Boxing Pythagoras

Philosophy from the mind of a fighter

Theologically Loaded Language

Translating ancient documents into modern languages carries with it more difficulties than most people realize. Pretty much anyone who has ever taken a foreign language class in high school understands that it can often be quite hard to find a word which corresponds exactly between two tongues. Those who have studied outside of the modern Romance languages– classes like Arabic, Chinese, or Japanese– often realize that there are subtleties in grammatical constructions which can convey a great deal more than can be expressed in English. It is a very frequent occurrence that a phrase from one language cannot be rendered with 100% accuracy in another language. In English, this has led to the popular idiom that “something has been lost in translation.”

Ancient languages maintain these problems, but add an entirely new layer of obfuscation which is not found even in most culturally distinct modern languages. Over the past few thousands of years, human understanding of the world around us has changed quite significantly. Just one hundred years ago, no one had ever viewed the ground from five miles up in the air. Two hundred years ago, we had no idea that microscopic organisms cause disease. Three hundred years ago, humanity had no idea that oxygen exists. Four hundred years ago, the world was shocked to learn the the planet Jupiter has moons. The manner in which religion, philosophy, and science have discussed a myriad of things about reality has changed so greatly in recent millennia that very often even one word in a single language can mean something exceedingly different to people living in different periods of time.

The documents which comprise the New Testament of the Christian Bible were written 2000 years ago. In those ensuing twenty centuries, many of the words used by the original authors and many of the concepts which they espoused have engendered incredible amounts of revision, alteration, and nuance by subsequent philosophers and theologians which would have been wholly alien to those initial ancient writers. The vast majority of modern readers– including an embarassingly large number of modern scholars of the text– seem wholly ignorant of this fact when they read a passage from their Bibles.

As an example of what I mean, let’s take a look at a short verse from one of the Gospels, Mark 1:10. The English Standard Version of the Bible, which I generally consider to be a good translation, renders this passage as:

And when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove.

This is a verse from Mark’s description of the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist. It seems extremely straightforward, to a modern Christian reader. As Jesus comes up from the water, the Holy Spirit came out of Heaven and alighted upon Jesus in the way a beautiful bird might come down from its flight.

However, consider this alternate translation of the same text:

And when he came straight up from the water, he saw the skies being divided and the wind came down toward him like a pigeon.

This is very different, indeed. No mention of Heaven, or the Holy Spirit. It gained the adverb “straight,” but lost the adverb “immediately.” Some of the words are similar, though slightly altered, like “divided” instead of “torn open” and “pigeon” instead of “dove.”

So which translation is correct? Well, as I insinuated earlier, “correct” may not even be a word which we can use when describing translations. However, there are definitely some good reasons to prefer my translation over that of the ESV. Let’s talk about the two biggest changes in my translation over the other: “heavens” versus “skies,” and “the Spirit” versus “the wind.”

The word which the ESV translates as “heavens” and which I translate as “skies” is οὐρανους (ouranous), which is the plural form of the word οὐρανος (ouranos). This one word is sometimes translated as “sky” and other times as “Heaven” by nearly every English translation, including the English Standard Version. Given how different the words are to a modern Christian, this might seem confusing. However, the ancient Greek language didn’t have different words for these two things. Neither did ancient Hebrew, nor Aramaic, nor Latin, nor any other ancient language of which I am aware.

There is a very good reason for this.  The modern conception of Heaven as a place which exists wholly removed from the physical cosmos did not exist to these ancient people. When the ancients revered “the heavens” as a divine realm, they were literally talking about the sky which they looked up and saw every day. They referred to “Heaven” as being “above” them or “higher” than them because that’s where the sky actually is. This language doesn’t even make any sense on a cosmic scale, let alone when discussing something wholly distinct from the physical cosmos. The “Heaven” which is discussed by modern theologians is not “above” us, as it has no physical relation to us.

To further illustrate this, look at what the Gospels record Jesus, himself, as saying. In a number of passages (Matthew 24:30, 26:64; Mark 13:26, 14:62), Jesus talks about the Son of Man being seen in “Heaven” coming on the clouds. Modern readers know that clouds are just collections of water vapor in the sky– very physical things, and distinctly not what theologians would consider to be a part of the realm of the divine.

So, then, if the ancients were referring to the sky when using the word οὐρανος, then why do they pluralize it in many places, including the passage which we are here discussing? This is yet another place where ancient culture and modern collide. To us, there is only one sky. It wouldn’t even occur to most people that the word can be pluralized. However, the ancients had a very different understanding of that which resides above us than we do. They thought that the objects which we see in the sky above us– the sun, moon, planets, and stars– were literally attached to crystalline spheres each of which rotated at different distances from the ground. Those spheres were what the ancients meant when they were talking about the “heavens.” Humanity was able to distinguish seven celestial bodies which were distinct from the background of stars through the use of the naked eye. Each of these was considered to be attached to a distinct sphere rotating over the ground at different heights. According to Aristotle, the lowest of these heavens was the Moon, followed by Mercury, then Venus, then the Sun, then Mars, then Jupiter, and finally Saturn in the highest sphere.

Modern Christian theologians generally do not believe that there are multiple divine realms, so pluralizing οὐρανος makes no more sense in light of modern theology than it does in modern cosmology; but it was perfectly rational to an ancient people who truly believed that there were multiple skies above us. In fact, in the New Testament, itself, we have an example of another writer who most certainly espoused this view. Paul, the eminent apostle whose name is attached to nearly half of all the books that make up the New Testament, says in 2 Corinthians 12:2, “I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago (whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows) was carried off to the third heaven.” Again, this fits rather perfectly with the ancient understanding of the world, but clashes rather significantly with modern cosmology and most modern Christian theology.

