Tuesday, May 23, 2023

Variations in the Bible

When I was a youth, our church leaders encouraged us to memorize scripture, likely in accord with the prayer of the Psalmist: “Thy word have I hid in my heart that I might not sin against Thee” (Psalm 119:11 KJV). They even ran contests for memorizing scripture with rewards at the end. At that point in my youth, I only knew one translation, the King James Version, written in 16th century English. It was not until my later teenage years that I even became aware of multiple translations. I discovered that even if the translators are working from the same critical Greek text, all translations are somewhat different.

I suppose one can be comforted that the translations generally sound the same. If one reads closely, however, the differences subtly suggest different meanings to the reader. For example:

In the Revised Standard Version, Ps 119:11reads: “I have laid up thy word in my heart that I might not sin against thee.” In an American Translation, it reads: “I have stored thy message in my heart, that I may not sin against thee.” In the English Standard Version, it reads: “I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you.” In the New American Bible, it reads: “Within my heart I treasure your promise, that I may not sin against you.” In the English translation of the Septuagint, it reads: “I have hidden thine oracles in my heart, that I might not sin against thee.”

To point out one subtle difference: “treasuring your promise,” “storing thy message,” and “hiding thine oracles” in one’s heart do not sound like one is memorizing the words of the Bible.

On the other hand, if one always reads the New Testament using two different translations, one is sometimes surprised because the translations occasionally contradict one another! It is not that a slightly different meaning is being suggested, it is a clear contradiction. For example, in 2 Thess 2:13 in the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) the translation reads: “…because God chose you as the first fruits for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit…” whereas the Revised English Bible (REB) reads: “From the beginning of time God chose you to find salvation in the Spirit who consecrates you….” This disagreement is not a case of different translators translating the same Greek text differently. This is a situation where the ancient Greek manuscripts of Second Thessalonians disagree between themselves by using different words. Some Greek manuscripts read απαρχην (first fruits) while others read απ απρχης (from the beginning). The critical Greek text used by most scholars (Nestle-Aland 28th edition) reads “first fruits” in the text and gives as an alternate reading “from the beginning” in the apparatus.1 The translators of the REB preferred the alternate reading.

            Sometimes the contradiction is more extensive. For example, the Revised English Bible skips from Matt 16:2 to 16:4. Verses 2-3 are missing in the REB. The text reads: (verse 2): “He answered them: (verse 4) ‘It is a wicked and godless generation that asks for a sign and the only sign that will be given it is the sign of Jonah…’” The NRSV on the other hand includes verses 2-3. (Verse 2) “He answered them. ‘When it is evening you say, “It will be fair weather for the sky is red. (Verse 3) And in the morning, “It will be stormy today for the sky is red and threatening.” ‘You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times.’” Most scholars regard verses 2-3 as a later insertion into the Greek text from a source similar to Luke 12:54-56, or from the parallel Lukan passage itself.2 The Nestle-Aland critical Greek text includes verses 2-3 in the text but place it in square brackets indicating: “that textual critics today are not completely convinced of the authenticity of the enclosed words.”3 Hence the translators of the REB disagree with the Nestle-Aland critical text, and the NRSV agrees but omits the verses entirely. This disagreement between modern scholars raises the question, who is correct? Is Matt 16:2-3 a part of the Bible or not? These verses are after all in some Greek manuscripts.

            I stumbled across the latter two discrepancies in the preaching services of the church following along in the Greek text with the minister who was reading his text for the day in English. No mention was made of the problems that existed in the text. Should ministers inform their congregations of these kinds of difficulties existing in the biblical text?

            These discrepancies leave a “wanna-be-true-to-the-core-but-not-really-succeeding” Baptist pondering the situation. It appears that the Bible we read today does not spring unaided from the mind of God, but, in the final analysis, the versions of the Bible that eventually reach the hands of the reading public are products from the desk of the text critic and the translator.

How do you see it?

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1The apparatus consists of notes at the bottom of the page of Greek text. It was a committee decision to make the text read “first fruits.” For the rationale see Bruce M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament (2nd ed.; 2000), 568.

2Metzger, Textual Commentary, 33.

3Nestle-Aland, Novum Testamentum Graece, page 9*.

