What Bible Scriptures are most often interpreted wrong?

What Bible Scriptures are most often interpreted wrong? January 23, 2023

We have to consider the methodology of any translation before we address the question.

What Bible Scriptures are most often interpreted wrong?

Like most good questions about interpretation, this one is easier to ask than it is to answer.

First, we must remember we are dealing with various types of translations, which are really transliterations.

There are transliterations that strive to be word-for-word, although this is really impossible given the differences in the sentence structure in the original languages.

There are other transliterations which strive to be thought-for-thought, perhaps not using strict transliteration, but still faithfully capturing the essence of each pericope.

Many transliterations are a blend of both of these approaches.

Second, we have to remember we are dealing with languages that morphed with time.

The original Hebrew is a limited language with a complete vocabulary, and no room for additional words.

After the Babylonian Captivity, or at some time during the era, Hebrew was influenced by other ancient Semitic languages. By the time of the New Testament (NT), Aramaic was formed, a true expanding and living language based on ancient Hebrew. It is believed that Jesus primarily spoke Aramaic.

In NT times, there were at least 3 strands of Greek. There was Classical Greek, which was used by the epic storytellers and philosophers in the centuries leading up to Christ. This is a written language and therefore readily available for those with higher learning.

There was also the Koine Greek, which is now considered a dead language. It was in some ways the lingua franca of the Roman Empire. This is the common tongue, even incorporating slang words. Much of the NT was written in Koine Greek.

Then there was the more formal Greek, spoken by those of status and education. Some of the NT reflects this form of the language, which really continued to grow into what we have today.

Third, we have to consider the methodology of any given translation.

The first major translation was the Septuagint (LXX). Not long before the time of Christ, the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament, OT) was translated into Greek. When we read OT verses quoted in the NT, we are usually reading at least 2 translations.
1) There is the original Hebrew Bible, but more than likely we are reading an Old Testament quote in the NT based on LXX.
2) Then there is the process of translating the OT verse in the NT passage into English.

Furthermore, NT writers had no problem modifying the OT verses in light of an NT update, vis-a-vis a fulfilled prophecy.

The second major translation was Saint Jerome’s work. He translated the entire Bible into Latin and named it the Vulgate. This became the standard translation of the church for centuries. Some of our translations, especially in Latin-based languages, still rely on the Vulgate.

There’s the translation of the entire OT into German, the first major European translation.

FaithGiant | bible coffee | 08.04.21 | pixabay

On top of the translations, there a couple Greek and Hebrew schools of thought on the original languages as well.

Many English translations did not go back to the original languages, but relied on later translations like the Vulgate or the German OT, etc. In the late Middle Ages, Erasmus revisited the Greek texts which eventually became the Textus Receptus, and had great influence on translations moving forward.

In recent decades, translations have more often attempted to be faithful to the original texts, and sometimes to ancient manuscripts.

I’ll offer an example of a verse often mistranslated.

I have no real problem with the King James Version (KJV). In my faith tradition, the KJV is highly regarded to this day. However, with time I have realized that the KJV could easily be critiqued. I won’t go into all the reasons why, but I will start with a verse from the KJV for this example.

So shall they fear the name of the Lord from the west, and his glory from the rising of the sun. When the enemy shall come in like a flood, the Spirit of the Lord shall lift up a standard against him. Isaiah 59.19

This is a well-loved verse, especially in my Pentecostal faith community. The might of the Spirit of the Lord is on full display. I’ve heard many sermons and lessons on it.

However, even though I’m no Hebrew scholar, I came to realize the grammatical emphasis may be off. For instance, a comma may be in the wrong place. It could read:

When the enemy shall come in, . . .
like a flood the Spirit of the Lord shall lift up a standard against him.

This dramatically changes the thrust of the Scripture and passage. In a far greater way, the Spirit’s might is proudly on display.

Reconsider Isaiah 59.19 in light of older translations.

The 1st English translation from John Wycliffe completely ignores the enemy all together.

And they that be at the west, shall dread the name of the Lord, and they that be at the rising of the sun, shall dread the glory of him; when he shall come as a violent flood, whom the spirit of the Lord compelleth.

In other words, God is the totality of the storm. If we are to have fear and reverence, we are to be in awe of the Spirit and the Messiah who will be compelled by the Spirit.

The Septuagint (LXX) has been translated into English and is available online for anyone who would like to see how the Greek colors the Hebrew text. With Isaiah 59.19 the emphasis on the activity of the coming Messiah is very strong, once again no reference to the enemy.

So shall they of the west fear the name of the Lord, and they from the rising of the sun his glorious name: for the wrath of the Lord shall come as a mighty river, it shall come with fury.

The Lord is the torrent!
The coming Messiah is the deluge!

This should not scare the people of God, but rather assure them that our Lord will vindicate them.

Many modern translations have returned to these older renderings of the verse, rather than to the mistranslation in the KJV.

It’s good to consider commentary.

This passage is about the strength and majesty of the Messiah, so to insert something about the enemy as the KJV does seems out of place. Isaiah is witnessing to the strength of the Messiah.

“Because of this, people everywhere will acknowledge His glory, overpowering majesty, and strength (like a pent-up flood let loose).”[1]

St. Jerome, who penned the Latin Vulgate offers commentary, plus adds the translation of a couple other key leaders.

“The author of this blessing is he who will come ‘like a rushing river that the Spirit of the Lord drives,’ or, as Aquila translates it, ‘like a narrow river that is a sign of the Spirit of the Lord,’ or, as Theodotion has it, ‘like a warring river that the Spirit of the Lord has inscribed.'”[2]

From these commentators, both recent and ancient, we can make a couple generalizations.

First, this Scripture seems stronger than the KJV when it is understood that the Lord does not stop the storm. He is the storm! In general transliteration we must be careful then, because some things that never should have been forgotten have been forgotten.

Second, none of these translators are bound to our current versions like the KJV. In fact, St. Jerome who we have translated from Latin in the above snippet, freely offers 2 alternative translations of the segment of the verse. The 3 versions in St. Jerome’s commentary are not necessarily at odds either. In general, more voices at the table of faithful translators should serve to pique our curiosity about Scripture, not cause us to critique every jot and tittle.

Since I never really try to trump St. Jerome, perhaps the original question should not be about right and wrong after all.


For more articles like this visit the categories The Writings and Word Study

[1] John F. Walvoord and Roy B. Zuck, The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures by Dallas Seminary Faculty, Old Testament, (USA, Canada, England: Victor Books, 1985), 1114.
[2] Jerome, Commentary on Isaiah xvi.31–32

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