Translating Jesus

As a student of ancient texts, I often find myself faced with translational difficulties. There is an important thing one learns early on in working with more than one language: there is no such thing as a perfect translation. In fact, this point is so well known that the Italians have a famous saying for it – ‘traduttore è traditore’, the translator is a traitor. In every translation, some aspects of the original are preserved, others are lost, and new elements are introduced.

Here’s an example. When the Jews decided to translate their Hebrew Bible into Greek around the 2nd century BCE, they had to make some tough choices. For instance, when they wanted to translate the word for city ((îr), they chose the common Greek term polis. However, while it was certainly the obvious choice, the term polis carried particular political and cultural baggage that the Hebrew term did not. Or another one: at the beginning of the Gospel of John there is the term logos (‘in the beginning was the logos‘) which can mean ‘word’, ‘account’, ‘story’, ‘plan’, ‘argument’ and more. However, there is no term in the English language that captures the various aspects of the Greek logos. The only perfect translation is a tautology: logos means logos.

Importantly, translation doesn’t only happen at the lexical level. On the most general level, translation consists in speaking about one thing (or group of things) in other terms. Any specialist in most fields will find themselves translating their technical jargon into everyday terms in an effort to converse with the layman. Adults translate for children on a daily basis.  And in all these situations, something is retained in the translation and something is lost. Further, the translator is always in danger of choosing a word that carries the wrong social or cultural baggage, regardless of technical lexical definition.

Translation also occurs when people from religious traditions try to find common ground. In the highly mobile Mediterranean antiquity, Greeks, Egyptians, Romans and others found themselves trying to figure out how their various religious systems fit together. If Zeus was the father of all humans and Gods, as Homer maintained (Iliad 1.544), how did this fit with the Roman claims about Jupiter?[1] Their answer? Zeus and Jupiter were two names for the same thing. When Greeks and Romans came into contact with the Jews, some of them tried to incorporate their religious system into their own.[2] However, while change is less noticeable between Zeus and Jupiter since both fit within a polytheistic pantheon, one can hardly fit the Jewish God, YHWH, into a Greek pantheon without totally altering one’s view of him. For the Jews, YHWH was the only true and living God and as such cannot be himself among a pantheon.

Such translational difficulties abound today. A large part of religious studies consists of ‘translating’ one religion into terms that also fit others, or as one of my professors liked to put it, explaining religion in such a way that no religious person could ever agree to it. It is true that translational common ground can be found between Christianity and other religions. In the realm of ethics for example, Christianity shares a number of concerns with Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, and others. It does not have a monopoly on philosophical defenses of God. In general terms, it shares a cosmology with a number of religions.

But there is one thing that simply does not translate, and that one thing is a person: Jesus. A man who was fully human (and Jewish to be precise) but was also in some mysterious way the God of Israel who had come to be among his people. There is no equivalent person to Jesus in any other religious system. He cannot be translated into Buddha, Mohammed or Moses, because he is simply a different person. So when one is tempted to think that all religions are the same, look for those elements that resist translation. Examine religions not only for what is common, though those points are also very important, but also for what is uncommon. For Christianity, Jesus is that uncommon person who stands at the center of everything.

Ben Edsall


[1] Plato (Timaeus 28C) and Epictetus (Diss. 1.3.1) also claimed that ‘God’ was the creator or father of gods and humanity.

[2] A famous example of this is Plutarch’s discussion of who the God of the Jew is (Quaestiones Conviviales 6 [671C-672C]).

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2 responses to “Translating Jesus

  1. While I might differ in small ways with your translation if I was to put in words that Jr Hi student can understand :) You nailed the last point.

  2. Pingback: On Testimony and History « Wondering Fair·

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