How Jesus's Meaning is Lost

This article describes the chief reason why this site exists. The translations of Jesus's words that we read in every version of the Bible do not capture most of his meaning. I will go further and say that they do not even attempt to capture much of that meaning. Their purpose is not to capture that meaning but to advance a certain set of teachings, which may or may not have been intended by Christ. In this article, I will discuss the very specific ways in which Jesus meaning is lost and cannot be found in reading any English translation of his words. This analysis is done via the concepts that language specialists have developed, but that anyone should be able to appreciate.

The Sentence and its Propositions

Sentences are made of three components:

  • Its underlying ideas are called "propositions" by language experts.
  • Its words are called its "vocabulary." Vocabulary use is described by the grammar of a sentence.
  • Its word order is called its "syntax." Syntax is the basis of rhetoric, how words affect a reader/listener.

If you ignore the vocabulary and syntax of what Jesus said, you cannot get at his specific meaning. Specific words are chosen for specific reasons. In translating using words that do not have the closest meaning possible destroys meaning. But syntax, that is, the way the words are presented also has meaning. Meaning is unfolded in a sentence in a very specific way to guide the listener (in Jesus's case) or reader (in our case) to the underlying proposition. Humor, for example, can be easily destroyed simply by changing word order.

Sentences express underlying propositions. In Jesus's case, we can all a "proposition" a "teaching" or more accurately in Greek, logos, which does not mean "word" but "idea." Propositions are the ideas that a sentence is meant to convey. Think of the proposition as the underlying concept or, more often, concepts. The sentence is the sequence of words used to express those concepts. Biblical translations are not translations of Jesus's sentences. They are attempts to express certain ideas. These ideas are often not the same ideas as Jesus was clearly trying to convey in his words. By confusing the vocabulary that Jesus used and ignoring his syntax, we cannot have any faith that the propositions expressed in the Bible are very close at all to the ones he expressed to his listeners.

A given proposition can be expressed in a number of different ways. Biblical translators will tell you that their goal is expressing Jesus's propositions, not translating his words and syntax. This is all very well and good unless we believe that Jesus was divine or, at the very least, a messenger of the divine. This means Jesus expresses concepts that are divine. Can we mere mortals claim to understand these concepts so well that we can afford to ignore the specific words that he chose and the order that he put them in?  This is the hubris through which meaning is lost.

The Destruction of Vocabulary

The record we have of Jesus's words is written in Greek. Greek words are not the same as English words. There are Greek words for which there is no exact match in English. However, translators of the most popular version of the Bible used today will not even attempt to translate each of Jesus's words to something as close as possible in English. They admit this. These translators claim to be able to capture Jesus's meaning without using his words or syntax and, instead, using more "modern" language. Is this true?

Let us look at some very simple principles.

First, that leaving out a word always changes the meaning of a sentence. This is often done in Biblical translation. There are over 770 verses of Jesus's words (out of the 1,884 verses analyzed on this site) where a Greek word is untranslated. This means that in 41% of the Jesus verses you read in the Bible, something is left out. The most common untranslated word is the definite article ("the" in English). This word may seem trivial, but the definite article is much more important in Greek than English (see this article). The reason it is lost in translation is that Latin does not have a definite article and the Latin Vulgate is the basis for most of the propositions on which Biblical translation is based. 

The most extreme case of a missing word, however, is when a negative is left out. There is a huge difference between "I did translate that verse" and "I did not translate that verse." Here are six examples where translators leave a negative ("not," "no," "never") out of one of Jesus's sentences.

In choosing a word, the speaker always has the choice of a more general word or a more specific one. Saying "I own a vehicle" is not the same as saying "I own a Lexus." More specific vocabulary carries not more but different meaning than more general terms. These statements convey different meanings for a purpose. People may say "I own a vehicle" because they don't want to admit that all they have is a bicycle. Or they may say it because they are too humble to admit they ride in a Rolls Royce.

