Translating ancient texts with modern terms

No, you can’t translate an ancient text using modern terms, you at least have to use terms the original audience would grasp the meaning of.

Yes you can because I just did. God is not limited to man-made rules. Prophecy is never fully understood by the writer or the contemporaneous audience. Discovery is not in finding new lands but in seeing with new eyes.


Doing so constitutes nothing but reading your own ideas into the text. It’s no different than lawyers twisting the words of a law to try to get their way – totally dishonest.

That’s not relevant – then subject in question is not god, it’s ancient literature.

Also irrelevant since the literature in question is not prophecy.

Yeah, that’s the argument people make when they deny the Incarnation, especially the Resurrection, and congratulate themselves on their “new eyes”.

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What was the Hebrew word for “space” or “matter” at the time that Genesis was written? Please don’t tell me that ‘Hebrew doesn’t work that way’ or ‘the writer would have said it differently’. The literal translation is accurate as the original understanding and provides the syntax for an epistemic translation. The passage is prophetic based on its fulfillment by future knowledge rather than a future event. It is equally possible that God is a fictitious character with some abstract authority that man created to satisfy our sense of wonder. Belief is a unique feature of the human mind.

I moved these replies, because when the OP is asking for encouragement, we’d like if people took their debates around specific questions to another thread. Thanks for continuing you conversation here instead.

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Glad you did this. It does seem a little cringy to carry on disagreements in that circumstance.

Any chance you want to weigh in? My guess is that considering the audience and the context will figure big. But that’s a shot in dark.

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I think maybe the OP was expressing the meaning he takes from the text as a science-oriented person, not offering a suggested translation. I think it’s fine for people to say “this is what the text means to me” and contextualize the message to their own conceptual frames. That’s a form of interpretation. I don’t think it’s good translation practice to impose modern ideas the original communicators didn’t have on their communication or to treat the text as if it was speaking about something the ancient hearers couldn’t have possibly understood. But interpretation goes beyond translation and some people interpret the text in concordist ways. It’s not my preferred way of interpreting.


I agree. That seems a very normal way of relating to a text but different than wondering about intent of the author or the significance to the intended audience.

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Only tangentially related, but I’ve always been amused by the Message’s translation of the scene in Jonah where a bunch of sailors cast lots to see who is causing the storm:

Then the sailors said to one another, “Let’s get to the bottom of this. Let’s draw straws to identify the culprit on this ship who’s responsible for this disaster.” So they drew straws. Jonah got the short straw. Then they grilled him: “Confess. Why this disaster? What is your work? Where do you come from? What country? What family?”
‭‭Jonah‬ ‭1‬:‭7‬-‭8‬ ‭MSG‬‬


I believe that the ancient casting of lots had a lot more literal significance in bible times than today. My denomination believes that God has largely withdrawn from direct revelation after the time of Christ and the apostles.

I take from this that casting lots is no longer guided by Gods hand as it once was in bible times. I think prior to the time of Christ, God needed to have more direct input into guidance, however now that we have written account of His revelation through the life of Christ, we have no excuses anymore…God has revealed all that we need in order to know about Him and His wishes. That wasnt the case in the Old Testament…hence the direct revelation to the patriarchs, judges, and prophets.

Interesting translation. Of course, we take casting lots as being something closer to the original writing in a way, when it is just how they would speak of random chance back in old English, and not a lot different that drawing straws. Of course, we think in modern terms of soda straws, when back in the day, it would have been wheat or grass straw. A lot of people cast their lot in with lottery hopefuls these days.


That only works if you DON’T believe the Bible is the word of God. If it is nothing more than an ancient text by people with a poor understanding of reality then by all means interpret the Bible so that it means nothing outside of their extremely poor comprehension and awareness of their world and themselves.

well said.

Indeed. Roymond called this not “terms the original audience would grasp the meaning of” But that is wrong. It is not that they had no perception of space or matter but that they simply didn’t make all the same distinctions we make. They didn’t look at dust under a microscope. It was just just the stuff of the earth and for all intents and purposes, that is what “matter” is.

