Lost in translation

Just a bit of speculation. It may not be a strong point but it’s something rumbling in my head right now.

Jesus was a Jew living in Judaea, supposedly. He said a lot of stuff. And one thing I wonder about it what he and the gospel writers actually meant. Jews and Muslims make much ado about tradition and lineage, there being a link of transmission from the original writers to today’s teachers. For those guys, and for catholics, there needs to be an authoritative tradition to explain what the text and the sayings actually meant.

The Protestant branches of christianity, the tradition-rejecting branch do not do this. As far as I know, there is no such tradition, just a book. They have faith that God’s spirit will teach them what Jesus and the Bible actually meant. The shattering of the church into so many different denominations and sects is evidence of the fallacy and failure of such a methodology.

But this regards the meaning of the text, the meaning of what the gospel writers and the other creators of the new testament wrote. Thinking about it, I have another issue.

Jesus is supposed to have been a Jew living in Judaea. What language did they speak? The fact that the new testament keeps dropping statements in Hebrew or Aramaic is a clue that they were not avid Greek-speakers in their day-to-day lives. Ok, let me just focus on the gospels and the lives of Jesus and his Jewish followers. It doesn’t seem like their day-to-day language was Greek, but rather Hebrew or Aramaic.

If this is true, then let me state an obvious truth: the oldest manuscripts of the gospels are in Greek.

Is anyone seeing my problem yet? Jesus may have been speaking in Hebrew and/or Aramaic but the writings about him were written in Greek. You don’t see it yet?

If people were around who spoke the same language, and one person chooses to write the words of another in that same language, there is at least some chance that it’s a direct quote, word-for-word, verbatim. But if someone chooses to write those words in a different language, then there is no chance for verbatim at all, especially if the language are from two different families of language, not so related. Verbatim is out of the window; now there is only interpretation and personal understanding, commentary if you will.

So when a person asks, “what did Jesus say?” what can the truthful answer be? That we don’t know what he actually said, only what someone translated his words to have meant? But that started off with a dreadfully significant point: “we don’t know what he said.”

Question: if I don’t know what he said, word-for-word, then can I truly know what he meant?

For all my bringing up the point that there is no authoritative transmission from him down to modern preachers and teachers of christianity about what he truly meant, or the fact that the writers of the gospels left no such tradition, do my present ponderings bring up a more fundamental problem? If I don’t know what he actually said, and I only have a foreign translation of his teachings (and I’m not sure if they used word-for-word translations or the method of paraphrase), then hasn’t something been lost in translation from the very beginning?

So a friend of mine brought up questions about the possibility of the trinity doctrine in Matthew 28:19. At the time, I challenged such a notion in terms of doctrine and whether there was enough in the Greek text to point to the entire doctrine. But now I wonder on a more fundamental level. We’re arguing about the Greek text, but we don’t even know what the man, the supposed man, actually said. And if we don’t have that, what prayer do we have of understanding what he actually meant?

Anyway, this was just a speculation. Maybe more than that. Either way, it puzzles me.

About hesedyahu

I'm a gentile living in UK, a person who has chosen to take upon himself the responsibility God has given to all gentiles. God is the greatest aspect of my life and He has blessed me with a family. I used to be a christian, but I learnt the errors of my ways. I love music. I love to play it on the instruments I can play, I love to close my eyes and feel the groove of it. I could call myself a singer and a songwriter ... And that would be accurate. What else is there?
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2 Responses to Lost in translation

  1. Hrvatski Noahid says:

    Excellent point.

  2. Searchinmyroots says:

    I agree! We know the Greek testament sometimes quotes whatever version of the Septuagint was around back then. But you bring up a great point. If the people at the time were Jews and spoke Hebrew or Aramaic, why was everything written in Greek? And as you make note of, how can we be sure of exactly what they meant since much gets lost in translation when going from language to another.

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