The Worst Verse in the Bible

(What verse is mistranslated more often than any other?)


Stanley L. Morris

In the January, 1988 issue, in my article entitled "Polluted Bibles?", I promised to say more about some of the most serious translational problems. We must now move out of the theoretical clouds and touch the ground, where people live. In other words, I need to be very specific about the charges which I made in the previous paper.

People often ask me, "What is wrong with this translation or that translation?" Unless I can give them a clear-cut answer one which is technically sound and not really open to the counter-claim that I am merely prejudiced (or even jealous, out of professional pride)-then any criticism becomes only a moot point. Although there are some situations in the Biblical text which are "toss up's," (i.e. they could go either way, and even a majority of highly-reputable scholars honestly differ among themselves), there are many cases which illustrate linguistic "violations" of the text of God's Word by denominational Bible translators which have been motivated by questionable, underlying, theological agendas.

Is there a scientific, empirical way to know for sure what God said in His inspired writings? Yes! But some people vacillate on this question. Of course, meaning is largely decipherable through the proper grasp of context, whether linguistic or cultural. However, if anyone maintains that a given Biblical word in question has "a whole host of meanings," and "no one can be certain what a phrase means" even in a specific context, because, they say, "There are no such things as 'primary meanings'," then the whole Bible (verily, any message, past or present or future) is rendered completely esoteric, existential, and subjective! There would be no public truths.

Except for a few rare cases of double meanings in the Scriptures, I assert that every statement in the Bible meant one and only one thing to the people who first heard it! And, it is my job to learn what that was and to translate that intelligibly for readers today. To be sure, God's Word has a communicative richness to it which transcends time, culture, and language. It can be applied directly to our lives today in so many ways. Nevertheless, there was a particular meaning which was intended by God and was (usually) understood by receptors in every original setting of the Bible. If that is not the case, then the Word of God becomes whatever you want to make it , regardless of whether you are a Bible translator or anybody else! You decide what it is that God meant! You are the one who's in charge, not God! It really wouldn't matter, because the next guy would have the "right" to do the same thing. And, there is no basis for the two of you to agree or to disagree. It's all up in the air! There would simply be no way for anybody to "know" what God said to anyone in the first place. And, since it is impossible to determine such, there would be little profit in trying to ascertain the original historical context in which those statements were made. I think you can see how this little seductive assumption will eventually erode the entire superstructure upon which verbal inspiration is built.

Far too many people today are already entangled in a kind of "cafeteria style" approach to Bible translations, i.e. after reading several versions in parallel, they "pick" the one they like. Do we really have a choice? Should we all rush out and buy The Amplified Bible, so that we can "multiple-choice" our way through the Bible hopscotch-style? I am tired of hearing statements like: "The Living Bible (Paraphrase) says it better"; "This rendering appeals to me, instead of all the others"; or, "Don't you think that the old wording should be retained? We don't want to offend the old-timers, do we?" This type of thinking has nothing to do with the facts. How we may "feel" about a word or a phrase is irrelevant! The real question is: Was that word or phrase translated accurately? The special task of a true Bible translator is to excavate down to the original "bedrock" meaning and then to properly convey what he (or she) found "down there" to the others who are still standing by "on the surface" above. The goal of everyone should be to ferret out whatever it was that God meant and then to obey it!

But, you say, "Brother Morris, I'm dyin' to know which verse it is that you think is the worst mistranslation. Tell me, which one is it?" Well, I'm going to tell you now, but first I had to lay the proper foundation for why this verse (or any other mistranslated verse) happened. In other words, what's so bad about the "mis-" in mistranslation? If, through a mistranslation, we miss what God wanted us to know, that is deadly! We cannot obey it, if we don't know what it is!

Without any hesitation, I can confidently claim that the worst one is Matt. 16:18. Although there are many passages which I could cite in this category, each of them would illustrate the same principle--a translation philosophy which is alien to the original meaning will affect the outcome. Is it possible for a Roman Catholic Bible translator to translate Matt. 16:18 accurately and still remain a Catholic scholar in good standing with the hierarchy?

Now, let us take a good hard look at this passage. Literally, the Greek text says: "And I (Jesus) also to you (singular) say that you are Peter, and upon this (feminine) the bedrock (feminine) I will build my the ekklesia, and gates of Hades not will prevail against her." Does this make sense? (As was shown in my last article, extreme literal translation may seem to be more precise, but, in actuality, it often only belies laziness on the part of the translator. Readers need help. Be faithful to the original form, but do not fail to follow through! Unless the finished product sounds like English, the wording is still "half-baked." So, put it in the oven a little longer and let it cook until it is done.) Better, "And I am also saying to you, 'You are Peter. And I will build my ekklesia upon this rock foundation, and (the) Gates of Hades will not prevail against it.'"'

