Translation is not an exact science, even when translating between two languages that are similar one to the other. Hebrew is not similar to Greek or English -- or indeed to any other language, with the possible exceptions of Aramaic and, to a lesser degree, Arabic.
Few words of any language have one and only one sense (or meaning) - most words in most languages have several different meanings. For example, the Hebrew word רֹאשׁ / rosh means head, but it can also mean top, and it can also mean the most important part of something. Rosh is often mistranslated as "new" (leading to the mistranslation of "new year" for רֹאשׁ הַשָּׁנָה / Rosh HaShanah -- literally translated as "head of the year" not "new year").
This variance in different languages makes translating the T'nach (Jewish bible) from Hebrew into English more art than science as a translator must choose the meaning of a Hebrew word, which may itself have multiple meanings, with an English word which also may have multiple meanings and not be a "perfect" match to the Hebrew.
A good example of this is the Hebrew word יוֹם / yom which is often translated as "day." This causes many missionaries (particularly evangelical missionaries) to insist that B'reshit / Genesis must be speaking of a 24 hour "day" in the creation chapter. However, the word יוֹם / yom can have different meanings other than a 24 hour day. The precise meaning of יוֹם / yom in the T'nach has 4 meanings depending on the context.
There is an additional issue when considering English translations. In English some words have changed meaning over time. This issue is also true of Greek words which were used in early translations of the T'nach into Greek.
A word chosen in translation 1800 years ago may mean something different than the word means today.
Consider the argument that the word in Y’shayahu / Isaiah 7:14 means “virgin” when it does not – it more properly translates to “young woman” and does not even suggest virginity or a lack of virginity. The Greek translations of 2000+ years ago (translators unknown, but maintained by Christians) chose the Greek word παρθένος / parthenos.
Today the Koine Greek word παρθένος / parthenos is usually translated as virgin – and thus many a missionary will argue that the word in Y’shayahu / Isaiah 7:14 must be “virgin” (this is complicated by the fact that the Christian bible uses this passage as the “prophecy” that Jesus will be a virgin birth). Yet, 2800 years ago παρθένος / parthenos did not mean virgin. The ancient Greek poet Ὅμηρος / Homer (1200 - 800 BCE) wrote in his Iliad. 2.512-515 that a 'parthenos' gave birth ('teken') to two children: “Ascalaphus and Ialmenus, sons of Mars, led the people that dwelt in Aspledon and Orchomenus the realm of Minyas. Astyoche, a noble maiden (parthenos), bore them in the house of Actor son of Azeus; for she had gone with Mars secretly into an upper chamber, and he had lain with her.”
The ancient Greek translation of B’reshit / Genesis 34:3 states that Dinah is a "parthenos" after her rape by Sh'chem – obviously after rape Dinah was no longer a virgin.
In the misuse of παρθένος / parthenos as "virgin" rather than "young woman" the English translators may well have been innocent. It seems that the word παρθένος / parthenos came to mean "virgin" over time. . . . but originally it did not mean virgin. The Hebrew in Y’shayahu / Isaiah 7:14 is הָעַלְמָה (the young woman). Jews have been trying to correct this Christian mistake for nearly as long as Christianity has existed! Indeed, Justin Martyr (100 CE, so VERY EARLY Christinan) wrote in "Trypho the Jew" that Jews of his era said: "you (Jews) and your teachers venture to affirm that in the prophecy of Isaiah it is not said, 'Behold, the virgin shall conceive,' but, 'Behold, the young woman shall conceive, and bear a son."
Missionaries who insist they do not need to learn Hebrew to understand the “bible” are fooling themselves.
Missionaries who fool themselves into thinking that the King James Version (KJV) is "as good" as the original are deluding themselves.
When one relies on translations one is allowing the translator to be interpreter – for that is what a translator must be. . . Whether words in early English translations no longer have the meaning they had in the 17th century when the King James Translation was first completed (and contains the word “unicorn” along with “virgin!), or whether there are mistranslations due to poor choices or even deceitful choices the reader is an innocent victim of the translator.
Since translation is more art than science the trick is in finding the word in the target language which is the closest in meaning to each word in the source language. Modern translators have the added problem that if they want people to buy their translation it must also “match” what people expect to see.
Thus modern translations often use earlier mistranslations, perhaps because readers expect to see them. The “proof” texts are particularly vulnerable to this “borrowing” from earlier translations.
Not all Christian translations of the 20th and 21st centuries are guilty of the same mistranslations – but most are. Take for example Daniel 9:25. The King James Version (KJV) has “the Messiah the Prince.” The KJV puts the definite article "the" in front of the translation they chose for the Hebrew word מָשִֽׁיחַ / (moshiach). They chose to translate מָשִֽׁיחַ / moshiach as "the messiah” in Daniel 9:25 although the Hebrew word for "the" does not appear at all ('ha").
