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No Perfect Translation

This topic is not about Bible versions, but about the more general translating from one language into another.

It has often been said in arguing against KJVO types that no translation from one language into another can be perfect. It is my opinion that this argument should be dropped by any Bible believing apologist.

My main problem with the argument is that Jesus spoke Aramaic, yet the NT books that recorded His words were in Greek. So to say that you can’t perfectly go from Aramaic to Greek would be saying that the original manuscripts are not perfect because something was lost in translation between the Aramaic speaking Jesus and the Greek writing NT authors.


About theologian

I'm a child of the King, my Father who is in Heaven, by the precious blood of His eternal Son, Jesus Christ. I am married with children and currently reside in Pennsylvania. I am a Pastor with the Association of Charismatic Reformed Churches (ACRC) working as an Urban Missionary in Chester, PA. Throughout my time in ministry God has also blessed me with opportunities for formal education by which I earned my terminal degree (Doctor of Theology) from New Geneva Theological Seminary in 2013.


14 thoughts on “No Perfect Translation

  1. This is a good point. The idea that Jesus spoke in Aramaic is also important in such passages as John 21:15-19, where people love to dwell on the different *Greek* words for love used there, when the fact is, it was probably stylistic variation, since Jesus was speaking in Aramaic. Now, we can’t base our theology on the supposed Aramaic underlying the NT. However, knowing about the Aramaic is more like a guard on our historical exegesis.

    Posted by greenbaggins | November 22, 2006, 3:11 pm
  2. I also find it interesting that the NT writers quote OT passages from the Greek Septuagint quite frequently.

    Posted by theologian | November 22, 2006, 3:33 pm
  3. So, is it a foregone conclusion that Jesus spoke only Aramaic?

    Lane, I like your point about the words for love in John 21. But if the original Greek autographs are inerrant, is it illegitimate to discern any significance to word changes penned by John?

    Posted by Gomarus | November 22, 2006, 3:35 pm
  4. Yes, one could go in that direction. However, writers often vary words simply for variety’s sake, and not for some deep theological reason. Furthermore, there is so much semantic overlap between “phileo” and “agapao,” that trying to force one’s way through to a distinction is shaky, I think.

    Posted by greenbaggins | November 22, 2006, 4:18 pm
  5. I think the Scriptures show evidence that the two words are used interchangeably. Here are a couple of instances where agapao is used for brotherly love (designated by *)…

    1 Thess 4:9 – Now concerning brotherly love you have no need for anyone to write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love* one another

    1 Peter 1:22 – Having purified your souls by your obedience to the truth for a sincere brotherly love, love* one another earnestly from a pure heart,

    Posted by theologian | November 22, 2006, 4:28 pm
  6. Thanks guys. I am with you on phileo vs. agapeo in John 21. My interest was tweaked regarding Jesus’ Aramaic in relation to the Greek autographs.

    I question that we can use the “fact” that Jesus spoke Aramaic to discount the specifics of the Greek text — not specifically in the subject passage but anywhere.

    Posted by Gomarus | November 22, 2006, 4:41 pm
  7. One question that can lead to is if the Greek is the inspired text, and not the Aramaic that Jesus spoke – wouldn’t that mean that a translation is inspired and not the original words?

    Posted by theologian | November 22, 2006, 4:54 pm
  8. We have to avoid the problem to which Gomarus is pointing. What could result is a canon within (or underneath!) the canon, whereby we interpret the Greek on the basis of some underlying supposed Aramaic. I think we have to avoid doing that, since the text is what is inspired, and Larry’s point is well-taken here, since there is such a thing as biblically inspired translation (though I would argue we only have that in the NT). However, the knowledge that Jesus most likely and most often spoke Aramaic can help us not to read too much into something like the different Greek verbs. It then becomes a question of how to interpret the existing text, given the background of Aramaic.

    Posted by greenbaggins | November 22, 2006, 5:01 pm
  9. You guys are great.

    Yes, the Greek autographs are the inspired words. The point is that we do not have Jesus’ Aramaic words. I think Lane (GreenB) stated the related caution quite well.

    Posted by Gomarus | November 22, 2006, 5:44 pm
  10. Ya I would have said all that too 🙂 Ok not really. I did learn some about the love language in John. I recall a cermon on the different words and how they applied differently. I also tend to forget that Jesus spoke in Aramaic.

    The fun thing about Greek, I have noticed I will say the Greek word in my head as I read it in English. Not much tho, I am painfully slow with that text book. However, I never did that when I was learning Spanish.

    Posted by Josh | November 22, 2006, 7:52 pm
  11. Subject: No perfect translation:

    In John 3:3, Jesus tells Nicodemus that he must be born again. Nicodemus asks Jeus how a person can return to the womb to be born a second time. Jesus asks Nicodemus in verse 10 why a teacher of Israel doesn’t understand these things.

    The word in greek that is translated “again” can also be translated “from above”. Because of the response Nicodemus gives to Jesus it appears contextually that Jesus said “born again”. But what would a teacher of Israel know about being born again? Obviously Nicodemus didn’t know anything about it.

    Is it possible that Jesus said and meant “born from above” (in aramaic) but Nicodemus assumed that Jesus said “born again”? This seems to be the case looking at the greek text. There are a lot of OT passages that describe the effects of birth from above (Jeremiah 31:31-34 – I will write my law on their hearts and minds etc. – they will all know me – I will forgive their sins. This idea would also agree with Johns other books which use a similar phrase “born of God”. Is there any way of finding out whether the word in aramaic for “again” can also be translated “from above”?

    Posted by Stephen Skinner | December 18, 2006, 1:36 am
  12. Stephen,

    Thanks for the comment. Very interesting.

    I would be careful about trying to figure out what the Aramaic that Jesus directly spoke was. The inspired original writings of the NT are in Greek, and they contain no mistakes.

    Since the Greek could definitely be interpreted as being born from above i think you have a good point. But being born from above would also imply a new birth – being born again.

    It’s also interesting to note that Nicodemus does not ask how a man can be “born again” but only how a man can be “born.” Does his leaving out the “again” give us any clues as to how we should interpret this passage?

    Posted by theologian | December 18, 2006, 2:43 am
  13. No Perfect Translation

    I write having read Stephen Skinner’s comment and your response, which do contribute a lot to my exploration of Jesus’ word play tactics in John 3:3.

    How I see Jn 3:3 – John relates how Jesus took control of the discussion by deliberately using word play to put N on the back foot. Born “from above” was outside of N’s religious perceptions, hence his Q on physical rebirth. Jesus came back with allusions to Ezek 36 (born of water and spirit), to continue on the born “from above” track.

    My Q: Assuming they spoke in Aramaic or Hebrew, not Greek, how did Jesus use the word play tactic that John portrayed?

    Posted by Rod McAuliffe | January 1, 2007, 11:11 am
  14. If the word play you are speaking of is “born from above” and “born from heaven” then the Hebrew that was spoken for “above/heaven” could have been the word “mahal” which can mean “above” or “heaven”

    But if the word play is simply the fact that Jesus delves more and more into the topic of being born again, then why would Aramaic or Hebrew not be able to convey that?

    Posted by theologian | January 1, 2007, 3:46 pm

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