A sensitive translation turns a bad-news message into a good-news message in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.
Good writers and speakers know that words can be tricky things. When we use a specific word in our speech, we first of all have in mind its explicit or primary meaning. That meaning would be expressed in its dictionary definition.
But words also carry an aura of emotional associations that you may not find expressed in the dictionary definition. Those associations, however, affect how other people hear the word and how they react to it.
Let me give an example. When I was in the army, I was being trained to do counter-intelligence work. Our schooling involved training in conducting interviews as part of security checks we might pursue in determining whether a specific person should be given clearance to classified material.
When you conduct those interviews, the instructor told us, never open the conversation with the question: What is your relationship to so-and-so? If we did, we ran the risk of the interviewee clamming up. Why? Because the English word relationship is the word we usually use in referring to a romantic or sexual connection. If we use the word relationship, the interviewee is likely to get defensive and say little. They will feel we are prying into something very intimate.
Instead the instructor taught us to use the word association. What is your association with so-and-so? This question will likely get the interviewee to open up and talk freely. Why? Because the word association is a more neutral and less intimate way of describing a personal connection. A sensitivity to the choice of word we use is critical to the effect we want to make.
This sensitivity is also important to translators, especially Bible translators. Translators have to be aware of both the denotative and the connotative meaning of words both in the original language and in the receptor language. Carelessness here can end up in a Bible translation saying something very different than what the original Hebrew or Greek wants to say.
Translating the Sermon on the Mount
One clear example is a famous sentence from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. In Matthew 5:43-48, Jesus gives his famous (or infamous, depending upon your point of view) counsel that we are to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. We usually find it one of the most difficult things Jesus ever taught.
He ends his discussion with a sentence in verse 48 that reads in the Kings James Version: Be ye therefore perfect even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect. This classic phrasing has been preserved in later English translations, including the modern New Revised Standard Version which I customarily use.
The Greek word that is translated perfect is the word teleios. One of its meanings is perfect in the sense of complete or having fulfilled its purpose. But in English, the word perfect has the connotations of something that is statically flawless but also lifeless, like a diamond without any imperfections.
That translation, however, makes this verse in Jesus’ teaching off-putting for the average reader and the average person sitting in a church pew. We think Jesus is advocating something impossible. None of us is flawless in our personalities or our actions. To be human is to be imperfect. And if to be perfect is to be statically lifeless, who wants to be perfect? So we are inclined to brush off Jesus at this point.
An Alternate Translation
But there are other legitimate translations for the word teleios. When it is used in association with persons, its meaning can be full-grown or mature. If we translate the sentence using this choice of word, then Jesus is saying Be mature, therefore, as your heavenly Father is mature.
Now to my book, that gives the sentence is totally different emotional flavor. When we use the word mature, it conveys less the sense of flawlessness, but more an association with the process of growing up. There is nothing of the static about growing mature. It is a journey. It bubbles with life and life-shaping experiences.
This translation is fully consistent, I contend, with its context. In 5:43-48, Jesus is teaching his disciples to love their enemies. The rationale he gives for this counsel is that that is how God loves humanity. God makes his sun shine on both the evil and the good. He sends rain on both the righteousness and unrighteous. God loves even those who hate him.
This is the model for how Jesus’ disciples are to live. But obviously none of us reach that standard instantaneously. We grow into that standard, almost always through a process that involves many failures and setbacks. But if we are serious about growing up, we hang in there with all our failures trusting that God’s Spirit will continue to work a slow transformation within us.
So with this choice of translation, Jesus is commanding us to grow up so that our lives come ever closer to exemplifying the example of maturity set by God. Now that for me is good news counsel, not bad news. And it all hinges on the choice of wording that the translator chooses.