Translation. It’s not one of the big sellers. Many have not heard of it. The full version comes with over 60,000 notes on the translation process. It is a dynamic translation which in many places is excellent.

But it is uneven. And there is little consistency between books. Different books have different translators and the translation philosophy widely varies. I particularly don’t like their Psalms translation.

But in the gospels they had been doing well so far, I thought.

Then I saw their rendering of John 21:22 and decided to digress into an impromptu point: If I want him to live until I come back, what concern is that of yours? You follow me!

I said, Someone correct me, but this is an unusual reference to the Second Coming here. I don’t think there is another place which so specifically refers to the coming of Yeshua in power as a return or a coming back, a second coming.

I did not mean that there are no verses in the New Testament which refer to the idea of a return of the Son of Man or the idea of a coming of Yeshua that we know is a return. What I meant is that I did not know of another place where the language is so specific about the coming of the Son of Man or Yeshua being a return or a coming back.

It felt good. For a while. Then, that afternoon, one my good friends was sitting with a Greek concordance looking for another occurrence of a coming back verse. He shook his head and showed me what he found.

The word in John 21:22 did not mean “come back.” It simply meant “come.” I had been duped by the NET translation.

Oy. It is the common (632 times) word for come in the New Testament: erchomai.

The NIV (of course) screws it up: If I want him to remain alive until I return, and the NLT as well (of course, same as NIV).

But many translations get it right: RSV, NRSV, NASB, ESV, KJV, NKJV, HCSB, CJB: until I come.

Of course, some will argue that “return” is in the semantic range of erchomai. They will say “return” or “come back” is legitimate.

But I don’t want assistance from translators in thinking about meaning. I don’t want them to assume I am too dumb to figure out the word come in this context fits into a theological framework of a second coming.

I want to think for myself. I want to not goof up when I am speaking publicly.

No wonder the gospels scholars and historical Jesus scholars at SBL walk around with Greek New Testaments. Sigh. I guess I’ll have to start reading more from the Greek myself.

About Derek Leman

IT guy working in the associations industry. Formerly a congregational rabbi. Dad of 8. Nerd.
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8 Responses to Ways a Bad Translation Can Goof You Up

  1. amechad1 says:


    Olive Tree offers the Greek and Hebrew (free, I think) in electronic format. I have a friend who is working on a translation and teaches Greek – he purchased an iTouch JUST so he could carry his Greek & Hebrew Bibles with him at all times. Check it out and see what you can find.

  2. batyah97 says:

    Complete Jewish Bible (CJB): verse 22: Yeshua said to him, “If I want him to stay on until I come, what is it to you? You follow me!”

    Verse 23 clarifies: Therefore the word spread among he brothers that a talmid would not die. However, Yeshua didn’t say he wouldn’t die, but simply, “If I want him to stay on until I come, what is it to you?”

  3. batyah97 says:

    “word spread among THE brothers versus HE brothers” ooops.

  4. James says:

    We are all vulnerable to the translations we use and the translation process in general. I assume you’ve heard the story about the Panda bear with the six-shooter who enters a bar for a meal. The punchline is “eats, shoots, and leaves”…well, depending on where you put the punctuation, that is. ;-)

  5. Carl says:

    “But I don’t want assistance from translators in thinking about meaning. ”

    I need some assistance from you to figure out what you mean by this. The translator’s work concerns nothing else!

  6. Carl:

    I mean I want them to leave ambiguous verbs ambiguous and not specify them based on theological presuppositions. So, I really prefer a translation to say “come” here and not “come back.”


  7. ltverberg says:


    I think what you just said is key – refer back to the original Greek text instead of hanging all your hopes on a translator.

    It seems like Christians get embroiled in debates over translation issues all the time., but I never hear this in Judaism. Instead, what I often I hear are rabbis quoting a line of Torah in Hebrew and translating it briefly on their own before expounding on it. The audience is expected to have at least a smattering of knowledge to check what the speaker says. They realize that the Hebrew is the original, not the English.

    Christians get very emotional over the wording of a translation, not realizing that its just a rough rendition of a thought that is actually in another language. We seem to think that the the inspired text is actually in English, and the Hebrew or Greek are some kind of magical coded overlay.

    Not that most of us aren’t just beginners in languages. I’m just learning Hebrew and Greek too — I don’t rely on my own translation. But as I read, I often try to figure out how the original fits with what I see in English, or if yields a nuance of meaning. Especially if you have your Accordance right there, it seems only logical to peek.

  8. Those who are returning, be they descendants of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel, or descendants of the Jewish people, need to understand that there is only one door available to all who want to return to the covenant. This door consists as our Sages have taught the binding one-self to the yoke of the Kingdom of G-d (i.e. the yoke of King Messiah) and the binding oneself thoroughly to the yoke of the commandments as taught by the Jewish Sages. Without this resolute double binding no one has any authority whatsoever to claim to be a follower or a disciple of the Messiah.

    Any other ways are defective, and promote nothing more than anarchy and anti-Semitism cloaked in a veneer of pseudo-holiness. Clorfene and Rogalsky30 in their seminal work on the Seven Laws of Noah make this point perfectly clear, that even to claim one is a “righteous Gentile” or “G-d fearer” one must of necessity accept Rabbinic authority. And if this is so concerning the “Righteous Gentile” how much the more those who claim to be descendants of ancient Israel, or of the Jewish people.

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