I just finished analyzing are verse (Matthew 22:5) where nearly every word is mischaracterized in one way or another. Words are left out, words are added, the meaning of words are misconstrued and confused. Some unique words are used, one translated differently than its simple meaning, the other translated as if it was a common, everyday word. Their problem is that this line was meant to be spoken. You must imagine it in the mouth of a master storyteller, illustrated with gestures, punctuated with pauses., enlivened with uncommon words. The Biblical translators try to simplify it, transforming it into easy-to-follow English sentences, thereby draining it.
While there has been much written about translating Biblical Greek, one of the biggest issues that is ignored is that Jesus words were not written but spoken. This is acknowledged by everyone, but its importance is ignored by every Biblical translator. The other books in the NT were written Greek, and they were written after Jesus had established the meaning of certain words. Jesus's words, however, were all spoken and that it how the Gospel writers tried to capture them.
The Differences Between Spoken Language and Written
There are several differences between all spoken languages and all written ones. Among them are:
Spoken language is offered to a live audience, its words unfolded over time, allowing them to react, and in Jesus’s case, be interested and entertained. Often it results from an interaction with the audience, other times, it is storytelling, meant to entertain. When teaching, Jesus speaks very differently than storytelling, the teaching having more “humorous” words, and the storytelling more “dramatic” words. The verse linked to above is an example of Jesus’s storytelling.
Writing is recorded and can be read by anyone and anytime, so it is based the thinking of the writer. It is not immediate feedback to a question asked just prior to its writing.
Spoken words address the live interactions of people at a specific time and place. While Jesus was speaking for all times, they still had to make sense to the people with whom he was interacting. They had to be heard in the context of the times, not from our modern context that has been shaped by them. For example, our word “heaven,” used heavily in Biblical translation, has little to do with “the skies,” which are the words Jesus spoke that are translated into “heaven.”
Writing has longer, complete sentences and many subordinate clauses. Spoken language consists of exclamations, incomplete sentences, repetitions, digressions, double meanings, and interruptions that make sense within the larger context of the conversation or story. In translation, Jesus's Greek words are often forced into sentence structure the destroys many of his shades of meaning.
Written language uses punctuation to capture meaning. Speech uses timing, tone, volume, and gestures to add meaning. These are not captured in the written text, but if accurately translated, much of it is easy to imagine. Many of the “pause” words, those added to create suspense, are edited out as unnecessary. You see that in the verse linked to above, where an “indeed” and a “however” are both left out. Jesus used a very visual language, not only in his story telling but, in his teaching, making it easy to imagine his gestures unless to visual words are simplified.
Word Order: The Key Difference Between Greek and English
While there are several differences between the two languages, the most important one is their word order. Simply put, English is more structured that Greek. While English follows the general sentence order of "subject verb object," Greek is more fluid. In a Greek sentence, the most important words come first. This allows Jesus more freedom to “play” with how he unfolds a sentence.
However, the word order of spoken Greek and spoken English is more alike than the written languages. Word order in spoken languages is not grammatical rigid in either language. When people talk, there is a natural tendency to put the most important ideas first in English, even if the word order doesn't work out as properly grammatically.
Word order might be said to be more important in spoken languages than written to convey meaning. An important example in terms of Jesus’s words is in the use of humor. Humor, written and especially spoken, rely upon an extremely specific word order. This word order puts the keywords last, not first. Just as punchlines come at the end of the comic set-up, any keywords in the punchline must come at the end of the statement because the laughter ideally follows.
Since the Greek written language puts the most important words first in its normal written structure, spoken Greek can and must have a different structure when humor is used. The ending must be the most important. Since this is the structure we see frequently in Jesus's statements, we can assume these statements are meant to be humorous at least to some degree. However, statement structure isn't the only evidence of Jesus’s statements being humorous. See this article for more on Christ's humor.
However, word order can also be used to add suspense and drama. Jesus often puts the verb before the subject so that some action is described before the audience knows what it applies to. This flexibility of Greek word order is a great resource for a speaker. For example, the first three clauses of the Lord’s Prayer all have their subjects at the end, leaving the listener to wonder is coming. A word-by-word translation, with imagined pauses, would look like this:
“Our Father in the skies…It must be sanctified…this name of yours.
It must show up…this realm of yours.
It must happen…this desire of yours…”
You can see how many of these statements have the keywords at the end, structuring them more like spoken humor, rather than normal, written Greek. In translating Jesus's spoken words, I follow the word order as much as possible without making Jesus sound like Yoda. In my upcoming novel (serialized here for paid subscribers), I can maintain his word order at least 95% of the time, while making his speech sound normal.
Jesus also uses this technique to make his stories more interesting. A good example is the parable of the houses on rock and sand at the end of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 7:25). If we put its words in proper written word we get the sentence, "The rain fell. The rivers came. The wind blew." Not interesting. But what Jesus said was, “And, it (where the “it” initially seems to be the house) came down...the rain. And they showed up...the rivers. And they blew...the winds.
Jesus carefully chooses his word order Just like he carefully chooses his words. He clearly chooses it to be entertaining as much as to convey meaning. His freedom to do this in Greek may be better than English, but, if f translated faithfully, as spoken languages, the word is not so different.
I do not equate the words of Jesus with the other writers who created the New Testament. He claimed that he did not speak his own words, but the words of his Father. He relationship with the Divine was different from that of other humans. Everything else in the New Testament must be interpreted according to his words.
All the other writers of the New Testament, except for Paul, heard Jesus speak. Paul initially heard Jesus’s words verbally as well, repeated by others. We must interpret everything these men wrote about Jesus considering what they heard. But we must always remember that he spoke his words, while they were writing. Their words to not have the same spontaneity and did not have to be as entertaining as his did since he had to hold an audience.