I was born and raised in Malaysia. The official language there is Malay. Did you know that there are three different Malay words to describe rice? Padi is the rice growing in the fields. Beras refers to grains of uncooked rice. Cooked rice is called nasi. In contrast, there is only one word for pig, pork, and bacon: babi. Imagine, therefore, your conundrum if you had to translate this sentence into Malay: “The little girl threw some rice onto the bacon.” Or imagine that this was an actual sentence translated from Malay into English. Would you have wished the translator had specified what type of rice—grains of rice or cooked rice? Are you confident that bacon is actually the right translation in this case? Or was the translator simply assuming the sentence was about food, not realizing that Malays do not eat pork?
This is just one example of how things can get lost in translation—and doubly so when multiple languages and cultures are involved. When reading the New Testament, we are not only dealing with an ancient Greek language that has been translated into modern English. That Greek New Testament was also originally translating ancient Jewish concepts for a Greek-speaking world. Sometimes we Christians have forgotten or ignored that second layer of translation. Too often we read the New Testament simply as a Greek text with a Greek worldview rather than reading it as a Greek text with a Jewish worldview.
As a result, we might unintentionally misread it, assuming it is more Greek than it is. To fully understand the New Testament, I suggest that we need to read it with Jewish eyes. For that, Old Testament Hebrew is indispensable and foundational.
Here are three examples of concepts that we may have misread when we read them with Greek eyes rather than Jewish eyes: righteousness, eternal life, and knowledge.
Speaking of words with multiple meanings, the New Testament word for “righteousness” can also mean “justice.” The Greek word dikaiosyne means “righteousness” but also has “justice” in its roots. But this Greek term was consistently used to translate the Hebrew concept of tsedaqah, which has multiple shades of meaning, including, righteousness, justice, charity, integrity, fairness, and innocence. There is no one equivalent Greek or English word for tsedaqah.
If we only read righteousness as personal morality and uprightness, as in self-righteous, then we have forgotten the underlying Old Testament concept in the New Testament word. In the ancient Jewish worldview of which Jesus and the apostles were a part, personal morality and public justice were deeply connected. Righteousness and justice are not two separate things that we must somehow try to connect. Rather, as we see in the following Bible passages, they are synonymous: “The Lord works righteousness and justice for all the oppressed” (Ps. 103:6). “But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!” (Amos 5:24). Righteousness and justice, in Scripture, are two sides of the same coin.
Hence, Matthew 6:33, “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness . . .” can also be read as “seek first his kingdom and his justice. . . .” We cannot simply spiritualize away God’s kingdom and his righteousness. Neither, of course, should we turn it into a political kingdom. But losing that nuance of justice in reading the New Testament word “righteousness” often misleads us to think that the New Testament is silent on, or thinks less of, justice matters.
The tendency to spiritualize the New Testament message also applies to our misreading of eternal life. We tend to view life in very materialistic ways, as in a beating heart. So the popular understanding of the phrase is “living forever in heaven.”
Sometimes words combined can have a greater or different meaning than each word’s individual meaning. For example, the phrase “chill out” does not mean “to get cold outside.” Similarly, “eternal life” meant more to the original Jewish audience than simply “my heart will go on and on.”
Rather, the ancient Jews would have understood eternal life as “life in the world to come.” What is the world to come? That’s the new heaven and earth where God will rule without any disobedience or sin to get in his way. The world to come is God’s new world order. That would have been the first thing that came to mind for first-century Jews when they heard the phrase “eternal life.”
The emphasis, therefore, is not on the length of life—how long you will live—but on the kind of life, that is, how you live, based not on the order of this world but on God’s world order. Of course, this includes living forever since God’s new heaven and earth will also triumph over physical death. But to reduce eternal life to only a physical reality in the sweet hereafter is to lose its original breadth in translation.
Furthermore, the central focus of “life in the world to come” is our unhindered-by-sin fellowship with God. This is why Jesus defined eternal life as knowing God: “Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent” (John 17:3). Notice that Jesus did not say that knowing God and Jesus is the way to gaining eternal life. Rather, he said that to know God and Jesus is eternal life. This relationship with God is not only reserved for life after death, so to speak, but can be a reality here and now. Eternal life begins already in the present day when we love God and follow his ways, seeking his kingdom and his righteousness, so that the “life in the world to come” becomes a reality in us. All of that rich meaning would not make sense if we read “eternal life” only as “living forever in heaven.”
This leads to my third example, knowledge. True to our Greek heritage, our modern Western minds tend to think of knowledge as simply intellectual comprehension and information. However, the concept of knowledge among the ancient Jews was more holistic—it was a whole-person thing, not just a head thing; a deep, intimate knowledge that comes from relationship and experience.
That’s the kind of knowledge that is being spoken of in John 17:3. To know God and Jesus does not mean to intellectually grasp God’s existence or to hold to a theology of God’s nature. Rather, it means to fellowship with God and Jesus, to have devotion and reverence for God. It means to obey God’s ways so that they become part of your nature and life—eternal life—living life based not on this world’s ways but on the ways that God will establish fully in the new heaven and earth. And such a holistic life of fellowship and obedience to God is righteousness—not simply walking humbly with God, but also acting justly and loving mercy (Micah 6:8).
- What cross-cultural or language translation mishaps have you experienced or come across? Identify the main problems of misunderstanding in each instance. What did you discover?
- What is your reaction to the author’s three examples—righteousness, eternal life and knowledge—of how we might have misread the New Testament as “more Greek than it is”? Did it change any of your biblical views?
- What other New Testament terms or concepts might have been “lost in translation” or misread?
- How might this affect your assumptions in reading, hearing, and applying the New Testament?