There are three major problems which occur in this verse: (1) What is the meaning of ekklesia and how should it be translated? (2) What is the referent of the word "this" (Greek, taute)? (3) Where should verse 18 fit within the discourse structure?

Let's take each of these questions one by one:

(1) What is the meaning of ekklesia and how should it be translated? Jeff Rada at the Memphis forum on June 25, 1988 ('"Ministry and 'Minister' in the New Testament and Modern Denominationalism") and at the DFW meeting on October 22, 1988 ("Misuses and Misconceptions of 'Church'/Ekklesia") has already provided very thorough treatments of all instances of ekklesia. You should get the tapes of those very fine speeches. Also, the importance of translating this particular Greek word properly has filled many pages of The Examiner over the past three years. So, you should look at several back issues. However, concerning Matt. 16:18 and Matt. 18:17 (the only occurrences of ekklesia in the four gospels), I would only add that you should keep the Jewish context in mind. In the beginning, the apostles would have understood Jesus in Hebrew terms (gahal or 'edah), like Acts 7:38. One thing is very clear; the English word "church" is the worst choice.

(2) What is the referent of the word "this" (Greek, taute)? In English the demonstrative pronoun "this" usually refers to the nearest noun-antecedent. And, if left unattended, this verse would inevitably denote Peter (a proper noun) as being "the rock." After all, doesn't Simon's nickname (Peter/Cephas, see John 1:42) mean "rock"? It all seems so natural and logical. The commonly-drawn conclusion is exactly what more than 700 million Catholics believe--Jesus was promising to build His ekklesia upon Peter! The entire Catholic hierarchy was presumably being built upon Simon Peter, the "first pope." (What a shame it is to spoil such a pretty picture, but I am duty-bound to do it.) The Catholic church is resting on a massive mistranslation! I can see how it happened, but nevertheless it is groundless. Even their

Latin Vulgate doesn't help them. It says: "...Tu es Petrus (masculine), et super hanc (feminine) petram (Petros) is masculine while "this" (taute) and its head noun, "rock" (petra), are clearly feminine. It is grammatically impossible for the latter to point to the former! (Even a first-year course in Spanish would teach you that.) Catholics counter with: "But Jesus was probably not speaking in Greek at the time, but in Aramaic which would be kefa', which does not distinguish the gender! Besides, in the second century, Papias mentions an earlier Aramaic edition of Matthew's gospel." I have just three questions to rebut that: (a) Is the Greek text edition of Matthew inspired and, therefore, authoritative? (b) How would Catholics know what specific Aramaic word it was that Jesus used orally and if he was speaking in Aramaic at the time? [Note: Jesus and his disciples were probably bilingual, being from Gentilish Galilee. Also, they were in northern Palestine, in the Caesarea-Philippi region (Matt. 16:13), where Greek was undoubtedly common. A lot of Texans speak Mexican Spanish, especially near the border]. (c) Has anyone ever seen a copy of this Aramaic Matthew? No, "this rock" must be referring to something else prior to the parenthetical mention of Peter. This leads us to the third question.

(3) Where should verse 18 fit within the discourse structure? If one is limited to verse 18, the dilemma cannot be solved. One must go back to verse 16 to find the true referent of "this" (Greek, taute) - "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God!" This raises the question of how the pronoun and its antecedent got so far apart. That has a fairly simple answer: Verse 17 became interposed as a parenthetical statement. Normally, this type of structure presents no problems, but, in this case, it misleads the reader into an "open pit" of misunderstanding. Therefore, it is the responsibility of the informed Bible translator to put up a "detour sign" (a footnote) and "redirect traffic" so that innocent "motorists" don't "drive over the edge" unaware. Contrary to popular opinion, the most basic complete unit of language is not the sentence; it is the paragraph! And, just as it is sometimes permissible to move adverbs within a sentence into any one of three principal positions, it is "legal" to shift the order of entire sentences, if there is a good linguistic reason for doing so. (cf. Matt. 2:8-10; Mark 5:7-8; Luke 1:1-3; 3:1-2; 8:28-28; Acts 1:16-17; 8:1-3; 20:11-12, 18-19, etc.). In this case, there is more than ample cause. We must avoid a disastrous result, viz., missing the thrust of what Jesus was really saying.

Conclusion: THE SIMPLE ENGLISH BIBLE translates Matt. 16:16-18 this way: "Simon Peter answered, 'You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God! 'Upon this rock foundation, *[footnote says: 'The Greek word is petra (feminine gender)]' Jesus answered, 'I will build my community those called out by God. Death *[footnote says: 'literally, the gates of Hades'] will not overpower them. Blessed are you, Simon, son of John. My Father in heaven, not man [literally, 'flesh and blood'], showed that to you. You are Peter *[footnote says: 'The Greek word is petros (masculine gender)].'"