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Did Jesus really talk about a camel going through the eye of a needle? Was Eve even formed out of Adam’s rib?
From its original Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, the bible has been translated into thousands of languages.
But because of how these languages are so different from each other and from modern languages, it has always posed challenges for translators.
And because of just how much influence Christianity has had on the Western world, even the tiniest error can have massive ramifications.
Let’s take a look at 8 potential mistranslations and misinterpretations in the bible and the consequences they have had on society.
1. Exodus 34: Moses Horns
If you’ve ever seen Michelangelo’s stunning sculpture of Moses, you might have wondered why he had a set of… horns?
Yes, that’s right. Apart from the devil, Moses is the only other biblical figure that sports a set of horns.
Well, this idea originated from a mistranslation in the Latin Vulgate, the Bible version translated by St. Jerome in the late 4th century AD.
In the original Hebrew version, when Moses comes down from the Mount Sinai after speaking with God, his face is said to have shone with light.
In Hebrew, the verb ‘qâran’ meaning shining, is similar to the word ‘qérén’ meaning horned. The confusion arose because Hebrew was written without vowels, so the word would have been written as ‘qrn’ in either case.
Jerome chose to translate it as horned.
This led to artistic depictions of Moses with horns in countless works of art.
But worse, because Moses was a Jew, it contributed to harmful stereotypes and misconceptions about Jews in medieval and Renaissance Europe.
As this article from 19 58 states, “There are Jews still alive who can remember being told that they could not possibly be Jews because they had no horns on their heads.”
2. Genesis 2:22-24: Adams Rib
This is a mistranslation that has had serious consequences for women. You’ve probably heard that Eve was formed from Adam’s spare rib.
Genesis 2:22-24 says: “Then the Lord God made a woman from the rib he had taken out of the man, and he brought her to the man.”
The anatomical word for rib used in the Bible is the Aramaic ala. We see this in other verses in the Bible, such as in Daniel 7:5 “the bear had three ala in it’s mouth”.
However, in Genesis, Eve is said to have been formed not from the ala, but from the tsela. The word tsela comes up at least 40 times in the Bible and each time, it’s used with the meaning of half or side.
So why, in Genesis 2:21-22, where it says God took one “tsela” of Adam, does the English translation say a “rib” instead of one of his two “sides?
This mistranslation first appeared in Wycliffe’s King James Version and has been entrenched in most English Bibles.
Some argue that if Eve was created from Adam’s side or half it suggests that she is equal and complementary to Adam, as opposed to being created from a smaller, subordinate part.
They argue that the impact of this potential mistranslation has been significant for women. In some contexts, it’s seen as justification that women are secondary and subservient to men, which in turn have justified patriarchal structures in societies.
As this article outlines, “The story of Eve in the book of Genesis has had a more profoundly negative impact on women throughout history than any other biblical story.”
3. Exodus 20:13: Thou Shalt Not Kill vs. Thou Shalt Not Murder
Kill, murder? What’s the difference, you might ask. While it might seem trivial, this actually makes a huge difference.
The commandment Thou shalt not kill is actually a mistranslation of the Hebrew, “לֹא תִּרְצָח or low teer zah which means, You shall not murder.
“Kill” implies any taking of life, while “murder” refers specifically to unlawful killing. All murders involve killing but not all killing involves murder.
This mistranslation has influenced debates on significant social issues. For example, should capital punishment be allowed?
If the commandment forbids killing, that could imply a prohibition on all forms of taking life, including capital punishment. On the other hand, if it forbids just murder, that leaves room for lawful killing, such as in self-defence, warfare, or state-sanctioned execution.
The dispute over killing versus murder also impacts war, euthanasia, and even animal rights.
4. Proverbs 13:24: Spare the Rod, Spoil the Child
Contrary to popular belief, the phrase “spare the rod spoil the child” isn’t in the bible. Rather, it’s a paraphrase of Proverbs 13:24 which goes “Whoever spares the rod hates their children, but the one who loves their children is careful to discipline them.”
The whole debate about this verse rests on the word rod.
In today’s culture, a rod, stick, or staff in this context would be seen as an object to punish a child with.
But in Israelite culture, the rod (Hebrew: מַטֶּה maṭṭeh) was a symbol of authority but also of guidance, as the tool used by the shepherd to correct and guide his flock.
This mistranslation has influenced debates on child-rearing practices and discipline, with many advocating for corporal punishment because ‘the Bible says so’. This is why you’ll see disturbing headlines such as Christian School Loses Pupils Over Paddling of a Child or School Orders Mom to Spank Son, or Else…
5. Ephesians 5:22: Wives, Submit to Your Husbands
The phrase “Wives, submit to your husbands” comes from Ephesians 5:22 in the New Testament. While it might seem like a command to women to bow down before their husbands, we have to take this verse into context in order to interpret it properly.
It’s part of a larger passage that discusses mutual submission in the context of a Christian marriage. Just before this verse, Ephesians 5:21 states: “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. Sounds quite balanced and nuanced, right?
However, this verse is often extracted from its context and used it to perpetuate gender inequality. In extreme cases, this verse has even been used to justify domestic abuse.
6. Matthew 19:24: Camel Through the Eye of A Needle
In Matthew 19:24, Jesus says, “Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”
This verse has often been taken literally to mean that it is very difficult for wealthy people to attain spiritual salvation.
But why would Jesus choose the image of a camel going through the eye of a needle? It seems like such a random metaphor. Could it have been a mistranslation?
One theory suggests that the verse originally had the Greek word kamilos, meaning rope or cable, but when translating, this was misread as kamelos, meaning camel.
If this is correct, the metaphor would be about threading a large rope through the eye of a sewing needle, which might make more sense contextually.
7. The Meaning of The Word Heart
Say the word heart and we think of emotions, love, and feelings. But in biblical times, the concept of heart was something very different.
In ancient Hebrew culture, the “heart” or levav was considered the seat of thought, intention, and will, similar to how we currently understand the concept of the “mind”.
For example, in Deuteronomy 6:5, when the text commands to “Love the LORD your God with all your levav and with all your soul and with all your strength,” it’s referring to a comprehensive devotion to God that involves the intellect, will, and emotions.
Our modern translations of the word heart shift the emphasis from a comprehensive inner life involving intellect, intention, and will, to a primarily emotional understanding.
It’s only translated about half of the original meaning.
8. Isaiah 7:14: The Virgin Will Conceive
The virgin birth of Jesus is one of the miracles in the bible. It claims that Mary became pregnant with Jesus by the Holy Spirit. As she hadn’t lain with any man, she was still a virgin and naturally, this was a miracle.
Ok, but all this rests on the Hebrew word “almah” used in the Old Testament to describe the future mother of the Messiah.
Isaiah says, Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The almah will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.
Almah means a young woman of marriageable age. This word doesn’t mean virgin.
But when the Old Testament was translated into Greek, almah was translated as parthenos, a term that implies virginity.
This translation was carried into Latin and other languages, solidifying the idea of Mary’s virginity and influencing Christian theology, leading to the doctrine of the Virgin Birth of Jesus.
This mistranslation had multiple effects on women.
The idea of Mary as a perpetual virgin, elevated female virginity as an ideal and tended to cast female sexuality as sinful. Some have used this to justify control over women’s bodies and lives.
But what do you think? Are these potential errors important or do they make no difference in the grand scheme of things? Correcting these mistranslations today could lead to drastic changes in how the faith is practised. This is why it’s a good idea to look at the overall message rather than the individual words when taking into account these mistranslations.