For these reasons, I think that “sky” is a much better, and much more preferable, translation of the word οὐρανος than is “Heaven.”

The distinction between the ESV’s “Spirit” translation and my “wind” is a very similar case. Here, the word being translated is πνεῦμα (pneuma). Just as before, the ESV and other English translations alternately use “spirit,” “Spirit,” “breath,” and “wind” to translate this word. You’ll notice that I listed both lower-case “spirit” and upper-case “Spirit,” separately. I did so intentionally, because when translators use that capitalized “S” version of the word, they are saying that the author was referring to the Holy Spirit– as in, the third person of the Trinity– as opposed to any other “spirit.”

Again, the word πνεῦμα carries with it cultural connotations which are somewhat alien to modern readers. The Greek word primarily means “breath” or “wind.” However, again, the ancient people had no concept of modern physics or chemistry. They didn’t know that air is composed of molecules which move and bounce off of other molecules, imparting Newtonian forces in order to cause the motion which we see. All that they knew was that, somehow, the invisible forces of “breath” and “wind” could affect that which was visible. The ancient Hebrews, as well as a few other ancient Near East cultures, came to associate this invisible force with those invisible qualities of a person which animate the visible. As such, in ancient Hebrew, the word רוח (ruach) literally meant “wind” or “breath,” but the “wind” of a person was the part of that person which truly gave them life. This carries down even into modern English in idioms like “the breath of life.”

As Hebrew people in the Greek-speaking Diaspora of the Roman Empire began to utilize ancient Greek in addition to– or even in place of– their ethnic tongue, they began to have the need to discuss these concepts in the common language of the area. As such, they chose to use the word πνεῦμα in the same way that they had utilized רוח, previously. While the Greek word also conveyed a sort of sense of invisible force, most of the Hellenic citizenry of ancient Rome didn’t see πνεῦμα as being something personal or intelligent. This connotation seems to have been the result of a syncretization between Hebrew and Hellenic cultures.

Modern theologians, just as with “Heaven,” do not regard “spirit” to be a physical thing, in the least. To them it is, in fact, the precise opposite of physical. It is entirely non-physical, and while it (somehow) imparts personhood into a being, the physical body of that being is just a shell to contain the spirit. But, again as before, this was not a concept held by ancient peoples. To them, a person’s wind was categorically no different than a storm’s wind. The idea that something might be wholly removed from the physical world would have been entirely alien to most ancient people. Among those who did hold to such a concept– for example, Plato and those who accepted his theory of universals– it would have been entirely anathema to refer to such things as “wind.” After all, “wind” is a thing which can certainly be perceived– perhaps not by the eyes, but certainly by senses like touch and hearing and sometimes even taste or smell. The Platonists insisted that the universals were entirely imperceptible, and that notions like space and time– which can certainly be applied to wind– are entirely meaningless in regard to the universals. It seems quite unlikely that the authors of the New Testament had in mind the modern conception of “spirit” when they used the word πνεῦμα in their writings.

For these reasons, I believe that “wind” or “breath” are far more preferable renderings of the word πνεῦμα than is the word “spirit.”

The words which the ESV used in translating Mark 1:10– “heavens” and “Spirit”– are part of a category of terminology which I refer to as Theologically Loaded Language. These are words which have undergone literally millennia of theological revision and discussion, and which have come to mean very different things than the original text which they translate. These two are just a very tiny example of a rather huge list which includes very common Christian words like “gospel,” “Christ,” “sin,” “angel,” “devil,” “baptism,” “Scriptures,” and many, many others.

For some time, now, I’ve wanted to do a translation of the New Testament books which avoids utilizing this sort of Theologically Loaded Language. I honestly believe that such a translation would be eminently useful to all people interested in the Bible, believer and skeptic alike. I would start with Mark– the earliest and the shortest of the Gospels– and progress from there. Unfortunately, however, this would require a great deal of time and effort, even just to produce a single book. I’ve thought about trying to drum up some interest with a crowdfunding site like Kickstarter, IndieGoGo, Patreon, or GoFundMe, but I’ve been somewhat recalcitrant. Would this be something in which you, my readers, might be interested? If so, please let me know in the comments. If I can engender enough interest, I may well move forward with such a project.


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4 thoughts on “Theologically Loaded Language

  1. I must be very old!
    “The heavens were torn open..” does seem to me as a probably metaphorical, though also slightly older English, usage. And were the heavens torn open, as in a tropical storm, or divided, as in the Red Sea.
    Difficult, isn’t it.

    • Definitely difficult! Did the original author intend the phrase to be wholly metaphorical? Was it a poetic description of an actual meteorological event? Was it intended to describe a literal rend in the physical cosmos through which a supernatural being traversed?

      It’s all too easy to take a text like this at face value– for both the believer and the skeptic.

  2. It turns out scholars have been reading Yhwh backwards. Read correctly, back-to-front, it actually means He/She.

    • I’d suggest extreme caution when considering the fringe opinions of any single, random person. One rabbi’s bald assertion that יהוה ought to be read backwards to find its proper meaning hardly overrules the position of Hebrew scholars and lexicographers. While an interesting idea, Mr. Sameth offers absolutely no reason, in this article, to think that the Tetragrammaton should defy the usual conventions of Hebrew pronunciation. I, for one, am quite skeptical of such a claim.

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