No, it honors the original writers and their audiences. As one of my professors was fond of reminding us, while the Bible may be more than mere ancient literature, it is never less than that – and thus in order to grasp its meaning it is necessary to render it with the meaning it had for the original audience. As with any literature, the actual meaning is what the author had in mind and his audience understood, and those depend on the original context.
It’s necessary to keep in mind that in reading the Bible we are in effect reading someone else’s mail – however much it may be written for use, it was not written to us, and its meaning is what it was for those to whom it was written.

But there is no Hebrew word meaning “matter” in the text, and saying “matter” instead of “earth” strips away the real meaning; “Earth” referred to an entire realm of existence, not the mere “stuff of the earth”. Changing it to “space and matter” is the very same thing the YECists do, forcing it to talk modern science when it hasn’t the least intent of doing so.

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In conversations like these I am often reminded of the novel “Animal Farm”, a book that a lot of kids in the US read in high school. It is well known that the novel was metaphor for the communist revolution in Soviet Russia, but that wouldn’t be obvious at all if it was ripped out of its cultural context. I view much of Genesis in the same light, and understanding it is made that much more difficult because we know much less about the cultural context during those times than we do for the culture at the time when “Animal Farm” was written. If people 2,500 years from now were amazed about a historical narrative of a group of farm animals that became sentient and took over a farm I think we would conclude they missed the point of the novel.


People can get many things from a book and a particular message like the one about communism in this one which is so embedded in the history of the time can lose all of its relevance to people of the future. Instead more universal themes in the book are likely to become more important to them. I don’t think the fact that they are missing this particular historical meaning invalidates the meaning they are finding in the book.

True, but the interesting thing is that we know astoundingly more now than just ten years ago, and the same could be said back then; I remember from grad school a visiting speaker presenting how a recent breakthrough he and his team had made had come about, and the avenues of understanding that it opened up. And there’s more coming given how many more ancient manuscripts we have than have been translated (even forty years ago my professors noted that I had an aptitude for languages and urged me to pursue that because more people reading ancient near eastern texts were needed). For example, much, maybe most of what we know about ancient near eastern literary genres has only come to light in the last thirty years.

What baffles me is how many Christians don’t see this knowledge as a gift from God but want to ignore and condemn it because it disturbs traditional – and often deeply held – assumptions about the scriptures (to me this is linked with the “Bible only” foolishness that rejects any scholarship greater than looking up verses in concordances).


“The meaning they are finding” is a concept that is dangerous for understanding literature from the past because it opens the door to making personal biases and worldviews determinative so that old literature can be made to “mean” anything a person wants. In practice that’s a concept that the left has embraced in the “well, that’s your truth” meme, and bizarrely has been adopted by a number of conservative Christians.

That’s not to say that there can’t be value in what meaning a person sees; I’ve had insights about life that sprang from reading science fiction that I valued greatly, but I recognized that those insights were not from the text itself, they were only triggered by it. When someone ‘finds’ meaning in a piece of literature, it has to be kept in mind that that meaning may not be related at all to what the writer meant; indeed the older the literature, the less likely that such a personal meaning has anything to do with that actual meaning.


As all-too-few people seem to have internalized, Sola Scriptura was supposed to mean “The Bible is the only ultimate source for doctrine; tradition and human authorities are not equal to it.” and not “My interpretation of the Bible is the sole source of all information about everything.”

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I’ve been teaching and translating biblical Hebrew for almost twenty years now and hope to contribute to this thread by defining some concepts used by professional translators.

  1. If you think that translation is simply mapping a word or phrase from a source language (say biblical Hebrew?) into an arbitrary target language (English?), you would soon see that this kind of translation doesn’t work. For example, translating a script of what a football coach told his losing team during half-time cannot be translated from English to Hebrew.