Rather than get into a hundred examples of where Jesus uses a more specific word that the translators do, let us look at where Jesus frequently uses a more general term that is translated as a more specific one. The term is translated as "heaven" is always the Greek word that means "sky." The same Greek word is also translated as "sky," but when the context requires it. This Greek word is used over 170 times by Jesus. However, a word with our concept of "heaven" did not exist in Jesus's era except in the religion of Zoroastrianism. Did Jesus mean Zoroastrian-type heaven when he used it? Only if he didn't want anyone to understand what he was saying.

We can also say, for certain, that a plural word is always different in meaning from a singular one. This idea is useful in understanding how Jesus's concepts are different than those of his translators. A good example is the Greek word translated as "heaven." In Greek, it is almost always in the plural, "heavens." It is almost always translated in the singular because the modern concept of Heaven is that it is one place, not many different ones. Jesus's concept, however, is plural, "Father in the skies." He does use the singular for very specific purposes, such as when the word is paired with "earth." Whatever he meant by using these different forms is lost in translation.

Finally, we have multiple meaning words. They are a huge problem in translating Jesus's words because he loves them so. He loves to make plays of words. He often seems to avoid single-meaning words because multiple-meaning words give him more room for wordplay. For example, he never uses the simple word "bird." He always uses the gerund (verbal noun) that means "winged ones." Why? Because it means "birds," but it can also mean "spirits" or simple "quick ones." The phrase "winged one of the sky" also means "winged ones of  heaven."

Word meaning is also destroyed by changing its form. There are many destructive changes in form, but the most common in Biblical translation are:

  • Confusing number, changing plural words into singular ones and vice versa;
  • Confusing the tense, mood and voice of verbs;
  • Confusing verbs with nouns and adjectives.

The first type of confusion is demonstrated by all the translations of plural "skies" into singular  "heaven." But a more difficult case is the problem with the second-person pronoun "you." In English, "you" is the same for singular and plural, but in Greek it is clear when Jesus is addressing a single individual and when he is addressing a group. For example, several times in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus addressed individuals, not the group. This indicates that parts were not a "sermon" but a discussion with individuals.

Verb form is a complex topic but let me simplify it. There is a big difference between saying "heaven and earth will pass away" and "the sky and earth might pass away." One is the future tense and the other is a subjunctive statement, something that may or should happen. However, in Biblical translation tenses, moods, and voices are continually ignored.

For example, an active verb is not the same as a gerund (noun based on a verb) or a participle (an adjective based on a verb). While gerunds and participles in Greek are distinguished only by the use of a definite article, the trivial "the," their use has meaning.  "A boy ran and shouted" means something different than "A running boy shouted." And yet, almost habitually, such distinctions are ignored in translating Jesus's words. Nouns become verbs. Verbs nouns. Adjectives adverbs. And so on. More about this problem below in discussing phrases.

In the "Issues" section of my articles on each verse, I try to address these grammatical problems in translation. Currently, I have only analyzed a small percentage of Jesus's verses in detail for such errors, but well over 80% of the verses I have analyzed have one or more of these problems.

The Complete Destruction of Syntax

The destruction of vocabulary is bad enough, but the destruction of Jesus's syntax, that is, his order of words, is more complete and often more important. Because of this destruction, we cannot see the humor in Jesus's words. It more important in Greek than English because in Greek, supposedly, the most important words supposedly come first in the sentence. Ancient Greek does not have "subject-verb-object" syntax of English, but at "most important-less important" word order. However,  Jesus often violates this order, saving his keywords until the end. In linguistics, this is known as "end focus."  In Strunk and White's The Elements of Style, it is captured by Strunk's final rule, "Put the emphatic words in a sentence at the end."  End focus works both in written language and spoken language. Of course, putting the keyword at the end is also a key feature of humor, when the end word or phrase is a surprise.

However, Jesus's end focus is routinely and even systematically destroyed in translation. Gospel translators want to put every verse into the "subject-verb-object" syntax of English, destroying this end focus. Of course, rearranging words is often useful to prevent Jesus from sounding like Yoda, "These reapers, angels are." However, we can often maintain the proper word order and capture Jesus's focus, often by changing the punctuation and adding information hidden in the Greek verb: "These reapers: angels they are."