Tuesday, May 9, 2023

Words with Double Meanings in the New Testament

The French have a word for this phenomenon: double-entendre or double-entente. It occurs when an author deliberately chooses a word for its ambiguity in which the word has a second meaning.1 Here is an example:

In Homer’s The Odyssey, when Odysseus is captured by the Cyclops Polyphemus, he tells the Cyclops that his name is Oudeis (ουδεις = No-one). When Odysseus attacks the Cyclops later that night and stabs him in the eye, the Cyclops runs out of his cave, yelling to the other Cyclopes that "No-one has hurt me!", which leads the other Cyclopes to take no action under the assumption that Polyphemus blinded himself by accident, allowing Odysseus and his men to escape.2

In a double-entendre the word chosen by the writer constitutes a bit of word play, if you will. Usually, but not always, in the contemporary use of a double-entendre one of the words will have a frivolous or bawdry meaning.

            One can object, however, that the ambiguity creates the following problem: Has the writer deliberately intended a word play or has a creative reader invented a word play about which the writer would be surprised to learn? Not all readers catch-on to what other readers find to be a double-entendre. Usually, the biblical text is thought to be comprised of serious and straight forward language. Nevertheless, some have found double-entendres in the New Testament. Here is one example (Mark 8:14-21) where Jesus uses a word (ζυμη = leaven/yeast) with respect to the Pharisees and Herod (Mark 8:15). Leaven was used both as a negative symbol for malice and evil as well as for sincerity and truth (1 Cor 5:6-8). The disciples completely missed the word play and regarded it as a reference to the leavening agent in bread (Mark 8:15-16, 21). They heard yeast when Jesus was talking about malice and evil. The author Matthew makes the double-entendre even more clear (Matt 16:11-12).

            Another double-entendre occurs when Jesus speaks to a woman of Samaria by a well (John 4:4-26). Jesus asks her for a drink of water (John 4:7). She replies why are you a Jew asking me a Samaritan for a drink (and the narrator clarifies that Jews and Samaritans do not associate with one another, John 4:9)? Jesus offers her “living” water (John 4:10), which she persists in understanding as “well” water (John 4:11-12, 15). Even after Jesus explains he is talking about a different kind of “water” (John 4:13-14), she still does not get the word play (John 4:1). She thought he was talking about well water that one imbibes for physical life and Jesus meant a spiritual water that brought eternal life (John 4:14).3

A possible instance of a double-entendre may be concealed in Paul’s comment to an addressee in Phil 4:3. What is the name of the person to whom Paul refers (translated in virtually all translations) as his “genuine fellow of the yoke” or “yokefellow” (γνησιε συζυγε),4 from whom Paul is requesting help to settle a difference of opinion between two women (Euodia and Syntyche) in the community of Jesus followers at Philippi, a Roman colony.

I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you, a genuine fellow of the yoke, to help these women who shared my struggles in the cause of the gospel, along with Clement, and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life. (Phil 4:2-3)

It seems odd that Paul would leave unnamed one he regards as a “genuine fellow of the yoke” in their common struggle for the success of the gospel, in a section where he names three other coworkers and he also insists that all his co-workers have their names inscribed in the book of life (Phil 4:2-3). The inference I draw from the image is that the addressee as “a genuine fellow of the yoke” (in the sense, perhaps, of Matthew 11:28-30 or 1 Clement 16:17) would understand the requirements of being yoked as part of a pair. Such a person would best be able to assist Euodia and Syntyche in resolving their differences.

            Many suspect that Paul did indeed name this figure in the very language he used, in what I am calling a double-entendre: συζυγε, = vocative form of Συζυγος, which many think may be the name of the man. His name is comprised of two Greek words: συν (with) + ζυγος (yoke), or “a person with the yoke.” His name (if indeed it is a name) would be Latinized in most translations as Syzygus. Many translators suspect this might be the case, and will add the name of Syzygus as an alternative translation in a note at the bottom of the page, even though the word has not yet been found as a proper name among the inscriptions.5

How do you read these passages? Are there yet other secrets to be uncovered from New Testament language? Bible translators are good honest folk, but the products they produce are no better than their skill, professional training, critical judgment, and that their subconscious agendas will allow.

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1See Hugh Holman and William Harmon, A Handbook to Literature (6th ed.; New York: Macmillan, 1992), 147-48.


3Here are a few other passages that are generally thought to contain a deliberate play on words: Matt 16:18 (Peter/rock= Πετρος/πετρα); John 2:19-21; John 3:3-8 (ανωθεν = born from above/born anew); John 7:37-39.

4Sometimes the expression is translated as “yokefellow.” For example, in the New International Version, or “companion” in Ehrman, or “comrade” by Goodspeed. It is translated as Syzygus in Eugene H. Peterson, The Message, The New Testament in Contemporary Language (NAVPRESS, 1993).

5For a brief summary of critical thinking about the issue that hasn’t changed much since 1868, see J. B. Lightfoot, St Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians (12th ed.; Lynn, MA: Hendrickson, 1981), 158-59.