Thursday, 16 February 2012

Badly translated Bible – did Jesus get the future wrong?

Here's the second part of my series on parts of the Bible that have been translated badly (check out part one if you missed it). Again, I'm looking at something Jesus said, this time in Mark's Gospel:
I tell you the truth, this generation will not pass from the scene before all these things take place.
This line is from Mark 13:30, towards the end of a passage that is usually taken to be about Jesus' second coming and the end of this era. Hold on a minute, I hear you say; the generation that Jesus was referring to 'passed from the scene' over 1,900 years ago! Well, yes. And perhaps this is why most versions of the Bible have a little footnote linked to that word 'generation', giving a couple of alternative translations ('age' and 'nation'; I might have seen 'race' too).

The problem with this is that the Greek word in question (genea) clearly means 'generation'. Ancient Greek had different words for 'age' and 'nation', something you can check for yourself by cross-referencing between the Bible Gateway and Scripture for All websites (if you're so inclined). It seems to me that the translators are simply trying to avoid the obvious implication – that Jesus predicted the future incorrectly.

But did he?

Perhaps not. As I mentioned in some detail within my post from last month about the end of the world (click here to have a look), some Bible scholars think Mark 13, and the parallel passages in Matthew and Luke, are actually about the end of the Jewish Temple-based religious system. This makes plenty of sense for at least three reasons:

Firstly, the chapter starts with Jesus talking with his disciples about the Temple. In response to one of the disciples marvelling at the Temple, Jesus says this:
Yes, look at these great buildings. But they will be completely demolished. Not one stone will be left on top of another!
At some point afterwards (the text simply says 'later'), Jesus' closest disciples ask him when this will happen and what warning they should look for. It's now that Jesus gives his long account of what will happen and how the disciples should respond; and I think it's sensible to assume they are all still talking about the Temple. No change of subject is indicated.

The second reason for Mark 13 being about the end of Temple-based Judaism begins with Jesus' words in Mark 13:24-25:
At that time, after the anguish of those days: the sun will be darkened, the moon will give no light, the stars will fall from the sky, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.
I'm sure you're thinking this is classic end-of-the-world language, right? Not so fast. What do you make of these three passages?
The heavens will be black above them; the stars will give no light. The sun will be dark when it rises, and the moon will provide no light.
When I blot you out, I will veil the heavens and darken the stars. I will cover the sun with a cloud, and the moon will not give you its light.
The earth quakes as they advance, and the heavens tremble. The sun and moon grow dark, and the stars no longer shine… The sun will become dark, and the moon will turn blood red before that great and terrible day of the Lord arrives.
The three texts above are from Old Testament prophets, with each text referring to the fall of a major kingdom or city (not the end of the world). The first passage (Isaiah 13:10) is about Babylon, the second (Ezekiel 32:7) Egypt, and the third passage (Joel 2:10 and 31) concerns the fall of Jerusalem. It seems that ancient Jewish writers had a habit of using dramatic, even over-the-top language to describe what we might call earth-shattering events (oh, we use dramatic language too!).

Finally, the events that Jesus describes in Mark 13 did all take place when the Jerusalem Temple was destroyed by the Romans in AD 70. Far from being a false prophet, Jesus actually foresaw what was soon to happen! In the years leading up to AD 70, there were indeed people claiming they were the Messiah (verse 6), there were wars, earthquakes and famines (v7-8), Christians were persecuted harshly (v9), and there may well have been a great flight from Jerusalem (v14-20 – to a town called Pella).

It's also worth noting that there are a few ideas as to what Jesus might have been on about with the 'sacrilegious object that causes desecration standing where he should not be'. The one I like (which has the merit of explaining why the text says 'where he should not be' rather than 'it') notes that the Jewish resistance leader set up his headquarters in the Temple itself, thus desecrating the place where God's presence was made known to His people.

So there you are. Bible translators bending the text in order to allow a bit of wiggle room in our interpretation of it. It's a shame, really, when there are actually ways of interpreting the passage that are both true to the original language (that little word 'genea') and compatible with what we take from the rest of Scripture (we can't really have Jesus as a false prophet, can we?).

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