Let me repeat that: “the messiah” does not appear in Daniel 9:25. There is no “the” in front of the word מָשִֽׁיחַ / moshiach / messiah / anointed one.
The KJV also capitalizes the “m” in “messiah” (there are no capital letters in Hebrew), thus making it appear to “fit” Jesus.
Let's discuss the word "messiah" -- how is it used? What does it mean? How often is it found in the T’nach (Jewish bible)?
The term מָשִֽׁיחַ / moshiach is usually used to speak of priests and kings who have already lived – not “the messiah.” It means “anointed one” and is used often to speak of Aaron, Moses’ brother, who was a messiah – an anointed priest. It is found 39 times in the T’nach (Jewish bible).
34 times the usage is as a noun (messiah) and 5 times the usage is as an adjective (smeared with oil).
Yet most Christian translations only use the word “messiah” once or twice (usually in Daniel 9, sometimes in T'hillim / Psalm 2). . .
Isn’t that amazing?
The word appears 39 times in the תַּנַ"ךְ / T'nach (Jewish bible) – yet it is not translated as “messiah” 39 times by the Christian versions.
Knowing now that the King James has altered Daniel 9:25 to say “the Messiah” when it truly says “messiah” (or “anointed one”) – and that the KJV uses the word “messiah” in Daniel 9, but not in the other 37 locations in appears in the T’nach (Jewish bible) one can begin to see how translators are liars (whether they mean to be or not).
Let’s just look at a few Christian translations for Daniel 9:
None of them use the word “messiah” in the other 37 locations (39 in all) the term actually is found in the T’nach (bible). This selective translation (mistranslation?) misleads their innocent readers.
Perhaps you can see why it is impossible to rely on English translations to truly read the T’nach (bible).
Even Jewish translations are not perfect. Since translation is more art than science the trick is in finding the word in the target language which is the closest in meaning to each word in the source language – consider the example I gave early in this post that the Hebrew word רֹאשׁ rosh means head, but it can also mean top, and it can also mean the most important part of something.
Hebrew is often poetic, and some subtle nuances of meaning may well be lost in the translation, while in other instances false meanings may be presented even with the best of translators. Consider the Hebrew verb לִשְׁמֹר li-sh'mor. This verb is normally translated as to guard, but it can also mean to keep, or even to observe or to fulfill (a law).
However the verbs "to observe" and "to fulfill" also have other meanings: "to observe" can also mean to witness or to watch something happening, and "to fulfil" can also mean to bring something to completion - but the Hebrew verb לִשְׁמֹר li-sh'mor cannot have any of these secondary senses. G-d frequently commands us in the Torah to "keep His mitzvot!"
וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם מִצְוֹתַי וַעֲשִׂיתֶם אֹתָם “keep my commands and do them" (Vayikra / Leviticus 22:31), and לְאַהֲבָה אֶת יְיָ אֱלֹהֶיךָ... וְלִשְׁמֹר מִצְוֹתָיו וְחֻקֹּתָיו וּמִשְׁפָּטָיו "(to) love HaShem your G-d... and (to) keep His commands, His inexplicable rules and His judgements..." (D'varim / Deuteronomy 30:16).
Any of the identical verbs mentioned above (keep, observe, fulfill) could be chosen to translate there verses but, if "fulfill" were used, it would have to be made clear that it was not being used in the sense of complete/bring to completion because the Hebrew verb לִשְׁמֹר li-sh'mor cannot mean this. Thus, when Matthew reports (5:17) that Jesus claimed that he had come to "fulfill the Torah and the Prophets" it is misused.
Hopefully this post will encourage some of you to begin to learn Hebrew – but even for those of you who cannot dedicate the time to learn the language, just be aware that you need to double check any translations you might use. All translations have issues – even Jewish translations. Yet, many of the Christian translations, even the modern ones, have “built in” prejudices which can lead the reader in error (Daniel 9 and Isaiah 7 are perfect examples of such mistranslations).
The Judaica Press translation of the T'nach is considered by many to be an excellent translation. It is available online free, with or without the commentary of Rashi -- רבי שלמה יצחקי (R' Shlomo Yitzachi / Solomon Isaac), 11th century CE.
The Living Torah is an excellent translation of the Chumash (Torah and Haftarah) by R' Aryeh Kaplan (Z"L). This is also available free online in English, Spanish and Russian.
The Artscroll Stone Edition T'nach (or Chumash) is available for purchase at the Artscroll website.
Sophiee Saguy has been countering false missionary claims about Judaism and the T'nach (Jewish bible) for nearly twenty years. You may find her on FaceBook and at the Messiah Truth forum.