The order of its words gives a sentence what is called its syntagmatic meaning. Sentences can be divided into a subject and predicate. The subject is what the sentence's proposition is about, a noun or pronoun. The predicate is what is conveyed about the subject, its verb, and its objects. In the sentence, "I am a translator," the "I" is the subject and the "am a translator" is the predicate. Other phrases in the sentence modify or describe the subject or the predicate in some way. Predicates can consist of linking verbs, like the verb "to be," that link the subject to a modifier. They can also consist of action verbs that described an action of the subject. Action verbs can be transitive, that is, affecting an object, or intransitive, where there is no object.

Among language specialists, a sentence that consists of a subject next to its predicate is known as a "loose sentence" at the beginning. A sentence that ends with the key information, sometimes, the subject and predicate, is known as a periodic or, more descriptively, a suspensive sentence because it creates suspense for the listener. Things are described before the things themselves are identified. A loose sentence is "He was hung on the gallows in the morning." A suspensive sentence is "In the morning, on the gallows, he was hung." As a reader of a listener, the technical meaning is the same, but the emotional meaning is completely different. The loose sentence is matter-of-fact. The suspensive sentence is more subjective because it brings the listener or reader into the scene before revealing it.

Jesus speaks most often in suspensive sentences. He intentionally created drama and surprise for those listening to him. However, he is almost always translated into loose sentences. The drama and surprise are destroyed. In doing so, much of his meaning and the impact of it is lost. From this, we can say that his purpose was often dramatic or humorous. However, he is almost always translated in loose sentences, as if he was reciting facts than trying to create emotions.

Before continuing, let me explain compound sentences. In addition to the subject and predicate, the sentence can also have modifying phrases. The phrases can modify the subject, verb, or object. They take the form of dependent or independent phrases. Dependent phrases are connected to a sentence word with words like "who" or "that." Independent or "free" modifying phrases can be participle (adjectival verbs) phrases, gerund (verbal nouns) phrases, infinitive phrases, or preposition phrases. These phrases can appear before, after, or in the middle of the base sentence. The use of these free modifying phrases creates compound sentences, Compound sentences have syntagmatic meaning, taken from their order of phrases. They also have paradigmatic meaning, taken from the level of modification. They can modify the base clause, creating a second-level phrase, or a word in a second-level phrase creating a third-level phrase and so on.  These phrases offer either more detail or a bigger picture of what is meant, similar to the way that words can be more specific or more abstract. 

Jesus often speaks in compound sentences. These compound sentences are routinely destroyed or lost in translation. Jesus uses a lot of participle and gerunds. Whenever possible translators change them into simple nouns or active verbs. They will also, when possible, change independent phrases into dependent ones, adding a "that" or another connective word. They do this to purposely destroy our ability to "misinterpret"  Jesus's meaning by seeing other possible connecting points for the independent phrase. They sometimes go further, disconnecting a dependent phrase form one word and attaching it to another word to "correct" Jesus's mistake. 

Syntactical problems are not as easily categorized and described as grammatical ones with vocabulary. Disconnected dependent phrases can be identified as being wrongly placed, but independent clauses are independent for a reason, so their order and levels can create meaning or, worse for the dogmatic,  different possible meanings.  However, this does not mean that these meanings are less important. Sentences are understood over time. They lead from one idea to another. People react to them as their ideas unfold over time. In the case of Jesus's sentences, this means that they are often twisting, turning, teasing, and often surprising us at the end. Jesus spoke in such a way as to involve his listeners with the goal of changing their minds.

Jesus is words are often confusing, but how do we not know that this wasn't intentional?  Should all mystical ideas be easy to understand? Or fit easily into a given dogma? Is it the translator's job to present something that is easier to understand or to represent what was actually said? If Jesus sometimes speaks over our heads, shouldn't that be expected given our relative positions in understanding the universe? Just because I, as the translator don't get it, my job is to represent it to the best of my y linguistic ability.