  2. Some words in biblical Hebrew have no equivalent words in English. In Genesis 1:1 the phrase “haššāmayim” is usually translated as “the heavens”, but the people of that era had no concept of heaven or heavens such as what we moderns think. The closest, literal translation might be something like “the skies.” Now, consider the word translated as the planet earth, “ʾāreṣ.” Aretz has no semantic validity because the ancient Hebrews knew nothing of planets and cosmology. To an ancient Hebrew, Genesis 1:1 would have been understood as God having created all the skies stretching to the horizon and all of the surrounding land including the land beneath the seas.

  3. Biblical Hebrew, because of concreteness and size (it’s very small, about 8000 words), biblical Hebrew is abysmal in expressing abstract thoughts so biblical Hebrew is very idiomatic. For example, God reveals that He has a long nose ('erekh 'apayim). What are we to make of God’s long nose? If you’re curious consult Exodus 34:6.

  4. Words change their meaning over time. biblical Hebrew is notorious for this (because it evolved so rapidly), but I can give a good example using English. In 1500 the Greek word outōs meant “like this” or “in this way”. Now, outōs is used when Jesus tells us how to pray: He says, “In this way you are to pray…” where “In this way” is correctly translated from outōs. Sadly, many English Bibles have not caught up with the word change so we still read that

For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son …

Instead of its correct translation,

For God loved the world in this way: He gave His only Son …

In other words, the Gospel originally tells how God expressed in love for the world, NOT the depth of His love for the world.

The point of all this is just to say that a translator’s goal is to convey the meaning of a word or phrase in the source language such that readers in the target language will understand what the original author meant. With this in mind, my final point is this: to meet this objective translators have make sacrifices vis literal and abstract translations.

Here, for example, are the first few [Hebrew] words of 1 Kings 2:10a, vayishkav david, eem-avotay, or as most commonly rendered, Then David {slept, rested} with his fathers. Translating this phrase using the a literal model is pretty straightforward:

And David slept with his fathers.

The Hebrew word in question here is yishkav, meaning to lay down, as in going to bed or taking a nap. But David did not have multiple fathers, so a literal understanding makes little sense. Using literal translation model fails for any reader who does not understand the meaning of this particular idiom, “sleeps with his fathers.”

The ancient Israelites understood this idiom to mean that to sleep with one’s fathers was to join his ancestors who had lived and died before him. You can probably appreciate, then, that Bibles that use a highly abstract translation model, like the New Language Translation (NLT), translate this verse as, “And David died.” The NLT translators correctly argue that this translation more accurately represents the thought the author meant to convey to his ancient audience.

But, while more easily understood, thought-for-thought translations are not well-suited for in-depth Bible study because the translation, “David died,” misses some important detail. For example, “David died” completely misses the idea of sleep as a metaphor for death. This phrase constitutes an important biblical metaphor in which death may not be permanent, and the deceased might look forward to being resurrected (awakened!) to a new life. The literal meaning of the phrase also suggests that a sort of relationship exists between David and his ancestors that extend beyond death. These deeper understandings are completely missed by “David died.”

Personally, I get around this problem by have several good literal and paraphrased Bibles.


To the Wittenburg Reformers “sola scriptura” was the answer to the question “What is the highest authority?” That can be found in the Fathers, who call scripture the measure of doctrine, the referee of teaching, etc. Most people I’ve heard talking about sola scriptura don’t know that and so get it wrong. The ironic thing is that the narrow “Bible only” view is not biblical.
I think it ought to also be noted that in the early church there was a stricture held to by many, concerning the difference between the homolegoumena and the antilegomena, the “read by all” and the “spoken against”. The second category was regarded as on a tier below the rest of the New Testament and the stricture was that no doctrine should be founded on those books; doctrine was to be found in the books that were accepted by everyone and supported by the disputed ones. It’s a distinction that faded and was lost, which I find sad since a great deal of false teaching has arisen from those books.

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